Booklog: The Little Drummer Girl, Silverview & The Whitehall Effect

John Le Carré was an author of widely acknowledged talent and impact. Personally I far prefer his writings to the screen adaptations, though perhaps ‘The Constant Gardener’ was the most faithful adaptation in my (very) amateur opinion.

Most authors I can enjoy reading (or not) but with Le Carré I enjoy, admire and feel a deep frustration at how incredibly good he is at writing. Almost to the point of wanting to never write a word again. There is total mastery in the way he captures moral ambiguity in the little moments which uncover deeper truths whilst highlighting the deceit so fundamental to statecraft.

So I am on a completist drive to read everything he has written, but not read everything about him as a swathe of new memoirs on him and his love life have begun to emerge. To that end, my thoughts on two of his works I had yet to encounter until Kent Libraries came good:

The Little Drummer Girl – John Le Carré

A remarkably finely balanced piece which somehow manages to expose the hypocrisies and moral relativism of the British, Palestinians and Israelis in the Middle East. It also is a deep look into the psychology of recruiting and training ‘civilians’ to espionage, with his female lead providing, to my mind at least, a compelling narrative of her divided loyalties and motivations.

There are dream-like qualities to elements of the book as it flits between the female protagonist’s perspective and those of the agents working for each side. It delivers a satisfying ending yet one closes the book not sure who ‘won’ and if anyone really deserved to win.

Utterly astonishing and global in scope, though of course with good dollops of Germany and England as we come to expect.

Silverview – John Le Carré

At the time of writing, this was his last book, published posthumously from an essentially complete manuscript. In an afterword his son suggests that the manuscript had stayed in a drawer for some time not due to concerns over its quality, but because Le Carré feared it was ‘too close to the bone’ in its critique of his former colleagues in the British intelligence services. Personally I didn’t think it took a major detour from his usual critiques.

The usual quality is there, and many common themes are used from his previous works – the English seaside town, retired spies, the sense of British decline. Still, this is undoubtedly a new story, one told with care and grace as he delivers a final rebuke for the failings of international diplomacy as well as of ‘the Service’.

The scale is smaller than other of his tales, but this does not in any way diminish the emotional impact of its conclusion. He was just an amazing talent.

The Whitehall Effect – John Seddon

In many ways what John Seddon wrote in 2014 is well trodden ground for those of us steeped in the ways of system leadership and agile working. But he brings interesting examples and a helpful perspective to the question of why so many government programmes fail to deliver on their promises.

His argument is that the programmes are often poorly defined and led by people without the right skills who aren’t focussing on the right things. Harsh but often fair! He then shows examples of teams doing ‘study’ as he calls it, or discoveries in my world, which then roots teams into the lived experience of service users and staff before iterative work begins. To many that may seem obvious, yet others still aren’t sold so another strong book making the case can’t hurt!

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