The Military Philosophers by Anthony Powell – Time Marches On

The ninth book of Anthony Powell’s twelve volume A Dance To a the Music Of Time series, The Military Philosophers sees Nick Jenkins, former writer and critic, settled in his World War Two army career. After serving as a junior infantry officer, he transfers to military liaison, helping smooth relations between Britain and its various allies.

A Dance To The Music Of Time has generally been about the peculiar patterns that emerge as time makes its apparently aimless, sometimes chaotic, progress. In this wartime period, life is both more rigid – dominated by uniforms, military regulation, limitation of movements and freedom – and yet more uncertain. From this basic irony arises all the complexity of this remarkable novel. With an apparently humble role in Whitehall, Nick’s quiet observations now reach through to the heart of government – a good place to look at the relationship of order and disorder. There are civil servants who spend their lives fettling tiny details, while other more flamboyant figures take reckless risks. Nick follows a middle path as usual, his military rank a middling one, his approach to risk and caution, discipline and rebelliousness, a lesson in compromise. Sometimes this half-way house seems a place where personal power is at its most limited. The previous volume had described Nick’s efforts to look after those below him in rank. In The Military Philosophers, it’s the generals who require attention to their every whim. Nick reminded me of someone at that time of life when you are still looking after children, while also finding it increasingly necessary to care for ageing parents.

However, towards the end of the book, Nick has a moment of unexpected power. With the war almost over, volatile young men in the Belgian resistance, until this point fighting their common German enemy, show signs of falling out amongst themselves. It is thought vital to evacuate these men to Britain where they can receive army training. Getting this to happen quickly seems a hopeless task. But Nick’s intermediate position means he knows lots of people. Not isolated by exalted or humble rank, he links everything up – a liaison officer in more ways than one. It’s just a matter of talking to a few friends who can make a difference; and within days, against all the laws of bureaucratic inertia, those twitchy young Belgians are shipped off for their training. Now the middle, buffeted by demands from all sides, becomes the most powerful place to be. Nick single-handedly prevents civil war in Belgium. But it’s best not to bring any attention to these actions, which certainly failed to follow the usual stodgy chains of command. Rather than making a big thing of his success, Nick just quietly gets on with arrangements for looking after representatives of allied nations at a thanksgiving service to mark the war’s end.

This service, in St Paul’s Cathedral, brings together people from many nations and stations of life. It’s an event that really gives focus to the sense that whether you are a great leader, humble follower, or someone in-between, there is always a chance to play your part in events that often seem to have a life of their own. This coincides with a feeling in The Military Philosophers that a person’s eminence, or lack of it, is as much down to luck as anything else. Some people win awards for bravery, some are given awards for political reasons, while the bravery of others happens unacknowledged and out of sight. Everyone, in one way or another, has a place at the service of thanksgiving, celebrating the achievement of getting through the war. This scene serves as a fitting end to a fascinating and humane book.

Silverview by John Le Carré – “The Best Lack All Conviction, While The Worst Are Full Of Passionate Intensity“

Silverview is John Le Carré’s posthumously published 2021 novel about a City trader who plots an escape to bookshop ownership in a quiet English seaside town. But once installed in his new shop, he inadvertently becomes involved in the affairs of a disenchanted former spy.

Obviously, reviewing a book like this involves not giving away plot details, keeping secrets, as any good agent gathering information is obliged to do. But a review is also designed to let people in on a few secrets so that a potential reader can decide if this is a book for them. Or you might have already read the book and are looking to see what someone else found in it. Tricky – the secrets you keep or give away in this intelligence report.

What I will say is that I enjoyed Silverview. To me it was a study in the contradictions of belief, the meaning that people find in being passionate about something – whether that’s related to religion, politics, nationality or fighting the good fight against extreme manifestations of whatever belief people latch onto. Agents who are passionate about the rightness of their mission are highly motivated. However, that passion remains an unpredictable energy, which can easily express itself in dangerous ways. Here we have the thoughts of a Secret Service staffer, who characterises life in the Service as the avoidance of passion:

Absolute commitment of any sort constituted to his trained mind a grave security threat. The entire ethic of the Service was utterly – he would almost say absolutely – opposed to it, unless, that is, you were talking of manipulating the absolute commitment of an agent you were running.

As a final note, with an admitted risk to security, I will share one thought with you, which might help provide a way into the central contradiction of Silverview. Perhaps Le Carré puts his main idea into the form of a little code. It would be a similar code to that found in the name of the lovely character, Liz Gold, in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. In that book it is hard to work out where exactly constitutes the Cold, when one side uses the same ruthless tactics as the other. This confusion might be characterised by Liz Gold’s name – gold sounding so similar to cold. Silverview has a character who had me thinking similar furtive thoughts. She has a “nun-like” devotion, representing a capacity for passionate commitment, which has ambivalent outcomes. Her name is only one letter away from ‘mania’. I will leave you to find her and come to your own conclusions.

This book brings the spy story into an age where those national struggles the Service was built to support, have themselves become a threat. It’s a fascinating and timely addition to Le Carré’s collection of work