Cultural Crossroads

During his lifetime Idries Shah promoted contacts and connections between different traditions around the world, believing this to be an important element in the advancement of human culture.

In this spirit, The Idries Shah Foundation has created ‘Cultural Crossroads’, a website forum where people from many walks of life are invited to talk about their own experiences crossing cultural boundaries, and the lessons that they have learned as a result.

You can find the full series here:

Cultural Crossroads: Interview with Editor and Author Roland PhilippsAbout Roland Philipps

Roland Philipps worked in publishing for over 30 years and edited writers such as John le Carré and Justin Cartwright. Most recently he was publisher at John Murray. He is now a full-time writer. His biography of Donald Maclean, A Spy Named Orphan, was published in 2018.

Roland Philipps on Amazon:

1. A lifetime spent in publishing sounds like the perfect way to prepare for becoming an author. Is that the case? How have you found the switch from one to the other?

A lot of time spent reading is the best way to prepare for becoming an author – so in that way publishing was ideal.  The thing I found myself saying most (and it is obvious to any reader) to the authors I edited was ‘the story is the main thing’, always to keep the narrative going and the reader turning the pages no matter what the arcane facts that turned up that could be shown off. That is what I tried to do in A SPY NAMED ORPHAN, just tell the story cleanly and in context.

What editing scores of books did not prepare me for was how hard it is to edit oneself.  When I got my editor’s comments back on the first draft, I was embarrassed at how many things I had missed that I would have spotted in the work of another…

2. The written word is one of the essential building blocks of our culture and civilisation. Do you think it will continue to be so to the same extent in the future?

Good and pertinent question, and one I have been thinking a lot about watching my son and his friends growing up in the world of YouTube et al.  The written word is still the clearest and best, the most comprehensive, concise and portable way of storing complex information and story. Its delivery will be, is already, very different; my new book, for example, involves a fair bit of translation from the French, but I do it online rather than from my dictionary, and I am currently listening to Michelle Obama’s memoirs on audio because I wanted to hear her story in her voice. But language and the written word, however transmitted, will remain at the heart of civilisation.  And record-keeping.

3. ‘Myopia’ is a word which appears several times in your recent biography of Donald Maclean: British spy catchers were too myopic to see they had a Soviet mole under their noses, while Maclean himself clung blindly to Communist doctrine despite evidence of its brutality. What do you think contributed to this general lack of perception?

The generation in charge of the institutions that ran Britain in the 1930s and 1940s – including the Foreign Office and MI5 – had grown up in the Victorian era, and were used to  trusting their own kind (public school, Oxbridge types).  Maclean presented as the archetypical mandarin, who was also incredibly good at this job, so why would he be subversive?  It was not until after his defection, followed by the knowledge of Philby, Vassal, the Profumo Scandal and so on that trust began to fall off, as did the age of the ruling class.  They also assumed – and they would be right – that nobody with knowledge of Soviet brutality would support its doctrines, another reason Maclean hoodwinked them. Against that, the brief window of ideology in the mid-1930s in which the Cambridge Spies were recruited represented the only time that such agents could be recruited on purely ideological grounds – very hard to spot, unlike those who have been blackmailed or bribed.

I think he was able to keep believing because he was an idealist and theoretician, who kept his mind aloof from what was happening on the ground and in the gulags.  He believed that communism was the only path to world peace – a better assumption in 1935 than 1950 – and maintained that steadfastness of belief on a higher intellectual plane throughout his life.  Perhaps to face up to what he had done in the name of such a cause would otherwise have been too hard.

4. Many parallels have been drawn between the 1930s and the world of today. Does history repeat itself?

I am currently reading Tim Bouverie’s excellent book on Appeasement which is published next year, and am struck by how countries divided amongst themselves look inward and cannot get perspective on what is happening elsewhere in the world; how flattering dictatorial leaders and hoping that being in with them will get them to change their ways only eggs them on to more; and how easily the bodies (then the League of Nations, now perhaps the UN) designed to prevent conflict can be sidestepped with a bit of playing to the mob (and trashing of ‘fake news’ or even the assassination of journalists). I don’t think the systemic flaws are the same as in the 1930s and do think the globe is institutionally more robust, but human nature and the lust for nationalistic power don’t change much. Flattery through fear is never a good response, and there are echoes of that.