Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Book Review: The Oxford Gambit (1980) by Joseph Hone

After reading and reviewing Joseph Hone's first spy novel, The Private Sector, I resisted the urge to dive into another of his books. He's only written a handful of novels and I didn't want to use up the limited supply in a matter of weeks. I failed. I simply couldn't help myself; his writing is so good, in so many ways, I just had to try another to see if he was more than a one-novel wonder. No worries; The Oxford Gambit is also in the stratosphere of espionage fiction.

This time out, Peter Marlow, the hero (if that's the right word) of The Private Sector is brought out of retirement to investigate the mysterious disappearance of Lindsay Phillips, one of MI6's top-ranking officers. It's not clear if Phillips was abducted or defected, and there are some within MI6 who don't want Phillips found at all. Marlow is a friend of the Phillips family, and for a time was romantically involved with Lindsays' daughter. Marlow's investigation takes him across Europe, and each stop on the journey reveals as much about Lindsay and his family as it does the reason for his disappearance.

As with Sector, Hone uses the spy genre as a framework for a more ambitious goal; in this case, a meditation on the impossibility of knowing everything, or anything deeply meaningful, about an individual's character and beliefs. In Hone's view, no matter whether a relationship is based in politics, faith or love, nothing a person says or does in front of a loved one or an ally or even an enemy is ever fully representative of what that person truly feels or believes. A relationship, like espionage, is a game of bluffs, ruses and, sometimes, cruel betrayals. Hone doesn't forget to incorporate the traditional elements of spy fiction--danger, violence, intrigue--but his emphasis is very clearly on how human relationships can mirror the twists and turns and horrors of the cloak and dagger world.

Another brilliant aspect of the novel is it's look at how the political and moral choices made by people before and during the Second World War have cast long and deadly shadows. The story is set in the mid-1970s, but for the main characters events of forty years ago are still dictating their actions, and, for some, secrets kept too long can be as deadly as bullets. Hone's twin themes of the mystery at the heart of the individual and the terrible and difficult choices made by people during Europe's descent into war, come to a head in the climax of the story in a way that makes this possibly the saddest, most haunting novel about spying that's ever been written. And in the character of Lindsay Phillips Hone creates a brilliant symbol of the duality of the individual, and especially of those caught up in the spy business. Lindsay is, to all outward appearances, the exemplar of all the characteristics and virtues of the English gentleman. His truth is far more complex. And his relationship with his daughter, which might be called platonically incestuous, ends up as a symbol of the dashed dreams of those who believe in an idealized England.

So why is Hone almost forgotten these days? I think part of the reason is that the spy genre has fallen on hard times. Since the removal of the Iron Curtain, novels about the bloody chess match between the intelligence agencies of the East and West have been largely replaced by straight up thrillers about terrorists, which is a change it's hard to argue against based on current events. A more particular reason for Hone's obscurity is that he strays too far into literary fiction. His novels are fully satisfying as espionage stories, but for readers who are familiar with the work of Le Carre, Ambler, Deighton and Julian Rathbone, Hone's elegant, exact prose and fascination with the human heart might seem daunting or distracting. So now that I've exhausted the library's supply of Hones, expect to see me haunting the spy section of your local used book store.

Monday, May 27, 2013

A Man of the (Wrong) People

One of these things is very much like the other.
As I write this, Toronto mayor Rob Ford and his administration are doing their best impression of the Hindenburg's final moments in New Jersey. Staff members are lined up at the printer to grab copies of their resignation letters, while Ford hires unqualified football buddies to take their place. All that's missing from this scenario is a bunker and a girlfriend named Eva. If you're not from Toronto, Ford and his brother Doug are nose-deep in allegations that they have used and sold drugs. This is just the latest in an epic series of scandals, blunders and gaffes that Ford has embarrassed North America's fourth-largest city with.

