Baden-Powell’s Yachting Adventure

Robert Baden-Powell begins his autobiography with a chapter called A Yachting Adventure. Having learned all I know about yachting from my dog, I found this gripping stuff. It is full of typical English gems, like this: When men are nervous under fire the best thing their leader can do is find some petty fault with them — criticize a haversack wrongly fitted or firmly remind them to keep step. That is the first sentence. Brilliant. It gets better.

Things go wrong as soon as page three. Portsmouth harbour proving too safe, too dull, the skipper of their little fun boat decides to take them out to open water whenever a storm is in the offing. The idea is to rescue a ship of Her Majesty’s Royal Navy! The more realistic prospect, of course, is that Robert and his brothers are the ones who need rescuing, and they might have to pay for the privilege. Any sum would have been beyond their boyhood means.

One day, in just such weather, they witness the lifeboat setting sail in a forceful gale. They observed that there were only two safe channels through the sand and that the lifeboat would take the wrong one. For a day and night, their little boat fights the storm bravely. When they eventually make it home, the lifeboat and the distressed vessel are safely in the harbour, hours ahead of them.

On another occasion, they set off in fine weather, only to run aground near the shore. Standing in the boat, rocking it on the rocks to free it, they spot three other boats racing to their rescue. The eldest refuses all help, on the grounds that if they help, the boys will have to pay salvage money, a sort of compensation for their trouble. This is money they do not have. And yes, this is the moment when young Robert learns the lesson he began the book with: his brother shouts at him to undertake a trivial task at the point of greatest danger. They survive, as does their boat, a lesson learned.

This is just the first chapter of the man who invented scouting for boys and himself became a useful spy for the British during WW2.

Episode 2: Lord Baden-Powell

Guy Burgess: Stalin’s Englishman

A life of Guy Burgess. The life of Guy Burgess. Not the ice cream man from Beverley, but one of the Cambridge Five cold war spies. One of the greatest traitors ever to grace our shores. Or was he?

I researched the Cambridge Five for my spy walks in 2017. Most people, myself included, are drawn to Philby. He was the real deal, a spy’s spy. A traitor through and through. An easy man to hate and respect with equal vigour. Perhaps the reason he is the most famous is that press conference he did, convincing Fleet Street’s finest of his innocence. He even convinced the Prime Minister, who defended him in the House of Commons. Philby was a bastard.

I had the softest spot for Donald Maclean. I went to see his grave, not two miles from my house near Penn in Buckinghamshire. That was a beautiful day, and I was not the only one to hover at Donald’s stone. That is saying something, in that remote corner of England. After all this time. Yes, Maclean was a true spy and a family man. He was a gent. With Maclean, the feelings get more nuanced. He wasn’t a bastard. He may even, whisper it quietly, have been a victim, like Blunt.

Blunt is easy to hate. He was a terrible spy, a public figure who was allowed to live quietly in London for fifteen years after he admitted his antics to MI5. Cairncross was exiled to France and, as a result, also left alone.

Only Philby and Maclean had to run to Moscow, where they lived unhappily ever after. Which brings us to Guy Burgess.

Even the name Guy Burgess is friendly. Guy. What a guy. A brilliant mind. Lownie seems to think Burgess kept the five together. Even though he recruited only Blunt and Cairncross, perhaps the least impressive of the five. It was Philby who brought in Maclean, and Philby was reeled independently from the others. By Arnold Deutsch himself, the KGB ringleader in London. Arnold’s cousin was Oscar, as in Oscar Deutsch Entertains Our Nation: ODEON.

Burgess persuaded Blunt and Cairncross, who thought Guy was straight. Guy was never straight, not like Michael Straight, the American recruited by Blunt. You see how complex this gets?

Guy Burgess worked for the BBC as a producer. He used his personal Cambridge network to get the gig, and made a name for himself as a raconteur. It seems that virtually everyone found him brilliant company and a brilliant genius. Of course, as with most geniuses, booze and food got the better of him, and perhaps drugs too. Later acquaintances speak of a trampy aura around Burgess. Like many others before him, he simply forgot to take care of his body.

He drove everywhere at 90 miles an hour. On a single memorable day in America, he was stopped in three states doing either 80 or 90. He was sent home. And that was the beginning of the end. Burgess and Maclean arrived back in England, and plans were made for Burgess to take Maclean to Moscow. Forevermore, their names would be conjoined. Even though they hardly knew each other, and were utterly different personalities. Yes, Burgess and Maclean became espionage’s most compelling double act. Their association lingers in popular culture.

