Will the shit hit the fan?

Roy on Desert Island Discs. 31 Mar. 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.

Unknown.jpegSince 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.

images-4.jpegThe 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.

Dead cow in New Delhi. Image: Angelo Desantis. 2004.

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.

Cow catchers in New Delhi close in on their prey. Image: Zackary Canepari. 2008.

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’.

Asian-white-backed-vulture-at-carcass.jpgRuling 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.

Image: Jill Peters. 2016.

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.

New Delhi. MoneyInc.

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.

Works cited

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.









Ivory: Power and Poaching in Africa

The elephant in the room

Unknown.jpegThe 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?

Works cited

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.

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. express.com

His health suffers: a “wheezy” chest and the “early symptoms of an ulcer”. He attends interminable meetings in drab windowless basements and is fed unappealing sandwiches and watery stew. One day he feels as if he were in a “dystopian movie”. Weeks later, on the occasion of Nigel Farage’s “flotilla of fisherman” streaming up the Thames, he queries how it came “to be this surreal, through-the-looking glass, topsy-turvy madness”. Oliver admits, often, to being “knackered”.

In March Oliver meets with Theresa May at the Home Office. He asks her to be more active in the campaign and receives some reassurance. Another dry analysis from Oliver is “She is on the right side, making clear she is In, but not looking overly enthusiastic. It’s making life uncomfortable for us and many feel she owes DC more, but in purely selfish terms, this positions her best.” One might wonder whether, in this diary “entry” or others, there is a touch of hindsight.

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 Golden Legend’ by Nadeem Aslam

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 EndUnknown.jpeg.  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 Way Frank 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’. Unknown-1.jpegI 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.

Mohammed receiving his first revelation from the angel Gabriel.  Miniature illustration on vellum from the book Jame’ all Tawarikh by Rashid al-Din, Published in Tabriz, Persia, 1307 A.D.  Now in the collection of the Edinburgh University Library, Scotland.

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 Tree of Immortality. Palace of Shaki Khans, Azerbaijan

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.

image: pallasweb

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.

Copyright: Giusto Manetti Battiloro

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?”

Illustration by Faraz Aamer Khan/Dawn.com


Works cited

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.

The Man who Created the Middle East

The signatures of Mark Sykes and François Georges Picot on their 1916 map.


The Man Who Created the Middle East:  A Story of Empire, Conflict and the Sykes-Picot Agreement.Christopher Simon Sykes

2016 was a year of commemorations but one was overlooked, at least in Ireland, if not in the Middle East: the hundredth anniversary of the Sykes-Picot agreement, designed by Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot, and signed in May 1916.

Walking the Line

THE ill thought-out and ill-fated Sykes-Picot agreement was a British and French colonialist line-drawing-in-the-sand division of the failing Ottoman Empire. There was a war on, of course, but even in the aftermath, during negotiations at Versailles and St. Remo, there was little understanding of how the region could best evolve along ethnic divisions. What began to seem more important to the imperialists was a share of Iraqi oil. Currently ISIS (so-called) and, from an oppositional position, Kurd nationalists, are skirmishing around, or bulldozing, Sykes-Picot border divisions.


North of the Sykes-Picot line France would control or influence Syria, the Lebanon and parts of Turkey whilst further south Great Britain would have a similar dominion over Jordan, Iraq and Kuwait. The agreement ignored promises of self-rule made, to regional Arab leaders, by among others, T.E. Lawrence, ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ in exchange for loyalty and warriors to fight the Kaiser.

In The Man Who Created the Middle East, Mark Sykes’s grandson, Christopher Simon Sykes, attempts to show that his ancestor was not a crass, ignorant, chinless wonder but, instead, a man of intelligence with a deep and wide-ranging knowledge of the region.

Travel 5 Provinces 18.jpg
photo: Mark Sykes

Whilst Mark was a student at Cambridge, his don, Dr Foakes Jackson, described him as “a man of exceptional powers … who really understood the traveller’s art … showing an extraordinary grasp of all that was really important in the countries he visited”.  Academics were lenient allowing him periods of absence to travel, and to prepare and write his book, Through Five Turkish Provinces.

