Traitor King by Andrew Lownie – a review

Much has been written about the dreadful antics of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. So much so that according to Andrew Lownie, the author of Traitor King, it was difficult to get reviewers to read and review his latest book. This might be because they believe, wrongly, that there is nothing new to add to the well trodden territory that has seen some fifty titles about the notorious couple. Or it might be that literary editors and reviewers are too lazy to want to learn more about them. But learning more is what Traitor King is all about: it’s new territory presented in eensy weensy detail.

The book covers the years following King Edward VIII’s abdication, his marriage to Wallis Simpson and their dubious career as celebrity royals. Much as seems to be happening with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex today, the Windsors went to immense effort to earn a very juicy living by exploiting their non-roles. No longer part of the monarchy, they continued to live the lifestyle that Edward had enjoyed prior to his new life with Wallis, except that he wasn’t king anymore. They married in 1937 as soon as her divorce from her second husband was finalised and spent the rest of their lives as glamourous nomads, mostly in Europe and often at the expense of others.

They did a stint in the Bahamas, then a British Crown Colony, where Edward was put out of harm’s way during World War II. At least that was Winston Churchill’s intention. But corruption, scandal and murder attended the Windsors’ time in the sun. Edward’s deficit of grey matter was a serious impediment when it came to making sensible choices, no matter how obvious they were. Mrs Windsor did at least make an effort in the Bahamas and got involved in good works to the benefit of the islanders. But the local murder of Harry Oakes, a British gold miner, tax exile and close friend of the Duke of Windsor, was never solved and the Duke was directly involved in the haphazard investigation into the death. In Traitor King Lownie presents compelling evidence that Windsor was implicated in Harry Oakes’ demise.

Churchill had sent the pair away for several reasons, but mainly to keep them out of range of the throne. This sounds outlandish but the close connections between the Windsors and the Nazis was more than a mere sharing of ideologies. It was easy to flatter Wallis and Edward with promises of wealth and power, as neither was politically astute. It was even easier to appeal to their shared vanity with a promise to reinstate Edward as the King of England, with Wallis as his queen once Germany had vanquished Great Britain.

Edward and Wallis were obvious security risks although much of the evidence for the gravity of the risk has only recently come to light. Sitting at the heart of the diplomatic circles in various European capitals, Edward was well-placed to keep up to date with developments as the war progressed. Unfortunately he was keen to brag over dinner about what he heard, regardless of its sensitivity and security implications. He professed he wanted to help and he craved position for most of his life. During the war, got only a token position as a military liaison official where he could do the least harm.

Wallis was known to have had Nazi sympathies and it turns out that before the war she had had an affair with Joachim von Ribbentrop. From 1938 to 1945 he was the Nazi’s Minister for Foreign Affairs. Does that title scream spymaster or what? As far as Wallis was concerned he lived up to his title. She had become of interest to intelligence services in the USA and elsewhere and a recently disclosed FBI report states that “because of her high official position, the duchess is obtaining a variety of information concerning the British and French activities that she is passing on to the Germans.”Once married to Edward the pair were targets for the British and French intelligence services as well. The 1937 tour of Germany and meeting Hitler and his odious crew didn’t help matters and nor did Edward’s close family connections in Germany. 

In 1940 the Germans set up Operation Willi, a pretty half-hearted effort to kidnap the couple. This was another reason to get the Windsors out of Europe. In the Bahamas they continued to be annoying, hobnobbing with known Nazi sympathisers and getting involved in what appears to be money laundering and currency gambles. Money was very important to the Windsors although they appear to have been takers more than givers.

Andrew Lownie documents all this and much more in granular detail. At times his book reads as if it were an elaborated list of every interaction the Windsors had with a vast miscellany of people as documented in security reports, sales catalogues, travel documents, letters and diaries. Lownie has scoured the planet for any references to the Windsors in the biographies, letters and diaries of their friends, colleagues, servants, guests, business partners and hangers on. This data overwhelm creates a tension with the book’s narrative flow and the drumbeat of meticulously documented facts too often drowns out the author’s voice. Bolder opinions on the facts presented would have made for a more compelling storyline and an easier read.

