Ivory: Power and Poaching in Africa

The elephant in the room

Unknown.jpegThe impressive cover design of Ivory shows, against a black background, the forward charge of a magnificent grey tusker. Overlaying the darkness, in white, are the words, Ivory and Power and Poaching in Africa. This seems suitably symbolic and is an invitation to partake of what looks like a feel-good read. Here is a binary opposition between black and white – poachers are evil are must be prevented whilst elephants are beautiful and must not be shot.

But, for Somerville, this is all too simple and, in fact, wrong. Since 1981, first as a journalist and now as an academic, Somerville has made a study of elephant conservation in Africa.   The immediate stimulus for the book originates from the period in the 2000s when links were being suggested between ivory and insurgency. Were terrorists selling ivory to fund their revolts? Somerville set out to find the truth.


Somerville’s main interest is in the African “supply end of the ivory trade” tracing it from ancient times through the 19th century and up to the present day. He describes how elephant hunting has developed from a need for food and leather to big game hunting, then to the provision of ivory for luxury goods all over the world, now particularly driven by, the recently materialistic, China, Vietnam and other East Asian countries. But at the same time elephants can threaten the homes and crops of their human neighbours and thus have always been killed in a land struggle between man and beast.

Dismissing the insurgency explanation as unimportant and peripheral, Somerville suggests rather that the ban on ivory exports in 1989 exacerbated the situation, putting the animals in even more peril by encouraging a black market , thus resulting in an escalating decline in elephant numbers.


Somerville thinks that conservationists, to whom he dedicates the book, need to work with the people who live on the elephant ranges since they are the ones who both know elephants, and live, at subsistence level, by the illicit trade in ivory. He rejects the concept of ‘poaching’ since traditionally the hunting of elephants has been the mainstay of the local economy. Disenfranchising the population and criminalising their historic activities endangers wild predators of all sorts. Negotiated regulation, perhaps, may be better than bans. Hunting quotas allow communities to expand tourism, sell ivory and, indeed, kill elephants to keep their families safe. People would have control over their homeland and its wildlife. They would then see poachers as the enemy and prevent their illegal activity.


Somerville also points out the complexity of the power structures involved, which, of course, include politicians in African nation states but also rival conservation groups and non-governmental organisations. Each grouping has its own, often, contrasting approach and desired outcome, and being ‘pressure groups’ of one type or another, each selects whatever ‘facts’ best fit their argument. He writes that their publications contain “a high degree of advocacy, emotional appeals and material designed to generate passion and raise money, rather than giving a fully accurate and sourced account based on research”.


Further complicating the situation is the enthusiastic support of celebrities such as Obama, the Clintons and The Duke of Cambridge all of whom advocate total bans. Perhaps they should be sent complimentary copies of this book.

Somerville is a fan of alliteration: power/poaching, ivory/insurgency, people/pachyderms, exploitation/enchantment, corruption/crime/conflict. This stylistic tic can be forgiven since the subject is important: how can elephants be protected from the rapacious and growing ivory market?


Somerville tries to present a factual, non-political account. Whilst this seems commendable it is important to remember how Ivory is marketed: the black and white jacket is designed to attract readers and sell the book. Another exploitation of the elephant? Or an attempt to save them?

Works cited

Somerville, K. Ivory: Power and Poaching in Africa. London: Hurst. 2016.

A version of this review was first published on 22 Apr. 2017 in the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner p34.

Unleashing Demons: the inside story of Brexit by Craig Oliver


Craig Oliver was David Cameron’s Director of Politics and Communications in the run up to the European Referendum in Great Britain.

38C1712C00000578-0-image-m-4_1474756878999.jpgHe was well-placed to know what happened and, of course, didn’t happen, as he struggled alongside the prime minister, both in 10 Downing Street, and travelling all over the UK and to the continent of Europe, as the Remain/Stronger In campaigns fought to restrain and refute some of the more passionate, or should I say, extreme, claims of the Outers. Oliver kept a diary because, he writes, “everyone keeps saying this will be the biggest decision for the country since the Second World War”.

According to Oliver, Cameron said, that the referendum could “unleash demons of which ye know not”. Oliver, who thought that this was a quotation from The Bible or Shakespeare, states, in his introduction, that the “demons were unleashed and he and his team faced betrayal, lies and political bloodletting on an epic scale”.

For me Cameron’s phrase immediately evokes the words of King Lear in Act Four of the eponymous play, when Lear has just realised the scope of his daughters’ treachery: “I shall have such revenges on you both / That all the world shall – I will do such things – / What they are yet I know not, but they shall be the terrors of the earth”.

Ian McKellan as King Lear 2009.

In Lear’s words, but, also, particularly in the pauses, there are indications of impotence and hesitancy. Whether these two elements were at play in the six-month campaign is the essential argument of the book.

Oliver asserts that Cameron and his team were at the mercy of the media in three ways: “influential newspapers fighting for Leave with ruthless determination, whilst others, in favour of Remain, tended to be left-leaning and therefore lukewarm” and, thirdly, he thinks that television and radio were forced, by law, to report both sides’ points of view, “even when the other side were churning out stories that were at best deeply misleading and at worst, lies”. The Remainers, therefore, were, to some extent, made impotent by the media.


