What to Read, What to Watch and What to Listen to…

Spies. Why are they fascinating? And why do they fascinate me? I wrote the blog about Lona and Morris Cohen, Russian spies who were exfiltrated from the US to the UK by the skin of their teeth just after the state murdered Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The Cohens, known in England as the Krogers, claimed to be from New Zealand. Peter and Helen Krogers were an affable couple of antiquarian booksellers who ran a bookshop in the Strand in London. They lived in a middle-class bungalow in Ruislip, a London suburb. Their best friend, Gordon Lonsdale, a charming Canadian ex-pat, used to stop by for dinner, stay over on weekends, bring his girlfriends by and talk with them late into the night.

At the time, Lonsdale owned a lucrative business (his cover) that sold American-style juke boxes, and bubble gum dispensers. He also stored his transmitter, shortwave radio, a 50-yard aerial and photography gear in the Krogers’ attic, and basement.Both the Lonsdale and the Krogers were arrested the same day in 1961 in an MI5 sweep of spies in the London area.

Photos below: From left– clockwise, Helen and Peter Krogers (Getty); Gordon Lonsdale, from a photo in his book Spy, circa 1965; Lonsdale and his British publisher Neville Armstrong near the Kremlin in 1964; 1998 Soviet postage stamp commemorates Morris Cohen (aka Peter Krogers) who died in 1995. The Cohens lived in Moscow from 1970 to their deaths; Gordon Lonsdale, in East Germany where he lived from 1965 until his suspicious death in 1970.

But who was Gordon Lonsdale? His detailed, and humorous autobiography Spy, Twenty Years of Secret Service: Memoirs of Gordon Lonsdale tells all. Born in 1924 to a single mother in the mining town of Cobalt, Ont., his life was rather ordinary till his early teens. Then his mother and her new husband (a Finn) decided to move to Finland where he could get a job. However, en route to Finland, the husband was offered a job in Poland, so the family moved there. Lonsdale learned Polish, Ukrainian and Russian and in short order and became a partisan during WWII. He worked clandestinely for the Soviets on the eve of Hitler’s takeover of Poland. After the war, his fluency in German persuaded the Soviets to send him to the US to ferret out Nazi war criminals. After a brief sight-seeing trip or two to Canada to enable him to apply for (and receive) his Canadian passport, he settled in England.

Lonsdale became a student of Chinese at SOAS, a prestigious British university. Fellow students included high up military and government intelligence officials whom he befriended. In 1961, as the leader of what was known as the Portland Spy Ring, he was finally arrested and tried. The court sentenced him to the maximum sentence — 25 years. Around the same time, the Krogers were also jailed. Three years into his miserable incarceration, Lonsdale was released in a prisoner exchange. Lonsdale was a master story teller, a decorated WWII hero, and a genius spy. Or was he?

An article published in The Independent in 1998 – disputes much of his published autobiography. An interview with Lonsdale’s son, Trofim Molodiy, paints a very different picture of the master spy. Lonsdale was born in Moscow of Ukrainian parents, who sent him as a teen to live with a relative in the US – hence his proficiency in English. Lonsdale was a name taken from a headstone in Canadian cemetery. Lonsdale was definitely a trained spy. Though his book demonstrates his total commitment to the USSR – somehow the Soviets found him less trustworthy. Trifom claims his dad’s mysterious death, at age 48 while out for a walk, could have been an assassination.

Lonsdale was sorry he involved “the most perfect couple [the Krogers], in human terms, that I have ever met” …

In Spy, Lonsdale repeats one interesting refrain – he was sorry to have involved the Krogers in his work and see the couple land in jail, each partner for 20 years.

One regret, however, remained with me, and is still with me today. This was the appalling fate that had overtaken the Krogers as a result of my actions. I could plead that the British Security Service was completely at fault in pinning on them part of a responsibility which was wholly mine… they were the most perfect couple, in human terms, that I had ever met. If they had a fault, it was that Peter Kroger was too lovingly absorbed in his two lifelong passions: his wife and his books. … I can see the Krogers now, gentle patient forgiving. I doubt whether I shall ever meet their like again.

Spy, p. 151

By the way, in a prisoner exchange, the Krogers were released in 1969, after eight years’ incarceration. They lived the rest of their long lives in Moscow, on a KGB pension, and taught spycraft.

