Silence Among The Weapons, by John Arden; and UnRoman Romans, by Siobhan McElduff

Summary: two wonderful books that in different ways remind the reader of the consequences of violent prejudice for ordinary folk

John Arden (1930 to 2012), a long-term resident in Galway, was a distinguished playwright, and an English member of Aosdana, the elite Irish artistic association. Silence Among the Weapons was his only novel, and was short-listed for the Booker when it was first published in 1982.

1982 was when I first tried to read the book, which I found difficult at the time and brought it back to the library once I had finished part one. This recounted events in Ephesus leading up to the arrival of the Roman general Sulla’s brutal army. 

Over the subsequent years I have often wondered what became of Ivory, the book’s principle narrator, and his lovers, Cuttlefish, an Ethiopian who has been enslaved since childhood, and Irene, an agent of the Persian King. So, I decided to track down a copy and finish what I started all those years ago. 

Like Arden himself, his principle characters are theatrical types. It is from their perspectives that the “great” events are viewed. These include the conflict between Sulla and Marius for mastery of Rome, and the ferocious Social War unleashed against the Italian allies of Rome who had the temerity to claim greater civil rights.  (One part of the book, dealing with Ivory’s adventures with pirates, I thought was probably an allusion to Hamlet who went on a similar jolly before turning Elsinore into a charnel house.)

Silence Among the Weapons led me to Siobhán McElduff’s wonderful book, UnRoman Romans. This is a reader of the ancient sources that she compiled with her students. It deals with the experiences of and attitudes towards people like Ivory and his friends: the slaves, the thespians, the dancers and the gladiators who “elite” Romans despised but upon whom their privilege depended.

I suspect the lives of Arden’s characters are based more upon his own experiences in the theatre than on the ancient texts. But one thing he seems to get very right: McElduff notes that “the Romans were frequently quite appalling in their treatment of those they considered outsiders or different, ” and this is something that Arden conveys starkly.

There is a clear intent in Arden’s writing to sound modern in spite of the ancient setting. Hence his references to “police” and theatre “green rooms” among other things. This is, I think, both to increase the reader’s empathy for his characters and their circumstances, and because, for Arden, Sulla, Marius and the Social War are mere examples of the colonial violence that has plagued the world for centuries. The second part of the book, for example, dealing with the eruption of the Social War makes very clear allusions to the beginnings of the Troubles in Derry: Arden even traces the beginning of his conflict to the reaction of the “City” to the reasonable demands of a “Civil Rights Association.”

I must say I still found portions of Silence Among the Weapons difficult: for one thing I would have expected a playwright to be able to present dialogue more clearly, but much seemed buried in long paragraphs. But the book is well worth persevering with. It is often funny, occasionally horrific, and the characters appealing. One hopes against hope that they can somehow escape the random carnage that is engulfing their world.

It is a great pity that, in spite of its remarkable success upon publication, that Silence Among the Weapons now appears to be out of print and in little demand. A book that asserts the importance of remembering ordinary people in the midst of the machinations of warlords should never be forgotten.

Ashenden, by W Somerset Maugham; The Mask of Dimitrious, by Eric Ambler; and Bad Actors, by Mick Herron

Summary: a glimmer of a new day on Spook Street?

As the increasing brutality and lawlessness of Boris Johnson’s British government becomes manifest, the forlorn cry of “We are better than this” emerges from time to time from the ineffectual British Left. To which, many South Asians, Africans and Irish respond with the question, “When exactly?”

England has certainly been different to this, as the attitudes on display in these three spy novels written over the course of the past century demonstrate. But it is not clear that it was much better when they were written.

Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden concerns the adventures of the eponymous writer who is recruited into British intelligence during the First World War, as Maugham himself was. The book is mostly set in and around Geneva, Maugham’s own principal intelligence haunt during his spooky days.