Perhaps a little like the Cliveden set, the Cambridge Five were not the devils as portrayed in our gutter press. But Philby. He was a bastard.

Episode 3: Stalin’s Englishman by Andrew Lownie


Some of you will know that I’ve been practising my voice this year for some podcast adventures. Audio is one thing that smartphones do really well. I’m still not convinced by the experience of reading on a screen that blasts light into your eyes through a tiny grease-smeared piece of glass. But audio! Audio just works, with or without headphones. And the ads! The popups that blight the reading experience, sometimes even for apps you pay to receive. For some reason, the occasional advert on a podcast just sounds like normal radio. And normal radio has way more ads. So yes, I love podcasts.

Podcasts are truly democratic. There is no way, yet, to really make people pay to listen, unlike Audible and audiobooks. I have found that people don’t seem to want novels read out to them on a podcast for free, yet they will pay to download an audiobook. I don’t understand it, but my research and personal experience has shown it to be true. Perhaps I’m just ahead of the curve there.

The only problem with podcasting is that, due to the free and accessible nature of them, there are too many listening apps. But there are some clear leaders. Now that Google have understood where the market is going, they have quite a good app for Android users. Apple are the leaders and, some say, the inventors of the modern podcast ecosystem with their brilliant iOS app. But who’s this? Spotify have presumably seen a flat-line in the uptake of paid music streaming and have pushed millions into exclusive podcast deals with well-known radio hosts like Michelle Obama. The thing I love about their app is that you can listen to music and podcasts in the same place and, even more important, it works on both Android and iOS which means you can use the same app on every device, including on a smart speaker or watch.

Try as I might, I have found no better OS-agnostic player than Spotify for podcasts. And for broadcasters, all of the key platforms for hosting podcasts now have automatic links to Spotify. I started on Anchor, which is basically owned by Spotify, but I moved to so that I can run my own network. I have so many things to share from my hot topics that one podcast was not enough.

So tune in, as they no longer say. I have a books podcast and a spies podcast and even a data analytics podcast which is my day job. And I put them all up for you to hear here: so you have no excuse. All of them are available on all the main podcast directories.

George Orwell’s Nonfiction

The most recent and complete collection of Orwell’s works spans twenty volumes. Edited by Peter Davison (no, not that one) the first nine volumes are the books and the other eleven are the letters and journalism, broadly speaking. This week’s episode of the podcast covers volumes eighteen and nineteen, plus my thoughts about Orwell’s fiction.

I read Orwell’s letters and diaries a long time ago, and the main memory I have is of his wartime diaries. He had chickens and grew various crops, and he would note his progress methodically in the diary. He was not a happy man, you might think, yet he seems to have achieved contentment at the very least. He’s not someone I would have got on with, judging from his strong politics. Beliefs which famously got him shot will fighting someone else’s war in Spain. I can safely promise that I would never engage in such activities. But these were different times. Who can say?

Ninety-Two in the Shade by Thomas McGuane

For American listeners, perhaps Thomas McGuane requires no introduction. A successful novelist and screenwriter, he is also a regular contributor to the New Yorker. However, part of my motivation in featuring his work here is that he is virtually unknown in Britain.

This episode looks at Tom’s successful move, Missouri Breaks, which starred Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando, plus we cover the novel Panama in addition to 92.

For British ears, a “break” is a national monument, or national park, famous for the Lewis and Clark expedition. Also famous for being the route taken by land to discover the Northwest Passage, which in Britain is seen as a naval challenge to be undertaken by sea. So in America, the Missouri Breaks, the Missouri River and birthplace of Montana need no explanation. A “break” is a type of mountain created by the earth’s crust literally breaking, resulting in sharp, angular block-like cliffs. Indirectly, the river is allowed to flow by the existence of these faults.

So now, to the movie.

The Missouri Breaks is a subtle Western with perfectly timed comic moments. The desperadoes rob a train, their first one, and easily liberate the mail wagon containing cash. The wagon, unpinned by the clerk, quickly slows. Our hero, Jack, leaps from the carriage holding his prize. Only trouble is, they’re on a wooden bridge across a canyon and he nearly falls to his death. He climbs down and they ride off as the locomotive returns to punish the thieves. They use the money to buy a ranch to use as a relay position for the horses and cattle they rustle from nearby landowners.

