BOOK CLUB: The Pigeon Tunnel

BILL NASSON is enthralled by the cryptic, shadowy patchwork of memories that form spy novelist John le Carré’s masterful memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel.

The Pigeon Tunnel

In his recent mammoth 652-page biography of John le Carré, one of the world’s major writers, his biographer suggests that the reason that he continues to practise his craft well into his mid-eighties is that ‘writing has become a form of addiction for him’. Or perhaps, as Adam Sisman concludes in his 2017 John le Carré: The Biography, his compulsive book production is ‘his way of ordering an untidy life’. Indeed, his most recent act of psychological settling, published earlier this year at the age of 85, is the novel, A Legacy of Spies.

To read it is to be reminded that Le Carré has lost none of his masterly narrative grip and fondness for edgy metaphors. His casting of the spell of an atmospheric story continues to pull in the reader as if in some modern version of Coleridge’s eighteenth-century Ancient Mariner. Come to that, today John le Carré has become something of an Ancient Mariner himself. And while a famous literary figure, he remains a shadowy, little-known personality. In that sense, he might be seen as the J.M. Coetzee of his artistic genre – the Cold War and post Cold War spy story.

The unusual title of this collection of John le Carré’s non-fiction writings, The Pigeon Tunnel, has a lengthy pedigree. Both the author and his biographer, Adam Sisman, reveal that it was the original working title of virtually every book he has written. It entered Le Carré’s imagination in the early 1950s when he found himself witnessing a pigeon-shoot in front of a fancy casino in Monaco. Cradling shotguns, the beady-eyed rich basked on the seafront lawns while pigeons which were shoved into dark underground tunnels beneath waggled out into the bright Mediterranean sunlight. As the birds fluttered skywards above the sea they were shot by the hotel guests. Pigeons who escaped the cruel fire then did what pigeons tend to do – they flew back to the casino roof where they had been bred, only to be captured and inserted into a tunnel to run the deadly gauntlet once again.

In typically enigmatic fashion, John le Carré informs us that he is unable to provide a personal explanation of why he has been haunted for so long by the memory of the pigeon tunnel, clearly a grotesque image that has lodged in his mind like a limpet. There is, though, no shortage of clues dotted about in the 38 absorbing pieces which make up The Pigeon Tunnel – its writer’s poignant understanding of the pigeons and their world of entrapment – unable to escape through flight, lacking the guile to dodge their awful fate, and doomed to repeat their deadly spiral. That bleak hint at destiny is there, too, in A Destiny of Spies, reportedly meant to be his last book. In it, the padlocked predicament that befalls Peter Guillam, the stalwart MI6 agent sidekick of Le Carré’s greatest character creation, George Smiley, is illuminated nicely by a line from the Anglican Church’s The Book of Common Prayer: ‘We be tied and bound by the chain of our sins’.

Still, don’t be misled into thinking that the spirit of this cooing nest of Stories from My Life is all searing or broodingly melancholic. For it is virtuoso John le Carré, displaying in his autobiographical non-fiction the renowned trademarks of his famous fictional works like The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and The Little Drummer Girl. This consistently entertaining compilation contains slices of life experience presented in ways that are exhilaratingly inventive and artful, are often cryptic, that reveal a keen ear for the tiny nuances of speech and dialogue, which dabble in fresh turns of the screw, which capture the coded condescension and sarcasm of educated elites, and which switch silkily between credible fact and a fictional re-imagining of some or other incident or person.

Even if there are moments when you may find yourself scratching your head over the depiction of something or other, you are encouraged to suspend any disbelief and to read on. After all, as Le Carré reflects in one of the short essays in this collection, that dealing with the creation of his novel, The Tailor of Panama, he hit on the name, Pendel, for the book’s arch-deceiver and fantasist. Why? Not merely because it was resonant of early immigrant Jewish tailoring families.

More tellingly, it was also after the German word for pendulum, as ‘I liked to think of him swinging back and forth between truth and fiction’. With a shifty Pendel in place, all that remained was to conjure up ‘a decadent, well-born British rascal’ with an eye on the money to recruit him.

Such furtiveness is displayed abundantly in The Pigeon Tunnel, and we know where it comes from. ‘People who have had very unhappy childhoods’, John le Carré writes, ‘are pretty good at inventing themselves’. The story of his life is at one level one of how his boyhood skills at fabrication, concealment and deception went on to become polished professionally in adulthood through work in British intelligence and as a spy, and in his trade as a subtle teller of intricate spy stories.

