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Fiction & Nonfiction

Castro’s Secrets: The CIA and Cuba’s Intelligence Machine

By Brian Latell

Palgrave Macmillan, £16.99

Did Fidel Castro know in advance that Lee Harvey Oswald planned to kill John F Kennedy? Apparently so, according to a Cuban spy who walked into the US embassy in Vienna in 1987. Now the man who for years was the CIA’s top Cuba analyst has sifted through the shards of evidence littered over half a century and decided that they corroborate the defector’s claim.

In a book that is often fascinating, both for its subject and its exposition of the intelligence analyst’s craft, Latell cannot prove to his own satisfaction anything beyond Castro’s foreknowledge of Oswald’s plans (a claim that many readers will still feel to be questionable). But he shows that if Cuba did somehow orchestrate the assassination it would only have been because Castro knew Kennedy was trying to murder him.

As Lyndon Johnson told one reporter shortly before leaving the White House: “Kennedy was trying to get Castro, but Castro got to him first.” Latell believes this was covered up by the US government lest Castro expose evidence of White House murder plots and reveal the Kennedys’ huge covert campaign of “international terrorism” against Cuba’s revolution, too risky just over a year after the near miss of the Cuban missile crisis.

The Kennedy assassination has long been the terrain of conspiracy nuts, but this is the work of a sober, cautious spy who never strays beyond the evidence and, after attempting every cross-check and reference, will settle for partial conclusions when the available evidence will support nothing weightier. This is not an addition to the conspiracy canon.

Latell does not spare his own side, especially when under the command of the Kennedys, and adds further detail to the story of criminality and incompetence that lurks behind the Camelot myth.

Similarly, his cold warrior’s antipathy for Castro and communism does not prevent him displaying huge professional respect for Cuba’s intelligence service, which he ranks alongside Mossad as one of the best in the world and peerless in the dark arts of running double agents.

He shows how the Americans consistently underestimated the Cubans, who time and again racked up David-like victories in the deadly espionage war fought with the Goliath across the Florida Strait. Latell believes that only East Germany’s legendary Markus Wolf rivals Castro for the title of the 20th century’s greatest spymaster.

Others might dispute that claim, but after this book it deserves serious consideration. TOM HENNIGAN

I Never Had a Proper Job

By Barry Cassin

Liberties Press, €16.99

By some quirk of serendipity, last week I found myself by Connolly’s Bridge in Ballinode, where Barry Cassin and his father used to walk in the 1930s. The elder Cassin was postmaster in Co Monaghan, cycling to work from a damp, rat-infested rural house because no other dwelling could be found. The boy, meanwhile, cycled to his Christian Brothers school to drudge for the Leaving Cert and participate in dismal school plays; in contrast, over the road, at the convent, young Miss Siobhán McKenna appeared glamorously in The Geisha.

The older Cassin had been a lance corporal in the first World War, his pride in his military past making no mockery of his employment in the new State, a thing that now seems odd and admirable in the light of received history.

It is all so long ago. We complain of the economic downturn, but there is nothing now like the hardship that assailed the middle class as well as “the poor”, as they were called, in the 1930s and 1940s. Barry Cassin treats the privations of the times lightly, though never dismissively, in his account of domestic life and of his gradual, slogging rise in the theatre.

Professionally, after the vicissitudes of touring the fit-ups – at £3 a week, a different play each night and find your own digs – he moved instinctively into “studio theatre”, founding the 37 Theatre Club with Nora Lever; “with shoestring enthusiasm”, they presented plays from the international repertoire that would not otherwise have been seen here.

The book gives particular credit to the work of Phyllis Ryan, whose Gemini Productions presented more outstanding new plays than any other midcentury management in large metropolitan theatres. Barry Cassin directed almost all the first productions of John B Keane for Gemini as the plays tumbled from the pen of that remarkable dramatist. Big Maggie ran for an astonishing 14 months, from Dublin to Cork to Belfast and back again, with four successive leading ladies.

I Never Had a Proper Job is as much a narrative of 80 years of extraordinary social and cultural change in Ireland as it is a theatrical biography. What it does not do is needlessly iterate names of famous actors in famous plays; the many that are mentioned are there not for effect but to give substance to a poignant or entertaining story. This is a very touching book indeed; never sentimental, radiantly atmospheric. CHRISTOPHER FITZ-SIMON

How England Made the English: From Hedgerows to Heathrow

By Harry Mount

Viking Penguin, £20

It might come as a surprise to the bungalow’s strangely numerous admirers in this country that this form of domestic architecture is English in origin. Worse still, the word derives from the Hindi bangla, meaning Bengali, and thus a small, single-storey house in the Bengal style. How many of Ireland’s bungalow occupants, one muses, realise their residence is paying oblique tribute to British imperialism?

The etymological roots of one of his country’s favourite forms of housing is just one of the many concerns occupying Harry Mount as he explores the ways in which England has shaped the character of its denizens over more than two millennia. Every aspect of the place, from her geology – who knew so many varieties of stone were packed into such a small area? – to the evolution of its towns is considered with humour and discernment.

Sometimes Mount seems to argue in favour of England’s temperamental as well as geographical diversity; after all, the appearance and personality of northern England are very different from those of the Home Counties. But as the book progresses certain traits emerge, most of them due to the whole country, uniquely in Europe, having escaped invasion or major civil disruption for almost 400 years. It is the resultant social cohesion, most recently witnessed by widespread rejoicing to mark Queen Elizabeth II’s diamond jubilee, that sets England apart from her neighbours, ourselves included.

The resultant solidarity has in turn led to a belief in the benefits of continuity; Mount is excellent at demonstrating how such a sense remains even in the face of change. At the same time, a great deal about England really does stay unaltered, perhaps because after centuries of stability the alternative is too ghastly to contemplate. The English are happy to accept the status quo and to appreciate its consequences. They love, for example, the countryside, without the majority of them feeling the need to own a parcel of it, whereas for our own complex historical reasons the Irish love land best when we possess it.

Both countries may be besotted by the bungalow, but, as Mount shows, in nearly every other respect we are quite different. ROBERT O'BYRNE

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