Book review: The Unfortunate Englishman

WHAT do you think you ought to read in a ‘very English’ book about post-war Europe, Spies and the Cold War? 

John Lawton

Atlantic Monthly, €17.50

Perhaps, stories about (a) the wrecking of expensive British Austin Healey racing cars while crossing the Berlin divide; (b) smooth talking CIA con artists and KGB spies; (c) copious amounts of vodka; or, (d) agents getting naked with Russian twin sisters for the greater good of the British realm? 

If so, you’re on the ball — because it’s all here, in The Unfortunate Englishman Lawton’s second novel featuring MI6 agent, Joe Wilderness.

Meet Masefield — self-taught in Russian, he dreams of an exciting life. Coming from an underprivileged background, he excelled academically, writing a paper on post-transition metals for New World Geology in 1959.

His career in industry, however, is unfulfilling, and when offered a chance to visit Russia as part of a trade delegation as an undercover agent he jumps at the chance. Watching his self-perception evolve is highly entertaining.

Sophistication ‘was beyond his accomplishment but not beyond his dreams.’ He wished the ‘aspirant culture snob’ hidden inside him would just let go.

He eats messages, as real spies ‘ate notes, not burned them.’

In the author’s words, “he was a lie, but the subject was real” the subject being, the Cold War.

While Masefield is busy in Russia photographing documents, the reader is transported to post-war Berlin.

Located entirely within the Soviet part of Germany, it has been split; the Soviets in the eastern half, the Allies in the western. Berliners move relatively freely, crossing the East-West border for work, shopping, and the theatre.

However, Khrushchev the Soviet leader despises West Berlin, a capitalist city within communist East Germany, hence the Berlin Wall’s 1961 barbed-wire beginnings, Lawton naively making numerous references to the fact that the wire is shockingly British.

The Wall stemmed mass defections from East to West, or as the author calls it, the “Cold War circus”; people jumping from buildings onto waiting trampolines in the West.

Life behind the Wall gets a grim review; silver-handled tea cups “a tiny remnant” of an ancient regime.

We meet Wilderness, a small time Cockney criminal. Unlike Masefield, he has won ‘the class war’ by marrying into a ‘posh’ family; his father-in-law is his boss in the MI6.

Whether Berlin or Moscow, mendacity is at every corner; no one is who they say they are; whether it’s Troy, Jack, Brush, Erno, Eddie, Brandt, Frank, or third assistant deputy undersecretary Dumsky, no one is to be believed.

The class-war theme continues as we get an insight into Khrushchev’s relationship with JFK; Khrushchev had met rich aristocrats before, “if only to shoot them”.

And, if there is a lesson from this book, it’s that guns and gloves are a recipe for a disaster.


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