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.


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.


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.


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


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.

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”.

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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”.

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.

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 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

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 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.

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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.


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.

A shared history: Dadland








Dadland by Keggie Carew is subtitled a journey into uncharted territory.  But in some ways this memoir is not ‘uncharted territory’ for me as I am almost of an age with its author and my father was born only six months after her father, Tom.  And Keggie, an artist, has, like me, lived in County Cork.

Both our beloved and eccentric fathers are now dead and we are both bruised by grief.  All we have are memories and a few photographs.  Many of the black and white pictures that litter the text of Dadland could have been in our family’s albums. The two above show Keggie’s parents in the 1940s. The images below are of my parents, Alan and Nancy Smith, during and after the Second World War.
Josephine and Alan Fenton.jpgAlanFenton.jpgJosephineFentonduringwar.jpg

There is also photograph of the cold winter of 1963, showing Keggie’s family, standing by a snowman, that is unbearably recognisable.CvNeGDLWEAAx5Xd.jpg

My mother’s coat, my mother’s hat, my mother’s ankle boots and my scratchy dufflecoat!LittleJosephine.jpg  It’s almost as if my life appears in these pages.  This is the only version of that  image that I can find online, showing Keggie and Tom; Keggie’s mother, Jane, has been cropped. And here is one of me in the snow.

But then the territory becomes uncharted since her family experiences are far more extreme than mine. During the Second World War Tom Carew was in the Special Operations Executive F Section and was parachuted into France and then Burma in small self-selected teams to train resistance groups and organise guerrilla warfare. Having been born in 1919 in Dublin, Keggie’s father was known as the “mad Irishman” and also thought to have “the luck of the Irish”.

Tom’s father, Arthur, returned from serving in the Royal Navy in the First World War to an Ireland of Big Houses in which he was employed to look after the horses. Arthur impregnated Maud, a young widow and a lady of the house, and in 1921, after Chute House and Warren House were inflagrated, he left for Cambridge, England with Maud and three children, of whom, only Tom, aged one, was his own. On the day they left, Tom’s half brother remembers, “all the sheep on the farm were slung around the perimeter fence of the house with their throats slit”. Reprisal-torn Ireland was a hostile environment for a man, formerly employed in the British Armed Services and currently in a liaison with a member of the gentry.

Tom’s allegiance was never to his birth country nor to Britain where he grew up but to the Jeds. The Jedburghs were a special unit, originally set up as a collaboration between the British, French and Americans, to be sent to France to cut railway lines, blow up bridges, destroy communications and report on enemy positions as well as other acts of derring-do. Anti-authoritarian as he was, Tom Carew blossomed behind lines, winning the Croix de Guerre and the Distinguished Service Order; of which he was apparently the youngest recipient. And he revelled in the danger and the discomfort.

saboteurs.jpgAfter France Tom went to Burma and fell in love with the Burmese, later calling them “small, highly independent, thoroughly badly treated, swamped, beautiful people”. He hated the establishment British colonials, regarding them, his daughter thinks in the same way that George Orwell presents them in Burmese Days. The young Irish lieutenant-colonel saw them as “pompous British… trying to cling onto an alien land”.

But after the war Tom Carew was never the same again. He swapped unmitigated success for repeated failure as an employee and as a husband and, even, as a father. Keggie Carew writes with unremitting honesty about the chaotic nature of their family life, economic and emotional impoverishment; their mother eventually institutionalised in a psychiatric hospital in Hampshire. In among the days of avalanches of bills dropping onto the doormat, however, there are memories of wonderful family camping holidays in Spain.

images.jpegShe writes of doomed lobsters in a concrete pool and of surfing being a “heaven-sent pursuit”. Even reading these descriptions I felt a sense of sadness as she says, “Tearing along the shallows, then being dumped on hard wet sand… Yes, this is the time I would go back to, that moment, right then.”

Dadland is not only sad and not only exciting but it is also farcical. Peeing is, Keggie says, “a theme with Dad. When he was living in a Bedford van in London he “drilled a hole through the metal floor into which he slotted a funnel”. After some time the van began to “pong” and Tom discovered that the floor had a double skin. He had been storing his urine in the bowels of his van!

Keggie Carew’s “uncharted territory” in Dadland is her father’s life. He is sinking into the mire of dementia, desperately writing notes to himself:


TOM CAREW’S Brain is collapsing



Brain is ‘switching’

switching away from ‘memory’

memory of people and their names

so you write me off???

not necessarily  

I invent – Yes I do – come to my new HUT.

Wednesday 28 July


and notes to others giving his name but telling them he can’t remember theirs.




rsz_img_1415(1).jpgKeggie tries to retrieve her father’s life as he forgets it and in this effort she fills a shed with papers dredged up from relatives’ attics and copied from the National Archives at Kew and the Imperial War Museum. It is a huge undertaking requiring research into two separate theatres of the Second World War in both of which her father’s work was clandestine. After the war he was sometimes working undercover. Then there are his three marriages all of which were problematic and caused fissures in family relationships. As Keggie writes, “secrets of these kind get buried deep”.

Reflecting the vast amount of material, Dadland is long. The structure is not chronological but like a film with flashbacks. It has been divided into many chapters under section headings such as Dad is a Spy and Mum is a Pakistani, Surprise, Kill and Vanish, and Your Father is a Bastard. The narrative voice changes between academic for the war sections and slangy for the family sections. But the narrative arc is clever – almost like a detective novel – as Keggie follows clues and reveals the answers for herself and her readers.

Unknown.jpegKeggie saves the best until the end: “Since Dad died he had been in a Barry’s Irish Tea caddy on a shelf in my shed”. The story of what happens to these ashes is one of many hilarious yet moving moments in Dadland. I wish Tom Carew well in his final resting place and, in recommending this book as marvellous, send his daughter an accolade.

Works cited

Carew, K. Dadland. Chatto and Windus.  2016

Orwell, G. Burmese Days. Harper. 1934.

NB A version of this review was first published in the Irish Examiner (p37 of ‘Weekend’) on 29th October 2016.