Friday, January 26, 2018

The Life of Spies

  Book Review

 by Daphne Liddle

The Pigeon Tunnel by John le Carré. 342pp. ISBN 978-0-241-97689-0

First published by Viking 2016; Published by Penguin 2017 at £8.99

THIS BOOK marks John le Carré’s, the well-known writer of spy thrillers, first venture into non-fiction. It is not so much an autobiography as a rich collection of autobiographical anecdotes and is mostly about the people he has met and spoken in his career as a writer researching characters for his books, and later the film directors and stars who brought his creations to the cinema and television series. His real name is David Cornwell.
We get personal encounters with Yasser Arafat, Palestinian freedom fighters, Andrei Sakharov, Richard Burton, Alec Guinness and many others. We learn about Oleg Penkovsky’s interesting medical condition and about how in 1951 West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer’s chief of security managed to pass a law ensuring that civil servants from the Nazi era were recompensed with pay, back pay, pension rights and promotions that they would have had if the Second World War had not taken place or if Germany had won it. The result was that “The old Nazi guard clung to the plum jobs. A younger, less tarnished generation was consigned to life below stairs.”
Le Carré’s diligent researches led him to create well rounded, three-dimensional characters in contrast with the shallow sex-and-violence-obsessed creations of some other spy thrillers. But he went out ‘into the field’ to do his research with characters already in mind and saw the people he met through the prisms of those characters – not totally open mindedly.
It is only at the end of the book that we get an insight into his childhood and relationship with his father – a well-heeled wheeler dealer and con-man who served more than one sentence for fraud – a gambler who could charm money out of people who would still say what a wonderful bloke he was after they had been robbed, but who would leave his family desperately trying to fend off creditors.
Le Carré claims it was his father who first taught him how to lie well – how to charm strangers into parting with money and state secrets – a transferable skill vital to spies and writers of fiction alike. Le Carré claims that his own experience as a spy was superficial dabbling of no significance.
He has a jaundiced but affectionate view of the espionage community both East and West, and makes it clear that the skills and culture of spies are not those of model citizens. That world has undergone huge changes since the revelations of Wikileaks through Chelsea Manning and those of Edward Snowden, leaving the plots of Le Carré and other spy thriller writers looking a lot less astounding and dramatic than real life.
Now in his mid-80s, Le Carré warns that his memories may not be perfect and the book is mostly about the people he has met rather than himself, but we do catch a mirror image of an amiable, confident, well-off world traveller who is still very careful not to say too much.
The title The Pigeon Tunnel is taken from a facility provided by a sports club next to the main casino in Monté Carlo: a stretch of lawn and a shooting range looking out to sea. Under the lawn were two wide tunnels connected to a pigeon loft. Pigeons were put into the tunnels to stumble and flutter their way to the light at the end of the tunnels where they would emerge over the Mediterranean sky as sporting gentlemen were ready to blast them with shot guns.
Surviving pigeons would return to the top of the casino and their place of birth, where they would be trapped to send on the same perilous journey again – because being homing pigeons they did not know what else to do. Le Carré likens this to the culture of spies.


TV Review

by Brent Cutler

McMafia (2018), BBC1 and BBC iPlayer.
James Watkins. Starring: James Norton, David Strathairn, Juliet Rylance

An eight-part BBC Television drama appears to have captivated viewers and satisfied critics for the last few weeks. It seems to be part of a new tradition in BBC dramas in recent years that at least attempt to show some insight into how the world is run.
The story centres around the Godmans, a family of Jewish Russian émigrés; the key player in the family is Alex Godman, played by James Norton (Happy Valley, War and Peace, Life in Squares and Grantchester). A key feature of the drama is Godman’s desire on one hand to protect his business and luxury lifestyle whilst on the other not being completely sucked into a criminal underworld, which appears to dominate much of the world economy. I almost laughed out loud when Godman’s wife, played by Juliet Rylance, hosts a dinner promoting ethical capitalism. I expect tickets for such an event would cost considerably more than an evening at your local curry house.
The drama obviously has its villains – one of whom is Semiyon Kleiman, played by David Strathairn, an Israeli politician and crook. As a result, the drama, has already led to criticism from the pro-Zionist UK Lawyers for Israel group. It’s good to see those who lock up 16-year-old girls taking the moral high ground. The role of Kleiman is to explain to Godman, and more to the point the viewers, some of the workings of the world economy. In an early episode he poses the question: “Why is Burger King more successful than McDonalds?” He answers the question by simply replying “because there are more of them.”    
The drama spans at least three continents; with elements of the story in London, Eastern Europe, Israel, India and North America. Such a story requires quality directing – essentially the ability to keep viewers’ interest whilst at the same time enabling them to keep pace with a complex plot.
 Credit must therefore go to the programme’s director and co-writer James Watkins. McMafia is able to capture the technical intricacies of computer hacking as well as the sheer horror of human trafficking.
The drama shows an essentially corrupt world in which some individuals may, because of specific skills, come off better than others. I refer to a scene where an Indian computer hacker is reunited with his family after successfully carrying out some work for a local Mr Big. This contrasts with the young Russian woman forced into prostitution after being tricked into travelling to Egypt to work as a beautician.
With much of the drama in Eastern Europe it arguably vindicates those of us who pointed out that the counter-revolutions in those countries might not be such a good thing.  Instead of resulting in some kind of democratic Utopia they have simply led to a corrupt sewer of gangster capitalism. If you haven’t started watching the drama it is well worth taking advantage of the latest technology and catching up on iPlayer; and if you have it is well worth seeing the drama through to its conclusion.  

Friday, January 19, 2018

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

Film Review

By Brent Cutler

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2007). PG-13; 119 minutes.
Director: Jake Kasdan, Writers: Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers. Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Karen Gillan, Kevin Hart.

Essentially a US teen movie, set in what is commonly referred to as Middle America. The film explores issues of modern society such as over-dependence on mobile phones as well as the role of computer games. It also goes into the possibility of individuals changing personal characteristics and even taking on different personas.
At the start of the film the heroes, doing community service for breaching High School rules, become trapped in a computer game. The theme of the story is to get out of the game, Jumanji, and to do this they must succeed at all levels of the game and complete the quest.
The question I asked myself was whether elements of the film expressed America’s view of the world as a Game. Part of the game is set in a jungle – perhaps reference to Africa.  More poignantly there is a scene set in a bazaar that resembles a Middle Eastern city, Baghdad perhaps. The villains are mindless automatons, with their faces covered, a possible reference to Middle Eastern insurgents. This could be said to show how the USA views the outside world; essentially as an exotic game in some kind of separate dimension.
The idea of viewing the world as a Game is not as ridiculous as it sounds. In the 1950s at the height of the Cold War the US mathematician, John Nash, developed the concept of Game Theory. Game Theory, based around the idea of the zero-sum game, was used as a guide to US foreign policy for a number of years. Perhaps now it has descended into popular culture.
The film contains elements of Indiana Jones and Harry Potter , as well as aspects of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Some of the scenes resemble those from earlier films; for instance, the heroes are chased by stampeding rhinos, this very much resembles the 2005 adaptation of King Kong, also starring Jack Black, which features stampeding Brontosauruses.
Although essentially a teen film, it can be enjoyed by films lovers of all ages. As someone who has been watching films or going to the cinema for some years, I can remember when the only items on sale in the foyer were bags of sweets and, obviously, popcorn. I was about to say in my day, you went the cinema and then followed it by a visit to a nearby restaurant or pub. Now I notice film-goers entering the auditorium carrying what appears to be their dinner.