Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe

For a group with an alarming tendency to kill people by accident, the IRA had an elaborate internal mechanism for determining whether to kill people on purpose.

Say Nothing (2018) is a deeply-reported, arresting book about some of the people the IRA killed ‘on purpose’. It’s also about much more than that. Several of those disappeared by the IRA were found after an oral history of The Troubles compiled by Boston College in Massachusetts came to light. Former partisans who’d given interviews for the project had understood that the descriptions they gave of their grisly careers would remain sealed until death. They didn’t.

The author, as his name suggests, belongs to the Irish-American community and that may explain why, as an outsider, he was able to surmount the access problem of reporting in Northern Ireland. That said, Radden Keefe says he never identified particularly strongly with his Irish heritage nor was even that interested in the conflict until he read an obituary of Dolours Price, whose face graces the book’s cover, in 2013. His account is admirably even-handed.

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Dolours Price was one of several terrorists arrested in the immediate aftermath of the 1973 London bombings, which targeted the Old Bailey and other locations. Her sister Marian was also involved and, unlike Dolours, remained committed to violence into old age. In addition to audacious attacks on the British mainland, through the 1970s the sisters belonged to a secretive internal IRA unit that identified and eliminated informers. Among their duties were driving suspected informers across the border to meet their executioners.

One revelation in the book concerns the role of Marian, who is still alive, in the murder of one suspected informer who almost certainly was misidentified as such, mother-of-10 Jean McConville. Dolours had admitted her role as an accessory but always refused to reveal the killer. Gerry Adams is also fingered in the Boston College tapes by Brendan Hughes, a former close associate, as ordering the killing. As a peace figure years later, as the issue of the disappearances became salient, Adams irked former colleagues by publicly sympathising with the family.

To Brendan Hughes, it was appalling that Adams would go to Jean McConville’s children and pledge to get to the bottom of what had happened to their mother, as though it were some great mystery to him. “He went to this family’s house and promised an investigation into the woman’s disappearance,” Hughes [said in the tape]. “The man that gave the fucking order for that woman to be executed!”

Above all, the strength of Say Nothing lies in it doing far more than investigating murder mysteries. It is a sensitive re-examination of the period told with an insider’s knowledge and an outsider’s dispassionate perspective. It shows just how committed both sides were to their version of the province’s future. The British state operated an immense counter-intelligence operation that would be impressive were it not directed at its own citizens. They kept a close tab on Loyalist as well as Republican paramilitaries, in part to stop the Loyalists killing valuable Republican informers. Above all the people of Northern Ireland, Protestant and Catholic, endured crippling hardship and were forced to become partisans against one another. It’s for their sake that the ‘peace process’ continues, even at the expense of the worst crimes of The Troubles going unpunished.

Barbarians At The Gate: 30 Years Later

Elizabeth Warren, one of the leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination, is bearing down hard on private equity.

It’s not the first time the private equity giants – often referred to as LBO firms, as in ‘leveraged buy-outs’, and increasingly known by the sanitised term ‘sponsors’ – have taken heat. It was one of the attack lines in 2012 that helped Barack Obama sink Mitt Romney, who made his fortune at Bain Capital. This is different. Warren’s proposal is smart politics because it’s utterly radical and yet “to a non-financial audience, it just sounds so reasonable.”

Most notably, Warren proposes to make PE responsible for the debts of its portfolio companies.

To understand the force of this change, consider a typical buy-out deal. ABC Partners buys XYZ Plc for £1 billion. ABC forms a new company, Alphabet LLP, to buy XYZ. But Alphabet won’t just use ABC’s money for the acquisition: in fact most of the £1 billion will be borrowed from banks and institutional investors such as pension funds. If XYZ underperforms in future years, Alphabet LLP won’t repay its creditors and in theory ABC won’t get its money back either*. But crucially, ABC isn’t on the hook for Alphabet’s debts. If it were, ABC would have to hold back millions of its assets from being put to work on other deals – just in case the debts of XYZ need to be made whole. In practice this would kill many PE companies and force those remaining to become conglomerates, taking on leverage at a corporate level and funding its loss-making subsidiaries until they can be improved, sold or closed.

