Thames Path: from the Barrier to the Source – stage one, to Waterloo

I have planned to walk the Thames path from the Barrier to the source for some years, but never made the time for it. This last week I decided I could break it up in to a series of weekend walks, then take a week off for the last bit or so.

I have done most of the London parts, both southern and northern banks, in bits quite a few times in the past. I’ve also walked some parts of it around Oxford and Reading. Now, 28 May 2018, is the time to start to do it in the right order.

This morning I woke early and jumped on the nearly empty buses to get to the Thames Barrier, south side. The café and visitor centre is closed for refurbishment, not that it would have been open when I was there this morning. I took a few obligatory photographs, although it was very hazy. I did like the IDAHOT display from the Environmental Agency.

180 miles to go… or about 290km.

Last time I had been this way much of the path around the Millennium Dome was boarded up, being redeveloped. Now most of the path had been restored and for all the new apartment blocks there are signs of the continued improvements along the foreshore with the planting of reeds and other water plants. There’s still a lot of industry in these parts, mostly sand and aggregate plants, but none were operating today. A detour is still in place at the far side of the Dome that takes you past the Meantime Brewery and through to the river again just before you reach the old part of Greenwich. It will be good when they finally finish fixing the riverside path along there.

Canary Wharf in the haze, from just beyond the Thames Barrier. © SJG.

Greenwich appears from around a bend; the power station chimneys visible first, and then the masts of the restored Cutty Sark. It’s quite quick to reach the front of the magnificent college, today with tents being set up for some kind of festival or market. Usually I go through the foot tunnel to the north bank, but today I decided to stick to the south. Again, much of the housing development had been completed since the last time I’d been here and so I was able to continue along the Thames Path, detouring away from the river through Deptford. Here there are traces of Russian Czar Peter the Great’s four month stay in the area from January 1698. One, a strange statue, the other a plaque to a tree supposedly planted by him (picture below).


The path along the river through Rotherhithe to Tower Bridge is mostly a mixture of apartment blocks made from old wharves and scarce traces of London’s once thriving river industry and military history.

While there were runners, dog walkers, and the occasional cycling group, most of the path was devoid of other people. That changed at Tower Bridge where throngs of tourists dawdled through the sights. By this point the haze had mostly been burned through leaving blue skies that suggested the forecast thunderstorms and rain might not happen during the middle of the day at least. I ducked and weaved my way through the throngs to have lunch at Doggetts Coat and Badge pub – other favourite pubs in the area either closed or heaving. While lunching, I toyed with the idea of continuing through to Vauxhall, but decided to stick to my original plan of breaking at Waterloo. The crowds, while great to see lots of people enjoying themselves, were too much after the pleasant numbers of people I had seen up to that point.


According to my FitBit, I walked 23km (a bit over 14 miles) in about four and a half hours (not including my lunch break). The map above is from my FitBit app.

Foyle’s War


The Old Town of Hastings

Foyle’s War hits three things I enjoy: detective stories set in the English countryside, World War II, and spies. The series is a guilty pleasure, though. Guilty because while generally good, it’s no Endeavour. Foyle’s War is slow-paced, fairly predictable, and the cast not known for their dynamism.


I watched all of it not too long ago. I’d seen all the WWII stories before – some of the stories more than once – but had not seen the Cold War ones before. In fact, they’d somehow passed me by. I only watched them because they were part of a box set I’d picked up on special, and I’m really pleased I did because I hugely enjoyed them. They had a spark missing from the WWII ones. Actually, thinking about it, it shouldn’t be that surprising given Foyle’s desire from the outset to work for the spooks rather than the plod. It’s a tension always there, but underplayed.

Michael Kitchen underplays Foyle, which is a style that doesn’t engage immediately. It’s tempting to think of the show as sleepy. As full of the English stereotypes of reservation. But, clearly Foyle is an introvert. Clear in an unshowy way. Difficult to pull off, and in unskilled hands would be terrible. Kitchen nails it, and when you know what to watch for it makes the show better than first expected.

