Tag Archives: Biography

Book Review: Agent Zigzag: Lover, Traitor, Hero, Spy, by Ben MacIntyre

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Eddie Chapman was a charming criminal, a con man, and a philanderer. He was also one of the most remarkable double agents Britain has ever produced. Inside the traitor was a man of loyalty; inside the villain was a hero. The problem for Chapman, his spymasters, and his lovers was to know where one persona ended and the other began.

In 1941, after training as a German spy in occupied France, Chapman was parachuted into Britain with a revolver, a wireless, and a cyanide pill, with orders from the Abwehr to blow up an airplane factory. Instead, he contacted MI5, the British Secret Service. For the next four years, Chapman worked as a double agent, a lone British spy at the heart of the German Secret Service who at one time volunteered to assassinate Hitler for his countrymen. Crisscrossing Europe under different names, all the while weaving plans, spreading disinformation, and, miraculously, keeping his stories straight under intense interrogation, he even managed to gain some profit and seduce beautiful women along the way.

The Nazis feted Chapman as a hero and awarded him the Iron Cross. In Britain, he was pardoned for his crimes, becoming the only wartime agent to be thus rewarded. Both countries provided for the mother of his child and his mistress. Sixty years after the end of the war, and ten years after Chapman’s death, MI5 has now declassified all of Chapman’s files, releasing more than 1,800 pages of top-secret material and allowing the full story of Agent Zigzag to be told for the first time.

Agent Zigzag brings to life an extraordinary man; a man whom neither the British or Germans truly understood, but both believed him loyal to them alone. Chapman was courageous, intelligent, duplicitous, and yet possessing an integrity that transcended his espionage operations. He was a fascinating character, and his life makes for engrossing reading. MacIntyre is not the first to try to capture the essence of Eddie Chapman, but he has comfortably superseded previous efforts with Zigzag.

I highly recommend picking up a copy; Eddie Chapman is a man everyone would benefit from knowing just a little bit better.

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Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

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In his own words, he looks “like a murderer”, and many consider that to be the least of his crimes. Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell is an enigmatic figure even to those who claim to know him. Cromwell appreciates the power of silence: “It is wise to conceal the past even if there is nothing to conceal. A man’s power is in the half-light, in the half-seen movements of his hand and the unguessed-at expression of his face. It is the absence of facts that frightens people: the gap you open, into which they pour their fears, fantasies, desires”. He is a reticent man by times, but eloquent when required. It is this use of half-light, half-truths, and silence that fascinates his contemporaries, that creates mystery and fear, and a sense of omnipotence and omnicompetence. Cromwell operates in a new a strange world of shadows, figures, theology and administration, which his fellow courtiers are unable to comprehend and compete.

In Wolf Hall, Mantel persuasively depicts this beefy pen-pusher and backstairs manoeuvrer as one of the most appealing – and, in his own way, enlightened – characters of the period. Taking off from the scant evidence concerning his early life, she imagines a miserable childhood for him as the son of a violent, drunken blacksmith in Putney. Already displaying toughness, intelligence and a gift for languages, he runs away to the continent as a boy of 15 or so (his date of birth isn’t known, and in the novel he doesn’t know it himself). He goes to France because: “France is where they have wars”. He learns banking in Florence, trade in Antwerp. He develops a prodigious memory, and possesses the skill to read people, and manage them. He serves Cardinal Wolsey loyally until his fall and then steps into the power vacuum. He emerges from his picaresque youth as an intimidating, witty, and resourceful man:

“Thomas Cromwell is now a little over forty years old. He is a man of strong build, not tall. Various expressions are available to his face, and one is readable: an expression of stifled amusement. His hair is dark, heavy and waving, and his small eyes, which are of very strong sight, light up in conversation: so the Spanish ambassador will tell us, quite soon. It is said he knows by heart the entire New Testament in Latin, and so as a servant of the cardinal is apt – ready with a text if abbots flounder. His speech is low and rapid, his manner assured; he is at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop’s palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury. He will quote you a nice point in the old authors, from Plato to Plautus and back again. He knows new poetry, and can say it in Italian. He works all hours, first up and last to bed. He makes money and he spends it. He will take a bet on anything”.

Wolsey uses these skills as the vehicle for the dissolution of England’s great monastic orders; their houses are overdue reform and the money garnered shall pay for his new college at Oxford. Cromwell is no lover of Rome and despises the waste and sloth that he encounters. He proves an irresistible force, impermeable to the insults and jibes of his social betters and possessing the legal knowledge and intellectual flexibility to stump all objections. He is also introspective and deeply human. His heartbreak at the death of his wife and daughters in plague epidemics is movingly portrayed by Mantel.

