Monday, April 16, 2018

The Cold War: John Lawton's Personal Memoir of An Old Friend Who Refuses to Die

I am privileged to have John Lawton as my guest this day.  He writes here about the background history to his latest novel, the masterful Friends and Traitors.  What you will read here is Lawton's own recollection of the book's time and place.  The novel itself is a time machine that makes readers feel themselves eyewitnesses to history.  Part of Lawton's magic is the way he portrays his characters--the fictional ones and fictionalized real people.  Even the most hideous of them become so real, so three dimensional that you understand them as people and therefore cannot help but sympathize with them. Lawton is one of my very favorite writers.  Here is an amuse bouche to give you a taste of his writer's voice.  Get the main course.  You will savor it. - Annamaria Alfieri


The Cold War was not an event. It was the air you breathed.

I could not remember being without it even if I was about as aware of it as air itself.

The Hot War wasn’t long over when I was born — I still have my post-war ration book pinned to a bookshelf above my desk: meat, eggs, fats (8d for a half a pound of lard), cheese (1/1d for half a pound … any flavour you like a long as it’s cheddar) bacon, sugar (1/- a pound), milk and … almost as an afterthought at the back of the book ‘personal points’, that is confectionary, the tooth-rotting formula for the rightly-maligned great English teeth (‘three cheers for the brown, grey and black.’ Spike Milligan.) And I have a contemporaneous advert for ‘Co-Op Tuberculin Tested Milk’, which sounds very scientific but as I recall was still delivered by a bloke with a horse and cart as late as the early 1960s exactly as it would have been in the 1860s.

Given that this wartime practice, this wartime ‘feeling’, could not end with the Hot War, the Cold War seemed more like continuity than volte face. So … an Iron curtain had descended across Europe from Stettin on the Baltic to Trieste on the Adriatic — Churchill had pinched the phrase Iron Curtain from Goebbels and the world had to wait another year until Bernard Baruch coined the phrase Cold War in 1947. That was one year before the London Olympics, a curious marker in the Age of Austerity — the Germans and Japanese were not invited and the Russians declined the invitation. So … so what? Battle lines being drawn?

It was there. It was air, it was the smoke curling up from ashes of Berlin.

Continuity speaks for itself. It needs no definition. What strikes me now are the punctuation points, admittedly from a child’s viewpoint, that break and reassert the continuity. It has changed. It is still the same.

So what? — we wouldn’t be naming any more streets and housing projects after Joe Stalin … although I doubt we unnamed them with any speed. I recall an invitation to dinner (Spag. Bol. with added hashish) from a fellow student in the late Sixties … ‘Easy to find us. We live on Joseph Stalin Avenue, it’s just off Zhukov Way.’ But the Russians would relent on the Olympics and turn the sports track into a surrogate battlefield awash in steroids and testosterone almost regardless of gender.

Punctuation Point # 1: 1956. Nikita Khrushchev visits England, just as I am becoming aware that there is a world beyond the garden gate and the asphalt schoolyard. The same year he made his denunciation of Stalin at the XXth Party Congress. We … England, possibly the modern world … had never seen anything like him before. A robust, belligerent peasant with a cheeky twinkle in his eye, who had survived the Stalin era by doing Stalin’s bidding, ruthlessly.

Both my parents were socialists. My mother lifelong, although a certain Blair-despair* …

(*Fuller’s Medical Encyclopaedia rev.ed 2009 — ‘Blair Despair: A form of clinical depression brought on by listening to Tony Blair. Symptoms inc. yelling ‘bugger off’ and throwing teapot at the nightly news on BBC2.’)

… overtook her in her 90s, and my father adapting to the ideas she held. I was not brought up to fear the USSR or to regard them as the inevitable enemy. And I found Nikita Khrushchev fascinating. This was three or four years before he took off a shoe at the UN, banged it on his desk and told them, figuratively, to ‘kiss my arse’, but he was pure music hall, the king of political burlesque even then. Wanting affinity, wanting a common ethos to be seen despite all the differences, the Labour Party, into which my parents had settled circa 1943, invited Khrushchev and Marshal Bulganin to a private dinner at Westminster, no press, no TV. They had not reckoned on the MP George Brown who dissented from the truce and after a spat with the Soviet leader ended with ‘May God forgive you.’ Brown was the local MP, a friend of the family (I was told I had all but brained him swinging a poker around my head at the age of three) and the story, despite the absence of the press, made it to the family home. Brown, my mother told me, had provoked fury in Khrushchev. Interesting. English politicians were thin, restrained, moustachioed men, Eden or Macmillan — not prone to fury. Khrushchev, if he had any equivalent, in English politics seems to me more like Churchill in his disregard of the rules. But Churchill was gone, dragged from office in 1955 all but gaga. The Cold War had only one star — Ike after all was never a star and seemed happier on the golf course than in the Oval Office — until … until JFK.