It is not for nothing that John le Carré is a mask over his real name, David Cornwell. Far more than any commonplace thriller writer’s pseudonym, in the murky world of MI6 espionage it would also serve as a cover name. As the reader is told by this most inscrutable of writers, ‘out of the secret world I once knew I have tried to make a theatre for the larger worlds we inhabit’. In its Pigeon Tunnel autobiographical creation, Le Carré’s ‘true stories told from memory’ have no pretence at being ‘pure’. For a creative writer in what he calls ‘the evening of his life… real truth lies, if anywhere, not in facts, but in nuance’, and that facility, in turn, is the product of ‘a lifetime of blending experience with imagination’.

Thus, whatever the beans which Le Carré spills in this book are of a deliciously calculating sort. Right towards the end of The Pigeon Tunnel, we are told, ‘I don’t type. I have never typed’. That sense of a hand snaking across a page to compose this or that fluid masterpiece feels right, even oddly reassuring – penmanship is surely something to be expected of an Eton-and Oxford-educated British mandarin, brought up on polished hand-written memos rather than Microsoft Office. But is the claim never to have typed really true? Small wonder that so much of The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life drips mystery of a highly intelligent kind.

With Le Carré’s autobiographical stew covered by this cryptic crust, we get meaty slivers which cover almost 350 pages. There are deftly composed snapshots of his personal encounters with secret police interrogators, spies, terrorists, journalists, war correspondents, film directors and actors, politicians (including Margaret Thatcher and Francesco Cossiga, the president of Italy), political prisoners, Cold War political defectors, and diplomats (mostly devious).

Rich in human insight, they are vivid in detail and written with unfailing panache and often a sardonic edge. Take, for instance, his fleeting acquaintance as an Oxford student with one of his undergraduate peers, a man called Reginald Bosanquet. Decades later, he became the television newsreader, Reggie Bosanquet, famous in Britain of the 1960s and 1970s for his tendency to hit the bottle before fumbling his way through the evening news. Even as a young undergraduate, Bosanquet had a swagger and deep pockets, ‘a private income, a sports car, beautiful women and a kind of premature adulthood to go with them’.

As a cash-strapped le Carré recalls, ruefully and candidly, ‘we liked each other, but there is only so much time you can spend with a man who lives the life you dream of and can afford it when you can’t’.

There is much else in this book on those with a stifled yearning for more and a genius for deceit. Perhaps the most powerful – and by far the most poignant – is ‘Son of the author’s father’ – a reflection on ‘Ronnie, conman, fantasist, occasional jailbird, and my father’. The author sniffs around him, weaving the strands of his glamorous and grubby worlds together, building up the sense of a disreputable family man whose ‘entire life was spent walking on the thinnest, slipperiest layer of ice you can imagine’. As a haunting memoir, it is masterly.

As I was finishing this review, there was news of the death in London of Christine Keeler, the call-girl at the centre of the 1963 Profumo Scandal which resulted in the fall of Britain’s Conservative government. With the Cold War hot, she was found to be sleeping simultaneously with John Profumo, the British Secretary of State for War and with Yevgeny Ivanov, the naval attaché of the Soviet embassy in London. It is worth thinking about this as classic John le Carré territory, and what his hands would have made of it as fiction. Except that he would not have needed to make it up.

The Pigeon Tunnel is published by Penguin. Nasson is Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Stellenbosch. His most recent book is History Matters: Selected Writings, 1970-2016, and was published in 2016 by Penguin.

BOOK CLUB: History Matters

A richly varied and highly entertaining new collection of pieces by Bill Nasson showcases the breadth, consistency and versatility of one of our leading historians, writes ALEXANDER MATTHEWS.

History Matters

I must confess to approaching this review with more than a little trepidation. It’s not just that (for reasons that should soon become apparent) I think Bill Nasson is one of finest historians working in South Africa today. It’s also because writing about his writing is rather close to home. Literally. Nasson lives a few blocks away from my parents; in my teenage years I’d often see him pass by on his bike or walking his dogs.

More recently, he’s become a dear friend – and, ever since its founding, one of AERODROME’s staunchest supporters. Over the past four years it’s been a great pleasure to publish on this site a number of book reviews he’s written – several of which appear in History Matters, a wondrous compilation of his writings stretching back to 1970. In this tasty smorgasbord, we see the depth, length and breadth of his writing – and both his versatility and consistency. The book is helpfully grouped into different sections such as book reviews, social histories, and the world wars, which means you can snack on whatever takes your fancy, in whichever order you choose.