It’s possible none of the will happen even if Warren is elected President and Democrats take full control of Congress. Ending limited liability, if that’s what the final proposal really does, is a big deal and Wall Street can afford lots of lawyers and lobbyists to say so.

For me this debate flared up at an opportune moment. I’ve just finished Bryan Burrough and John Helyar’s Barbarians At The Gate, their 1989 fly-on-the-wall account of the bloody battle between Ross Johnson and Henry Kravis’s KKR to take over the enormous biscuit and tobacco company RJR Nabisco. It’s one of the foundational texts of business journalism and was a source of increasing embarrassment that I hadn’t read it. The “Barbarians” line is attributed to Ted Forstmann, a rival financier who loudly denounced KKR’s use of junk bonds to finance its mega-deals.

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What lifts the book to the status of a “Classic Business Thriller” advertised on the dust jacket is the contemporaneous level of detail illustrating the interplay between rival suitors for RJR and their pumped-up Wall Street advisors, moved by ego as much as financial self-interest.

Barbarians At The Gate is journalism, it doesn’t dwell on doctrine, but it’s striking how little the debate about private equity has moved on in three decades. Burrough and Helyar wrote then, “Everyone knew LBOs meant deep cuts in research and every other imaginable budget, all sacrificed to pay off debt. Proponents insisted that companies forced to meet steep debt payments grew lean and mean…Critics of this procedure called it stealing the company from its owners and fretted that the growing mountain of corporate debt was hindering America’s ability to compete abroad.”

* I feel obliged to note the conceptually separate controversy that arises when ABC Partners, whose executives also control the decisions of Alphabet LLP, pay themselves handsomely in management fees or dividends before Alphabet concedes it can’t repay creditors after all.

The Undoing Project

Unusually for me, I’ve read a just-published hardback (props to the friend who pilfered me an unwanted copy from his magazine’s literary department).

It’s Michael Lewis’s latest about the remarkable friendship of psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, The Undoing Project. The two Israelis — each eccentric and brilliant in their own way — discovered or seeded much of what is now known as behavioural economics, the family of claims whose central insight is that we are less rational than we think. Kahneman and Tversky discovered that heuristics, the rules of thumb with which we make decisions under conditions of uncertainty, often lead us astray. If this sounds familiar, that’s because these two and their progenies made it so.


It’s almost three decades since Lewis wrote Liar’s Poker and he remains the greatest living writer of narrative non-fiction. The Undoing Project is impressive because academia is a rather more doubtful milieu from which to spin a rollicking bestseller than sports (Moneyball) or the financial crisis (The Big Short). Lewis didn’t write this one for the film rights.

That said, this is a classic Lewis book delivered in lucid, biting prose. It identifies the misfits, draws the dividing line between them and the retrogrades and tells amateurs like us why it matters.

Aside from its being a concise and authoritative guide to behavioural science, there is a gently recurring irony which makes the book a pleasure to read. Kahneman and Tversky detailed holes in human judgement wide enough to drive a bus through, but their own personal relationship was hobbled by serious character flaws. An initial closeness in Israel — they flipped a coin to decide whose name would appear first on published research, it being impossible to distinguish their respective contributions — weakened as their careers in North America diverged. Tversky’s personal success, stemming from his enormous charisma, made the shy Kahneman envious and — being acutely aware of human feelings, not least his own — deeply unsettled. Tversky repeatedly failed to recognise and act on the obvious tension.

Tversky died young in 1996 and so didn’t live to share his partner’s 2002 Nobel Prize or co-author his 2011 book Thinking, Fast and Slow, which synthesised much of the pair’s workLewis of course was only able to give Tversky a voice through contemporary writings and the recollection of others, a sad fact that limits his story to a “recommended” rather than “must-read”.

The Power Broker

Robert Caro is the author of the wonderful Lyndon B Johnson biographies, of which there is one more instalment to come.

The Power Broker – a Pulitzer winner – came first. Its subject is Robert Moses and the story is relentlessly one of the awe-inspiring, and terrifying exercise of bureaucratic power. Moses became the most powerful – and for a while the most popular – figure in New York state despite never achieving elected office.

Screen Shot 2015-05-02 at 01.06.54Unsurprisingly the parallels between Moses and Caro’s subsequent study, LBJ, emerge frequently. Both possessed huge intellects, knowledge of the law – which they used to selectively break it – and a willingness to employ huge sums of money in their cause. (Unlike Moses, LBJ also had charm, good fortune and none of Moses’ conceited sense of noblesse oblige).