But Oliver also thinks that they made some foolish assumptions. Firstly “that electorates don’t vote against their own pockets” and secondly that there was a sort of lumpen proletariat that would not bother to vote. He says “we realised too late – and didn’t do enough to combat it”. This is hesitancy.

As early as January 1st this year, Oliver reports George Osborne, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, as saying, “we’ve put up with this for too long and nothing is happening, and we have got to sort it out”. But Oliver believes that the Conservative Party was doubly hamstrung at that stage. First Cameron had to try to renegotiate the terms of the relationship between the European Union and the UK. Second, until that ‘deal’ had been done the prime minister, apparently, would not be able to say whether or not he would recommend staying or leaving. So, again, the stench of impotency and hesitancy.

David Cameron: the Telegraph

As he observes a steady stream of Outist ministers and advisors brief against the government, Oliver wonders how “the average, self-interested Cabinet minister” will act. He ponders on who might risk their career to lead Leave, saying that “backing Leave could see them achieve glory that might not come their way otherwise, or see their career destroyed”.

It’s shocking though, to me, that these public servants would put their own lust for power and continuance, before the best interests of their country, and all its peoples and regions, in this fundamental epoch-changing decision. For me, the Referendum posed a moral question, based more in the principles of friendship and togetherness than in politics and the economy. But it may be that, in my naivety, I am mixing up the ill-fated League of Nations with its monstrous grandchild: the EU.



According to Oliver the “PM is concerned about everything unravelling, fearful over how the wider Conservative party is reacting” so he reassures his boss by outlining the three things that will happen if the referendum goes in favour of the Outers: Cameron will resign, Scotland might well have another independence vote, Great Britain will no longer have leverage in global matters. The language, of the advisor, is defeatist from the get-go.

Craig Oliver with David Cameron. ITV.

The ultra-Europhile, Peter Mandelson, a strange bedfellow, phoned Oliver to set out his own three worries – everything seems corralled into threes in this book – which seem prescient for a conversation in early January. Mandelson wants to know how the government will “dock” with the Remain team. He also is concerned that there is no “core script” for immigration and thirdly he thinks “people fear that Europe is becoming a funnel for terrorism”.


Unknown.jpeg Unknown-1.jpeg

Later that day Oliver and Cameron discussed Theresa May, then Home Secretary, who they believe to be “flirting with the Out campaign”. But they decide that all is calm since she has “a long record of defending the European Union”.

Boris Johnson.  Buzzfeed.


In the afternoon Cameron beat Boris Johnson at tennis and cheerfully reported joking about Europe with him; Oliver drily comments, “Boris has been flirting with Brexit, but clearly isn’t sure. We’re in for a tortuous wait before he finally shows his hand”.

Reading Unleashing Demons can often be an experience rich with irony. Everything that I have mentioned so far happened within the first ten days of 2016. The referendum took place on 23rd June but in January the seeds were already sown for the disaster ahead, for David Cameron, his team and the Remain campaign.


In February Oliver and Cameron and their aids are limbering up for the re-negotiation summit. The deal is done on the 19th. Cameron announces it live on the British TV news. Strong rumours come through whilst Oliver and Cameron are in Brussels that Michael Gove has chosen Out. On the 20th, when they are back in London, Boris seems to opt for Out, but says he expects Britain to stay in.

images-5.jpegLater in the day, Boris isn’t sure where he stands. Boris describes himself as “veering around like a shopping trolley”. Cameron, on the other hand, his feet firmly planted, is outside No. 10: “My recommendation is clear – Britain will be stronger and safer in a reformed EU”. The deal receives a varied response from politicians and press, but over time is seen by many as insufficient.


The next day Boris is Out again, but Cameron thinks he is really “a confused Inner”. Nevertheless, states Oliver, the stage is set for the “Clash of the Titans”.  Soon after this Oliver resigns his official post under David Cameron to work for Stronger In, but he is still often in Downing Street or working with the prime minister. His diary entries get increasingly frustrated as he juggles politicians with disparate ideas and beliefs, trying to build simple strong media messages from a morass of inconsistencies and contraries.

Craig Oliver. express.com

His health suffers: a “wheezy” chest and the “early symptoms of an ulcer”. He attends interminable meetings in drab windowless basements and is fed unappealing sandwiches and watery stew. One day he feels as if he were in a “dystopian movie”. Weeks later, on the occasion of Nigel Farage’s “flotilla of fisherman” streaming up the Thames, he queries how it came “to be this surreal, through-the-looking glass, topsy-turvy madness”. Oliver admits, often, to being “knackered”.

In March Oliver meets with Theresa May at the Home Office. He asks her to be more active in the campaign and receives some reassurance. Another dry analysis from Oliver is “She is on the right side, making clear she is In, but not looking overly enthusiastic. It’s making life uncomfortable for us and many feel she owes DC more, but in purely selfish terms, this positions her best.” One might wonder whether, in this diary “entry” or others, there is a touch of hindsight.

Daily Mail. March 2016.

Mid March – Oliver wakes with “a throbbing head, tooth-ache and low-level sore throat.” Oh no, it’s man-flu and he hasn’t got time to be ill!

