RUSSIAN ROULETTE

ElenaMedia types who weren’t even there have spent several months now banging on about how Britain is going ‘back to the 70s’ simply because they assume today’s perilous economic climate is somehow comparable to that of a decade they only know through endlessly recycled clichés of candlelit households, picket lines, and pavements piled high with rubbish. Ironically, however, whilst the hysterical heads on our news channels were promoting the cost-of-living crisis as the embodiment of this narrative, the summer’s premier sporting contest came close to experiencing a moment genuinely reminiscent of a 70s incident that almost caused its cancellation 49 years ago. Like Wimbledon 2022, Wimbledon 1973 saw a British man reach the semi-final of the singles’ tournament, yet the achievements of both Cameron Norrie and Roger Taylor were overshadowed by events off-court.

In 1973, the Open Era was still a relatively new innovation and the leading tennis players of the period were feeling liberated by the sudden change in their circumstances – especially financially. Take a player like Rod Laver, still the only man in the history of the sport to twice hold all four Grand Slam titles in a calendar year; the fact he achieved this in 1962 but then not again until 1969 highlights how from 1963 to 1968 Laver was unable to compete in such tournaments, as their Olympian ideal stated one had to be an amateur to take part; once you turned pro and tried to make a living from your talent, you were effectively exiled from the competitive game thereafter. A long-overdue change to the rules in the late 60s restored the world’s greatest tennis players to the Grand Slam stage, including Laver; but who knows how many more titles he could have added to his 198 (which remains a record) had he not lost five years in the middle of his career. By 1972, buoyed by the lucrative Open Era, the formation of the Association of Tennis Professionals had given players some independent clout and this was something they demonstrated the following year when they flexed their muscles against the International Lawn Tennis Federation, the global governing body of the game.

The first opportunity for players to take a stance came when Nikola Pilić, Yugoslavia’s No.1, was suspended by his own national lawn tennis association on the grounds he had bowed out of a Davis Cup tie played by his nation; the suspension spanned nine months and was supported by the ILTF; it was eventually reduced to a month, but that month encompassed the Wimbledon fortnight. The ATP responded to the ban by stating that if it wasn’t lifted they’d pull their players out of the tournament in support; what followed next were weeks of legal wrangling which eventually ended in an ATP boycott of the men’s singles at Wimbledon. 13 of the intended 16 seeds pulled out, with only the likes of the 1972 Wimbledon runner-up Ilie Năstase and Britain’s Roger Taylor defying the boycott amongst the more established players; up-and-coming youngsters such as Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors took advantage to progress in the absence of the bigger names (including defending champ Stan Smith), and the title was won by Czech Jan Kodeš, whose presence representing an Eastern Bloc country probably meant he had no option but to compete.

49 years later, the Russian invasion of Ukraine provoked several measures by the world of sport; the ATP – not quite as anti-establishment as in its original incarnation half-a-century earlier – responded with the token gesture of relocating the St Petersburg Open to Kazakhstan at the beginning of the conflict, but didn’t enforce a ban of Russian or Belarusian players from tournaments, unlike other sporting bodies, such as FIFA, UEFA and the IOC. When Wimbledon came around, however, a ban was imposed. The ATP’s rather petulant reaction, one that perhaps emphasised how far it had come since its formation 50 years before, was to remove world ranking points from Wimbledon. Prestigious competitions such as the Davis Cup and Billie Jean King Cup upheld the same ban of players from Russia and Belarus, yet both the French and US Open declined to follow suit; in the case of the former, it decided to go with the unsatisfactory compromise of having players from the guilty countries participate as ‘neutral players without national flags’. The decision of the All England Club was applauded by several Ukrainian players, though the ATP sided with the now-ITF this time round. Defending Wimbledon men’s champion (and a man who retained his crown yet again yesterday) Novak Djokovic criticised the ban, though as someone who has already suffered at the hands of a political incursion into sport via his experience at the Australian Open at the beginning of the year, perhaps it’s understandable he wants to keep politics out of tennis. At one point, it seemed as though the tournament was threatened with a rerun of 1973, though in the end it didn’t quite work out as planned for the All England Club.

One might say Wimbledon’s ban has backfired – and the moral conundrum of holding sportsmen and women responsible for the actions of the nations whose flags they perform under is a contentious one; it denied the competition the men’s world No.1 Daniil Medvedev, for one thing; but if the non-appearance of Russia’s former Wimbledon champ Maria Sharapova (who sensationally defeated Serena Williams as a 17-year-old in 2004) at the past champions’ parade was a notable casualty of the ban, it was perhaps viewed as less of an awkward absentee than usual BBC pundit Boris Becker, who no doubt tried to catch what he could of the tournament whilst sewing mailbags on D Wing. No, the implications of the ban became more embarrassing for the All England Club as a girl born and raised in Moscow progressed through the tournament and ended up making it all the way to the ladies’ final; up against Ons Jabeur, the Tunisian No.1 and the first North African woman to make the final, Elena Rybakina was not exactly the winner the burghers of Wimbledon were hoping for. Jabeur winning the opening set of the final eased a few furrowed brows; but Rybakina dug deep and struck back for a 3-6, 6-2, 6-2 victory.

There was no doubt Ons Jabeur was the woman the All England Club and the BBC were keeping their fingers crossed for, but Rybakina spoilt the party and maintained the impressive trail she’d blazed throughout the tournament, none more so than when crushing in-form 2019 champ Simona Halep in the semi-final, 6-3, 6-3. After the pre-tournament headlines had been so focused on the enforced absence of Russian and Belarusian players – a decision that was entirely in line with the UK’s support of Ukraine, lest we forget – perhaps the ultimate embarrassment for Wimbledon came when the Duchess of Cambridge in her capacity as patron of the All England Club had little choice but to present the Venus Rosewater Dish to a player destined to be used as a propaganda weapon by Moscow, regardless of how much distance Rybakina has attempted to place between herself and her homeland’s government. At the same time, she remains rather evasive on whether Moscow is still where she lives.

To be fair to Rybakina, her defection to Kazakhstan dates back to 2018 rather than being a convenient switching of flags to evade an international boycott; she’s not guilty of the kind of canny relocation that South African cricketers routinely engaged in during that nation’s lengthy stint as a sporting pariah during Apartheid. She only really represented the country of her birth at junior level; when she turned pro and embarked upon the women’s circuit full-time aged 19, it was the Kazakhstan Tennis Federation that offered her financial support and far superior coaching facilities than that which were being provided back home. She changed her nationality and has therefore competed under the Kazakhstan flag for the past five years; the fact remains, however, that the women’s winner of Wimbledon in a year when Russian players were exiled from the competition was a born-and-bred Muscovite. Maybe there’s a point to be made somewhere in there – a match-point, perhaps.

© The Editor

Website: https://www.johnnymonroe.co.uk/

Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/user?fan_landing=true&u=56665294

Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/719591724

TAINTED BY ASSOCIATION

ProtestNow there’s no longer anyone left alive to separate fact from fiction, we’re pretty much stuck with the myth of the World War I Home Front, whereby each Zeppelin raid was followed by the communal kicking of Dachshunds on the street and the smashing of shop windows bearing Germanic names. Whether or not this actually happened doesn’t seem to matter anymore because all our great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers (who might have been witness to such incidents) are gone; it’s become absorbed into the second-hand narrative of a conflict too far away to bear any relevance to the here and now. But we do know for certain that anti-German sentiments forced our very own royal household to change their family name, wary that Saxe-Coburg–Gotha was a tad too Teutonic a moniker to rally round when the King’s own cousin was responsible for starting the whole bloody mess in the first place; if the newly-christened House of Windsor could decline sanctuary to the Tsar (when he was supposed to be our ally), its commitment to the preservation of Albion in the face of foreign aggression seemed pretty sound – and few foreigners were more aggressive towards Albion in the 20th century than the Germans. Chances are, then, some of the myths re opposition to all things German are rooted in truth; war has a habit of legitimising bigotry, after all.

