The Best Prime Minister we never had?


 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.


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’.


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.


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.


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

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.


Unleashing Demons: the inside story of Brexit by Craig Oliver


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

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

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

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

Ian McKellan as King Lear 2009.

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

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


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

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

David Cameron: the Telegraph

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

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



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

Craig Oliver with David Cameron. ITV.

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

Unknown.jpeg Unknown-1.jpeg

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

Boris Johnson.  Buzzfeed.


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

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


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

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


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

Craig Oliver.

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.  

The Apprentice of Split Crow Lane:

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


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

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

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

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

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

Chief Constable John Eliot Gateshead County Police.

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

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

Staff at Broadmoor circa 1863: National Archives

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

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

Works cited

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

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


Breakdown: the crisis of shell shock on the Somme, 1916. By Taylor Downing.

In Breakdown Downing attempts to unpack the obfuscation surrounding the syndrome named shell shock in 1916 and post traumatic stress disorder in 2016. 

THERE have always been problems establishing the parity of mental health and physical health. Even today there is a stigma over admitting to any kind of depression or emotional instability.

This is even more extreme in military circles for reasons which are comprehensible if not admirable. Soldiers are trained to function in dangerous circumstances. Solders must stand together and work for their pals as well as ‘King and Country’. They can’t be whining that they are frightened. Or staring into space, eyes bulging from sockets.

Clearly if someone’s leg is blown off they must be returned home. No one can pretend that their leg has gone. But if a mind is frazzled – ah there now – it could be pretence, it could be cowardice.

Military commanders at all levels are tasked to maintain morale.  Personnel with twitches, with muteness, with staring eyes are not helpful. Various approaches to addressing these behaviours were taken.

Pathe news: The Daily Mail

Some officers tried shouting very loudly. Some medical men tried shocking frontal lobes with electricity. Max Kaufman, in Mannheim, tried shocking and shouting both at once. Others merely shot victims as cowards. Shell shock can be a terrible worry during times of war.

Taylor Downing’s book takes as its starting point the Battle of the Somme. He compares incidences of ‘shell shock’ in the British Army before and during the prolonged battle which lasted from July to November 1916. Using materials from military and medical archives Downing attempts to link the particularly bloody and extended battle with a peak in mental breakdowns. His task is nearly impossible due to the fact that the syndrome he is studying is not cut and dried in the way that, for example, facial burn injuries can be documented.


The prologue offers some startling accounts of shell shock in the thick of combat in Delville Wood during the third week of July 1916. Downing quotes at length from a report written by Brigadier Reginald John Kentish on 3rd August. Kentish’s prose is fragmented and ‘convoluted’ almost as if it had been affected by the chaos of battle. So Downing summarises stating that ‘prolonged exposure to intense fire was a major contributory factor … and although it affected individuals one by one, it was also contagious and could spread among an entire unit.’ The idea of shell shock being infectious terrified military leaders. How could they stop the ‘wastage’?

Medical Officers were reporting all sorts of symptoms:

Pathe News: The Daily Mail

Most were suffering from peculiar forms of paralysis. Many were described as having ‘the shakes’. Some could not stand up or walk normally. A few did not appear able to speak coherently and were stammering badly. Others had been struck completely dumb and could not speak at all. Most appeared to be in a state of stupor and a few had completely lost their memory. Others seemed to find it difficult to see clearly. Many had lost their sense of taste or smell. Some vomited repeatedly.

The epidemic of shell shock was a new phenomenon. Quite quickly it was realised that it was partly to do with the passivity of immobile warfare. The noise of gunfire was incessant; sometimes the shells would land in the trenches. Soldiers could do nothing to protect themselves, could take no action. They just had to hope that they would not be hit. Meanwhile friends and comrades were hit and sometimes turned to red mist, or a decapitated head or a legless torso. It is unsurprising that many had breakdowns.

The trickle of shell shocked men returning from the lines became a tumult. If it were to continue to increase it would be impossible to fight the war. But it was hard to diagnose and no easy treatments were available. Opinion was divided between those who wanted to shout at the victims and force them back to their regiments and those who felt that some rest and therapy might help them recover. Additionally who could distinguish between genuine sufferers and malingerers?