By April he is beginning to feel like the proverbial fool. Can Theresa help by delivering a blast of an interview with Andrew Marr? No, the Remain cause is no further forward. What about her forthcoming speech? But she’s released the speech to The Times before DC and Oliver have pushed through their re-draft. The key offending sentence is that May does not want to “insult people’s intelligence by claiming that everything about the EU is perfect, that membership of the EU is wholly good, or that the sky will fall in if we vote to leave”. Maybe Oliver should sign up Henny Penny?

In the early hours of 14th June Oliver has a “moment of clarity”. He realises that the EU’s freedom of movement stance is “wrong”. An email sent to Cameron suggests that the prime minister should make a speech in which he promises that Britain can remain in the EU and impose limits on immigration. But it’s too late to change tack. A decision is made not to deliver that speech and that promise. Cameron was impotent in his attempts to renegotiate Britain’s membership of the EU and Remain/Stronger In have hesitated too long. Doubts darken Oliver’s thoughts: he now thinks “telling people they will be poorer if they leave the EU” does not “trump controlling immigration”.

Manchester Evening News

By the 15th June, with poll after poll being very close – at one point there are thought to be only 30,000 votes in it – Oliver has decided that David Cameron’s tenure is over: he cannot survive even if Remain win. The PM, on the other hand, seems to be planning a September reshuffle and might already have done a deal with Boris.

Reading Unleashing Demons is a bit like watching a performance of King Lear. You know the denouement but you just can’t help hoping that Cordelia will survive. And then she is hanged.

Theresa May. The Telegraph.

We know the end of this story too. Angela Merkel is given space at the end of the book to say, “What is painful to me is that young people failed to turn out in numbers to vote”. Oliver comments, “Quite”. Immediately after the vote, Oliver says, the country seemed to be in the hands of, what, columnist, Janan Ganesh, thinks are “jokers at an auction whose playfully exorbitant bid for a vase had just been accepted with a chilling smash of the gavel”. The “jokers” crash and burn but May strides elegantly through the rubble to take up the reins. Perhaps the sky will not fall in?



Works cited

Oliver, C.  Unleashing Demons: the inside story of Brexit. Hodder and Stoughton. 2016.

This book review was first written in October 2016 for the Irish Examiner.  

Not just a pretty face?

Animal: The Autobiography of a Female Body by Sara Pascoe

Pascoe argues that we women are merely animals with very large 40,000 year old brains. The fat on our bottoms has evolved for pleasing males so why, she asks, do we hate it so?

Louise’s column in the Irish Examiner

 This is a book that Irish Examiner columnist Louise O’Neill will probably love.  Both she and Pascoe are in their thirties. Both are largely defined by their feminism. Both are funny. Louise is from Clonakilty in West Cork and Sara from Dagenham in Essex; neither of which locations shout London! or Dublin! or even Cork!

Sara Pascoe. Image: the Telegraph.

Intelligent women who are lovely to look at have a real dilemma. How do they reconcile their rational ideas with their longing to look pretty? How can they justify an interest in fashion with the need to be judged for their work? What if they actually like being loved and cuddled, by a man, at the same time as being entirely independent financially? It’s tricky.

Sara’s Twitter icon.  @sarapascoe

This is how Pascoe begins. She challenges the way she is introduced in comedy venues. I imagine that she might ask why Dara Ó’Briain is not announced as male? Her name is Sara Pascoe and audiences might expect a woman. But no, they must be told that she is female. Sometimes she is described as a comedienne. And, that’s a strange word, isn’t it? Why not just call Pascoe a stand-up comedian? What is the difference? How does her gender come into focus?

Pascoe addresses these problems, and more serious ones, in her particular way. First she read loads (more than two anyway – her joke) of scientific books about evolution, genetics, environment and chemistry. Then she filters what she learns through her humour.images.png

Pascoe explores, and then communicates in her indomitable way, what most of us sort of know. We have big brains. Our heads are so big that we must be born before they are fully formed. We must be nurtured very carefully for many years. We need a mother to feed us and, what Pascoe describes as a boy-mother, otherwise known as a father, to provide for and protect us. The other women and the other men in the tribe, who are also pair bonded, can help out too and we can support them. It all works well on the Savannah, she says.

Zulu women with babies. B W Caney. 1880.

It’s not like that anymore. Women can work and bring up children without men. They do not even have to have sex.

The modern woman, however, is tied to her ancestors who lived and bred millennia ago. When we lifted ourselves from four to two feet we survived better, and thus passed on our genes, if we bonded by having sex face to face. Women with fat on their chests (aka as breasts) emulating buttock fat, were preferred. The Page 3 girls were on their way.

Pascoe’s style is very attractive. There are jokes on every page. Laughing out loud is frequent, if dangerous, like incontinence. At the same time there are almost unbearable revelations about aspects of her life. I suppose her experience has been no more full of suffering than anyone else’s. Maybe she is just more honest. Or maybe, because of her vocation, she is prepared to share with everyone.