Nasson’s love of writing, of ideas, of stories shine through all of these pieces. In A Historical Education, the book’s first section, we get a sense of how this love might have been conceived – or at the very least nurtured. Here we encounter the “highly cultured” teachers of Livingstone High in Cape Town’s southern suburbs – most notably, the “super-legendary” deputy principal R.O. Dudley (to whom the book is dedicated). Dudley was an avowed and widely respected opponent of apartheid who was also “wholly contemptuous of any idea of ethnic identity and who never tired of being mockingly disdainful of political populism”. In his 2010 obit after the great man’s passing, Nasson recalls how his “pupils were taught to think critically and widely, and not to see learning as a matter of absorbing this or that school subject”. Dudley went way beyond his remit as a chemistry teacher. He would host secular assemblies as alternative to the school’s scripture-based ones – where students “could gather for Bertrand Russell rather St Paul”. And, in the classroom, Nasson writes that, “what he provided was a historical education that was at the same time an inculcation of political thinking” – always able “to ease the misery of being unable to fathom the periodic table of elements” by offering titbits of metaphysical English poetry or disquisitions on “the deformities of Stalinist Russia”.

At a time when the vital contributions of many non-ANC activists are being airbrushed out of history by the ruling party’s aggressive mythologising, these pages offer a trenchant reminder of the richly diverse and sometimes fiercely intellectual strains that formed part of the struggle against apartheid. The recollections also go a long way in describing the hothouse in which Nasson’s independent, critical thinking and wide-ranging curiosity began to blossom.

The golden thread weaving together all of History Matters’ pieces are Nasson’s beautiful writing, his eye for detail and for the absurd, and a wry, incisive humour – which is directed at himself as often as it is towards others. He shows a deep respect for his readers and for the subjects he tackles; he is witty without being blasé or flippant, critical without being needlessly cruel.

Whether discussing a Ford factory town deep in the jungle, or a history of mail or maps, his book reviews always manage to make the topics in question entertaining. Whether or not you ever end up reading the books he reviews, his pieces about them are still very much worth your time because of their flair, humour and deft engagement with the text he’s reviewing.

Nasson is no reductionist; he knows there are many shades between the starkness of black and white. He is capable of showing contempt for the “detestable” imperialist Rudyard Kipling – while being an Anglophile who grew up on English comics and studied at the universities of Hull, York and Cambridge. Time and time again you see his appreciation for nuance, complexity and paradox – a sensibility that in the age of “no-platforming” seems very much in short supply.

One such paradox we encounter is how an imperial Britain, which had yoked vast swathes of the world under the Union Jack, was, in the opening phase of the Second World War, almost singlehandedly fighting fascism and Nazism – and thereby alone in defending ideas such as equality before the law, parliamentary democracy and free speech. Even more of a paradox, perhaps, was the idea that an Afrikaans man – with the infamous surname of Malan no less – might be one of that country’s saviours. In Nasson’s utterly engrossing history of A.G. ‘Sailor’ Malan, we witness his dizzying trajectory as an accomplished fighter ace, one of ‘the few’ that fought in the skies over England in 1940. We see how this Afrikaner, upon return to South Africa after the war, would take up the fight for non-racialism in South Africa – a battle in which he was much less successful.

Although he’s spent his entire career in academia, Nasson is that rare thing: an academic who looks beyond theories to appreciate the humanity, the emotional and social core of history. His writing crackles with intelligence but never descends into the dry, jargon-laded prose so often associated with his peers – he’s never highfalutin, never speaking over his audience; he’s conversational, eloquently weaving anecdote and argument into a rich tapestry. With clarity and crispness both hallmarks of his own writing, it’s no wonder that he includes among his favourite quotes at the end of the book, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “What can be said at all, can be said clearly”. His lampooning of the epidemic of academic jargon in a satirical column, in the now-defunct Southern African Review of Books, is particularly delicious – and as relevant today as it was when it was first published in 1993. “Leading cultural spokespersons,” he wrote, “are to be applauded for keeping minds alive and fixed on ‘interstices’,‘textualities’, ‘signifiers’ and ‘mediations’ during a period when so many institutions are burdened by the practical challenges of development and change on the African continent.”

Nasson recognises that history is not merely about great men — the generals, the kings, the prime ministers — but about the ordinary folk enduring extraordinary times. As he takes us from District Six to the battlefields of the Boer War, it’s clear that he sees it his duty as an historian to shine a light on some of these. Among the most fascinating is his account of Abraham Esau – a Calvinia-based blacksmith. Like many other coloureds in the area, Esau was an English-speaking Anglican with “a passionate attachment to the lukewarm liberalism of the Cape Colony’s 1853 non-racial franchise”. During the Anglo Boer War at the turn of the Twentieth Century, he assembled “a motley band” to challenge incursions by Boer forces in Namaqualand, though his pleas to the local magistrate for arms was rejected (due to the belief that giving “guns to coloured civilians would lead to ‘mischief’”). After the Boers took control of the area, Esau was brutally interrogated and shot, becoming “a martyr of Cape liberal political culture” that would be remembered as a hero through the stories and folklore of local coloured communities for decades to come.