In 1934, Caro writes, Moses featured in New York papers more than J Edgar Hoover, the sensational mobster-busting FBI chief. He was the subject of 29 flattering New York Times editorials and hundreds of articles that year.

In those years Moses was a genuine reformer with a shrewd understanding of how to, well, broker power. Gradually that skill would become all-consuming. It took too long for newspapers to realise that the man they had built up was busily tearing New York City apart.

And it took too long to put the brakes on his perverse vision of urban development, which accounts for a fair chunk of New York City’s problems to this day. Through his public authorities Moses accumulated all the power of high elected office, including the power to evict tenants and raze whole neighbourhoods to the ground to make way for ugly highways, with little accountability.

Those public authorities, quasi-state entities, were initially granted by elected lawmakers as efficient means to get infrastructure built. Moses turned them into his own multi-billion dollar empires – all the while projecting an image as a frugal public servant. The special status provided by U.S. law to bondholders’ rights left those authorities, and Moses, immune to outside pressure for decades.

I’d recommend the book – at over 1,000 pages, it’s a summer project – to those interested in cities or power or both.

Michael Ignatieff: Fire and Ashes

Don’t be naive about politics, Michael Ignatieff writes, but don’t be cynical either.

Thus the Canadian academic-turned-politician-turned academic closes Fire and Ashesa riveting account of the six years Ignatieff spent in the bull pit of Canada’s ruthless democracy.

Ignatieff, an acclaimed Harvard teacher and writer with political pedigree, was tempted back to Canada in 2005 by political operatives who, in an inspired but questionable judgement, believed Ignatieff could renew Canada’s tired Liberal Party.

Instead, after winning the party leadership four years later, he led the Liberals, who governed Canada for the best part of the twentieth century, into third-party status following their worst ever defeat in 2011. He lost his seat and returned to academia shortly afterwards.

The genius of Fire and Ashes lies in the profile of its author. As both a political actor and spectator, Ignatieff wrote the short book – barely 200 pages – which combines a insider’s frank re-telling of those years with the insights of a political theorist.

The best chapter is ‘Standing’ in which Ignatieff explains how he was ‘swift-boated’ by the ruthless and well-funded opposition. Having spent most of his adult life outside Canada, attack advertisements from Stephen Harper’s Conservatives characterised Ignatieff as an out-of-touch elitist who was ‘just visiting‘.

Ignatieff says that the ads denied him ‘standing’ in the eyes of Canadians. “Once you’ve denied people’s standing, you no longer have to rebut what they say,” he writes. “You only have to tarnish who they are.” The Conservatives were able to execute that feat months before the general election campaign, thus alienating voters from the party before they’d even considered its platform.

The ‘swift boat’ reference derives, of course, from the infamous advertisements, funded by the shady ‘Swift Boat Veterans for Truth‘ 527 group, that helped sink John Kerry’s presidential campaign in 2004. Ignatieff appreciates why the attacks reduced Kerry to silence, he says, but it hurt him greatly as a result. “If you don’t defend yourself, people conclude either that you are guilty as charged or that you are too weak to stand and fight….This is how you lose standing with voters.”

In the spring of the 2008 campaign, by contrast, Barack Obama succeeded in turning his own campaign crisis, the Reverend Wright controversy, into a “teachable moment”. In his ‘A More Perfect Union‘ speech, Obama addressed the controversy and then pivoted, skilfully, into a discussion of race, that most anguished seam in the American story. “In doing so, he gave himself the standing to lead the American discussion on race and, in the process, gave himself the standing to become the president.”

Kerry failed to seize the Vietnam issue; but Ignatieff failed too, fighting in his speeches “for a generous, cosmopolitan ideas of citizenship against provincial small-mindedness”. A shortage of party funds and a media thrilled by the ‘just visiting’ narrative prevented the counter-attack cutting through. In that context the warning contained in the final chapter – “Don’t make the mistake of supposing you control your fate. That’s called hubris.” – makes sense. The book doesn’t shy away from the abstract or the cliched, but it roots them in an experience lived from the inside.

