Looking Glass War

You may have noticed I’ve been reading a few spy books.  I started Le Carré in 2013, liked the first two, didn’t care for The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (though it’s still a great title), and got bogged down in The Looking Glass War – the 4th Smiley novel, though he’s not in it very much.   Le Carré wrote it as an antidote to the glamorizing of the spy business he felt was too much a part of Spy and boy did he succeed.    Looking Glass focuses on the other branch of intelligence, military intelligence, that has shrunk to a tiny forgotten department with no cars, no operations, barely any staff.   How this happened in the Cold War, I’m not sure.   But, say it did.   This group suddenly has the opportunity to do some spying of its own.   They have some very poor pictures of what might be rockets in East Germany.   They try to get more, but their courier is killed.   Whether it is a simple hit and run or a murder because of the operation is unknown.  They are excited, morale rises, they are going to send a man in.   The man they pick worked with them in the war doing radio, which is what they need.   Of course, that was twenty years before.  Things have changed.  Leiser is a mechanic, not involved with radio or communications in civilian life, but he’s apparently their only option, unless they want to give the project over to the Circus, which they don’t.   They can’t do it without the Circus, but they certainly shouldn’t have done it with them.   Helpful on the surface, they have their own agenda and they don’t give a rat’s what happens to our intrepid little group.


It does seem to teach you pretty well how to launch a small scale operation and what they do wrong along the way.  The opening encounter at the airport is pretty much textbook how not to do a live drop.   Poor choice of location, poor choice of personnel, just bad.   Unfortunately, the spycraft does not get a whole lot better.   What you learn in this book is how not to do things, which makes it rather depressing.  If you wanted to skip this one, I don’t think you’ll miss much.   For people who supposedly did a lot of this twenty years ago, they’re hopelessly amateur.   For Avery, the only young new guy in the Department, this is his introduction to operations and he seems hopelessly unprepared for it.   Le Carré certainly succeeded in taking away the glamor, but what’s left is dismaying.   Allen Dulles, unfortunately, seemed to think it a very true book.   I am aware, of course, that this is only one side of the story.   There are competent agents in the world running operations well.   It’s not all a pointless waste of time, lives, and resources.  Perhaps it is salutary to have a book that reminds us that where there is human enterprise there may be incompetence, greed, short-sightedness, impatience, and all manner of human failings.   People sometimes have bad ideas.   Sometimes these ideas are backed with passion and the waste of human lives, time and money at the end is staggering.   We look back and shake our heads and say why did they do that?   Why didn’t they stop?   The comforting thing is that the operation in this book is small.   It is easy to read this and say, look, here was a mistake, there they should have done something else.  Perhaps examination of a badly managed project on a small scale can teach us what to look for in a larger disaster.   It seems very difficult for humans to say, this is not working.  I need to rethink this.  To change one’s mind.

Also, if you haven’t read Spy, don’t read the prologue, he totally spoils it.

Ulysses – Take Two: Part Two

Or is that Ulysses Part Two: Take Two.   Either way it’s taking longer.  It took twice as long to read (almost) the next hundred pages as it did the first 100 pages.   But I haven’t given up.   It might take all year.   It might take the next decade, but I will fight on.   I hope.   Books 7-9 are pretty tough going.   Almost as long as 1-6 put together and a lot more obscure stuff which can get quite tedious.   Maybe I should report more often.  I have to refresh my recollection of seven, which takes place at the newspaper.    Bloom trying to sell an ad.  I envy his not having to sit at a desk all day in an office, but then it’s June.   I might not be so envious in December.   Much banter among the newspaper men, much of which I don’t get.   Bloom, on the road again, meets an old friend, Mrs. Breen, has a chat, walks, thinks, observes.   He stops for lunch, but is so repelled by the customers’ manners  he goes across the street.  Has a mustard and gorgonzola sandwich.  I don’t think I’d like mustard with gorgonzola.   He sees Blazes Boylan, the man who will be with his wife later, and plunges into the museum so as not to be seen by him, I think.  That would suck, knowing who your wife’s lover is, meeting him around town, but then, he’s apparently cheating on her, too.  Or trying to.  So far it’s not clear whether his attempts to meet other women pay off.  Presumably we’ll find out later.


