The Loyalist who was a spy, a giant floating violin, and exfiltration from the Soviet Union: newsletter, October 1, 2021

October 2, 2021 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: newsletter.

This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,290) on Friday, October 1, 2021.

A recent survey by Pew Research tells us that “Roughly a quarter of American adults (23%) say they haven’t read a book in whole or in part in the past year, whether in print, electronic or audio form. . . .” Your first reaction might have been, like mine, “That’s terrible.” But then it gets worse. Non-book readers are more likely to be those who have not completed high school, those with incomes of less than $30,000 a year, and those in Black and Hispanic families.

And yet, there is a different way of looking at these survey results. When you actually look at the chart that goes along with the article, you find that three-quarters of the adult population has read a book in the last 12 months, as have nearly 70 percent of those whose incomes are less than $30,000. Among those without a high school degree, 60 percent report having read a book during the as years; and 75 percent of Blacks and 60 percent of Hispanics say the same thing.

Those numbers are still not where we might like for them to be, but overall—to my thinking, at least—they’re pretty good. I suppose it depends on how you look at them.

Have a wonderful and literate weekend.


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The Loyalist newspaper editor who was a Patriot spy

James Rivington is mostly remembered today as the most prominent of the Loyalist newspaper publishers during the Revolutionary War in America. But Rivington’s loyalty to the King was not absolute, and his story is indicative of the complex and unsettled nature of the era.

Rivington’s activities during the decade of Revolution ranged from Loyalist editor to, surprisingly, Patriot spy.

During the early 1770s, Americans (that term was not in use yet, of course) did not come to the idea of independence from Great Britain. It’s safe to say that most of the colonists began the decade with feelings of fealty toward King George III and his government. But government officials did little to cultivate these feelings, instead treating the American colonies like vassal states. Most Americans began to believe that the distant government in London could not be trusted to act in their interests.

James Rivington came to America in 1760 as a bankrupt bookseller, a business that he restarted in Philadelphia and then New York City. In April 1773, he began publishing The New York Gazetteer or the Connecticut, New Jersey, Hudson’s River, and Quebec Weekly Advertiser, a newspaper that he believed could maintain neutrality in the growing controversies between the colonists and the British and could be a forum for a variety of opinions.

That effort was noble but doomed. Public opinion was sharply divided, and increasingly a public personage had to choose a side. Rivington chose the side of the British and the Loyalists. According to one scholar, Rivington had “a talent for invective perhaps unmatched in his day,” and that invective was often directed at Isaac Sears, a gruff and thuggish Patriot whose talent for whipping up a mob and getting it to commit violence often horrified people on both sides of the issue. Sears’ gang of marauders called themselves the New York Sons of Liberty, and Rivington was sharply critical of their violent tendency.

Sears, he said, was a man who was sure “to alarm and terrify, sure to do mischief to the cause he means to support, and generally finishing his career in an explosion that often bespatters his friends.” Rivington was equally hard on others among the Patriot cause whose actions and attitudes he disapproved of.

With the battles of Lexington and Concord in April 1775, the sharp dividing line was drawn, and Rivington—having accepted the position of the King’s official printer in New York—was on the side of the British. In November 1775, Sears led a marauding mob of 80 people into New York and wrecked Rivington’s shop and destroyed his press. With his press gone, Rivington had little choice but to depend on the British to help him restart his business.

Rivington relocated his family to London for a time but returned to America after the British army and navy had taken control of New York City and its harbor. There he resumed his newspaper and became a strong advocate for the Loyalist cause. Rivington’s talent for invective made him famous throughout the colonies, particularly among those who were fighting for independence.

At least, that’s what people saw. Under the surface, something else was happening. Sometime in 1778, Rivington became part of the espionage ring that George Washington had set up to keep tabs on British troop and naval movements in and out of New York. This information was especially valuable because the French were joining the fight, and their naval power could challenge the British in a way that Americans could not.

Why did Rivington turn? There is no clear answer. Some believe it was because he came to believe that the British efforts in America were futile and that Washington, if he could hold his army together, would inevitably win. Others think there is evidence that the arrogance of British military leaders led them to treat their American allies with disdain. Rivington was in turn highly critical of British military leaders and their many missteps in America, especially after they had fumbled the Saratoga campaign.

Whatever the case, Rivington stayed in New York after the British evacuated and tried to resume his business. He even changed the name of his paper to Rivington’s New York Gazette and Universal Advertiser, removing any reference to his once being the King’s printing agent. It didn’t work. The Sons of Liberty were still around, and they had long memories. Rivington was beaten up and threatened with greater violence. His newspaper ceased publication in 1783.

Rivington spent the rest of his life in relative obscurity and poverty. He died in New York in 1802.

His espionage activities were the subject of rumor in the 19th century, but it wasn’t until the 20th century that scholars uncovered hard evidence that James Rivington had lived a double life during the Revolutionary War.


One scholar who has delved into Rivington’s life is Philip Ranlet in his article, James Rivington, Secret Agent, The Journal of Communication Inquiry, 1984-06, Vol.8 (1), p.21-30.


A violin on the Grand Canal

This item cheered me up about as much as anything that has happened lately.

Earlier this month, a giant violin set sail from a workshop in Venice and floated up the Grand Canal carrying a string quartet that played a selection of music of various composers including the revered Antonio Vivaldi.

The idea was that of Livio De Marchi, a Venetian artist, and Michele Pitteri, a member of the Consorzio Venezia Sviluppo, which financed the boat and built it along with De Marchi.

