Fasten your seat belts.

Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Future.

Douglas Coupland

A 25th anniversary edition of the iconic novel, Generation X, is published. Has it stood the test of time? 

25th anniversary edition

Twenty-five years ago I was an ordinary mother taking my kids to swimming and piano lessons. This book crash-landed into my life like an asteroid. Although I had been cool enough in my youth I had left childishness far behind.

In Generation X, I met Andy, Dag and Claire: well educated, middle class, late 20-somethings, who had dropped out of the rat race to stare at skies and stars in the Californian desert. Living in three adjacent bungalows, they worked in McJobs and were free of consumerism.

At the foot of most pages, Coupland gives definitions of words and phrases. Thus, McJob: ‘a low-pay, low-prestige, low-dignity, low-benefit, no-future job in the service sector. Frequently considered a satisfying career choice by people who have never held one’. This term, then new to most people, was popularised by Coupland.

gen-x-2.jpgOther neologisms, or obscure terms, which are now familiar concepts, are ‘Yuppie Wannabes’, ‘semi-disposable Swedish furniture’ and ‘Celebrity Schadenfreude’.


The structure is post-modern – not only with the footnotes, some of which are car bumper stickers and some of which are picture-story graphics – but also in terms of the visible ‘non-printing’ character instead of paragraph breaks. ¶ There is also Texlahoma. This ‘asteroid orbiting the earth’ is a ‘mythic world’ created by the trio to provide background for a series of stories they imagine and narrate. Coupland calls it a ‘sad Everyplace’ in which ‘the year is permanently 1974, the year after the oil shock, and the year starting from which real wages in the U.S. never grew ever again… It’s a fun place to spend one day, and then you just want to get the hell out of there’.

Generation X was the first to understand itself as a target market. Andy explains, ‘our parents seem neither able nor interested in understanding how marketers exploit them. They take shopping at face value’.

In opposition to Andy, Dag and Claire, Tobias is cheerleader for Generation X. He ‘embraces and believes the pseudo-globalism and ersatz racial harmony of ad campaigns engineered by the makers of soft drinks’. Seem familiar?

Screen Shot 2017-05-06 at 18.42.55.png
Pepsi pulled this ad featuring Kendall Jenner after widespread criticism.

Tobias loves his career making money. He loves buying objects. He wears a fur coat in the New York winter, insisting that check girls put it at the back of the cloakroom to avoid paint-bomb attacks from animal rights activists.

Coupland divides US citizens into three: the parents, still living a cosy suburban life, Tobias consuming and wasting as fast as he can and, finally, the refuseniks, trying to live simply and in tune with nature. This is the most attractively presented group. They are principled. They harm no one. They love dogs. They tell beguiling stories. They are witty.

Twenty-five years later cynical marketing strategies have won. Nearly everyone has been accelerated into a world of consumerism. Trump could be seen as a version of Tobias who admits he wants to be ‘riding the lead missile of a herd heading over to bomb every little village in New Zealand’. Nothing matters to Tobias and his ilk but winning.

People, however, still blunder through their lives taking their kids to swimming and piano in the hope that their young lives will be fruitful and that the world, for all its evil, will not explode nor implode. Generation X was ahead of its time and its time is not yet spent.

Douglas Coupland: the Guardian

Works cited

Coupland, D.  Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Future. Abacus. 2017.

A version of this review was first published on page 37 of the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on 19th August 2017.



At Swim One Girl

Turning: A Swimming Memoir

Jessica J. Lee


This is a gentle book – a slow burn. Jessica Lee is living in Berlin working on her doctorate. Her studies centre on Hampstead Heath in London and her home country is Canada. She is like a fish out of water. The city is presented as a place of transients. No one stays. No one expects Lee to stay. But the lakes enthral her.

As a child, Lee’s experiences of water and swimming were tainted with fear. She nearly drowned beneath a yellow foam duck until rescued by a lifeguard. She watched teen horror films in which swimming-pool-ghosts drag pubescent bodies to their deaths. She stared at black Canadian lakes in which all the other family members swam, but which she dreaded. There is a sense of doom as family rows and parental divorce play out against a background of lowering clouds and slate grey waters.

A lake in Brandenburg.  Image: outdoor swimming society.