By the beginning of the Battle of the Somme on July 1st 1916 the army had identified two types of shell shock. W stood for wounded and S stood for sick. If a soldier’s brain suffered ‘commotional’ damage due to being close to an exploding shell he was W but if, after a period of time under constant pressure, he collapsed then he was S. There was only a small percentage, of Ws compared with Ss. There was also a category used mainly for officers: N for neurasthenia. In greater than proportionate numbers the Ns accompanied the non-commissioned Ws and Ss back across the channel.

Downing notes that official records show ‘that there were 16,138 battle casualties in France from shell shock in the months July to December 1916, over four times more than in the previous six months; and more than ten times greater than in the six months from July to December in 1915’. These figures only included the Ws and Downing thinks that the total figure is more likely to be around 53-63,000.

Medical opinion was veering towards the idea that shell shocked soldiers should not return to England. It was thought better that they be treated in field hospitals as near to the battlefields as possible, although out of hearing of the barrages. The men were to be kept under military discipline. The idea was that after as short a period of rest as possible the recovered patient could, having been given a stern telling off, be sent back to the front.

Image: Paul Grover for the Telegraph.

Downing gives details of men whose nervous state prevented them from conducting themselves well under fire. Some had already been treated for shell shock and then sent back to the trenches. They were usually court martialled and shot as cowards. There would be no pensions for their widows. The records were held secret for 75 years. In 2001 a memorial showing a blindfolded soldier facing a firing squad was erected in Staffordshire and in 2006 a posthumous pardon was given for all executed soldiers (306). It is not clear how many of those shot were shell shock survivors.

In an appendix Downing attempts to give some numerical assessment of the problem. He thinks that about 17% of ‘injuries’ in the Battle of the Somme were mental stress rather than wounds and that about 4% of all soldiers suffered from non-physical trauma.

Readers of Downing’s book may be familiar with the ‘pity’ of war from poets such as Sassoon and Owen; they may be familiar with the ‘treatment’ of ‘shell-shock’ from Pat Barker’s 1990s Regeneration trilogy but here Downing offers an analysis which, by chronicling the military and medical responses to post traumatic stress disorder, reinforces the idea that mental illness is as injurious as physical wounds. Downing obviously found some of what he discovered debilitating and in his acknowledgments he thanks his wife Anne for cheering him up. The book is an essential addition to the history of the First World War. What is depressing, however, is that for similar reasons, military institutions still find it difficult to care for those who mental illness is caused, to a great extent, by battlefield action.

Works cited

Barker, Pat. Regeneration Trilogy.

Downing, T. Breakdown: The crisis of shell shock on the Somme, 1916. Abacus. 2017.

NO doubt they’ll soon get well; the shock and strain
Have caused their stammering, disconnected talk.
Of course they’re ‘longing to go out again,’—
These boys with old, scared faces, learning to walk.
They’ll soon forget their haunted nights; their cowed
Subjection to the ghosts of friends who died,—
Their dreams that drip with murder; and they’ll be proud
Of glorious war that shatter’d all their pride…
Men who went out to battle, grim and glad;
Children, with eyes that hate you, broken and mad.

Siegfried Sassoon: Craiglockart. October, 1917.

An earlier version of this review appeared in the Irish Examiner on pages 33 and 34 of the Weekend Section. 11th March 2017.

Jonathan Swift: The Reluctant Rebel


A Flock of Swifts

Reclaimed, by Irishmen such as Yeats, from the canon of English Literature, Jonathan Swift has become an icon of Irishness and Stubbs’s book provides an insight into the Dubliner who insisted he was English.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In his introduction to this excellent biography John Stubbs is at pains to point out the complexity and contradictions in both the character and the life of Jonathan Swift. Like Yeats, who was born two centuries later, Swift believed in the desirability of a pastoral society run by landed gentry and the Anglican church. He abhorred the burgeoning urban financial centre of London, almost as if its participants were usurers in the temple. Ordained in a high church tradition, Swift despised low, dissenting, Protestantism, as well, of course, as Catholicism.