The Face of Satire: Sara Pascoe by Rachel King

Pascoe’s publisher was shocked when she referred to an incident when she cut her thigh with a razor blade. She riposted: this is normal for girls.   The incident remains in the book. There are also detailed descriptions of her early life which might be heart breaking were it not that they are laced with humour. Pascoe tells us about her failed love affairs and her struggles with eating disorders. Some things are harrowing but we have all been through similar times and we, like her, have survived. And she is self-deprecating in such a funny way.

Now that this review is written I am going to send the volume, disguised in a wrapping of brown paper, into the Examiner office, marked ‘Louise O’Neill, woman columnist’. No, cut the word woman.  She is a columnist.  The book should reach her, whether she is gendered or not, and I think she will like it.

 Works cited

Pascoe, Sara.  Animal: the Autobiography of the Female Body. Faber.  2016

A version of this review was first published in the Irish Examiner on page 37 of the Weekend section, 15 Apr. 2017.

Embarrassing Beliefs

The Kingdom by Emmanuel Carrère

Emmanuel Carrère

Carrére states that ‘things of the soul, the things involving God embarrass me’ but, there maybe other things that should embarrass him more.

This is an extraordinary book. Carrère subtitles it ‘a novel’ but its form has been described as biographical non-fiction written in the first person.  Essentially it is a history of early Christianity.  Three of the first century characters are named Jesus, Paul and Luke. The narrative is interwoven with Carrère’s 21st century first person voice – it is as if he is in conversation with the disciples.   It’s compelling and unsettling.

Apostle Paul 1.jpg
The Damascene Conversion: Tibor Kraus

The Kingdom gives an account of the Damascene Conversion. It has a long section on Luke, who seems to be Carrère’s favourite chronicler. The Gospel of Luke tells a familiar story but Carrère’s apparent intimacy with the narrator is achieved through comparison of available sources/translations and especially a close investigation into style. Carrère gets really excited because at two points in his gospel Luke changes from the third person to the second person. So what was an account of Paul’s travels talking about ‘him’ or ‘them’ becomes ‘we’. Luke is there with Paul apparently. Carrère enjoys speculating about that.

Secondly Carrère is interested in what has been omitted as well as in what has been recorded. In all four gospels there is only one half sentence that suggests that Paul was imprisoned in Jerusalem for two years. Here Carrère uses his knowledge to imagine what Luke did with those 24 months.

Extracts of reviews printed on the blurb are apostolic in their reverence for The Kingdom. Julian Barnes , who clearly read the novel, published in 2014, in its original French, calls Carrère ‘the most important writer in Europe’.  I had never heard of him until the book editor at the Irish Examiner sent me a copy to review.  Since I completed my review of The Kingdom I have looked at others, see works cited below.  All the ones I have read are by men.

They notice, as I did, Carrère’s narcissism but not so much his misogyny.  The choices of  subject matter, characters, sources, attitudes and style are all overtly male.  Although there are strong women in Carrère’s personal life they are under-represented, indeed absent, from The Kingdom.

What embarrasses Carrère is that for three years, from 1990, he was ‘touched by grace’. During that period he became a fervent believer, filling notebooks with daily thoughts stimulated by reading the Gospel of John. He attended mass every day, took communion and made confessions.


Bookending his devout episode Carrère, a French intellectual and urbane Parisian, is more at home with works of philosophy, psychology and literature such as Nietzsche, I Ching, Kafka and Homer. But, in order to write The Kingdom, Carrére had to research Christian exegesis, as he had previously done in the early 1990s, for his own spiritual purposes.

Working over recent years on The Kingdom has, says Carrère, been like writing an early Philip K Dick novel. In the story a child is born to a virgin. The boy’s father is an invisible god. After being killed by rational unbelievers the prophet is resurrected and promises eternal life to those who believe in him.

Members of his sect spread the word throughout the world and establish one of the great, and most resilient, religions. For Carrère, who currently presents himself as sceptical and agnostic, this sounds like science fiction. Maybe that’s why he calls The Kingdom a novel?

Carrère in his study: New York Times Magazine

Carrère is open about himself, his thoughts and his behaviour. It is shocking to read his self-deprecatory account. He is selfish, self-indulgent, self-revelatory, self-loathing and self-aggrandising. It’s all about him in a way that I find deeply repellent but at the same time I also feel that I may know him better than any other human being, other than myself. He holds nothing back, stating that he ‘loves himself to the point of hatred’.

Pièta Rondanini: Michelangelo 1552

I cannot condemn him though as I think this level of honesty should be applauded, unless, of course it is all an enormous confidence trick.  Maybe, that’s what he means when he calls The Kingdom a novel? Perhaps this soul-baring, breast-beating Emmanuel Carrère is a self-created fictional character and if I were to visit the author in his apartment in Rue des Petits-Hôtels I would find someone completely different.

Interestingly the narrator has two amazing and loyal friends. He mentions others but it’s these I covet. His godmother, Jacqueline, both loving and challenging, is a constant figure in his life.   She, it is, who when he reaches the slough of despond in his early 30s, guides him into Catholicism. She provides an extensive reading list, and, as necessary, reassurance. She warns him of the perils he will face in his pilgrim’s progress.

