OFF THE SHELF: MARCH 2023
Spying on the Reich by R.T. Howard (Oxford University Press, 2023)
Hot off Oxford University’s press, this extraordinarily fertile and captivating book manages to coordinate all manner of spying narratives from the inter-war years, combining French and Czech archival evidence with existing and previously unknown British, French, Danish and German sources.
A central underlying question is why no one succeeded in assassinating Hitler, and whether official intelligence services could have helped in this aim, once it became clear that the Third Reich was also a personality cult.
This begs the question what an intelligence service is for, but while it is ‘a very grey area,’ the author argues persuasively that its role is not just to collect information but ‘to enhance the security of the country it represents.’
A senior person declared, ‘get rid of Hitler…then you will win the War.’ The idea itself was familiar by the mid/late-1930s, rather than relying on the benefit of hindsight.
Once war was declared, someone should have been able to bump off Hitler but no one did, despite many, many plots to do so.
The author persuasively argues that ‘closer collaboration between the independent intelligence services of Britain, France, Czechoslovakia, and Poland could have exploited the specific vulnerabilities of the Third Reich and perhaps averted war.’ But they failed to do this and in so doing failed to save millions of lives.
We spoke to the author and asked if the same scenario applies to Vladimir Putin, now in 2023.
His response was cautious. ‘The first rule of diplomacy is not to do it. If a state is seen to have aided in an assassination of another head of state then that is tantamount to declaring war, a very risky course of action.’ He adds that the CIA used a perceived Iraqi threat to assassinate George Bush the Elder as a defence in their invasion of Iraq in 2003. He says the next problem is the ‘risk of martyrdom’. The next risk is that someone else who is worse replaces the assassinated individual. Finally, retaliation is suddenly a serious threat, placing your own heads of state in a very hot seat.
Howard, a former visiting researcher in History at King’s College London, and the author of five previous books on history and international relations, then offers that contrary to superficial likeness, Putin is not Hitler. ‘He is a dictatorial leader but Russia is not a personality cult’. ‘There was no obvious successor to Hitler but that may or may not be the case with Putin…’ Finally, Howard offers that the thrust of his argument applies after Britain had declared war on September 3, 1939, by which time ‘we had nothing to lose.’ That’s the really big difference with today because Britain is not at war with Russia, or at least not directly.
The author’s responses are a reminder that the past is not a textbook, to be picked up and naively re-applied through superficial comparison.
But equally one of the rapidly unfurling realities of the current war is how much it has re-evoked both World Wars, whether the trenches and artillery-scarred landscapes of the Western Front or the Russian capacity for waging highly attritional offensives, apparently without much regard for human life.
As such this book is a brilliant bringing to life of a period that we need to pay attention to now like never before, given our current predicament.
The Spirit of Mathematics Algebra and All That by David Acheson (Oxford University Press, 2023)
David has answered all our questions by way of explaining what this gem of a book is about – essentially a book about mathematics for a general audience, and how rare is that?
On the nature of the book:
It tries to convey the essence of mathematics at its best, but using only simple materials. By this, I mean only the most elementary arithmetic, algebra and geometry that we all meet at school.
This essence can be summed up as (i) surprising theorems, with some generality to them, (ii) elegant deductive arguments or proofs and (iii) applications, especially to science and engineering.
Some mathematicians take a wholly aesthetic approach, valuing only (i) and (ii), others take a wholly 'practical' one, valuing only (iii). I myself see no point in either stance; in my view, with maths truly at its very best - which doesn't happen every day - you get (i), (ii) and (iii) all at once, in one piece of work.
I hope other mathematicians will, like Hannah Fry, agree that the book introduces some of the deepest and most important ideas. But one or two eyebrows may get raised over the playful way in which I sometimes do this.
At one point, for instance, I use a 'proof by chocolate' to show that it is possible for infinitely many positive numbers to have a finite sum.
On the 1089 trick: (*Ed note: read the book to find out what this is. It's amazing!)
You are quite right - there is absolutely no sleight-of-hand in the 1089 trick, and it is called a trick only because it is actually used by magicians. It is the simplest example I know of the element of surprise in mathematics, and I cannot imagine any mathematician who doesn't regard surprise as one of the major attractions of the subject. With good mathematics, you are forever finding that things are not the way you thought they were.
