I expected to be irritated by Liz Jones's book, I hadn't expected to be bored

Liz Jones's autobiography, Girl Least Likely To, is so drenched in self-pity it becomes draining to read.

In “The Snow Queen”, Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, a splinter from a magic mirror ends up in the eye of a boy, Kai. Made by a troll, this mirror distorts as it reflects, magnifying the bad and erasing the good.

Liz Jones sees the world through a similar filter. In her new autobiography, Girl Least Likely To, pitched as advice on how not to be a woman, she amplifies every small slight while every joy is diminished. She confesses: “Nothing was ever good enough for me.”

Jones – fashion editor of the Daily Mail and mad monarch of confessional journalism – is well known for her self-loathing. And it’s displayed here in abundance. She is “in doubt” about her “right to be alive”. Her appearance turns her stomach. “I am unlovable,” she declares, after her marriage collapses.

What is strange is how this is coupled with a clear self-regard. After all, what more powerful way is there to say one’s life matters than to write an autobiography? And Jones is so self-obsessed that she always seems to put herself at the centre of everything. In an article for the Mail in 2011, she retraced the last steps of the murdered landscape architect Joanna Yeates, somehow making this young woman’s death about herself.

In the autobiography, this manifests itself largely in a belief that the whole world is in cahoots against her. When out dancing as a teenager, she is told that her grandfather has been knocked off his bicycle and killed. Jones’s reaction? Irritation that her mother makes her leave the nightclub and that the boy she likes then kisses someone else: “I learned I was never, ever going to get what I really wanted.” On 11 September 2001, much of the fashion press is at New York Fashion Week and witnesses the twin towers collapse. Jones is envious of these other editors, who are part of “this momentous occasion”.

Knowing Jones’s columns, I had expected to be irritated by her book. What I hadn’t expected was to be bored. The sections on her early childhood are so drenched in self-pity as to be draining.

Later, I started to feel sorry for her. Every experience she has with a man – from the boy in the playground who assaults her to her adulterous husband – is awful. And her life has been ruled and ruined by anorexia. Yet this suffering inspires little empathy with others. Even though she hates her own looks, she doesn’t seem to have any qualms about criticising the appearance of other women.

Her best writing is on the fashion industry: the way journalists are bought with freebies, the industry’s cruelty to animals and the branding of waiflike models as “fat”. On the designer John Galliano’s anti-Semitism trial, she raises questions about the duty of care of his ex-employer Dior.

As Jones’s miseries play out in public, that is something the Daily Mail should consider, too. Her writing doesn’t feel cathartic. Like her starving herself, it feels like self-harm.

Daily Mail fashion editor and monarch of confessional journalism, Liz Jones. Photograph: Chris Lloyd/Camera Press.

This article first appeared in the 29 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue

SIPA PRESS/REX
Show Hide image

"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge