Friends and Traitors took years to write. Lawton would pick it up and have a go at it and then be distracted by another book that needed writing. Finishing it finally only after reading Stalin’s Englishman: The Lives of Guy Burgess by Andrew Lownie (2015) Lawton says that he could not ‘have written this novel without his help’.
In an addendum titled ‘Stuff’ Lawton explains the difficulties he had with the story of Guy Burgess because it is a tale that has been told so many times, in various media, but not recorded by the spy himself nor by his partner-in-defection, Donald Maclean.
Lawton specialises in the line between fact and fiction and it is not surprising that his one non-fiction publication is subtitled History as Melodrama. In Friends and Traitors, the eighth novel in the Inspector Troy series, the Scotland Yard superintendent has a melodramatic meeting with Burgess in Vienna in 1958. The spy indicates that he wants to ‘come home’. Obviously, in history, this did not happen.
Instead Burgess attempted repatriation in 1959 when another character from this novel, Harold Macmillan, was on a state visit to Moscow. Earlier in the book, Lawton includes a little joke, amusing in hindsight. He describes Macmillan in 1935 as ‘a backbencher with about as much chance of cabinet office as our cat’. In history he became Prime Minister of England. Ho ho ho.
In Friends and Traitors Troy’s father, a newspaper baron, has reluctantly agreed to sponsor his second son, Frederick, through cadetship of the Metropolitan Police.
Troy is too short to be a policeman and so has to go with his father’s employee, Burgess, to Gieves in Old Bond Street to have his ‘blue-black serge uniform’ retailored. They then go drinking at the Burlington Arms from which Troy, in spite of being cute and only 18, emerges unmolested.
Sir Alex Troy, a White Russian, now a respected member of the British establishment is aware that any scandal involving his family and Burgess would end in disaster. In possession of inside information the baronet warns his sons to avoid the colourfully camp undercover agent. But Troy could not always avoid Burgess.
Later in the story when old Etonian Burgess has been living in the Soviet Union for many years he lists the things that he misses. Over two pages the items include many elements of Englishness, such as ‘Pomp and Circumstance’, that would probably appeal to Brexiteers. There are other items, including ‘the little blue bag at the bottom of a bag of crisps’, which no longer exist.
Although the central family in Friends and Traitors are Russian emigrants, and several of the other characters Soviet spies, this book is quintessentially English. The passages set in the underground clubs and hotel bars of Blitzkrieg London are detailed and well crafted. And the depiction of the capital’s wartime queer underbelly with its gents’ bogs, rent boys, randy guardsmen and priapic sailors is nothing if not colourful.
Faithful readers of the Inspector Troy novels will be able to make cogent connections to Lawton’s other titles, five of which chronologically precede 1958. Nevertheless those new to the series are not at a disadvantage and might feel encouraged, by brief references to the murders of the rabbis or to Troy’s former lover, Zette Borg, to venture further into the hinterland of Troy’s professional and personal lives.
One should warn the gentle reader that the language and action are somewhat coarse and vulgar and not what one would necessarily expect from the pen of an English gentleman. Lawton was, he admits, although this might be another of his jokes, named in a Parliamentary Bill in the British House of Lords, as an offender against taste and balance.
Below: photographs of John Lawton are rare.
Lawton, J. Friends and Traitors. Grove Press. 2017. Print.
Lownie, A. Stalin’s Englishman: The Lives of Guy Burgess. 2015. Hotter and Stoughton. Print.
A version of this review was first published on page 37 of the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on 19th May 2018. It is reproduced here by permission of the Editor.
Partition: the story of Indian independence and the creation of Pakistan in 1947 by Barney White-Spunner
In the comprehensive index of Barney White-Spunner’s Partition there is no entry under Ireland. This is surprising because in the text there are many occasions when Ireland is important. For example, White-Spunner mentions that the representative of the Calcutta branch of Congress ‘visited Ireland and learned about leading revolutions against Britain from Michael Collins and the IRA’.
Strange wording since he arrived in Ireland in 1936 fourteen years after Collins’s death. The visitor was Subhas Chandra Bose who, like his fellow party member Mohandas Gandhi, had been educated in England, at Cambridge. Bose was in opposition to the non-violent ‘Mahatma’ and believed in an armed struggle against the British. Some historians interpret Bose’s beliefs and efforts as those of an ‘Indian Michael Collins’.