At this moment in time, when war rages in Europe once again, the division between the good guys and the bad guys is as crystal clear as ever and it is now officially OK to badmouth Russians without fear of an Identitarian comeback. Whilst mocking or criticising China – whose terrible human rights record far exceeds that of Russia – leaves the guilty party open to accusations of racist punching-down, doing likewise to the Russian people and their culture is perfectly acceptable; indeed, it’s practically compulsory. Just as any prominent black spokesperson (especially in the US) is fair game to be subjected to old-fashioned racism in the emperor’s new clothes of anti-racism should they dare offer a critique of the BLM agenda or deny the perceived oppression that comes with the colour of their skin, to voice the opinion that anything Russian isn’t necessarily tainted by the Putin brand is to unleash the contents of one’s bladder on the Ukrainian flag, which (lest we forget) is this season’s must-have fashion accessory.

I’m not really surprised that the illiterate stupidity of the present day has bled into the invasion of Ukraine and reduced it to merely another branch of the culture wars from the West’s perspective; but the facile nature of the popular response is depressingly symptomatic as to how everything today has to be translated into black & white symbolism bereft of any shades of grey. I wonder how many of those advocating the blacklisting of all things Russian have even read anything by Dostoevsky or listened to anything by Tchaikovsky or watched anything by Eisenstein. It’s like being a fan of The Beatles means you’re a cheerleader for Boris Johnson, simply because both are Brits (even though our PM was actually born in NYC); it’s infantile, ignorant and ill-informed, and the current vogue for associating anything Russian (however antique) with Vlad’s war machine is as vacuous a gesture as Sainsbury’s shelves being stripped of vodka. Maybe we should all wait for St Bono to write another poem on the topic, whereby he can compare Volodymyr Zelensky to any acceptable cultural hero undamaged by SWJ revisionism; and then we can have that deluded and deranged cadaver Nancy Pelosi recite it live on CNN.

It’s interesting how an otherwise-despised strain of jingoism, so derided when it waves the Union Jack during the Last Night of the Proms, can receive a free pass when it comes to anti-Russian feeling; we might be ashamed to celebrate our own nation’s achievements, but it’s fine to denounce those of another in the name of ‘freedom’. Coming as this does from countries whose governments have done their utmost to obliterate civil liberties over the past couple of years of pandemic paranoia, it’s hard not to greet such developments with cynicism. I suppose, though, this is the natural outcome of an age in which cancel culture is second nature; that all Russian cultural exports – whether they emanate from pre-Soviet Russia or the USSR itself (neither of which have any bearing on present-day Russia) – are subject to a blanket ban simply due to their geographical origins is patently ridiculous, but it’s not really that different from the way in which the artist is now regarded as inseparable from his art – one thinks of the likes of Phil Spector, for example. Any hopelessly naive hopes that the Woke mindset would be extinguished by Covid have been dashed once again by the fact that every reaction to every crisis now is merely a further extension of the Identity Politics philosophy, whereby everyone is defined by increasingly narrow criteria, lumped in together on the basis of race, gender, sexuality or nationality, whether or not that has any relation to their individual personas.

Apparently, the legendary Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin is the latest posthumous victim of the current wave of Russophobia; true, the vapid virtue signalling that demands the anglicised spelling of Kiev becomes the more native Kyiv in the context of a dish that has little to do with the location it derives its name from is partially understandable from the point of view of the contemporary Western diet; but what on earth does the first man in space – who died as long ago as 1968 – have to do with any of this? Ah, but he’s Russian, so it’s okay to belittle his considerable achievements – achievements that would’ve made it undeniably harder for Neil Armstrong’s one small step to take place just eight years after Gagarin completed a full orbit of Earth in the Vostok 1 capsule and became the most famous man on the planet overnight at the height of Cold War tensions in the early 60s.

Gagarin’s sole venture into outer space took place the same year of the Bay of Pigs fiasco and just the year before the Cuban Missile Crisis, yet the humiliation he inadvertently heaped upon the West didn’t dent his global popularity; people were grownup enough back then to recognise Gagarin was being manipulated as a Soviet propaganda tool and didn’t hold his birthright against him. Admittedly, 60 years ago it was something of a thorn in the side of the American Dream that the USSR appeared to be leading the way in the Space Race; Gagarin’s groundbreaking exploration of the atmosphere came hot on the heels of Sputnik paving the way for the satellite age, all of which piled pressure upon NASA to fulfil the promise of JFK during his inauguration speech, that of putting an American man on the Moon before the end of the decade. But Yuri Gagarin rose above the East-West politics of the era, with his achievement accepted on a human scale that transcended nationality; film footage of the rapturous reception he received for a visit to characteristically rainy Manchester just three months after his historic flight into orbit is testament to his universal popularity.

Kennedy may have barred Gagarin from making a similar jaunt to the US, but that was simply politicking; most saw Gagarin for what he was – an international hero whose nationality was secondary to his place in mankind’s history. However, the current climate will probably bar any eulogising of Laika – the brave little oblivious pooch whose doomed 1957 journey into space enabled Yuri Gagarin to follow suit – before too long, for an annual event organised by the Space Foundation in America that ordinarily honours Gagarin by calling it ‘Yuri’s Night’ has dropped his name from the get-together; at the same time, a statue of Gagarin in Luxembourg (again, demonstrating how his appeal stretched way beyond national or ideological boundaries) has been covered up, presumably lest the sight of him suggests the Grand Duchy is pro-Putin. Cultural boycotts of apolitical Russian exports didn’t take place during Cold War I, so we certainly don’t need them in Cold War II. If anything, the ‘1812 Overture’ should be the theme tune of the moment, proving as it does that there’s far more to a nation than any warmongering philistine who happens to control it.

© The Editor

Website: https://www.johnnymonroe.co.uk/

Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/user?fan_landing=true&u=56665294

OPEN DOOR

Old WomanIt wasn’t so long ago – barely a year – that the British people were barred from allowing more than six people into their abodes. They couldn’t visit ailing family members in hospitals or care homes; they could only attend funerals in small, specified numbers – and heavy-handed Jobsworths were on hand to gleefully ensure there was no physical contact between the grievers; they couldn’t gather in the open to mark Remembrance Sunday; they couldn’t celebrate Christmas together; they couldn’t hold a vigil for a murdered woman in an outdoor environment without the police treating them like violent protestors; they couldn’t stage a demonstration unless their cause was one approved by the authorities – climate change or BLM, yes/anti-lockdown or anti-vax, no; they couldn’t even worship in churches whose doors were bolted. Small businesses went to the wall, crippled by both enforced closure and then uneconomic restrictions when tentatively reopening (if they’d managed to survive).

The damaging legacy of the past couple of years remains blatantly evident in the rising unemployment figures and the breathtaking level of national debt, not to mention the amount of folk continuing to wear masks in safe environments such as on the street or in the privacy of their own bloody cars, their brains fried by the pandemic propaganda of Project Fear. One wonders if they mask-up on the loo, in the bath or in bed. Probably. Yet, while it would be natural to imagine the unsurprising and hypocritical revelations of what those lying bastards who imposed such rules on the populace were getting up to behind closed doors at the height of the pandemic had served as a wake-up call on how conned the people were, so deep is the psychological damage done by lockdown and its affiliated curbs on civil liberties that the illogical neurosis of millions remains something that will probably take years to heal.

So, how strange that the same people who had to conduct conversations with family and friends from ridiculous distances – and out of doors, at that – are now being battered anew with fresh emotional blackmail that encourages them to open their previously hermetically-sealed homes to complete strangers, as though 2020 and ’21 never happened. Memories of the Syrian ‘children’ with their remarkably advanced examples of male grooming have been smoothly erased as the request for impromptu landlords goes out again. Of course, the awful humanitarian crisis unfolding in Ukraine naturally stirs deep feelings in anyone who has a heart; for some, this provokes a desire to tackle the forces of oppression head-on by signing-up for an International Brigades-like foreign legion of fighters to repel the Russian invasion; for others, it’s marked via a boycott of Russian goods or cultural exports; and for others again, it manifests itself as a craving to offer a safe roof over the heads of those faced with no option but to flee their own homes thousands of miles away. Yesterday, the British Government announced it would offer UK homeowners £350 a month to take in Ukrainian refugees, with Housing Secretary Michael Gove unveiling the Homes for Ukraine scheme.

