Pfefferkuchen

The pungent aroma of baking would often greet me when I came home from school. My mother was an expert baker (and cook) and had a wide range of goodies that she would make in the course of the year, as well as the delicious Challah and rolls she would bake every Friday.

But when Chanuka came round it would be time for her to bake the traditional delicacy known to us solely as Pfefferkuchen. Today I know that it’s called gingerbread or lebkuchen by the rest of the world, but for me and my family (and my sisters and their families) it will always be Pfefferkuchen. In Christian countries the delicacy is associated with Christmas, but for me it is an integral part of Chanuka.

To bake that special delicacy, which is something between a cake and biscuits (i.e., cookies) my mother would turn the whole kitchen into something approaching an industrial unit dedicated to the creation of the end-product. The preparation and baking process involved assembling a wide array of ingredients, spices, flavourings and decorations, and took several hours to achieve.

And the end-result was always a substantial quantity of delicious and delectable objects that we would consume with great enjoyment. Each biscuit would be adorned with icing upon which either multi-coloured hundreds-and-thousands or chocolate sprinkles would be scattered.

One of the treats of those far-off baking days would be the segments of Pfefferkuchen dough that my mother would leave unbaked, and which my sisters and I were allowed to roll out and then apply the gingerbread-man form to create a figure that would be placed on a baking tray and inserted into the oven to be baked. When it was ready, my mother would wield the icing-cone and deftly provide the baked gingerbread man with eyes, nose and mouth, and even buttons down his front. Then our greatest joy would be to eat the little man, biting off his head, arms and legs and eventually consuming all of him. Delicious!

Over the years I have been reluctant to undertake this baking enterprise myself. Yes, I have baked cakes and biscuits of various kinds, but nothing as ambitious and time- and energy-consuming as Pfefferkuchen. My family’s needs for this delicacy have been met by my two sisters, Esther and Ruth, who have kindly presented us with some of their production.  I have gratefully accepted their contribution to our general welfare, but as the years roll by I have started to feel increasingly inadequate in being unable to provide for my family’s requirements.

So this year I spent an evening as my sister’s apprentice, watching her prepare a batch (the first of several) of Pfefferkuchen. I came away clutching a box of delicious biscuits and a photocopy of the recipe that had been passed on to her by our mother.

After making sure I had all the ingredients, I decided to screw my courage to the sticking-post, as dear Lady Macbeth would have it, and embark on the enterprise myself. And believe me, it did take a lot of courage. The process begins with one whole kilogram of flour. That’s a lot of dough.

But it seems that having put everything together, mixed and rolled out the dough, and done my best to cut it into the requisite diamond shapes (but no gingerbread men), the end-result was passable, even edible, although I grant that there is still room for improvement. I presented each of my sisters with a (small) box of my first effort, and both pronounced it satisfactory. My own taste buds seem to find the result adequate, and those few souls who have been kind enough to try my first-fruits have given me positive feedback. In fact, within a week most of the initial production had been consumed by family and friends.

Thus encouraged, I felt ready to try and produce another batch. The second time, I’m happy to say, the process took less time and effort. And hopefully by next Chanuka I’ll be up to repeating the experiment.

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The Undoing Project; a Friendship that Changed Our Minds by Michael Lewis


 

In this book Michael Lewis sets out to describe the way two Israeli psychologists worked together over the course of several years to develop a theory about the process of decision-making and the way this affects and is affected by the inner workings of the human mind.

Michael Lewis begins his account of the long and convoluted road taken by Danny Kahneman and Amos Tversky, leading to the award to the former of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics (Amos Tversky died previously, and the Nobel Prize is awarded to living persons only), with an exceedingly long and detailed description of the way professional basketball players are selected for teams throughout the USA. The thought processes influencing the way trainers and coaches decide whom to accept or reject involve the consideration of large amounts of data, though the eventual decision may well be based on something other than the mere analysis of data, such as body image, racial preconceptions and ‘gut feeling.’

As an experienced journalist, Michael Lewis brings a personal angle into his writing about a subject that is essentially abstract and obscure, and embarks on a detailed depiction of the childhood and youth of Danny Kahneman, starting in Nazi-occupied Paris, continuing with the family’s flight into the French countryside and eventual emigration to Israel. Amos Tversky grew up in Israel, served in combat in the IDF, and participated in the Six Day War.