But what might be the most discouraging part of this cartoonish fiasco arrives in the form of a poll showing that Ford appears to have the unwavering support of roughly a third of the electorate. Ford has done everything he possibly could to prove that he's incapable of holding elected office, but he's got a base of voters who just can't say no. The problem here isn't Ford, it's the voters. It's a sad fact that a certain percentage of the general public is pleased, even eager, to put people in power who are blatantly stupid, venal, mendacious and corrupt. What's the psychology behind this? Do people enjoy being ruled by someone they feel they can look down on? Do they believe that a politician who purports to be a "regular guy," a "man of the people" gets a rain check on any number of scandals?

It's easy and tempting to blame sophisticated PR campaigns and toothless media outlets for allowing someone like Ford to assume office, but Mr and Mrs Toronto Voter should get their full share of blame as well. Clearly, democracy is wasted on a significant chunk of the population. This shouldn't, however, come as a huge surprise. Every democracy shows this potentially fatal flaw. Overtly racist and fascist parties in places like the UK, France and Greece have significant support, and the US Republican Pary is simply filled with ignorant loonies who get enthusiastic electoral support, not to mention fawning attention from outlets like FOX News. A greater problem is that parties of the left and centre don't know how to deal with the mouth-breathing portion of the population. The left likes to pretend they don't exist or that they can brought round with reasoned argument. Centrists make the crucial error of pandering to them, tossing them a few right-wing bones (more law and order!) in the hope that they can poach some votes from maniacal politicians like Ford. That only feeds the hunger and makes it easier for the Fords of the world to hold the reins of power. So until the left and centre get their respective acts together and learn how to effectively communicate with the lunkheadproletariat, Rob Ford and his ilk will always have a base upon which they can build their empires of misrule.

Some related posts on this topic:

Worst of Breed
What Makes a Conservative Conservative? 
The Madness of King Ford

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Lights, Camera, Terrorism!

Last week I saw both Star Trek Into Darkness and Iron Man 3. The Internet's already overstuffed with commentary about the two films so I'll keep my analysis to a minimum. Star Trek at least manages to resemble a better than average episode of the original TV show. The banter and byplay between the crew members, especially Kirk and Spock, works well, and the only flaw in the film is that it's simply crammed with far too many hairsbreadth, last nanosecond, by the skin of their teeth escapes from certain death. The crew of the Enterprise don't get anything accomplished until the last possible moment; Star Trek Into Tardiness may have been a more apt title. The problem with Iron Man 3 is that it doesn't resemble anything except a two-hour GIF consisting of every action movie cliche of the past ten years. A barometer of its overall lack of imagination is that the action finale takes place on a container dock. A container dock! I can only surmise that the container dock was chosen because there were no abandoned warehouses or derelict factories available at the time. The rest of the movie is just plain old tired. Tony Stark's jokey insouciance is stale and poorly written, and the other cast members have even less to work with. The low point of the film comes when Tony has to befriend a, "Gee whiz, are you Tony Stark?!" little kid. It's a sequence that feels far too Disneyfied for its own good. So in summation, see Star Trek, skip Iron Man.

Both films, interestingly enough, have terrorism as a theme. In Star Trek the villain, named Harrison, is initially seen as a terrorist but is then revealed to be Khan, a kind of superman who was cryogenically frozen and has been thawed out to further the war aims of a renegade Starfleet admiral. In Iron Man, the vaguely Muslim villain called the Mandarin is revealed to be nothing more than a slimy version of the great and powerful Oz. The Mandarin is just an actor who has been hired to play the part of a terrorist by an evil scientist who's interested (the film doesn't make this very clear) in creating a market for his bio-engineered soldiers. And in the original Iron Man the bad guy was manipulating terrorists in order to drive sales of weaponry to both sides.