I have always liked Honeysuckle Weeks as awkward Sam, the driver. The character is a fascinating one. She’s a young woman born into the cosy inter-war years and village vicarage. I imagine a girl who would have been stifled by that, but yet make do. Because you just did. Instead, the war came with opportunities she takes with a chaotic enthusiasm. Duty is her by-word, but there’s something else there. Bubbling under the surface of conformity is an unstructured intelligence. I wonder what she would have been with a mentor able to challenge the chaos. To channel it. Her role as a London Labour politician’s wife and MI5 employee in the last few stories capture all that. The problem is forgetting her husband was in the Special Operations Executive (SOE)…

That is the thing that irks about the series. Big things like the relationships that vanish without trace when they should be mentioned. Sam’s relationship with Foyle’s pilot son Andrew is beautifully done, and then ditched unconvincingly. A shame.

The other character who I didn’t think quite worked was DS Milner, and he started off as a promising idea. An injured soldier from the start of the conflict forced into a job he doesn’t enjoy and back into a marriage with a wife who rejected him. I think the actor couldn’t quite carry it off, but also it’s a difficult storyline to maintain as a secondary tale.

I took great pleasure in the little chats between Anthony Horowitz, the show’s main writer and creator, and historian Terry Charman from the Imperial War Museum after many of the later stories and included in the DVD box set. I really enjoy learning more about SOE, Bletchley Park, and the general flow of WWII in Europe.

The series didn’t baulk from difficult moral quandaries of class, race, gender, even queerness. Also the politics of the time. In the Cold War stories Communism features – both foreign fights and local socialist fights. As does extreme right wing politics. That latter even more pronounced during the WWII years with a stand out episode featuring Charles Dance as a thinly disguised Mosely.

Of course there are a few thinly disguised historical figures brought to the series. My favourite is Hilda Pierce, heavily modelled on the amazing Vera Atkins. She is in the WWII stories as a wonderful foil to Foyle, who comes into her own in the post-war years. It’s a lovely treatment of some interesting questions, paramount of which is the debate about women in distinctly grubby and dangerous war work. Yes, the real failures of SOE are explored, very much with an eye on the human impact. Those co-opted volunteers had families who mostly had no idea what their family members were up to.

One of the delights of the series was how it was able to incorporate newly discovered facts in its fictional world. Its attention to detail lovely, with only a very few errors. The most glaring of which was the cinema in a coastal town lit up at night while the blackout was still very much in force.

Foyle’s War is a cosy crime drama when all is said and done, but the added WWII and Cold War skulduggery and moral ambiguities lift it.

Review: Denial

01/08/2010 20:02:14

Graffito in Köln, 2010

I nearly missed this film and only caught it because a friend, Dr D, had spotted it and wanted to see it. I’m glad she did, and glad we able to find a session that wasn’t sold out. I must say that I am suspicious about how responsive the cinema industry is to suddenly popular films, versus “blockbusters” that tank. Anyway, see it we did last night at the nearly full screening at Clapham Picturehouse.

It tells the story of two historians – one British, one American – who clash over their scholarly interpretation of an event within living memory. The Brit takes the Yank to court in the UK  in a libel case because the Yank accused the Brit of being a racist. The American proves her case against the Brit, aided by her amazing team of British lawyers.

Or, to be more precise, the film charts the first personal encounter American historian Professor Deborah E. Lipstadt had with British scholar David Irving in the USA. He challenged her during a lecture about her work on people who deny that the Holocaust happened the way it did. In 1996 he sued her and her publisher, Penguin, for defamation using the British courts where the burden of proof lays on the defendant. The case rested on the book, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, published by Penguin in 1994. The judgement itself was made by The Hon. Mr Justice Gray in 2000 and is worth reading, especially given current events.Be warned, though: a version that pops up in google searching takes you to Irving’s site with an annotated and amended version of the judgement.

