Simon Says » communiqué 016/February 2018

Simon Says: communiqué 016/February 2018

Hello everyone

No excuses and no backsliding: 2018 really is here—we’re into February now.

It feels like a long time before anything is going to happen. Maybe you could fill that space with a book or two.

Bad Language

Last month I talked about “bad” language in my books. If you didn’t read the piece, then you can find it here.

Saying I talked about bad language somewhat misses the point—the thrust of the piece was how we perceive and interpret language, and in that context looking at some of the causes of offense.

Don’t Be Silly

The original spark for that discussion was a question from a potential reader, but I wrote about the topic—in part—because I am interested in words and language, which I guess isn’t the most surprising thing for an author to say.

However, I was somewhat uncertain—I often find myself in conflict with myself on issues around language, and particularly offensive language.

On one hand, when I hear people complain about the use of certain terms, I want to say: “don’t be silly—they’re only words”. Sticks and stones and all that… But on the other side, I fully understand the power of words and how language can be used and abused. Without words, there would be no demagogues and no dictators.

And when I can get into a fight with myself, I figure there must be something going on and that the topic might be interesting to other people.

And You Were Interested…

I had a hunch some people might be interested, but the topic resonated far more than I expected. Clearly I touched a nerve or two.

Thank you to everyone who dropped me a note to let me know your thoughts and your experiences. There were some fascinating tales, and to be honest, some rather concerning stories. A few people talked about their parents’ attitude and others mentioned how their kids’ language was scrutinized with instances of young kids using absolutely correct language, but that language then being seen as highly troubling by education authorities.

Thank you all for sharing your stories; I really do appreciate all of your comments.

For the wider issue of how we use language, I’m sure I will return to this topic through the year.

Interference in Foreign Politics

The Westphalian settlement, was a series of treaties that were signed in 1648 to end the European wars of religion (the Thirty Years’ War and the Eighty Years’ War). These treaties formalized the concept of the sovereign state and established the norm that one state would not interfere with another state’s domestic affairs. As European influence grew around the globe, these principles became the basis of international law as we understand today.

The terms of these treaties suggest several issues:

Westphalian Legacy

As you will have guessed, the Westphalian settlement did not fix the presenting problem.

European wars continued, and indeed, fighting continued in the Thirty Years’ War (one of the wars intended to be ended by the treaties). Nation states continued to attempt to influence other nation states. Beyond simple subversion, this influence went global and was wielded through war and the growth of empire.

The nature of the subversion changed and with the twentieth century there were both new political challenges and new technological considerations. In the space of a few years, there was the rise of communism and nuclear weapons, and at the same time, there was widespread adoption of radio.

These details may seem disparate, but there is a link with the BBC World Service and Radio Free Europe. Both were both part of a broader intent to spread influence across nation state borders. Both were an attempt—in part—to push a specific agenda, but also allowed for a level of deniability of intent.

And just to be clear, these broadcast organizations were not the only attempts by any nation states, but they are examples of attempts to undermine Westphalian principles.

Respect for National Laws

As well as trying to influence across borders, nation states have pursued their own local grudges but in other countries.

Georgi Markov was a Bulgarian writer and dissident who worked as a broadcaster for both the BBC World Service and Radio Free Europe. He was also a strident critic of the Bulgarian regime. His murder in 1978 is something straight out of a spy novel.

He was assassinated on a London street. But this was no conventional assassination—a modified umbrella was used to shoot a pellet containing ricin into his leg. At the time of the incident, Markov felt a sting-like pain and continued with his journey to work. He developed a fever that evening and was admitted to hospital. Four days later he died.

It is believed that the man wielding the modified umbrella was associated with the Bulgarian secret police who were in turn aided by the KGB.

In some ways it’s easy to dismiss the Markov case as something that happened in the Cold War, but the murder of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 would suggest the practice continues.

Litvinenko was a former officer of the Russian Federal Security Service and KGB, who had been granted political asylum in the United Kingdom. In November 2006, he fell ill and was hospitalized. He died three weeks later, becoming the first confirmed victim of polonium-210-induced acute radiation syndrome.

On his deathbed, Litvinenko publicly accused Russian president, Vladimir Putin, as being behind his condition.

End of the Cold War

At the end of the Cold War, there was a feeling that the West had “won”.

But unlike with the Peace of Westphalia, there was no treaty to coincide with the end of hostilities. No one talked to the Soviet Union as it was disintegrating into its former republics, and no one talked to Russia (who, let us not forget, were and still are a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council) to check that they too thought the Cold War was over.

The Murder of Henry VIII

It was against this background that I began writing The Murder of Henry VIII.

In 2010, when I first started outlining the book, I had an idea for a 500-year-old conspiracy theory about the murder of Henry VIII. The notion of the Russians trying to influence an election just didn’t seem that much of a stretch. The scenario felt plausible to me. In fact, it wasn’t simply plausible—it was something that I expected to happen (assuming it hadn’t already happened).