Both films, I'd argue, are trying to domesticate and emasculate terrorism. What makes political or religious terrorism frightening (aside from the violence) is that it's trying to effect permanent and total change in a society or region. A real world terrorist, the kind who detonates a car bomb beside a Sunni religious procession in Iraq, or blows themselves and others up on a bus in Tel Aviv, or even a government that's employing drone strikes, is aiming for wholesale and long-lasting change. Terrorism based in faith or ideology is scary because it can't be argued against or bought off; it has to be faced up to, often at great cost. Films like Iron Man and Star Trek take the scary edge off terrorism by showing us terrorists who are either phony or easily manipulated by canny capitalists and politicians. In the film world, terrorism has no roots, no philosophy, it's merely a chess move that's part of some short-term plan to make money or reach a strategic political goal. Audiences are comfortable with this kind of terrorism; it reflects our corporate, capitalist view of how the world should work. It's equivalent to a child being told that those spooky noises he hears at night are just so many windy branches and creaky stairs. It's too much to expect summer blockbusters to take a nuanced or sophisticated view of terrorism, but it's interesting that they choose to turn it into a kind of psychological comfort food.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

(Small Town) Politics As Usual

Objects in mirror are more close-minded than they appear.
A couple of months ago the City of Toronto proudly announced that we're now the fourth most populous city in North America, sitting behind Mexico City, New York and Los Angeles. Chicago was formerly in fourth, but I'm guessing the Windy City's prodigious murder rate bumped it down the list. There was the usual amount of civic chest-thumping over this news (any opportunity to one-up an American city can't pass by unnoticed), but I'm a bit surprised that the city's councillors and political commentators didn't hang out black crepe upon hearing about Hogtown's rise in the ranks. You see, Toronto is indeed a behemoth, but it's one with the brain and soul of a small, querulous village. We're the Whiny City. This quality has been very much on display in the last few months as the city has dealt simultaneously with three big issues: expansion of Toronto Island's Billy Bishop Airport, finding new revenues to pay for badly needed mass transit, and the question of whether the city should allow the province to put a casino in the city. The discussion on all three topics has revealed Toronto's small-minded, pettifogging, schoolmarmish view of urban life.

Let's begin with the airport, which has been there since 1939. Porter Airlines has been running passenger flights from the airport since 2006, and Air Canada was running flights for years prior to that. Porter now wants to lengthen the runway by 168 metres to allow for the use of regional jets. At present, Porter is restricted to using turboprop planes with a much shorter range than jets would offer. For those of you not from Toronto, Billy Bishop Airport is a downtown, waterfront airport, and planes landing at it do so against a backdrop of the city's office blocks and condo towers. The opponents of the proposed expansion object to the increased number of flights and the noise of jets. Porter says that the jets are no noisier than the current turboprops. It's clear that the NIMBY factor is key to this debate. What this also speaks to is the fear and distaste some Torontonians have for a big city being like, well, a big city. A city is supposed to be dense, active and noisy; that's what you get when you cram a few million people together in a small space, and those people are going to need/want all kinds of services that don't involve the hushed sound of a chai latte being made. Getting fretful over jets vs. turboprops shows a King Canute-like inability to realize that change is inevitable. If Toronto is going to keep growing like topsy (believe me, downtown T.O. is building upwards like a frosty version of Dubai), things like airports, the bones and muscles of a city, have to grow as well. And do we really want more traffic going back and forth from downtown to Pearson airport? It's also annoying that the anti-jet forces are speaking for an affluent demographic that shows little interest in noise issues elsewhere in the city; lots of Torontonians live adjacent to 400-series highways that are noisy 24/7, but  I don't hear anyone protesting on their behalf. And what might be most important about airport expansion is that it would create more blue collar jobs, something that the city's been losing for years now.

A couple of days ago city council voted down a package of tax and user-fee initiatives that would have raised part of the $2bn per year needed to pay for a laundry list of mass transit construction. This isn't a great surprise. The city is led by Mayor Rob Ford (my piece on him is here), a man so cartoonish it's entirely possible he's actually a hologram created by Hanna-Barbera. He's aided and abetted by a pack of right-wing councillors, all of whom who see taxes as a biblical plague. This cabal of dunces is challenged by any issue more complex than dog licencing, so imagine how they recoil in fear from dealing with Toronto's massive public transit problem. What was interesting about the proposals that were voted down is that there were no fees to be directed at businesses. The Toronto business community has been behind the push for more public transit, frequently citing the costs to the city's (and the province's) economy due to the gridlock on Toronto's roads and highways. Not surprisingly, no one in the business community, or in politics, has suggested that businesses pick up some or most of this $2bn cost, despite the fact that business derives a direct economic benefit from workers and trucks getting to where they're supposed to be on time. So city council, showing the intestinal fortitude of a flock of sheep downwind of a wolf, have fled from the issue, hoping that the province will manage to make the politically difficult decisions.

