To Read: ‘Britain’s War’ by Daniel Todman

I find that no matter how many books I read on the second world war, there’s always something new to discover, usually the result of a fresh perspective on old facts. Daniel Todman’s dual volume work on Britain’s War looks well worth adding to the ‘to-read’ pile:

.. historians of Todman’s generation are right to move on beyond triumphalism and to speak to the times in which we live today. For Britain’s role in the world is now nothing like what it was before Hitler invaded Poland, when the British empire comprised a quarter of the global population. Thus there were really two wars: one against the Nazi threat to the whole of Europe and the other to protect the British empire, most crucially in Asia. Broadly speaking, the first of these wars proved to be a moral and military success; the other turned out to be a failure. And in each case it had needed the intervention of the new superpowers, the USSR and the US, to retrieve the British from embarrassment.

Baldly put, this is the frame for the story as Todman tells it. However magnificent Churchill appeared in his commitment to saving Europe, the futile war to preserve the British empire mattered to him fully as much. Hence the searing impact of the sudden fall of Singapore to the Japanese in February 1942, exposing Churchill’s naive illusion that because this island port and naval base was always called “a fortress”, it was one that could withstand a siege. Todman’s comment elsewhere that Churchill was a “man who liked to make big plans on small maps” captures some of his frailty in formulating grand strategy.

I think it reveals a lot about the post-war British mentality, and rhetoric you still hear today – the myth is they won *both* wars. Should be an interesting read.

Also, interestingly, it would seem that designating something a fortress is always a bad idea for anyone left in it, Churchill was evidently as guilty of that as anyone else (‘Gilbraltar of the East’ (US loses Corregidor to Japan), any number of ‘festung’ designations thrown out by Hitler (Stalingrad, Breslau…), Eban-Emael (Belgium), and of course, the Maginot Line (although it was more a defensive shoulder than a fortress in reality).

American Caesars

My nomadic friend at work dropped this on my desk a while back before heading to catch a cargo ship out of Kiel. We’d been discussing the madness of Nixon over coffee one day in order to avoid any actual work, and he reckoned I’d enjoy this, and he was right. It’s a riveting overview of 12 American Presidents, from Roosevelt to ‘Dubya’ Bush, in the style of Suetonius’s Caesars (a classic, they say, of the ancient world).

Each president is presented in three sections – road to the presendency, their presidency, and their personal life. It works remarkably well, and the style allows you to view each one as a politician, a president, and a person. The result is a gripping read, although I did stop when I got to Kennedy to go and basically re-read Brothers to get more background on the Vietnam War era (I had intended to ready only the chapters on Vietnam, but that’s also such a good read I then re-read the whole book).

Some of the presidents were fairly well known to me, others not so much, in every case I found them illuminating. Often, it’s the personal that’s the most revealing I found, who they were outside of the public realm, with their families, partners, friends. Their personalities shaped their approach to the job, their relationships guided them through it, and events tested them all.


Read: The God Squad

The God Squad is the remarkable true story of a survivor, told with an extraordinary lack of bitterness for one so shockingly and shamefully treated. In Paddy Doyle’s own words: ‘It is about a society’s abdication of responsibility to a child. The fact that I was that child, and that the book is about my life, is largely irrelevant. The probability is that there were, and still are, thousands of ‘me’s.’

While strolling through Blackrock Market a while back, my partner in crime picked this up for me. Highly readable and fascinating story of life in the industrial schools of Ireland, written in 1989 by Paddy Doyle. The casual cruelty meted out to a young child is terrible, yet it continued year after year, for decades. It reflects an Ireland that is both within living memory yet feels far away. Particularly worth reading in the context of the coming Papal visit, an organisation that continues to cover up it’s past and deny justice to it’s victims. The harm doesn’t cease when the laundries close, the schools shut, or the abuser dies – it can affect the next generation too.

Christopher Hitchens – “Mortality”

MortalityMortality by Christopher Hitchens
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“I have decided to take whatever my disease can throw at me, and to stay combative even while taking the measure of my inevitable decline. I repeat, this is no more than what a healthy person has to do in slower motion. It is our common fate.”