Another thought gleaned from that experience is a sort of revulsion or embarassment at the Canadian House of Commons functioned. In a critique that will be familiar to PMQ-watchers in the U.K., Ignatieff says that “Nothing lowers a citizen’s estimate of democracy more than the sight of two politicians hurling abuse at each other.” It risks undermining “one of democracy’s crucial functions: to keep adversaries from becoming enemies.”

It seems to me that Ignatieff over-estimates the degree to which partisanship corrodes democratic values and institutions. In fact I’m rather of Jed Bartlet‘s view: partisan politics stops electorates from becoming flaccid and disengaged.

And a final passage that I’ll include without much comment. It recounts an interview Ignatieff gave in which he controversially answered his interlocutor in the affirmative when asked if Quebec was a nation.

Suffice to say that the parallels between the place of Quebec, which narrowly rejected separation in 1995, in Canada and that of Scotland in the United Kingdom shouldn’t be difficult to see.

We were not a country founded on e pluribus unum – out of many, one – but instead a complex quilt of overlapping identities. We had created a country in which you could be Quebecker and Canadian in whatever order you chose. What I rejected about separatism was not the pride in nationhood but the insistence on a state, the belief that Quebeckers must make an existential choice between Quebec and Canada….It was a kind of moral tyranny on the part of separatists to force them to choose between parts of their own selves. After much travail, I said, we had understood that countries must be built on freedom of belonging. From this followed our system of federalism. We could not centralize power in this country, I said, because we could not centralize identity.

Roy Jenkins

I’ve just finished Roy Jenkins: A Well-Rounded Life. It’s a hefty tome but an easy read, provided you find the intricacies of post-war politics and Establishment culture interesting.

For a figure whose career stretched comfortably into the Blair years the most striking thought I am left with is how dated the era feels. The leisurely claret-sodden lunches, even at the height of Jenkins’ ministerial career; the litany of affairs accepted, without comment, by an obliging press; and Jenkins’ stark defence of elitism and Establishment values within a left-liberal movement that, today at least, is ostensibly hostile to them.

(In fact it sat uncomfortably with many of his contemporaries too; Jenkins’ soft left politics combined with the ‘aristocratic embrace’ in his social life led to accusations of ‘MacDonaldism’ throughout his career*)

Are we better off, today, with fewer libertines in public life? I doubt it.

For a theme that John Campbell, the author, is keen to remind the reader of is Jenkins’ remarkable capacity for work. Jenkins once remarked of “Churchill’s extraordinary combination of an almost puritan work ethic with a great capacity for pleasure.”**

The insight that Jenkins, who wrote 22 books, makes vis-a-vis Churchill, his last major biographical subject, rings with some truth. ‘Work hard, play hard’ is a sound mantra not simply because a varied life has value, but because a serious commitment to each vocation enhances the something-ness of both.

I also enjoyed the chapters detailing the story of the SDP, which succeeded in briefly capturing the progressive imagination but also split the left in the 1980s. To avoid splitting the right, ushering in a generation of left-wing governments, UKIP sympathisers might do well to read up.

Though conflicts over tactics and personality only emerged later, the SDP, I learned, was divided on a fundamental question of strategy from the beginning.

On the one hand it could seek to usurp and replace the hard left Labour party. On the other – and this was the sort of movement Jenkins favoured – it could position itself as a progressive centre party, drawing support from across the political spectrum and cooperating closely, potentially to the point of amalgamation, with the resurgent Liberals under David Steel. In the end it succeeded in doing neither.

Campbell suggests that the Falklands conflict drew momentum away from the SDP in the crucial months leading up to the 1983 election. In fact there’s a good case to be made that political folklore is mistaken in identifying the Falklands as the decisive factor in 1983. In any case Britain’s FPTP electoral system prevented the SDP-Liberal Alliance from making the breakthrough that, given the share of the popular vote received, it deserved.

The most interesting question of all in this vein centres on whether the SDP ushered in, or delayed, New Labour. Certainly Blair’s politics were close to those of Jenkins, though the latter lived out his final years increasingly frustrated that Blair had failed to ‘make the political weather’ on electoral system reform and the common European currency. My view, for what it’s worth, is that New Labour’s rise can be traced to the SDP moment – but only through the oblique, destructive method of helping keep ‘old’ Labour out of office for so long.