This is essentially a character study and appears slow by modern Hollywood standards. But it repays your patience. Nicholson is excellent as the lead desperado, the Tom McGuane character, and the dialogue is clever and subtle. Even the Catherine Earnshaw daughter of the man who hangs Jack’s friend is feisty and lyrical in her demolition of the death penalty.

A scene with Brando in the bath, where Nicholson finds him after being left for dead, is similar to one in Panama where Chet tracks a Hollywood agent to his shower to demand that he leaves town. In Panama, the hero throws a punch. In the Missouri Breaks he puts a bullet in the bath, which slowly leaks its water onto the floor.

Tom McGuane is a writer of two halves. His later work and nonfiction focuses on the apparently simple, content life in Montana. His early writing is more like Hunter S Thompson. He was a close friend of Jim Harrison, another writer unheard of in Britain. He also knew Richard Brautigan, who is well-known in Britain in the right kind of company. All of them knew a lot about fishing, and have written extensively about it.

After Stanford, McGuane and his first wife, a descendent of Davy Crockett himself, split their time between Florida Key West and Livingston Montana. This split life is a feature of many Americans, and perhaps explains Tom’s different writing lives. In many ways, he could have used a pen name to separate his two lives. This is a separation we can see in successful writers like Stephen King. And in filmmakers like David Lynch, who says it is perfectly possible to put crime and darkness into your work and yet retain an inner peace. I believe Tom McGuane realised this comparatively early. It explains why his career has ultimately become a huge success, whereas some of his compadres such as Warren Zevon couldn’t shift the wild personality. Tom’s study of Warren, Panama, sounds a warning bell to all those young rogues who fail to tire of their own wildness.

It is difficult to overstate McGuane’s achievements. It goes to show that top order writers in America do not always travel to Europe. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, he made a fortune from screenplays such as Rancho Deluxe as well as Missouri Breaks, films which have faded from British memories completely.

Although he was first and foremost a writer, Tom was keenly aware that nobody could make money out of novels, even in the 1970s. His pet theory, that all top novelists have rich wives, is an interesting way to explore some of the happy few who did make money from novels. This theory pushed him towards Hollywood, and a dozen or so screenplays that made him a fortune, even though only three were made. Any screenwriter will tell you that this is an exceptionally good ratio. The theory goes that screenwriters are paid so well only because most of their stories are never made. What a way to live!

On the set of his self-directed movie of his book 92 in the Shade, McGuane fell in love with Margot Kidder, better known to us as Louis Lane, and married her first in 1975 before remarrying later in the ‘70s. it is possible that his survival of a crash in his Porsche on icy roads in Texas precipitated the period when he was known as Captain Berserko. He was prolific during the early ‘70s, wildly successful, and on the edge. It seems that genius and greatness often takes place near the edge of something, and Tom is unusual in being able to realise that this was happening and change course.

Desperadoes like Hunter S Thompson, whom he is often compared with, and Hemingway, did not have the resources to change course, with inevitable consequences. But McGuane did, and seems happily content into his 80s, living in Deadrock, his fictional version of Livingston, to this day.

Station Eleven: Museum of Civilization

[This article was written in August 2014. I have reposted it to support my latest episode of the Library Discoveries podcast about Station Eleven which you can hear here, or search your usual podcast provider.]

As part of the review for Station Eleven in 2014, I agreed to suggest a relic to put in the Museum of Civilisation. This is a concept introduced in the book. It needs no introduction, it really sort of does what it says on the tin.

This is no easy task. First of all you have to discount the kind of things that are readily available in the aftermath of a plague-style apocalypse. Things like iPhones, iPads, keys, and so on. Laptops, all that kind of fluff. Surprisingly, there are a lot of aeroplanes floating around. Except they no longer float. They’re sort of used as arks for storing stuff people don’t need, like corpses.

There is no internet or technology really. People have instruments too, hence the Travelling Symphony which plays a big part in the book. There is a text used by the characters, sort of like a bible, except that it’s a graphic novel. This forms the basis of a new religion for a man styled as a prophet. This led me to think about bible stories. The best ones are very good. One of the most famous is about feeding five thousand people with a fish and a loaf of bread. Some people say that if you give a fish as charity, that’s nice. But if you teach someone how to fish for themselves, that’s really something special.

So, after much cogitating, my gift to the Museum of Civilisation is the manual printing press. What those people need are newspapers and books. New ones, to help them deal with what happened to their entire civilisation. They need the ability to print books again.