Starting in Istanbul, the superb Mask of Dimitrious traces a route through central Europe to Paris in the interwar years. It concerns another writer, Charles Latimer, as he tries to piece together the career of a man who has taken advantage of the bloody chaos following the collapse of the Central Powers to reinvent himself as a master criminal.

Bad Actors, is Mick Herron’s eighth novel in his glorious Slough House series. It follows the hilariously grotesque Jackson Lamb and his Joes as they collide with on-going Russian machinations to take advantage of Brexity Britain.

Each book echoes its antecedents. All three have a fine sense of place. But aside from this they are tonally quite different: Maugham a master of supercilious Englishness; Ambler more hard-boiled but with a keen awareness of the pity of post-First World War European history; and Herron is carefully attuned to how the farce of Brexit nourishes a similar authoritarianism to that which haunted the central Europe of Ambler’s book.

Taken together with Greene and Le Carre these novels suggest a society that has fundamentally changed over the century, shedding at least some of its ignorant self-satisfaction. Instead there appears to be a growing awareness of how Britain has often been an amoral or malign influence in the world. Now, reflected in Herron’s black comedic works, Britain’s silliness is increasing in proportion to its diminishing economic prospects and political influence.

Perhaps then there is a faint glimmer of hope that Britain can become “better than this.” Until then, different generations of spy writers offer interesting insights on how well it has understood what it has actually been.

Long-term lessons for the humanitarian sector from the war in Ukraine

Summary: In Ukraine humanitarian actors are awakening to risks of trafficking they studiously ignore elsewhere.

On 17 Mar 2022 the Council of Europe’s Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings (GRETA) “warned of the dangers of people fleeing the armed conflict in Ukraine falling victim to human trafficking and exploitation.”

They are right, of course. On 12 March 2022 the Guardian reported that children were beginning to go missing amid the chaos of the refugee crisis from Ukraine. On 15 March, the Irish Examiner reported that a property in County Clare in the South West of Ireland, was “being offered for free to a “slim Ukrainian” woman, with an expectation of sex.” In the parlance of trafficking, this latter case is an example of an attempt to abuse the position of vulnerability of a person fleeing war for the purposes of sexual exploitation.

Trafficking in human beings is always an intrinsic part of war. Indeed, historically slavery has often been the very raison d’etre for war: Caesar enriched himself through the trafficking of thousands of prisoners during his conquest of Gaul. In the same way the European colonial powers enriched themselves with their trafficking of millions to the Americas during their invasions of Africa.

Even when war is ostensibly for reasons other than pillage, it rips away the protections that millions of ordinary people depend upon for their safety and renders them vulnerable to slavery. Hence the Rohingya refugees in the Cox’s Bazar camps in Bangladesh are vulnerable to similar trafficking risks as those Ukranians who have suddenly, rightly, exercised European civil society. Other war zones, such as those wracked by Boko Haram and Islamic State, see the routine enslavement of children as soldiers, and the systematic trafficking of girls and young women as sexual rewards for the fighters.

Hence slavery pervades contemporary war just as it did historically. So, the European Union’s offer of temporary protective measures towards Ukrainian refugees is an important step in reducing their vulnerability to exploitation and abuse. Unfortunately, such protections are still unavailable to most of the migrants and refugees who risk their lives to get to Europe across the Mediterranean each year.

So, what is perhaps remarkable about the Ukrainian crisis is that the risk of trafficking has been so widely recognised already and that some systemic protections have already been put in place. Elsewhere consideration of trafficking risks in humanitarian crises is conspicuous by its absence.

In a 2021 paper, “Exploring the Relationship between Humanitarian Emergencies and Human Trafficking”, Viktoria Curbelo conducted a narrative review of databases for scholarly articles that address the issues of human trafficking and diverse forms of humanitarian crisis.

Curbelo acknowledged that a more comprehensive literature review may find additional material. Nevertheless, it is an indication of the disinterest of humanitarian policy makers and practitioners in trafficking that she managed to find only five papers fulfilling her criteria

This in turn corroborates my own observations, as both a humanitarian practitioner and an anti-slavery researcher and advocate, that the humanitarian sector is strikingly uninterested in the issue of slavery. This is surprising given that trafficking is demonstrably intrinsic to the sort of catastrophes to which the sector routinely responds.

