I find myself in something akin to unknown territory with this one. The author contacted us to request a review and I am more than happy to oblige. I assumed the title indicated a book that would be a series of episodes of cloak and dagger stuff with tales of dodgy GRU agents driving battered Audi 60s tailed by American spooks around West Berlin. I was partly correct. The book is most definitely a series of episodes – descriptions, reflections and so on; but it is nothing like I imagined.
While there are plenty of broad hints at the world of espionage with a number of scintillatingly vague nods to the author’s service with dead letter boxes, cyphers and assignations to the fore, the cut and thrust of the book are a sequence of essays delivering a message of faith and optimism in both the human spirit and the values of the United States as a nation. Now, this might all sound a million miles away from the kind of books you’d expect us to review. But there is a lot goingon here in a relatively compact space and while it might be on the outer limits of our range, it has a depth to it a good many people will appreciate.
The essays reflect on the evils of totalitarianism and the modern spectre of fundamentalism. These take us from the all-encompassing evil of Hitler and the Nazis, past the at times harrowing state sponsored suspicion of East Germany to the bewildering events of 9/11. The author takes us back briefly to when his ancestors left what we would now describe as a fundamentalist state – Protestant England of the seventeenth century, for the religious freedom of the American colonies. This shortest of revelations speaks volumes about the entire concept of the book. There is something deeply spiritual going on here, not just the clear affirmation of Christian faith, but a deeper look at the challenges of good versus evil in all its forms. The author seems to want to break the climate of fear pervading in so many strata of our world. The book won’t cure Ebola or bring about the capture of the murderous Jihaddi John – both omnipresent nightmares of the British press; but it will point towards strength in the human spirit to look them in the face. Strong stuff perhaps, but maybe my interpretation of it will be miles away from what other readers take from it and, do you know what? That doesn’t matter at all.
The crux is, here is someone who faced many dangerous situations during his life in uniform and then as a civil servant (presumably of a very specific kind) who is able to look back at it all from a position of complete faith in his beliefs and actions. What he is doing here is offering a kind of instruction manual for how to face the very worst and come through it with confidence. What do they say? What can kill you makes you stronger, something like that. There are some immensely strong people in this book.
So, it obviously had an impact on me. Anyone whose life experience can encompass a disparate bunch like Erich Honecker, Noel Coward, Edmund Burke and Osama bin Laden in one slim volume is on the right track to a worldliness I have room for. I was brought up in an Anglican community by parents who were a secret Atheist and a confused agnostic but while I don’t support a particular team in middling adult life I do strongly believe in a power of goodness defeating or at least cancelling out the evils in our world. This is why the book resonates with me. I didn’t find it the easiest of reads but its heart is definitely in the right place. I read it from front to back in the space of day’s commuting in and out of London. If you feel there is something missing in your life, and I don’t mean Ferraris and dating catwalk models, then I would seriously give it a read. Like I said, I find myself in an unknown territory. It doesn’t take long to hop back into the familiar and it makes you think. No harm done.
Reviewed by Mark Barnes for War History Online
RAINY STREET STORIES
Reflections on Secret Wars, Espionage and Terrorism
By John W Davis
Red Bike Publishing