The internecine struggle in Congress took place before the Second World War and, as White-Spunner shows, was only a small part of the complexity of the situation in which both India and Ireland found themselves in terms of their relationship with Britain. Indian politicians and thinkers kept a close eye on events in Ireland considering that there were parallels in the two countries’ roads toward independence.
What is revealed in Partition is that the British botch of the process in India was infinitely more incompetent, more negligent and more numbskulled than it was in Ireland. And it was an independence botch that left millions dead or maimed. The resultant partition of India and Pakistan caused political, religious and violent outcomes which are explosive even today.
At the beginning of the book White-Spunner provides a useful potted history of the relationship between Britain and India in the eighteenth, nineteenth and first third of the twentieth centuries. Most striking perhaps is the fact that with so few settlers the empire retained the colony for nearly 200 years.
In compiling his account the author has to juggle all the different linguistic areas, provinces, administrative districts, princely states, political systems, religions, taxes, plagues, famines and uprisings. His skill in doing so reflects, symbolically, the way in which the Viceroys and the Indian Civil Service administered the multitudinous complexities of the subcontinent for generations.
In 1937 Congress emerged as the strongest party and, states White-Spunner, men like Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel, ‘intelligent students of how the Raj had managed to exercise total control across India with only the slenderest of resources’, learnt that they must keep all the key branches of government centrally in Delhi. This was one of the seeds of partition since if everything was so centralised a binary split into two nations would seem better than devolution or federation.
In 1938 the colourful character of Bose returns to the narrative arriving to take his place as president of Congress perched high on a 51 bull chariot. By 1941 he was in Berlin flirting with Nazism and organising Indian prisoners into an adjunct of the Waffen-SS. Bose then travelled, in a German submarine, to Japan and involved himself in developing the Indian National Army. The remnants of the INA were troublesome in the post-war run up to independence causing ructions during a series of courts-martial trials. Many regarded the INA as national and nationalist heroes rather than traitors. Bose, however, had died in an air crash in 1945 leaving India still under the yoke of imperialism.
After the war Congress was, according to White-Spunner, ‘the universal voice of the Hindu majority’. But within the party there were divisions and oppositions. Gandhi did not think that religion was problematic: instead he believed that all Indians should live together, as they had proved they could under the British, in an undivided post-colonial India. Patel was keen to proceed at speed and was likely to accept partition if necessary. Nehru, a socialist, was also impatient to govern – seeing India in a secular light but containing within his faction, to his left virulently anti-British refusniks and to his right, extremely intolerant, Muslim-hating Hindus.
The Muslim League was led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah. He broke from Congress in 1920 when he disputed Gandhi’s preferred method of civil disobedience. Jinnah preferred an approach of high-level negotiation with British rulers. In 1927 he had attempted to build bridges between Congress and the League but his proposals were rejected. Again in 1937 he approached Congress with power-sharing ideas, but again he was rebuffed. White-Spunner suggests that these occurrences were two of the ‘tragic missed opportunities that would ultimately lead to 1947’.
Meanwhile, on the British side, Viceroy Archibald Wavell, had been sacked and minor royal, Louis Lord Mountbatten, briefed by Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee, was preparing to take the reins. Sworn in on 24th March 1947 Mountbatten was the twentieth and last governor-general and viceroy. Mountbatten realised that India was on the edge of chaos but also that Congress, not himself, was in the driving seat so that his own role would be to facilitate speedy action.
The Indian Army were, according to White-Spunner, ‘the only effective instrument of power in the government’s hands’. But their commander-in-chief Auchinleck, devastated by the likelihood of dividing his command into two forces – one for what was to be Hindustan and the other for Pakistan – seemed no longer able to focus on what needed to be done. Plans should have been drawn up and further troops obtained to police the partition process. Instead the senior staff concentrated on the remaining Europeans and their protection. This inaction had disastrous results for Indians.
Jinnah who had demanded separation mainly as leverage to achieve a federal India now found himself accepting the imminent existence of Pakistan. Congress, whilst insisting that the new state would not be called Hindustan, agreed reluctantly to ‘a partition of India… as it was a peaceful settlement involving the least compulsion of any group or area’.
