A perspective on lockdown (and some tips) from Biteback’s man in Hong Kong, Professor Phil Cowley.

  • March 18, 2020 15:00
  • Phil Cowley

Just over a year ago, shortly after we moved here for my wife’s job, the authorities closed all the schools in Hong Kong for a week. The cause? Some students had got the flu. Cue bafflement from annoyed ‘gweilo’ parents – including me – who thought this a hysterical overreaction.

Maybe it was then. But that same approach seems to have come good this time. Despite dealing with it for months longer than countries like the UK, and without wanting to belittle the tally, Hong Kong is currently on 167 confirmed COVID-19 cases, with four deaths. Concern here is now about the risk of an imported second wave, along with worries about family and friends elsewhere.

In Hong Kong, all schools and kindergartens were closed straight away; we are now in week seven of home schooling, with no end in sight. At the start I foolishly pledged not to shave again until the kids went back; I now run the risk of looking like Lord Salisbury. All major events were postponed and venues were shut; travel restrictions were introduced and have since hardened; temperature checks on entering buildings became routine; increased cleaning regimes were seen everywhere; the lift in our tower block has a plastic screen across the buttons that is sanitised hourly; and the masks … well, the masks were everywhere overnight.

This isn’t an argument for any of these measures in and of themselves – I’m aware of the arguments for and against school closures and mask-wearing. The point I'm making is more about the cultural nature of the response.

Much of this is a result of SARS, which killed almost 300 here and infected thousands. The mindset that this could be serious – that it’s not just like a cold – ran deep. When this is all over, there will be plenty of inquests into what could have been different and whether governments should have reacted quicker. Yet the political scientist in me wonders whether governments in countries that had not experienced SARS would have been able to act much more decisively than they did without being told they were over-reacting. And even if they tried, would people have taken any notice? Or would everyone have been like the outraged parents, furious that their kids’ school was closed?

If I have any advice – apart from ensuring you have enough gin in the cupboard – it is to resign yourself to the fact that life has changed. That holiday you had planned; it’s not going to happen. Go through the stages of grief about things like that quickly, not least so you have real grief to spare in case you are unfortunate enough to need it. Don't rail against it. Accept it and adapt, as best you can. Take time with your immediate family. Watch some films. Read some books. Especially ones not about viruses.


Philip Cowley is professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London and one of the editors of Sex, Lies and Politics, published by Biteback last year. It contains nothing about viruses, but you can pick up a copy of it here.


Biteback Chats Books Podcast

  • February 27, 2020 11:00
  • Vicky Jessop

Though the Christmas period has been quiet, we’ve been hard at work over at Biteback Towers getting to work on a very special new project.

That’s right, we’re branching out into the world of podcasting! Once a week, we’ll be sitting down with the authors of some of our most exciting upcoming books and chatting to them about their lives, as well as doing a deep dive into the content of their new release.

Though we’re primarily a political publishing house, our (excellent) publication schedule contains books from all walks of life, from French football (who knew it was so different to English football?) to World War Two. Basically, whatever you’re interested in, we’ve got it, and we're planning to bring that same variety over to podcasting.

That said, kicking off things in spectacular fashion is new MP and former MSP Kenny MacAskill, who popped into the office last week to talk about Scotland’s hidden radical movement, his life in Scottish politics and why he’s not a fan of Irvine Walsh’s iconic Trainspotting.

If that’s not enough to get you excited, we’ve also got football journalist Matt Spiro, Lib Dem co-leader Mark Pack and the man behind John Bercow’s authoritative new biography, Seb Whale, joining us for a catch up in the coming weeks.

Stay tuned and enjoy!

Can’t wait to get started? Listen to the first Biteback podcast here.


Uncovering Scotland's radical past with Kenny MacAskill

  • February 05, 2020 14:10
  • Kenny MacAskill

Scotland: the land of haggis, tartan... and a hidden radical history. It's a history that is gradually coming to light, and with it, a new understanding of the country, in the upcoming book Radical Scotland. As the publication date draws closer, we asked MP Kenny MacAskill to share his thoughts on why he wrote it.