My absolute favourite piece is Nasson’s minutely and hilariously observed account of being a historical consultant for a movie, The Deal – when Hollywood came to “Cape Town, its beloved cheaper version of California, where the extras are not led astray by pesky unions or minimum wage rules”. It is these poor extras who get as much (in fact, probably more) page time as the movie’s stars, William H. Macy and Meg Ryan. Hired to appear in a Victorian-era House of Commons scene, “these shuffling MPs were shepherded about in bullying fashion by a young, abrasive crew member dubbed ‘Sony’ who took relish in informing anyone within earshot, ‘Fuck man, I’m so sweet’.”  In addition to being tasked with writing the script of this particular scene, Nasson is also roped in to star as a speaker of the house. Before the cameras start rolling, he advises on the removal of historically inaccurate items from the makeshift set, including ball point pens, digital watches and too-modern spectacles – so that “extras faced a fuzzy House of Commons”.

Given how difficult I find the craft of writing, I’ve always rather envied Nasson’s seemingly effortless style – he makes putting words on a page seem so easy and assured. But even he is, at times, at a loss for words. The book’s most poignant piece, After the book-burning, begins with a few paragraphs describing a call in December 2010 from his department head who told him that the history building at Stellenbosch University (where Nasson is a distinguished professor) was on fire.

These paragraphs form an essay Nasson has never completed. As much as he has wanted “to express the meaning of loss”, he has never been able to. If only it were possible to get sentences to run as freely as fire does,” he reflects in the explanatory text below. The blaze consumed 3000 of his books (including a Shelley biography he received in 1969 as an English school prize), films, journals, papers, research material and more – all which “remains unforgettable as much as irreplaceable”. On the facing page are two images showing “what happens to paper (and much else besides) when the temperature reaches Fahrenheit 451”. He leaves it at that, inviting us to draw our own, devastating conclusions.

In one piece, Nasson worries that “the country’s professional history writers have largely withdrawn from any common conversation with an everyday audience. In an exchange of numbingly dry products or fields, historians write for each other, no longer trading a literary craft or good writing.” For history books to regain relevance and readership amongst ordinary people, he argues that “historical scholarship needs to dip into the ancestral richness of literary narrative so that it, too, cultivates the classic idioms of human experience like irony, malice and calamity. South Africa’s divided past surely has more than its fair share of those. And, in illuminating its complexities, the power of history can challenge the more unreasoning forces which stalk the posturing present”.

And so, history, he compellingly argues, should be something that enthrals and entertains as much as it should inform.  Collectively these writings show why history really does matter and why it matters that it is written well. They remind us that there are many histories; not a single narrative – as Chimamanda Adichie has warned us in another context, we should be deeply distrustful of the single story. History Matters shows us that often the footnotes are just as fascinating and important as the biggest stories and characters of the age. It reminds us that the better we know our history, the better we know ourselves – and that a thorough understanding of our past gives us a solid foundation on which to build our future.

It’s no exaggeration to think of Nasson as a something of a George Orwell for our time and place: clear-sighted, iconoclastic (and occasionally caustic), not easily seduced by dogma; and both a lover and purveyor of good, clear and important writing that stays with you long after you’ve turned the final page. I’m not saying I’m not biased – but if you read History Matters I’m confident you’ll agree.

History Matters is published by Penguin.

BOOK CLUB: Emily Hobhouse

Professor Bill Nasson reviews two fine books on the Boer War campaigner Emily Hobhouse, The Compassionate Englishwoman: Emily Hobhouse in the Boer War by Robert Eales, and Emily Hobhouse: Beloved Traitor by Elsabé Brits.

In the early 1970s, the South African Navy acquired a new French submarine which it surprisingly named the SAS Emily Hobhouse. Then, with the coming of a New South Africa in 1994, it was plus la change for the bonsai fleet of Simon’s Town. Liberated from the mud of its symbolic European imperial past, the poor old Emily Hobhouse was renamed to see out the rest of its life as the SAS umKhonto, the Zulu word for assegaai or spear. That was also a little odd. After all, whatever his regal place in national history, it has never been that of Shaka of the Sea.