After military service both Danny and Amos were among the first students of psychology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Fascinated by the field of human decision-making already then, Danny Kahneman was tasked with assessing the psychological suitability of newly-inducted soldiers for the various units as well as for being sent to be trained as officers. He developed a relatively simple test that proved far more successful than other ways of identifying suitable officer material.

Both Kahneman and Tversky pursued academic careers with considerable success, working alongside one another in Jerusalem for many years, developing their ideas, theories and experiments as well as publishing papers and books. Michael Lewis stresses the close ties between the two men, more or less to the exclusion of almost any other academic or personal relations, though both got married and had children.

In later years, however, it seems that some kind of rift developed between them. Both moved to universities in the north American continent, but Tversky appeared to attract greater attention and obtain better posts at more prestigious universities than Kahneman. Nonetheless, their academic productivity continued to blossom, and their development of the decision-making processes that take place in the human mind was taken up by other disciplines, e.g., medicine, economics, and even the legal profession.

Michael Lewis presents just some of the approaches adopted by the duo in order to assess, measure and gauge the ways in which individuals process information in order to reach a decision, and they are indeed many and varied. In their work the methods of behaviorist psychology are combined with features from Gestalt theory, thus forming a completely new school of testing and analysis, yielding findings that have been found to be significant for a myriad of disciplines.

Lewis has worked hard to present this complex subject in a way that is interesting for the general reader, as is indicated by the list of sources and acknowledgements given at the end of the book. The workings of the mind continue to fascinate students of human behaviour, and it is thanks to the work of Kahneman and Tversky that some more light has been shed on this intriguing sphere.

Just Cruising

Aboard a cruise ship called ‘Carnival Dream,’ a veritable floating city, we shared the fourteen storeys or decks with some four thousand other passengers Our route took us from New Orleans, down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico and several Caribbean islands. From conversations with some of our fellow-passengers we learned that many were veterans of several cruises – fifteen or even twenty in some cases. We were among the few for whom this was their first cruise, and I must say that I can understand how one can become addicted to cruising. Every luxury is available, from non-stop dining to round-the-clock boozing, gambling, swimming, room service and entertainment of every kind. For us the highlights were the shore excursions and a very English-style tea-time, with triangular cucumber sandwiches and other delicacies, accompanied by a string trio playing a selection of light classics (and requests). I was tempted to ask for ‘Teddy Bear’s Picnic,’ as I used to in my childhood when my parents took me to Lyon’s Corner House, but feared the players (all from Buenos Aires) might not have known it.

Apart from enjoying the ship’s amenities, the fine dining in the evening and the ministrations of our cabin steward during the day, the shore excursions to Montego Bay in Jamaica, Grand Cayman Island and Xcaret Park in Mexico enabled us to experience, however briefly, different cultures and ways of life. Unfortunately, we also had to do our best to avoid the various shopping centres to which we were taken. The visit to the tropical park at Xcaret was unique in this respect, with a minimum of commerce and the opportunity to engage directly with Mexicao’s heritage as well as gorgeous flora and fauna, including tropical birds, animals and butterflies, and even the chance to swim in an underground river.

But most of all, the cruise experience enabled us to see what makes America (and Americans) tick. The answer is Fun, and that is what the ship provided, in spades. It was apparent that not all the passengers on board were wealthy or even prosperous, but had scrimped and saved to be able to enjoy a week of unbridled eating, dancing, gambling and entertainment, and were determined to enjoy every minute. The ship’s large casino was invariably full of people of all ages, sizes, ethnicities and means. Quite a large number of those on board were greatly overweight, even obese. But not to worry, medical services were also available, though I didn’t hear of any emergencies (though that doesn’t mean that there weren’t any). The entertainment provided – the printed schedule was distributed to all passengers daily – ran a dizzying gamut from stand-up comedy to Broadway shows, karaoke sessions, special meetings for singles and LGBTs, competitions and quizzes.

The atmosphere on board was cheerful in the extreme. In fact, the general air of bonhomie engendered by the incessant smiling and greeting dutifully undertaken by every single member of the (considerable) staff quickly rubbed off onto the passengers. Thus, every time one entered an elevator one was greeted with enthusiasm by the other passengers. Eventually we came to behave in the same way, and upon returning to land it was hard to get used to the idea of not welcoming people into every elevator or greeting every passing stranger.