The genesis of Radical Scotland lies in the biography I wrote of Jimmy Reid when I stepped down from the Scottish Parliament.  Researching arguably Scotland’s greatest radical figure of the second half of the 20th century led me to consider those that had inspired him. From that came the book Glasgow 1919 and the narration of the rise of Red Clydeside. That in turn led to those that had first lit the radical flame.

For in the 1790s, Scotland was fired by radical sentiment. The French Revolution had shown that another world was possible and “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity” rang out across the land. However, Scotland was then run by an oligarchy of rich landowners and their interests were threatened. Brutal repression followed and many were transported across the seas.

But the vision never died and just over a decade on the cause was revived. It would culminate in the 1820 Rising: a general strike in the west of Scotland, from which it was hoped that revolution might spring. It too was brutally suppressed, and its leaders hung and beheaded, which was the last use of such a punishment in Britain. Others were once again transported. Their sacrifices were not in vain as the First Reform Act soon followed and other steps were taken by the establishment to assuage popular discontent.

As ever though history is written by the victors and in this case, it wasn’t a foreign power but the ruling class. It’s their statues that adorn parks to this day and their history that’s recorded. It’s for that reason that this book begins with story of the Martyrs Memorial in Calton Cemetery.

The Scottish Radicals wished to have their history remembered and their martyrs lauded. The story of the opposition they faced sets the scene for the uncovering of other tales. I was born in Leith and live in Edinburgh but never knew of the proposed Dutch invasion to support a radical rising or of the Kings Birthday Riots that engulfed the city. Likewise, I grew up less than 40 miles from Tranent and yet neither knew of the massacre there, nor of the willingness of many to fight back against the oppression they faced, as garrisons were built and harsh laws imposed.    

This isn’t the story of the Lords and Ladies, but of the radicals who fought for universal suffrage and the rights of working people.

Radical Scotland is out on 27 February. Pre-order your copy now!


The secret story of MI9: the forgotten spymasters

  • January 30, 2020 16:08
  • Vicky Jessop

It seems like not another day goes by that another daring war story comes to light. Stories of British spies surviving months in the mountains in order to blow up Hitler’s atomic bomb-making facilities (detailed in Tony Insall’s excellent Secret Alliances) or of daring escapes across the Alps in winter, appear on our newsfeeds every other day.

But even with this, there is one organisation whose work during the war remains depressingly unsung: MI9.

Fortunately, we’re about to correct that. Read on for more…

What was it?

Much in the style of MI5 and MI6, MI9 was a secret government organisation set up in 1939 to aid in the fight against Nazi-occupied Europe. Set up by Norman Crockett, the group’s mission was to support the Resistance, whilst also using them to spirit stranded Allied airman all the way back to the UK. It also supplied prisoners of war with the materials they needed to escape.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the department was extremely underfunded and short-staffed during its time of operation thanks to infighting within MI6 and the SOE. For a while, it operated out of a hotel in Marylebone, where it questioned escaped prisoners of war. To each his own!

How did it work?

MI9 would drop agents into Europe by parachute. Those agents would then get in touch with local Resistance members and help them to identify and rescue downed airmen, using false maps, money and identification documents to do so.

Getting anything in or out of Nazi-occupied Europe without suspicion was hard, so MI9 employed everybody from former magicians to games manufacturers to create gadgets that would hide valuable escape items. They created compasses that could be hidden in buttons, hid packets of dried food in hollowed-out heels and hid real money in board games.

How successful was it?

MI9 did invaluable work in helping spirit escape equipment to soldiers around Europe, including the people behind the infamous Colditz escape. Though the work was extremely dangerous, it also helped turn the tide of the war effort- with a few incredible stories to tell, to boot!

MI9: Escape and Evasion, by M.R.D. Foot and J.M. Langley is out 6th February 2020. Pre-order your copy now!



Ian Fleming: "efficient, sophisticated, energetic, dutiful, unable to suffer fools even ungladly"

  • January 15, 2020 15:26
  • Robert Harling

As we publish Robert Harling's book, Ian Fleming: A Personal Memoir, why not take a look through the pages and see just how this remarkable man inspired the stories of the most famous spy of all: James Bond?


I was doubly fortunate in my two bosses: one official, the other somewhat less so throughout these tasks.

