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It takes some considerable effort to remember Theresa May’s time as prime minister. Her two governments ran from the resignation of David Cameron immediately after the political earthquake of the Brexit referendum in 2016, to May’s own tearful resignation in the summer of 2019 as the aftershocks swallowed her minority government. The distending effects of the past three years of UK (and world) politics have already made the May era a kind of historical curiosity. The consequent danger is that we look back to her stint as prime minister as the last gasp of sensible politics avant le déluge.

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Stalin really knew how to lock a country down. Western intelligence services had virtually no secret information sources in the Soviet Union in the 1940s, in contrast to the Soviets’ striking success with Kim Philby, the mole who held a senior position in British intelligence. Western diplomats in Moscow had no direct contacts with members of the Russian population, other than the various watchful helpers supplied by the state. During the war, there were no foreign tourists or visiting businessmen in the country, and just a few Western journalists. The journalists lived together in the Hotel Metropole in the centre of Moscow (the Red Hotel of the title of Alan Philps’s new book), drinking and lamenting the strictness of Soviet censorship and their inability to cover the war except from official handouts. 

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I must let you into a secret. I have three different ways of reading books: lightning fast, with serene attention; and, as with Smashing Physics, postmodern.

The fast mode is forced by unavoidable professional requirements. This week, for example, I received a (thankfully) slim volume just hours before having to record a satellite interview with the author who is based at Harvard. I had ninety minutes to skim the novel to obtain enough ‘feel’ for the work so that I could lead a credible discussion. All went well.

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