As a child, Mark, had spent many lonely weeks alone at his father’s house in Sledmere, Yorkshire. His parents, Sir Tatton and Lady Jessie Sykes often travelled for six months or more. His stand-in ‘father’ was an aged stud groom and his mentor was his tutor, Doolis, who later wrote to him to say that “you must fight and strive against circumstances” or “you will grow up a worthless, cruel, hard-hearted, frivolous man”. Mark’s education was severely interrupted: he was moved from school to school, tutors were employed and dismissed, and both parents frequently took him abroad for months at a time.


In some ways, as Foakes Jackson stated, his “education had been neglected” but his Cambridge tutor, the Rev. E.G. Swain, opined that Mark ‘s “experiences of travel, acute observation, retentive memory” made him an outstanding young man.   So, in spite of his father’s miserliness – extreme – almost to the point of insanity, and his mother’s incipient, and then equally extreme, drinking and gambling, Mark benefited in some ways from his eccentric upbringing.

During his years at Cambridge, before his stint fighting in the Boer War, he met a young woman, Edith Gorst, and became attached to her “because you are honest and unselfish, because you are the only truly straightforward person I have ever met”. Now, with his future wife alongside him, Mark could address the homework set by Doolis. Edith, or as he addressed her, “dearest co-relig” – they were both converts to Catholicism – became Mark’s chief correspondent, and it is on his letters to her, that much of The Man who Created the Middle East relies.

Edith Gorst

Mark wrote to Edith almost 150 times whilst he was ‘fighting’ in South Africa. It was, he wrote, “a hideous nightmare” as he was sidelined on guard duty for much of the two years as well as suffering from malaria and food poisoning. Of the senior officers, it seems that he revered only Lord Kitchener, stating that he “is (thank God) a brute & that is what you want in a War when geniuses do not happen to exist”.

Although he and Edith were by this time engaged Mark did not feel worthy of marriage because he had not yet achieved a position for himself. He set off on a grand tour through the Ottoman Empire, resulting from which he hoped, he could write a book and make his name. But by January 1904 Edith had found a flat for the newly married couple, close to the Irish Office in London. This was handy as Mark had been appointed as Private Secretary to George Wyndham, the land-reforming Chief Secretary to Ireland, and was now based in Dublin.

The marriage seems to have been happy and before long their first child, Freya, was born. The couple moved to Constantinople before the arrival of a second child, Richard, since Mark was now honorary attaché to the British Ambassador in Turkey. He was back where he liked best to be, in the Middle East, feeling that his work there was “more ‘real’ than the Irish Office”. And, of course, the couple had produced an heir for Sledmere.

Sir Mark with his family at Sledder

In 1906 Mark was ready to be adopted Conservative candidate for Buckrose, his home constituency, and he and the family moved up to Yorkshire.   Soon, the twins, Christopher and Everilda, arrived and, according to Edith, Mark was “a delightful father”, playing games, organising expeditions and treating the children as rational beings. Mark lost in two elections in Buckrose, travelled in Tunisia and Spain, and saw his father’s house, Sledmere, gutted by fire, before finally winning Central Hull in a 1911 by-election.

The following year, whilst engaged in rebuilding his family home, Mark and Edith welcomed a fifth and penultimate child, Angela, to their family (a third son would be born in 1916). Soon after they returned to London to be near the House of Commons in which Mark, now succeeded to the family title and thus Sir Mark, was enthusiastically forwarding his political career. He was a “spell-binding speaker” and admired for his grasp of foreign affairs.

Mark’s finest hour, by all accounts, was a speech on the Irish question. On April 1st 1914 he said that the “blame must lie upon us all. We have drifted on passions, and both sides have gone from one wild cry to another until we have divided class from class, creed from creed…”. Mark thought that the only possible way forward was to exclude, temporarily, the province of Ulster from Home Rule. He asked members of the House, especially all Irish Members, to help “lift politics out of the quagmire of personalities, ill-feeling, hate – and pettiness …”.

But Mark’s enduring interest was the Middle East and he spoke in the Commons the same year about his anxiety over the decline of the Ottoman Empire which he feared would lead to Britain having borders with both Germany in Mesopotamia and Russia in Persia. He thought that Great Britain would “be like a stranded whale on a mud bank, with a river hippopotamus on one side and a rhinoceros charging down from the hills straight in front”.