In the very worst instances humanitarian practitioners themselves have become involved in the trafficking and exploitation of those that they are mandated to assist. In former Yugoslavia Kathryn Bolkovac, an American cop working with UN operations, blew the whistle on her own colleagues when she found they were involved in the trafficking of young women and girls for sexual exploitation. In the aftermath of an earthquake in Haiti, it was found that some Oxfam staff were involved in the exploitation of vulnerable children.

These scandals have provoked greater attention to safeguarding policies and procedures within humanitarian organisations. But in addition to such procedures there is a need for a more systematic approach from the humanitarian sector to the other trafficking risks that crises create.

This must start from a recognition that part of the reason that trafficking is practiced during humanitarian crises is that traffickers are faster in taking opportunity of the chaos of the crises than humanitarian policy makers and practitioners are in applying protections. Indeed, it must be recognized that neglecting human rights and anti-slavery protections in humanitarian response is as professionally negligent as ignoring war displaced people’s need for clean drinking water and shelter.

The awareness of the risks of exploitation and the generous extension of rights by the European Union towards Ukrainian refugees must become the template for future humanitarian responses everywhere. Without this, traffickers will continue to prey unimpeded on the victims of war.

The Western Canon, by Harold Bloom

Summary: literature as a means to feud

The American academic Wallace Stanley Sayne once allegedly said that, “Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics because the stakes are so low.”

Harold Bloom, in The Western Canon, seems to take this observation as a platonic ideal for his writing. So, more than literature, the principle focus of this book is other academics and why they are wrong. All of them. Every one who has ever tried to interrogate a text from an alternative theoretic position, from Marxism to feminism to old fashioned conservatism. They are all wrong.

The only basis for engaging with literature, according to Bloom, is in its own terms. But it is not at all clear that this is the basis upon which Bloom discusses the literature that his book focusses upon. Rather there is a cod-psychological theme running through the text relating to the angst with which writers engage with their antecedents. It should not be a surprise then that Freud is dragged into Bloom’s canon but Yeats, who would perhaps not provide as much grist to Bloom’s psychic hobby horse, is not.

This, and his tiresome sniping aside, Bloom’s book is an entertaining one. At its best he shows how Western literature resonates across the centuries. For example, he shows how the character of Beatrice from Dante’s Divine Comedy is perhaps an inspiration for Dulcinea del Toboso in Don Quixote. (Bloom is notably silent, however, on the possibility of “non-Western influences” on Western literature. Part one of Don Quixote, for example, with its structure composed of stories within stories, is particularly reminiscent of the great “Eastern” work, The Thousand and One Nights.) And he shows how Chaucer echoes in Shakespeare and then Shakespeare in everything else.

Bloom loves Shakespeare, and has been seduced by his selfish little anti-hero, Hamlet, forgiving him the trail of carnage that he leaves in his incompetent revolutionary wake because of his eloquent reflections and acute psychological insights.

It is difficult to argue with the idea that Shakespeare is fundamental to the Western canon, and much of the rest of world literature. This book led me to reflect again on the assertion of an army colleague of George McDonald Frazer, reported in his memoir of the war in Burma, Quartered Safe Out Here, that Shakespeare must have been a soldier during his “lost years.” Not only does Shakespeare describe camp life so well, but his appreciations of the machinations of power, of the contempt with which the dreamy prince can treat the lives of others, and the brutality with which the best laid plans can be disrupted by bad luck, does suggest the sensibility of the poor bloody infantry.

Literature should not be, in Bloom’s view, a way to help the reader empathise with the lives of others, something that seems to me a prime function. So, he is dismissive of how some universities teach the likes of Alice Walker for “political reasons” to the exclusion of some authors whose “strangeness” – Bloom’s standard for inclusion into the “canon” – he values more highly.