Berlin is surrounded by thousands of lakes. Some of these are anthropogenic, such as disused gravel pits, whilst others are formed by glacial retreat.   Some are lined with silk-smooth sand whilst others clothe themselves in green robes of algae in the summer. Some of the lakes are clotting up and dying whilst others sparkle crystal clear or sky blue. In the winter the shallow ones ice over.


Lee discovers that the science of lakes is called limnology and this fits well with her own multi-disciplinary area of environmental history. She studies G E Hutchinson’s 1967 treatise on limnology. It seems appropriate that he, like she, left his place of birth, which was Cambridge, England to work all his life in another country, at Yale, Connecticut. Two emigrants.

In Berlin, alone and often lonely, sad and sometimes depressed, Lee invents a project with which to challenge herself. She will swim 52 lakes in a year. This does not mean that she has to swim from end to end or side to side or in a circular manner. She must simply immerse herself, float, stroke, stay in or get out double fast. Sometimes she decides to do three lakes a day. At others, time stretches between one lake and the next.

The book is structured into four main sections named after the seasons. First there is summer. Last is spring. Autumn is fecund: the woods surrounding the lakes are full of fungi, and the scent of mellow fruits. In winter, warm mists rise from the waters and the crack of the ice provides heightened sensual moments: ‘the sharp cut of freezing water on my feet. The immeasurable black of the lake at its coldest. Swimming then means cold, and pain, and elation’.

Bötzee. Image: outdoor swimming society.

The project is also one that embraces local friends as well as visitors from other countries. Bikes, or trains and hiking, take them to a lake. Some participants cannot swim. Some people don’t like to be out of their depth. And Lee, herself, has a strict rule: ‘Never Swim Alone’. As this is Germany, however, there is nearly always some other competent swimmer in the water.

Lee.  Image: outdoor swimming society

Although entitled a swimming memoir, the book tells of Lee’s upbringing and early adulthood in suburban Toronto. Swimming takes place, largely, in the Brandenburg lakes. Earlier years in Canada were often painful and joyless as Lee’s Chinese mother and Welsh father fought to overcome their sense of uprootedness. Lee herself coped, if she did, either by withdrawal or by impulsive change-it-all decisions.

But in the city of Berlin with its necklace of lakes Lee begins to find peace and some joy. A lovely, poetic, sensuous and melancholy book.

Image: Jessica J Lee

Works cited

Lee, J. J. Turning: A Swimming Memoir. Virago. 2017.

A version of this review first appeared on page 17 of the Weekend section in the Irish Examiner on 6th August 2017.

From argot to Austen: a wetback odyssey


The Gringo Champion by Aura Xilonen, translated by Andrea Rosenberg.

Some novelists expect their readers to learn a new language. Clockwork Orange is challenging, and so, more recently, is Trainspotting.   The Gringo Champion is equally demanding. ‘Yes, they’ve left me stratospherically muddled: my headlights are burned out, racooned, straticated like a panda. Black and blue. Turkeyfied. Back in my hometown they say I’ve got peeperitis – like the green-eyed monster. I can barely see where my peepers are reaching out their claws to touch things. My ears are asymmetrically buzzing, endecibelled by my ass-whuppative encounter with the addos.’

Aura Xilonen. Photo:Milenío

The novel is skilfully translated from Spanish by Andrea Rosenburg. The words that she and, young Mexican author, Aura Xilonen, pour out of the mouth of the narrator, Liborio, are an energetic torrent! Reading it is exhausting but addictive. The words are versions of actual words, and, in reading them the brain is engaged in an interpretative workout.

Liborio’s language comes from a series of foul-mouthed ‘carers’ and ‘employers’ although they give him scant food and no wages.  41vzwXE+YcL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgWhilst slaving in a bookstore he teaches himself to read, starting with The Golden Age of Spanish Poetry. By the time the action begins he has read ‘Virgil and Dante, Catullus and Bécquer, Boccaccio and Balzac, Homer and Tolstoy, Cervantes and Dickens, Austen and Borges, Pylorus and Aesop. His idiolect ranges from high culture to the lowest but lacks the normal register that most of us use to communicate.


It’s a crazy read. The language is wild, there are no chapters and the narrative is fragmented. Sometimes, in italics, there are flashbacks to Liborio’s childhood in Mexico and his swim across the Rio Grande into the US. In the ‘present’ Liborio lives a perilous existence threatened by street gangs, immigration cops, imminent starvation and worms.