The first, my official boss, was the ‘mysterious Colonel Bassett’, as he has been termed. Although a strict disciplinarian in the tough tradition of the Royal Marines, he was an unusually understanding chief for someone occasionally needing to act outside formal regulations. Above all, he was far from mysterious.

Secondly, as I was frequently moving between Oxford, the admiralty and distant places, I was continuously in contact with Fleming, and gradually came to know him from our somewhat casual official exchanges conducted in seemingly mutually agreeable fashion. He began to use my foreign trips for the occasional unofficial letter or message to deliver to Naval Intelligence Division (NID) officers abroad or requesting odd enquiries to be made. Above all, he was invariably keen to have first-hand reports concerning NID officers in distant outposts. As I had, he contended, ‘an unholy and inquisitive interest in the background and behaviour of mankind and, of course, womankind, and no axe to grind’, I was invariably thoroughly quizzed on my return from distant travels, usually at Scott’s or the Etoile – my most favoured pre-war restaurant – to which I introduced Fleming as an alternative to Scott’s or Kettner’s.

A tentative friendship was casually established in these meetings, quizzes and exchanges. I was intrigued and occasionally amused by his adherence to establishment values, probably inevitable in one who had lived and worked within a series of immutably conventional institutions: Eton, Sandhurst, the City and now the admiralty. He was a made-to-measure personal assistant to the tough and ruthless DNI, for he was efficient, sophisticated, energetic, dutiful, unable to suffer fools even ungladly, even for a split second, and clearly ambitious to make his mark in the service. His elder brother, Peter, had established himself pre-war in the army. Their mother, I gathered, was not averse to pointing out this disparity in the respective pre-war achievements of her two elder sons. Having missed out on these clamping maternal experiences, I was deeply curious concerning their effects on character and conduct in others.

An instance of these contrasts cropped up after my return from an early trip to the Middle East. A typical Fleming quiz at Scott’s would be fired off at an odd and unexpected moment during the meal.

‘I gather you enjoyed this so-called Turkish stint, including Istanbul. Why and how?’

‘I was parked in the Pera Palace. Very agreeably, thanks to the consideration and advice of Commander Vladimir Wolfson.’

‘What d’you think of him?’

Vladimir Wolfson, a White Russian, had escaped from Moscow to Britain while in his early teens. After Cambridge and the City, he had been recruited to naval intelligence and stationed in wartime Istanbul. He was well suited and well placed there, as linguist and questor. Above all, as one who was more English than any Englishman he was clearly determined to do everything possible for his adopted homeland. He had proved a notable help to me.

Fleming grinned as I gave full value to the commander’s identity, tenacity and worldly wisdom.

‘Made for the job, you think?’


‘Roughly my own view. I gather you brought back the required charts and maps. I gather you also enjoyed Istanbul. Why?’

‘Basically because, as a born perambulator, there was so much to see between naval researches. Wolfson took care of that. I saw a good deal of the Bosphorus. I also met a far-from-home Parisienne. Very relaxing and attentive, and also trying her best to enjoy Istanbul during her enforced stay.’

‘How did she get from France to Turkey? Probably a spy.’

‘Possibly, but she said she was one of several Parisiennes who had found Istanbul a profitable pre-war parking lot, and that she was now the mistress of a Turkish bigwig who was busy making his ambitious way up the diplomatic ladder and not an unduly over-frequent visitor to her flat, despite the fact that he handsomely underpinned her monthly money-bag.’

‘I take it you kept your lips fully sealed.’

‘My lips were fully engaged elsewhere. We didn’t discuss typography, topography or even oceanography even once.’

‘Trust Harling!’ Fleming said, grinning.

‘Duty first! Isn’t that the great naval tradition?’ I claimed. ‘Here I am, awaiting my next task. Yearning for it.’

He grinned. ‘Then what? How d’you get back from Istanbul after you left Wolfson?’

‘Asked him to OK my due leave. He gave me a week’s freedom to make my own way back to Alex. Not even leave. Naval duties.’

‘How was your return achieved?’

‘Train from Istanbul to Ankara. Having seen those lunar landscapes from the plane, I wanted to see them more closely. I also wanted to look around Ankara, ancient and modern. Spent a couple of days there. Even bought a Kelim prayer rug from a dealer with no English, and myself no Turkish. A bargain in pigeon French.’