Throughout the day food of every kind was provided on the deck devoted to this sphere, with some dishes being prepared on the spot. These ranged from the station known as Mongolian Wok – where the diner chooses from an array of vegetables which ones the (genuine Mongolian) chef should prepare for him or her – to a selection of Italian and other national dishes, as well as a burger bar (where there was always a queue) and salads, side dishes and desserts of every imaginable kind. Naturally, tea and coffee were available throughout the day and night.

Dinner in the evening was a more formal affair, where one had an assigned table and seating time, a menu that was different every day and a bevy of waiters who attended to one’s every need. On some evenings music was broadcast in between the courses and the waiters promptly took up their positions and danced to it. Some of the waiters were excellent dancers, but even those who weren’t made an admirable attempt to put on something of a show for us bemused diners. On the last night of the cruise the master of ceremonies introduced the various head chefs to the enthusiastic audience, and each one got a round of applause, after which all the dozens of kitchen staff appeared and together all sang the John Denver song ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane,’ which makes me smile now whenever I think of it (it doesn’t get played much on the classical music radio stations I listen to).

Cruising provides a vacation that combines relaxation with the chance to go and see different cultures while being pampered and cosseted in every possible way. And if one doesn’t feel like getting out and about to go ashore, there’s always one of the swimming pools or lounges, the casino, the spa, or even the library, where one can go and relax.

Or just go up to the food deck and get something to eat.

 

The Wandering Jews

Six weeks, eleven flights, six states, one one-week cruise and four countries (not including the USA). That is feeble compared with the Beatles’ tour of the USA in 1965 (twenty-five cities in thirty days), but they were much younger than we were (and probably flew first class). One (distant) relative looked at our itinerary and shuddered in horror. I’ll admit that the prospect of all the flights, airport security procedures and hanging around that was involved filled me with something akin to dismay, but in the event, everything worked perfectly.

Our main objective was to spend time with Ariel, our son-in-exile, and his new wife, Lisa, followed by visits to friends and relatives scattered throughout the USA. One of the results of WWII was to disperse our parents’ families to the four corners of the earth, with the USA playing a major role in providing a haven. Staying in touch with the various relatives hasn’t always been as easy as it is today, in the digital age of instant communication, but contact of some kind has almost always been maintained.

Thus it was that we were able to visit relatives and friends we hadn’t seen for several years, and it seemed to us that they all went to extraordinary lengths to make us comfortable in their comfortable homes, to get us together with other members of our far-flung family and to amuse and entertain us royally. Words cannot convey our gratitude to them all or express our joy at having been able to meet so many of them and simply just hang out together, and sit and chat and feel at our ease. In this way we were able to enjoy San Diego, California; Richmond, Virginia; Baltimore, Maryland and New Orleans, Lousiana, in addition to Las Vegas, Nevada.

Despite the nasty stuff that appears in the news, America is still an enormously prosperous and varied country, with amazing cities of every kind. Las Vegas greeted us with its bright lights and pezzaz, but it also has its suburban life, similar in many ways to other US cities. In New Orleans all around our hotel in the French Quarter were jazz bands and street performers banging on drums, juggling or tap dancing at all hours of the night and day. Other places were more sedate, even bucolic in a suburban kind of way, though what awaited us in New York was far from rolling countryside. Everywhere we went we saw construction, both commercial and residential, under way, and most of the people we encountered seemed well-dressed and well-fed.

We also enjoyed a Caribbean cruise. The choice was between a week in New York in chilly November or a spell in warmer climes and the chance to visit tropical isles, so we decided to go for the cruise. We had already spent a few days in Mexico City, in search of the art of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, and our visit happened to coincide with the legendary Day of the Dead. That was all interesting enough, but we also managed to squeeze in a very enjoyable (albeit exhausting) trip to the remains of the Aztec pyramids, thus satisfying our thirst for history, archaeology and art in one fell swoop.

Before leaving the USA we returned to Las Vegas to spend Thanksgiving with our new family, and that was quite an experience. Being able to participate, however modestly, in the massive preparations for the traditional feast was a privilege and a joy, and to sit down with eighteen other people at the beautiful table and partake of so many delicious dishes was an event the memory of which we will continue to savour and relish for many a day.

As for the cruise, well, that deserves a blog post of its own.