The film itself is a fairly tight courtroom drama, with some nice nods to differences between British and US legal systems and traditions. The acting from all concerned is first rate, and the script deals with difficult questions of denying one’s immediate, all-to-human reaction, to win a case that seemed simple but really wasn’t. The difficulty was to keep the Holocaust from becoming the issue, and to keep the entire focus on those who misinterpret the historical record (deliberately, or a result of cognitive bias – the difference crucial but a hairline splits them) to deny the Holocaust either happened, or if it did that it didn’t target the Jews, and wasn’t part of Hitler’s plans. Bearing in mind the film is based on court records and Lipstadt’s book about the trial, it was interesting to see character development as Lipstadt and Barrister Richard Rampton QC slowly come to understand each other. I like the little touch of the first day of hearings where Lipstadt refuses to bow her head because she is an American, but by the day of the judgement she does so. The film had moments of gentle humour to break what could have been fairly tedious legal talk.

It also had a sequence that left the audience silent. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a nearly full cinema where for a lengthy sequence there was no noise beyond the film. It was when Lipstadt and her legal team visit Auschwitz.

The timing of the release of this film is probably one reason for its popularity. It premiered in the UK on 27 January 2017, International Holocaust Memorial Day. The day that Donald Trump, newly inaugurated President of the USA, issued a statement from the White House that for the first time did not specifically mention the Jews. While incompetence cannot in all fairness be ruled out, the subsequent actions are too close to neo-Nazi tropes to support the idea it was a mistake. The White House doubled down on there being other victims, which is true. But, crucially, the Jews were especially targeted. Lipstadt has commented on there being a spectrum of Holocaust denialism: from total (hard) denial, to a softer version. Regardless, any denial of the historical facts in this case is anti-semitic.

I would recommend this film anyway, but it’s especially pertinent for now. Not only as a warning, but also about ways to confront such lies.

I wrote this blog back in 2007, thought the article itself was from the mid-1990s. It’s about Doctor Who’s depiction of World War II and Nazism, but if you scroll through that there’s a personal bit at the end.

The Pallisers / Brideshead Revisited

img_0165I had never really heard of the Pallisers until a few months ago. I’d not read the books by Anthony Trollope, and had not seen the 1974 BBC-TV series. Two dear friends rectified the latter situation and over the last two weeks I’ve ‘binge-watched’ all 26 episodes.

The TV series first aired throughout 1974, but was disrupted by the politics of that year in the UK. The story is heavily political – the Pallisers centres around Plantagenet Palliser, a Liberal from landed aristocracy and MP, later PM, with a good period of time as Chancellor of the Exchequer. He is wonderfully played by Philip Latham, who captures his austere and proper manner easily but allows us glimpses of his human warmth.

The heart of the family saga is the Lady Glencora, played brilliantly by Susan Hampshire, who marries Plantagenet against her will, but does her duty. She has a fierce sense of romantic justice, and in another time or place would have been either a Suffragist or perhaps Suffragette, or a feminist.

The political rumble-tumble follows Irish Liberal Phineus Finn (Donal McCann) in and out of favour, and of love with an amazing collection of women of various upper stands of English and European society. I grew to like him, his friendship with the Pallisers.

The last few episodes goes to the next generation, the three Palliser children: Silverbridge (Anthony Andrews), Gerald (Michael Cochrane), and Mary (Kate Nicholls). Silverbridge fails at Oxford, but excels at cricket, and falls in with Frank Tregear (Jeremy Irons) who convinces him that Conservatism is really the party for him. Behind his father’s back, Silverbridge runs as a Tory in the family constituency, and wins, but then gains his father’s semi-approval for his decency and gradually realises that Liberalism is really the better politics. Later, Tregear and Mary fall for each other, but in an echo of the doomed romance of Mary’s mother before she bowed to duty and eventually found a loyal love with Planty, Planty forbids Mary’s betrothal with Tregear.

All in all, I ended up greatly enjoying the series. It is of its time, but then at that time the BBC were making brilliant costume dramas unafraid, really, of making some political hay from the day.

