Bookmarks: Poison, paranoia and poo nappies
A bi-weekly column on books
Espionage is quite the hot literary ticket at the moment, thanks in large part to the Kremlin’s recent behaviour. As the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal, now living in the UK, explained to BBC Newsnight diplomatic editor Mark Urban, he was happy to be interviewed for a book on East-West espionage but he was nervous about being named. “It’s because of Putin,” Skripal explained. “You see, we are afraid of Putin.”
And there was reason enough to be scared. Skripal was worried about his adult children who were still based in Russia. He wanted them to travel freely. But, despite the initial hesitation about being quoted, Skripal spoke freely of his career in the Russian intelligence agency, the GRU; about his recruitment by MI6; about his arrest in Russia and the prison sentence that followed; and about his sudden release and journey to England after an eloborate spy swap at Vienna airport in 2010.
A few months after the interview, Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, were fighting for their lives in hospital, having been exposed to a lethal Russian nerve agent later identified as novichok. As the story broke, Urban resisted the temptation to turn his material into “instant media headlines” and, instead, put it all into his hastily reworked book, The Skripal Files: The Life and Near Death of a Russian Spy (Macmillan).
It’s a fascinating book, if only to point out that, unlike Alexander Litvinenko, the former KGB agent who died in 2006 from poisoning by polonium-206, Skripal made no attempt to hide from anybody; he didn’t have an alias, he communicated freely with his children in Russia, he went on frequent trips abroad, even travelling to Switzerland to lecture intelligence agencies there.
So why was he attacked? One theory that Urban suggests is that Skripal had also been talking to security services in the Ukraine – which may have been too uncomfortable for the Kremlin.
The book has been overtaken by recent events. While Urban was able to keep up with the daily headlines – his account manages to include the death in July of Dawn Sturgess whose boyfriend had picked up the perfume bottle that contained the novichok – it stops shortly before the identification of the two Russian agents Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov as the chief suspects in the case.
Meanwhile, Ben Macintyre, who specialises in nonfiction about spies of the 20th century, tells a cracker of a story in his new book, The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War (Viking).
The “spy” in this case is Oleg Gordievsky, a KGB colonel who contributed significantly to ending the Cold War – as Britain’s most important foreign agent. Among other things, he exposed Soviet plans in Scandinavia, Britain and elsewhere and, crucially, alerted Western leaders of the Kremlin’s paranoia in the 1980s. Without Gordievsky’s help, the East-West rivalry could have tipped over into full-blown nuclear war.
He was also involved in the thawing of relations with Moscow, and went on to practically write the briefing notes for both Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev at their first meeting, and can take some credit for their ensuing cordial relationship.
The “traitor” here is Aldrich Ames, a CIA analyst who betrayed his country for money. It was he who shopped Gordievsky, who was then arrested by the KGB and interrogated by his colleagues before MI6 launched an improbably complex plan to rescue him. In July 1985, Gordievsky was smuggled across the USSR’s border into Finland. He was almost caught, but he avoided detection by Soviet sniffer dogs who were distracted by a baby’s soiled nappy and a packet of cheese and onion crisps.
Gordievsky now lives somewhere in suburban Britain but is still under sentence of death by the Russians. The Skripal business gives The Spy and the Traitor much contemporary relevance; we have returned to the tensions of the Cold War.
Next week, on the eve of the announcement of this year’s winner, the BBC is to screen Barneys, Books and Bust-ups: 50 Years of the Booker Prize, a documentary that celebrates half a century’s worth of outrageous gossip, bitter feuds, mammoth egos, outright stupidity and all the eccentricity that has come to be associated with the award.
Writing in the Observer, author and journalist Rachel Cooke praises the doccie, saying that while films about contemporary writers “do not tend to liveliness”, this one “could not be boring even if it tried”, crammed as it was “with incident; every anecdote involves cattiness, hubris or the plangent lessons offered by posterity (occasionally all three)”.
That said, though, Cooke was making the case that the Man Booker itself has lost its allure, with one bookseller telling her: “I think there has been a diminishment of the brand, one I would place at the feet of the last few winners. The shortlist no longer has the power it had in terms of sales. It has stopped being a reliable indicator so far as readers go, and the fact that Colson Whitehead’s [Pulitzer prize-winning] The Underground Railroad (Fleet) wasn’t on the longlist last year, and that Sally Rooney’s Normal People (Faber & Faber) hasn’t made it to the shortlist this year, are just other instances of that.”