Emily Hobhouse’s position in South African political history is based largely on the honour and affection with which she has come to be regarded by this country’s Afrikaner people. Equally, the standing of umKhonto weSizwe or MK is based on the rosy view of its admirers of the heroic place which mainland guerrilla fighters occupied in the armoury of the anti-apartheid liberation struggle. While their symbolic association with the navy was bemusingly inappropriate in both instances, you might think no great surprise there, given South Africa’s champion political habit of getting such things wrong.

Trust one lot of its nationalist rulers to brand a warship after an English humanitarian liberal proto-feminist and pacifist. And for their post-apartheid successors to ditch the name of a female human rights campaigner in favour of something more martial-sounding – the thudding boots of goose-stepping irregular warriors. Thinking of the political anointing of Emily Hobhouse and of her subsequent political scuttling brings to mind the unforgettable words of the poet and satirist, Roy Campbell, who in 1928 declared, despairingly, ‘South Africa, renowned far and wide, for politics, and little else beside’. Were she to have lived on miraculously, one cannot but wonder what the remarkable Miss Hobhouse would have made of twentieth-century South Africa in its successive post-1910, post-1948, and post-1994 guises?

Although Emily Hobhouse tried to reform hard-drinking miners in the American west in the 1890s, and journeyed to Germany and Belgium on a peace mission in the thick of the First World War in June 1916, it was in South Africa that she made her name through her exposure of the horrendous conditions in the civilian concentration camps established by the British in their imperial war of 1899-1902 against the defiant republican Boers. It was this unpatriotic trouble-making that landed her in hot water, prompting Joseph Chamberlain, Britain’s Colonial Secretary, to regard her as a wholesale threat to the British Empire, and enraging the British Army’s commander-in-chief in South Africa, Field-Marshal Lord Kitchener. A famously confirmed bachelor, he rounded on Hobhouse repeatedly, ordering the deportation from South Africa of ‘that bloody woman’.

Concerned with bringing the courageous and tragic story of Emily Hobhouse back to shimmering life, these two attractive, well-written, and deeply sympathetic books illuminate her turbulent wartime years in South Africa, the country that, as Robert Eales puts it poignantly, ‘would never leave her’. Portraying Hobhouse the radical humanitarian as a blend of Joan of Arc and Florence Nightingale, The Compassionate Englishwoman and Emily Hobhouse are complementary as well as slightly contrasting biographies, as Elsabe Brits also tells the neglected story of her anti-war activities during 1914-18, a stand for which she was damned as treasonous by some British parliamentarians. Hers is the more expansive and rounded of these new volumes.

Robert Eales, a retired South African businessman living in Australia – and, in that sense, a classic ‘gentleman scholar’ – has written a moving account of an indefatigable figure who found herself on the wrong side of history, criss-crossing a war-torn country to investigate, to expose, and to try to alleviate the Boer concentration camp crisis. The author provides a scholarly, well-paced portrait of his heroine, who seethes and spits under the oppressive shadow of her country’s men of war, bearing witness unflinchingly as Britain’s reluctant conscience. His book abounds in its meticulous recording of episodes and thumb-nail sketches of a mixed gallery of characters, including not merely the usual suspects (Milner, Kruger, Roberts, Kitchener), but also Arthur Conan Doyle and Joshua Rowntree.

In telling a soaring story of pioneering feminism, obstinacy, and fearlessness, The Compassionate Englishwoman can also be a little frustrating at times as Dr. Eales is inclined to mull over what cannot actually be known. Thus, on the issue of Hobhouse’s overlooking of conditions in British concentration camps for black refugees, we are told that while we can ‘only speculate’, it may well have ‘troubled her’ on the grounds of what she perhaps ‘suspected’. Ever woken up at night wondering what class of ship cabin Hobhouse used in her travels between Britain and South Africa? No, me neither, but the author tells us anyway – a first-class berth which may possibly not have been her preferred choice.

Translated with flair from Afrikaans by Linde Dietrich, Emily Hobhouse: Beloved Traitor, by the scholarly journalist, Elsabe Brits, is a thickly-researched life story which seeks to weave together this ‘bloody’ woman’s public persona and her – often heartbreaking – personal life. While there is no shortage of sentimentality and a recounting of moral episodes in black-and white values, Emily Hobhouse reproduces much which is captivating, including rare sketches of its subject, photographs of her jewellery and clothing, and her affectionate water-colour paintings of ravaged farmhouses.