After so many recent exposés of precisely how untrustworthy and slippery our elected leaders are, people can be forgiven for greeting this announcement with cynicism and discerning something more than motives emanating from the goodness of politicians’ hearts; one now finds it difficult to take any such move at face value and not detect an ulterior motive. In the case of the current administration – and, it has to be said, its predecessors over the last couple of decades – this kind of response to an appalling situation cannot entirely eradicate the lax attitude towards the dirty money fuelling the Russian war machine which has been a hallmark of British governments for a long time. The amount of desirable British properties in the hands of offshore shell companies engaged in money laundering both in the UK and its more luxurious overseas territories has been mirrored in the close ties forged between British politicians and institutions and those Russians who have taken advantage of the so-called ‘golden visa’ scheme. Perish the thought, but could certain members of the Government and the Conservative Party be covering their own corrupt backs by utilising the same emotional blackmail tactics employed during Covid to persuade the people to open hearts and doors to Ukrainian refugees as they themselves gloss over their cosiness with representatives of the regime responsible for the crisis?

Just how deeply governing bodies with pound signs for pupils have allowed countries with dubious reputations to become embedded in the fabric of British life was highlighted when Chelsea played Newcastle Utd at Stamford Bridge on Sunday; the home fans chanted the name of the now-toxic Putin bitch Roman Abramovich, whereas the away fans cheered their own suddenly-wealthy club’s Saudi owners, emanating as they do from a regime that executed a staggering 81 individuals the day before the match in a ruthless display of despotic inhumanity. What a glorious advert for the beautiful game, one that no token knee-taking will ease the grubby stain of. Football fans desperate for success will seemingly overlook the source of the financial fuel filling their trophy cabinets, though they’ve hardly been set a good example by their social ‘betters’. The filthy lucre floating around the national sport at the highest level is one more noticeable consequence of the golden visa rule introduced by a Labour Government in the wake of Peter Mandelson quaffing champers on the yacht of Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, one that has allowed Russia to get its feet under the establishment table with very little in the way of opposition.

According to stats in the most recent issue of Private Eye, since the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014, 406 wealthy Russians have bought their way into Britain via the required £2 million, with a mere 20 refusals; following the 2018 poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal, 92 golden visas have been issued, with just six refusals; eight were even issued at the back end of last year, a time when Vlad’s intentions re Ukraine were well-known. At times, the Russian infiltration of British politics and all its interconnected entrails are reminiscent of the way in which Nigel Kneale’s 1950s TV series ‘Quatermass’ featured collaborators with the alien invaders in the upper echelons of British society as a knowing nod to the pre-war ruling class’s flirtation with fascism. The abrupt about-turn on oligarchs by this government as everyone with Russian skeletons in their closet seeks to distance themselves from Uncle Vlad’s activities is something that understandably provokes cynicism, though being offered cash incentives to house those who have suffered most from these activities seems another cynical move by an administration that inspires little else but cynicism.

Local councils who have spent the past two years pleading poverty, cutting public services to the bone and yet simultaneously feathering their own personal nests are also having a tempting carrot dangled in their direction re refugees. One cannot help but wonder if they will spend the money wisely. Considering how well GPs’ surgeries have managed to avoid doing their jobs and yet have continued to bleat about being overwhelmed during the coronavirus, how will a sudden influx of immigrants with obvious ailments affect the dereliction of duties the medical profession has achieved since Lockdown Mk I? It goes without saying that those whose needs are attended to on Harley Street won’t be affected, though the calamitous disappearance of the cheap household labour that Brexit brought about may at least be solved.

Materially comfortable individuals with the spare rooms to welcome refugees should be in a position to carry out their intentions without their kindness necessitating a financial reward, and those whose sadness with the situation in Ukraine doesn’t stretch that far shouldn’t be made to feel guilty for choosing not to do so, despite the lure of being paid in a scheme that will undoubtedly be open to abuse. One can’t blame many for being reluctant to invite strangers into their homes when they were faced with heavy fines and possible prison sentences for extending a similar invitation to people they actually know not so long ago. Funny old world innit.

© The Editor

Website: https://www.johnnymonroe.co.uk/

Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/user?fan_landing=true&u=56665294

OUT IN THE COLD

VladWhen a long (ish) life means you find yourself with feet on either side of a divide that separates one era from another, it can be interesting to realise how a personal living memory is little more than a Wikipedia entry to those who emerge in the years and decades after the world map is redrawn. Unencumbered by any remembrance of how things used to be, those for whom the Iron Curtain or Apartheid are as irrelevant to the here and now as Ancient Egypt or the Incas invariably see the past in a completely different light. I guess for anyone of a certain age – i.e. over 40 – the demolition of the Berlin Wall and the release of Nelson Mandela had an immense significance that is difficult to articulate to someone born after 1990; and, to be honest, it can sometimes be easy to forget the way things were even if you were there. I remember once watching a documentary about Live Aid in which a member of Paul Weller’s Style Council recalled how the band had a testing journey to reach Wembley Stadium on the day, flying from an overseas tour that required taking the long way round on account of not being able to venture into Soviet airspace. The recollection served as a reminder of just how different the global situation was then.

A couple of decades earlier, when television satellite technology was in its infancy, an attempt to link up the four corners of the globe for the first time in the groundbreaking ‘Our World’ broadcast was confronted by an effective no-fly zone when Eastern Europe declined to participate; the programme may best be remembered for the unveiling of ‘All You Need is Love’, but the ambitious aim of the enterprise was squandered by the opting out of Iron Curtain countries. Back then, the Eurovision Song Contest was the optimistic TV showcase for post-war European harmony, though no East European countries ever took part bar Yugoslavia. At the same time, however, Eastern Bloc sportsmen and athletes competed in events such as European club football tournaments and the Olympic Games, and there was also the cerebral Cold War clash on the chessboard that came with the infamous battle between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky in 1972; so at least the East had a degree of visibility denied South Africa during the 70s and 80s.

Often it was sport that provided the most high profile example of South Africa’s international isolation, notably cricket and rugby union, when regular tours by South African teams were scrubbed off the sporting schedule from the early 70s onwards – a situation it had actually taken a surprisingly long time for the rest of the world to agree on. Once agreed, however, the boycott was enforced with a heavy dose of moral and emotional pressure imposed on those who wavered from it. Hard to remember the uproar now when so-called ‘rebel tours’ of South Africa by cricketers took place in the 80s or when the likes of Elton John, Rod Stewart, Queen, Status Quo, Sinatra and even Shirley Bassey played profitable gigs in Sun City. Anyone named and shamed for participating in breaking the boycott was severely criticised thereafter; Freddie Mercury and the lads were added to the UN’s blacklist of sanctions-breakers following their ill-timed 1984 concert at the luxury resort, which took place at a point when serious civil unrest in South Africa had highlighted the injustices of the regime for the world to see once again.

The cultural Apartheid could also extend into some bizarre areas. Clout were a relatively inoffensive all-female rock band – itself something of a novelty in the 70s – who enjoyed the dubious status of one-hit wonders via their 1978 smash by the name of ‘Substitute’; the record stalled at the No.2 spot behind the immovable ‘You’re The One That I Want’ for several weeks that summer, yet ‘Top of the Pops’ had to settle for airing a clip of the band on a foreign TV show as the blanket ban on all things South African meant Clout were prevented by the Musicians’ Union from appearing in-person on the nation’s most-watched music show. The anti-Apartheid crusade was a particular passion for the Left in the 80s, and then – as now – the Left tended to monopolise the creative industries, meaning the boycott was the leading cause of the day in a way Palestine has become in the 21st century. Artists were expected to fall into line and most of those with any sort of conscience did so. The white South African was a cultural bogeyman during this period, so much so that a South African-born actor like the recently-deceased Anthony Sher was in denial of his origins when trying to make it as a thespian in the UK, conscious that he’d be confronted by a degree of prejudice that could jeopardise his ambitions.

Perhaps more than any other form of sanctions, a cultural boycott tends to be effective. A country’s art, along with its sport, can often be the way it successfully sells itself on the world stage. For example, what do most people immediately think of when they think of a country like Brazil? The Bossa Nova might spring to mind, but chances are the Brazilian football team will get there first every time. Likewise, during the era of the Soviet Union it was Russian composers and musicians sharing the international spotlight with athletes like Olga Korbut that offered a far more positive image than Leonid Brezhnev observing the parade of nuclear missiles on May Day. The USSR may be defunct as a nation now, but Russia has continued this tradition to project a less-toxic brand to the world; the coup of hosting what turned out to be a highly enjoyable World Cup in 2018 was a great leap forward that even managed to edge the country’s appalling record of using performance-enhancing drugs at the Olympics off the back pages. Recent events have put the brakes on this progress.