77 Miles of Jewish Stories; History, Anecdotes and Tales of Travel Along I-8 by Donald H. Harrison

The 70 chapters of this book appeared originally as individual articles in various editions of the San Diego Jewish World, the website edited by Donald Harrison that provides a wide variety of items culled from Jewish and other publications around the world. Harrison’s knowledge of Jewish-associated subjects, whether historical, geographical, political, social or general is encyclopaedic, and his writing is always lively and interesting.

Veteran journalist that he is, Harrison invariably finds an interesting ‘peg’ or angle to which to attach the item he is writing about, and in this particular instance the general scheme is based on his peregrinations along the Interstate route that abuts the border between the USA and Mexico, generally clinging to the southern part of the region in and around the city of San Diego (southern California).

Harrison has remained true to his motto, and that of his website, ‘There’s a Jewish story everywhere,’ and his efforts to confirm this have proven to be very fruitful. In addition, he is an expert in the history of San Diego and has authored a book giving the biography of Louis Rose, the first Jew to settle in San Diego in the early years of its foundation, in the 1850s. Who would have believed that one of the first residential developments in the city was named Roseville, after the man who conceived and executed the project, and that a memorial to the man is still in place there?

When I interviewed him, Harrison told me that he had decided to drive along I-8 and take every exit in turn, though it’s not clear whether he did this in the chronological order in which the chapters appear in the book. Be that as it may, the compilation contains a fascinating array of anecdotes, human interest stories, historical developments and events concerning Jews and Jewish communities along the route he describes, ranging from the Mormon church’s San Diego Family History Center reached from Exit 8 to the Beth Jacob orthodox synagogue at Exit 10, with Chabad of East County (Exit 13) and Qualcomm Way and Stadium, the telecommunications giant co-founded by Jewish electrical engineers, Irwin Jacobs, Andrew Viterbi and others at Exit 6.

All in all the book provides a fascinating and varied picture of life as it is lived in the USA and possibly elsewhere, too, simultaneously reflecting the similarities and differences between Jewish communities and individuals wherever in the world they may be.

Winds of Change

The latest event on the world stage, the not-very-stellar re-election of Angela Merkel and rise of the AfD party in Germany, seems to fit into the pattern that has characterized elections all over the world in recent years, with the rise of right-wing parties.

Some people think it started with Brexit, followed by Trump, but in actual fact it started much before that, right here in Israel, with the ongoing re-election of Binyamin Netanyahu and the Likud party, recently bostered by other, even more right-wing parties such as Jewish Home.

Support for Israel’s Labour party, which represented the generation of pioneers and socialist idealists who toiled and fought to establish the state of Israel, has declined steadily in recent decades. This has been due in part to lack-lustre leaders as well as to disillusion with the ideology – or lack of it – advocated by the party. The party seems to have never really recovered from the mortal blow delivered to it by the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, though the shift to the right began with the Yom Kippur War of 1973 and its aftermath.

As is the case elsewhere in the world, the right wing in Israel tends to be supported by those segments of the population that are largely poorly-educated and ready to swallow populist slogans trumpeted by cynical politicians and the public-relations firms they employ. In Israel there is the additional element of apprehension regarding the Palestinian population and the intentions of the neighbouring Arab countries. One cannot deny that there is a basis for some of these fears, as concerted military actions from the outside and occasional terrorist attacks from the inside have shown in the course of Israel’s history. The arrival of over a million immigrants from the former USSR has also bolstered the right-wing electorate. The ideological right wing in Israel claims the monopoly over advocating the right of Jews to have a country of their own, even though this was the guiding principle behind the actions of the socialist pioneering generations.

The right-wing tendencies that have emerged in Israel, as well as in countries that once advocated egalitarian ideas, tolerance of ‘the other’ and the provision of welfare for those unable to support themselves, have served to bring to the fore the baser aspects of human nature. The Biblical tenet of loving one’s neighbor as oneself has been supplanted by the concept of cut-throat competition and survival of the fittest. Xenophobic and beggar-my-neighbour behaviour is tolerated if not condoned, and the general atmosphere is clouded by public assertions that would have been unacceptable less than a decade ago.

Tensions within Israeli society are being exacerbated by irresponsible politicians, and utilized by some of them to further their own interests and careers. It is pitiable to see how far Israel has moved away from the high ideals that once characterized it and to observe the antics of the individuals who  now represent the electorate in the Knesset. But they are able to say in their defence that they are simply emulating the example of our cousins in other supposedly enlightened countries. Although there is some truth in this, it cannot be denied that we were there first.