I must confess that the pairing of Andrews as an aristocrat with Irons as his chum found at Oxford University but who ends up influencing Andrews’ character led immediately to a strong desire to re-watch the 1981 Granada TV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited. I am a fan of the TV series, and I have read the novel on which it is based. I’ve not seen the more recent film version, and so I won’t judge it. One of the appeals of the Granada series is its languid, luxurious, and dreamy meander through the various events of Charles Ryder’s life where it intersects with country pile Brideshead and the Marchmain family.

My re-watch did not disappoint – aside from the extraordinarily dated and annoying anti-IP theft ads on each DVD. I was blown away by how good a pair of actors Irons and Andrews are. Both play remarkably similar (on paper) characters in the Pallisers and Brideshead, but both bring so much difference and nuance to each.

Watching both back-to-back, with the politics of decaying privilege against the backdrop of current world politics has provoked thoughts about all that. More for another time, though.

“Okay… so what’s next?”

The Monday after the referendum in the UK that voted by a margin of 1,269,501 to leave the European Union  (with 72% turnout) and the only certainty is chaos. Political, economic, and social chaos. People are scared, angry, cynical, and bewildered. That’s on all sides, and in many countries, by the way. No one group ‘owns’ this. Both the vote and reactions are, I think, a rather spectacular explosion of what’s been bubbling for a long time. And economic and political chaos breeds more social chaos, and on it can go. And then there is the US elections and the potential for even more shocks.

I spent most of Friday and the weekend grappling with what this all means. To sort out the causes and from that try to work out what to do. I am by no means the only person doing that, even though it’s actually impossible because it’s too big and too complex. There is  no one cause we can identify and then fix.

At base we are talking about the fundamentals of human behaviour and how we think – Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow is an essential read if you want to understand what I mean (Rolf Donelli’s The Art of Thinking Clearly is a pretty good summary of Kahneman’s observations and arguments in easily digestible format).

The desire to fix blame somewhere else, to generalise and demonise, to do something – whether it be ridicule, insult, abuse, assault, or even kill – is compelling in our rage born of uncertainty and fear. It’s easier to do these destructive things than really stop and try to think about it, to analyse it in its complexity, to set aside our inherent biases, to recognise our own role in perpetuating destructive approaches, and act in a consistent and ongoing way to genuinely make things better. There is no easy quick-fix; it’s a hard slog to be constructive. We make mistakes. No one is perfect. We are human.

Fans of the West Wing will recognise the title of this post as a catch-phrase of the fictional US President Josiah Bartlett. I’ve been re-watching the series and over the weekend had reached the episodes when loved characters are caught in a terrorist bombing in Palestine, and our surviving protagonists need to make some difficult decisions. Apologies for the spoiler, but we need to be Bartlett taking the difficult road to conciliation and stop giving in to the rage and making things worse for all the short-term relief it gives. I have seen some complain that it’s too late to challenge ‘soft racism’ – I reject that. There  never was and never will be one magical point that could have stopped this. Stopping racism and other forms of bigotry is a long-term and constant effort.


The UK’s relationship with the rest of Europe has always been complex and multifaceted. That’s not unusual in international relations, by the way. Like every connection in human society, culture and history are not mono – multiple and diverse strands interweave. We like our history to be an easy to digest narrative of absolutes, but events really aren’t those things. Even when people are fully honest their interpretations differ, and misunderstandings abound, even when people speak the same language. That situation worsens when players and observers are less than honest. I say that only to point out to be wary of any commentator identifying one thing as a cause or way to fix things.

To understate this, Europe has a fractious history and that hasn’t gone away. The EU is one mechanism to keep that fractiousness from escalating into armed conflict, and it functions through a complex political, legal, and bureaucratic set of structures set up through negotiations and compromises. As with every democratic system in the Member States, including the UK, there are rules. Some are clear, some aren’t, and all depend on how they are interpreted. There are people who have spent their lives studying them and are skilled at explaining them. Three I find useful are: David Allen Green, Joshua Rozenberg, and Jo Maugham QCHansard and Civil Service World are both useful, too. As is Full Fact.

