Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Book Notes: Histories of Spies and Painters

Even though it includes some scandalous revelations about British skullduggery, the most impressive thing about Keith Jeffery's Secret History of MI6 may be the small print on the copyright page: 
Published with the permission of The Secret Intelligence Service and the Controller of Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.
Jeffery, a history professor at Queen's University Belfast, was commissioned by the British intelligence service to write and publish its history.  The Brits have concluded that freedom of information includes information about even its intelligence services -- or at least their activities decades ago.

The Canadian security-intelligence bureaucracy, regrettably, is still code-red secret even about its activities before and during the Second World War. Some years ago, when I profiled Wesley Wark, the leading historian of Canadian intelligence operations, he told me about how British historians used their intelligence connections to help convince the agencies of the need for genuine and open historical study of the field. Wark also described the history of Canadian secret agencies he had written -- but he couldn't let me or anyone else read it.  He'd been given access to all the sources, but only on condition that his history become as classified as they are.

Official secrecy is not the only obstacle to publication historians may face. Yesterday's Globe had a James Bradshaw story (not in the online ed, it seems) of the difficulties Iris Nowell had getting her history of the Canadian abstract expressionists, Painters Eleven: The Wild Ones of Canadian Art, into print, as one publisher after another flinched from the cost of reproducing PE's artworks. After a lot of fundraising in the fine-art community, the book is now out from Vancouver's Douglas & McIntyre, "an argument for the group's importance artistically as well as a tribute to the 'vigorous challenge to the stuffy status quo' of the Canadian art establishment mounted by these 'wild ones'."  

Also a record of some hot art parties Nowell got to attend, Bradshaw suggests.

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