Adventures of a Young Naturalist

Adventures of a Young Naturalist: The Zoo Quest Expeditions – David Attenborough

Unknown.jpegIf there was ever an English treasure who is not Mary Berry, it is David Attenborough. He even saw off Boaty MacBoatface to get his name on a polar science vessel. We all love his dulcet tones as he strides, slightly unsteadily now, over tundra and desert. We chat excitedly around the water cooler about the best or the funniest moments. He seems not to have put a foot wrong in his 91 years.

But, have we been snoozing in the last five decades? Attenborough used to be an animal trapper. He used to ship creatures back to Regent’s Park in unsuitable travelling crates and with inadequate diets. He once had to dig for worms in a tulip bed at Amsterdam airport to feed a starving coatimundi kitten. Hours later he handed it over to London Zoo for lifelong incarceration. He smuggled a bag of scorpions, spiders and snakes into the passenger cabin of an international flight. These activities would not be acceptable in 2017 but in the 1950s they were seen as charming and exciting.

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Filming and recording egrets.  Image: BBC.

Up to 1954 animal programmes on TV consisted of zookeepers bringing more or less vicious animals into brightly lit studios in which they would crouch in a paralysis of fear or try to injure their captors with teeth and claws. So Attenborough and his peers persuaded the BBC and London Zoo to collaborate in funding expeditions to Guyana, Indonesia and Paraguay in order to capture and kidnap living creatures. This was the birth of Zoo Quest.

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Attenborough chases a giant anteater.  Image: BBC.

In Guyana carnivores and omnivores were in worse peril than herbivores since the latter often consume only one specific plant, one that cannot easily be supplied in the UK. These species, mercifully, had to be filmed in situ and then released back into their natural habitat.

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Thus the three-toed sloth, with a baby in her left armpit, escaped with nothing worse than the humiliation of being unwrapped from her branch and filmed using her evolutionarily adapted limbs, not for hanging, but instead for hauling herself clumsily along the ground, like a fish out of water. Hilarious footage.

Less fortunate was a manatee. This enormous sea mammal was slung into a water lorry before being immersed in a ‘canvas swimming bath on one of the decks of the ship’. She ended up all alone in a ‘crystal clear pool’ in a London aquarium far, far away from the muddy Guyanese river estuary whence she came.

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But it would be unfair to criticise the youthful Attenborough. He was of his time. The three Zoo Quest books included in this volume have been out of print for many years and it is only now that they are republished, presumably in time for Christmas sales as well as to run alongside the Blue Planet II series.

It is honourable that Attenborough does not attempt to whitewash or rewrite what was done in the quest for knowledge and understanding. In spite of the terror and suffering undergone by some of his specimens it cannot be doubted that curators at London Zoo learnt more about conservation. And the television-viewing public began to appreciate how wildlife interacts with humans and habitat. It was the dawn of the Attenborough franchise.

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Attenborough and his tiny team of peers were brave and indefatigable. They dealt with endless and frustrating bureaucracy as they sought permission and permits for their antics. Struggling with tiny budgets and skeleton numbers they endured extreme discomfort and sometimes danger. Their equipment was almost always inadequate and often broken. They lived on their wits.

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Attenborough holds a 12′ python. Image: BBC.

In Indonesia, determined to capture a large python, Attenborough explained to a group of Javanese volunteers how to manage its head, tail and intervening coils. At the end of the lesson everyone melted into the forest except a boy and an old man. On arrival at the location Attenborough leapt into a tree, sawed off the branch around which the snake curled and gave the order for immediate capture. As snake and branch crashed to the ground his companions froze in horror leaving our hero to manage both ends of the 12ft snake and stuff them into a bag.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03rv2r8/player

The context for these adventures is provided by summaries of the political, economic and geographical qualities of the regions visited.

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Attenborough records and plays back local colour.  Image: BBC.

Film and sound tapes were used to record the routines and rituals of the indigenous peoples. Some villagers donated their own pets to Attenborough’s itinerant menagerie whilst others mounted expeditions to collect desirable specimens. One such received four cigarettes for a gourd full of common or garden millipedes. These were later released back into the forest.  But transactions in coloured glass beads or salt cakes resulted in an ever-growing pile of inhabited cages destined for base camp and onwards across the ocean.

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On the gun-runner’s boat to Komodo. Image: BBC.