Traitor King doesn’t really hit its stride until the final quarter. By this time its 1953 and the couple is settling down in Paris where they continue to entertain on a grand scale and Edward is still trying to get his family to be nice to Wallis. That never happens and after his death in May 1972 Wallis lives on for another 14 years, still exiled, depressed and unloved. In her final days parasites posing as aides sell off her belongings and she is confined to her bedroom waiting to die. 

It’s all very sad, but although love was the reason for Edward’s abdication, love seems not to have been at the heart of the Windsors’ relationship. That is even sadder. He worshipped his idealised version of her and she treated him with condescension and distain. Ambition, greed, vanity, platforming, ostentatiousness, all ooze from these two people even at such a distance. They are odious individuals, selfish, mean and competitive narcissists of limited intelligence and perception. Beyond the romance that persistently overshadows the human reality Andrew Lownie’s book, with all its details, shows us the pair for who they really were.

Constance Wilde’s Autograph Book edited by Devon Cox

Constance Wilde, born in 1858, was the wife of Oscar and the mother of his two sons, Cyril and Vyvyan. Two years after her marriage to Oscar Wilde in 1884, Constance started an autograph book for which she continued to collect entries until 1896. There are 62 in all, mostly provided by invited contributors during Constance’s At Home events. But by 1896, her husband was in prison having been convicted of ‘gross indecency’ and Constance was in exile in Italy. After Constance died in 1898, two years before Oscar, the whereabouts of the autograph book were unknown. 

It resurfaced at auction in 1987 and Mary Hyde bequeathed it to the British Museum in 2003. The British Museum kindly gave the Oscar Wilde Society permission to produce a facsimilie reproduction of the book. Joan Winchell, a longstanding member of the society, donated funds to make possible the book’s production. Devon Cox managed the project.

Constance’s autograph book is an unparalleled window into manners, behaviour, expectations and the nature of celebrity in late nineteenth century London. Constance was very considered in her invitations to contribute to her autograph book, so it has entries from a diverse group of men and women, from Prime Ministers and actors to musicians and spiritualists. And it has some interesting omissions, such as Oscar’s soon to be growing group of male friends.

The entries range from the profound to the peculiar. G. F. Watts painter and sculptor put “our greatest happiness should be found in the happiness of others” and “you did not promise to be her mother-in-law” is playwright Elizabeth Merivale’s rather odd contribution. And although her husband’s renown was obviously helpful in gaining signatures, the autograph book clearly reflects Constance’s independent values, spirit and aspirations. Oscar’s entry, the second in the book following that of Oliver Wendell Holmes, is unsurprisingly the most intimate of all. It reads: “from a poet to a poem” and although Oscar has used this line elsewhere in his work, it is no less touching an expression of his respect and admiration for his wife. At least at the time, when she was still the love of his life.

So why should we care about the autograph book of a woman long dead and buried, who died tragically young and whose life was so overshadowed by her glamorous husband? Isn’t this little autograph book just an elaborate form of name-dropping, of literary showing off? Yes, it is an exercise in name dropping, but these names are not just collected, Constance Wilde has deliberately curated them and this is part of the fascination of the book. The names so assiduously gathered, reflect some sliver of Constance’s spirit and values. Artists and poets feature heavily, as do actors including Henry IrvingEllen Terry and Sarah Bernhardt.

In the beginning of their marriage Oscar’s fame and notoriety dominated Constance’s life, and then shame and notoriety were ascendant. They forced Constance to leave the country and change her and her children’s names. First glamour and then misery. But somewhere in that glorious and successful phase of Oscar’ life, first as a heterosexual man, then as a bisexual one and then homosexual, Constance was in love and happy. Oscar too was in love and happy. The autograph book was mostly created during this period of their lives, when Constance was emerging as a socially and politically independent woman. A woman sufficiently confident and bold to hold her own in Oscar’s orbit, albeit fleetingly.