*   Campbell, Roy Jenkins: A Well-Rounded Life, 116
** Guildhall lecture, quoted in The Independent, 16.11.01. Cited by Campbell, Roy Jenkins: A Well-Rounded Life, 729.

Nick Robinson: Live From Downing Street

I’ve just finished Live From Downing Streeta political history-cum-biography, with a fat dollop of polemical musing, from BBC Political Editor Nick Robinson.

What to make of it?

In short: a Very Good Book, but mis-sold. This is emphatically not the ‘inside story’ that we are promised on the front cover; it is an astute, well-informed and colourful history of the British media-political nexus. The black and white years certainly merit all the pages Robinson devotes to them. How fascinating indeed, to discover the contempt with which Churchill held Reith, the founding Director General of the BBC, and vice versa.And who’d have known that today’s Beeb was, until staggering recently, a mere plaything of the Establishment and the incumbent government? Until the late 50s laws preventing debate of anything occurring in Parliament that week or the next remained on the statue. Having made his career in a media world unencumbered by any such restriction, Robinson is best-placed to describe the tedium, dullness and impotence of the broadcasters, which he does succinctly. It took the charisma and insolence of one man, Robin Day, a former barrister on the newly launched Independent Television News, to change that. And change it he did: the abrasive character of television and radio journalists today such as Paxman, Crick and Humphrys  is born out of his legacy.

Robinson’s account is generously embellished by anecdotes. The personal ones are cute and original. Recounting his first interview with Blair, Robinson was mischievously introduced by Alastair Campbell – spin doctor extraordinaire – as “the chairman of the Young Conservatives”. ‘Having anticipated such a welcome’ he recalls, ‘I had a response ready. “Prime Minister,” I said, “at the time of my life when I was involved in politics you had long hair and were playing the guitar with the Ugly Rumours.” Blair reacted instantly. “Yes, Nick, but I wish I still was.”

However some of the anecdotes that pre-date his career will, to those familiar with the political history of the period, come across as tired. Describing Atlee’s quiet and unassuming demeanor he refers to a famous Churchill quip – “one day an empty taxi drew up and Mr Attlee got out” – which is fine, perfectly adequate, but political junkies sort of expect more from the ‘inside account’ which they shelled £20 out for.

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The problem is that Robinson’s job makes him the ‘most important person in British political journalism.’ I know this because he says so. Ok, no, he doesn’t really- he quotes one of the US President’s advisors. Which President? Which advisor? I don’t know, I’ve just spent the last ten minutes thumbing through 413 pages trying to find that one excerpt. Needle in a haystack indeed.

Anyway the point is that Robinson’s ginormous influence, that is, his network of contacts, will evaporate away – hell, no, spontaneously combust (!) – if he tittle tattles on them all. The time for that will come, post-retirement, but it’s not yet.

Consequently Robinson pulls surprisingly few punches, surprisingly few for a character self-described as “northern, arsey and confrontational”. [For the record Robinson grew up down the round from me in a leafy Cheshire suburb] There is an unsubtle dig at Sky News: ‘other [channels] repeat it without needing to bother to establish the facts for themselves (which is what happens when the giveaway words ‘media sources’ appear at the foot of the screen on Sky News a minute after the story breaks on the BBC).’ More forcefully, in his narrative of the BBC-government war following the alleged ‘dodgy dossier’ on Iraq/WMDs, Robinson singles out Andrew Gilligan, then reporting for Radio 4’s Today, as a bandit.

What we are left with ultimately is a political history told by someone exceedingly well qualified to tell it, albeit more because of the author’s insightfulness and command of the facts, rather than his willingness to disclose much that couldn’t be deduced – or guessed at – anyway. If Robinson had written this book on the eve of retirement, rather than the peak of his career, he might have been more forthcoming: a second edition of Live From Downing Street circa-2020 would therefore be welcome.

Mafia State?

From periodically peering into Russian affairs through the British press one could be forgiven for understanding Putin’s Russia as a ‘police state’.

That’s inaccurate, says Luke Harding in Mafia State. It’s a crime state. 

Luke Harding is The Guardian‘s senior international correspondent. He’s recently been hopping in and out of Assad’s anarchic Syria, but made his name as its Russia correspondent between 2007 and 2011. Famously, after peeving the Kremlin a bit too much he became the first Western correspondent since the Cold War to be expelled from Russia. Frustrated, irritated and exacerbated he did the only thing he could do – tell everyone about it.

