Thursday, 28 November 2019

What I'm reading: Russian mole becomes a fox

DANIEL SILVA: The Other Woman


A new Gabriel Allon adventure is an annual treat, much as a new James Bond or Modesty Blaise used to be. (The Bond stories continue with their pick-n-mix authorship, but Peter O’Donnell wisely killed off Modesty before the franchising wolves could gather). This year I’ve got through two Gabriel Allons, playing catch-up.

The Israeli superspy turned intelligence chief is usually defending his beleaguered homeland (and the world’s capital cities) from fanatical Muslim terrorists, but every now and again he turns his attention to the other great threat, the new republic of Russia with its tyrannical president whom Daniel Silva refers to as “the Tsar”.

A Russian defector reveals that a mole has infiltrated British Intelligence at the highest level since the era of the “Cambridge Five”. A parallel story introduces the reader to a French exile in Spain who had an affair in Beirut with a famous traitor – and bore him a child. Most readers will guess the name of her lover well before Mr Silva names him, the most famous of the Famous Five.

MI6 traitor Kim Philby
 depicted on a Soviet stamp
As Allon and his pals in the CIA and MI6 close in on the identity of the highly placed defector, the mole becomes a fox and a chase ensues, nail-biting and, frankly, a bit credulity-stretching. For the first time I found an error in Silva’s intensive research: he refers to “the dreary London suburb of Crow-borough” where Kim Philby abandoned his wife and children in 1956: Crow-borough is a small town on the edge of a forest in the High Weald of Sussex, 25 miles from me, 50 miles from London, and deemed “an Area of Outstanding National Beauty”.

Revisiting the Cambridge Spies gives The Other Woman strong echoes of John Le CarrĂ©, although the climactic chapters belong more to the age of the cinematic Jason Bourne. This is Daniel Silva a little off his very best, but that said it’s ideal reading for anyone on a longhaul flight or a sun-lounger – gripping stuff.

Tuesday, 26 November 2019

What I'm streaming: God help our gracious Queen

THE CROWN


Some people will have watched the new Netflix series of The Crown in a one-day binge. I’ve taken a week.

In the pre-publicity I thought that Olivia Colman still looked like Olivia Colman but minutes into Episode One I totally accepted that she was the Queen, every bit as much as Claire Foy before her. She has caught perfectly that air of haughtiness and slight discomfort that Her Majesty has never quite shaken off. I’m not so sure about Tobias Menzies as Prince Philip: Matt Smith seemed a better look-alike somehow, though he actually wasn’t. Helena Bonham Carter is spot-on as Margaret: needy, greedy and totally self-absorbed. Ben Daniels is well cast as Snowdon and despite looking nothing like him Charles Dance makes a credible Dickie Mountbatten. Josh O’Connor bears little resemblance to a young Prince Charles but he grows into the part well. When Emerald Fennell first appeared as a potential girlfriend I thought she was Sarah Ferguson, as she looks more like Fergie than Camilla, but Camilla she is, playing her as a sort of junior Margaret, promiscuous and manipulative.

The series has produced some fine moments, though perhaps not as many as the Claire Foy episodes, and one or two surprises. The series highlight was the Aberfan episode with its vivid CGI recreation of the slagheap engulfing the village school, though I rather doubt the Queen would have admitted to faking a tear after meeting the bereaved at Aberfan. Anne bonking Mr Parker-Bowles was a bit of a shock, as was Sir Anthony Blunt threatening Philip with some unwanted publicity if he (Blunt) was outed as one of Cambridge Spies. Did Mountbatten and the Queen Mum really ‘conspire’ to break-up Charles’s puppy-love affair with Camilla and accelerate her marriage to Parker-Bowles?

Helena Bonham-Carter and Ben Daniels as the Snowdons
- a marriage not made in heaven

Which raises the obvious question: is some of this royal ‘docu-drama’ factual or fictional? We’ve been down this road before with the Helen Mirren movie and more than one screen version of Diana’s life and loves. The writers this time seem to have toned down Prince Philip’s alleged philandering, which was such a feature of Kitty Kelley’s scurrilous book about The Royals (1998), and there were ‘revelations’ there and elsewhere that (so far) have not made into The Crown.

I’m as fond of a juicy piece of gossip as the next person, but I wonder how fair shows and movies like this really are. I’m sure Her Madge and the senior Highnesses don’t watch it, but it must be mortifying to the younger royals, whether they see it or not, to know that all their friends are tittering over the lives (especially the sex lives) of their parents and grandparents.

Prince Andrew: not exactly helping
You could almost argue a case that the Royal Family need a #MeToo movement to restore a bit of their right to privacy. In trying to modernize the institution, the Queen has perhaps allowed us to let too much “daylight” in; the “magic of the Monarchy” is getting a bit tarnished. Prince Andrew, of course, is not exactly helping.

Monday, 18 November 2019

What I'm reading: a timeless classic of Love and War (but not Peace)

Dave Boling: GUERNICA


I’m a bit late reviewing this novel, which was published in 2008. Critics have compared it to Captain Corelli's Mandolin and The English Patient. Its historical and romantic sweep even brings an echo of War and Peace although, sadly, peace does not come to Guernica within the time-frame of the novel.

The title is enough to send shivers down your spine, if you recall Picasso’s famous mural. The artist appears in the background of the story; we are shown him conceiving and executing the painting. Franco is another background character, the ‘generalissimo’ who tried to destroy the Basque culture and presided over decades of brutality for all Spaniards. The German aviator who leads the bombing raid over Guernica is a Von Richthofen, a cousin of the ‘Red Baron’, suave and gentlemanly, and ruthless.

At the heart of the story are the three Ansotegui brothers (Basque names are as intimidating as Tolstoy’s patronymics), three motherless boys whose father abandons them. One will become a fisherman, one a carpenter, the third a priest. We follow them from boyhood to manhood and watch as they work and play, dance and drink, fall out and fall in love. Guernica is, like many of the great novels, a superior kind of soap opera (very superior). While you read this, you are waiting for the bombs to fall. The history we know casts a dark cloud over the story. On the day of the bombing you wonder – and you care deeply – who, if anyone, is going to survive.

This was Dave Boling’s first novel. His wife is from the Pays Basque. He writes simply and vividly about the horrors of the Civil War. A villager taken away by the Guardia “was gone as if erased.” After the bombing, in a makeshift mortuary, “The undead shuffled past, staring into the faces, praying to find loved ones and praying not to find loved ones.”

The post-bombing story introduces two British characters and a hint that there can be light after the most terrible darkness. I’m a novelist. I sometimes kill off my own characters. It’s rare that a novel moves me to tears. This one did.

Picasso's GUERNICA