UK Politics

Politics beyond clearly articulated policy points is messy. I think it is safe to say that the main established UK parties are in crisis. There is no easy out, either. I see a lot of people calling for a general election, but firstly I’m not sure the requirements are actually met under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, and secondly I’m not sure a general election would change what needs to be changed anyway.

To serious observers, the chaos has actually been evident for a few decades, and it’s not unique to the UK. While the systems are different, some of the key points outlined in this long Atlantic article about the US political system apply to the UK. I think the EU referendum has ripped open some of these fractures. Just as in the USA there has been a long lead in, and multiple causes, and I’m not entirely convinced there was ever a time of when it all worked perfectly.

I don’t think all is lost. While imperfect I believe the British parliamentary system of government is in practical terms worth working for. I am a civil servant and when I return to work from annual leave I will be one of many doing my bit to ensure that government keeps functioning as best it can in this time of chaos.

I know people think that government is distant and they can do nothing to change it. That’s not true. Beyond voting for your Member of Parliament (MP) in elections you can seek them out and engage with them. Remember that politics and effective democratic government is about compromise for what’s best for as many as possible. Communication – which is listening as well as talking, by all parties – is this process. Venting on social media or heckling at a public meeting may make you feel temporarily better, but ask yourself have you actually achieved anything that isn’t ultimately destructive? Your MP works for you, they represent you in parliament. Party politics complicates it a bit, but if you educate yourself on how that all works then you’ll be surprised at what you can do.

Party politics is another way you can get involved. Check out the parties and what they really stand for. Look at the history of each – what is the case now has not always been the case. There are newer parties out there just starting out. Look at their rules. Work out which one suits you best. Maybe even consider standing for election with one of them. Remember – parties are collections of people.

Petitions, protests, demonstrations – they all have their place. They can be powerful symbols, but have a limit to their effectiveness. All these methods of being involved in big picture politics are limited, but the longer term ones always have more lasting effect.

The Fourth Estate

The news and opinion media play a large part in UK life, like it or not. There is so much to be said about this, but I shall resist wasting too many words here on it (I’m linking to this because again while mostly to do with the US situation there is a lot of relevance for the UK). I will say: be aware of the political allegiances of the paper you’re reading (online and other versions), the operating procedures of the television and radio you watch/listen to. Be really wary of articles/pieces that only or overwhelmingly refer to other media sources or unnamed sources. Try to check original sources. I’ve linked to Hansard above.

If you have concerns about the way stories are presented, there are mechanisms to complain: IPSO for the press, and OfCom for TV, radio and video on demand (if they don’t cover it, they’ll refer you to where you should send your complaint).

Daily Life

Reports of racist attacks and abuse are up, and it’s not hard to draw direct lines from certain campaign materials and rhetoric to these reported incidents. Clearly the politics of recent months surrounding the referendum is a component, but we are kidding ourselves if we think that it didn’t happen before, or has nothing to do with the various extremist narratives circling the globe. Sometimes the media seems fixated on it (it is newsworthy) and the situation can seem a hopeless and endless march of bigotry. Remember, please, that the media needs to sell copies and ad space and horror sells; and the media focuses on the odd and unusual rather than the everyday (that’s a human thing, by the way). Also, statistics on incidents are imperfect – not everything is reported, and offences change over time.

What can we do? Here is one booklet that spells it all out pretty clearly. [20:15hrs 27 June 2016 update] And here is another useful guide.

The Police

It’s the job of the police in the UK to protect the public. They have the training, and the legal backing.

Find out your local police contact details and put them in your phone. If you have a smart phone then include their notes about who is best to contact in what situation. I shouldn’t have to say this, but the emergency numbers are for emergencies only – if you see an assault in progress, then use it. For other matters use the other numbers or methods.

