Thursday, 25 November 2010

Wish I could write like Neal Ascherson

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I've known journalist Neal Ascherson by reputation for ages, and knew he was an expert on Russia, Scottish Nationalism and many other things, but I didn't really know his writing that well. Then I got given a copy of RRyszard Kapuścińsky's magnificent book on the last days of Haile Selassie - The Emperor - with an introduction by Ascherson. It was so expertly written and elegant and knowledgeable. He set the career of Kapuścińsky, surely one of the greatest ever journalists, in context lucidly and beautifully. I vowed to read everything I could get my hands on by Ascherson. So today, idly clicking around the LRB website, I found a review of The Climate of Treason by Andrew Boyle, a book about about the Cambridge spies, written by Ascherson back in 1980. Not only is it the clearest summary of the whole Philby/Burgess/Blunt business I've read - something I remember but only vaguely from my young life - it contains the most persuasive argument for why the posh traitors did what they did. Inevitably, given this is the most English of English establishments we are talking about, it's about both class and guilt:
"Birth, the accident of birth in the privileged upper tenth of a caste society, imprisoned these men in a cell with the gnawing rat of guilt. Nothing they could do in life would efface the original sin of that unfair birth - except rebirth. Not just the Communist faith but the actual existence of the Soviet Union - isolated, hated, mysterious - glowed to them across Europe as a second chance for themselves as well as for humanity."
[Pretty bloody good, huh? I love that "gnawing rat of regret"!].

Also embedded in this essay, unobtrusively and completely as part of the overall argument rather than as a gratuitous or self-regarding insertion, Ascherson tells the story of his own "unhappy brush" with the secret service, when they tired to recruit him (about the time that photo was taken I should think). It's a wonderfully economical, and hilarious passage, that ends with these few, funny, wise and telling lines:
"I was summoned to meet D. in his home. After a silent but delicious dinner, D. asked me to sit next to him on the sofa. I supposed that I was at last to be put in the picture, but D. merely grasped me tightly and wordlessly by the penis. I extracted myself and ran away, and after some days of great confusion, wrote to say that perhaps I was not mature enough for this service."
Note to self: get Ascherson to write something  for New Humanist...
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