Arriving from Dublin to London in 1710 Swift, at 43, soon became an important ‘spin doctor’ to Queen Anne’s chief minister, Robert Harley. His work consisted of briefing against members of the former Whig government, which he did with alacrity and vitriol. These unfortunates included the victor of the Battle of Blenheim, the Duke of Marlborough; the former Lord Treasurer, Earl of Godolphin and the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Marquess of Wharton.

Speaking with a patrician voice from which nearly all traces of Irishness had been meticulously eradicated and wearing the orthodox dress of a clerical gentleman, Swift’s impressive public persona disguised altogether another personality.   Known to intimates as Presto, Swift was an incorrigible mischief-maker. There were many more than one Swift.

Possibly “Stella”: Crawford Gallery
Possibly “Vanessa”: Millais

Although marrying neither, he had two close lady friends at this time – one in Dublin, ‘Stella’ (Esther Johnson) and one in London, ‘Vanessa’ (Esther Vanhomrigh). His comportment towards them was respectful and he relied on them for intellectual as well as emotional support. Another, darker side of Swift emerges too – consorting with prostitutes and his scurrilous writings, such as ‘The Lady’s Dressing Room’: a poem dealing with, among other sordid matters, the odours and stains of feminine underwear.



Swift was a stickler for personal hygiene; a habit unusual for the period and he exercised regularly, walking and riding. But his health was not good, suffering as he did from debilitating deafness and often confined to bed by extended fits of vertigo and tinnitus. This ailment was to plague him until the end of his life; exacerbated by several strokes which left him mute as well. But before Stubbs reaches the endpoint he offers over 600 pages documenting Swift’s political and writing career, his avoidance of marriage and his position as a revered Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin.

Obfuscated by lack of evidence, and the differing stories that Swift himself told, is the strange mystery of Whitehaven, Cumbria. As an infant, it seems, Swift was taken, perhaps kidnapped, by his wet nurse, to the small English port. He stayed there for some years, maybe two, maybe three.

On his return, his father having died before his birth and his mother now impoverished, Jonathan was brought up in the Dublin household of his Uncle Godwin. He seems to have been denied affection but was, unsurprisingly, precocious.

It is tempting for biographers and critics to apply modern psychoanalytical techniques to Swift’s life and work and to trace his peculiarities to early emotional trauma, or indeed, a position on the autism spectrum. Medical approaches have suggested that he suffered from syphilis, contracted from streetwalkers. Although, as his father is recorded to have died from this disease it may be that it was congenital.  Stubbs, like others, indulges in this kind of speculation but always gives the caveat that these conclusions are anachronistic and thus unreliable.

Nevertheless it is disturbing to read that after an inauspicious start in life the boy went sent to boarding school in Kilkenny aged “about six”. It is difficult to see how the child, Jonathan, could become an emotionally stable adult.

With an education in the classics under his belt Swift arrived at Trinity College, Dublin in 1682. According to his autobiographical accounts he did not prosper and contemporary college records show many instances of the undergraduate being fined for misdemeanours. The ‘Presto’ side of his character was in ascendant.

In 1689, just too early to take his master’s degree, Swift, along with many other students and faculty, fled to England. The Williamite war had revived, among Protestants, fears of a massacre similar to that carried out by Catholics in 1641. Now 21, Swift became secretary to Sir William Temple, a retired diplomat, who was to familiarise the young man with the mores of English society and politics.

By 1692 Swift was in possession of an MA from Oxford although he had to wait until 1702 to attain a doctorate in divinity from Trinity in Dublin.   In between he took holy orders in the Church of Ireland and was allocated a parish north of Belfast Lough. At this time, and in this location, the role of the Established Church was under siege from Ulster Presbyterians.