Harding gives the FSB – the Russian Federation’s successor to the Soviet Union’s KGB – a tough rap. It is a law unto itself. Its agents – some 200,000 strong by Harding’s reckoning – are immune from any sort of prosecution. They are the clients of multiple powerful interests, of which the Kremlin is just one. Scary stuff.

Earlier last month Harding visited Oxford to talk to the Oxford Media Society, which I help out with. A few of us were lucky enough to have dinner with him beforehand. (Disclosure: Luke insisted on paying for all our meals at Quod – so I was already a big fan of the guy) He then gave a humorous and spirited talk that was nonetheless intensely serious in character.

Some of the FSB stunts Harding fell victim to do seem “fairly innocuous”, he explained. But really they’re not. A pornographic sex manual was left on the bedside table in the marital bedroom; a page on achieving orgasm had been bookmarked. Hilarious, if spooky.

Less funny: Harding returned to his 10th floor flat one day to find a large window, that had been double-locked when he left, swung wide open above the courtyard far below. That window was by his young son’s bed – the unambiguous message: an accident might just happen. Similarly, having since moved to a suburban dacha, the family returned home one winter’s day to find their boiler had been inexplicably disconnected. In -20 degrees Celsius, that is no laughing matter.

Mafia State is less than 300 pages. But in that space it successfully marries a chilling – if charming – personal account with an angry inditement of the monolithic kleptocracy that Putin has fashioned.

I enjoyed the book for three reasons. First, it’s a good book: as the New Statesman and LRB attest. Second, I liked the author. The passion with which the book has been written was conveyed all the more forcefully to me having learnt what Harding was about. And third, I’m overwhelmingly sympathetic to his conclusions. I’ve heard a lot from professional Russia-watchers who, whilst knowing their subject much better than I do, seem to quick too equivocate and explain, even justify, the Russian system. ‘Russia has never known democracy’ they say, ‘autocracy is in its DNA’.

[It’s a fair point. Russia’s brief flirtation with democratic institutions and an open economy in the 1990s ended in disaster. Putin brought stability and a degree of shared prosperity to the country; his clique of KGB strongmen seemingly delivered what democracy could not. If there’s one important omission in Harding’s book then this is it: how does he answer the claim that Putin’s authority derives from the recovery from those turbulent years?]

But Harding doesn’t equivocate, he doesn’t empathise and he doesn’t attribute any noble purpose to the Russian regime. Putin and his clan are in it, chiefly, for their own profit. The WikiLeaks cables indicate that Putin has personally accumulated billions in assets; the burgeoning bureaucracy of the Russian state has similarly enriched itself. Putin has established authority through channeling oil&gas revenues into social projects, all the while creaming off most of the profit for the plethora of powerful interests that keeps the whole show on the road.

And in any case Harding reckons that that authority is crumbling. The condescension with which Putin treated the Russian people in the casual May job-switch with Medvedev, returning to the Kremlin after 4 years basically running it from the White House, was obvious for all to see. It has sparked the first set of mass anti-Putin protests since 2000. Increasingly the smart money is on Putin being ejected from the Kremlin in some way before his two-terms expire in 2024. I wouldn’t bet on it.

Book Review: Dancing on the Frontier

This is a review of a travel book, reproduced from Cherwell, written by my friend Nico Hobhouse about his year-long journey in China. 



Devising a travel novel that people actually want to read is tough. It’s clearly necessary to communicate the great and the good; the bad and the ugly, sure. However a discourse that is solely descriptive, even in beautiful prose, can get tedious. ‘What I did on my holidays’ is nice enough for an article, but downright dull for a book. Nico Hobhouse, a second-year Classicist at Trinity, is therefore wise in his attempt to marry colourful description with spirited polemic in his self-published book Dancing on the Frontier: Travels by Land through China and Tibet.

