Book Reviews: Looking For Traitors, Or Historical Spy Concerts

February 14, 2022

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The Looking Glass House by Vanessa Tait

A Huddle Of Hippos by Julia Richman and Celeste Beckerling

Our Kind Of Traitor by John Le Carré

The Historical Overberg by Chris Schoeman

Rodney Trudgeon’s Concert Notes by Rodney Trudgeon

Hitler’s Spies, Secret Agents And The Intelligence War in South Africa by Evert Kleynhans


A story involving a perspective on the background to Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland – one of the most influential pieces of writing in history – is always likely to be interesting. Such a story written by the great-granddaughter of Alice Lidell, the little girl on whom the story was based, can hardly fail to deliver. So it proves, with Vanessa Tait using her own family archives for some of the research for this mash-up of fact and fiction that focuses on two of the major protagonists in Alice’s life as a youngster – her governess, Mary Prickett, and the Oxford maths tutor Charles Dodgson who would regularly visit the Lidell home to see Alice and her siblings and would later find worldwide fame under his pseudonym, Lewis Carroll. The Looking Glass House is structured in a similar way to Jane Austen’s romantic dramas, with similarly cutting observations about the pressures experienced by Prickett as a plain woman from a low-key family, trying to get noticed (at all, initially) and then considered as marriage material in Victorian England, where the class system and the rigorous of the day did their best to crush any semblance of individuality or emotional expression. Dodgson is portrayed as a genial eccentric, but there is a sustained – though cleverly veiled – tone in the sections in which the older man deals directly with his very young friends that will make readers feel a little uncomfortable. Certainly, the interactions between Dodgson and Alice would be viewed with far more suspicion in contemporary society than they were in the 1860s – and Tait says as much in her postscript. That thread does nothing to take away from the effectiveness of the story, however. If anything, it adds authenticity, giving added insight into a mind that came up with one of literature’s most memorable tales. – BD


A lovely resource for young readers, this short narrative, illustrated with simple watercolours by Celeste Beckerling, links a number of quirky collective nouns for animals with clever rhyming prose. The collective nouns themselves – an orchestra of crickets, a prickle of porcupines and all the rest – provide the bulk of the entertainment, which is great in that they are what will stick in the mind of the reader. This is gentle, flowing edutainment, and with so many kids going through at least a stage (for some it never ends) in which they’re crazy about animals, it should be easy to position A Huddle Of Hippos as an attractive alternative to TV or a tablet. – BD


First published in 2010 and then revived after it was made into a film in 2016, John Le Carré’s story of accidental espionage is at once more compelling and slightly more frustrating in print form than it was on the big screen. An English couple, Perry and Gail, holidaying in Antigua are drawn into the circle of a charismatic Russian named Dima. Tennis is an unlikely bonding agent, but it soon becomes clear that Dima is after more than just buying his new friends cocktails on the beach. Le Carré’s in-depth knowledge of the British spy trade helps him to make each interaction between his characters count, even if the tone feels somewhat heightened for dramatic effect. Most of all, it is the almost petty attention to detail that makes the greater plot unfolding seem plausible, with characters both genuinely powerful and given to believe that they have more influence than they have playing complex games in pursuit of power and money. The potential for corruption is ever-present and another marker of the reality that exists at the fringes of Le Carré’s fiction. For that reason, Our Kind Of Traitor’s ending, dissatisfying in some ways, also makes a sad sort of sense. – BD


This attractive hardcover volume is exactly what it says it is – an overview of the area of the southern Cape east of the Hottentots Holland Mountains, south of the Sonderend Mountains and west of the Breede River, known as the Overberg. There is, as befits the work of a respected historian, a focus on the history of the towns and routes that dot and connect the area, as well as the personalities who have helped formed its character, for better or worse. From a reader’s perspective, there is a lot to take in – though written in an informal style, The Historical Overberg is a relatively academic document nonetheless, packed with names and dates. As such, it’s rather more than the sort of travel guide a casual visitor-to-be might want to dip into to get a sense of the place. But for travellers who a re aware of the region’s many charms and at the very least are wanting to gain a better understanding of their new interest, it’s an informative read. And for history buffs, it’s well-researched chapter in the larger narrative of a complex country. – BD