The search for the Komodo dragon was challenging. The beasts themselves were easily tempted by the smell of rotting goat. They were filmed and one was lured into a cage. But in the run-up Attenborough and two friends were becalmed at sea with a gunrunner. Later whilst the expeditionaries were away from camp this man tried to recruit Komodans to travel onwards with the party and relieve Attenborough et al of their worldly goods and the BBC of its equipment.

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At sea with a baby orang-utan. Image: BBC.

The episode does not end happily. Although the Indonesian authorities allow the export of a baby bear, a young orang-utan, pythons, civets, birds and so on, the dragon itself is interned. His fate is left unexplained but it seems unlikely that he was returned to his natural home. Attenborough acknowledges that even had the large lizard reached a haven in London he would ‘never have appeared to anyone else as he did to us that day on Komodo when we turned round to see him a few feet away, majestic and magnificent in his own forest’. Exactly so.

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The third and final destination is Paraguay. South America, like Australia, retains some surviving species from past geological ages because at one point they became detached from other continents. Although South America is currently reattached to the north it still retains the armadillos, anteaters, sloths and opossum of the age of the Edentates.

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Attenborough displays an armadillo in the Zoo Quest studio.  Image: BBC.

Attenborough brought 14 armadillos back to England including four different species. But the Giant Armadillo eluded him in spite of herculean efforts. The first one he ever saw had reached London Zoo by way of a Birmingham rare animal dealer who had bought him in Guyana. According to his keeper and Attenborough the antediluvian creature, ‘ambling up and down his den’ is ‘nice’.

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Attenborough with an armadillo in the wild.  Image: BBC.

The colour film negatives were never shown on TV as it was then a black and white medium but extracts, including the python hunt, have recently been shown on BBC4. Some clips are available on the network’s webpage interspersed with commentary by Sir David himself. It’s moving to watch the 26 year old cavorting about whilst the nonagenarian knight of the realm amusedly critiques his younger self.

Works cited

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03ttl3p/player

Attenborough, D. Adventures of a Young Naturalist: The Zoo Quest Expeditions. Two Roads. 2017.

A version of this review was first published on pages 33 and 34 in the Weekend supplement of the Irish Examiner on November 18th 2017.  It is republished here by permission of the Editor.

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The Best Prime Minister we never had?

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 The Nearly Man

First Confession: A sort of Memoir by Chris Patten

Chris Patten, long-serving Conservative Member of Parliament, Home Rule Secretary of State in Northern Ireland, ex-governor of Hong Kong and now Chancellor of the University of Oxford is, perhaps, an enigma. Whenever there seems to be a pigeonhole in which to slot him a ‘but’ appears. He just is different from his friends and colleagues. He is a grandee who isn’t grand. He is a Conservative but not right wing. He is liberal but not a Liberal.

greenford-1950s.jpgGreat grandson of Patrick from County Roscommon, Patten was born in 1944 in Greenford, West London, where he and his elder sister were brought up in modest surroundings. It would appear that it was his brain that launched Patten on his route to success.

images-3.jpegHe won scholarships to school and university. There he was taught by excellent teachers and became a passionate historian. He admires cleverness and often comments on colleagues who are really clever, or, indeed, not as clever as they think they are.

In 1965 he chose to work for the Conservative Research Department turning down a job as a graduate trainee at the BBC. Everyone thought he was foolish. But, between graduating (Balliol College, Oxford) and this decision Patten had won the Coolidge Atlantic Crossing Fellowship and spent a year in the US ending up fund-raising for a Republican mayoralty campaign in New York. Politics had found its way into his blood and was not going to budge. In spite of this infestation Patten still looks to history rather than political philosophy to define his views.

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For Patten, the concept of Conservatism comes from Irish philosopher Edmund Burke’s rejection of the French Revolution. He endorses Burke’s ‘opposition to utopianism and political blueprints’ and his objection to an ‘excessively rationalist approach to life’. This latter is important to Patten who was raised as a Catholic and is still practising. He feels that as a society people should respect their forebears and traditions in addition to looking forward to the future of their children. He sees these values as within Burke’s ideals of ‘patriotism, defence of the Crown, country and national interest’ as well as ‘defence of property and of order’.