Given the outcome of negotiations and the final placing of the Sykes-Picot line it is strange to read that Mark spoke in 1914 of “the seeds of native states which exist in the provinces of the Ottoman Empire … which could be made into independent states. If the worst came to the worst, there are Armenians, Arabs and Kurds who only wish to be left in peace to develop the country”.

The Paris Peace Conference in Versailles (1919-1920) had many issues to resolve and the Arab question was fudged. Mark Sykes, whose entire life had prepared him for the negotiations, was not there, nor was he at the St. Remo conference (1920), which did focus on the future of the defunct Ottoman Empire. His life had been cruelly ended, in February 1919, at the age of 39, by the Spanish ‘Flu. He was one of its fifty million victims.

Christopher Simon Sykes

Christopher Sykes Simons presents a sympathetic and engaging account of his grandfather’s life. This contrasts with the way that history has generally portrayed him but provides sufficient evidence for thinking that, had he lived, Sir Mark Sykes might have proved, as he strove for peace, his tutors right, and become an “exceptional” and “extraordinary” man.



Works cited

Simon Sykes, C. The Man Who Created the Middle East: A Story of Empire, Conflict and the Sykes-Picot Agreement.  London: William Collins. 1916.

Sykes, M. Through Five Turkish Provinces. London: Bickers. 1900.

An earlier version of this review appeared in The Irish Examiner, Weekend section pages 33 and 34 on 8th April 2017.

Not normally angry in Ireland

but I am a bit just now.

Westminster Abbey: Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

Last Sunday, 13th November, I was sitting, at 11.00am, in the Galway Hooker in Heuston Station, Dublin waiting for a train home to Cork (hilariously, my partner’s daughter, phoning him, thought he was in Houston, Texas).  Silently, and unnoticed by other punters, the Remembrance Day commemorations, in London, were playing out on the TV screen.

Armistice Day in the Lloyds building, London.  Leon Neal, Getty Images

We were awaiting the two minutes’ silence.

Had I been alone, and thus unable to embarrass my partner, I would have mounted the stairs to the gallery of the pub to ask everyone to respect the moment marking the end of the First World War, in which, 35,000 Irish served (and many more in British Regiments, and of Irish heritage in Commonwealth regiments) and, of whom, many thousands were killed or maimed.  But he was there and so I spared him that embarrassment and just sat there with him as our companions munched their way through belated full Irish breakfasts, unaware of the event playing out above their heads.

The Queen on Sunday 13th November: Chris Jackson/Getty Images

The Munster Fusiliers (and soldiers from many other regiments) are sorely neglected in their homeland in terms of  First World War memorials and commemorations.  We were reminded of this when their Battle of the Somme remembrance  wreaths were thrown into the Lee earlier this year.

The eleventh hour of the eleventh day  of the eleventh month is a full stop that has punctuated my life since I was born.  I am not militaristic and neither was my father.  But, nevertheless, after a year studying at the Sorbonne in 1938 and going up to the University of Cambridge in September 1939, at the age of 19, he found himself an officer in the Second World War, named ‘the emergency’ at the time in Ireland.

As a republican and left-winger he would have not have fought in the 1914-1918 war.  He would, like my two grandfathers, have been a conscientious objector.  But here, facing him, was Hitler and National Socialism.  So my father, Alan Smith, a puny, literary and art-loving young man,  who, because of his university, was officer class, and, being good at trigonometry he was sent to the artillery so that he could work out how to aim the guns.  He ended up at D Day + 1, being ‘steady under fire’.

Where was Ireland then?  Untitled.pngIt was introspective, dreaming of ‘a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contest of athletic youth and the laughter of happy maiden’.  It sounds suspiciously like Hitler’s Aryan ideal, which is still encapsulated in Berlin’s 1936 Olympic stadium which I saw last month on a visit to that fine city.

But there were, always available, (often impoverished) young men and women, willing to serve in the British army and to send money home to their families.  And there were those who hated the stultifying Irish society that was ruled from Dublin, in an almost, medieval, or at least, Victorian manner, closing down freedom and denying thought.

Reading John Bruton’s article in ‘The Centenary Conversations’ (p19), which argues that “commemoration should emphasise non-violent events” I was struck, in a way that I have not not been previously, by the idea that “the 1916 Rising and Proclamation” should not be “treat[ed] as the foundation event of our democracy”.