Punctuation Point # 2: Cuba. 1961. Ike warned the president-elect that he might have to put troops into Vietnam. I wonder what advice he gave him about Cuba — “I’ve a hit set up at the Bay of Pigs. Don’t fuck it up, kid”? Whatever. The new president let it go ahead. A fiasco that needs no description. Six weeks later, JFK and Khrushchev meet in Vienna. JFK knows he has fucked up in spades. He is in pain, the crutches discarded before the cameras roll, before he meets the fat man who will play Hardy to his Laurel — “Another fine mess, Johnny” — and trample him with words.

The Bay of Pigs utterly misled Khrushchev. He saw Kennedy as inexperienced, which he was, young (‘I have children older than this man!’) and, I suspect, stupid, which he wasn’t. Kennedy, for his part saw an uneducated peasant who had reached adulthood still illiterate, whose bluster masked stupidity. They were both wrong and in their underestimation of one another arises …

Punctuation Point # 3: Cuba. 1962. The Cuban Missile Crisis is the star turn of the Cold War. After this there can only be the juggler or a second-rate conjurer. It is the one time in my life that I can recall people thinking and saying that the world was about to end — children being taken out of school in tears, the nightly news showing the stand-off in the mid-Atlantic. Being English we did not dig fall-out shelters, and I think that’s probably an American phenomenon. What would be the point in England? All those USAF bases in East Anglia … fukkit we’d be first to be wiped off the map. Besides, you didn’t need a PhD in physics to the work out the likelihood of a nuclear winter, even if no one had yet coined the phrase.

I think it’s after this, seeing how close we had come to extinction, that we began to have a literature of the Cold War. I’m not referring to Le Carré … but … to Buffy St Marie … who told us we ‘really are to blame’ … to Barry McGuire who asked us to contemplate ‘all the hate there is in Red China (hmm … how did he know?) and was duly reproved by The Dawn of Correction (‘Who would be crazy enough to risk annihilation?’), to Jagger and Richards who, with unrestrained cynicism, asked who killed the Kennedys and told us it was ‘you and me’ … and to Bob Dylan … a hard rain is going to fall … he’s learned to hate the Russians his whole life. Weeeeelll Bob … I hadn’t. And coming back to the Cold War, that infinitely deep fiction mine, I find myself shrugging off the kid’s perception and trying to view the Missile Crisis anew.

My kid’s perception was the one we were given. I can recall no contradiction from my mother — my father had died pretty well as it was happening, so she had other things to think about — so the received wisdom prevailed. Khrushchev had backed down. USA –1 : USSR – 0.

Mining for fiction, it doesn’t look that way now. It looks to me as though each man had finally got the measure of the other and compromised. That compromise, metaphorically, killed Khrushchev. You cannot sell a deal like that to a totalitarian state with no free press when no one is willing to believe a thing the state press says. He could not even sell the deal to his own politburo. Within a couple of years he was deposed, the thaw he had initiated ended and Brezhnev took over — a man who hardly ever left the Soviet Union, if at all, a man most unlikely ever to want to meet Shirley MacLaine or bang his shoe at the UN.

If you believe conspiracy theorists (‘If there are conspiracy theories, it’s because there are conspiracies.’ G. Vidal) Cuba also killed JFK. Let’s not go there. Just read James Ellroy’s American Tabloid.

What was the outcome? Khrushchev removed the missiles from Cuba … less obvious at the time … mea culpa, I wasn’t looking and nobody told me … was that NATO took its missiles out of Turkey. And if anyone wants to argue that it was a Russian defeat not a compromise I’d ask this … has anyone invaded Cuba in the last fifty-five years? And I’d ask … what did Khrushchev hope to achieve? Simply to stop another invasion? I doubt that was all. Perhaps a message to latent, emergent socialism in the Americas that he did not regard half a continent as Monroe’s own backyard. Perhaps they got the message … Grenada, Panama notwithstanding.

But the chill had its continuity, the Cold War its surrogate battlefield in Vietnam … a war that was my generation’s war, but that I knew in my bones no British Prime Minister would ever dare drag us into — and I rather think Harold Wilson withstood several tirades from LBJ on the matter of Vietnam.

So … we breathed the air.

In 1989 I breathed the air of cordite from fireworks, atop the Berlin Wall. Looking down on rather narked DDR guards to whom we were just a pain-in-the-arse.

Some, most, breathed in freedom. Understandable. All the same I could not and have not been able to tell myself it’s over. If you don’t believe me, breathe deep, the chill is still there.

Once we had the H-bomb — now we have Cambridge Analytica and Zuckerberg. It has changed. It is still the same.

A fat cheque and the use of Cactus Jack’s bucket to the novelist who can mine that one for fiction.


  1. I read John’s “Friends and “Traitors,” and wholeheartedly recommend it as an insightful, unique, can’t put down exploration of adventurous Cold War times. I loved it.

  2. After reading this post, I'm looking forward to reading "Friends and Traitors" - thank you, John, for a great read (and, in advance, for writing a great book - I'm sure I will enjoy it)!