In 1696 Swift, perhaps bored and disillusioned, returned to the hearth of Sir William at Moor Park in Surrey.  When his mentor died in 1699 Swift was left adrift until becoming private chaplain to the Earl of Berkeley, who was immediately appointed as a lord justice in Ireland. Swift reluctantly returned to the city of his birth. Here he pursued his clerical ambitions; the path was rocky but eventually he found himself with a seat as a prebendary canon in St Patrick’s Cathedral.

For the next few years Swift continued to hold onto his benefices in Ireland, as well as his position in the retinue of the Berkeley. He travelled to and from England crossing the Irish Sea, always expecting it to swallow him whole. He rode and walked in both countries, visiting his parishes, his relatives and his patron.

He rescued ‘Stella’ from a life of drudgery by settling enough money on her for a move back to Ireland with her friend, Miss Dingley. The two ladies would discreetly follow Swift on his parochial journeys, providing him with companionship. Life was not really too unpleasant.

Then began, in 1710, the four influential years in London. In 1713 Swift was offered, and accepted, the post of senior priest in Dublin, that of Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral. Strange though it may seem he was disappointed by the appointment, having wanted a prestigious deanery in England. But on the death of Queen Anne in 1714, and the subsequent rise of the Whigs, Swift knew that it was time to go back to Ireland.


Thus Swift’s entered into the church and state politics of his homeland.  A nostalgia for an English-country-garden-like Ireland enthralled him. He longed for a “romantic Ireland” that was not “dead and gone” but one that never had nor could exist. Instead he had to engage with the realities of the rise of the Non-Conformists and the Catholics, and to rail against the inadequacy of English policies towards her Irish sister.

He felt obliged, however reluctantly, to rebel against his beloved England, which had served him literally, as well as metaphorically, as a nursery. Ireland, who had birthed and educated him, could now reclaim her son, and, eventually, place the great satirist at the centre of her literary heritage.

John Stubbs

Irish-born Stubbs, is well placed to write Jonathan Swift: The Reluctant Rebel, as he studied English at Oxford and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge. Historical and political context encourages a greater understanding of Swift’s work and detailed analysis of this work reinforces comprehension of the man. Although 25 pages of notes exemplify his academic background, Stubbs has an accessible style and writes beautifully.

Works cited

Stubbs, J. Jonathan Swift: The Reluctant Rebel. London: Penguin Random House. 2016.

An earlier version of this review appeared in The Irish Examiner, Weekend section pages 33 and 34 on 18 Feb 2017.

Darkness Visible




William Blake: Satan exulting over Eve. 1795. Tate Britain.

Reading the opening of The Countenance Divine by Michael Hughes I was struck by the overt crafting of the novel.  I delight in patterns in novels, and I saw, on the flap of the dust jacket, 1999, 1888, 1777, 1666. As well as magical dates there are other important numbers. In the first chapter the sections are divided thus: 01, 02 and so on, and there is also consideration of the Year Two Thousand Problem (Y2K), familiarly known as the Millennium Bug. Binary and four digit numbers are foregrounded but the central pattern is in the form of a gadget.

Unknown.jpegIn 1999 Chris, a computer programmer, purchases, from a stall in Brick Lane, London, this gadget, a Victorian puzzle: a ‘Practical Rebus’. “Each piece had an image or motif painted on it, but together they formed one overall design. The pieces could be interchanged, and every arrangement made a different pattern.”   The puzzle has a profound effect on the seemingly dull protagonist, one that, he seems barely to have the imagination to compass.

If this all seems a bit mannered the artifice does not end there.  In the list of principal characters, divided into sections according to century, one can see both William Blake and John Milton. And in 1888 we encounter Jack the Ripper. Allusions are made to all three in the first chapter, with one of Chris’s Goth colleagues nicknamed Dark Satanic Mills (DSM) after Blake’s famous hymn, ‘Jerusalem’, a section of his longer poem ‘Milton’.

From Hell.pngDSM lends Chris the graphic novel From Hell purportedly based on a letter to authorities from the ‘Ripper’ himself. DSM states that there is “another way of looking at the world, where everything was connected, including the past and the future”. Ah, a clue! Chris is visited by the past in uncomfortable ways. Everything coalesces. As to the future? That would be a spoiler…

It is impossible to accuse the Northern Irish author of laziness. Hughes’s research is thorough and his writing honed by years of study and teaching.