Things were moving fast now and by May there was a date for transfer of power: 14th/15th August 1947. Mountbatten would attend celebrations in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan on 14th before travelling across to Delhi for India’s festivities on 15th.
The stage was set for the gory finale. In the preface White-Spunner warns the reader that the story he tells is full of violence and horror. In the subcontinent human life became, for a period, of little value. Neighbours raped, maimed and killed each other. Some killed themselves to avoid forced conversion to another religion. Trainloads of refugees were butchered as six million Muslims attempted to move to Pakistan whilst six million non-Muslims moved in the opposite direction.
White-Spunner, an experienced and senior commander himself, mulls over the British colonisation of the Indian states and the preparations for independence. He thinks, as did many of his colleagues, that the British Army experience in Iraq after the 2003 invasion can be analysed against the framework of Indian independence. He identifies a poisonous pattern of British governments interfering in other countries for money or status and then finding it difficult to leave.
The book deals clearly with the political process but White-Spunner also interweaves eyewitness accounts given by ordinary Indians from all walks of life. The personal stories add poignancy to what is already an entirely compassionate rendition of history. He dedicates Partition to ‘all those who lost their lives in India and Pakistan in 1947’. It would be interesting if White-Spunner were to write a similar account of the British in Ireland along with the manner of their leaving.
White-Spunner, B. Partition: the story of Indian independence and the creation of Pakistan in 1947. London: Simon & Shuster. 2017.
A version of this review was first published on pages 34 and 35 of the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on 24th February 2018. It is reproduced here by permission of the Editor.
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.
Great 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.
He 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’
In 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.
During 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’.
Pattern, C. First Confession: A Sort of Memoir. Allen Lane. 2017.
Shit is one of Arundhati Roy’s favourite words: you can hear her use it on Desert Island Discs. She uses it literally and metaphorically when talking about India and, in particular, her home town of New Delhi. It is there in various forms in her second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, which has just been published after a 20 year gap in fiction writing.
Since her debut novel, The God of Small Things, Roy has been writing political non-fiction. The titles: The Algebra of Infinite Justice, Listening to Grasshoppers, Broken Republic and Capitalism: a Ghost Story, suggest that, not only in terms of subject matter, but also in use of language, those, what Roy calls, pamphlets, feed into her new novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.
Roy writes non-fiction mainly because in this ‘globalised’ world she is ‘Brand India’. Her presence is sought by activists who need a writer, such as the jungle- based Maoists in India’s secret war zone. Roy writes polemics. Compatriots, especially the corporate and governmental middle-classes, find her work extreme. But, says Roy, when she publishes, she has redacted most of her anger leaving just enough to structure her argument.
The anger is there in the novels too. Roy is particularly exercised by the caste system and the treatment of the lowest caste, those who dispose of waste, the ‘untouchables’. In The God of Small Things, the central love affair is between a woman, based on her own ‘headstrong’ mother and a Charmar or Dalit (untouchable).
In The Ministry of Utmost Happiness this caste is again centre stage, particularly in the character, Saddam Hussein. He renamed himself after seeing a video of the execution of the ex-president. He admired the dignified exit, whilst knowing nothing about the violent tyrant’s life. This is one example of Roy’s pervasive humour.
Saddam Hussein has been working in the mortuary handling corpses, making incisions and disposing of ‘viscera and organs’. The high caste Hindu doctors shout instructions from a distance, handkerchiefs covering noses. It is impossible to avoid smirking at such a ridiculous system.
Saddam Hussein’s family business is removing the cadavers, on which only an untouchable could lay hands, of sacred cows.
Holy cows and bulls pepper the pages; often alive and well, sometimes tall enough to peer through second floor windows, but equally likely to be dead and stinking. They serve as symbols of several things: the unwieldy caste system, mysterious religious beliefs and careless producers of shit.
The novel is crammed with animals. Smelly old dog, Biroo; the fertile bitch, Comrade Laali and her litters; Payal, the scrawny white mare; two delightful kittens, Khanum and Agha and the rooster, Sultan, all play important roles. Finally, Guih Kyom, the dung beetle, introduced only on the last page, ‘lying on his back with his legs in the air to save the world in case the heavens fell’.
