Two recent Le Carre books

A few years back, I set out to read and blog about John Le Carre’s books in chronological order. Like many projects of mine, it sort of stalled. I blogged about Call for the dead and A Murder of Quality, read a few others, then got distracted.

A lucky find in a charity shop on 2020’s first work-day launched me into reading Agent Running in the Field. This was hyped in the papers as le Carre’s Brexit novel, which does the book something of a dis-service. It’s not a political diatribe, but a lovely character piece, written from the POV of a washed-up spy.

Le Carre gets the main character’s voice perfectly and we get a good sense of his privilege and self-image. Nat’s faults are obvious, without any contempt or mockery from Le Carre. The story begins when Nat meets a young man called Ed who challenges him to a game of badminton. They begin playing regularly and, over post-game pints, Ed launches tirades about the state of the world. Like many of Le Carre’s characters, Nat comes to find himself threatened by powerful forces, trapped between duty and doing the right thing. There is a fantastic sense of impending disaster as the book heads to its conclusion.

I also read The Pigeon Tunnel, which is a non-fiction collection of pieces about Le Carre’s life. I felt churlish for not liking this more. Most of the pieces are excellent, and there are some great anecdotes, such as meetings with Yasser Arafat and Rupert Murdoch. Le Carre repeatedly explains that he did very little secret work, but has several adventures because people assumes he is still involved in this world. Still, I found myself wishing the book had a stronger narrative, and realised later that a lot of the pieces were reprints of previously published works.

It was still worth reading, particularly for details of the lengths to which Le Carre went to for his research. A couple of glimpses of that world stood out. One piece was about his loathing of the traitor Kim Philby, in which he described “a type of entitled Briton who, while deploring the sins of imperialism, attaches himself to the next great imperial power in the delusion that he can steer its destiny.

Another piece talked about a mole in the British Communist Party which had about 25,000 members; Le Carre claims that it “had to be held together by MI5 informants”.

Stepping away from Twitter

I’ve not been on Twitter since around Christmas, and I don’t miss it that much. I’ve had time away before but this time I don’t think I’m going back. There was a time when this would have seemed unimaginable.

Back in October 2010, I wrote about why I loved twitter. This was a tool that had “introduced me to some amazing people, found me work, and helped me discover events and books that I might otherwise have missed.” It was a place for friendly small talk, a little like very slow IRC.

But even then, I pointed out that Twitter was an interesting mix between protocol, platform and people; and it needed all three for success. For a long time, the platform was a problem, with constant outages proving frustrating.

Once the platform became stable, Twitter started pushing for growth, which meant bringing in more users and having them look at the platform more often. They soon discovered that controversy provided a more energetic site, with better engagement metrics. That growth has come at the cost of the site’s friendliness. Buzzfeed’s piece on How the Retweet ruined the Internet is worth a read on this.

Even with lots of keywords on mute (including ‘Trump’ and ‘Corbyn’) Twitter just felt angry lately. A lot of the problems could have been easily fixed – the bots are hardly well disguised; and it would be easy to filter out people sending agressive statements to strangers (if you’re using the c-word to a stranger, you’re probably not a nice person).

I’m not sure what comes next. I’ve been enjoying newsletters, particularly some small ones aimed at a couple of dozen people; and I feel heartened by the slow return to blogging. Promoting things is perhaps harder, but that might not be a bad thing. But I’ll miss the friendly strangers popping up on my computer.

PS – There’s a lovely piece by Robin Sloan, platforms.fyi (“Social media platforms should run small, and slow, and cool to the touch.“)

My first walk of the year

Last weekend was my first proper walk of 2020. It was also my first trip with Brighton Explorer’s Club – I joined a while back, but hadn’t managed any of the events before now.

The group was friendly, and it’s good to have more people to go hiking with. Mount Caburn is quite a familiar walk – I went in 2012 with Lou Ice, and more recently with the British Pilgrimage Trust – but weather and light can transform a landscape. We could see weather coming in across the Ouse Valley, and avoided the worst of it. And a little rain is a fair price to pay for rainbows and some incredible light:

Back pains prevented this weekend’s planned walk to Ashdown Forest, but I’m doing my 10,000 steps a day to build up strength a little. I have two big hikes planned this year, in March and May/June, so I need to recover quickly.

Looking back at my blog

I recently re-read my whole blog archive. 12 years is a long time, and the word count was the same as three average-sized novels. The review was more fun than I expected. There was a playfulness to blogging when I started, which has now moved over to Twitter and Facebook. These days, a lot of people seem to use blogging mostly for Really Big Thoughts, which are then linked to from the streams. Which make sense, as few people are following blogs these days, but I miss having both those modes.

When I first started blogging, around 2000, I decided not to be negative in my posts. While I was far from happy for parts of the 2007-19 period, the memories I’d recorded were positive ones, and the bad vibes were lost. Looking back, being reminded of capers and shows and friends was a lovely feeling.

The biggest surprise was seeing my writing take shape over a longer period. There was a feeling of potential, which I seem to have lost recently. That’s not in the sense of having losing or wasting potential – I mean that I used to approach my writing in a more open and enthusiastic manner. I was excited by so many things: new journalism, live performance, reality hunger, new aesthetic, networked realism. It was good to be reminded of this. That passion and potential has gotten lost along the way, which might be why I’ve had so much trouble with writing recently. More play, less planning.

And You’re not my Babylon, released in 1994 and posted about in 2012, is still one of the greatest songs ever written.

(Technical note – turning the WordPress XML archive into a Kindle file was more of a faff than I planned. I used to be pretty good at XSLT but, in the end, I googled for a script someone else had made. Then, rather than build the .mobi file from scratch, I loaded the HTML into word to produce a doc I could transmit with the send-to-kindle app. I wonder if simple tasks like ‘read my blog on my kindle’ will always be a drag?)

2020

I started 2020 on a Brighton rooftop, with a view of fireworks all along the beach. Seeing rockets launch from so many different places reminded me of New Year in Goa, but here the view was better, with the fireworks exploding below us, the reflection of the bigger bursts lighting up the sea.

Despite recovering from being sick (why I am so often ill on New Years?) it was a good NYE – catching up with neglected old friends, an 18th birthday party, then a relaxing chat with more old friends.

No resolutions for 2020. Instead, I am planning to do less, making space for new things to enter my life. I am going to try reading more fiction, but that doesn’t require a programme or any goals. I also want to look into carbon offsetting my activities over the year. I know this is not a solution, but I think it’s important to be aware of the costs of my activities (with money as a proxy for CO2), and to make some sort of public commitment towards fixing the very real problems that are coming.

One big change with 2020 is that Brexit is now inevitable. I’m less depressed about this than I expected to be. Remain never really came up with an alternative way out of the mess we were in, with another referendum being a terrible idea. Now that the government has a majority, it has to ensure a Brexit that work. While the evidence has been the this project will overwhelm and defeat any attempt to deliver it, the onus is not on the leavers to prove the doubters wrong, and make the country a better place for everyone.

While 2020 is not technically the start of the 20’s, everyone knows that it actually is. I’ve seen a few commentators suggested that having a named decade after the doubts of the – teens? twenty-tens? – will make for a more certain world. Let’s see.

Some time back, in his newsletter, John Higgs wrote the paragraph below to his readers. It’s loose enough to allow the Barnum Effect to come into play, but it evokes the optimism that a new decade needs:

The 2020s will be a Golden Age in your life. It will not be the easiest of decades, but it will be the one where you are most fully yourself, when you are most proud of what you create and the period in which you act most in accord with your higher nature. In the far-flung future when people bring you to mind, it will be you in the 2020s they think of.