Archive for the ‘Spy Fiction’ Category

Childers (1870-1922) was born in England, but lived in Ireland, and though he went to an English boarding school, always said he felt Irish.

After completing a degree at Cambridge, he became a Clerk of the House of Commons and when the Boer War broke out, went to fight in South Africa.  His service in there had two long term results.  First, he began to write for publication.  His sisters had published his letters to them from South Africa, and he then wrote several further books about the campaign.  Second, his experience in South Africa convinced him not only that British imperialism there was ineffective, but that it was also wrong for Ireland, and that Irish self determination was a moral as well as a political necessity.  He began publicly advocating Home Rule for Ireland. 

In addition to his job, his family – he married in 1904 – and his writing, Childers found time to sail small boats.  He first sailed when he was at school, but took it up seriously in 1893 when he bought a boat with his brother, and began exploring the coasts of southern England, France and Holland.  His wife shared his love of sailing, and they got a new boat, the Asgard, as a wedding present from her father. 

Childers had been contemplating writing a ‘yachting story’ for some time, and in 1903 completed The Riddle of the Sands: a record of secret service recently achieved.  The purpose of the story was to alert the British government, and public, to the danger of invasion from Germany, and the lack of preparation for such an eventuality.  The sailing part of the story was based on the logs of a voyage he had made with his brother in 1897 in their boat VixenThe Riddle met with immediate popular success.  It is less clear that it influenced government policy, though from 1903 Britain undertook a program of ship building to match the expansion of the German navy.

The book begins with a preface which suggests that the story is a factual account of a ‘quest’; only the names are changed.  The story is recounted by ‘Carruthers’, a rising young member of the Foreign Office.  He agrees to join ‘Davies’, an acquaintance from university, in a sailing holiday in the Baltic.  Carruthers is horrified to find that the yacht, the Dulcibella (named for one of Childers’ sisters, and based on the Vixen), is not the luxury vessel he was expecting, but he is won over, and agrees to sail back to the North Sea to investigate further some mysterious events that had happened to Davies there.  Together they sail among the islands and sand banks of the Friesian coast to unravel the meaning of these events. 

The book has been called ‘the world’s greatest sailing suspense story’, and while there is quite a lot about sailing in it, I don’t think this detracts from its interest for non-sailors.  This is partly because Carruthers is himself a novice at sailing, so the reader learns with him.  It is also because the two main characters, Carruthers and Davies are so sympathetically drawn.  Davies in particular was created as a rebuke to the naval authorities; though a brilliant small boat sailor, he had been turned down for the navy.  He is used to advocate the development of a naval reserve, made up of ‘chaps like me’.  But he is much more than just a vehicle for Childers’s politics.  The young men’s developing friendship comes across as real and vibrant.  The love interest, introduced at the request of the book’s publishers, is also so well handled that it seems an integral part of the story. 

Both Carruthers and Davies act from motives of patriotism.  Davies sees the quest as ‘a chance of being useful’ to the goal of creating maritime supremacy for England, though he despairs of his country’s politicians – ‘those blockheads of statesmen, as they call themselves’.  Both are respectful of the growing might of the German navy, and the efficiency of the German people; ‘her marvellous awakening in the last generation, under the strength and wisdom of her rulers; her intense patriotic ardour; her seething industrial activity’.  Most of the individual Germans they meet are friendly and helpful; their concern with Germany is at the level of competing great powers, not the personal dislike found in some spy stories.  Any venom is reserved for the traitor who is working for the Germans, though even he is portrayed as tormented by guilt and doubt. 

Writing in 1931, Childers’ widow, Molly, said that in The Riddle of the Sands, Childers had advocated preparedness for war as the best preventative of war.  In the years that followed, she wrote, he had changed his mind about this, coming to the conclusion that preparedness only made war more likely by creating an arms race, and international fear and antagonism.  Whatever the reader’s view on this, it needn’t spoil the story.

