January 28, 2013 § 1 Comment
EMPIRE OF SECRETS: British Intelligence, the Cold War and the Twilight of Empire by Calder Walton (Harper Press, 412pp; £25)
Once the post-war British Colonial intelligence records were declassified and opened to historians, books like this have become possible. Walton tells a compulsively readable tale of loss of Empire, a necessary process of decolonisation overseen by MI5, “Britain’s imperial intelligence service” and GCHQ. Many of these records, assumed until now to have been ‘lost’ or conveniently forgotten, were recently discovered at Hanslope Park. From these and other corroborative sources, Walton describes the major events of post-war independence – notably the British mandate in Palestine, the Partition of India, the Kenyan and Malayan anti-colonial ‘Emergencies’ – in terms of management by the intelligence services. This is the significant missing element, he asserts, that previous historians have (sometimes for good reasons) overlooked. It is not a pretty story: there are mismanaged adventures and blinkered attitudes disclosed here that do Britain no credit and even less profit and that have invoked the catastrophic law of unintended consequences on a global scale.
PONDLIFE: A Swimmer’s Journal by Al Alvarez (Bloomsbury, 274pp; £14.99)
The bathing ponds of Hampstead Heath combine the American folkloric image of the Ol’ Swimmin’ Hole and the English gentlemanly tradition of cold baths. Now in his eighties, in the aftermath of a stroke and increasingly debilitated, Al Alvarez still swims there daily in all seasons and all conditions of mind and body to prove to himself and others, he says, that there is life in the old dog yet. Shaking himself dry and glowing from the cold, he also recovers the bodily memory of what it was to be the sharp-witted writer, sharp-elbowed athlete and rock-climber and sharp-eyed poker player of his youth. The adrenalin still flows in these lively extracts from eleven years of recent journals, recording weather, landscape, the habits of family life, the behaviour of birds and the pleasures of holding on in a world that has “never seemed more beautiful, more desirable, more poignant.”