Ms Brits is also informative on the more private thoughts, feelings, and dilemmas of this highly-strung and mostly solitary figure, drawing on a rich patchwork of evidence to show that beneath the crust of her immersion ‘in the great issues of the time’, there lurked ‘a vulnerable Emily who yearned to be loved’. This author grasps, as do all good biographers, that snatches of commonplace detail and gentle insight can attract the reader far more than grand theories about constructing life history narratives.

Some readers may be less attracted by the peculiar volume layout and page design which the publisher has hit on for some unfathomable reason – to appeal to adults stuck in early adolescence, perhaps? Emily Hobhouse is a sprawling book, with something of the frantic feel of a school-level ‘show and tell’ compendium. Much of its fascinating and highly informative material is conveyed through boxes, inserts, snippets and high-lighted quotations, jostling amongst squares, circles and triangles coloured green, red, orange, and purple. In some places, the placing of grainy grey images or faded archival text against a dark background hue seems to require a magnifying glass or a flashlight – or even both. In this respect, the gaunt, bony, Victorian story of Emily Hobhouse has not been well-served by its Marvel Comics presentation. Still, who knows, if you like this sort of flash look in books, then this is the sort of look that you will like. But in any event, be sure not to be put off by it, for you would be missing a unique feminine – and feminist – story of resilient idealism and tough realism.

Both of these fine books have a slightly strained tendency to depict Emily Hobhouse as a historical figure ahead of her time, or distinctively modern in her passionate identity as a pacifist, feminist, and campaigner against oppression and injustice. Quite rightly, Emily Hobhouse depicts this with considerable verve and confidence, providing readers with an engrossing picture of a great transformational woman, tilting at the towering windmills of masculinity to the very end of her life. Elsabe Brits is particularly good on the exceptional talents, moral sensibilities and compassionate motivations of this daughter of a Cornish Anglican vicar, arguing for an appreciation of Hobhouse’s significance beyond that of her duties in 1901 for the Women and Children Distress Fund in bringing the scandal of the camps to the attention of the British public.

Highly literary, Emily Hobhouse certainly had a universal air about her, preoccupied as she was with the big ideas of humanity – the meaning of justice, the value of life, the universality of women’s rights, the common right to freedom, the ethical basis of civilisation, and so on. As a liberal humanist, she had a wide reach and her measure of what was right or wrong was largely universal – as Hobhouse asserted to the post-1902 Afrikaners with characteristic bluntness, ‘should not the justice and liberties you love so well, extend to all’ .

At the same time, due account still needs to be taken of the fact that Hobhouse was also a public woman of her historical time. Her strident advocacy of women’s rights and of equal citizenship for men and women reflected her support of the female suffrage movement in Edwardian Britain. Her starchy battles for temperance were rooted in the puritanical middle-class moralising of the Victorian age. Arguably most importantly, when it came to British imperialism, Hobhouse was always more a critic of empire than an anti-imperialist. Inescapably, a patrician woman of empire, despite her fervent sympathy with the suffering of the Boer people, she never disowned the empire that had caused it. For Hobhouse, Britain’s failure in the 1899-1902 war was that of having fallen short of its lofty ideals of civilisation, justice and humanity.

Indeed, her famous 1913 speech to an Afrikaner audience at the unveiling of the commemorative Women’s Monument in Bloemfontein was studded with references to the British and their high imperial mission, for all that it had gone astray in its recent shameful handling of affairs in South Africa. In her otherwise admirably acute and sensitive chapter on these proceedings, Elsabe Brits rather glosses over this theme in favour of underlining again Hobhouse’s cry of recognition of what Boer women had endured, as ‘they gave themselves, not borne on by the excitement and joy of active battle, as men do; but passively, with open eyes, in the long-drawn agony of painful months and days…the brave South African women… affirmed for all times and for all peoples the power of Woman to sacrifice life and more than life for the common weal’.

Nonetheless, Emily Hobhouse never loses sight of its subject’s radical liberalism, reminding us of her dawning disillusion with the nature of the Afrikaner political recovery which followed military defeat in 1902, and of her conclusion shortly before her death in 1926 that South Africa’s segregation was “the wrong policy and one which can only lead to discontent and ultimate disaster”. In Bloemfontein 13 years earlier, her speech had warned that rapacious capitalism and national pride was all too often accompanied by a deterioration of national character. How more prophetic could Emily Hobhouse possibly have been? The history of that French submarine is surely some proof. Winston Churchill once described South Africa as a land of lies. It is also, truly, a land of ironies. Remembering her in the name of a town in the Eastern Free State is one thing. Naming a Daphne class submarine after an unshakeable pacifist is quite another.