If you’re travelling, then contact the British Transport Police. Again useful to save their contact details and advice in your phone if you can.

While I wish it wasn’t the case, sometimes the police response can be far short of what it should be. Go here to the Independent Police Complaints Commission for advice and how to make a complaint.

If you have more general questions about how your police deal with hate crimes, or want to be a bit more involved in community policing, then contact your local police to find out. Check their websites first for the best contact point. You can also find out more about your local Police and Crime Commissioner and engage with them.

Don’t be a Bystander

Stonewall launched a campaign in 2015 to combat bullying behaviour against LGBTQIA* people. It has some excellent resources worth looking at, but be aware that it doesn’t apply to each and every situation.

It’s Not all about Them, It’s also about Us

This is the most difficult and challenging thing: reflect on your own behaviour. As I said at the top of this post, the desire to fix blame elsewhere and to attack a generalised conglomeration is strong and entirely human. But, we also have the ability to self-reflect and learn from our mistakes and the mistakes of others.

Just one example: if you find yourself railing about all the old people, or all the young people, or all the people in eastern England, or all the working class – please stop. No geographic area and no single demographic voted 100% one way or the other**. All you’re doing is setting up barriers to the conversations that need to be had.

Yes, It’s Personal

I am a migrant to the UK. I was born and raised in Australia – a migrant country – to a Dutch father and an Australian mother (whose background is mostly Cornish, Irish, Scottish and Scandinavian). I migrated to the UK on a Dutch passport I obtained through due legal process. I applied for and was granted British citizenship through the naturalisation process, and I rescinded my claim to Dutch citizenship. I currently retain my Australian nationality for family reasons.

I won’t lie – some of the rhetoric used hit me hard. I recognised the ignorance behind it, and whenever it was spoken in front of me I corrected the speaker. Did what I could to educate them. But, I’m lucky. I’m white. I have never had a broad Aussie accent. My surname can cause a bit of a pause, but I have never had any abuse hurled at me because of it.

A Final Little Note

If you have been justifiably caught up in all this political, social and economic chaos, you may have missed some other things that happened over the weekend. Things that actually give me a lot of hope, and hope is vital to keep working to make the world better for as many people as possible.

LGBTQIA Pride events occurred in various parts of the world. As if we need another reminder of how much work needs to done, the Turkish authorities abused those brave souls refusing to stay cowed. It those who march who give me hope.

The events in London and New York City were the total opposite. In the UK, multiple buildings flew the rainbow flag or lit up their facades in rainbow colours – they included the Royal Military College (Sandhurst), the Home Office, the Welsh National Assembly (Senedd), Thames House (MI5), and a multitude of others. London’s Pride march included large contingents of all the armed forces branches, the civil service (including a few Permanent Secretaries – that’s the heads of major government departments), and the police – I was proud to see a bunch of my NCA colleagues with them.

A UK government minister and member of the Conservative Party came out on Twitter and rather than cause a scandal, she was congratulated by an otherwise absent Chancellor of the Exchequer (George Osbourne) and Prime Minister (David Cameron).

Presumptive Democrat candidate for the President of the USA, Hilary Clinton, tweeted in support of LGBTQIA rights – both from her personally, and from her campaign.

US President Barak Obama announced that the Stonewall Inn and Christopher Park would become the USA’s first national monument for LGBT people, and that the ban on trans people serving in the US military would end.

That last point has massive implications on so many levels.

I am not saying, ‘hurrah, we’ve won!’, and I acknowledge and share some of the concerns from many about ‘militarisation’,  but I am pointing out what we have achieved. What we can do with persistent hard work. Two years ago I marched with the police in Manchester’s LGBT Pride and I will never forget how much of an emotional lift I got when I realised the symbol we sent to the people of Manchester as our joyous shouts and whistles drowned out a group wanting to wipe out LGBTQIA people. I am old enough to remember the reasons why some older LGBTQIA people fear the police.