In the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the universal cultural condemnation has been swift and fairly unprecedented – nowhere more than on the football pitch. After announcing that the prestigious Champions League Final, scheduled to be staged in St Petersburg, has been moved to Paris, UEFA then linked arms with FIFA and barred all Russian clubs and the national side from competing in domestic and international competitions as well as the former dropping its sponsorship deal with Russian energy giant Gazprom. The close ties many oligarchs and Russian corporations have developed with numerous Premier League clubs in this country has been uncomfortably underlined this past week, resulting in Manchester United and Everton cancelling sponsorship deals with Russian companies; but perhaps Roman Abramovich deciding to put Chelsea up for sale is the most notable rat looking for the lifeboats.

Elsewhere in the world of sport, the Formula 1 Russian Grand Prix has been cancelled whilst Russia and its warmongering sidekick Belarus have both been banned from rugby union competitions by the sport’s governing body. The International Olympic Committee may have taken away the rights of Russia and Belarus to host sporting events, but initially allowing the nations to compete in Olympic tournaments under a ‘neutral’ flag received such severe criticism that the IOC has now announced the two countries will not be participating in the upcoming Winter Paralympics. In the arts, a prominent scalp came in the sacking of Valery Gergiev as conductor of the Munich Philharmonic; Gergiev, known to be favourable towards Putin, failed to condemn the invasion of Ukraine and after the orchestra was confronted by a string of cancellations, the Mayor of Munich fired him from his position.

Unlike the usual suspects of ill-informed Hollywood halfwits queuing-up to signal their virtue, the cultural boycott when applied across the board has a habit of hitting the target where it hurts. It can’t stop a war, but it can rob those in whose name the war is being fought of all the things that can truly enhance life. It’s worth a try.

© The Editor

Website: https://www.johnnymonroe.co.uk/

Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/user?fan_landing=true&u=56665294

INTERNATIONAL RESCUE

Liz TrussA decade or so ago, an ordinary member of the public whose job was either that of delivery man or taxi driver (his profession, as with his name, escapes me now) strolled onto the set of a BBC news programme and was inadvertently taken for a hired expert; roped in for a response to a story concerning big tech behemoth Apple, his absolute ignorance of the item in question and bewilderment with the surreal predicament he found himself in was instantly evident, yet he managed to create a moment of comedy gold that was repeatedly parodied for as long as its currency remained relevant. In a way, it summed up the needless emptiness of rolling news channels and their habit of pointlessly pontificating on every minor headline simply to fill the vast void of hours stretching out way beyond the point at which even the most casual viewer loses the will to live. The sudden accidental injection of humour into proceedings was a brief respite from the tedium though, had it not been picked up by social media, chances are few would have noticed it had happened.

The past few days I’ve received a few flashbacks of that amusing incident whenever I’ve seen Liz Truss issue statements on the Ukraine crisis; it’s almost as though she wandered into Broadcasting House to deliver Alan Yentob’s breakfast latte and was inexplicably assumed to be the Foreign Secretary; shoved in front of cameras and questioned as to what punishments Britain would be dishing out to Russia, Truss has the same air of utter cluelessness and absence of authority on the subject that was apparent in the confused countenance of the unfortunate gatecrasher onto the BBC News Channel. So far, no reporter has had the balls to present Ms Truss with a map of Eastern Europe and asked her to place pins in some of the locations of which she has recently betrayed her lack of geographical knowledge when it comes to the region, but I live in hope.

As the current situation is the kind of Godsend to rolling news channels that in theory prevents moments such as that already discussed from happening, there’s an endless succession of stories related to the big issue, one of which is a Kremlin spokesman attributing Russia being placed on nuclear alert courtesy of some clumsy comment on the part of Liz Truss. ‘There were unacceptable statements about possible conflict situations and even confrontations and clashes between NATO and Russia,’ said Dmitry Peskov. ‘I will not name the authors of these statements, although it was the British Foreign Secretary.’ That’ll be Ms Truss, then. The statements that seemed to have caused such offence have not been quoted, but take your pick. Liz Truss so far has been focused on bigging-up the economic sanctions not so much against Russia as a country, but against individual oligarchs; although she claims to have a ‘hit list’, she won’t name anyone on it.

At the same time, having been wined and dined by wealthy Russians for more than a decade and then repaid their generosity by allowing them to become embedded in the upper echelons of society with the kind of stealth China would certainly admire, the West appears to have hit Mother Russia where it hurts via sanctions. On the global markets, the rouble has plummeted in record time, sinking to an all-time low of 26% against the dollar. The US, along with the UK, the EU and numerous other nations, has barred leading Russian banks from Swift, a system which apparently enables the transfer of money to cross national borders with ease. The assets of the Bank of Russia have also been frozen by Western powers, severely reducing the access of its international dollar reserves; Canada has been quick to sign-up to this freezing of Russian bank accounts, though Putin’s support of the Canadian truckers has yet to be established. The UK has extended the freeze to all Russian banks, leaving many British businesses waiting indefinitely for money owed from Russian businesses; additionally, the UK has imposed restrictions on exports to Russia. The EU and UK have even been briefly reunited like a divorced couple reaching agreement over childcare, both issuing a blanket ban on Russian aircraft flying in EU or UK airspace. Meanwhile, having cut off its nuclear nose to spite its green face, Germany has been faced with little choice but to postpone the opening of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from the Motherland to the Fatherland. No possible response outside of dispatching Western boots on Ukrainian soil, it seems, has been spared.

However, there appears to be the possibility of non-Ukrainian volunteers assembling in International Brigades-fashion to take on the invaders, and it’s interesting that those stating their intentions to do so here aren’t being dissuaded by the Foreign Secretary. When quizzed as to her opinion of Brits queuing-up to join a ‘Foreign Legion’ of fighters prepared to take on the might of the Russian Army, Liz Truss replied in an encouraging manner that is a notable contrast to the official line on those who sought to do likewise in Syria not so long ago. She certainly seemed to suggest she supported anyone committed enough to the cause; asked if she approved of British nationals taking up arms in Ukraine, Truss replied, ‘Absolutely, if that’s what they want to do. That is something people can make their own decisions about. The people of Ukraine are fighting for freedom and democracy, not just for Ukraine but for the whole of Europe.’

Interestingly, Liz Truss’s support hasn’t exactly been endorsed by representatives from the Foreign Office, who aren’t offering similar encouragement – though they also aren’t doing their best to prevent such voluntary actions by threatening to arrest Brits returning from fighting in Ukraine, as the Crown Prosecution Service did re Syria. The Chairman of the Commons Defence Committee Tobias Ellwood shuffled uneasily in his seat when made aware of the Foreign Secretary’s support. ‘It seems nonsensical to encourage untrained and unequipped British citizens to head to a war zone,’ he said. ‘It’d be far easier with this policy if there was some form of NATO commitment, but the decision was made some time ago to rule that out and yet here we are endorsing British citizens to take up arms.’

Of course, there’s always the chance that any volunteers for an unofficial fighting force comprising outsiders could be viewed as little more than mercenaries with an unhealthy appetite for interfering in the affairs of another country in the most dangerous fashion. That said, the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has already announced such a force has been formed, with recruits in the UK (including former British soldiers who are veterans of interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan) approaching the Ukrainian Embassy to offer their services. A website has been set up as a British recruitment platform by Macer Gifford, who himself fought against ISIS with Kurdish forces in Syria for three years; Gifford claims he knows of at least half-a-dozen British volunteers who have been tackling Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine alongside Ukrainian troops for a while now, and he says that ‘judging by how many Britons contacted me in the past about going to Syria, I can imagine hundreds if not in the low thousands of people going out to Ukraine.’

I suppose if you’re old enough to remember the last time Brits volunteering to fight in a foreign conflict wasn’t something that came with the threat of arrest upon returning home (i.e. the Spanish Civil War), some of the images shot by amateur cameramen of Russian tanks cruising down residential streets and crushing private vehicles – not to mention the drivers in them – could easily evoke memories of Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968. Perhaps many imagined the end of the original Cold War at the turn of the 1990s had neutralised the possibility of the worst of recent European history repeating itself, though one wonders if a Treaty of Versailles-like grievance has been quietly festering in the Russian breast over the aftermath of the Cold War’s end from a Russian perspective ever since. Well, it’s probably fair to say that’s true when it comes to one particular Russian, anyway.