Jacqueline has a lovely flat in Rue Vaneau, full of beautiful things, like a sanctuary for the soul. If she were still alive I would like to go there. She is ‘well versed in Oriental wisdom and yoga’ and thus is able to provide spiritual leadership in a number of ways. She is a mystic who steps in when therapy and analysis fail Carrère. At the point just before he finds his faith, he remembers, ‘just being me became literally unbearable’.


The other thoroughly desirable companion is Jacqueline’s other godson, Hervé. He is a one-on-one friend with whom Carrère has, for 25 years, spent a fortnight at the end of every summer. They sojourn in Valais, Switzerland and walk and sit for hours in silence. Beyond these trips he and Hervé rarely meet. But Hervé, whose own notebooks juxtapose the words of Christ ‘with those of Lao-tze and the Bhagavad Gita’, is ‘the least fanatic of human beings’. He sounds really great.

There is one episode in The Kingdom which I found especially distressing. Carrère and his first wife, Anne, need a nanny for their two small boys. I am not sure what Anne’s work might have been but Emmanuel was in the habit of going to the office everyday to write screenplays or fiction. The new nanny, whose sole advantage is that she might have been employed previously by Philip K. Dick, is left alone on her very first day. Both parents exit the apartment leaving a baby in a bassinet.

What ensues is shocking and I would say that if it had been part of my experience of parenting I would have been too embarrassed to make my negligence public. For Carrère, however, the embarrassment comes not from his behaviour in the rational world but in his short-lived relationship with the Lord.


N.B. If you are interested in reading about Emmanuel Carrère I urge you to start with two articles in the Guardian.  Robert McCrum writes that Carrère is the ‘most important French writer that you’ve never heard of’. Tim Whitmarsh is entrusted with the same paper’s review of The Kingdom.  There is also a brilliant piece by Wyatt Mason for the New York Times Magazine.

Works cited

Carrère, E. The Kingdom: A Novel. Trans. John Lambert. Allen Lane. 2017. Print.

Mason, W. ‘How Emmanuel Carrère Reinvented Nonfiction’. New York Times Magazine. 2 Mar 2017. Web. 3 Mar 2017.

McCrum, Robert. ‘The Most Important French Writer You’ve Never Heard Of’. Guardian. 21 Sept 2014. Web. 3 Mar 2017.

Whitmarsh, T. ‘Review Emmanuel Carrère The Kingdom: the man who invented Jesus’. Guardian. 24 Feb 2017. Web. 3 Mar 2017.

A version of this review first appeared on April 15th 2017 in the Irish Examiner on pages 33 and 34 of the Weekend Section.  

‘The Golden Legend’ by Nadeem Aslam

How is it possible that I have never heard of this wonderful writer?  I came to this novel, unenthusiastically, having just completed Sebastian Barry’s superb Days Without EndUnknown.jpeg.  I have long been a fan of Barry’s work and have read almost everything that he has written.  On the back cover of Barry’s 2005 novel A Long Long Way Frank McGuinness says that Barry ‘writes like an angel’ and I agree with that. McGuinness adds that Barry is ‘on the side of the angels that fell’.

But I have now discovered that Aslam is Barry’s equal: he too ‘writes like an angel’ and ‘is on the side of the angels that fell’. Unknown-1.jpegI will be putting his four previous novels on my birthday list.  If you look at the video below of the choir at King’s College Chapel in Cambridge you will see, between one minute 14 seconds and two minutes 12 seconds, a sort of representation of the regiments of ‘angels’ who fell in the First World War, and are currently falling all over the world, in its various theatres of war, as well as in so-called peaceful democracies.

The Golden Legend, deals directly with angels. Or, at least, the angel Gabriel.  Gabriel ‘from heaven came’ and visited Mary, mother of the Christian God, to impregnate her; he visited the Prophet Mohammed to dictate words of the Koran. An equivalence, the liberal thinkers among us – leave Trump out of this – might think.  But, now, to The Golden Legend.

Mohammed receiving his first revelation from the angel Gabriel.  Miniature illustration on vellum from the book Jame’ all Tawarikh by Rashid al-Din, Published in Tabriz, Persia, 1307 A.D.  Now in the collection of the Edinburgh University Library, Scotland.

For Pakistan born, Aslam, who was brought up and educated in the north of England, paper is the “strongest material in the world. Things under which a mountain will crumble, you can place on paper and it will hold: beauty at its most intense; love at its fiercest; the greatest grief; the greatest rage”.

Paper is literally at the centre of the novel, which opens in the home of Nargis and Massud, architects who live and work in a defunct paper factory now converted into their home/work space. Surrounding this edifice is the city of Zamana, an Urdu word meaning period, era or age, pulsating with the noises of modern and ancient Pakistan. One sound is that of the loudspeakers, in the multiplicity of mosques, which, as well as emitting the muezzin, are being violated by a mysterious broadcaster who, night-by-night reveals the scurrilous secrets of citizens. Vigilantes punish the accused, especially Christians, especially women.

The Tree of Immortality. Palace of Shaki Khans, Azerbaijan

The former factory, however, is set in an oasis of bright fertility: an orchard, largely developed for cheap housing, but leaving a demesne of trees; almond, rosewood, mango, silk-cotton and coral. From the beginning the novel seems surreal, juxtaposing calm with sudden violence, silence with cacophony, cleanliness with filth.