Then we switch over to Stephen in the library talking with some of the literary men of the day, including AE, a poet whose real name was George Russell.  There follows some extremely obscure talk and even more obscure thoughts on Hamlet, which these men rag on Stephen for, but also listen to him.  He seems to resent the ragging extremely, though as he’s only 22 or so, it seems a privilege to be hanging out with these men.  Possibly contributing to their new magazine, except he’s too much in need of money to work for free.  Stephen, by his own reckoning, owes a lot, just got paid that morning and has drunk a chunk (or all?) of it already.    He has avoided standing drinks for Mulligan and Synge, sending them a telegram instead and apparently drinking by himself.   Mulligan arrives in the middle of this conversation.  They talk a great deal about Shakespeare and his wife and whether he was Hamlet or his son was or no one was and his wife Anne and so forth.  In the end, Stephen claims not to believe his own theory.  Is this true or is he just pretending not to?  Stephen is a character very difficult to read despite or, perhaps because of, being in his head so much.  Prickly as hell, he doesn’t really seem to like anyone.  He’s heavily based on Joyce himself.  He seems to loathe Mulligan, who I find a heck of a lot more likable, annoying, presumptuous, but entertaining.  And what am I trying to say here?   I don’t know.  I prefer the Bloom chapters.  All artists incorporate their lives in their work, I don’t think you can help doing it to some extent, but Joyce seems to have gone about as far as you can go in this regard.   All these people were real.  Some of them the names haven’t even been changed.   If Stephen’s inner monologues are anything like Joyce’s were, it’s simply incredible that someone like that could paint such a portrait of Mulligan and of Bloom.   Personalities very different to his.  Russell’s opinion (like many others have said) is that if we have the work, what do the lives matter?   People are entitled to privacy.   Technically, I think he’s right, or he should be, but I tend to be as interested in the lives of authors as the work, possibly more.  And I think Shakespeare played the ghost (if he did), because there were other actors better than he to play the other roles.   And it’s just silly to think of him playing that role because he was really Hamlet’s father and his brother slept with his “queen”, Anne.

Also, a friend of mine pointed out, I’m not sure if he got this somewhere or it’s his own observation, that the soap Bloom buys in the morning goes on an odyssey of its own.   I am highly amused by this.

The Confidential Agent

Having finished a Spy Among Friends, I attempted to plunge back into Ulysses and for a day or so it worked, but then there’s only so much Ulysses I can take in a day.  Having to look up phrases constantly slows things down and I want to just read something where it’s not so much work to try to get what’s going on.  So, I picked up Graham Greene’s Confidential Agent and remembered I’d started it a month or two ago, gotten a third of the way, and completely forgotten it.  Whether that says more about the book or my brain I cold not say.  But I had no trouble remembering what had happened when I reopened it.  A confidential agent called only D from an unnamed country torn by civil war arrives in England to buy coal.  On the ship he sees L, an agent for the other side.  Published in 1939 what should I have concluded, or at least thought of?  Spain, of course.  Did I?  No.  I got it into my head he was from an Eastern European country and never got rid of that notion.  He is, however, fairly bad at this.  Probably because he was previously a professor specializing in the medieval romance, The Song of Roland.  Shortly after he gets off the boat, he meets the daughter of the man whom he hopes to buy the coal from, Lord Benditch.  They are the only two waiting for the train, having missed the earlier one and after offering him a bun, she decides to rent a car.  She offers him a lift.  I’m thinking spycraft 101, do not trust the stranger who just happens to be the daughter of the man you’ve come to meet, but he does, which is the first of many idiotic things he does, some of which work out fine and some of which do not.