There’s more to it than not just leading readers to books – there seems to be a consensus that the the last time the Booker really “connected” with readers was in 2012, with Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies (Fourth Estate). There’s now a problem with the Americans.
Many publishers, writers and agents were angered at the 2013 decision by the Booker’s trustees to allow US writers to be eligible for the prize, when previously only novels by Commonwealth and Irish writers were eligible.
Speaking at an event in London in July to mark the 50th year of the prize, Australian author Peter Carey – who won the Booker in 1988 for Oscar and Lucinda and in 2001 for True History of the Kelly Gang (both Faber & Faber) – voiced his displeasure at the decision: “I think the Booker prize has always had a very distinctive quality, which comes from – I might not describe it as excluding Americans – but has to do with what is still the Commonwealth, and the leftovers of empire, which still have a lot of cultural connections,” he said.
“I am sure that American prizes don’t give a stuff about Australians or New Zealanders or Canadians, or any of those voices. An English prize does because there is still a family connection, a cultural connection that really does mean something.
“And if you want to think about big American prizes, it is laughable to think the Pulitzer prize would want to bring English and Australian writers in – never in a million years would it happen. And inviting American writers, good American writers, changes its nature. It becomes an exercise in global corporate branding.”
Speaking at the same event, another Booker winner, Julian Barnes, said: “If the Americans had been in it from the start and you think of the richness of the American novel in the 1980s and 1990s, I don’t think Flaubert’s Parrot (Vintage) would have been shortlisted.
“Last year, there were three American writers [shortlisted] out of six and that means the first-off Zimbabwean novelist who might have been shortlisted isn’t there. It was a great endorsement to have my book on the shortlist. And that first step up is very important. And I think there is going to be less of that … anyway, that’s enough biting the hand that feeds us.”
Man’s sponsorship of the prize is up for renewal in 2020, and there is some hope, albeit a slim one, that the rules of eligibility will then change once again. As Cooke pointed out: “American wins Booker prize for the third year running” is not going to be a headline that trustees want to see in the award’s 50th year.
Here’s a book the managers of our cities would be well advised to read: Palaces for the People: How to Build a More Equal and United Society (Bodley Head) by Eric Klinenberg, a sociologist at New York University.
Simply put, it advocates the bleeding obvious: “social infrastructure” (as opposed to “social capital”) – public parks, libraries, playgrounds, urban farms, sports fields and other shared spaces – allows people to interact, form networks and help one another. In other words, we need to spend more time with our neighbours.
And more to the point, we absolutely do not sell off valuable community assets, like the popular Maiden’s Cove picnic area, to private developers who want to sling up another shopping mall and boutique hotel on the Atlantic seaboard. Just saying, Cape Town. Just saying.
Klinenberg presents a strong case against gentrification, with case studies of how it has destroyed richly diverse, self-contained communities in his native Chicago. It’s a city he knows well, and he built his reputation there with a study of a lethal heatwave in July 1995 which left 739 people dead and the poorer parts of the city in complete disarray.
He discovered that the likelihood of death or illness from the heat was not due to poverty or class alone, but also to the physical form and condition of a neighbourhood. Residents in areas with vacant lots and trashed streets had less chance of survival than those of the same demographic who lived in more socially cohesive areas.
Klinenberg, above all, is an optimist, and gives what one critic has described as “heartwarming” accounts of abandoned lots in Chicago that have been converted to agriculture, of “geriatric parks” in Spain with age-appropriate play equipment, of steps taken in Singapore to help residents of different generations understand and know each other, of a Brooklyn library initiative that helps senior citizens get out of their homes – and their isolation – more often.
More pertinently, he presents a strong critique of Facebook, and founder Mark Zuckerberg’s vague prattle of assisting “meaningful communities”, and the general retreat from public spending, a charge which, while directed here at Trump’s America, can be levelled elsewhere.
THE BOTTOM LINE
“I don’t believe in dead heroes (Lennon said.) I don’t appreciate worship of dead Sid Vicious, or of dead James Dean, or of dead John Wayne … I worship the people who survive.” – Being John Lennon: A Restless Life by Ray Connolly (Weidenfeld)