Nargis and Massud’s vast library contains two elaborate and ornate Wendy House-sized miniature mosques, both reproductions of cathedrals/mosques which served in different ages, as places of worship for both Christians and Muslims.  Nargis and Massed use them in the winter months as small studies; easily heated in the freezing space. In the summer they are winched up, towards the high ceiling, hanging, floorless, above the dwellers. Elsewhere in the house, huge, spread, swan wings are pinned to the pink wall alongside the wings of a golden eagle, a parakeet and other birds. The house is full of ‘intense’ beauty and provides a crucible from which the architects can create more beauty in an ideological attempt to fight, as Aslam himself does with his art, the evil of the outside world.

image: pallasweb

It is not magic-realism: it is Aslam’s portrait of a world in which all that exists is extreme. Social and religious hierarchies are fiercely maintained, with the Christians, including two other central characters, Helen and Lily, as the butt of prejudice; their blood thought to be black, not red. Nargis thinks “everything this land and others like it were going through was about power and influence. All of it. And these struggles of Pakistanis were not just about Pakistan, they were about the survival of the entire human race. They were about the whole planet”.

Life is precarious amid frequent acts of sectarian violence. Vicious assaults against vulnerable flesh come from the most unexpected sources and are perpetrated against gentle and educated characters as often as not. There is no sense that those who might be considered liberal, rational and moral are thought of as such by their neighbours.

Strangely, the most shocking knife slashes are directed at a book from the Islamic section of one of the city’s oldest libraries. This book is ‘That They Might Know Each Other, words inspired by a verse in the Koran. A meditation of how pilgrimage, wars, trades and curiosity had led to contact between cultures’. This book, written by Massud’s father, contains reproductions of iconic art.

The first page to be vandalised contains an image of the Prophet Mohammed receiving a revelation from the angel Gabriel. ‘He perforated the face with the steel tip, and then the blade continued upwards through the angel’s headdress, the various ribbons and gems. Continuing, it cut into the sky full of gold stars’. The congress between Christianity and Islam is severed in an act of ‘conscienceless temper’.

Later, and, seemingly whilst Nargis is lying, sleepless, in bed, the entire book is ‘razored’ into pieces.

Copyright: Giusto Manetti Battiloro

In an act of indefatigable hope and unremitting courage Nargis begins the task of sewing, her needle threaded with shining gold, the 987 pages back together. She is performing her own version of the Japanese process of Kintsugi. “The art of mending pottery with lacquer mixed with powdered gold. The logic was that damage and restoration were part of the story of an object, to be accepted rather than concealed. Some things were more beautiful and valuable for having been broken’.

In The Golden Legend, Aslam opposes the vituperative Pakistani laws of blasphemy with his call for the freedom of language, both written and spoken, especially when uttering words of love. He, like Nargis, is trying to accept and restore damage. He states that when he starts writing a novel, “I begin to think … beyond the despair, what is the moment of hope?”

Illustration by Faraz Aamer Khan/Dawn.com


Works cited

Aslam, N. The Golden Legend. Faber & Faber. 2017.

Barry, S. A Long Long Way. Faber & Faber. 2005.

—.  Days Without End. 2016.

An earlier version of this review appeared in The Irish Examiner‘s Weekend Section page 37 on 8th April 2017.

See also is a short piece by Aslam which describes his working practices.

The Man who Created the Middle East

The signatures of Mark Sykes and François Georges Picot on their 1916 map.


The Man Who Created the Middle East:  A Story of Empire, Conflict and the Sykes-Picot Agreement.Christopher Simon Sykes

2016 was a year of commemorations but one was overlooked, at least in Ireland, if not in the Middle East: the hundredth anniversary of the Sykes-Picot agreement, designed by Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot, and signed in May 1916.

Walking the Line

THE ill thought-out and ill-fated Sykes-Picot agreement was a British and French colonialist line-drawing-in-the-sand division of the failing Ottoman Empire. There was a war on, of course, but even in the aftermath, during negotiations at Versailles and St. Remo, there was little understanding of how the region could best evolve along ethnic divisions. What began to seem more important to the imperialists was a share of Iraqi oil. Currently ISIS (so-called) and, from an oppositional position, Kurd nationalists, are skirmishing around, or bulldozing, Sykes-Picot border divisions.


North of the Sykes-Picot line France would control or influence Syria, the Lebanon and parts of Turkey whilst further south Great Britain would have a similar dominion over Jordan, Iraq and Kuwait. The agreement ignored promises of self-rule made, to regional Arab leaders, by among others, T.E. Lawrence, ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ in exchange for loyalty and warriors to fight the Kaiser.

In The Man Who Created the Middle East, Mark Sykes’s grandson, Christopher Simon Sykes, attempts to show that his ancestor was not a crass, ignorant, chinless wonder but, instead, a man of intelligence with a deep and wide-ranging knowledge of the region.