There is so much work to do to consolidate and keep protecting our legal rights, but it’s work we must do, and what each one of us does matters. I know people are scared that one possible outcome is a total withdrawal from the EU and its human right protections – a valid fear, but one we can start to work against by engaging in each and every facet of public and private life to challenge bigotry in all its forms.

*A note – I use this one to mean lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, intersex, and asexual. I realise that others use different orders and letters, and I apologise if I cause any offence through omission.

** Gibraltar was the closest with 95.9% voting to remain in the EU, with a turnout of 83.7%.

Adam Sisman, John LeCarré: The Biography

A few days ago I finished reading Adam Sisman’s biography of writer John LeCarré, pseudonym of David Cornwell.

I think the first I ever read of LeCarré’s work was The Little Drummer Girl, and I saw the movie at around about the same time, which was I think when it came out on videotape. I was in my late teens and discovering the world and its politics, safe in my family home. My father is an academic, specifically an economist, even more specifically an economic historian. We had a fairly impressive library at home, and both my parents encouraged us (my brother and I) to visit other libraries. I read voraciously and pursued various obsessions. As a young teenager I had discovered Anne Frank’s diary while we visited Amsterdam, and following that read everything I could find on the Holocaust. Politics and current affairs were always discussed at home, and even as a young child I had been picking up on the terrorism of the 1970s as remote to Australia as it was then.

The Little Drummer Girl was an eye-opener for me. Charlie’s idealism spoke to me at exactly the right age, I think, and the tale is cautionary in the way it shows how complex these things are. How difficult – there is no single right or wrong side, but numerous of each. Makes it easy to cower in inactivity, but actually one of the messages I took from the book is that small actions build into more powerful changes.

I am writing this in 2016 with a Cold War between the USSR and the Western democracies having disappeared into a strange narrative, and the Middle Eastern and West Asian wars having fractured and splintered into multiple deadly offshoots that few understand but many worsen through a simplistic narrative. Spy thrillers like the James Bond books, the Bourne books and movies, etc, etc, etc, all play their part in shaping those narratives. As does political discourse, the advantage of hindsight, the stories written by the victors, the victims…

I majored in politics and political history at university, specialising in international affairs. I took multiple units in Soviet politics and history when the USSR still existed, and we were caught by surprise when the break-up happened so quickly. When George Bush Snr was up against Michael Dukakis in 1988 I took a year-long course in US politics. I dove into the safety of theoretical politics and related philosophies during 1989 and 1990, but dipped my toe into the broiling mess of what was then called the Arab-Israeli conflict. I learned to be wary of any simplistic dichotomous explanations, which I have applied to my work during my career. One of the things that appealed to me about LeCarré’s writing is how well he weaved those complexities and contradictions together.

As the biography points out more than once, one of the reasons for LeCarré’s success as a novelist was his apparently uncanny ability to anticipate changes in the world. I don’t think it was uncanny, or particularly prescient, but does illustrate a mind able to see patterns in chaos. I think LeCarré keeps his eyes and ears open, and at some point fairly early on in his life was able to work out that human beings are bundles of contradictions. He is clearly very clever and quick – all great ingredients for an author of books that, for all their adventures and thrills, have people at their heart.

One little scene has remained with me from that first reading of the Little Drummer Girl. When Charlie tells the Mossad recruiters the story of her father returning home from prison, broken, and waiting for someone else to open the doors in her home for him. Then, later, them disabusing her of that tale. The vignette fascinates me because it neatly encapsulates the human capability for self-delusion.

When I read in the biography David Conwell’s description of his father returning home from a stint in prison for fraud it clicked immediately with Charlie’s story as told in a novel written decades later. Self-delusion is a key theme of the biography; the very human way in which we create our narratives about our lives, often without realising it. Sisman’s description of his process in writing a proper biography of a subject who is still alive (at time of writing – 2016 has been a cruel year for celebrities), who has part of his life shrouded in secrecy because of where he worked (MI5 and MI6, variously during the 1940s and 1950s – a very different time and place to now), and who has such a difficult relationship with his constantly scamming father. Then there is the media lens, assumptions made, perspectives filtered through new events and disclosures. Different points of view.