Headlong Website Versions__2399ashm_052 copy - width 1200px.jpg
Michael Colgan in Headlong’s production of Lulu. 2010.

In particular, his rendition of dialogue is masterly, maybe developed by his work as an actor, under the name Michael Colgan.  Hughes moves fluently through the registers of Jack the Ripper, “with tother hand Ile take my knif and stab it in your neck”, William Blake, “my only monument shall be the simple little songs I leave behind”, and Milton, “religion at its most fanatick is almost an evil”. His presentation of Chris, in 1999, is more pedestrian, “He couldn’t’ think.   He did not know what to say”. Form and structure reflect character and era.

The narrative swivels from one century to another, always cross-stitched together with motifs. The key ideas of the novel can be summarised by reference to Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:

“Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.

From these contraries spring what the religious call Good & Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing from Energy.

Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell.”

The Countenance Divine has been compared with Cloud Atlas and Wolf Hall . The admirers of the former will certainly relish his craftsmanship, and those of the latter will enjoy the historical education that Hughes bestows, encouraged to identify factual material and separate it from his imaginative creation. It might seem churlish of me to say that I was not drawn into any of the four narratives as I would not want to dissuade readers from The Countenance Divine. But I would rather read Blake or Milton and, as for Jack the Ripper, I have previously read and seen more about the misogynistic femicides than I can stomach. All the main characters, other than Chris, are renowned, and if you like this genre and these periods of history you may love The Countenance Divine.

Works cited

Blake, W. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.  1794.

Hughes, Michael. The Countenance Divine. John Murray. 2016.

NB A version of this review was first published in the ‘Weekend’ section of the Irish Examiner on 15th October 2016.





How perils of popery led to an alliance with the Islam world


Jay Strongwater: Golden pheasant figurine

But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make

Of hammered gold and gold enamelling

To keep a drowsy emperor awake;

Or set upon a golden bough to sing

To lords and ladies of Byzantium

Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

English readers of This Orient Isle by Jerry Brotton would think of Shakespeare’s lines ‘this sceptred isle … this precious stone set in the silver sea’ from Richard II, but the Irish would probably remember Yeats’s poem Sailing to Byzantium. Like the final stanza of that poem, the pages of the book are filled with references to oriental gold. Ironically, for lovers of Yeats’s poem, Brotton tells of a gift, from Queen Elizabeth I to Sultan Murad III, not the other way around, of a clockwork organ which was played, in 1599, to entertain ‘the lords and ladies of Byzantium’ in the same palace that Yeats chose for his golden mechanical bird. The Sultan was not ‘drowsy’ but delighted, and offered the organ-maker, Thomas Dallam, his choice of the palace concubines. It seems that Dallam merely accepted a bag of gold.

A Portrait of Elizabeth I: Irish Examiner

This Orient Isle explains Elizabeth’s alliances with the Ottoman and Persian Empires as well as the Moroccan Sultanate, relationships which frequently distracted her from her ‘disastrous military campaign to try to crush Catholic rebellion in Ireland’.

Although Brotton does not dwell on it, the narrative suggests many parallels to Europe’s current relations with the Islamic world. As Edward Said points out in his theory of Orientalism, Judo-Christian Europeans often see Muslims as the ‘Other’, as something alien and dangerous. Said argues that because of misunderstanding or ignorance, we cast all Muslims as the enemy in the ‘war on terror’.

Brotton sets out to detail and analyse, the process by which Protestant England, with her queen who was to be excommunicated in 1570, was seeking an alliance with this ‘Other’. England was struggling against against Catholic Spain, France and the Holy Roman Empire who had a stranglehold on trade. In 1566, the Bishop of Winchester wrote ‘the Pope is a more perilous enemy unto Christ, than the Turk: and Popery more idolatrous than Turkery’.