Travel 5 Provinces 18.jpg
photo: Mark Sykes

Whilst Mark was a student at Cambridge, his don, Dr Foakes Jackson, described him as “a man of exceptional powers … who really understood the traveller’s art … showing an extraordinary grasp of all that was really important in the countries he visited”.  Academics were lenient allowing him periods of absence to travel, and to prepare and write his book, Through Five Turkish Provinces.

As a child, Mark, had spent many lonely weeks alone at his father’s house in Sledmere, Yorkshire. His parents, Sir Tatton and Lady Jessie Sykes often travelled for six months or more. His stand-in ‘father’ was an aged stud groom and his mentor was his tutor, Doolis, who later wrote to him to say that “you must fight and strive against circumstances” or “you will grow up a worthless, cruel, hard-hearted, frivolous man”. Mark’s education was severely interrupted: he was moved from school to school, tutors were employed and dismissed, and both parents frequently took him abroad for months at a time.


In some ways, as Foakes Jackson stated, his “education had been neglected” but his Cambridge tutor, the Rev. E.G. Swain, opined that Mark ‘s “experiences of travel, acute observation, retentive memory” made him an outstanding young man.   So, in spite of his father’s miserliness – extreme – almost to the point of insanity, and his mother’s incipient, and then equally extreme, drinking and gambling, Mark benefited in some ways from his eccentric upbringing.

During his years at Cambridge, before his stint fighting in the Boer War, he met a young woman, Edith Gorst, and became attached to her “because you are honest and unselfish, because you are the only truly straightforward person I have ever met”. Now, with his future wife alongside him, Mark could address the homework set by Doolis. Edith, or as he addressed her, “dearest co-relig” – they were both converts to Catholicism – became Mark’s chief correspondent, and it is on his letters to her, that much of The Man who Created the Middle East relies.

Edith Gorst

Mark wrote to Edith almost 150 times whilst he was ‘fighting’ in South Africa. It was, he wrote, “a hideous nightmare” as he was sidelined on guard duty for much of the two years as well as suffering from malaria and food poisoning. Of the senior officers, it seems that he revered only Lord Kitchener, stating that he “is (thank God) a brute & that is what you want in a War when geniuses do not happen to exist”.

Although he and Edith were by this time engaged Mark did not feel worthy of marriage because he had not yet achieved a position for himself. He set off on a grand tour through the Ottoman Empire, resulting from which he hoped, he could write a book and make his name. But by January 1904 Edith had found a flat for the newly married couple, close to the Irish Office in London. This was handy as Mark had been appointed as Private Secretary to George Wyndham, the land-reforming Chief Secretary to Ireland, and was now based in Dublin.

The marriage seems to have been happy and before long their first child, Freya, was born. The couple moved to Constantinople before the arrival of a second child, Richard, since Mark was now honorary attaché to the British Ambassador in Turkey. He was back where he liked best to be, in the Middle East, feeling that his work there was “more ‘real’ than the Irish Office”. And, of course, the couple had produced an heir for Sledmere.

Sir Mark with his family at Sledder

In 1906 Mark was ready to be adopted Conservative candidate for Buckrose, his home constituency, and he and the family moved up to Yorkshire.   Soon, the twins, Christopher and Everilda, arrived and, according to Edith, Mark was “a delightful father”, playing games, organising expeditions and treating the children as rational beings. Mark lost in two elections in Buckrose, travelled in Tunisia and Spain, and saw his father’s house, Sledmere, gutted by fire, before finally winning Central Hull in a 1911 by-election.

The following year, whilst engaged in rebuilding his family home, Mark and Edith welcomed a fifth and penultimate child, Angela, to their family (a third son would be born in 1916). Soon after they returned to London to be near the House of Commons in which Mark, now succeeded to the family title and thus Sir Mark, was enthusiastically forwarding his political career. He was a “spell-binding speaker” and admired for his grasp of foreign affairs.

Mark’s finest hour, by all accounts, was a speech on the Irish question. On April 1st 1914 he said that the “blame must lie upon us all. We have drifted on passions, and both sides have gone from one wild cry to another until we have divided class from class, creed from creed…”. Mark thought that the only possible way forward was to exclude, temporarily, the province of Ulster from Home Rule. He asked members of the House, especially all Irish Members, to help “lift politics out of the quagmire of personalities, ill-feeling, hate – and pettiness …”.

But Mark’s enduring interest was the Middle East and he spoke in the Commons the same year about his anxiety over the decline of the Ottoman Empire which he feared would lead to Britain having borders with both Germany in Mesopotamia and Russia in Persia. He thought that Great Britain would “be like a stranded whale on a mud bank, with a river hippopotamus on one side and a rhinoceros charging down from the hills straight in front”.

Given the outcome of negotiations and the final placing of the Sykes-Picot line it is strange to read that Mark spoke in 1914 of “the seeds of native states which exist in the provinces of the Ottoman Empire … which could be made into independent states. If the worst came to the worst, there are Armenians, Arabs and Kurds who only wish to be left in peace to develop the country”.

The Paris Peace Conference in Versailles (1919-1920) had many issues to resolve and the Arab question was fudged. Mark Sykes, whose entire life had prepared him for the negotiations, was not there, nor was he at the St. Remo conference (1920), which did focus on the future of the defunct Ottoman Empire. His life had been cruelly ended, in February 1919, at the age of 39, by the Spanish ‘Flu. He was one of its fifty million victims.