Much better cover than mine

I could write a paragraph or two about all the things he does I think are daft, but there doesn’t seem much point to that.   If you read it, you’ll think the same or you won’t.  Should you read it?  Hard to say.   I don’t think it’s his best.   Writing it in a Benzedrine rush I don’t think helped it at all.  It is sort of eerie that England would soon be experiencing what D has been going through back home, the bombings, executions, people accused of spying, the effects of trauma.  The nightmare of war is well depicted even though it takes place in peacetime England.   There is far too much that happens by coincidence, but it is not without interest.   The second half has a lot more going on than the first and improbable as some of it is, it’s also entertaining.   I wouldn’t start with it, but if you like Greene’s “entertainments”, it’s probably worth your time.     I wanted to read Our Man in Havana, but it’s not on Kindle.   A play version of it is.   Amazon being incredibly careless sometimes with different versions of things has the play muddled with the novel.   Not that there seems to be a Kindle version of the novel.   And why not?   It seems crazy that there isn’t.   I particularly want to read it because it’s mentioned in Spy Among Friends in Le Carré’s afterword,

I am describing to Elliott how, while I was in MI5, Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana was published and the Service’s legal advisor wanted to prosecute him under the Official Secrets Act for revealing the relationship between a head of station and his head agent.

This I find very intriguing as Our Man in Havana is a comic novel making fun of the intelligence service.   Simultaneously, apparently it’s quite accurate, at least in that one respect.

A Spy Among Friends

A couple-three weeks ago I caught an episode of Cambridge Spies, a BBC production on four young men from Oxford who started spying for the Soviet Union in the 30s and being very good at it, unusually kept right on doing it well into the Cold War.  Watching these very good looking young men painted rather more like the 4 musketeers than anything else, I kept thinking Is that true?   Did that really happen?   So, I went online and found a review that said, mostly, no.   The usually reliable Beeb went and tried to make a sort of heroic coming of age story or something out of four of the Cambridge five and that might work if they hadn’t killed quite so many people.   So, I went looking for non-fiction and found Ben McIntyre’s A Spy Among Friends.   I’ve long been interested in them, probably since seeing A Question of Attribution, a tv adaptation of Alan Bennett’s play about Anthony Blunt.  I remember that as being excellent and would like to see it again.

This book was not so helpful with the rest of the spies, as its focus is on Philby and his friendship with Nicholas Elliott, a loyal MI6 member and one who stood by Philby through thick and thin, oblivious, as was everyone else, except his second wife and an FBI agent (and Hoover, but didn’t he suspect everyone?) to Philby’s longstanding traitorous behavior.  I’ll need to read something else to learn more about Blunt, but Spy Among Friends is an excellent and highly readable book with wry asides from the author that follows Philby and Elliott from their schoolboy days to the end of their lives.  A fascinating story of two parallel yet secretly completely opposite lives.



I highly recommend this if you have any interest in spies and spycraft.  Philby, undoubtedly one of the greatest, though batting for the wrong team, had an astonishing life as did many of the people in these pages.  It also paints a vivid picture of the way these men lived, how much class was a factor, and the absolute oceans of booze they consumed.   How any of them made it past 40, I cannot understand.

Ulysses Pt 1

I figure it will encourage me to keep going if I report at intervals on my progress.   I’ve finished books 1-6, which is a third of the way episode-wise, but maybe a sixth page-wise.  It is easier to read this second time, so when I pass the point I got to before, it might be more difficult.   It’s really not as impossible as its reputation.   You just can’t expect to get it all, but I think anyone with a reasonable amount of reading experience can enjoy it (or at least the first half!) especially if they’ve read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and liked that.  I probably should have reread that.   Ulysses starts with Stephen Dedalus, the young man of the earlier book, living in a martello tower with Stately, plump Buck Mulligan and an Englishman named Haynes.    How this happened is not clear, but Stephen doesn’t seem any too happy about it.   We meet these characters on the morning of June 16th, 1904 and spend a few hours with them, mostly Stephen, and then switch to Leopold Bloom.  Bloom is in advertising and married to a woman named Molly.  We follow him in great detail as he cooks himself a kidney, reads his morning mail, takes his wife her breakfast and goes to a funeral for a man named Paddy Dignam.  As you’re probably aware, all this takes 100 pages or so because you get the characters’ thoughts – Bloom’s and Dedalus’ – as they do these things and it can be extremely obscure and confusing.   Partly because we are not Dubliners from 1904, but mostly because thoughts are fragments of things recollected.   No one is spelling them out and giving you the background detail, some things become clear and some don’t.