What to watch…

The best videos you can watch about spying is the series called The Americans. This is a finely- tuned, and gut-wrenching look at “illegals” in the 1980s Reagan years. Illegals were Russian born and bred spies active during the Cold War. The Jennings pose — convincingly — as a married couple, who settle in a suburb near Washington DC. There, they raise their children, a girl of 15, and a boy of 12 – who are indeed Americans and know nothing of what their parents do or really think. Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, the spies and parents, operate a travel agency. However, most of the time they are following directives from “the Centre” (the Communist Party leadership in the USSR) to boost the knowledge and technological edge of the Soviets. This fast-paced and very believable series is a joy to watch. There are no serious flaws in the six seasons, one event and encounter dove-tails into the next; and there are no loose threads. The viewer’s impression of the FBI – which is hunting Russian “illegals”– goes from bad to worse. The same is not so true for “the Centre”, of course. You can watch this trailer.

You can get each season of dvds from the Halifax Library or buy them on Itunes. I can’t recommend it highly enough. The six seasons’ worth of episodes will have you watching till March!

Inhuman Resources on Netflix

There is a very good five episode French thriller called Inhuman Resources on Netflix. The protagonist is a man in his 50s who was a human resources manager, until he was downsized and put out of his job of 20 years. All that is left to him is part-time courier jobs, and hourly paid cleaning gigs. His wife and grown-daughters have all but given up hope that he can ever get his feet back on the ladder in the corporate world. But suddenly he gets called to a job interview, for a fantastic job. And that is where we start to experience the twists and turns of a clever and not so pleasant plot begin. It is a clever, and very three dimensional series. It’s political and cunning. You won’t be disappointed. Here’s the trailer.

What shorter Non-fiction to read…

How Should We Remember the Holocaust, published in the New Statesman, is a useful look at how important subjects like the Holocaust are discussed in Britain, versus in Canada. At least 5 years ago, a consortium pushed for a Holocaust museum and learning centre to be located right next to the parliament buildings in London. The group said they had support from 170 MPs and members of the House of Lords. But before you are impressed with the number — 170 — bear in mind, there are 650 MPs in the UK’s House of Commons, and 792 seats in the House of Lords. So the 170 parliamentarians in both houses represents just over 11% of the total.

National Holocaust Monument, Ottawa; photo credit CanadianArchitect.com

The majority of historical societies, academics, historians and planners said no to the Holocaust memorial. Some noted that since the Windrush generation was denied help and permission for a monument in central London a few years ago, the Holocaust memorial would be privileged. This is a British newsmagazine piece which shows us that in Canada there must be room for critical discussion about Holocaust memorials, not a blank cheque written. How Should We Remember the Holocaust is here.

Three threats…

Three Major Threats the World Must Address in 2021, is written by two favourite writers together, Noam Chomsky and Vijay Prasad. It’s well worth reading here.

A Journalist looks at her own life and how it informs her writing…

There is an excellent longer article Pathfinding in Montreal’s Maisonneuve magazine, It’s author, Jody Porter, was until recently a reporter for the CBC in Thunder Bay. She’s an excellent journalist who focuses on Indigenous rights and white settler wrongs committed in Thunder Bay. Her work shines a light on the unknowing and tone-deaf white population of the city in their desperate fight to retain control over a growing Indigenous population. Indigenous people account for nearly 30% of the city’s 110,000 residents. Today, the Indigenous population is three times higher than what was revealed in the the 2016 census.

In this article, Porter writes how she couldn’t really come to terms with the situation in Thunder Bay and Northwest Ontario until she delved into her own past. She covered the Braden Bushby trial in December, which ended in his conviction for manslaughter of Brenda Kentner, on a January night in 2017.

Photos: from left, clockwise. Demonstration by a social activist group in Thunder Bay, Not One More Death, on the second day of the trial, 3 Nov. 2020 (photo courtesy of David Jackson, the Canadian Press); memorial for Barbara Kentner, in Victoria Park, Halifax, after hearing of the verdict 14 Dec. 2020 (taken by Judy Haiven); photo of Brenda Kentner in 2017 taken by Maclean’s magazine; one of two billboards in Thunder Bay put up just before the trial (Photo credit Doug Diaczuk, ThunderBayNewswatch.com; photo of Brayden Bushby near the courthouse early in the trial. (Photo by Brent Linton).