Being ‘father to the British spy novel’ was not, however, Childers’ only claim to fame.  Like Davies and Carruthers, (who perhaps represented two sides of his own character) Childers believed in personal responsibility, and the necessity of acting in the light of conviction.  In addition to advocating Home Rule for Ireland, he tried to do something about it.  He stood unsuccessfully for election as a Liberal candidate – the Liberals being in favour of Home Rule.  He then tried direct action.  In 1914 the Ulster Volunteers in the north of Ireland began to arm themselves to fight Home Rule, which seemed imminent.  Childers and his wife joined a small group of activists in buying and shipping guns for the rival Irish Volunteers, who intended to defend Home Rule.  Childers offered his yacht, Asgard, to transport them.  This was a serious business, but was apparently undertaken in a ‘high-hearted innocence’, with ‘amateurish cloak and dagger precautions’.  In a masterly feat of seamanship, they succeeded in landing their cargo successfully on the Irish coast.  They did not know then that some of the guns would be used in the abortive Irish uprising of Easter 1916, or that one of their companions, Sir Roger Casement, would be hanged in England as a German spy after he landed in Ireland from a German submarine, just after the unsuccessful uprising.  (His body was removed to Ireland in 1965, where he was given a State funeral – one country’s spy being another country’s patriot.)

At the outbreak of war, Childers, then 44, joined the British navy.  He worked on a plan for Britain to occupy the very Friesian Islands he had been writing about in The Riddle of the Sands, but it was never acted upon.  He spent time as a Naval Intelligence Officer, a navigational instructor of sea plane crews, and then as a sea plane pilot, winning a Distinguished Service Cross.  He knew nothing of the Easter uprising in 1916 until it had occurred and was opposed to it, though like many others, he was sickened by the brutality with which the uprising was put down.  The war had put plans for Home Rule on hold, much to the frustration of many in Ireland.  The uprising was the work of a few Sinn Fein fanatics, and would never have caught the imagination of the Irish people so fully had not the British acted so harshly in response.

In 1917 Childers was seconded to the Irish Convention, through which it was intended that Ireland should work out a new constitution for Home Rule.  By this time, however, a peaceful outcome was not possible, as the Ulster Volunteers refused to be part of an independent Ireland, and Sinn Fein refused to be part of the convention process.  Its military wing, the Irish Republican Army, declared war on the ‘occupying’ British troops.

In 1921, Childers, now living in Dublin, was secretary to Irish delegation that negotiated Irish independence from Britain with the creation of the Irish Free State, but at the cost of the division of Ireland, the six northern counties remaining as part of Britain.  Though part of the delegation, Childers opposed this solution.  He was elected to the new Dail Eireann for Country Wicklow in 1921, but when civil war between the pro and anti Treaty forces broke out, he joined the anti Treaty IRA irregulars, his ‘unflinching dedication’ to Irish independence driving him to a position ‘beyond the politically possible’.  In taking this action, he was regarded by both the British, and the new Irish Free State government as a traitor.  In 1922, he was arrested by Irish Free State soldiers, and on the grounds that he was carrying a small pistol, was court martialled and shot.  Honourable to the last, it is said that he shook hands with each member of the firing squad. 

Knowing the manner of Childers’ life and death adds much to an appreciation of the nature of the patriotism he was writing about in The Riddle of the Sands.  Certainly it was not the cheap and easy virtue that has been described as ‘the last resort of the scoundrel’, and which is found in too much writing about spys and spying.  Childers refined his patriotism from a general British Imperialism, as shown through his volunteering to fight in South Africa, back to a dedication to the freedom and independence of Ireland from the British Empire, and paid for it with his life.  It might have comforted him had he known that his second son, also named Erskine Childers, would become President of the Irish Republic in 1973.