On the readership:
The book will be particularly suited to someone who can do a little bit of school algebra, but has hitherto seen little point or pleasure in it. I hope some schoolchildren will read it, to give them a certain 'big picture' of mathematics, and a sense of direction. But many readers will almost certainly be adults, and some of the humour in The Spirit of Mathematics, such as the three characters A, B and C who are obsessed with bath-filling in Chapter 2, is deliberately aimed at an older readership.
On my earliest memory of doing mathematics:
The 1089 trick, in a Christmas annual, Dec 1956, aged 10.
On the importance of maths and other STEM subjects:
In my opinion, it would be a silly mistake for a young person today to study maths just because it will lead to more money. It probably will do that, in the end, but only if the young person turns out to be really good at maths, and that's only likely to happen if they really enjoy the subject.
On the relationship of the book to contemporary education in UK schools:
My impression is that UK schools have been going through a long period of obsession with testing, exams and 'standards', when, as I understand it, teachers need a certain degree of trust and freedom for any real scholarship to flourish. As a result, in my (limited) experience, young people often see school maths as lots of disconnected bits and pieces, with no 'big picture'.
In short, there is, in my view, too much emphasis on 'don't try to run before you can walk', and too little on 'if you have no idea where you're going, don't be too surprised if you never get there'.
That is where I hope books like The Spirit of Mathematics could potentially be of most help.
The Dove is Dead (Book 3, The Unholy Trinity Trilogy Series) by John Uttley (Independent, 2022)
With this volume the author (New College, 1964) has completed a trilogy (‘The Unholy Trinity Trilogy’) about three generations of two families. Here, he eschews the viewpoint of the Northern grammar school pals Bob Swarbrick and Richard Shackleton, writing in the first person as Richard’s daughter Amy, who is studying history at Oxford, at St Catz. At the first mention of ‘Catz’ there is a self-conscious apology for the fact that the slang name might sound a bit posh. Also, we encounter other siblings who all seem to have made Oxford their place of study, up to and including a DPhil. Because of the striking generational advancement, the northern roots and religious sensibilities of Bob and Richard are in danger of being lost, except that they’re still the central drivers of the narrative here, as in the previous two volumes.
Oriel features as a substitute for the author’s actual college, New College, allowing the action to begin right at the start with a pandemic-era protest against the Rhodes statue. There’s a reference elsewhere in the volume to ‘Dad’ arguing that earlier in his life he had been old, but now in his seventies his thinking is younger; a sort of intellectual youthfulness that allows the author here to touch on race theory and the trans agenda, and ‘wokeness’, through the imagined eyes of a current undergraduate.
He doesn’t get too deeply into those debates, however. The trilogy itself, ‘which charts the social history of the aspiring working and lower middle class in Britain…’ also has a slab of Anglican church running through it seen through a rural benefice, and is (yet another!) quintessential homage to what grammar schools achieved by way of social mobility, at least for the boys who passed their eleven-plus and were lofted all the way up the scale of income and achievement through those now golden post-war years.
If I’m not mistaken the absolute core of the author’s preoccupation in the trilogy, as well as this final volume, is place and identity. Early in the first volume, Where’s Sailor Jack, we are told that Bob has moved back to his roots near the Wyre River in Lancashire. ‘He couldn’t pin down who he was but he did know where he was from.’ There is an enormous decency attached to northern values, and they shine through the book. The problem is that they are getting harder to connect to as success, age and moving away all take their toll. Memory might be all that’s left. In this sense Oxford was both the foundation of all that success, and the undoing of something else that preceded it – place, identity. Education is also a revolution.
The narratives here communicate the resulting anguish, and of course Lancashire in 2023 is not the same as Lancashire in 1955, with so much lost or wound down, whether it’s manufacturing industry or Granada TV (mentioned fondly).
The Dove is Dead organises itself around the death of Bob, and then over-shoots into an imaged future in the 2030s. There is a reckoning born of age, (Dad says at one point with a resigned grimace, ‘We’re out of time…’) and this mingles with world affairs up to and including the Russian invasion of Ukraine. There’s a lovely touch at one point where an anti-invasion protest is held in Radcliffe Square, organised by Oxford’s Ukraine Society. The daughter Amy observes a placard that reads: ‘Invasion is so last-century.’ She replies, ‘Unfortunately it’s not. It’s this century, the next one and the one after that. History will never end as long as the evil that is the human is on the planet.’ Yet despite this exhausted mood the cast of family members continue to find meaning and purpose in their lives, and the underlying decency also carries the book along a hopeful trajectory premised on off-spring, the role of animals in our lives, and belonging.
Off the Shelf typically concerns books where there is an Oxford connection, whether the place, the University or of course the author.
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