Writing Portfolio


The modern history books: Spies, conspiracies and Britain in the early Sixties

We live in an age where there’s a lot of popular history about, and some of it manages to combine a high standard of writing with excellent historical research. Here are three of the best that I’ve enjoyed reading recently:

Popping up on TV as well as in print, Dominic Sandbrook is one of those historians who’s pretty good on revisionism – reinterpreting historical facts by looking at the evidence from a different perspective and coming up with something that challenges the accepted historical view of historical events; the old A.J.P. Taylor maxim of nothing being inevitable until it happens is very much Sandbrook’s guiding principle, it seems. In the first of his four books on recent British history, Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles, he strikes a fine balance between the political, the economic and the cultural, looking below the surface of events. The travails of Harold Macmillan’s various Chancellors (Reggie Maudling strikes me as being one of the most amusing people ever to have held that particular post) are juxtaposed with sections on movies, books (Ian Fleming of course, but also Kingsley Amis and long-forgotten types like Colin Wilson), television (this was the time when ITV started and the BBC entered one of its most creative periods), moral panic in the newspapers over immigration and the sexual behaviour of teenagers (plus ca change…), the early Sixties satire boom and pop music; plenty of stuff in that last bit on Lonnie Donegan, Billy Fury and Acker Bilk (whose presence is explained by the notion that in early 1962 there were those who thought that trad jazz would be the defining sound of the Sixties) before we get to the Beatles (where Sandbrook’s revisionism is clearly shown, with there being nothing inevitable about Beatlemania, the last remark on which goes to Ted Heath of all people – as Trade Secretary at the time, he remarked that the demand for Beatles-style jackets in late 1963 single-handedly saved Britain’s corduroy industry). It’s a long book (738 pages, not including the footnotes) but it’s well worth persevering with. The set-piece chapter is the one on the Profumo scandal – which has quite the build-up by being referenced or alluded to in previous chapters before, following an account of the Vassall scandal, it breaks out in a surprisingly low-key fashion (the central point, a junior minister’s affair with a call-girl, lasted just a few weeks) before becoming something that “might have been scripted to encompass a wide range of sensitive issues of the early sixties: espionage and subversion, sexual wantonness, unchecked materialism, the supposed exoticism and criminality of immigrant communities and the nepotism and ineptitude of the Conservative government ... it touched on public and private anxieties that had already been festering for years.” Interesting times, indeed, and fascinatingly chronicled here.

History of a somewhat different nature is covered by David Aaronovitch in his Voodoo Histories: How Conspiracy Theory has Shaped Modern History. If we really do live in a conspiracy-obsessed age – and reactions to recent events both here and in the United States have presented little evidence to the contrary – then perhaps a look at conspiracy theories of the past, the truth behind them and why so many are willing to believe them (the need for a certain type of narrative is a key part of this) is no bad thing. Thus, we have a chapter on the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion (a document which, despite being exposed as a forgery in 1921, did much to fuel anti-Semitism in the twentieth century and is still doing the rounds in the Middle East) and a somewhat lighter chapter on the pseudo-history concerning the Priory of Sion myth (amusingly entitled ‘Holy Blood, Holy Grail, Holy Shit’). Showing that conspiracy repeats itself, there are links made between the conspiracy theories surrounding the deaths of Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana, and also (exploring a particularly British vein here) between the deaths of Hilda Murrell and David Kelly. Personally, I’d’ve liked to have seen what Aaronovitch might have to say about the various conspiracy theories surrounding Harold Wilson, but what makes this book so relevant for readers today is the American stuff. When Aaronovitch turns his attention Stateside, there are chapters on conspiracy theories about Pearl Harbour, various Clinton-related cover-ups, the 9/11 ‘truthers’ and the Obama ‘birthers’; those last two show how belief in conspiracy theories has risen with the advent of the Internet (“Cyberspace communities of semi-anonymous and occasionally invented individuals have grown up … the democratic quality of the Net has permitted the release of a mass of undifferentiated information, some of it authoritative, some speculative, some absurd”). As this book was published in 2010, there’s nothing about Donald Trump’s involvement in the ‘birther’ nonsense, although if Aaronovitch is going to do a second edition he’d probably need to include a whole chapter (maybe more), building on the post-Internet rise in the popularity of conspiracy theories, about the uses of conspiracy theories as political weapons in this year’s Presidential election. This book is intelligently written and hugely enjoyable, and a good one to have read before the next time someone brings up the subject of the ‘truth’ about, say, 9/11 or the pseudo-history behind The Da Vinci Code.

Conspiracy of a real rather than a theoretical sort abounds in A Spy Among Friends: Philby and the Great Betrayal, the tale of how Kim Philby betrayed, well, just about everyone. Ben Macintyre – an author of espionage-related stuff who I have read before (his Agent Zigzag is excellent) – is on good form here dealing with the story of perhaps the most notorious traitor in British history, aided by being able to access recently-declassified government files and previously unseen private papers. This isn’t a straight biography of Philby, though (there have been plenty of those); this one tells the story of British and American intelligence in the Second World War and the early part of the Cold War, focussing in particular on the friendship between Philby and two of his closest associates, Nicholas Elliott of MI6 and James Jesus Angleton of the OSS, and later the CIA. Elliott was a very good friend of Philby – or so he thought; they were of a similar background (public school, Cambridge, made their names in intelligence during the Second World War) and he shared everything he knew with him at a time when people who worked for the secret service were very tight-lipped outside of it, but frequently got drunk and let slip all sorts of interesting information when socialising with colleagues (something of which Philby took full advantage). After the defections of Burgess and Maclean in 1951, which ruined Philby’s intelligence career by virtue of his closeness to the former rather than any concrete evidence, Elliott was instrumental in maintaining Philby’s innocence – blackening the reputation of a particularly troublesome MP who used Parliamentary privilege to ask some questions that some would rather have remained unasked – while trying to bring him back into the fold (he eventually succeeded in having him appointed as an agent under journalistic cover in Beirut, from where Philby defected to the Soviet Union in 1963). Elliott was also involved in the Crabb fiasco of 1956, the story of which is told here (one wonders how he was able to keep his job after that one, which went against the explicit orders of the Prime Minister). He was deeply affected by Philby’s betrayal, as was Angleton, although the effect on the latter was perhaps more ruinous for the intelligence community; having trusted Philby implicitly, Angleton switched to not trusting anyone and, having convinced himself that there was a mole in the CIA, wasted much time and resources as well as resorting to illegal methods in the chasing of this phantom, to the extent – irony of ironies – that some came to believe that Angleton himself was a KGB mole, charged with causing as much damage to the running of the CIA as possible. It all, it seems, went back to Philby. As retold by Macintyre, this is a truly irresistible read for anyone who, like me, has a penchant for spy fiction.

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