 

Bibliophile

A few years ago a friend added me to the mailing list of a British publication that lists books (not ebooks) that are available at a reduced price. The masthead proudly proclaims that it is ‘Britain’s Best Postal Book Bargains.’ And at the side is the royal crest that bears the legend ‘By Appointment To H.R.H. The Duke of Edinburgh Booksellers London.’

The publication consists of over thirty closely-printed pages, with each page containing summaries of the various books offered, often accompanied by a colour photo of the cover. The prices are often very tempting. To take just one example, chosen at random, the paperback version of book (no. 88201) ‘Forget the Anorak: What Trainspotting Was Really Like,’ by Michael Harvey was 9.99 pounds sterling but is now reduced to 5 pounds. Of course, to that has to be added the cost of package and posting, but anyone ordering several books can thereby reduce that expense.

Just imagine, a newspaper lands in your mailbox, each of its thirty-six pages summarizes an average of fifteen books, so that you are offered a wide range of reading options in fields that vary from Biography to Art and Home Entertainment (they include CDs and greeting cards too), with every genre in between. In addition, you have the added satisfaction of knowing that H.R.H. The Duke of Edinburgh may be reading the very same books, or at least the Bibliophile summary of them (though I doubt he does much reading these days).

And so, on a monthly basis over the course of several years I have been able to enjoy summaries of an almost endless supply of books. In the past I have indeed ordered some books from there, but the attraction of printed accounts of books has been overshadowed by the almost infinite supply of books provided on-line by Amazon. And so there goes another industry swallowed up and destroyed by the internet.

Interspersed among the book summaries are little snippets of quotes, in italics, that remind the reader of the joys of reading. “Hell, it is well known, has no fury like a woman who wants her tea and can’t get it,” is from the almost unending store of bons mots taken from the works of P.G. Wodehouse. In the History section we find the following quote from John Maynard Keynes: “Ideas shape the course of history.” And there are many more, too numerous to give here.

Sadly, I feel that the days of Bibliophile are numbered. Admittedly, there are still those among us who prefer to read a printed page rather than peruse a computer screen, or worse still, a mobile phone screen, but they are getting ever fewer.

Because I have sought to market the books I write via various internet bookselling sites, I am bombarded on a daily basis by lists of books on offer, both in paper and in electronic form, which may be ordered or downloaded either gratis or for a very small fee. And of course, one can always go onto the Amazon site and look for books to buy or download, either according to subject or author or genre, or anything one wants.

The whole world is out there on the internet, so there is no need to restrict oneself just to the few hundreds of books offered by Bibliophile to its readers. But the focus of the Bibliophile readership appears to be on books published in England, either recently or in the past, and I still enjoy reading the well-written summaries. It’s almost as if I’ve read the actual book, so that I come away feeling that I’ve achieved something by devoting an hour or two to its pages.

Once again, we are forced to opine: sic transit gloria mundi.

 

 

Predators

No, it doesn’t apply to all men, but it would seem to be a corollary of the power that many men have obtained, by fair means or foul, over women, particularly in the workplace.

The recent revelations about the way Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein appears to have made a habit of molesting, harassing and pestering women for sexual favours have given rise to a wide range of expressions of shock, horror and disgust.

What a bunch of hypocrites! Especially the men.

It now transpires that everyone knew about Weinstein’s shenanigans. And nobody spoke up because he was all-powerful in Hollywood. And that, of course, is the devastating combination: men and power.

It’s not so long ago that we witnessed a tape of the current president of the USA boasting about molesting young women because of the power he wielded as a TV personality and owner of the Miss World beauty pageant. Yet it didn’t stop him getting elected to the highest office, probably because many men either identified with him or admired him for his (mis)behaviour. Why any women voted for him is beyond me, but that’s another matter.

Mr. Weinstein is far from being alone in the field of sexual harassment. Not so long ago Mr. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, or DSK as he was popularly known in his homeland, France, was the very powerful head of the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and on the verge of becoming the leading candidate for the French Presidency, But then he tried to molest a maid in a New York hotel, and was accused and found guilty of sexual assault and attempted rape. Then it transpired that he was widely known to have been a sexual predator, only nobody had had the courage to speak out.