© The Editor

Website: https://www.johnnymonroe.co.uk/

Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/user?fan_landing=true&u=56665294

PLAYING CHICKEN IN KIEV

VladThe legend used to go that it’d be King Arthur who’d awake from his slumber to come to Albion’s aid in the hour of her greatest need; but there’s no real point him chartering a ferry from Avalon back to the mainland at the moment. After all, why bother when we’ve got Ben Wallace? In case you didn’t know, he’s one of those dimwit types Boris Johnson has a habit of handing a Ministry to (see Liz Truss), presumably in order to make himself seem far smarter by comparison. Wallace is the incumbent Defence Secretary, a post – like Foreign Secretary – that has a habit of receiving an upsurge in media coverage whenever the world faces one of its perennial crises. Now that the pandemic is so 2020/21 as a hot news story, there’s nothing quite like the prospect of armed conflict to get the MSM excited all over again, and they’ve been indulging in feverish speculation re the tension on the Ukrainian border for weeks now. For journos who’ll never have to fire a rifle in anger, the thought of covering a war is their equivalent of Viagra.

On the surface, Ben Wallace sounds like one of those Mark Francois types, whose idea of warfare – and Britain’s role in it – has been shaped by formative years engaged in repeated VHS viewings of ‘The Great Escape’ and ‘The Dam Busters’. Unlike the Honourable Member for Rayleigh and Wickford, however, the Defence Secretary’s military fantasies stretched a little further than the TA – he was a graduate of Sandhurst and a captain in the Scots Guards before entering politics. Yes, he probably wears Union Jack underpants, but one would like to think a little life experience beyond the public school/Oxbridge/Spad/Westminster conveyor belt would make Wallace a refreshing alternative to the tiresomely familiar professional politicians clogging up the Commons. However, we’re talking about a Minister in Boris Johnson’s government, of course; and one can’t expect a miracle such as the Defence Secretary not actually making a prat of himself.

Ben Wallace yesterday took it upon himself to give the troops a pep talk in the grand tradition of Henry V, albeit not on a foreign field but in the rather more sedate surroundings of Westminster’s Horse Guards building. As Russia is once again seen as the enemy, he couldn’t resist referencing the Crimean War of 1853-56, reminding the military personnel before him that Britain had ‘kicked the backside’ of the Tsar back in the day – with a little help from the Ottoman Empire and the French, lest we forget. ‘We can always do it again’, he declared before adding Putin had gone ‘full tonto’ (such an elegant turn of phrase). His comments chose to gloss over the fact that the Crimean expedition wasn’t exactly celebrated as a Great British victory at the time – largely due to a disastrous episode history will always know as the Charge of the Light Brigade – and cost a Prime Minister (the Earl of Aberdeen) his job. Wallace was sat beside Priti Patel when he delivered his rousing rhetoric, and the Home Secretary was – to keep the Victorian theme going – not amused.

Ben Wallace’s clumsy motivational technique hasn’t been mirrored by the Prime Minister, who is keeping a lid on his own gung-ho tendencies as he tries to play the serious world leader in the hope the Ukraine crisis will serve to sweep the ‘Partygate’ affair under the wine-stained No.10 carpet. ‘In light of the increasingly threatening behaviour from Russia,’ he said, ‘the UK will shortly be providing a further package of military support to Ukraine. This will include lethal aid in the form of defensive weapons and non-lethal aid.’ His Foreign Secretary, on the other hand, emphasised the sanctions being imposed. ‘There will be even more tough sanctions on key oligarchs, on key organisations in Russia,’ she said, ‘limiting Russia’s access to the financial markets, if there is a full scale invasion of Ukraine.’ Brave words from a woman whose Party’s coffers have been boosted by the generosity of numerous oligarchs in recent years, oligarchs that successive British Governments have allowed to buy up great chunks of our capital city’s prime real estate, not to mention bankrolling some of the country’s leading football clubs.

The prevailing mood in the West is more concerned with slapping Putin on the wrist via sanctions than indulging in the kind of giddy jingoism of Ben Wallace. There’s also an abundance of irony at play in the criticism of Russian aggression by Western leaders. Even those too young to have okayed Middle Eastern military interventions 20 years ago can’t help but evoke the words pot, kettle and black when they decry Putin’s incursion into Ukraine. To have Justin Trudeau join the chorus of condemnation is perhaps the richest irony of all.

As we all know by now, Trudeau is a man whose method of dealing with protestors who don’t think that highly of him is to freeze their bank accounts and even threaten to take their pets away; offering cash incentives to grass on anyone suspected of involvement in (or simply supporting) the truckers’ protests and promising heavy fines and house arrest for those caught posting anti-government tweets – well, I’m pretty sure Russia (not to mention China) would heartily approve of Canada adopting the time-honoured tactics of totalitarian Communist states in suppressing opposition and monitoring every move their citizens make. Pandemic policies or power grab? Indeed, was anybody remotely surprised to learn that not all of the emergency Covid legislation in this country will be repealed? Fancy that.

No, Vlad must look at the weak West’s response to his actions and…well…piss himself laughing. It certainly hasn’t made a jot to his decision to launch his long-awaited invasion today. But there was an inevitability to events one could see coming for a long time. His tried and trusted tactics of deliberately stirring pro-Russian separatist sentiments in corners of Ukraine he recognises as independent states served as a pretext for crossing the border. The Ukrainian Government has clearly lost control in these regions, he claims, thus requiring Russian troops to play the ‘peacekeeping’ card and prevent further civil disorder. That’s his excuse, anyway. Over the past 48 hours, Ukraine has been unsurprisingly plunged into a state of emergency, anticipating the full-scale invasion that has finally arrived; as an opening shot, one of Russia’s most effective modern weapons – the cyber attack – was unleashed upon Ukraine’s government departments and its banks, creating additional chaos before the physical conflict got underway.

Ballistic missiles aimed at major cities have accompanied the troop movement into the territory whilst the sounds emanating from the Ukrainian military claim the invading forces are being resisted, shooting down six Russian planes and four Russian tanks as an immediate response. Be prepared for much propaganda on both sides as the conflict unfolds. The Ukrainians may publicly call upon NATO assistance, though I suspect it realises any resistance will largely be down to itself. The West’s inability to repel Putin is a legacy of the very weakness Vlad has witnessed from afar for many years; chronic underfunding of the major European powers’ individual armed forces means they are all poorly-equipped to deal with the crisis, and the Western fetish for ‘green’ energy has seen similar underinvestment in home-grown energy sources in tandem with an increasing dependence on Russian gas.

Although not quite as excitable as Ben Wallace, on the eve of the invasion General Sir Richard Sherriff nevertheless told the ‘Today’ programme, ‘Absolutely there is a possibility that we as a nation will be at war with Russia. If Russia puts one boot-step across NATO territory we are all at war with Russia – every single member of the NATO alliance.’ Well, it’s happened, so I guess we’re at war with Russia according to the former NATO commander. Here’s hoping the Defence Secretary can lead our brave boys from the front.

© The Editor

Website: https://www.johnnymonroe.co.uk/

Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/user?fan_landing=true&u=56665294

THE BEAR FACTS

Russian BearIt may have opted out of the Eurovision Song Contest, but the USSR nevertheless competed in competitions of a more sporting bent during the Cold War, mining the athletic riches available in the countries that had been involuntarily absorbed into the sprawling Soviet Union. The national football team of the USSR had a vast geographical pool of talent to draw from in this period and made use of it. Imagine if the England national team had chosen to call upon players from across the British Empire in the pre-War era and label all of them Englishmen; chances are the World Cup might have fallen into English hands a good deal earlier than 1966. The Soviets essentially did just that and were eventually rewarded with the inaugural European Championships in 1960, as well as ending runners-up on three other occasions; in the World Cup, the team’s best finish was the semi-final loss to West Germany in ’66. On the domestic front, Iron Curtain countries competed in the club competitions of the European Cup, UEFA Cup and Cup Winners’ Cup throughout the tournaments’ formative years. Whenever a team such as Dynamo Kiev played an English side, they were referred to as a ‘Russian club’, just as the likes of Belarus gymnast Olga Korbut was referred to as a ‘Russian athlete’ when scooping multiple gold medals at the 1972 Olympics.