Ruling the roost, so to speak, are the vultures in the prologue. In the 1990s cattle were given Diclofenac to increase their milk production and when they died the white-backed scavengers or, waste removers, ingested the cow meat. The drug caused the ‘vultures’ necks to droop’ resulting in them ‘tumbling off their branches, dead’. Ethnic cleansing. Vulture genocide.
Roy uses creatures to symbolise various aspects of Indian life, especially political ones. The dung beetle, characterised as unclean, untouchable, is able to drag 1,141 times its body weight of faecal matter. But is it possible that Guih Kyom is also a symbol for hope, a cleanser of the vast, chaotic, filthy, rancid democracy that is India?
It’s hard to decide whether The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is magic realism. In the first chapter, ‘Where do old birds go to die?’, it is unclear whether Anjum, one of the central characters, is still alive or whether she is now a tree. She has branches and leaves and can feel the ghostly talons of vultures but also sleeps on a carpet ‘between two graves at night’.
There are also the preternaturally tall bulls. I think that Roy takes her characters to the edge of sanity, into a place where the Duniya, or real world, thins out into a transparent layer in which the laws of physics don’t quite work.
Anjum, born with two sets of primary sexual organs, is a Hijra. Identifying as a woman, she moves in with others into the Kwabghar, a sort of brothel. I am not sure whether Roy’s understanding of transgender issues is sufficiently wide-ranging to be politically acceptable. She is accepting and not hostile but maybe naïve. She is, however, depicting a number of decades from the early 1980s to the present day. Attitudes change over time.
It’s clever when her colleague, Nimmo, explains that the two of them cannot experience the normal worries of people in the Duniya, because Hijras’ problems come from two warring genders. For she and Anjum ‘the war is inside us. Indo-Pak is inside us. It will never settle down. It can’t’.
It is hard to say why Roy chooses to place Anjum at the core of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. The mutilating and unsuccessful surgery that Aftab undergoes to become Anjum, could symbolise, oppression of minorities. Or it could just be that Roy is pointing out that transgender people can be victims of unscrupulous quacks.
On the other hand the war inside Anjum is a way for Roy to talk about the war that modern nationalist India is waging on her own insides – her regions and peoples, a kind of internal ‘Indo-Pak’? Roy suggests that India ‘is colonising itself, turning on its own poor to extract raw materials.’
‘Fiction’ says Roy, ‘is less a book than a city or a sedimentary rock. You know it has layers and layers and layers. It’s mysterious and esoteric and you know you have to wait for it. It’s a dance and never in a hurry.’ The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is one such city. It is the city of New Delhi.
But it is also its own city, which is both more and less than New Delhi. Its characters are as much the bricks and mortar of the city as the mortuary, the Red Fort or the sewage system. Roy writes mainly about ‘non-citizens’ who do not own the city or have a place in it. She writes about the people who live ‘between the cracks’ of the institutions. In one short section she describes some untouchables who are employed in the city sewers but have no access to any toilets themselves. Much of the novel is scatological – perhaps because Roy considers her country, on a number of levels, to be full of excrement.
Kashmir, beautiful, in spite of occupation by India, forms the backdrop for an exquisitely written sub-plot. A primal love/hate story, played out between eight characters. There may be something of Roy herself in Tilo: a young woman from Kerala, raised by a single mother, and whose head is shaved during a short stay in jail. This is Roy’s story too.
Roy says that the characters in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness have ‘conspired to confound accepted categories and notions – including my own – of identity, gender, nationhood and patriotism, faith, family, motherhood, death – and love itself’. It’s an extraordinary and exciting novel.
Roy, A. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. London: Hamish Hamilton. 2017.
A version of this review was first published on page 37 of the Weekend Section of the Irish Examiner on 2nd September 2017.
The impressive cover design of Ivory shows, against a black background, the forward charge of a magnificent grey tusker. Overlaying the darkness, in white, are the words, Ivory and Power and Poaching in Africa. This seems suitably symbolic and is an invitation to partake of what looks like a feel-good read. Here is a binary opposition between black and white – poachers are evil are must be prevented whilst elephants are beautiful and must not be shot.