In a way it’s exactly the sort of novel that I do not like. I particularly hate reading about violence. In the early pages, Liborio, 17, gets beaten up at least once a day. If he’s not being physically assaulted he’s being chased or cursed.   It’s horrible. ‘They raise their crushing clubs and give me a few tastes, one after another, on my back, shoulders, and braincase. One precise blow on the back of the scullery knocks me out.’

Rocky IV: The Action Figure Review.

But then it segues into another type of tale that I would not choose: the unlikely and soppily sentimental sort of Rocky Balboa rags-to-riches boxing story.  I hate boxing too. This is because it requires people to hit other people in the head, sending the brain in its fluid slapping into the inside of the skull. Result? Serious lesions. ‘The scruff leaps at me in a rage – I can smell his tense, jumbled musculature, scented with incendiary, malodorous, murderous perspirations – but before he can tear me to shreds, I see him coming at me and just like that, palindromed, I leap to one side and bring my fist down on his right temple.’

To top all this organised, and disorganised, violence there is romance. Boy meets girl, things go wrong, can they be overcome? ‘Without saying anything, just like that, out of the blue, I plant a kiss on her sleepy lips. Like that, swift, adolescent. Taking her face in my hands.’


The Gringo Champion is probably aimed at the young adult market although I am not sure how many teenagers have the necessary vocabulary. Their parents, furthermore, might not like them to have access to so many swearwords; the language is extremely coarse, as well as poetic. In spite of these caveats it is a charming book, centred on a charismatic, if unreliable, narrator.

Further reading

Works cited

Xilonen, A. The Gringo Champion. trans. Andrea Rosenberg. New York: Europa. 2017. Print.

A version of this review was first published on page 37 of the Weekend section in the Irish Examiner on 29 July 2017.


What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons


In her debut novel, set in Pennsylvania, New York and Johannesburg, Zinzi Clemmons takes on big subjects. She explores cancer, death, race and sex in an unflinching, but not fearless manner. She is fearful. Cancer is frightening and relentless. Dying is painful and sordid. Racism is all around. And sex can be dangerous.

Zinzi Clemmons. Photo: Nina Subin

Thandi, as a light-skinned African American woman, challenges the way others see her. She describes herself as a ‘strange in-betweener’, one who never feels accepted. Her mother warns her not to make friendships with women whose skins are darker than her own, stating that, inevitably, envy will lead to rancour.

As she matures, Thandi chooses white boyfriends, often freckled and/or red haired. Clemmons doesn’t draw the obvious conclusion – that Thandi is attracted to those at the very end of the continuum between whiteness and blackness. But it may be that she would love to be, like these boyfriends, definitely something. Others are constantly confused by her appearance. Is she black? Or Spanish? Or Asian? Or Jewish? At one time or another she is assessed as all of these. She’s told that she’s not a ‘real black person’.

In terms of the boyfriends, there are gentler passages about skin and stroking but, on the whole, the descriptions of sex are pretty graphic. The language she uses is coarse and direct. Thandi loves sex and gets a lot of it, one way or another. It’s not a novel for the prudish.


The most important role in life is, Thandi believes, that of a mother. The account of her beloved mother’s death from breast cancer, is gruelling. No detail is omitted. And the void left by her mother’s absence is at the centre of the novel. Numbly she and her father mourn her, surrounded by dust and take-away cartons.

In looking at motherhood Clemmons discusses the extraordinary iteration of Winnie Mandela, otherwise known as Ms Madikizela-Mandela, who was involved, alongside the Mandela United Football Club, in the torture and murder of youths. Clemmons moralises that maternal models are inappropriate for peace-keeping.

Winnie Mandela with some members of the MUFC.  Image: BBC World Service

Other examples of the real world intrude. Political events such as Obama’s election are documented. These do not seem to be inserted to provide a contextual time-line, but rather to make some sort of philosophical point about life and death in a fundamentally racist world. It’s mannered and is a bit of a stretch from the overarching memorial/ memoir tone of the novel.

Image: allafrica

What We Lose is, perhaps, an attempt to emulate or match Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s work, such as Americanah: a love/hate song to Adichie’s two countries, America and Nigeria. It doesn’t really succeed though, for three reasons.