Constance was his soul mate and lover, intellectually for a little while and briefly physically. But Oscar was a serial explorer both intellectually and sexually, so it never was going to last long. Apart from their two boys, there are very few expressions of Constance in Wilde’s life. Her autograph book gives us a small shred of insight into the woman and her life with one of the world’s greatest authors. With contributions from artists such as James Whistler and William Morris, from politicians such as Gladstone, through to authors including Mark Twain and George Meredith, the book reflects Constance Wilde’s life and times but also her eclecticism. It’s a wonderful thing indeed. 

Devon Cox has overseen the production of the project and even if you don’t fancy reading all the musings in the book, his introduction alone is worth the purchase. You can buy it here: https://oscarwildesociety.co.uk/autograph-book/

PS Is it just me or is there a striking similarity in looks between Constance and Bosie?

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins – a Review

This review is in two parts. The first part focuses on the book, it’s story and my opinion of it. The second part addresses the antagonism directed at Jeanine Cummins for having the temerity to write about brown people, even though she is white.

Part I

American Dirt is the story of Lydia and Luca, a mother and her eight year old son. They are on the run following the brutal assassination of all their relations, sixteen people, at a family birthday party. Lydia’s husband had been an investigative journalist. The brutal murders follow the publication of Sebastián’s in depth profile of a local Mexican cartel boss and his growing influence. The massacre is supposed to kill the entire family, everyone at the party. But Lydia and Luca, hiding in the loo, are overlooked and escape.

The book follows Lydia and Luca’s terrifying progress as they flee their home city, Acapulco, to make their way north to the United States. The journey is over 2700 km. The cartel equivalent of an All Points Bulletin, complete with Lydia’s image, is shared across Mexico throughout the criminal network and beyond to spies, informers and hangers on, anyone who’ll turn Lydia and Luca in for gain. It’s a terrifying premise made all the more sinister by the fact that Lydia, unaware of his identity, had become friends with the head of the cartel.

Javier, boss of the vile Los Jardineros cartel, had been a frequent visitor to the bookshop Lydia owns and the two share a love of books and poetry. Their kindred platonic bond had grown increasingly intimate and personal over several months. Javier calls Lydia the Queen of his soul, rather than the Queen of his heart (his wife) or of his pants (his mistress). Lydia treats their closeness as an asexual and private personal intimacy based on a shared love of literature.

These two complex and conflicted characters evoke all that is precious about relationships that don’t count as extramarital affairs, yet are profound and meaningful in an extramarital dimension. As Lydia flees she constantly re-examines to horrible effect her latent deceit or not deceit, naivety or trust, truth or lies and how she was so duped or not duped. What did she not see? What did she see? Who was that man? Who was she?

Ignore the fuss and read this book. It will stay with you.

Following the murders Lydia is a perpetual twist of emotional confusion  which gradually resolves into the only emotion she can feel: hate for Javier. She examines her relationship with her murdered husband, their deep love, romance and friendship, all that they shared. Mixed in with the hate and fear, she must hold fast to and protect Luca, all the while travelling under a veil of horror. Lydia must allow Luca his pain and his grief, and yet keep uppermost the urgency and danger of their journey. “If there’s one good thing about terror, Lydia now understands, it’s that it’s more immediate than grief”. No time for sorrow. This must be balanced with trust and Luca’s faith in her. For the most part Cummins achieves this balance and only occasionally does the reader feel that Luca is just a little too good to be true, that his flawless acquiescence to his situation and his mother’s ministerings is real. The tears are too few.

Javier is another matter. Lydia knows him viscerally as do we as the story unfolds. She knows that Javier will never let her go, that he wants to own her in death if not in life. Lydia and the reader are unaware that Lydia and Javier share in loss, until towards the end of the book. Running from Javier and his interlinked network of ghouls to a place of safety is all that matters for Lydia and Luca. That network ranges from hotel receptionists to bus drivers, so evil and ever-present death dog their every moment. They are unable to pause to mourn or grieve or even to fully comprehend the horror of what has and is happening.