Cornwell strikes me as a principled man who has his flaws, but who doesn’t? I am impressed by the research he does for his books, but also when it’s clear he is writing from his heart. I was interested in what Sisman was able to write about Cornwell’s times with the two British secret services, and also interested in learning more about LeCarré’s writing processes. I am sure that some of my readers will find the tales of book-to-film/TV series to be interesting. For those bits I recommend the book; but if you’re after tales of real-life spying derring-do, then I suggest you stick with the stuff about Ian Fleming… although the notes about the veracity of autobiographical narrative are pertinent.

One last thing – I am amused by the biographer’s name being Sisman. SIS being the initials for the Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6. Sadly, though, I know there will be those who will read far more than amusement into that coincidence… (as I write this I have been reading conspiracy theories stating that MI5 or MI6 will be erasing pencil votes in today’s referendum in the UK…).

Wolf Hall / Bring up the Bodies

I read Hilary Mantel’s novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies pretty much when they were both released. I’ve always been interested in the history of Henry VIII and his daughters Mary and Elizabeth. Such a turbulent time of England and Scotland’s history, with so many lasting effects. The story of Henry and his wives has often been told in fiction, and just before embarking on reading Mantel’s novels I had watched the most recent TV version of Henry VIII’s life and death – the at times astonishingly good (yes, really!), but mostly wildly entertaining The Tudors.

Hampton Court Palace: once Wolsey’s home, taken by Henry VIII

Mantel’s novels tell the story of Henry VIII through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, a lowly born London lad blessed with a head for finance and the law, and an excellent memory. Wolf Hall begins with Cromwell in the service of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. Henry VIII has been on the throne for about 20 years, with a kingdom geographically including England, Ireland, and parts of France . The winds of change in the church are blowing from the continent, and various characters are caught up in spying and intrigue in incredibly dangerous times. Thomas More staunchly opposed the reformation in the church, and the run ins between him and Cromwell are fascinating explorations of the theological debates of the time.

The first parts of the novel detail Cromwell’s relationship with Wolsey, and cleverly traces how Cromwell gained favour with the King while Wolsey fell out of favour. The court intrigue centring around Anne Boleyn, who is portrayed as a complex character making what happens incredibly tragic. She’s bright, with a lively mind, and the intellectual attraction between her and Cromwell is one of the key features of the novel, counterpointing with Cromwell’s discussions with Thomas More.

Court intrigue and the jockeying of various families to gain power are the other strands of a complex history where a considerable amount is on the record, but there are gaps. This is the skill of a novelist writing historical fiction based on real people and real events. Choosing the lens through which to view the events, and being careful to bring each to life in a way both believable to a modern audience and yet as true to the feel of the time as is possible. Mantel’s style is clean, crisp, and incredibly efficient as well as evocative.

Wolf Hall takes us up to More’s execution. Bring Up the Bodies traces Anne Boleyn’s fall and Catherine Seymour’s rise in Henry’s favour. There are flashbacks to Cromwell’s childhood and adolescence in London and the continent, which provide a richness to his character.

During 2014 the Royal Shakespeare Company produced a play of both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies in the Aldwych Theatre in London. I saw them back to back and it was a fascinating experience to see both in that way in the same theatre in the same seats. The adaptation itself was brilliant, and staged in a minimalist way.

With a certain sense of inevitability the BBC also adapted the books, which I just caught up with this week via DVD. Unfortunately they chose to compact down the two novels into one six part series, and it showed. The complexity and nuanced nature of Cromwell’s relationship with Anne Boleyn just wasn’t there, and as a result her execution – incredibly powerful in both the book and play – left me cold. A real shame, because the acting and sets were as lush as you’d expect. I thought Damian Lewis was particularly noteworthy as Henry VIII.