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For many people, Ian Fleming summed up spy stories when he described his own James Bond books as being ‘bang, bang, bang, kiss, kiss, that sort of stuff’. But as with other genres, there is the crude and the subtle, with the best as good as many conventional novels. 

 On of the good ones is Enigma, by Robert Harris. Harris is an English writer, who, though not aspiring to write the sort of novel that will win a Booker prize is nevertheless an excellent craftsman who tells a clever and convincing story. He often writes history with a twist – like what if the Nazis had won the war. Most of his heroes are ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events. Most of his stories involve intrigue and cover up, but this is the only real spy story he has written.

 In Enigma, Harris has interwoven fact and fiction. It is a story about the code breakers who worked at the secret Bletchley Park establishment to break the German Enigma code during World War II. Harris first thought of writing about code breaking while watching a documentary on the brilliant mathematician Alan Turing who worked at Bletchley Park. ‘I thought what a great character a code breaker would make’, he says. 

 It took Harris three years to write the book, as little had ever been made public about Bletchley Park and he had to track down former code breakers and personnel who were able to tell him about life there and how the code breakers had actually worked. The naval battle which plays an important part in the story is also real. Harris says he ‘tried to pick the single most dramatic short period I could find in Bletchley’s history’ and chose a week in March 1943 where, briefly, the British were blacked out in reading the Shark Enigma – which was the Enigma key for the German U-boats – just as the biggest two convoys of the war left New York. ‘I took the frantic battle to get back into reading the code as the backdrop for the book’ he says. The fictional story is about one of the code breakers, Tom Jericho, whose girlfriend – or rather the girl who had a brief affair with him – has disappeared, and in looking for her, he finds another mystery which points to a traitor within. Thus the story falls within the classic boundaries of the spy story genre, with Jericho, the professional intelligence collector, also acting as an amateur spy.

 It is also interesting to note the link between events in the book and the recent death of the Polish President Lech Kaczynski in a plane crash when visiting Katyn, the site of a massacre of 20,000 Polish officers by the Russians during World War II, at the time blamed by the Allies on the Germans.

 Harris is certainly aware of the need for a good plot. ‘My basic advice when writing’ he says, ‘is to get three things happening every two pages. Keep things moving. Think about the book from beginning to end and see the key moments’. One result, he says is that ‘you don’t really hang about and develop characters too much. You don’t stop for long lyrical passages’. But he goes on ‘Having said that, there is no reason why a story shouldn’t carry a lot more freight with it. You can get at a truth as a novelist in a way that you can’t as an historian. I think you can bring things alive, the sense of fear, prickly fear, the sweat, the smell of the place and so on’. The sense of reality comes from a subtle perception of how and why things might ‘really’ have happened.

 There are elements of both ‘bang bang bang’ and ‘kiss kiss’ in Enigma. But they satisfy a different need from the sensationalism of the Bond stories. Harris relies on creating a sense of realism in which ordinary people do the best they can against real dangers, rather than relying on gadgetry and unlikely heroics against an equally unlikely fiendish enemy. It’s a different kind of spy story.

 Enigma is one of those rare cases where the film (2001) is as good as the book. It was directed by Michael Apted, and stars Dougray Scott and Kate Winslet.

 In his novel, Ghost, which came out in 2007, Harris turned to much more recent history. The main character is a ghost writer who is called in at short notice to tidy up the memoirs of a recently retired British Prime Minister after the ex PM’s original ghost writer is found drowned. The Prime Minister in question, named Adam Lang, is easily recognizable – Harris said he half expected a writ against him when to book was published. And of course, all is not as it seems. The book has been turned into a film by Roman Polanski under the title The Ghost Writer, starring Ewan McGregor. It premiered early in 2010.

Following Ghost, Harris has returned to the Rome of the first century BC for the second of a trilogy about Cicero. Lustrum was published in 2009. Why is ancient Rome of interest to us today? Well you never know; its decline and fall may just have some lessons for us.

 More information about Harris can be found here.

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