Dullness is absolutely not Hobhouse’s problem. Some randy passages hit you like a bus, especially since they come from nowhere. Fresh from describing a Buddhist monastery in Tibet, Chapter 11 takes a sudden and inexplicably lewd turn: “Down one narrow alley I spotted two donkeys rutting. The female seemed less eager and pulled away. The male trotted after her, his member still primed to go…The poor jenny was having a rough day.” These entertaining but stand-alone remarks are far from atypical. More than once the reader is thrown off the scent of what he thinks is an emerging theme by a slightly wacky observation.

The paragraphs are short and fairly punchy; it is an easy read (mostly: I confess to having to look up ‘somnolent’) though the images Hobhouse evokes are nonetheless vivid and varied. However the overall effect is diminished by numerous typos and an episodic structure that leaves the passages disjointed. And once in a while the language is a bit clumsy: in one instance he suggests that the ‘lack of [political] openess in China…is as alive as ever.’ Can an absense of something be alive? Probably not. It’s one of the areas in which self-publishing – otherwise a fantastic blessing for first-time authors – falls down.

The typical passage – which provides an original story followed by a fascinating insight – works well. There is a well-scripted section about his experience of the visceral antipathy felt by otherwise sophisticated Chinese urbanites against the Japanese. Staying in Nanjing, the sight of a brutal massacre at the hands of Imperial Japan in 1937, Hobhouse movingly describes the sensation of Western guilt as “more powerful that disgust at what I saw. I felt ashamed that I had not known about the incident before I had come to China. The scale and horror of the massacre were comparable to the Holocaust and yet I had never really cared back home in England.”

Occasionally though the formula breaks down; the weakest parts of the book generally crop up when it does. Anecdotal, albeit unusual, tit bits are used to draw predictable and not especially profound conclusions: “I saw two toads copulating – a reminder that early spring was approaching – and reflected that nature was losing out in a big way to China’s urbanisation.” Ew. Is this really what Hobhouse, observing the amphibian fornication, thought at the time? Or is he indulging in a bit of post hoc analysis that matches up his travelling experiences to the well-established assertions commonly bandied about in The Economist?

By contrast the strongest sections occur when he is more modest in his ambition. Sharing a minibus, with an elderly monk, trundling through Tibet Hobhouse recounts the monk’s contradictory behaviour. “The senior of the two took out some prayer beads…[A]fter chanting for a long time he took a few swigs from his bottle of water. When he had finished, to my astonishment, he casually tossed the empty bottle out of the window. He had a fake Tissot wristwatch…and a mobile phone on which he took my photo.” The reader does not need to be explicitly told what Hobhouse is implying: that the monk’s contradictions betray a disconcerting truth about modern China. The effect is immensely satisfying.

One final groan: Hobhouse clearly takes his liberalism seriously. From Bautou to Beijing, Shanghai to Lhasa, he strikes up an argument about the virtues of Western democracy vs. authoritarian capitalism with just about every poor chap he meets. Each time he presents the dispute fairly crudely, though given the fact that he had to conduct these Socratic dialogues in Mandarin we can forgive him for that. The issue is rather that when it comes to the book he keeps banging on about it without saying anything new each time. Travelling alone, off the beaten track, meeting bucolic village folk who had perhaps never spoken to a white man before, Hobhouse’s account really should have been stronger in explaining how China understands itself, as well as the world it will shortly dominate.

Yet the final result is really quite impressive. Hobhouse has taken a year of his life that is tough to characterise in any one definitive way, and has turned it into a thoroughly readable, thoughtful and playful journal. Were he to write a second travel book, as I am told he is planning to, I suspect he would avoid most of the mistakes made in Dancing on the Frontier. Through it Hobhouse has nonetheless cultivated an authentic tone and an inquiring style that will serve him well into the future.

‘Dancing on the Frontier’ is published by Xlibris. A paper copy can be purchased through Amazon or alternatively as an eBook through W.H.Smith

Book Review: ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’ by Richard Aldous

The book has been out a few years now, but I read it fairly leisurely over the summer and thought it would lend itself to a novice-like review. I’m keen to get a knack for book reviewing but this is my first ever proper attempt.Image

‘It is surprising that there has been no earlier attempt to write a book on their relationship’, opens Richard Aldous in his biographical account of Gladstone and Disraeli, the Liberal and Conservatives giants who carved up a fat chunk of the nineteenth century between them. He’s totally correct. Westminster politics is nothing if it isn’t bitterly antagonistic. Aldous tells a story about the two men that makes the Blair-Brown rivalry seem like a childish fall-out in the sandpit.