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Another of Patten’s heroes is the long-serving Conservative minister, Rab Butler, who ‘never quite became Prime Minister’. Patten thinks that Butler ‘should have got the job’. This is often mooted about Patten himself: ‘the best Tory Prime Minister we never had’. He underlines the morality and charitableness of Butler, describing him as a ‘consummate man of public affairs’ and quoting Butler’s claim that he knew ‘how to govern the people of this country’. Patten would probably apply a similar description to himself.

Perhaps the most interesting phases of Patten’s career are the two spent in Belfast. The chapter detailing these is named Crazy Irish Knots. As usual he introduces his analysis of the political situation with a potted history culminating in the 1916 Easter Rising which, he says, looked to the Northern Irish like ‘an Irish and Catholic stab in the back’. There was, after all, the First World War to be fought.

Patten felt that the North had ‘turned its Britishness into a sacred identity that most of the rest of Britain could barely recognise or comprehend’. He was uncomfortable with this and is disturbed now to see a rise of Nationalism in Great Britain and other parts of the world. He is scathing about most of the political behaviour on both sides of the border during the twentieth century, although he also acknowledges mainland culpability. The Northern Irish were not that keen on Patten either, when, with his British Irish Heritage and Catholicism, he took, in 1983, the post of Parliamentary Secretary.

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It sounds like quite a fun job – apart from the guilt of raising the ‘Peace Wall’ by one and a half metres. He says he ‘built houses, opened health facilities, conserved buildings, ran a railway and spent the public’s money pretty well’. There were difficulties over the nomenclature of ‘Stroke City’. On Patten’s watch the city, remaining Londonderry, found itself inside Derry District Council. Stating ‘you could not make it up’ Patten adds wryly that he was rebranded too: ‘the Minister of Treachery’

images-3.jpegIn 1997 Patten returned to Belfast to become chair of the Independent Commission of Policing in Northern Ireland. This was to prove a more knotty problem. The Royal Ulster Constabulary was regarded as Protestant and Unionist. Patten was asked to develop a police force which ‘is seen as an integral part of the community as a whole’. Only 8% of the RUC were Catholic then but 20 years later 30% of the officers of the Police Service of Northern Ireland are, more closely reflecting the proportions of the population. Other than balancing recruitment Patten felt that ethos and symbols were central. Badges were redesigned and union flags removed from police stations. Crucially this controversial work was conducted without security, as Patten and his fellow commissioners relied solely on the word of ‘paramilitary terrorists on both sides’, as they visited villages and towns up and down the country and listened to local views.

images-3.jpegDuring a long career Patten worked in many countries and was involved in many conflicts including, when he was a commissioner of the EU, the Balkan War. He worked with China when he was governor in Hong Kong. He worked with American diplomats. He is, he acknowledges, clever and well-informed, although reiterates that he has often met people who are his superior in both these assets. It is worth reading this book as its author sheds light, from a well-versed position, on many of the global political events of the second half of the twentieth, and the first 17 years of the current, century. He seems a thoughtful and reflective man, moderate and deeply suspicious of ideologies and bandwagons.

Using this experience, as well as his historical knowledge, Patten feels able to make strong generalising statements. Bracketing his work in Northern Ireland with his efforts in the Balkans he states ‘identity conflicts, like most others, require for their settlement a combination of force and politics’. He thinks that in ‘Northern Ireland there would never have been peace had not the terrorists in both communities come to understand that the British security effort was not going to run out of patience and energy. Second, in a big conflict, Europe had to work hand-in-hand with the United States. Europeans could not operate on their own’. Reading these words it is clear why Patten is unhappy with the current situation in global politics.

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Patten abhors Brexit and despises Trump. Like many people he feels that everything on which a relatively peaceful world order was based is being undermined. He thinks that lies and mendacity have trumped good sense and collegiality. He despises the tool of referendum as oppositional to democracy, ‘substituting crude majoritarianism for discussion and compromise among those we elect to give us the benefit of their judgement’.

Closing the book with, at 73, a meditation of his life as a Catholic, family man, as well as a British European liberal international Tory, Patten has only one great regret: ‘the result of the EU referendum and what it tells us about the populist perils here, elsewhere in Europe and, alas, in America too’. He ends with the hope that Britain, Europe and America do not fragment what has been ‘one of the most peaceful, prosperous and increasingly tolerant periods in history’.