In The Murder of Henry VIII, the UK election where the Russians sought influence was a referendum. And in case you missed it, a few years after I published the book, the UK had a referendum about whether to remain as members of the European Union.

There are now several investigations (including one entitled Putin’s asymmetric assault on democracy in Russia and Europe, by Democrats on the US Senate foreign relations committee) looking at Russian interference in that UK referendum. The pattern in all of these investigations seems to be one of shock.

To be clear, Russian involvement in the democratic process for any country apart from Russia, is—to put it mildly—unhealthy and unhelpful. But equally, I’m not suggesting that the Russian involvement anywhere around the world was successful or that different individuals may have been elected president or other votes may have swung the other way if there had been no meddling.

However, I’m surprised that people—in particular, elected officials—seem so surprised. This is a practice that I’ve always assumed was going on (hence it went in my book) and I’m disappointed if government agencies are now suggesting they hadn’t considered the threat before our most recent run of elections.

That said, if you want to know how to influence an election, then check out The Murder of Henry VIII. The book is also available as part of the Boniface Box Set: three gripping novels for one low price.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor

Before the March edition of Simon Says arrives we will have the Oscar results. I have very little to say about the nominees—I haven’t seen any of the main contenders (yet). I have even less idea about who is going to win, but FiveThirtyEight seem fairly convinced that Gary Oldman has an unassailable lead in the best actor category.

And when I think about Gary Oldman, I think about Tinker Tailor Solder Spy.

Tinker Tailor, the Movie

There are few movies that I can watch time and time again; the 2011 film of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is one.

Oldman plays George Smiley, a former senior spy who had been obliged to retire after a mission ended in disaster. As suspicion grows that there is a mole within the Service, Smiley is recalled to investigate.

There is a stillness to Oldman’s performance. For first 17-or-therabouts minutes he says nothing. When he does speak, his voice is quiet, his tone restrained, and his manner unfailingly polite.

While the outer Smiley is still and polite, something inside is raging. Maybe it’s the public humiliation of his failed marriage, and his wife’s many and frequent dalliances. Maybe it’s the discredit to his reputation caused by his dismissal.

But despite the rage, with patience and quiet determination Smiley pursues the mole, putting his trust in the work begun by his former boss who was dismissed from the Service at the same time as he was and who has subsequently died.

It is a complex piece with many individual characters—often on screen together. There’s no one fighting “for their tribe”—everyone’s motive seems to be unclear, or if there is any clarity, the motive is self interest.

There is subtlety and nuance and detail everywhere and in every act. Each twist, each betrayal, leaves you wondering, and even the good guys are doing bad things to each other.

If you haven’t seen the movie, I highly recommend it.

And if you’re a Brit, you will recognize so many actors. The cast includes: the Elephant Man, Waynetta Slob, Lady Edith Crawley, the one with the metal detector who wasn’t in The Office, Mr Darcy/Mark Darcy, Sherlock Holmes, Charles Bronson, and not forgetting Trigger. There was also a walk-on part for John le Carré. And if you haven’t been watching British TV for the last 20 years, I do understand that some of these references may be a bit obscure :–)

The Novel

The film was, of course, based on the 1974 novel (of the same name) by John le Carré.

It might seem odd for an author to ignore source material—and, naturally, you should read the book—but, for me, I first came across George Smiley and the world of Tinker Tailor in the BBC TV miniseries.

TV Miniseries

The BBC TV series was first broadcast in 1979. It was lent additional veracity and urgency by the umbrella murder of Georgi Markov which had taken place the previous year. The scene of Markov’s attack was half a mile away from the location of the Circus (the fictional Service’s headquarters).

Let’s be honest for a moment. While this production was doubtless a considerable expense on the part of the BBC at the time, it was made cheaply. But that cheapness probably reflects more of the reality of the situation—the British Secret Service in the 1970s was run on a tiny budget.

It was also filmed within a few years of the time setting in the book (the book was set in 1973), so I suspect that once locations had been found there was little need to dress the set to recreate the era. Equally, in 1979 showing London broken and bankrupt after World War II was mostly just a case of pointing a camera in any direction.

So while the TV series lacks some of the gloss of the film version, I suspect that its look is much closer to the reality.

In addition, being set over seven 45 minute episodes allows for a slower pace making the tightening of the noose a more rewarding experience. The compression of the movie into two hours is good, but some stories just feel better over five hours.

And for me, George Smiley will always be Alec Guinness, but Gary Oldman does play a very good Alec Guinness.

Seek out the television version (Amazon is your friend)—it’s well worth a watch. The 4:3 ratio (with the black bars on the sides of your screen) coupled with standard definition will remind you that you’re watching the 1970s. 

Back to the TV

I’ll be back in March, but if you don’t hear from me, come looking. I’ll probably be watching Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor, again…the TV version—the original as far as I’m concerned.

Who am I kidding? I’m going to watch them both.

Until March.

All the best

Simon