The Lion and the Unicorn is more historical drama than political biography. It stresses, above all, their mutual loathing. Later in life Disraeli would call Gladstone the ‘A.V. [Arch Villain]’, Gladstone affectionately termed Disraeli the ‘Grand Corrupter’. They shared all of the characteristics that made them adversaries, and none that made them allies: a celebrity status, an eloquence rivalled only by the other and an attitude to principles coined best by Groucho Marx – ‘if you don’t like them, I have others!’

Aldous maintains a vivid and energetic narrative style. Each passage, 3 to 4 pages each, is episodic and the passages together are loosely chronological. It’s a style that works with the tone, pace and attention-grabbing situ-dramas that unfold from page to page (this can get irritating, but only if the book is read in one or two sittings without interlude). Even a nineteenth-century novice will have their imagination caught by Aldous’ powerful and witty account. The message of the book is imprinted firmly on the reader’s consciousness: politics is personal, and ugly, and thrilling.

This is not at the expense of scholarship however. It is difficult, though not impossible, to find assertions not adequately substantiated. Aldous has immersed himself in diaries, speeches and contemporary journals. Famously Disraeli was an accomplished novelist; the apocryphal line ‘When I want to read a good book, I write one’ is often attributed to him. It turns out that Gladstone, dismissive of Disraeli’s literary ‘dalliances’ had read every one of his works. “The first quarter clever, the rest trash” is how Gladstone judged Vivian Grey, Disraeli’s first novel. Yet it didn’t stop him reading the others.

Occasionally one feels that Aldous has not scratched far below the service. Concluding a chapter on Disraeli’s first yearin Parliament, he writes scathingly: ‘Disraeli had lived his whole life under the influence of [Lord] Byron. Now…he was dismissed by society as a sensationalist without either temperament or prospects. He was, at best, an amusement, or, at worst, an ostentatious Jewish upstart’. This rough and ready torpedoing of Disraeli’s nascent political character is probably unfair; Aldous’ characterisation seems just a little too close to that of the eponymous hero in Vivian Grey. Boris Johnson, the London Mayor probably better suited to Disraeli’s generation than his own, had always been derided as similarly louche – until he became the country’s favourite Tory.

To the extent that the two have a popular reputation today, it is Disraeli as the eccentric and Gladstone as the statesman. By delving into the personal Aldous turns that on its head completely. He spends a lot of time – too much, you think at first, until you to realise the full extent and persistence of the problem – talking about Gladstone’s sex life. His diaries recount “vigorous” masturbation, “which returns upon me again & again like a flood”. Later he became infatuated with prostitutes, visiting ’80 to 90’ of them between 1849 and 1852 under the guise of ‘rescue work’. Without any bite of his own, Aldous presented Gladstone as a rank hypocrite, preaching stern Christian virtue by day and prowling Soho by night.

Disraeli by contrast, though famed in his youth for affairs with older women, had found true love. The reader takes great pleasure in their relationship. After the first reading of the 1867 Reform Bill, Disraeli had routed Gladstone in the Commons debate. Already late in the evening, he declined the deluge of invitations from Tory grandees in favour of returning home to Mary Ann, the widow he’d married three decades previously. By now over 70, she waited up into the early hours for ‘Dizzy’ with a bottle of champagne and a Fortnum and Mason’s pie. “Well my dear” Disraeli remarked, “you are more like a mistress than a wife”.  Aldous is good for those anecdotal nuggets. They embellish his tale, rooting political history’s great happenings in genuine humanity.

Aldous is not obviously sympathetic toward to the one or the other, but in this work I noticed that Gladstone was flattered by one big omission: his 1862 Newcastle speech for instance, in which the then-Liberal Chancellor endorsed the Confederate States of America.

The book has much to recommend it, if you’re the right reader. To those interested in the art of politics, be aware: it is more entertaining than instructive. To those looking for another angle on Victorian Britain, it’s probably best to head elsewhere – Aldous either dispenses with the relevant details or tries to interpret too much through Gladstone and Disraeli’s battles. With those qualifications any student and advocate of Conservatism will have a thoroughly pleasant weekend leafing through The Lion and the Unicorn; no comparable study currently on the market is so crackling with political drama.