Firstly, it is too much like the sort of autobiographical piece submitted to ‘true story’ women’s magazines, entitled I Lost My Mum to Cancer or I Know What You’re Thinking When You Look At Me.


Secondly, although the blurb describes the book as moving and emotional, it really isn’t. The characters do not ring true. Even Thandi herself, a protagonist who is supposed to be entirely self-centred, is lacking in personality.

Finally, the prose is fragmented. The style is more blog or notebook. Chapters are so short as to be mere paragraphs. Linear chronology is sacrificed leaving the reader floundering. It almost seems like a series of creative writing exercises have been cut and pasted.  It’s a shame because Clemmons probably does have interesting things to say about cancer, death, race and sex. Perhaps she needs to move away from what seems to be fictionalised autobiography to achieve that.

Works cited

Ngozi Adichie, C. Americanah.  Alfred A. Knopf. 2013. Print.

Clemmons, Z. What We Lose. 4th Estate. 2017. Print.

A version of this review was first published on page 36 of  the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on 22nd July 2017. 





Is the pope a Catholic? Martin Luther was

Martin Luther: Catholic Dissident by Peter Stanford. 

Peter Stanford’s name will not be unfamiliar to readers of the Telegraph or the Guardian/Observer, as both titles publish his work. He seems to specialise in writing on religion, particularly Catholicism; writing obituaries, particularly those of Catholic prelates; and writing about prisons, particularly in terms of the Longford Trust and penal reform.

Some of Stanford’s published books

Stanford lives in North Norfolk and attends mass at his local Roman Catholic church. Communion is administered by an ex-Anglican married priest. The celebrant preferred to convert to papacy rather than work alongside women priests and bishops in the Church of England. Stanford’s biography concerns another man of principle, although it was papal abuses against which Luther stood firm.


The introduction plays on the legend that Luther’s career in the church began when he was terrified, having been caught out in the open by a violent and cacophonous thunderstorm. He was so frightened that he promised Saint Anne, the Holy Virgin’s mother, he would become a monk.

Whilst dismissing the credulity of the tale, Stanford creates, for himself, an elaborate conceit: he is in Wittenberg, soaked to the skin by a storm, sheltering in a doorway, sequestering a Playmobil model of Martin Luther in his drenched pocket. He is then welcomed – even though a Catholic – into Luther’s own church, the Stadtkirche, by the Lutheran Rev. Cliff Winter from Wichita, Kansas. You couldn’t make it up. Or could you?


Whatever the accuracy or exaggeration of the story, it’s a good one and a warm reception to a text which looks like it might be quite challenging. Lucas Cranach’s 1529 portrait of Martin Luther, which graces the cover, shows a serious face with thin determined lips. We know that Luther’s life will be a series of acts of courage resulting in privation and excommunication. There won’t be many jokes along the way. Well, have you heard the one about the Diet of Worms?

Luther’s ideas contributed to a century of religious wars followed by centuries of internecine conflict, culminating in 1999 with the ‘Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification during the Catholic-Lutheran talks at the Vatican. Justification by faith was the central issue for Luther: faith, or love of and belief in Christ, was the only way to salvation. The ‘95 Theses’ is a list of short debating points on the subject of indulgences.


Luther was disgusted by the contemporary habit of buying indulgences. These, sold by the church, could be used to ensure one’s own, or a loved one’s, place in heaven. But Luther believed that indulgences had no power and were corrupt. When Luther’s ‘95 Theses’ arrived in Rome the Vatican was using the money raised to build St. Peter’s. Luther suggests that Leo X, who was as rich as Croesus, should pay for the cathedral himself. That is the content of thesis 86.


Luther also took exception to four of the seven sacraments.  He approved of the Eucharist, of child baptism and of confession. These three he thought were the only ones coming directly from Christ. Also they bring the believer closer to God. Additionally they cannot be manipulated by powerful priests. Confirmation, marriage, holy orders and extreme unction did not make the cut. As can be seen these excisions would have reduced the role and power of the Catholic clergy.

Leo X. Raphael.

Leo X dismissed Luther’s ideas and refused to enter into discussion or debate. Demands were made that Luther recant and when he did not he was excommunicated in 1521. Frustrated and disappointed, Luther and a growing band of dissenters broke free of Roman Catholicism and set up the Lutheran Church.