But, for Somerville, this is all too simple and, in fact, wrong. Since 1981, first as a journalist and now as an academic, Somerville has made a study of elephant conservation in Africa. The immediate stimulus for the book originates from the period in the 2000s when links were being suggested between ivory and insurgency. Were terrorists selling ivory to fund their revolts? Somerville set out to find the truth.
Somerville’s main interest is in the African “supply end of the ivory trade” tracing it from ancient times through the 19th century and up to the present day. He describes how elephant hunting has developed from a need for food and leather to big game hunting, then to the provision of ivory for luxury goods all over the world, now particularly driven by, the recently materialistic, China, Vietnam and other East Asian countries. But at the same time elephants can threaten the homes and crops of their human neighbours and thus have always been killed in a land struggle between man and beast.
Dismissing the insurgency explanation as unimportant and peripheral, Somerville suggests rather that the ban on ivory exports in 1989 exacerbated the situation, putting the animals in even more peril by encouraging a black market , thus resulting in an escalating decline in elephant numbers.
Somerville thinks that conservationists, to whom he dedicates the book, need to work with the people who live on the elephant ranges since they are the ones who both know elephants, and live, at subsistence level, by the illicit trade in ivory. He rejects the concept of ‘poaching’ since traditionally the hunting of elephants has been the mainstay of the local economy. Disenfranchising the population and criminalising their historic activities endangers wild predators of all sorts. Negotiated regulation, perhaps, may be better than bans. Hunting quotas allow communities to expand tourism, sell ivory and, indeed, kill elephants to keep their families safe. People would have control over their homeland and its wildlife. They would then see poachers as the enemy and prevent their illegal activity.
Somerville also points out the complexity of the power structures involved, which, of course, include politicians in African nation states but also rival conservation groups and non-governmental organisations. Each grouping has its own, often, contrasting approach and desired outcome, and being ‘pressure groups’ of one type or another, each selects whatever ‘facts’ best fit their argument. He writes that their publications contain “a high degree of advocacy, emotional appeals and material designed to generate passion and raise money, rather than giving a fully accurate and sourced account based on research”.
Further complicating the situation is the enthusiastic support of celebrities such as Obama, the Clintons and The Duke of Cambridge all of whom advocate total bans. Perhaps they should be sent complimentary copies of this book.
Somerville is a fan of alliteration: power/poaching, ivory/insurgency, people/pachyderms, exploitation/enchantment, corruption/crime/conflict. This stylistic tic can be forgiven since the subject is important: how can elephants be protected from the rapacious and growing ivory market?
Somerville tries to present a factual, non-political account. Whilst this seems commendable it is important to remember how Ivory is marketed: the black and white jacket is designed to attract readers and sell the book. Another exploitation of the elephant? Or an attempt to save them?
Somerville, K. Ivory: Power and Poaching in Africa. London: Hurst. 2016.
A version of this review was first published on 22 Apr. 2017 in the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner p34.
Craig Oliver was David Cameron’s Director of Politics and Communications in the run up to the European Referendum in Great Britain.
He 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”.
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.
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.
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”.
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”.
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.
Later 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.
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.
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”.
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.
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?
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.
How is it possible that I have never heard of this wonderful writer? I came to this novel, unenthusiastically, having just completed Sebastian Barry’s superb Days Without End. I have long been a fan of Barry’s work and have read almost everything that he has written. On the back cover of Barry’s 2005 novel A Long Long WayFrank McGuinness says that Barry ‘writes like an angel’ and I agree with that. McGuinness adds that Barry is ‘on the side of the angels that fell’.
But I have now discovered that Aslam is Barry’s equal: he too ‘writes like an angel’ and ‘is on the side of the angels that fell’. I will be putting his four previous novels on my birthday list. If you look at the video below of the choir at King’s College Chapel in Cambridge you will see, between one minute 14 seconds and two minutes 12 seconds, a sort of representation of the regiments of ‘angels’ who fell in the First World War, and are currently falling all over the world, in its various theatres of war, as well as in so-called peaceful democracies.
The Golden Legend, deals directly with angels. Or, at least, the angel Gabriel. Gabriel ‘from heaven came’ and visited Mary, mother of the Christian God, to impregnate her; he visited the Prophet Mohammed to dictate words of the Koran. An equivalence, the liberal thinkers among us – leave Trump out of this – might think. But, now, to The Golden Legend.