The Fox News Channel has recently had to fire or accept the resignation of several of its leading anchor-men (not women) because it transpired that the sexual harassment of female colleagues was virtually part of the organisation’s culture. Something similar seems to have been going on in the administration of the Uber ride-hailing company, though details have not been made public. As in the other cases cited above, women and girls who rejected the advances of the predatory men were threatened, bullied, sacked or paid off.

In England in recent years horrifying reports have emerged of the sexual abuse of young girls, often in institutions for the disabled , by leading entertainer Jimmy Saville. Saville was a national figure whose name and face were universally known and who counted prominent politicians and media personalities among his friends. Everyone knew about it at the time. Everyone turned a blind eye. And only when a few brave women spoke up, after Saville’s death and very grand official funeral, did the truth begin to emerge. Subsequently he was disinterred and reburied in an unmarked grave somewhere on a Yorkshire hillside, but the damage to countless young women had been done, and gone unpunished.

It’s hard not to wonder what makes some men behave in this way, but I suppose the simple answer is ‘because they can.’ Being in a position of power seems to do something to the male brain, or rather some other part of their anatomy, and they do not hesitate to take advantage of their situation.

Let’s not kid ourselves, Harvey Weinstein isn’t alone in Hollywood in using his power to demand sexual favours. In fact, this is virtually a tradition in the movie industry, dating back to the time of the original ‘movie moguls’ and the concept of the ‘casting couch.’ Reports abound of similar behaviour by male actors, directors, producers and others employed in the movie industry.

Some people blame the way women dress, walk, behave or otherwise comport themselves. Others point the finger at the lax morals of our generation, the messages projected by many movies, the easy access to methods of birth control or the general atmosphere of modern life.

Let’s face it, rape has existed for as long as humans have been around. It’s reported in the Bible, it’s part of the weaponry of warfare, and it can only be perpetrated by the male of the species. In the past it was by virtue of superior physical strength that men were able to overcome women’s resistance and today it’s their power in the workplace that has given them an additional edge.

One can only hope that naming and shaming the most blatant perpetrators will serve as a salutory lesson and serve to dissuade others from emulating them.

Frantz; a Film Worth Seeing

To celebrate my birthday we went to see the film ‘Frantz,’ not knowing quite what it was about. This joint French-German production was well-received by the critics, so it seemed like a good idea. At least, we thought, we’d be able to practise our French and/or German a little.

The film starts with a scene in 1919 Germany, i.e., just after the end of the First World War, when we see a beautiful young woman, dressed in black, putting flowers on the grave of her dead fiance, the man who is at the centre of the film.

The setting  is a small town with a distinctly provincial character, the people are dressed as one would expect of the period, and the buildings are equally of their time. As we enter the house where the young woman lives with the parents of her dead fiance, the shift to the interior is equally convincing. We see the Biedermeyer furniture and fittings, hear the silences, can almost smell the food that is served and admire the genteel bearing of the older couple. Everything conveys a sense of old-world courtesy and dignified behaviour.

The arrival of a young French man who, it is assumed, knew their son, throws everyone’s preconceived ideas into disarray. The father initially refuses to have anything to do with him, regarding all Frenchmen as murderers of his son. The mother is more open and accepting, and the young woman is attracted to his artistic nature and gentle demanour.

In this day and age of the European Union it is hard to fathom the hatred that formerly existed between France and Germany. At one point someone remarks that German children learn French at school and French children learn German. Throughout the film there is an undercurrent of irony as men on each side proclaim their patriotism and sing their respective national anthems with fervour. Sitting in the cinema we know where all this will lead, and feel for all those who will be caught up in the coming conflagration.

It is a telling moment when the father of the dead soldier confesses his guilt at having encouraged his reluctant son to enlist and fight for the fatherland. He says quite clearly that ‘we old men sent our sons to be killed,’ realising too late that his attitude was mistaken. If only the realisation had come earlier, and if only that attitude had not led to another war.

There are several logical flaws in the film, but the acting is superb and the message is convincing. We see all too clearly the ravages of war, and the futility of adhering to nationalist ideas on both sides. The faithful reproduction of the interior of the German middle-class home made me feel as if I were able to look into the homes of my own German grandparents.

Both my grandfathers fought for Germany in the First World War, even though they were married men with children. One grandfather was fortunate enough to die at home shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War, while the three other grandparents were murdered in concentration camps by their compatriots. I never knew any of them, but sitting in the cinema I felt as if I were seeing them, listening to the way they spoke, even seeing my grandmother doing her embroidery, serving dinner to her family, and conducting herself in a way that was empathetic, generous and kind. The speech of all the characters portrayed was invariably moderate, civilised and respectful of others.