What is there to celebrate in 2017? According to Stanford, Europeans owe Luther a ‘debt’ because he broke ‘the stranglehold of the late medieval Catholic Church over all aspects of life, religious or otherwise; for his championing of ideas of individual responsibility, freedom of conscience and worship; and for showing how powerful, well-entrenched elites can be confronted and vanquished, if only you have the courage’.

Lucas Cranach

Wittenberg is getting itself spruced up to welcome, this coming October, international visitors on the 500th anniversary of the legendary nailing of ‘95 Theses’ to the church door. This might not have happened – printing presses were Luther’s preferred medium.

Visitors won’t get to hear one of Luther’s, two thousand, sometimes ‘sublimely beautiful’, sermons. But they will see Cranach’s vast altarpiece, with Luther, disguised behind a beard, taking the Eucharist at the Last Supper! It’s a metaphor, I suppose. Although, Stanford suggests that Luther was, even in his lifetime, seen as important as one of the apostles. Apparently, Luther’s riposte was that he was nothing but ‘a stinking afterthought’.

Lucas Cranach

During the celebrations, the congregants might hear a service in English or German. That was another of the great achievements of Luther’s life: the translation of the Bible from Latin into the vernacular. This is good as it means people will be able to understand the special prayers, prepared for the occasion, by the Lutheran World Federation and the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity.

One prayer hopes that there will be time ‘to experience the pain over failures and trespasses, guilt and sin in the persons and events that are being remembered’. Are those being remembered people like Martin Luther and Leo X?

Another reads, ‘Thanks be to you for the good transformations and reforms that were set in motion by the Reformation or by struggling with its challenges’. Well, it may not have the beauty or poetry of the language of the King James Bible but you can see the point. The prayer acknowledges Luther’s achievement in starting a movement that, even though it did not intend to, might have saved Roman Catholicism from entropy.


Stanford extols work done by the scholar, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later to be Benedict XVI. As pope, he spoke in 2008 at St. Peter’s, Rome saying ‘Being just simply means being with Christ and in Christ, and this suffices. Further observations are no longer necessary. For this reason, Luther’s phrase “faith alone” is true’. This was an extraordinary, and long overdue, acknowledgement of Luther’s argument. All he ever wanted was debate and discussion but he was vilified and hounded.

In 2010 Benedict visited a sacred place. It was a ‘former Augustinian monastery, at Erfurt’. Luther was a scholar there. The Pope said, ‘We should give thanks to God for all the elements of unity which he has preserved for us and bestows on us anew”. But Luther remains excommunicated. Would he mind?


Stanford wonders what Martin Luther might have thought of the Catholic Church today. He feels that Luther would have admired the way that the Catholics have reformed themselves from within. It has taken generations but finally, Stanford suggests, they have arrived at a solution not unlike Luther’s recommendations 500 years ago. He says that Luther was ‘a man for his own age, but also for every age since, right up to the current day’.

Peter Stanford

Stanford is an excellent writer able to explain theology and present it as exciting and vibrant. He also finds some jokes.

Works cited

Stanford, P. Martin Luther: Catholic Dissident. London: Hodder and Stoughton. 2017.

A version of this review was first published on pages 34 and 35 in the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on 15th July 2017.  It is reproduced here by permission of the editor.

Unquiet flows the blood.

Bridge over Blood River: The rise and fall of the Afrikaners by Kajsa Norman 


Kajsa Norman, camping out in 2011, near Blood River in Kwa-Zulu-Natal, is unprepared for a fierce storm. Approached by a group of macho-looking Afrikaans-speaking men her English is ignored until she explains that she is Swedish. As a Scandinavian she proves close enough to their ancestral country of Holland to merit some friendly help. They beef up her tent and welcome her to the celebrations of 16th December. It’s the anniversary of the Battle of Blood River 1838.

More than 170 years previously, on the same site, a group of almost 500 Voortrekkers faced a more intense peril. They awoke to find their laagered waggons surrounded by thousands of Zulu warriors.   Soon after dawn, with the aid of buckshot-filled muskets and cannon, about 3,000 spear-carrying Zulus lay dead, leaving three Afrikaners wounded, but all their victors alive. And thus the Battle of Blood River and 16th December entered the cultural lexicon of the Afrikaners.