Finally, we get to the proposed casino for downtown Toronto. Casino operators from the U.S. are lined up to build a casino in Toronto, the province wants one in the city, but the left and centre of council are strongly, even bitterly, opposed to it. For once, and I hope the only time, I'm on the same side as Ford on this issue. The upside to a casino (according to its promoters) is that the city will receive a $100m per year fee for hosting it, in addition to thousands of full- and part-time jobs. I take both benefits with a grain of salt, but it's clear the city's coffers will benefit from a casino. The anti-casino forces sole objection, it seems, is a moral one: gambling isn't respectable, it's tawdry, and it creates problem gamblers who fall into debt and despair. This moral argument simply doesn't hold water. Alcohol produces as many or more problems, but no one's suggesting Prohibition should be brought back. Not every Torontonian defines a good time as a bike ride along the waterfront trail, followed by a stop at St. Lawrence Market to buy some artisanal cheese, and then home in time to watch Downton Abbey. Some Torontonians (quite a few, actually) like to get noisy and crazy and throw their money around of a Saturday night. Unfortunately for these sybaritic folk, a large number of people on city council don't feel this is a proper or respectable way for Torontonians to enjoy themselves. How nice that our Big Brothers and Sisters are looking out for us. This political distaste for gambling seems even more ludicrous when you consider that Toronto gamblers can already go to slots at Woodbine racetrack in Toronto or drive themselves to five major and minor casinos within 150km of the city. And for those citizens who've had to pawn their cars to pay off gambling debts, fleets of buses await to provide nearly free trips to these casinos. Whatever social ills are caused by casinos are already present in T.O., and it's hard to believe that a new casino will do anything other than cut down on vehicular traffic to outlying casinos. And even if Toronto city council does end up voting against a casino, it's a lock that the casino will then be built just over Toronto's borders in Markham, Vaughan or Mississauga. This means Toronto will get all the theoretical problems associated with gambling, but none of the economic benefits.The case against a Toronto casino isn't logical unless you make it part of a drive to eliminate all forms of gambling, including lotteries, but no one would dare suggest that. The anti-casino forces can talk social ills all they want, but at the end of the day they end up sounding like puritanical scolds.

The handling of these three issues shows that Toronto is still struggling with the concept of what a city is. Toronto politicians of every stripe seem trapped in the idea that a city is what happens when a village goes horribly wrong. It's a very North American view of cities. In Europe, cities have always been seen as the seat of culture, government and everything that's noble and brilliant. The country, on the other hand, is viewed as a wasteland of uncultured people following boring rustic pursuits. In North America that viewpoint has, historically speaking, been reversed. Whenever a politician's on the campaign trail and says he's delighted to be "here in the heartland" of Canada/America, you can be damn sure he's not standing in Times Square or anywhere on Yonge St. He will, however, be within spitting distance of a cow. European cities have long recognized that a city is made up of sometimes disparate elements that have to rub along together. Just think of red light districts such as the Reeperbahn in Hamburg, De Wallen in Amsterdam, or Soho in London; places like these would never be tolerated in North America, but Europeans sensibly realize that cities can't be built and ruled exclusively to please the tastes and morals of the bourgeoisie. And, yes, lots of European cities have downtown casinos that haven't done anything to dim the lustre of places like London, Berlin, Vienna, Stockholm and Venice, to name a very few. Toronto desperately, fervently, wishes to be regarded as a "world-class" city, but until it sheds its small town agoraphobia it's just going to be another self-loathing North America city.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Book Review: The Private Sector (1971) by Joseph Hone