The Compassionate Englishwoman: Emily Hobhouse in the Boer War is published by UCT Press. Emily Hobhouse: Beloved Traitor is published by Tafelberg. Nasson is Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Stellenbosch. His most recent book is History Matters: Selected Writings, 1970-2016, published in 2016 by Penguin.

All about the money

BY BILL NASSON

This is an enthralling history of the July 1944 Bretton Woods conference, designed to replace the tottering and toxic world monetary system after 1918 which had brought on the Great Depression and the ensuing catastrophe of the Second World War, with a new, stable and efficient international financial system to underpin the world economy and ensure that it would not again fall flat on its face. It is a riveting read from beginning to end, and not only for what might be expected of a fat (453 pages) piece of 20th Century economic history.

Where else would you be able to read of a team of American diplomatic negotiators playing volleyball against a team of Russian diplomatic negotiators on a New Hampshire hotel lawn after a fancy lunch ? Deliciously, the Soviets won.

In reading Ed Conway’s book, it was impossible not to be reminded of my time at the University of Cape Town in the 1980s (an era when a resting C.J. Rhodes still ruled the roost) when I taught a first-year course called The Making of the Modern World Economy in its former Department of Economic History, then a gymnasium of Marxist Enlightenment for the suburban middle classes. The course content included the subject of The Summit — the wartime gathering of leading economic policy-makers at Bretton Woods in the USA to construct a co-operative global framework to settle issues of money and capital through international consensus. Even though it was about spinning a safety net for the capitalist world economy, the Soviet Union was a significant party to it all, as this book is at pains to underline. Ensconced in the hastily-refurbished Mount Washington Hotel with numerous other government delegations from countries as diverse as Ethiopia and Colombia, Mikael Stepanov would have done his bit to drain the thousand cases of Coca-Cola shipped in by the American administration.

Mind you, with well over three thousand delegates and accompanying visitors at the conference, he might have had some competition. Apparently, the more raucous delegations were also fond of singing in the bar. How long would its whisky have lasted? Still, if there is a thought to be spared, it ought to go to the 15 panting local boy scouts recruited to run errands for the Bretton Woods throng. Were I to have had the rich pickings of Ed Conway’s book three decades ago, how much less dreary my lectures on ‘World War II and the reconstruction of the world capitalist order’ might have been.

If there is one intellectual figure who straddles these pages like a financial colossus, it is the massively influential British economist, John Maynard Keynes, unquestionably the principle architect of the whole post-World War Two economic order. A genius who predicted that the messy 1919 Treaty of Versailles would bring on another world war, who revolutionised capitalist economic thinking in the 1930s, and who led a global financial settlement to prevent mass depression and World War III, was also a staple of several of those First-Year lectures. Then, the more smarty-pants male undergraduates (from Economics or Commerce rather than Arts) would quibble in class over my pronunciation of the Bloomsbury wizard’s surname. Why was I calling him ‘Cains’ when all their lecturers referred to him as ‘Keens’?

The question was resolved best by turning to poetic rhyme. Or by turning to doggerel verse to instruct them in who was correct. So, I used to set them right by reciting a shrewd slice of British doggerel from the mid-1940s, about a supposed exchange between Britain’s crusty Ambassador to Washington, Lord Halifax, and the glitteringly clever Maynard Keynes. It ran, “One day in Washington, Lord Halifax whispered to Lord Keynes, ‘These Americans may have all the money, but it’s we who have all the brains.'”

That settled how to say the name of the man portrayed accurately by Ed Conway as “a genuine international celebrity, the only household name at Bretton Woods”. And it also illuminated a decisive moment in history as the end of the world war drew near.

For Lord Halifax’s whisper encapsulated perfectly the relationship between a bloated USA and a skinny Britain. To regain its own solvency, and for a devastated world to be re-floated on a raft of progressive new economic and social policies, the Americans would have to be taught by the mercurial Keynes what needed to be done for a future world of currency stability. In thrashing out the famous 1944 Bretton Woods accords, it involved British brains in persuading the Americans to dip into their bulging pockets and to back the US dollar as the new gold or the hub of the world monetary wheel. Keynes himself was acutely aware that that American assistance would come at a price, including that of seeing his country becoming relegated to “a satellite of the United States”. But he knew well that an economic deal would have to be done, whatever the cliff-hanging.