But Bloom at least acknowledges that the “canon” is evolving, and new literature still grows powerfully out of the old. If he was around today he would certainly recognise that a book like Half of a Yellow Sun carries the strong influence of War and Peace. But I also am sure he would be quite appalled with the notion of someone like me saying that Adichie’s book might be better than Tolstoy’s, and that part of its wonderful strangeness comes from expanding the mental world of the reader sufficiently to make us empathise with the dreadful plight of young Africans caught up in brutal war.

Country, by Michael Hughes

Summary: a fresh, determinedly unromantic take on the Iliad from the mountains of South Armagh

In my novel, The Undiscovered Country, one of the protagonists is an Armagh man in Mayo. So, I was delighted to find, in a sort of symmetry, that in Country, Michael Hughes’ superb novel of the Troubles, he has as one of his principal protagonists a Mayo man in South Armagh.

A fearsome IRA sniper, because his people come from Achill Island, he is known throughout simply as Achill. His active service unit is based out of a border bar called The Ships and has been waging a war of attrition for the past nine years with the British soldiers in an old fort, perhaps named after the victor of the Boyne, King William. Over the years the “W” has fallen off the name of the base and so some of the locals refer to the base simply as “Illiam” instead.

However, Nellie, the sister-in-law of the local IRA commander, Pig, has run off with a handsome British intelligence officer and spilled some of the unit’s secrets to the Brits. This not only makes their operations all the harder but introduces a certain animus into the conflict between these two sides.

As should be plain by now, Country is a brilliantly composed scene-for-scene reimagining of the Iliad in the mountains of South Armagh during the Troubles. The casting of the IRA as the Greeks and the Brits as the Trojans is apt given the general sympathy in Irish folk tradition to the Mycenae cause, not least because the English have long claimed descent from the Trojans.

In Christopher Logue’s retellings of the Iliad, the fate of Troy is decided in ill-tempered negotiation amongst the gods echoing contemporary discussions of war in corridors of power the world over. This metaphor is made explicit in Country as the increasing bitter struggle between the SAS and IRA in South Armagh comes to the attention of the various spooks and politicians in Dublin, Belfast, London and Washington.

The story is told in the local vernacular that weaves every old saw or cliché that I grew up with into a fresh prose poem that illuminates this ancient story.

Country is brilliant, and highly deserving of its growing reputation as a modern classic.

The Sunken Road, by Ciaran McMenamin

Summary: an exceptionally fine novel of the pity of war

Todd Andrews, as a youth an IRA volunteer, as an adult a distinguished public servant, once observed that two of his comrades on Bloody Sunday 1920 behaved “like Black and Tans.” As Diarmuid Ferriter notes in his history of the Irish Civil War, Between Two Hells, such judgements on both pro and anti-treaty troops became commonplace as that internecine conflict wore on.

So, it is a brave decision that in The Sunken Road, Ciaran McMenamin has taken just such a species of IRA volunteer as his protagonist.

Francie Leonard is a brutal man, brutalised by his First World War experiences, one of the few Catholics in the 36th Ulster Division. He has been fighting in the South with the IRA for much of the War of Independence. Now, visiting his native Fermanagh following the signing of the Treaty, he has to go on the run again when police inspector Crozier, a man he knew in France, gets onto his trail.

The book alternates between Francie’s experiences in mainland Europe, including the Battle of the Somme, with his childhood friend and fellow soldier Archie, and a few days in 1922 around the battle of Belleek and Pettigo, as Francie, with Archie’s sister and his own former lover, Annie, try to evade Crozier.

It is difficult to hold much sympathy with Francie once one learns that he had no compunction shooting a RIC inspector through his wife, irrespective of how bad a bastard the said inspector was. So, I found it tough going sticking with Francie past this early revelation. Nevertheless, it is a tribute to McMenamin’s skill as a writer that one comes to understand how Francie could have become reduced to such depredations. Further, like the priest Francie encounters on Loch Derg, one begins to hope for his redemption and that love may offer some renewal for him, something that the priest sees as possible, even if Francie cannot.