An amazing book from Hitchens, well written and easily read, impossible to forget. It’s a short book, yet it benefits from a slow reading. There is plenty of food for thought on the process of dying, I’d strongly recommend this book. Carol, his wife, closes out the book with an incredibly sad final chapter.

Hitchens died before the end.

Don’t we all, I suppose.

“Death has this much to be said for it:
You don’t have to get out of bed for it.
Wherever you happen to be
They bring it to you – free.”
– Kinglsey Amis

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Finished: ‘Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914’ by Max Hastings

Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914 by Max Hastings
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Having also read The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Munro Clark, I found ‘Catastrophe’ to be rather light on the lead up to war, particularly on the Serbian state and the personalities involved. Hastings excels once the war starts, his descriptions of the battles, full of colour and detail, are brilliant. He makes god use of first-hand accounts from the time, which really bring home the realities of not only trench life (and death), but the ‘home’ front as well. Most interesting are the descriptions of civil life in the occupied and fought-over areas, several of which evoke vivid impressions of the hellish experience of families caught in a warzone.
Well worth reading, but for a more in depth look at the causes and lead up to the declaration of war, I’d recommend pairing this with Clark’s Sleepwalkers.

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Velvet: The story from the unexplored perspective

Wired had a review a while back about Velvet by Ed Brubaker, which looks worth getting.

In the opening issue of the comic book Velvet, the secretary to the director of an elite British spy agency decides to go digging into the mysterious death of a secret agent. This, she learns, is a mistake, and soon enough she finds herself standing over a dead body, and framed for murder. “This is as bad as it gets, secretary,” says one of the armed men who bursts in to arrest her. “No,” she answers, “it isn’t.” Seconds later, every secret agent in the room is writhing on the floor, and she’s leaping out the window in a stealth suit.

Turns out this isn’t a story about Moneypenny, the secretary waiting for James Bond behind a desk at MI6. It’s a story that asks, what if a 40-something secretary was secretly James Bond all along?

I like this idea. It’s a bit different to the norm, and provides an interesting angle on the traditional spy story:

“I loved the idea of flipping the typical male-oriented spy story, and doing one about a woman who was also a mature, middle-aged woman,” says Brubaker. He saw the character’s age as fundamental to the story; it helped cement her as mature, seasoned rather than a vulnerable young woman-in-danger, and it allowed her to have a deeper, richer history as a spy. “In the espionage field, it totally makes sense that someone could have a secret history; they could have a job for 20 years that turns out to be a front, basically,” says Brubaker. “But it has to be someone who’s lived a real life.”

It seems there’s a lot of pushback for this kind of character, either because of her age or her sex or both:

When he started pitching the concept as a TV pilot, however, Velvet’s age turned out to be more controversial than expected. “The notes that we got from everybody were that she needed to be 25, and an agent-in-training learning from the cool male secret agent. I was just like ‘OK, this is… just appalling to me,’” Rather than a character that had lived a real life, they wanted a woman 20 years younger, stripped of Velvet’s expertise and maturity. “Imagine Taken, if Liam Neeson’s character were 30,” he adds. “It’s just not the same movie.”

I think I’ll give this a go next time I have any money to buy books.

New books!


I haven’t allowed myself a new book in a while, largely due to the small mountain of unread books I already have. Still, I had to get one one the first war, given the year that’s in it. ‘Speccy Nation’ just slipped in there for nostaglia. Of course, the real reason I was bookshopping was to get hold of ‘Daddy on the moon’ for my daughter. It’s her new fave.

Daddy on the Moon

Guess which one will be read first? 🙂

La Compagnie des Wagon Lits

I was browsing through some old books this evening and I came across these two lovely old posters for Cie. des Wagon-lits in a copy of ‘Supertrains’ by Aaron E. Klein, published 1985 (is that old? it’s almost 30!). The first looks very much of ‘La Belle Epoque’, the second is from the 1920/1930s((alas, there’s no caption in the book…)).

Wagon-lits Poster

Wagon-lits Poster