Christopher Simon Sykes

Christopher Sykes Simons presents a sympathetic and engaging account of his grandfather’s life. This contrasts with the way that history has generally portrayed him but provides sufficient evidence for thinking that, had he lived, Sir Mark Sykes might have proved, as he strove for peace, his tutors right, and become an “exceptional” and “extraordinary” man.



Works cited

Simon Sykes, C. The Man Who Created the Middle East: A Story of Empire, Conflict and the Sykes-Picot Agreement.  London: William Collins. 1916.

Sykes, M. Through Five Turkish Provinces. London: Bickers. 1900.

An earlier version of this review appeared in The Irish Examiner, Weekend section pages 33 and 34 on 8th April 2017.

The Apprentice of Split Crow Lane:

Unknown.jpegThe Story of the Carr’s Hill Murder by Jane Housman.


One cannot help but feel that Jane Housman is a fan of Kate Summerscale’s best selling The Suspicions of Mr Wicher, in which Summerscale takes a mid-Victorian murder and attempts to create a fictionalised murder mystery story. Both women carried out extensive research and both seek to unmask the hypocrisies and suspect moral codes of that period.

Here, though, the comparisons end. Housman’s tale is set in Tyneside, in an industrialised, but still rural north, her characters are from the labouring classes and her murderer, the apprentice, facilitates a study of lunatic asylums as well as police procedures.

Interestingly the area had a proportionately high number of Irish immigrants, attracted by the promise of employment, unattractive and noxious though many of the available posts were. Housman states, “local tensions were running high. There was sectarian hostility between Catholic and Protestant Irish immigrants and general anti-Irish feeling from the indigenous locals, exacerbated by fears of an Irish uprising and acts of terrorism”.AMP.jpg

The victim of the Carr’s Hill murder is Sarah, 5½, the daughter of an Irish immigrant couple, Mary and Michael Melvin. The suspects are the parents of the murdered child, their motive: poverty. Whilst the post-mortem, or dissection, took place on the family kitchen table, crowds gathered outside the Melvin’s house, brought there by the railways and their voyeuristic tendencies. Dr. Barkus concluded that Sarah had received a blow on the head before being strangled. After death, he believed, her genitals had been cut with a knife in an attempt to mask the fact that there had been no rape.

The press, if not the police or judiciary, determined that this dastardly act must have been carried out by Sarah’s mother. The child was one too many for the family to support so it seemed likely that Mary had killed her own child and tried to deflect suspicion by making it look as if she had been raped by a man. Housman presents a society which is both anti-Irish and misogynistic.

Chief Constable John Eliot Gateshead County Police.

Low and behold a young Englishman comes forward and confesses to the murder. This is Cuthbert Carr, a fifteen year old, considered by locals as ‘mad’ and ‘feeble minded’. His motive: ‘the virgin cure’. At the time, the mediaeval belief that sex with a virgin was a way of ridding oneself of gonorrhoea and/or syphilis still held sway. The murder was a sidepiece to prevent identification. Here is the apprentice of Split Crow Lane, an apprentice who could not stick at a job because he was anxious and nervous. An Irish girl child has been murdered by a vulnerable and frightened English boy.

Next there is a chance for various ‘medical men who had had experience in cases of insanity’ to make their contribution. The report, by Robert Smith MD, the Medical Superintendent of the County Lunatic Asylum at Sedgefield, concludes, among other things, that Cuthbert Rodham Carr, looks like an imbecile and also sits like one. He “declared unequivocally that Cuthbert lacked the mental capacity to be responsible for his acts and should be treated in an asylum”.

Staff at Broadmoor circa 1863: National Archives

According to Housman ‘in Broadmoor Cuthbert’s madness effloresced”. By the age of 20 he had tried to escape twice. He committed violent acts against other prisoners and guards, he wrote a “ferociously articulate” petition to Her Majesty’s Commissionaires in Lunacy and became a “spanner in the Broadmoor works”. But Broadmoor, which labelled Cuthbert as chronically manic with delusions, is still extant whilst the apprentice himself died at a relatively young age.

Housman’s style is didactic: perhaps over-reliant on her research, “I became driven to find out every available detail. Nothing about it bored me”. This might not necessarily be the reaction of the reader who might be discombobulated at finding a paragraph-long footnote explaining the trade and working hours of teazers, (furnacemen). Housman is an enthusiastic user of parentheses, (brackets); a stylistic format which I, as a youngster, was forbidden by my English teachers. Additionally Housman is somewhat addicted to defining words rather than assuming that her reader knows, or can easily find out, the meaning. She makes assertions and speculates unnecessarily around the factual evidence that she has found. And there is something cloying and self-congratulatory about her tone in such phrases as “I flatter myself”. The Apprentice of Split Crow Lane is Housman’s labour of love and presents the avid, if undiscerning, reader with gruesome detail and overwhelming context.

Works cited

Housman, J. The Apprentice of Split Crow Lane.  Riverrun. 2016.

A version of this review was first published on page 36 of the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on 1st April 2017.