Cummins handles this tension deftly whilst keeping the book’s momentum going. Along the way they meet up with two young sisters following different but equally dreadful terrrors. The two girls and Lydia and Luca are cautious, suspicious and reluctant to share their stories. There’s the fear always that the more you share, the more you have at risk, and might lose. As the small group pushes on in the blind hope of new life in El Norte, other migrants some new to the migrant path and some not join them. And yet never is there much sense of comradery. All of them know this is fragile, transitory. They know the chances of reaching safety are slim, that everyone is an enemy, a threat, a risk. So they keep mostly quiet and trudge on, an intense blend of fear and hope pushing them all forwards. And we are there too, with every agonising and possibly futile step.

Read this book!

This is a story everyone should read. American Dirt is a story that takes a wrecking ball to our cosy sense of first-world safety and security. It leaves us bereft and distressed, haunted and overwhelmed. Shock and fear creep over us with every page; a sense of ghastly, guilty relief echoes though our senses as we keep on turning the pages, urgent and desperate to know what happens next. We are guilty because we know it’s not us, but there are lots of others suffering what these migrants suffer. The awfulness of Lydia and Luca’s experience can be kept at arm’s length, but it cannot be kept entirely away from our sense of safety. We read wide-eyed and gorge on this awful story. Yet we are secure and largely protected from the organised lawlessness that is everyday reality in Mexico, Honduras, Guatamala and elsewhere around the world.

This is a story everyone should read, because it hasn’t been told quite like this before. This is a story everyone should read, despite the hostility it provoked when first published. It is so vital a story that it doesn’t matter who wrote it. This is a story everyone should read, because its author binds the reader tight to the characters with every dangerous step of the way. In our guts comes some glimmer of understanding of what these people, the unwilling migrants, go through and the horrors of their experience.

Review of The Draftsman

The Draftsman is a story straightforward in overall theme, but is written with an incredible focus on detail. Some authors leave you to decide what or how the characters form, but in this book, every detail of each character and the interaction in the story is richly laid out for you. This by no means lessens the read, in fact it is nice to indulge in the language used and not have to work too hard building images in your head. Whilst reading the story, knowing the specific details of each character allows you imbue the whole storyline without guessing the direction of the theme or road the author is taking you down. You easily get into the connections between the lead character Martin Cox and feel how he wrestles with the issues in his life. You see Martin come out of his shell as he gets deeper and deeper discovering the new property he has purchased and this in turn leads to the twist every good story has at its conclusion. I would thoroughly endorse a read of The Draftsman, it was a book I felt I needed to read cover to cover.

Isn’t that lovely? Much appreciated. Thank you Brian Sims, reader.

You can find other reviews of The Draftsman here:

https://wordpress.com/post/laurellindstrom.org/1078

https://wordpress.com/post/laurellindstrom.org/1082

https://wordpress.com/post/laurellindstrom.org/1094

https://wordpress.com/post/laurellindstrom.org/1087

… and buy the book here: https://www.hive.co.uk/Product/Laurel-Lindstrom/The-Draftsman/25875852

You can buy the book here: https://unbound.com/books/the-draftsman/

Deepa Anappara’s Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line – A Book Review

It’s rare that a novel, especially a first novel, transports the reader so completely and so persistently into another space. Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara is set in a large but unspecified Indian city. Young children have started to disappear from a local basti, a slum. The eponymous Djinn Patrol is a small group of children led by nine year old Jai, a little boy who along with his friends lives in the basti. Obsessed with television cop programmes and keen to become a detective, Jai decides to investigate. He co-opts his friend Pari who is much brighter and much more diligent than Jai. Faiz has a job as well as going to school and is convinced that Djinns are to blame for the disappearances.