Brown University Library

The English merchants and explorers, like many current Europeans, did not have much of an understanding of Islam; one of them, Anthony Jenkinson explained, in 1558, the difference between Sunni and Shi’a in terms of their facial hair: ‘the Persians will not cut the hair of their upper lips, as the Bukharians and all other Tartars do’. The task of these emissaries, after all, was not theological but mercantile. In pursuit of trade Jenkinson tackled the frozen wastes of the North West Passage and arrived in Persia after a long and hazardous trek via Moscow. He found that the heavy cloth that he offered for sale was of more interest in the cold climes of Russia than in the warmth of Persia where he saw ‘golden and silken garments’.

Another traveller was Henry Roberts, the first English Ambassador to Morocco (1585).  Roberts, who had been a soldier, was settled in Ireland after a period of quashing insurrection. Not only was he reluctant to ‘yield his place’ in Ireland, but he had no experience of trade or diplomacy. Brotton writes that to ‘a soldier like Roberts, used to the monoglot world of England and Ireland and its stark religious divisions between Protestantism and Catholicism, the multi-confessional and polyglot world of Marrakesh must have come as a massive shock’. In the three years that he was there, however, Roberts seems to have spent more time engaged in military and political matters than commerce. He traded munitions and agitated for the Moroccan emperor, al-Mansur, to join an anti-Spanish league.

Roberts was working under the auspices of the Earl of Leicester, as was a later adventurer, Anthony Sherley. After Leicester’s death Sherley’s patron was the ‘equally intemperate’ Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, who would, the following year, be attempting to subdue O’Neill in Ireland.

The Somerset House Conference 1604: National Portrait Gallery

Sherley is described as ‘a born intriguer, a complete opportunist’ and ‘ a completely sinister person’. Nevertheless, shortly after his arrival in Persia in 1598, Sherley’s relationship with Shah Abbas was, states Brotton closer than ‘that of any other Elizabethan Englishman and Muslim ruler’. Extraordinarily, by 1599, Sherley was able to claim ‘the right to represent the shah’s interests in Europe and to act like a Persian Mizra (prince) with the authority to mingle with kings and emperors’. Now he ‘was proposing to broker a grand anti-Ottoman alliance between Persia and Europe’s Catholic rulers’. It is not surprising that he was never able to return to England.

It is surprising that in 1888 a pamphlet written by the Reverend Scott Surtees suggested that Sherley was, in fact, the author of Shakespeare’s plays. Surtees argued that Sherley knew the ‘habits and the ways, the customs, dresses, manners, laws of almost every known nation’ and obsessed that the name Antonio, used in so many plays, came from Sherley’s own forename, Anthony.

Abd al-Wahid bin Masoud bin Muhammad al-Annuri:

Whether or not Sherley was ‘he who wrote these plays’, Brotton, himself, is extremely interested in Shakespeare’s works and has searched through them, like a monkey looking for fleas. In his first paragraph, Brotton, writes of Abd al-Wahid bin Masoud bin Muhammad al-Annuri as ‘a tall, dark, bearded man’ who in ‘is instantly distinguished from the crowd by his long black robe (thawb), bright white linen turban and the huge richly decorated steel scimitar, a Maghreb nimcha, which hangs from his waist’.

Later in the introduction, Brotton, states that ‘it is possible to discern some of the local raw material on which Shakespeare might have drawn for his portrayal of the noble Moor.’ The Morrocan envoy was in London in 1600-1601, the latter being the year that Shakespeare started writing Othello. But Brotton’s rather pedestrian recounting of the story of Othello in the chapter ‘More than a Moor’, along with his foregrounding of every possible reference to the Orient (such as the word ‘surely’ in Twelfth Night being an obvious pun on the name Sherley) are much less convincing and exciting than his account of Elizabethan deeds of derring-do.

Works Cited

Brotton, Jerry. This Orient Isle. London: Random House. 2016. Print.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books. 1978. Print.

Yeats,William Butler.  “The Wild Swans at Coole”. The Wild Swans at Coole. Dublin: Cuala Press 1917. Print.

NB  This review was first published in “Weekend” (p5) in the Irish                               Examiner on 28th May 2016