The existential crisis many Russians experienced as former Soviet states declared independence from their ex-masters in the 1990s was exacerbated by the symbolic blow of the expansive landmass that had been known as home shrinking back to merely Russian soil. Not unlike the demoralising loss of international prestige felt by Brits as one overseas colony after another lowered the Union Jack during the 1950s and 60s, Russians took the reduction of territory personally; the chaotic drop in the standard of living at home as Yeltsin sought to transform the Russian economy to a free-market Western model overnight and facilitated the sudden rise of the multi-millionaire Oligarch in the process hardly helped matters. Therefore, when the old soak was succeeded by a former KGB colonel who’d earned his spurs in East Germany, a man determined to ‘make Russia great again’, it was no great surprise that the Russian people responded favourably to the reincarnation of the Strong Leader so admired in cultures beyond the West.

Putin flexing his macho muscles has cleverly tapped into the grievance of many Russians over the independence of the old Soviet republics; when Ukraine first tentatively sought to join NATO in 2008, Vlad made it clear he didn’t approve, and following Ukraine’s so-called ‘Revolution of Dignity’ in 2014, Putin effectively annexed Crimea from Ukraine as a means of expressing his disapproval. The annexation was internationally condemned, though other than the token sanctions imposed by the UN and the EU, little else was done by those who condemned it. Putin has repeatedly emphasised he has no interest in further incursions into Ukrainian territory, yet with an estimated 100,000 Russian troops camped out on the border and threatening talk emanating from Moscow whenever Ukraine expresses its desire to be welcomed into the NATO family, it’s no wonder the Ukrainian Government has been more than happy to accept military assistance from Western nations, just to be on the safe side. Putin’s response is to regard any Western presence anywhere near Crimea as a sign of ‘NATO expansion’.

The ‘NATO expansion’ into Eastern Europe basically translates as nations with a history of being subjugated by Russia understandably seeking protection from history repeating itself; the likes of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Poland know that being members of NATO means any aggressive actions on the part of their volatile neighbour will result in their newfound military partners running to their aid – in theory, anyway. Whichever way Russian eyes view the move, this is the reality of it; Ukraine still wants to join the club, something that Mr Putin sees as ‘NATO expansion’. Some of the language that has been aired in recent months is straight out of some dusty old Cold War manual; Dmitry Kiselyov, the media personality-cum-propagandist known as ‘Putin’s mouthpiece’, issued a threat against the US sticking its nose into Ukrainian affairs, promising that Russian warheads could reduce America to ‘radioactive ash’. At the moment, however, Russia is certainly in a strong position to issue such melodramatic threats, sensing the weakness of the West when led by such an ineffective patsy as Joe Biden.

Sleepy Joe held a press conference this week in which he stated Russia would pay ‘a serious and dear price’ for invading Ukraine, yet underlined the toothless response of the West towards Putin’s regime by adding the caveat that ‘a minor incursion’ might be treated differently to a full-on invasion. One wonders how far Russian troops have to encroach onto Ukrainian soil before a minor incursion is rebranded an invasion, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky wasn’t impressed by Biden’s comments about minor incursions, tweeting ‘There are no minor incursions, just as there are no minor casualties and little grief from the loss of loved ones.’ Tellingly, the US President’s characteristically incoherent statement was later altered by White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki once Joe had been put back to bed, declaring any Russian military forces moving across the Ukrainian border would be instantly interpreted as a renewed invasion, met with a ‘swift, severe and united response from the United States and our Allies’.

The US claims that Russian Intelligence has been engaged in recruiting current and former members of the Ukrainian Government to take over as a puppet administration in the event of an invasion, though with so much rumour and propaganda circling this story, it’s hard to differentiate between truth and speculation. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has this week met with foreign ministers from France, Germany and the UK in Berlin to co-ordinate strategy should Russia do what the West seemingly expects it to, though if that amounts to a ‘minor incursion’ the Western strategy probably won’t have much of an impact. Even before the meeting with Blinken, the British Government had announced it was providing Ukraine with extra troops for training purposes, whilst both Denmark and Spain are sending warships to the Black Sea. This willy-waving was a response to the unveiling of plans for Russian naval drills featuring over 60 aircraft and more than 140 warships, as though Putin was intending to stage some sort of Mayday Parade throwback on the Ukraine border. Any sign of a peaceful resolution via talks between Blinken and his Russian counterpart in Geneva today has so far been drenched in the ambiguous diplomatic description of ‘open and useful’.

As with China’s stealthy economic and cultural infiltration of Western governments and institutions, Vladimir Putin is smart enough to exploit the West’s current crisis of confidence and comparative weakness as it allows itself to be torn apart by a combination of self-loathing and ideological polarity; he’s seeing how far he can push the West before provoking a more serious response which he evidently doubts will come, though to be fair, he’s been doing that for most of his reign and has got away with it time and time again. Even if his tactics continue to find favour with a large section of the Russian public, the unlimited powers that come with his persona as a Strong Leader also allow him to crush opposition and silence his critics – often with a nice cup of tea. Biden is little more than the saccharin to Putin’s polonium. From the perspective of a man raised in a Soviet Empire that spanned a landmass of 22,402,200 square km and housed 293 million people in eleven time zones, the West has no business in the East; to him, Eurasia is Russian and always will be. And, to paraphrase the title of this post, those are the bare facts.

© The Editor

Website: https://www.johnnymonroe.co.uk/

Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/user?fan_landing=true&u=56665294

OUR MAN IN MOSCOW

Although the generally accepted lifespan of the Cold War stretches from the Soviet blockade of Berlin in 1948 all the way to the collapse of the USSR in the early 90s, it was perhaps at its dramatic height on UK soil from 1956 to 1966. This remarkable decade began with the public exposure of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, five years after their joint flight to Moscow, and ended with the escape of George Blake – another senior British Intelligence figure in the pocket of the KGB – from Wormwood Scrubs. The death of Blake at the age of 98, which was announced yesterday, finally brings the curtain down on a cloak-and-dagger era that inspired some of our finest novels and TV dramas of the 1960s and 70s. That Blake should die within a fortnight of John le Carré, a writer perhaps more responsible than any other author for turning unpleasant (not to say embarrassing) spy fact into page-turning spy fiction, seems somehow fitting. The shadow of the enigmatic traitors whose activities contaminated the SIS for decades not only permeated the likes of ‘Callan’, ‘Special Branch’, and ‘The Sandbaggers’ on television, but turned a former MI5 and MI6 man into one of the world’s foremost storytellers of the subject.

The early 1960s saw a staggering succession of spy scandals that suggested Britain was overrun with KGB operatives – Blake arrested and sentenced to an unprecedented 42 years in 1961; the suburban spies of the Portland Spy Ring exposed and imprisoned that same year; Royal Navy civil servant John Vassall arrested and sentenced in 1962; the exposure of Kim Philby as the Third Man in the Cambridge Spy Ring and his swift flight to Moscow in 1963; and Blake’s escape from prison en route to the same destination as Philby in 1966. There was enough sensational material revealed in that short period to keep le Carré in typewriters for the rest of his life, and it was no coincidence his first best-seller, ‘The Spy Who Came In from the Cold’, was published the year of Philby’s publicised defection. Coupled with the fantasy espionage of James Bond and the cinematic and televisual genre 007 spawned once the 60s began to swing, spy fiction became big business whilst the real thing was exposed as a tawdry trade riddled with dirty tricks and double agents. Even an otherwise-classic British political sex scandal such as 1963’s Profumo Affair seemed incomplete without a Russian spy being thrown into the salacious mix.