This uprising, he says, and I agree, “involved the deliberate taking of human life, in the middle of a war, and in alliance with the central powers, the first World War grouping that included Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey.  The Rising lacked a prior democratic mandate of any kind and was in breach of a countermanding order.” For me, Bruton’s key phrase  is “in the middle of a war”; also important is his noting of the rebels’ connections with  Germany.

Michael Anderson holds the helmet of his father, Lieutenant Bill Anderson with his nephew Vincent Murphy: Colm Mahady/Fennells

To return to the point,  Armistice Day, is a commemoration of the ending of a violent event, rather than the violent event itself.  Can that be argued for commemoration of the Easter Rising?  If you commend Bruton’s remarks then you should not really celebrate an uprising which deflected resources from a world war which was fought to establish the self-determination of small nations; especially given the contribution to the hard-won victory by soldiers from the island of Ireland.  I commend Sebastian Barry’s novel A Long Long Way to anyone wanting to engage with the conflicting ideas of this period.

Works cited

Barry, S. A Long Long Way. Faber & Faber. 2005

Bruton, J. ‘Commemoration should emphasise non-violent events’. The Irish Times. 29th October 2016.

DeValera, E. Broadcast to the People of Ireland. 1943.

Fidler, Matt. ‘Remembrance Day around the world in pictures’. The Guardian website. 11th November 1916.

Other blogs relating to the First World War can be found on my other site:


Have you forgotten yet?

Where is the Irish Literature of the First World War?

You might also like Dadland on this site.

It’s the economy stupid…!

26 years after Nelson Mandela emerged into freedom, heralding the hope and optimism of the “Rainbow Nation”, a leading South African academic is predicting its total collapse in a mire of corruption. But it is the second time he has preached a counsel of despair for “the Beloved Country.” Is he right this time?


How Long will South Africa Survive?

At first sight it seems strange to write two books with the same title. But R. W. Johnson has twice written How Long Will South Africa Survive. His first book (1977, above left) prophesied South African military strikes on neighbouring countries followed by an international ‘solution’. Now he says he was wrong and that international sanctions forced regime change. So he has written a second title (2015, above right) after witnessing what he describes as “20 years of almost complete fecklessness”.


I have often heard of Irish politicians being accused of fecklessness, but if you think it is the same thing, read on…

A South African by birth, Johnson, (73) is emeritus fellow of Magdelen College, Oxford although, unlike many compatriots, he returned to South Africa after the fall of apartheid nearly three decades ago. The 1977 book questioned “how long it would be before the ruling white establishment encountered a regime crisis” and the second iteration posits that “South Africa is now heading fast for another investment crisis which will in turn end in another regime change”.

Johnson is a brave man. He is frequently on the college lecture circuit and TV, expounding his doom-laden views in a seemingly fearless manner. Johnson’s voice is patrician in register: stating, for example, that there is “not enough political or economic talent” in the government to run even a “medium-sized town in Europe or North America.

He sees the African National Congress (ANC), and its leader, the Zulu president, Jacob Zuma, as interested “to be quite frank” only in their personal wealth and in nepotism.

Jacob Zuma: dailymaverick.co.za

But … surely, you respond, South Africa is a democracy and allows free speech? As evidence you cite that it is a country in which Mmusi Manimane, the leader of the opposition – the Democratic Alliance (DA) –  can stand in parliament and state that the “honourable president” is so-called only “out of respect for the traditions of this august house”. That he, Zuma, is a “broken man presiding over a broken society” and one who “laughed when the people of South Africa cried for their beloved country”.

Zuma laughed, apparently, when armed police in plain shirts entered the chamber and assaulted the members while they were in debate.

A true democracy then?

So you and I can both admire Johnson for his decision to live in his heritage country and to speak out repeatedly about the corruption of the ruling party and the likely collapse of the regime. But according to Johnson it is not politics, not corruption, not immorality which will destroy the “dream world” but perpetual failure to manage the economy. And he says that there is no political will to avoid an economic crisis.


Johnson argues that deep-level gold-mining is at the centre of the South African economy and that, for this “centre” to “hold”, the country requires substantial international backing.   He calls inward-flow investment the “iron law of S. A. history”. He points out that South Africa’s credit rating is likely to fall below the vital criteria and that large investors, such as insurance and pension companies (that’s you and me) will, eventually, dump South African bonds.