Norman’s main interest, as a journalist, is conflict zones. Whilst South Africa is not exactly a theatre of war the country is regarded as very dangerous.

In the cities the black and white middle classes live in guarded compounds and carry weapons in their expensive cars. They do not drive at night and do not stop at traffic lights. There is little confidence in the police.


Norman attempts to embed herself in the segregated world of the Afrikaner: a world that has remained steadfastly closed to uitlanders since 1838. Reluctantly some accept her visits although she frequently comes across hardliners who will greet her in English once and then become silent waiting for her to speak Afrikaans.

She learns that one response to the current situation seems to emulate their forebears’ triumph at Blood River where, forming their crescent of wagons into a ‘shield wall’, they protected themselves from the enemy. Such a phenomenon is the republic of Orania.

images-4.jpegMiles away from anywhere, amid arid lands, pioneers have built a ‘European’ outpost.

One of their leaders states, ‘after World War Two, Algeria had three million white French. They are all gone. The Belgians who used to live in the Congo are all gone.   The Portuguese are gone. The English are gone. The Afrikaners are the last European people remaining in Africa’. The town council is aiming for a population of 20,000 in the next 20 years but recognises that 300,000 to 500,000 would be needed for a viable state.

Daily life in Orania is god-fearing and austere. Everyone is expected to work hard physically and the concept of Kafferwerk (having someone else do your work) is despised. At the petrol station white attendants fill the tanks of passing vehicles be the passengers white or black. But there can be no black or coloured residents.


Watching families at leisure Norman finds them ‘almost nauseatingly happy’. She likens their milieu to Stepford, from Ira Levin’s novel The Stepford Wives. What is attractive about Orania is its wholesomeness, its rejection of greed and acceptance of sufficient. What is less desirable is its eschewal of everything that is not Afrikanerdom.

images-4.jpegElsewhere Norman finds other enclaves. There are still many Afrikaners working farms with the ‘help’ of black workers. According to the farmers these farmhands are unreliable and often fail to turn up to look after the stock. And, on the isolated properties, vicious farm attacks are frequent. Every farmer fears for his life and those of his family.

‘I don’t feel safe staying here anymore. It makes me uncomfortable’ says one farmer’s daughter. This woman’s life has been quite different from the accepted norm for Afrikaner women, and would, by most of her peers, be seen as shameful.

620x349.jpegHaving spent many years on cruise ships she returns home to her father, pregnant and rejected by the captain. Her father, taking her back into his home, thanks God for the fact that the child turns out to be ‘a blond and blue-eyed little rugby player who helps his grandpa care for the animals on the farm’.

Some Afrikaner farmers have left their home country to seek their fortunes in the Congo. On arrival these skilled farmers receive land and tax exemptions. Their new land is much more fertile than that in South Africa, making farming more productive. Other African countries attracting these commercial farmers are Zambia, Ghana, Somalia, Namibia, Botswana, Angola and Mozambique. There is a new form of Trekboer.

There seems to be a tension in Afrikaner culture. They respect the trekking instinct. Treks traditionally took place to find and establish ethnically homogenous free states. But as each settlement broke down or was destroyed there was a need to trek again. There is the need for movement and the opposing need for stasis.

Challenges to the Afrikaner race have come from commercial and political sources. If diamonds or gold were found on their land the Afrikaners would find their freedoms curtailed – mainly by English mining companies, supported by English government policies. Antipathy towards the English was rife, particularly as it was thought that the English could just go back home if things got difficult.


There was, however, for the Afrikaner, only one homeland. The ‘Afrikaner language, history, traditions, calling and culture had all originated in South Africa and there was a strong sense of belonging attached to the soil’.

This feeling came to a head in 1939 when many Afrikaners sided with Germany in the hope that, after the Second World War, it would help them establish a viable republic.

Unknown.jpegThey founded the Ossewabrandwag, a pro-Nazi para-military organisation which had an elite wing called the Stormjaers.   The centenary of the Battle of Blood River made pride in the Voortrekker particularly acute.   Afrikaners had redoubled their belief in ‘self-reliance and a willingness to fight for survival’.

Given their historical relationship with the English it is unsurprising that Afrikaners opposed the Allies. Back in 1880 on their iconic date of 16th December, the Afrikaners had declared the Transvaal independent. Because of their annexing, for mineral rites, all the Boer republics except the Orange Free State, the English now were challenged to fight the first Anglo-Boer War, culminating in victory for the Afrikaners.