Fortunately, we do live in the age of Google and many people have studied Ulysses in the past nearly 100 years.  There are books about it, there are websites about it.  I started reading at The Joyce Project, but that had so many notes it bogged things down too much, so I consult it now only when things seem too obscure.  It’s not always helpful, but it offers a lot of notes and ideas, pictures are sometimes very useful – of the martello tower, for a start – explaining Joyce actually lived in one for a brief period.   I have a print version I bought a million years ago (Ulysses has been on my TBR a long time) and a 99 cent Kindle version.  Two different editions paginated very differently, but I can’t tell how different they are textually.  Every time I’ve compared passages they’ve been the same.


I look many things up on the web, but by and large, I’m enjoying it.  It’s very vivid.  I feel as though I can picture it all.  And Bloom is kind of a sweet guy.  Randy as hell, but sweet.  The way he brings up Molly’s breakfast and talks to the cat.

— Afraid of the chickens she is, he said mockingly. Afraid of the chookchooks. I never saw such a stupid pussens as the pussens.

Proteus still a difficult section.  Stephen’s thoughts being more on philosophy and less on women, but just slog on, you’ll get through it and back to the easier parts.  Joyce has no inhibitions and he’s highly irreverent, so if that’s going to bother you, you should probably give it a miss.   It opens with Buck Mulligan mocking the church, his friend, and all and sundry.

— Thanks, Stephen said. I can’t wear them if they are grey.

— He can’t wear them, Buck Mulligan told his face in the mirror. Etiquette is etiquette. He kills his mother but he can’t wear grey trousers.

If Joyce thought any subject taboo, I don’t know what it is.   One of my favorite lines is Bloom musing on the resurrection:

Get up! Last day! Then every fellow mousing around for his liver and his lights and the rest of his traps. Find damn all of himself that morning.

I always have thought that would be problematic.  And a bit later

Who passed away. Who departed this life. As if they did it of their own accord. Got the shove, all of them.

I wonder if he chose Bloom to be a non-Catholic to allow him to reflect on these things with more impartiality.   An outsider’s view.

Internetting for pics and quotes et cetera I came across a podcast started by Frank Delaney doing one sentence at a time in order to open up Ulysses to everyone.  Unfortunately, that is such an incredibly long project that he died 7 years in, which somehow seems very Joycean.  Anyhow, there are hundreds of them and I intend to give a listen and see if it helps.   I was also looking for a good audio book.   I want it read by an Irish person or people.   There are a couple free ones read by Americans, but that just sounds all wrong.

Delaney’s first podcast is here:  http://blog.frankdelaney.com/2010/06/episode-1-we-meet-buck-mulligan.html

Also one thing I recognized which I did not know the first time I attempted to read it, a reference to the song The Rocky Road to Dublin.   My favorite version is by The Pogues, but there is much wailing and gnashing of teeth at their version.   There are many others, but for me The Pogues are it.

Lal the ral the ra
The rocky road to Dublin.


Ulysses Take 2

Once more unto the breach, dear friends.  It is March, which in some corners of the blogiverse is Reading Ireland Month.  I’ve been wanting to have another go at Ulysses since I collapsed halfway through last time and as a couple other folks are reading it, or maybe they’ve finished, but still, it’s almost like a readalong and if you like, you could join me.  I fully expect this to take forever and a day, so if you’re reading this in the middle of the month, hop aboard!  it’s a slow-moving train.


Hoping I can stick with it.   I just watched a confusing episode of Cambridge Spies (probably shouldn’t start with number three) and now I want to read about what actually happened as I read that the show is largely made up.  I believe it as they seem to be the four musketeers and attend many parties and there doesn’t seem to be much spying and maybe I’ll read a book about that.  When I need a break from Dublin.  Here we go:  Stately plump Buck Mulligan…