Johnson says that the country will “haemorrhage” capital resulting in falls in the exchange rate and in the stock market. Interest on the substantial South African debt will rise, resulting in a debt trap. He thinks that the politicians will not realise what is happening as they are too busy feathering their own nests.

An exception, he says, is the first black finance minister, Nine Nhlanhla,


who Johnson considers as having been “set up to fail”. The finance minister would be a lone voice without support from the government. And the International Monetary Fund (IMF) will descend on South Africa.An IMF bailout? We had one of those in Ireland.

But more perils lie ahead for South Africa. A lesson, according to Johnson, is Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe “sabotaged” the IMF conditions. Johnson fears that South Africa could go the same way.

Southern-Africa-Map.pngHe points out, however, that unlike Zimbabwe, South Africa is urbanised. City people will not be able to return to their homestead to scratch a living. Additionally a large number of Zimbabweans left their country for South Africa. There is nowhere south for the South Africans to go – other than Antarctica.   Thus Johnson hopes that when the IMF arrive the ANC and DA will cooperate.


images.jpegOtherwise he fears there could be “xenophobic riots”. The “centre” would “not hold” and the country could “fall apart”. Literally it could divide along tribal lines.

Johnson’s answer is unsurprising: austerity. Unlike Ireland, however, South Africa does not have reliable provision of water or electricity. Austerity would be worse for them. Perhaps not so bad for the government ministers who have stashed money abroad. Perhaps not so bad for Zuma who, according to the opposition, has 783 unanswered counts of corruption, fraud and racketeering against him.

It would be embarrassing though for the ANC to lose economic sovereignty and to have to admit that after 22 years their regime has ended in humiliating and public failure.

My copy of How Long Will South Africa Survive is a paperback published this year and with this imprint comes a useful postscript, dated April 2016. The first section is titled “The ethnic facts of life” and its opening statement declaims that in “the new South Africa there was supposed to be no such thing as tribalism and it was therefore highly politically incorrect to notice that it still existed”.

Johnson, who “dared to notice that exist it did” identifies the power of the “Zulu bloc” and the discomfort of the Xhosa, Tswana and the Northern and Southern Sotho groups. This is why Johnson expresses a real fear of xenophobia.


In parliament the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) wear the scarlet uniforms of domestic servants and African workers. They disrupt the procedures, sometimes shouting “give back the money” and being so provocative that the speaker of parliament called their leader, Julius Malema, “a cockroach”. Johnson comments that this brings back memories of the Rwandan Hutus using that word about the Tutsis during the genocide of 1994.

Amidst the chaos of South African politics, finance minister Nene, was sacked in December 2015, causing international consternation and negative market reaction. Johnson, in his 2016 postscript, describes him as “of stolid good temper” and of having “played a straight bat”. Nene had “flatly dismissed” proposals and said that “things simply could not be afforded”; thus he lost his job.

Gwede Mantasha: zabc.co.za

In spite of calls for his resignation or impeachment Zuma survived, supported by the ANC’s secretary-general, Gwede Mantashe (right), in an attempt to keep the ANC together and avoid a backlash from the Zulu kingdom.


Belinda Bozzoli: enca.com

Finally Johnson quotes Belinda Bozzoli, a DA MP, who wrote: “What we see is unambiguous evidence of unstoppable decay. We become unavoidably aware that there is barely a realm of administration which is not rotten to the core, a minister who is not compromised, or a department which is not ineffectual”.


Johnson-How-Long-Will-South-Africa-Survive-web-1.jpg            When I wrote this review, I noted that in the recent local elections the ANC won an overall majority, taking just 54% of the national vote whilst the DA surged to 27%. Maimane of the DA enthused that it was, in effect, a referendum and a protest against the ANC. Analysts assert that the result is a market positive.

It’s the economy.



Works cited

Johnson, R. W. How Long Will South Africa Survive? Oxford University Press. 1977.

Johnson, R. W.  How Long Will South Africa Survive? The Looming Crisis. Jonathan Ball. 2015.

NB. A version of this review was first published  on page 33 of the ‘Weekend’ section of the Irish Examiner on 8th October 2016.