McMenamin’s descriptions of battle and violence are particularly powerful, and the friendships between Francie, Annie and Archie, and later Molloy, an American comrade of Francie, are beautifully drawn.

The Sunken Road is an exceptionally fine novel from a very gifted writer.

Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry

Summary: A sort of American Don Quixote with less philosophical substance and more genocide

Woodrow Call and Gus McCrae, two retired Texas Rangers decide to take a herd of cattle from Texas to the north west, for no good reason other than they’re bored in a way that can only be alleviated by the risking of their own lives and those of others. On the way they cross paths with thieves, murderers, and impoverished and defeated Native Americans.

Obituaries of Larry McMurtry noted his admiration for Don Quixote, and this shows, superficially at least. Lonesome Dove is also about two characters wandering the countryside talking nonsense, though the meanderings of Gus and Call are considerably more sanguinary than those of Sancho and Quixote.

Lonesome Dove is a beloved novel and a Pulitzer-prize winner. But unlike Don Quixote, there seemed to me little beyond the bickering. McMurtry himself was reported to have lamented the impact of the book, hoping to have written about “a harsh time and some pretty harsh people, but, to the public at large, I had produced something nearer to an idealization… a kind of Gone With The Wind of the West”… which makes me like McMurtry rather more than his book, which is itself way better than Margaret Mitchell’s vile pro-slavery porn.

But whatever my reservations, Lonesome Dove is certainly an entertaining tome, its brutal characters not without charm or humour, and filled with some exciting moments of violence and with brilliant dialogue throughout.

Shadow Cast by Mountains, by Patrick Howse

Summary: “Offering truth, knowing it won’t be believed,” – Cassandra, by Patrick Howse

Seamus Heaney once observed that a line of writing could be like a piece of wool, or a piece of wire.

Shadow Cast by Mountains, a book by the Irish (and British) journalist Patrick Howse, is a work of poetry constructed of lines like the barbed wire from the conflicts and battlefields that he reported for years.

There is a chronological structure to the book, echoing Howse’s life before and after Iraq. So alongside his reflections on the horror of violence, there are the more hopeful, fearful moments of his partner’s pregnancy and the birth of a daughter. Within all of that expanse of ordinary and extraordinary life, Howse reflects upon history, particularly the legacy of the First and Second World Wars and the curse of war-nostaligia wholly divorced from its visceral, piteous realities.

Again and again Howse presents the readers with arresting thoughts and images: reflecting on a young First World War combatant he notes, ”Soon he was nothing more/ Than just another/ Claggy lump of Belgium.” Or on a visit to a Parisian museum of that same war, “Once poets crouched in trenches/ Winced at shell-bursts, and/ watched men’s faces/ As they died in agony. … Now they watch television…”

The making of television was, of course, Howse job: “Hour after hour I find/ New ways to say/ The soldier’s head/ Was hacked off.”

Like all of the finest war poetry Howse can be shocking in his stark depictions of the pity of war. His poem, Responsibility, for example, I found particularly unsettling:

Imagine directing a cameraman in the pools of

Blood and urine left by a suicide bomber…

Think of telling him later that there

Just weren’t enough dead

To interest the teatime news

And listening as he describes

A baby smeared over a pavement 

And splashed on a wall…

Later, in an echo of this poem, Howse visits the Jewish Museum in Munich: “A girl asks/ ‘Even the children?’”

This line rather sums up the reality of war that “the red-cross wrapped” future cannon-fodder of Brexitism simply do not understand. Instead they worship an imperial past that they have learned only from old movies, forever ignorant, as Howse notes, that, “England is a German word”, its very being forever bound up with the rest of Europe.