Paul-Kruger11.jpgTheir leader, Paul Kruger, ‘compared Afrikaners to the Israelites of the Old Testament – a people of God, fighting both black and white enemies to achieve their Promised Land’. But soon gold was discovered near Johannesburg and in 1899 the Second Anglo-Boer War began.   This time, through the deployment of a scorched earth policy as well as the use of concentration camps (in which 26,000 died) the British won.

Norman’s book shows Afrikaners to be a racist, cultish, tribal people, but in this fascinating tapestry, wefted by history and warped by anecdote, she also finds compassion for their plight.

Unknown.jpegIn the epilogue she writes movingly of the unfinished structure in Blood River, a bridge designed to connect Afrikaner and Zulu heritage sites to make one united cosmopolis. Bridge building equals assimilation and assimilation is anathema to Afrikaners.

Works cited

Norman, K. Bridge over Blood River: the rise and fall of the Afrikaners. 2016. London: C. Hurst & Co. Print.


A version of this review was first published in the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner in the Weekend section on 17th June 2017.  



Queueing with Elephants

The Sacred Combe by Simon Barnes

FOR Simon Barnes the sacred combe is the Luangwa Valley in Zambia. It is a place to which he returns regularly, sometimes for as long as two months. Here he experiences a ‘wildness’ that he feels is essential to happiness, and, indeed, humanness. In the combe Barnes finds patience and serenity, which are not generally aspects of his character. He describes himself as one who suffers ‘the agonies of the damned at any hint of delay’.


He also discovers that he can be brave although he dismisses this as hardly worthy of the word. It is not brave, he says, to feel and overcome fear if one sleeps in a tent, as he does, in lion and elephant country. A chapter of the book is entitled ‘Some African Animals that Can Kill You’. It consists of 18 words, one of which is human. Also listed are lion, leopard, hippo, buffalo, Nile crocodile, black rhino, white rhino, puff adder, black mamba, elephant, mosquito tsetse. You need to be brave then.


This list is typical of Barnes’s informal style. The Sacred Combe reads like a collection of blogs. I think that is exactly what it is. Looking on his website, his most recent blogs about Luangwa are dated November 2016. One, posted on the 2nd describes him looping round a trio of lions on his way back to camp.


Barnes is a prolific writer. He spent over 30 years on The Times (London) as a sportswriter and wildlife columnist. He has written more than 20 books. So writing comes easily to him. But what he has attempted in this book is beyond reportage.  Barnes links his love of the African valley with his memories of childhood. He writes of the books he read and the heroes he chose and comes to see that his boyhood and Luangwa represent a similar type of lost innocence.



They are redolent of greenwood, an Eden, a time when everything was simple. Sitting on a riverbank, mere yards from three replete lionesses, all four of them dangling their legs over the water, reminds Barnes of a family picnic by the river Eden, in which the water sparkled and he, as an eight year old, swam. The problem is that Barnes could not swim at that time so he knows the idyllic memory is false. Whereas the present can still be perfect if he goes to his combe. It was sublime on 20th November when he was stopped in his tracks by a small herd of elephants and had to wait patiently for them to move on, which in the end they didn’t.



Barnes compares his first visit to the valley, when elephants ate the roof of his house, with falling in love. He suggests that the marvellous moment cannot be sustained but that returning as he has many times to the beloved place enables him to get to know and love it better and more deeply, even if not so ecstatically. Rather like his love for his wife, Cindy, to whom he has been married for over thirty years.


Luangwa remains as it is only because of conservation. This is fed by tourism. It is as unreal a world as that of Robin Hood or Mowgli. The ‘lions and tigers and bears, oh my’ may be fierce and unpredictable but they are preserved in a wildlife park rather than roaming free throughout the world. Those, which are not shot by guns are shot by cameras. It’s a bit like WestWorld with no robots. Nevertheless the combe, enclosed by escarpments, is still there and provides a safe-haven for wildlife and troubled humans. And you can go there too for about €8500 in September 2018. Unfortunately Barnes’s, 2017 trip is already fully booked. Or you could stick to your own sacred combe in West Cork, perhaps?

Works cited

Barnes, S. The Sacred Combe. Bloomsbury. 2016