By the time of Anthony Blunt’s belated public exposure by the Thatcher Government as the Fourth Man in the Cambridge Spy Ring in 1979, the story of KGB recruitment at Cambridge during the 1930s was already the stuff of legend. Anti-fascist sentiment and the blind eyes turned to Stalin’s purges when Hitler was deemed a greater threat pushed a generation of idealistic opportunists into the arms of the Soviet cause, albeit a cause requiring betraying one’s own country where the young men signing up to the Foreign Office and the SIS were concerned. The scandal surrounding two such sloppy (and squiffy) operatives as Burgess and Maclean had been an accident waiting to happen for years, but the old school tie was both an entrée into upper establishment echelons and a pleb-proof vest that guaranteed immunity from suspicion outside of the elite circles. By 1951, however, that immunity was being severely tested; joint CIA/MI5 investigations into a British mole supplying the Soviets with intelligence prompted MI6 double agent Kim Philby to tip off his old Cambridge colleagues, and Burgess and Maclean bolted.

That it took five years for their defection to the USSR to be officially confirmed perhaps underlines how reluctant the establishment were to publicly shop ‘one of their own’. That it also took another seven years before Philby himself was named and shamed (and also bolted) speaks volumes. The damage done by Philby to the international reputation of British Intelligence ricochets throughout the spy fiction of the decade following his defection; he was believed to be the primary source for the character of Bill Haydon – AKA ‘Gerald the Mole’ – in le Carré’s seminal ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ – and yet were this kind of un-cricket behaviour restricted to the Cambridge graduates of the 30s, perhaps the damage could have been minimised. As it was, there were many other KGB recruits operating in the UK that bore no connection to that particular spy ring. George Blake was cut from a very different cloth to Blunt, Burgess, Maclean and Philby.

The son of a Spanish Jew who had earned British citizenship through fighting on the British side in WWI, Blake was Dutch by birth and lived in the Netherlands until his father’s death. He was then dispatched to an aunt in Egypt, which brought him under the influence of an older cousin committed to Marxism and Egyptian nationalism; a return to Holland in 1940 coincided with the German invasion and occupation that led to Blake’s recruitment by the Dutch Resistance. He escaped to Britain in 1943 and shortly after joining the Royal Navy was drafted into MI6; an immediate post-war stint in Hamburg was followed by a spell at Cambridge studying languages before he was posted to South Korea; Blake’s mission gathering intelligence on the Communist North was then disrupted by the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950. The conflict proved life-changing when he was imprisoned for the majority of the War and the beliefs inculcated by his cousin in Cairo years before resurfaced; his revulsion at the bombing of North Korean villages by the US Air Force apparently sealed his allegiance to the Communist cause and to Soviet Intelligence.

His cover as a hero ensured upon his release and return to the UK in 1953, Blake’s position in the SIS was secure and he was sent to Berlin in order to recruit double agents. This post enabled him to pass on secrets to the KGB, and he was estimated to have betrayed over 40 MI6 men to the Russians during his decade in Berlin, contributing to the ruin of SIS operations in Eastern Europe. His cover was eventually blown by a Polish defector in 1961 and his recall to London resulted in arrest, interrogation and a trial at the Old Bailey in camera, where he was convicted on five separate counts of spying; the separate charges were responsible for his unusually large sentence of 42 years, though Blake probably wasn’t helped by the fevered climate in which his exposure and trial took place.

Blake was fortunate that his incarceration at Wormwood Scrubs brought him into the orbit of two imprisoned CND activists whose romantic idealism persuaded them he was the victim of an unjust system; they aided and abetted his escape from prison just four years into his sentence and provided several safe-houses upon absconding before their network of do-gooders helped smuggle him across the Channel and through the Iron Curtain, where he was finally reunited with his Soviet handlers in East Berlin. Like Kim Philby, Blake then settled in Moscow, where he was hailed as a hero. It must have been a curious community of old Englishmen abroad as the years rolled by and the cause for which they had betrayed their countries fell into obsolescence. Eking out what one imagines was a pretty dreary existence on a KGB pension, Blake’s status in Cold War mythology remained intact from the Russian perspective, however; at the age of 85, he was awarded the Order of Peoples Friendship by Vlad, whose own former career had relied on the contribution of men such as George Blake.

George Blake’s position is perhaps more understandable than the likes of Philby; the latter undoubtedly bit the hand that fed him, whereas Blake declared he had never felt accepted by the establishment that had nurtured the Cambridge Spies. It was far easier for him to betray Britain because he didn’t feel he was truly accepted as ‘one of ours’ by his SIS spymasters in the first place. But they were a unique breed indeed, products of their turbulent times and an unstable map of ever-changing alliances and allegiances. In the end, it really was every man for himself.

© The Editor

OUR FRIENDS IN THE EAST

There’s something uncomfortably reassuring about China and Russia being portrayed as evil ‘super states’ run by dictators reminiscent of Bond villains. Such images correspond to a traditional narrative that’s far easier to understand in these relentlessly confusing times, when so many threats to global stability are either anonymous (terrorism) or literally faceless (Covid-19). We know where we are when the bad guys are clearly defined and they represent an entire nation rather than being those stateless invaders failing to recognise borders such as an invisible virus or Jihadist organisations with secret cells dotted across the world. This week, the narrative has been upheld with accusations of cyber interference on the part of the Kremlin in the British democratic process and by the UK Government belatedly deciding Huawei poses a threat to national security if allowed to take control of the country’s 5G network. Both Moscow and Beijing have refuted the accusations against them, but – to paraphrase dear old Mandy Rice-Davies one more time – they would, wouldn’t they.

The fresh allegations re Russia concern what appears to be the official ‘hacking branch’ of the Kremlin called APT29, which almost sounds like a cuddly Soviet equivalent of R2-D2; I can visualise ATP29 resembling C-3PO’s little sidekick, only painted red and bearing the hammer & sickle on his tin chest. If only. Anyway, this professional outfit of dedicated cyber spies and agent provocateurs are the same unit accused of interfering in the 2016 US Presidential Election; this time round, they’ve allegedly tried to eavesdrop on the research into finding a vaccine for the coronavirus, not only here but in the States and Canada as well. If they’d wanted to know, surely it would’ve been more polite simply to ask? After all, we’re all supposed to be in this together, aren’t we?

To have the Russians and the Chinese as the bad guys again means we know where we are, even if the crimes they’re being accused of today are firmly rooted in the 21st century. Russia’s tech mischief also extends beyond the Kremlin’s in-house boffins to other Russian-based hackers who do this sort of thing for a living. These unnamed infiltrators were this week outed as having ‘sexed-up’ secret Whitehall documents that fell into Labour hands and gave Jeremy Corbyn the opportunity to make his claims about plans to sell off the NHS to the US during last December’s General Election campaign. Of course, nothing appears as-if-by-magic in politics; timing is everything, and to have the Foreign Secretary publicly naming and shaming the Russian state in this way comes on the eve of the publication of the so-called ‘Russia Report’.

The Novichok incident of 2018 – when the sealing-off of Salisbury probably acted as a useful training exercise for where we are now – seems to have triggered a more thorough response to growing concerns about a malignant Russian presence in British political life. This eventually prompted the compiling of information to form the core of a report into the case against Russia by the Intelligence and Security Committee, a cross-party group of MPs independent of Government. And the Government has been sitting on this report for over six months now. Yet the sudden rush of Dominic Raab to speak of Russian hacking when no public accusations have previously been made due to an absence of evidence implies the findings of the committee may indeed confirm the rumours and suspicions that have been flying about for a long time. But why the delay?

Earlier in the week, the Government’s attempts to interfere in the process were pretty blatant when they tried to hand the chairmanship of the Intelligence and Security Committee to…er…Chris Grayling. Yes, you can stop laughing at the back; we all know Grayling is unquestionably the most incompetent individual ever to stumble into running a Government department, with a track record of disaster unprecedented in Westminster history; but he’s a Friend of Boris. So, perfect man for the job of heading a supposedly impartial, non-partisan committee to scrutinise the findings of the intelligence and security services when a long-awaited report into the extent of Russian influence in UK politics is finally poised to see the light of day, a report that might have a few embarrassing things to say about the relationship between the Conservative Party and millionaire Oligarch donors. Additionally, Raab connecting Russia with Labour could be viewed by a cynic – heaven forbid – as a pre-emptive strike by the Government to deflect any findings that suggest the Russian connection is greater on the blue side of the House.

Some backstage manoeuvring by Labour and SNP members of the committee resulted in a ‘coup’, with the installation of Conservative MP Julian Lewis as chairman instead; and Lewis’ reward for blocking the Government’s choice was the removal of the party whip. In other words, if you’re not gonna play ball then I’m taking my ball back. Whether or not the extent of Russian interference is dramatically exposed, simply hinted at or disappointingly redacted when the report surfaces remains to be seen; but the Government’s actions this week certainly suggest it might make for an interesting read.

