Sunday, March 26, 2017

THE RIDDLE OF THE SANDS - Robert Erskine Childers

This is one of the original great spy stories, published in 1903.

Davies is yachting off the Friesland Coast and meets a German who attempts to wreck him on a sandbar.  After this incident Davies contacts his friend Carruthers to come an assist on finding out what is happening in the area.

The two explore the coast and come to believe that Germany is planning to use the area to launch an invasion of Britain.

This is not a James Bond story, its more a sea story but the tension mounts in small increments until the finale.

Erskine  Childers wrote this book in an attempt to alert the British Government to the idea that it was Germany that posed the big threat to Britain rather than France.  In this he was successful and Britain put in place mechanisms to protect its self in the North Sea.

This is highly entertaining, informative and is a classic spy story but not guns, women and wine.

Erskine Childers was an interesting man in his own right, author, soldier and politician.  He was executed by firing squad in 1922  aged 52 for the unlicensed possession of a pistol that had been gifted to him by Michael Collins.  His son Erskine Hamilton Childers served as Ireland's fourth President.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

CARDS ON THE TABLE - Agatha Christie

I enjoy a  good Agatha Christie, the accent is on "good" here, this is not a good one.

Five people are in a room. four are playing cards, one is observing; the observer is murdered  during the card game.  So, there are four suspects all who are believed to have previously murdered.  Poirot and an exceptionally dull policeman set out to find out the killer.

Even for a poor Christie this is ridiculous, it feels like it was dictated while she was peeling potatoes. There is even a character, a female writer of detective fiction who spends the entire book disparaging the genre.

The saving grace is this was a short read, one trip on the Interlander ferry saw it off and it was only finished as it was all I had to hand.

Monday, March 13, 2017

WITHIN FOUR WALLS - Major M C C Harrison & Capt. H A Cartwright

In 1914 the two authors were taken prisoner by the Germans and both then spent the next four years making numerous escape attempts, being recaptured many times before finally being successful in 1917 & 1918.

Part of this book is part of an official account they had to provide to the War Office.  The remainder of the book was written by the authors in 1928-29.

The tales of ingenuity used are amazing, as is the courage displayed by these two and others who continually wanted to get "home" with the sole purpose of re-joining their regiments to get back fighting.

One particular frustrating attempt ended when after walking across Germany one of the authors thought he had made it to Holland; he walked into a village very pleased with himself and was promptly arrested he had made it to Holland but had got confused and walked back in Germany.

Materials for the escaped were manufactured in camps and prisons, sent in relief parcels from wives and families, items were sent in ingenious fashion.

Every time they were caught they were sentenced by criminal courts to terms of imprisonment so they spent years in various forms of detention.

Many of the escape attempts sound like Boys Own Adventures and it is easy to forget the slaughter that was occurring at the time. Prior to his capture one of the authors was with a group of 1000 men on Monday by Tuesday there were only 300 of them still alive, truly unimaginable this type of killing.

This isn't  well written, its tedious in patches but its true and was occurring only 100 years ago.

The book was published in 1930 and the edition I have is a Penguin from 1940.

Thursday, March 9, 2017


Another preposterous adventure from H C McNeile aka 'Sapper'.  Published in 1935 it finds our hero Hugh Drummond involved in a plot that has military secrets, nasty Germans and a Russian killer.

Its totally over the top but as with all these stories very entertaining and a 'time capsule' of the between the wars period.

Harmless fun and the author is nowhere near as derogatory towards Jews and the non white races in this volume, which removes much of the cringe factor of the earlier stories.

Sunday, March 5, 2017


The story of a young British diplomat posted as a vice-counsel to Moscow in 1912 and where he stayed under various guises until his arrest and expulsion in 1918 after the Bolshevik Revolution.

His first posting was an official one where he met and mingled with the Tsarist Government and was present into the Fist World War. He was then sent home for an extra-marital dalliance.

He then returned in an official unofficial "neither confirm or deny" capacity to act as a liaison between the Bolsheviks and the allies.  He stayed in this role until he was arrested where he was accused of  plotting to have Lenin assassinated.

