Shooting Leave

 Saul David enjoys an account of adventurous spies in Asia  

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Reviewed by: Saul David
Author: John Ure
Publisher: Constable
Price (RRP): £16.99

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 For most of the 19th century, and the early part of the 20th, young British and Russian officers travelled into the largely uncharted mountain passes and deserts of central Asia to compete for control of the gateways to India, a secret diplomatic tussle that was known as The Great Game. The cover that the British used for these nefarious activities was ‘shooting leave’.

The exploits of these extraordinary men has been told before in Peter Hopkirk’s brilliant narrative, The Great Game. So instead, John Ure, a former diplomat to Russia during the Cold War (when the game was not dissimilar), attempts a series of vignettes or snapshots of 19 spies, most of them British. The motives of these characters were mixed: some were “arrogant imperialists”, some “almost missionary-like in their Christian zeal”, and a few chancers and bounders; but all were expendable.

The list includes familiar names (‘Bokhara’ Burnes and Francis Younghusband) and others less well-known (Charles Masson and Nikolai Grodekoff). The one I found most fascinating was Nikolai Przhevalsky, of Polish/Cossack descent, who explored Kashgaria in western China in the 1870s. A brave but brutal man, he thrashed his assistants to keep them in line, ignored local customs and shot first and asked questions later. Yet the Royal Geographic Society in London would claim that no one had contributed more to western knowledge of the region since Marco Polo. 

John Ure is no slouch himself, having travelled extensively in central Asia and the Caucasus, and it shows in this excellent book. 

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Saul David’s books include Victoria’s Wars: The Rise of Empire (Penguin 2007). His latest work is the novel Zulu Hart (Hodder, 2009)