Jai’s story, and that of his world, is woven into the story of the team’s efforts to track down the killer. They look for clues, interview witnesses and catalogue their evidence. They don’t get very far but in their many journeys, including to the city centre on the purple train line, we are immersed in the world they inhabit. We learn bits of Hindi on the way, like basti and daru, which is some sort of booze. We also learn about Indian food, and about managing day to day living in extreme poverty. Jai, his family and those of his friends and neighbour live the same routines as everyone else: food, transportation, home, family. But they do it without much in the way of cash or mod cons. And they are at the sharp end of most peoples’ prejudices including those of their neighbours.

© Penguin Random House I am only using this image of the book cover to illustrate the review. I promise.

Through her characters, the author deftly reminds us of some basic truths people in general and about modern India in particular. At his job as a tea-shop boy, one Sunday Jai observes “If Pari were to see me now, she would say this is why India will never be world class like America or England. In those countries, it’s illegal to make children work.” There are many such uncomfortable reminders in this book.

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line offers an original perspective on modern India, that of a low caste little boy, aspirational and ambitious but easily distracted. He and his friends and family take in stride the country’s casual racism and class divisions, evident pretty much everywhere. We see the aloof disregard the wealthy “hifi” people have for the poor people who serve them. We see the callousness and priviledge, and the complete lack of respect spoilt wealthy people can have for others beyond their social class, beneath their caste. We come to understand that these hifi types simply don’t see them as people. One would like to think the hifi types know better, because they should, but they mostly don’t. Their unfeeling disregard is shocking, anachronistic in people who pride themselves on the advances India has made over the last 70 years. That a mother daren’t ask for time off to searching for her missing child, because she could lose her job is as sobering as it is distressing.

The juxtaposition of wealth and poverty, between the hifis behind their high walls and the slum-dwellers with no running water and shared bathhouses is an ugly reminder of how easy it is for people to be blind to the world around them, to simply not notice. That applies not just to broken down buildings and running drains in Jai’s basti, but also to domestic violence, child abuse and kidnapping and corruption, especially in the police and local government. Too easily it can all become quotidien, and those priviledged enough to push for change, immune so they do nothing.

Anappara’s array of characters, savoury and not so savoury, are presented with sympathy and sensitivity. Main characters have back stories to help us understand how they are shaped, showing their multiple sides. Truly evil characters have no shape other than evilness. Anappara’s heroes and antiheroes are vulnerable and inconsistent, and as we learn to get to know them we are encouraged to want to know them more, even the unpleasant ones. Many are uncertain and changeable. Even Jai struggles with self-doubt, at one point telling Pari “we can’t be detectives anymore. What can we track? We done even know the Muslim children’s names”. Divisions between Hindus and Muslims in modern India clearly run deep, even amongst children.

Like India this story is one of contrasts, from the blend of kindness and cruelty of Mental towards his gang of child thieves, through to Jai’s assessment late in the book that “our basti has become famous and the opposite of famous”. The author keeps her various narrators’ voices clearly distinct, from Jai whose nine year old perspective remains that of a child throughout, to the young schoolboy thug, Quarter. He is one of Jai’s suspects but is really not so different from the younger boys he terrorises. But Quarter’s advantages are enough to give him power over other children, as Jai explains: “His father is the pradhan [leader] of our basti and a member of the Hindu Samaj, a shouty party that hates Muslims. We hardly ever see the pradhan anymore because he has bought a hifi flat and only meets hifi people.”

Jai makes many such observations throughout this book and the reader is right there with him. We share Jai’s life and his world: “For safekeeping his father wrapped the ironed clothes in clean but worn bedsheets.” Jai’s father is a press-wallah, anxious that changing times in his neighbourhood will soon make him redundant. 

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line is witty, sensitively observed, a story of hideous crimes and of the ordinariness of innocence. Jai and his friends are aware of their world and its limitations but they are unconcerned. Their world is school, avoiding getting into trouble, exploring and having adventures. In this they are the same as children everywhere. Their difference is that they live in a world where child abduction and kidnapping, murder and police corruption are too readily ignored. But such darkness does not have to be ignored and that it is, should be India’s shame.