I believe that all my grandparents were good, kind people whose lives were tragically cut short, depriving me and the rest of my family of their presence. The lack of grandparents has bothered me since I was a child, and it seems to be a part of me that just will not go away. I don’t know if it’s legitimate on my part to find solace in a fairly superficial commercial film, but it seems that I’m ready and willing to accept any substitute for the real thing.

 

‘Stalin’s Englishman; the Lives of Guy Burgess’ by Andrew Lownie

 

 

(published by Hodder and Stoughton, 2015

The defection to the USSR of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean in 1951 remained prominent in the British press for almost a decade. Their defection was followed  a few years later by that of Kim Philby, and eventually also the unmasking and confession of Sir Anthony Blunt. These four, together with, it is surmised, John Cairncross, were known as the ‘Cambridge Five,’ the men who passed reams of secret documents to their Soviet handlers.

All five men were members of what is universally recognised as the British upper class, born into wealth, given the best education money could buy and blessed with the intelligence and ability that gave them access to senior politicians and enabled them to attain senior positions in MI5, MI6, the BBC and the Foreign Office.

Andrew Lownie’s research into the life and times of Guy Burgess, the man who is considered to have been the principal secret agent, reveals a person of outstanding intellectual ability who went through the rigorous education system accorded to young males in Britain (Dartmouth, Eton, Oxbridge). Perhaps this system had something to do with the fact that most of the Cambridge Five were avowed homosexuals, and Burgess was apparently extremely promiscuous in this regard, even though at the time homosexual behavior was banned by law in England. This may also have enabled the Russians to blackmail the men into cooperating with them.

While studying for a degree in history at Cambridge Burgess became convinced that Russian Communism was the way forward, and he supported various workers’ causes. At that time the Russians were assiduously seeking out students who would support their cause and serve as agents on their behalf. America, which was in the throes of McCarthyism, was abhorred by Burgess. After leaving university he was employed organising talks on current events at the BBC, later moving on to various posts in the Foreign Office, while Maclean, Philby and the others rose through the ranks of MI5 and MI6, the secret surveillance and espionage agencies.

There can be little doubt that the background shared by the Cambridge Five with most of the other employees of the institutions in which they were employed helped to keep them in their positions. The concept of ‘the old school tie,’ and the fact that they shared the same way of dress, habits, haunts and speech cadences served to prevent them from coming under suspicion. Referring to espionage activity, a letter sent by one Foreign Office official to another contains the sentence: ‘It seems that Donald (i.e., Maclean) is up to his old tricks.’ In a telling phrase, Lownie comments on this in one of the copious notes to the book, ‘This was alas typical of the way Maclean’s case was handled by the Foreign Office.’

Burgess’s heavy drinking eventually got him into trouble, and when Maclean’s cover was blown the two men managed to defect undetected to the USSR even though the British authorities had begun to grow suspicious of them and were investigating their activities. This, however, was pursued in a bungling and somewhat lackadaisical fashion. Reading about the episode today brings scenes from the satirical television series ‘Yes, Minister’ to mind. Only the actual events were in no way amusing.

In the final chapter of the book Lownie speculates on the reasons for Burgess’s actions, and concludes that he experienced rejection and alienation in his youth, as well as the lack of a father (his father was often away at sea, and died when Burgess was only thirteen), causing him psychological stress. While there was certainly an ideological element in his actions, he also had a rebellious streak and a desire to ‘épater le bourgeois.’ The man who loved to engage in intellectual debate, gossip with friends, visit the London clubs where the members of the upper class congregated and enjoy the good things of life, ended his days in the drab environment of Soviet Russia, drinking heavily while missing his friends and all things English.

It has taken Andrew Lownie thirty years to complete this fascinating book, which is based on an immense body of written and oral material – published and unpublished theses, books, interviews, correspondence and manuscripts. Lownie has succeeded in bringing to life – and  even arousing our sympathy for – a character who betrayed his country without batting an eyelid or experiencing a single moment of regret.

I was privileged to attend the author’s talk about the book given at the Charroux Literary Festival held in France last August, and this aroused my appetite to read it. I’m glad to say that I am now able to treasure the copy signed by Mr. Lownie himself and I have derived immense enjoyment from reading it.