For Pakistan born, Aslam, who was brought up and educated in the north of England, paper is the “strongest material in the world. Things under which a mountain will crumble, you can place on paper and it will hold: beauty at its most intense; love at its fiercest; the greatest grief; the greatest rage”.
Paper is literally at the centre of the novel, which opens in the home of Nargis and Massud, architects who live and work in a defunct paper factory now converted into their home/work space. Surrounding this edifice is the city of Zamana, an Urdu word meaning period, era or age, pulsating with the noises of modern and ancient Pakistan. One sound is that of the loudspeakers, in the multiplicity of mosques, which, as well as emitting the muezzin, are being violated by a mysterious broadcaster who, night-by-night reveals the scurrilous secrets of citizens. Vigilantes punish the accused, especially Christians, especially women.
The former factory, however, is set in an oasis of bright fertility: an orchard, largely developed for cheap housing, but leaving a demesne of trees; almond, rosewood, mango, silk-cotton and coral. From the beginning the novel seems surreal, juxtaposing calm with sudden violence, silence with cacophony, cleanliness with filth.
Nargis and Massud’s vast library contains two elaborate and ornate Wendy House-sized miniature mosques, both reproductions of cathedrals/mosques which served in different ages, as places of worship for both Christians and Muslims. Nargis and Massed use them in the winter months as small studies; easily heated in the freezing space. In the summer they are winched up, towards the high ceiling, hanging, floorless, above the dwellers. Elsewhere in the house, huge, spread, swan wings are pinned to the pink wall alongside the wings of a golden eagle, a parakeet and other birds. The house is full of ‘intense’ beauty and provides a crucible from which the architects can create more beauty in an ideological attempt to fight, as Aslam himself does with his art, the evil of the outside world.
It is not magic-realism: it is Aslam’s portrait of a world in which all that exists is extreme. Social and religious hierarchies are fiercely maintained, with the Christians, including two other central characters, Helen and Lily, as the butt of prejudice; their blood thought to be black, not red. Nargis thinks “everything this land and others like it were going through was about power and influence. All of it. And these struggles of Pakistanis were not just about Pakistan, they were about the survival of the entire human race. They were about the whole planet”.
Life is precarious amid frequent acts of sectarian violence. Vicious assaults against vulnerable flesh come from the most unexpected sources and are perpetrated against gentle and educated characters as often as not. There is no sense that those who might be considered liberal, rational and moral are thought of as such by their neighbours.
Strangely, the most shocking knife slashes are directed at a book from the Islamic section of one of the city’s oldest libraries. This book is ‘That They Might Know Each Other, words inspired by a verse in the Koran. A meditation of how pilgrimage, wars, trades and curiosity had led to contact between cultures’. This book, written by Massud’s father, contains reproductions of iconic art.
The first page to be vandalised contains an image of the Prophet Mohammed receiving a revelation from the angel Gabriel. ‘He perforated the face with the steel tip, and then the blade continued upwards through the angel’s headdress, the various ribbons and gems. Continuing, it cut into the sky full of gold stars’. The congress between Christianity and Islam is severed in an act of ‘conscienceless temper’.
Later, and, seemingly whilst Nargis is lying, sleepless, in bed, the entire book is ‘razored’ into pieces.
In an act of indefatigable hope and unremitting courage Nargis begins the task of sewing, her needle threaded with shining gold, the 987 pages back together. She is performing her own version of the Japanese process of Kintsugi. “The art of mending pottery with lacquer mixed with powdered gold. The logic was that damage and restoration were part of the story of an object, to be accepted rather than concealed. Some things were more beautiful and valuable for having been broken’.
In The Golden Legend, Aslam opposes the vituperative Pakistani laws of blasphemy with his call for the freedom of language, both written and spoken, especially when uttering words of love. He, like Nargis, is trying to accept and restore damage. He states that when he starts writing a novel, “I begin to think … beyond the despair, what is the moment of hope?”
Aslam, N. The Golden Legend. Faber & Faber. 2017.
Barry, S. A Long Long Way. Faber & Faber. 2005.
—. Days Without End. 2016.
An earlier version of this review appeared in The Irish Examiner‘s Weekend Section page 37 on 8th April 2017.
See also is a short piece by Aslam which describes his working practices.