“The violin is a sign of Venice restarting” after the lockdown, De Marchi said Friday during an interview in his art-filled workshop off a narrow Venetian alley in the San Marco district. (New York Times)

Italy was one of the first countries to experience a lockdown in 2020, and that lockdown was particularly severe as many Italians live in relatively small spaces and are used to a great deal of street life. The violin-shaped gondola was a tribute to the country’s Covid-19 victims. The creators nicknamed it “Noah’s violin” as a sign of hope and resurrection in the wake of a giant storm.

The ride itself was challenging for the musicians, one man and three women, who stood on the gondola barefooted to get a better grip.

You can watch part of the voyage on this YouTube video:


The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries.”


Oleg Gordievsky: The message was clear; the listeners just didn’t get it (part 1)

In 1985 Oleg Gordievsky, a colonel in the KGB, was less than 24 hours from launching into a plan that would spirit him out of the Soviet Union and into asylum in the West.

For years, Gordievsky had been Western intelligence service’s chief asset within the Soviet hierarchy. Within that hierarchy, he had a reputation as a brilliant operative. His lineage was impeccable. His father had also worked inside the KGB. But Gordievsky had seen the flaws in both the political and cultural system that he served, and he had decided to work against it from the inside.

He had just returned to Moscow from London, where he had headed the Soviet intelligence network. Being called back to Moscow like that could mean great honors, or it could be a death sentence. Almost as soon as he landed, Gordievsky knew that he was under surveillance and that it was time to get out. He contacted the British intelligence service, which had promised to exfiltrate him when he gave the word. Now was the time.

It took a while for the British to put together a plan, but they did so, and a date in July was set.

The day before he left, he spent a good bit of time with his younger sister, Marina. Then he went to visit his 78-year-old mother, Olga. He said nothing about his plans, of course, but he knew that it would probably be the last time he would see or speak to them. When he returned home, he called several friends and made plans to get together with them in the next few days. Those plans would not come to pass, but he wanted to leave the impression with those who were bugging his phone that he believed there was nothing amiss.

One of those calls was to his friend Mikhail Lyubimov, a man he had known for years and someone who enjoyed English literature, especially Somerset Maugham. He knew that Lyubimov had a complete set of Maugham’s works, and during the conversation, Gordievsky causally brought up the author. He asked his friend if he had read Maugham’s short story, “Mr. Harrington’s Washing.”

The story is about a British spy who escapes Russia through Finland—the route Gordievsky was set to take.

“You should read it again,” he told his friend. “It’s very good.”

Gordievsky was betting that those listening in would not get the reference and wouldn’t bother looking the story up. It was a challenge to those who were watching him. It was his way of saying, “You’re not as smart as you think you are.”

Only much later, after Gordievsky had left the Soviet Union, did the KGB discover that they had missed the clue that could have alerted them to what was about to happen.


This story is one of many intriguing tales contained in the book The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War by Ben Macintyre, the best true-espionage writer of our age.

Next week: An account of how Gordievsky got to Finland—with the help of a dirty diaper.

This week’s bandsaw box: White ties and tail

This adorable kitten is dressed up and ready for an elegant evening out. The wood on the front and back is cherry, and the interior is pine; the bows are poplar.

This bandsaw box has two drawers, a small top one and a larger one below that has a divided interior.

This one took some careful sawing, lots of glue, endless sanding—and luck that it would all hold together.

A great gift for a cat lover.


Check out last week’s newsletter 

Elizabeth F.: A couple of thoughts about this week’s offerings:

  • Food!  One of my business consulting clients is in the food business with a long history of work in food safety, an influencer in safety controls with affiliations in the FDA and as a governor’s advisory member here in MN still one of the largest Agri production, agribusiness and corporate HQ’s for food production and processing.  How and where we grow food is rapidly changing and our dependence on traditional methods and sourcing is changing.  This is such a timely observation!
  • Illustration—the illustrator and RBG have a very important commonality; each found something they loved and could do for a lifetime and it enhanced theirs and others’ life experiences.  Maybe that is our answer to life purpose or the holy grail, or however we term it.  

Phyllis P.: I’m a true believer in what RBG is preaching. Anger can be both completely justified and completely useless. If it moves you, then OK. But if you are simply stirring the pot, you are no good to me—or yourself. Speak, then do.

Sheila P.: Thanks for bringing attention to the need for saving seeds for biodiversity. Great article! 

Marcia D.: I still love Winnie the Pooh!

Eric S.: Thanks for the literary/historical reminder.

Your summary of Richard Tregaskis’ book and life has led me to re-read Guadalcanal Diary. I first read it in the 1960s. Wonder if it will turn out the same as it did back then. 

Finally . . .

This week’s watercolor: Man with a cello


Best quote of the week:

Once we assuage our conscience by calling something a “necessary evil”, it begins to look more and more necessary and less and less evil. Sydney J. Harris, journalist (1917-1986)

Helping those in need

Fires in California, freezing weather in Texas, hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast, tornados in Tennessee, and now coronavirus — disasters occur everywhere. They have spread untold misery and disruption. The people affected by them need our help.

It’s not complicated. Things happen to people, and we should be ready to do all the good we can in all of the ways we can. (Some will recognize that I am paraphrasing John Wesley here).

When is the last time you gave to your favorite charity? The United Methodist Committee on Relief ( is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to this one or to yours.

Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.


Jim Stovall

You can connect with Jim on FacebookTwitterLinkedin, and BookBub.

His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.

Last week’s newsletter: Alex Haley’s pre-Roots success, the everlasting Jeeves, and Abe as mystery writer: newsletter, August 20, 2021



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