Shadow Cast by Mountains is a fine work of poetry, some of it exceptional. It is an important riposte to the tendency of those who have never seen the face of war to glorify it. And, with its reflections on love and family life, it is a reminder that these most mundane of joys are the most important cause of hope for our common European homeland.

An Army At Dawn, by Rick Atkinson

Summary: a fine account of Operation Torch and the US army’s “European” baptism of fire

An Army at Dawn is an account of Operation Torch, the US army’s first engagement – in North Africa- against the European axis powers during the Second World War.

Atkinson notes that from the outset American generals argued that the only way to defeat Germany was a direct attack on its heart through France. The British, by contrast, having been unceremoniously evicted by the Germans from France, Norway and Greece, were altogether more circumspect about this approach. Instead they advocated a “peripheral” strategy, starting in North Africa”. This also had the advantage of maintaining access to the raw materials, including the cannon fodder, of their empire.

In spite of all the advice to the contrary Roosevelt eventually sided with the British and launched Torch, an invasion of French North Africa aimed at catching the Germans in a pincher with the British 8th Army.

By Atkinson’s account Roosevelt’s decision avoided disaster. In spite of great strategic acuity, the Americans had little senior experience of war-fighting: Patton and Marshall had been relatively junior officers in France during the First World War, Eisenhower had yet to hear a shot fired in anger. So some of their officers didn’t even know, for example, how to load a ship in “battle order” with the things they would need first going into the hold last, and the vice versa.

Consequently the US made initially heavy weather of the campaign, including the landings, in spite of the vast majority of the French forces ostensibly defending the coast wishing to defect to them.

After initial setbacks however the Americans learned their craft well in brutal fighting in the Atlas Mountains. Consequently Patton, Bradley and particularly Eisenhower went on to shape the strategy of the Western European theatre, informed by the operational lessons they learned in North Africa.

A minor theme running through the book relates to the racism displayed against the local Arab population by the Allied combatants. This dimly echoes Bonaparte’s atrocity strewn campaign in Egypt and Palestine and prefigures the post war independence movements to come.

An Army at Dawn is a fine, lucid account of this North African campaign. It is a refreshing alternative perspective on the English national religion that the Second World War has become.

The Devil That Danced on the Water, by Aminatta Forna

Summary: a masterpiece of history, journalism and memoir

The Devil That Danced on the Water is something of a hybrid book. It is in part a memoir of Aminatta Forna’s childhood. As a daughter of a Scottish mother and a Sierra Leonean father she was a bit of an outsider in both paternal and maternal societies and, perhaps therefore, a keen observer of both.

But this book is also a memoir of Aminatta’s father, Mohamed, a post-independence finance minister of Sierra Leone and a champion of sustainable development. When he managed to obtain a budget surplus, and despite being a medical doctor himself, he advised the reinvestment of the surplus into primary education rather than health as the only viable basis for his country’s future development.

Unfortunately for Sierra Leone, Forna’s Prime Minister, Siaka Stevens, had other ideas and squandered the money on patronage and corruption. Soon Mohamed was out of government but remained a focal point for democratic opposition.

Forna’s narrative is framed by an account of Mohamed’s final years following his arrest on trumped up treason charges. In describing his judicial murder by the Sierra Leonean kleptocracy, Aminatta charts the roots of the country’s appalling descent into bloody chaos in the latter part of the 20th Century.

Forna’s illustrates how, like all violence, that meted out to her father rippled across her whole family. She details her extraordinary step-mother’s struggles to take care of her and her siblings while desperately trying to also save Mohammed’s life in the face of the brutal stupidity of the Sierra Leone dictatorship. That she knew that Mohamed was being unfaithful to her at the time of his arrest never seems to have caused her to waver for a moment in either of these efforts.

Forna is an exquisite writer and a brave reporter, summoning incredible reserves of moral courage to interview many of those involved in her father’s assassination in order to gain a deeper understanding of just what happened. The story she has to tell is a deeply moving and hugely illuminating one. The Devil That Danced on the Water is, quite simply, a masterpiece.