This was published in 1932 so has none of the intelligence work that Bruce Lockhart was involved in in Russia.  The details of this may never be known as his papers as of 2003 "disappeared". He worked in Russia with fellow agent, Sidney Reilly and it his son, Robin Bruce Lockhart wrote the book  Reilly :Ace of Spies and who supplies the Introduction to this edition.

But despite no detail of his spying this is fascinating.  The author met regularly with Trotsky and other members of the revolutionary government and gives great insight into the mentality of the committee.

The book contains a huge amount of information more than a casual reader like myself could understand without  real background knowledge but its still worth the effort as a time capsule.
Very interesting.

Monday, February 27, 2017


I first read this book of reminiscences 40 years ago in about 1976, it was published in 1971, it was a lot fresher in 1976.

David Niven was an English actor who made several dozen Hollywood movies before his death in 1983. He is probably best known for his role as Phileas Fogg in Around the World in Eighty Days.

This book rambles through his life from his childhood until the books publication.  It concentrates on his education, his training as an officer at Sandhurst, his war service and his career as an actor.

He is an inveterate name dropper, (he makes no apology for this), he met everyone, real royalty, acting royalty and dined with Presidents.

For me the most interesting phase is his army training between the wars prior to his resigning his commission and heading to America. Whats unusual is he had no desire to be an actor, he fell into it more than any calling.

To his credit on the outbreak of the Second World War with a successful career that was only going to get better, he jumped on a boat and returned to England to enlist.

Like all these memoirs it is bound to be very unreliable in big parts but its entertaining and has lots of the "between the wars" period I enjoy reading about.

He wrote a follow up  Bring on the Empty Horses which is no where near as good .

This is a nice lightweight read, great for a Sunday on the couch and it won't keep you up nights pondering the mysteries of the universe.

Lastly,this is a beautiful Folio Society edition.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

STASILAND - Anna Funder

"Funder became aware of the hidden histories of people whose lives had been shaped by one of the most efficient police states in history.  She set out to collect and investigate the stories of both victims and perpetrators;  of those who worked for the Stasi (the East German secret service) and those who had been persecuted by it".

This is a chilling read, seventeen million people living in fear for over 40 years.  The Stasi infiltrated every facet of people's lives.  It is estimated that 2 people per 100 were paid police informers, families denounced each other.  By having this army of informers they quantity of information gathered on its citizens was enormous,  "Laid out upright and end to end, the files the Stasi kept on their countrymen and women would form a line 180 kilometers long".

The saddest victim in this is a women who suffered a breach birth, the child was taken to a West German hospital for treatment, over night the wall was erected and she was unable to have her son live with her again for five years.

After the war the Communists simply replaced Nazi school teachers with Communist school teachers who began indoctrinating the children- get them young and you have them forever- from there the Stasi power grew and grew backed by the threat of Moscow's tanks until all the GDR was a massive zoo controlled by Honecker and Mielke.

As from the rear cover blurb above , the author interviews both sides.  The most interesting and deserving of a book of his own is Herr Bohnsack, a former lieutenant colonel responsible for 'disinformation and psychological warfare against the west'".  His boss was Marcus Wolf, supposedly the blue print for John Le Carre's GDR spymaster "Karla".

Much of Bohnsacks work was directed against West Germany.

" It collected sensitive or secret information from agents in the west and leaked it to cause harm; it manufactured documents  and spliced together recordings of conversations that never took place to damage persons in the public sphere; it spread rumours about people in the west, including the devastating rumour that someone worked for them.  Division X men fed "coups" to western journalists about the Nazi past of West German politicians, it funded left wing publications and it managed, at least in one instance, to exert extraordinary influence over the political process itself.  In 1972, the Social Democrat head of the West German Government Willy Brandt faced a no confidence vote in parliament. Division X bribed one and possibly two back-benchers for their votes to keep him in power."

Then there is the physical torture that was used against prisoners, then there is the fact that people were shot trying to cross over  "the street" in Berlin. The horrors go on and on.

For me what makes reading this so horrifying is the remarkable writing, it is totally understated no hysteria, its just outstanding.

The author is interesting in her own right ,an Australian, "she has worked for the Australian Government as an international lawyer in human rights, constitutional law and treaty negotiation before turning to writing full time."  (Wiki.)

The only criticism I have of this book is it has the most rubbish cover in relation to the contents's I have ever seen.

A great topic, great writing, an outstanding book.