That night Bushby, a white 18-year-old, threw a metal trailer hitch out of the passenger window of a car in which he was riding. He shouted, “I got one,” when the hitch struck Barbara Kentner in the stomach. Kentner, a 34-year-old Indigenous woman was walking with her sister down a street in Thunder Bay. She died a painful and miserable death in hospital about six months later — as a direct result of the injuries of that night.

After Jody Porter left the CBC for health reasons before Christmas, she was interviewed by Jesse Brown on his excellent Canadaland podcast — listen to it here.

What to Listen to…

Wrongful Conviction: Junk Science

Thanks to Tim Bousquet of the Halifax Examiner for suggesting we listen to Wrongful Conviction Podcasts. These half-hour plus programs examine wrongful convictions in the US. The most interesting episodes are the sub-series called Wrongful Conviction: Junk Science which looks at the investigative tools most police forces and prosecutors routinely rely on such as fingerprints, bloodspatter evidence, eyewitness accounts, and even roadside drug tests. Use of these “tests” has led the police and the general public (who watch true crime shows) to believe in their worth. However this series exposes how the science simply does not back up their use, nor justify today’s near total dependance on them.

Fingerprint patterns along with names

I listened to one that featured a man, Ricky Davis, who spent more than 12 years in jail after his ex-girlfriend was coerced by police to confessing that she and Ricky had killed a woman who was at their house — nearly twenty years before. The lawyer who narrates the podcast said this was not merely coerced, but a persuaded false confession in that the police had to feed the former girlfriend, Connie, now a 35-year-old single mother of two, every detail about the murder and the murder weapon. Connie feared going to jail and losing her two children. Her evidence was ludicrous — but Ricky was convicted anyway and sat in jail for years before a lawyer reviewed the case. It was only when another man was arrested for the murder, that Davis went free. Listen to the podcast here.

Fashion’s dirty secret…

On the Guardian’s Long Read Podcast you can listen to a myriad of interesting and well-researched documentaries. One I liked is Fashion’s Dirty Secret: How sexual assault took hold in jeans factories; this is the long read, but at this site you can also listen to it being read to you.

At a large textile factory in Maseru, Lesotho the mostly female workforce faced horrifying conditions. A 2019 report from the NGO Workers’ Rights Consortium (WRC) revealed the widespread rape, sexual harassment and assault at many garment factories in Maseru. WRC tracked more than 120 women who — to keep their jobs –had been victimized by male bosses.

photo credit: abc.net.au

“Women were known as the ‘dailies’ — unemploye cutters and machinists who went from factory to factory looking for a few hours of casual work. Every knew what the women had to do to get picked from the crowd. Many would endure repeated harassment and sexual to secure a daily wage of just over £6 a day.”

The Lesotho factories supply some of the most famous denim brands in the world, such as Levi Strauss, Wrangler and the US brand, The Children’s Place.

Though the brands had “all carried out social audits and factory inspections, which are supposed to detect human rights and labour violations, none had picked up the degrading and abusive conditions the female workers endured.”

WRC’s new report Hunger in the Apparel Supply Chain, shows the findings on workers’ access to nutrition during Covid-19.

Laurent Duvernay Tardif, an NFL player for the Kansas City Chiefs, was on the team that won last year’s Superbowl 2020. He’s from Montreal and he recently graduated from medical school as a doctor. But during the first phase of the Pandemic, he volunteered to work for more than 10 weeks as an orderly in a Quebec nursing home. Matt Galloway’s interview with Tardif on the Current is fascinating because Tardif doesn’t refer to himself — a doctor– as any sort of hero. Rather, he insists that without the nurses and orderlies, doctors could not do their jobs during this crisis He sees medicine as a team effort in a way no doctor (and there have been dozens) interviewed by the CBC sees it. No other doctor I’ve heard has publicly made the points Tardif makes.

Laurent Duvernay Tardif in his scrubs in Quebec, New Year’s Day 2021 Photo from Twitter

And for a little short fiction…

I recommend Ta-Nehisi Coates story “Conduction” in a June 2019 issue of the New Yorker. Here he reads it to you. The story is part of a first novel The Water Dancer published in 2019. The story focuses on a young black man, who through forged papers, manages to escape from rural Virginia to Philadelphia. He wants to join the underground and help other blacks in mid-19th century America. But the tale is a bitter one.

Featured Image above: 1917 by George Agnew Reid (Canadian, 1917)


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