‘And then?’

‘I’ve always wanted to see Aleppo, so I dropped in.’

‘Still not in uniform?’

‘I was by then. After Aleppo, I spent a couple of days in Beirut. I know an army medico base there. Very entertaining. Paris on the Med.’

‘And then?’

‘Cadged a lift from a French courier going down to Haifa. From there an Israeli courier down to Gaza. Finally, a lift in a British Army truck back to Alex. You should try it sometime. Wartime hitch-hiking. The art of movement-without-effort. But, then, your travels are sponsored from on high with the ambassadorial limo awaiting your whims outside the hotel.’

‘Very funny!’ he said, but, then, to my surprise, added that he doubted he would prove to be any good at the practices I’d outlined.

‘No need to be a shrink to see that,’ I said. ‘You’re far too busy giving orders than proffering requests. Anyway, dropping in on an army staging post with the certainty of a lift scarcely comes under the heading of hitch-hiking. All laid on.’

‘How d’you set about your requests?’

‘The usual drill for all and sundry. Just turn up and say where you need to get to. That’s all – and always enough. Come back in an hour’s time or six, tomorrow morning’s the usual drill.’

He nodded, as if in understanding, which I doubted. ‘I’m either not that arrogant or not that suppliant,’ he mused.

‘As an amateur shrink I’d say this snippet of self-analysis concerning arrogance is 100 per cent correct. Any hint of suppliance in your make-up is sheer blarney.’

He hooted with laughter, his usual dismissal of any subject taking too personal or untoward a turn. But this was not to be his last word on my Middle Eastern travels.

Somewhat over-casually, he queried: ‘You mentioned this French tart. How d’you meet her?’

‘You’re talking about my friend, Andrée, in Istanbul, I gather. We met via the ancient device of eye contact in a local café.’

‘What followed the eye contact?’

‘Queries concerning her arrival in that remote area. Hints concerning her lifestyle. A few further drinks – mine non-alcoholic, of course. Responsibility for both bills, of course. Invited back. Age-old stuff.’

‘What about her abode?’

‘Quite pleasant. Couple of rooms quite near the Pera. She’d gone out there pre-war, tempted by tales of Turkish millionaires. Didn’t find any, but soon found the war’s well-heeled executives in the Pera. Quite profitable. Why not? Frogs, Krauts, Brits, the lot. Then met her local bigwig and opted for comfort – apart from the odd encounter. She’s one of the fortunates of her trade. As I was too, I daresay, in meeting her.’

He laughed. Heartily. ‘I’ll take your word and memory for your belief. Describe your Andrée in thirty words.’

‘Is this an official request or an addendum to my official notes on my journey of enquiry?’

‘As it comes. It won’t appear in the WIR, that’s for sure.’

I laughed. ‘As it comes then. Late thirties or early forties. Well dressed. Slim. Dark. Beautiful legs. Good features. Halting English. Sense of humour. Merry acceptance of her set-up so far from home. Alas, I’ve no snapshot. “Well geared for her lifestyle” is probably the simple caption I’m hunting for.’

‘Probably,’ he agreed, laughing. ‘“A well-matched randy pair far from home” is the caption I wouldn’t have to hunt for. I take it that apart from your silence on nautical matters she provided a lively latenight entertainment.’

‘To the matter born and burnished,’ I said, grinning.

‘Did you see her again?’

‘The following evening.’

‘Same routine?’ ‘Shorter supper session. Longer domestic session.’

More laughter from Fleming. ‘And no spilled secrets with any spilled sperm?’

‘Not a chance!’

‘So be it,’ he said with a grin. ‘Let’s get moving.’

We moved.

Years later, well into the Bond years, Fleming also visited Istanbul, but, true to what had become the established routine in his rounds of  thrilling cities, he was invariably the guest of a local celeb with RollsRoyce … and so on and on thrown in. ‘Plus an ideal guide to all the local showplaces, no doubt,’ I suggested at that later date.

‘What a hope! No exiled Parisienne tart came my way, if that’s what you’re implying,’ he affirmed gloomily, acknowledging his remembrance of my erstwhile self-indulgence.



Ian Fleming: A Personal Memoir is out now. Why not take a better look at it here?