As its copious coverage of diplomatic brinkmanship suggests, The Summit can be enjoyed at more than one level. If you have no wish to pore over the intricate workings of the gold standard or fixed currency exchange rates, Conway’s story of economic diplomacy is an enthralling account of the high-octane dealings between the international delegates in their New England hotel. Once, the Mount Washington was the kind of hotel that would have refused admission to America’s two leading delegates, Harry Dexter White and Henry Morgenthau, because they were Jewish. Now, swallowing extra-hard, it was even hosting Sir Chintaman Desmukh and his Indian delegation. The high-minded and low-minded doings of the representatives of 28 countries who carried the Bretton Woods system into international law at the end of 1945 provide a fabulously entertaining drama of brinkmanship, chance, stubbornness, stupidity, and chessboard skills.

And it goes almost without saying that a book about Bretton Woods without John Maynard Keynes would be like a volume on Mozart which skips over the music. Of the many economically influential men depicted here, he emerges as far and away the most interesting and diverse. After all, who else had as many lives as he, sufficient to make a cat jealous – a Cambridge don, a civil servant, a market speculator, a shrewd businessman, a journalist, a writer, a farmer, a statesman, a theatre manager, an art dealer, a book collector and much more besides. Eton and Cambridge minted his voracious homosexuality. His later marriage to a Russian ballerina, Lydia Lopokova, partial to sunbathing in the nude, was passionately full-blooded. For all the salacious gossip which Keynes’s bohemian sex life attracted, there was, his most recent biographer argues, a serious element to it all. In his 2015 Universal Man: The Seven Lives of John Maynard Keynes, Richard Davenport-Hines suggests that his revolving-door sexuality was a key part of his largeness of mind and its liberalism, a view of the world anchored in tolerance, rationalism, and an optimistic belief in improvement and progress.

In that sense, there may have been a tantalising parallel between John Maynard Keynes’s bedroom liberalism and his impeccably open-handed public demeanour at the Bretton Woods negotiations. One of this book’s many telling vignettes is a photograph of a genial Keynes and an equally genial H.H. Kung, head of the Chinese delegation. “The pair,” Conway assures us, “got along famously”. It was probably no surprise. A descendant of Confucius, and then the wealthiest man in China, it was natural for Kung to sip tea with Keynes. Like the Briton he, too, knew the worth of money, and he, too, liked lavish parties.

Equally, at another level, if you wish to understand the enlightened capitalist economic thinking which led to Keynes becoming an “ism”, as in Keynesianism, The Summits marvellously-titled chapters (like “Bedlam” and “Starvation Corner”), provide a sound guide through the dense thickets of theory. In the seminal 1936 General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, inspired by the Great Depression, Keynes flew his manifesto. Summarised simply by the present author, “when all others in an economy were reluctant to spend”, it was the duty of the government to “step in” and spend, if need be by borrowing to do so. That would “multiply growth across the economy” which would maintain consumption and keep down unemployment.

As prescriptive medicine, that kind of economic management was in the air by the time of Bretton Woods and its belief in a consenting internationalism. It was this utopian moment which produced, shortly thereafter, those institutions meant to be the props of stability, prosperity and growth for the world of market capitalism, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. The world financial system’s increasing reliance on the dollar in the wake of Bretton Woods brought more than glory days. For the West, it ushered in glory years, even decades, of strong growth, low inflation, high employment, and negligible national debt. Of course, this financial bonanza depended on the USA sticking to good housekeeping and dipping into its pockets to ease the plight of economies which ran into trouble.

But, by the end of the 1960s, the cocks were crowing for Washington. For the burdensome costs of the Cold War and the Vietnam conflict were speeding up the end of universal market faith in “the US’s capacity to keep the value of the dollar”. With a fixed value dollar no longer trumps, the world built on Bretton Woods became a house of cards. Or, even more, it became a seething pit in which dog ate dog. In one of his book’s many pungent observations, Conway records that President Richard Nixon did not give a fig about the responsibilities of international economics. As he snapped to an adviser who tried to brief him on Italy’s currency woes: “I don’t give a shit about the lira.

What The Summit terms “the mangled state of the world’s monetary system” today is all a far cry from the world that Bretton Woods had managed to put together again after the crises of depression and war. Conway’s admirable book is a sort of praise-poem to a grand failure of the past century. As his readers are reminded, “in this messy world” what the Mount Washington hotel produced in 1944 was “something hopeful”. The vacuum left by the demise of Bretton Woods continues to gape. Now, as then, the author concludes, “the most important mission facing the world’s politicians and policymakers” is “to repair the world’s economic system and replace it with something better”. To which, surely the only possible response should be – “Amen.”

The Summit is published by Little, Brown.

Nasson is Professor of History at the University of Stellenbosch. His most recent book, World War One and the People of South Africa, was published by Tafelberg in 2014.