 Indeed, it is this capacity to transmit the complexity of emotion that Cromwell contains sparingly and with subtlety that makes him such a superb and arresting narrator. Cromwell’s flashbacks are a key narrative device in the book; delivered in present-tense with a vivid, humorous retrospection, they penetrate to the core of the man in a profound fashion. Cromwell appears to be a man of stone, a particularly intangible and flexible stone granted, but certainly his face is unreadable to those who encounter him. Mantel manages to depict that ‘stonefacedness’ alongside the subterranean quicksilver of flowing thought, words, and deeds that comprise the real man.

There is something incredibly poignant about the journey of Cromwell and his fellow characters. We know that many will not survive the crises to come. The references to Wolf Hall itself throughout the book, with its’ Seymour connotations, bode ill for our hero. For a hero in fact Cromwell is. He is more a man for all seasons than the intractable martyr Thomas More, and the intellectual equal of both More and Henry VII. He is a man with sensibilities closer to our time, in a way, than to that of most of his contemporaries. Taking five years to complete, Wolf Hall won the Man Booker Prize in 2010, and although a sequel is in the works we may have a while to wait to be enthralled again. I have not enjoyed any book as much in quite some time, and having inflicted it upon a great number of people with success, I am as impatient as anyone!  I can only recommend it most highly to lovers of history, excellent literary fiction, and to those who wish to be transported into a different world; a world of high drama, low intrigue, and essentially human figures reborn under a supremely gifted hand.

A Gambling Man: Charles II and the Restoration, by Jenny Uglow

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Charles II was thirty when he crossed the Channel in fine May weather in 1660. His Restoration was greeted with maypoles and bonfires, like spring after long years of Cromwell’s rule. But there was no going back, no way he could ‘restore’ the old. Certainty had vanished. The divinity of kingship fled with his father’s beheading. ‘Honour’ was now a word tossed around in duels. ‘Providence’ could no longer be trusted. As the country was rocked by plague, fire and war, people searched for new ideas by which to live. Exactly ten years later Charles would stand again on the shore at Dover, laying the greatest bet of his life in a secret deal with his cousin, Louis XIV. The Restoration decade was one of experiment: from the science of the Royal Society to the startling role of credit and risk, from the shocking licence of the court to the failed attempts at toleration of different beliefs. Negotiating all these, Charles, the ‘slippery sovereign’, played odds and took chances, dissembling and manipulating his followers. The theatres were restored, but the king was the supreme actor. Yet while his grandeur, his court and his colourful sex life were on display, his true intentions lay hidden. A Gambling Man is a portrait of Charles II, exploring his elusive nature through the lens of these ten vital years – and a portrait of a vibrant, violent, pulsing world, in which the risks the king took forged the fate of the nation, on the brink of the modern world.

The restoration period is well documented; the diaries of Pepys and John Evelyn cover much of book’s span, and the nobility’s love of court gossip provides even more juicy information for the author. Charles Stuart is at the heart of everything, as it is his character and decisions that navigate the monarchy through the rocky shoals of a changing England. Though Cromwell’s time is past, his legacy truly remains intact in the aggressive and questioning nature of restoration society.  considerable religion minority exists, who are unwilling to compromise with the flexible consciousness of their king. Uglow wants us to see Charles II as “a gambling man”, who played for very high stakes. This is a motif that runs through her book, which is divided into sections with playing-card titles, illustrated with examples of contemporary cards. His greatest gambles, she thinks, were that he could get away with keeping mistresses as well as maintaining a queen, and that he could survive his eventual disclosure of his Catholic conversion.

Charles lacked the vision and skills to avoid the religious intolerance that came to characterise his reign. Perhaps the fear and mistrust of the Anglican dominated parliament, coupled with the intransigence of the Dissenters, made any compromise impossible. The years of plague, fire and war proved to be very difficult, but he survived them, and in so doing ensured the survival of his line. Charles II learned how to be a king in a time of great extremes and change; the splendor and recklessness of court life contrasted sharply with the secular philosophy of the Royal Society, and the religious zeal of the Dissenter minority. Greater change was to follow, and soon, and Charles in his own flamboyant and inconsistent manner, facilitated that revolutionary change.

http://www.jennyuglow.com/

For those of you who enjoy historical biography, the restoration period, or just good writing; this is a book I would highly recommend. Pick up a copy in Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop – only €6, and there are a few copies left!