It sometimes seems those parts of the Internet not taken up with porn or cat videos consist of people breathlessly telling the world about the best film/TV show/beach/bagel "you've never heard of." Well now it's my turn, and my nominee in the category of spy fiction writer is Joseph Hone. How unknown is he? Amazon shows only a few of his books for sale, and even the Toronto Public Library (where I work) has only two titles, and we're a library system that's sclerotic with dusty old genre fiction. And how good is Hone? So good I'm calling an audible and kicking him out of the spy fiction field; there's no need to ghettoize him in a genre, he's simply one of he best writers I've come across, genre or otherwise, in a good long while.

The Private Sector is set in Egypt in 1957 and '67. The 1957 section revolves around the recruitment of Peter Marlow, a dual citizen of Ireland and Britain working in Cairo as a teacher, into the British Intelligence Service. The '67 section follows Marlow as he returns to Cairo to investigate whether a fellow agent is defecting. I'm not going to attempt a plot synopsis because to properly describe the twists and turns would require flow charts, venn diagrams, and possibly a PowerPoint presentation. Just take my word for it that the plot is everything you want in espionage fiction; full of double agents, double-crosses, and double whiskies served in hotel bars to shifty-eyed men trying hard not to look like they're there to spy on the shifty-eyed men down at the other end of the bar.

What's most remarkable about this novel is the beauty and intelligence of Hone's prose. His descriptions of Egypt and Cairo, his ruthless and incisive portraits of even the most minor characters, and his masterful handling of his theme of a British Empire in its final decline, it all takes your breath away. Here's a couple of examples, among many, of Hone's sharp writing:

"...or perhaps it was the rather sinister attraction Arab countries can have for people with  an authoritarian view who have somehow not managed  to express that aspect of their personality adequately at home. Egypt had reconciled Cherry to the mild tyranny of his nature."


"Giant pitch-black Nubian waiters in blues and golds, like coloured pictures from a child's Bible, padded aloofly round their table, pouring out whiskies and dumping ice from great silver bowls, strangers to this tribal feast."

Another reason I don't want to stick Hone in the spy fiction ghetto is that the first third of this novel is pure literary fiction. This section of the novel describes Marlow's early days in Egypt and the beginnings of his relationship with Bridget, whom he eventually marries. This part of the book can be read as a brilliant novella about the human flotsam and jetsam left behind by the rapidly receding British Empire. The Egypt Marlow sees in '57 is a curious, pathetic, and droll world of Brit expats gone to seed and middle-class Egyptians anxiously aping the rituals and tastes of their former masters, wittily symbolized by a boy at Marlow's school who always sets his watch to GMT, two hours behind Egypt. It's in this part of the novel that you realize that Hone shouldn't be compared to people like Ambler or Le Carre, but to writers like Patrick Hamilton and Olivia Manning, two authors who took a ferociously forensic approach to their characters and the social environment they moved in. I was particularly reminded of Manning, whose sextet of novels about an English couple in World War Two (The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy) shares with Hone's book the theme of the British Empire slowly leaving the playing field of history. Both writers do a superb job of describing the melancholy and bitterness of people caught up in this transition.

When it comes to the espionage aspects, Hone is bracingly cynical. None of the spies on view are idealistic or committed, and their masters are seemingly equally free of ideology. Marlow quickly learns that empire building (or breaking) is a kind of game in which the score is kept but there are never any winners. This games aspect of spying is cleverly underlined by several sequences involving badminton, croquet and tennis, and several mentions of different kinds of playing fields. Marlow is essentially tricked into becoming a spy, and Hone shows us that the other spies playing the game do so because it satisfies a psychological itch or indulges a fantasy.

Hone is still alive and writing, and a couple of years ago he wrote an autobiography called Wicked Little Joe that's supposed to be pretty damn good. Finally, credit where credit is due: I was tipped off to Hone by a piece on author Jeremy Duns' blog. The link to his article is here.