Works cited:

Pattern, C. First Confession: A Sort of Memoir.  Allen Lane.  2017.

Links to other blogs on Brexit:

Unleashing Demons: the inside story of Brexit by Craig Oliver

https://wordpress.com/post/josephinefenton.wordpress.com/1572

A version of this review was first published in the Irish Examiner on pages 41 and 42 of the Weekend section on 4th November 2017.  It is posted here by permission of the Editor.

How the Irish teach us to die

My Father’s Wake: How the Irish Teach us to Live, Love and Die  by Kevin Toolis.

His legs bestrid the ocean.

It is astonishing that this line from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra does not appear in Kevin Toolis’s book, My Father’s Wake. This may be since Toolis favours quoting from the Iliad, preferring the ancient Greeks, to the English bard. This is not unusual: Irish literati are often fond of the classics as can be seen in great works such as Brian Friel’s Translations or James Joyce’s Ulysses.

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The description of Mark Antony is fitting as Toolis’s legs have, since babyhood, bestrid the ocean that is the Irish Sea. And, his second favourite word, not far behind his absolute favourite – death – is ocean. Toolis prefers ocean to sea to the point of repetitiousness. But this is because he is talking about the Atlantic – the grand ocean that crashes against the west coast of Ireland, and in particular, Achill Island. For Achill Island, although unnamed in the book, is the seat of his ancestors. Toolis, like so many of the diaspora, has a leg in both camps, the West of Ireland and the UK.

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Toolis writes powerfully about the coast ‘where huge Atlantic storms break onshore, scouring the landscape … surging in assault, striking at the rattling roof, the shaking windows, to suck you out, every living soul within, up into the maelstrom’.   He relates how many, most, of his family had, over the years, been driven out of the island by its hostile weather and infertile land. Men and boys had left for the building trade, resulting in the family homestead being abandoned and left to rot.

Toolis himself was brought up in Edinburgh and suffered at an early age from the threat of death. In a chapter headed Intimations – an allusion to Wordsworth’s poem, Intimations of Immortality – Toolis describes his two month incarceration, at the age of eleven, in the Male Chest ward. He was waiting for test results to prove that he merely had tuberculosis and not lung cancer. Men around him coughed and wheezed, visiting the smoking lounge to irritate the surfaces of any bit of lung unexcised by surgery.

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This intimation of his own mortality, along with his brother’s death at 26 from Leukaemia, is what started Toolis on his life long obsession with the phenomenon. He worked with death, mostly as a journalist, in theatres of war, terrorism, mortuaries, famine, AIDs and the Troubles. Toolis became intimate with death, incessantly and intrusively questioning the bereaved until one day he decided that he, like death, had lost all purpose.

The subject of this philosophical memoir is how the Irish prepare for death from an early age. It is centred in rituals of reposing, removal, mass, internment and, especially, wake. Toolis, Irish by heritage, and Scottish by birth, writes critically about the Anglo-Saxon approach to death. He abhors modern habit of hiding behind euphemisms and condemning the moribund to agitated deaths in frenetic hospital wards. He calls this the Western Death Machine.

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Sketch of an Irish Wake 1873. Image: Irish Central

In the first chapter, Mortalities, Toolis’s father is dying. Surrounding the bed the family and neighbours pray, chant, and keen in unison as if they were one sorrowing creature not separate selves. Interspersed through the rest of the book are chapters returning to the deathbed, the death and the aftermath. Toolis celebrates the fact that on Achill, when someone dies, hundreds of people, from children to centenarians, participate in what he calls teaching ‘us how to live, love and die’.

Works cited

Toolis, K. My Father’s Wake: How the Irish Teach us to Live, Love and Die.  London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson. 2017.

A version of this review first appeared on page 36 in the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on 14th October 2017.  It is reprinted here by permission of the Editor.

 

 

At Swim One Girl

Turning: A Swimming Memoir

Jessica J. Lee

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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.

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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.

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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’.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Unleashing Demons: the inside story of Brexit by Craig Oliver

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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”.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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”.

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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”.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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”.

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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.

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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 published on 3rd June 2017 and appeared on page 33 and 34 of the Weekend Section of the Irish Examiner.  

Embarrassing Beliefs

The Kingdom by Emmanuel Carrère

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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’.

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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’.

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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.

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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 Man who Created the Middle East

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.