Rodney Trudgeon needs no introduction to South African music lovers. He has been a presenter and producer in the broadcasting of classical music for over 40 years. An enthusiastic follower of music from boyhood, he did not have adequate opportunity or talent to become a skilled musician himself, but absorbed all he could, developing huge understanding and appreciation of this wonderful world. He became a professional in the field, absorbing the living lore of the concert hall, meeting great soloists and conductors and making a contribution to the popular understanding of classical music. These notes re culled from programs nod present actions over the course of his career. They are a wonderful guide for the less informed and offer enrichment to the most seasoned listeners. Set out alphabetically by the names of the composers, they make it possible for the layman to look up Ravel for example without having to know in what period he was writing. The book encompasses the Classical Era, represented principally by Mozart and Haydn. There is a useful brief introduction to the overall development of classical Western music. The real joy, though is in the actual notes: there is background, structure and understanding of the orchestration, all underpinning the glory of the finished pieces. They are both an illumination of the items you are about to hear in the concert hall, an aid in retrospection on what you have heard and a valuable guide to pieces you can access in the future. Rodney Trudgeon’s Concert Notes carries endorsement of more weight than mine. I can simply say it is a great resource at my humble level and being so easily readable, one I can recommend. – RH


The fact that, in the immediate aftermath of the recent looting mayhem in South Africa, foreign submarines were seen passing by the coast of South Africa, close to our shore, underlines the strategic importance of ‘the Cape Sea Route  to India’ – as it used to be known in more politically incorrect times. By volume, 80% of world trade and 70% by value is transported by sea.  The Suez Canal gives passage to about 12% of global trade and fully 30% of the world’s container traffic. South Africans 50 years of age and older will remember well former President PW Botha – especially during the long years when he had been Minister of Defence –  waving his finger and declaiming about the importance of ‘The Cape Sea Route’. That he was one of the foremost apologists for apartheid, tended to make many cynical about the truth of the claim. There was, after all, the Suez Canal to use. And the importance of ‘the Cape Sea Route to India’ is the primary reason why whites came to South Africa in the first place. The blocking of the Suez Canal by the giant container ship, the Ever Given,  for about a week during March 2021, reminded us that the Cape Sea Route does indeed matter. And during the Second World War, it mattered very much indeed to both the Allied and Axis powers. In 1942 and 1943, the tonnage of shipping that Nazi U-boats were able to sink off the Cape coast had seriously vexed the Allied powers. So effective had Allied counter-measures been that, by August 1943, the Nazis discarded the waters off the South African coast as a sustainable operational area. Spying and intelligence are critical in times of war and in the combatting and prevention thereof. Evert Kleynhans, in Hitler’s Spies, Secret Agents and the Intelligence War in South Africa, gives us an absorbing account of key features of South African intelligence during the World War II. Intelligence is always overshadowed by politics. Politics in South Africa, in the decades immediately before and after the War, was dominated by one question: to what extent could Afrikaner and British interests be harmonised? A large proportion of Afrikaners trace their descent from German immigrants. During the Anglo-Boer War, the German Kaiser had made plain his support for the Boer cause. Unsurprisingly, many Afrikaners were pro-German. The Nazi government tried to capitalise on this. They hoped to stoke insurrection against the Smuts government.  It was, however, no ‘walk in the park’ for the Nazis. The reasons are complex. During La Belle Époque, the period of time roughly coinciding with the end of the Anglo-Boer war and the First World War, the German government had judged that its interests would be best served by having cordial diplomatic, political and economic ties with Britain. The German Kaiser was cheered in the streets of London when he was there for King Edward VII’s coronation. German support for the Afrikaner cause became muted – a fact which most Afrikaners did not forget. Jan Smuts, the South Africa Prime Minister during the war, had not been a maverick Afrikaner ‘out on a limb’. Many of his countrymen recognised that the conspicuously rising prosperity and rapid industrialisation in South Africa would not have been possible without South Africa being part of what was known in those days as ‘The British Empire’. Although there were ardent Nazi supporters in South Africa, like Robey Leibbrandt and Hans Van Rensburg, the leader of the Ossewa Brandwag, few indeed among the Afrikaners were ideological Nazis. Even the Nationalist leader, Barry Hertzog, was principled about South Africa being neutral rather than pro-Nazi. Perhaps the phenomenon of the ‘Boerejode’ – Jews living mainly in the platteland, who were Afrikaners in all but religion, provides some of the explanation for the lack of traction of anti-Semitic ideology in South Africa at the time. An interesting aspect of Kleynhans’ book is the extent to which Nazi intelligence operated in and from Maputo, then known as Lourenço Marques. At the time it was a Portuguese territory and Portugal had fallen to the Axis powers. It seems that Lourenço Marques had been to East Africa what Shanghai had been to China in the first half of the twentieth century – a city of decadence that was not without its charm. – NW[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/4″][vc_widget_sidebar sidebar_id=”default_sidebar”][/vc_column][/vc_row]