I know everything pre-Covid feels like a hundred years ago now, but some of you may remember the sacking of Gavin Williamson as Defence Secretary in May last year. Williamson was pressurised into walking the plank by Theresa May after he was blamed for the leaking of information from the National Security Council regarding the dangers of allowing China’s Huawei to run Britain’s 5G mobile network. Although Williamson denied he was responsible for the leak, the matter shone the spotlight on the relationship between the Chinese Government and Huawei, not to mention the stupidity of handing over the running of the entire system to a company suspected of acting in the interests of Beijing and its habit of eavesdropping on those using its technology.

Tellingly, it has required far more hostile measures taken by the US against Huawei to force the UK Government to make its mind up. This week it was announced equipment produced by the Chinese company will no longer be available to UK mobile providers by the end of the year and all 5G kit will have to be removed from networks by 2027. At the time of Gavin Williamson’s dismissal, the National Cyber Security Centre denied any sign of Chinese state activity in Huawei software, whereas now he NCSC has altered its opinion and has ‘significantly changed’ its security assessment of Huawei. Not before time, one might conclude.

Just like the wicked Cold War villains of old, both Russia and China are in a position at the moment whereby they essentially believe they can do what the hell they like and there’ll be no comeback. Russia can dispatch a couple of cathedral tourists to liquidate one of their exiled countrymen to have fallen foul of Vlad; China can tear-up the Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong and suppress democracy in the same way they would on the mainland; and that’s not even mentioning the sinister Xinjiang re-education camps for Uyghur Muslims – sorry, I meant Radical Islamists – which are carrying on regardless of international condemnation. But, hell, if you want old-fashioned bad guys, I guess you have to take the rough with the smooth.

© The Editor

HIRSUTE YOU, SIR!

Every politician who ascends to the ultimate seat of power seeks to impose their own values and ideas upon the premiership, and though all talk the talk when taking office, few actually have the genuine vision and skill to make real their radical proposals. Peter the Great, Tsar of Russia from 1682-1725, was one of the legendary historical rulers whose ambition was largely realised, especially the cultural revolution he recognised as necessary if his vast lumbering empire was to be dragged out of the middle ages. Influenced by his tour of Western Europe and exposure to Enlightenment thinking, he returned home determined to instigate change. But along with all the political, social and scientific overhauls, there were more instantly noticeable aesthetic alterations; he had taken note of European style, particularly how all the leading figures he was introduced to were clean-shaven.

Imposing heavy taxes on the wearers of beards in Peter the Great’s Russia is perhaps one of the more seemingly trivial changes introduced by this reforming Romanov; but he saw the removal of hardcore facial hair – a long-standing tradition in Russia – as key to his country moving closer to the great nations of Europe by presenting its ruling class as indistinguishable from the French, Austrian or English. A century later, the Prussian hero of Waterloo, General von Blücher, caused a stir during the celebrations in London following Napoleon’s defeat simply by wearing an elaborate moustache at a time when face fashion remained smooth. The Regency Dandies had never seen anything quite like it, and von Blücher set a trend amongst military men of a certain rank that defined them thereafter.

Another German, Prince Albert, was perhaps instrumental in popularising the old upper-lip ‘hairy bogie’ during his high-profile stint as appendage to Queen Victoria. By the middle of the 19th century, moustaches were becoming visible and fashionable adornments on the male countenance; and even if they weren’t, gargantuan whiskers certainly were. Then the beard – for so long a symbol either of idleness or insanity in England – began to sprout on the chins of the powerful and influential. By the back end of the Victorian era, beards had blossomed into huge bushy beasts – impenetrable pubic forests that made every proud owner look ten years older and ten stone heavier.

These thick, dense thickets of fuzz could be worn by everyone from a sporting hero of the masses like the cricketer WG Grace or the age’s great scientific mind Charles Darwin. Indeed, it’s hard to think of an eminent Victorian bereft of a beard; a big beard appeared to signify the virility of Empire and the imperial supremacy of the British. On a more frivolous level, the legacy of von Blücher was also expanded upon as we entered the Edwardian era, when extravagant moustaches re-emerged more outrageously flamboyant than ever – the kind later to be seen under the noses of Jimmy Edwards and Sir Gerald Nabarro as a means of distinguishing both from the spotless visages of their contemporaries.

The final Prime Minister whose face was framed by an archetypal Victorian beard was the Marquess of Salisbury, who left No.10 in 1902 (though we may have a more austere example of the beard renting the property soon – if nobody has confidence in Boris, that is). The last PM to have merely a moustache was Harold Macmillan; he may have stepped down from office in the year that Beatlemania broke, but Supermac had earned his spurs in the distant trenches. Indeed, if we take a rare look at the First World War in purely aesthetic terms, it’s interesting to note how heavy facial hair was one of the minor casualties of the carnage. As a consequence, the Roaring 20s were largely clean-shaven, with the pencil-thin moustache being the sole concession to the former masculine trademark.

For around half-a-century, the beard retreated into a kind of shadowy cult existence; often, it implied an intellectual elitism, usually worn by academics, playwrights or earnest folkies. There was a mini-revival among students inspired by both the fad for ‘Trad Jazz’ and the charismatic firebrand Fidel Castro at the turn of the 1960s; but the beard didn’t really return to the faces of the young on a wider scale until the end of the decade. Once The Beatles gave notice to the Mop Top era by growing moustaches, the razor blade was suddenly downgraded as an essential item in every gentleman’s bathroom cabinet.

Amongst the numerous variations on offer in the hirsute hippie era, the Zapata had its moment – eventually becoming synonymous with such contrasting icons of the age as Peter Wyngarde and David Crosby – whereas the beard came to be regarded as an indication of revolutionary radicalism whilst also regaining its old quasi-religious symbolism, as seen on both Maharishi and Manson. By the beginning of the 70s, however, the ubiquitous beard was much as home on the effete chin of an Open University lecturer as it was on the huge blubbery jawline of Giant Haystacks. Even the defiantly androgynous Glam Rock had an unlikely beardie-weirdy in the shape of the larger-than-life Roy Wood.

Post-Punk, the beard represented the old guard as much as the gatefold sleeve of a Yes concept album, and the 1980s was relatively hairless as far as the face went; not until the ‘designer stubble’ craze at the end of the decade did young men looked upon as style icons feel brave enough to forego a shave again. The breakdown of the rigid rules and regulations governing the length of hair and the height of hemlines that began in the 90s (and has continued to this day) probably happened because popular culture finally reached a point where everything had been done before and there was nothing new left to say; suddenly, we entered a pick ‘n’ mix age in which the distinctive looks of recent decades could coexist simultaneously, albeit all stripped of their original context. The reappearance of the beard on young chins certainly wasn’t accompanied by a revival of the tribal significance it had possessed in the 60s; then again, nothing in the culture had tribal significance anymore.

Some men who grow a beard keep it for life – I’d never have known an uncle of mine hadn’t been born with one until I saw a photo of him in his clean-shaven youth, for example; others try it, don’t like it, and never try it again. I myself have never been drawn to it; sideburns are as far as I venture into that area, and being aware of their occasional itchiness makes me wonder how Hipsters or Imams manage to avoid their facial fungus becoming not only a nest for nibbling mites, but a repository for scraps of snacks. Not sure how women feel when their bearded men are amorous, though I should imagine the bushier breed are maybe preferable to the bristly brand; anyone whose stubbly father inflicted ‘chinny pie’ on them as a child could possibly have developed an understandably lifelong aversion to the latter. Women are remarkably adaptable to the individual image whims of their menfolk, however.

As far as most are concerned, a beard today symbolises little at all because its wearers are so varied. It can be worn by humourless Indie musicians, New Age gurus, ex-boy band members seeking to be taken seriously, movie stars aiming to prove their thespian mettle, slovenly students, old hippies, young hippies, and fat dads of both the urban and suburban variety. It has been, like every other fashion accessory of the last fifty years that began as a statement, utterly assimilated into the culture so that any sighting of one induces nothing more than a shrug of the shoulders and a ‘whatever’. Amazing how many paragraphs the subject can generate during the silly season, mind…

© The Editor