The sunlit uplands in historical context

Summary: It’s going to get worse.

In 1974, on the eve of the collapse of first power sharing government in the North of Ireland as a result of a coup d’etat against it by loyalist paramilitaries who had taken control of public utilities, including electricity, John Hume mused that the executive should refuse to surrender. “I’ll sit here,” he said in his ministerial office, “until there is shit flowing up Royal Avenue [in central Belfast] and then the people will realise what these [paramilitaries] are about and then we will see who wins”. Hume’s biographer, Barry White, noted that he believed it was useful to show who were the builders and who were the destroyers.

The collapse of that Northern Ireland executive led to decades more bloodshed until a comparable deal was finally reached, for the “slow learners” of Northern Ireland politics in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

The spiritual heirs to the paramilitaries who destroyed that prospect of peace in the North of Ireland are now in power in the UK. The Brexit mob smashed the political economy created by the UK’s membership of the EU simply because they could. As Dominic Cummings rambling interview with Laura Kuenssberg showed, neither he nor anyone else in the Brexit elite had any sense of what they should build instead. But neither were they bothered about that. Like the Loyalist paramilitaries of 1974 their political philosophy is not much more evolved than that of the teenage vandal.

Johnson and his repellent coterie did discern however that Brexit offered them a path to political power. This, in turn would provide opportunities aplenty for pillage. In addition they could undermine democratic norms and erode rule of law to lessen the risk that they would ever be held accountable for their greed and incompetence.

Today, as in 1974, the British Labour party is proving useless in opposing the wreckers. They seem more terrified of upsetting the xenophobes than explicitly calling out the Big Lie that provides the animating philosophy of the country’s far-Right.

How this will win them power is not clear. The Tory policy of Brexit has put a sword of Damocles over the fishing and farming industries. Supermarket shelves are already emptying as Brexit buckles British supply chains. By the time the shit begins to flow in the streets, those who once voted for the whole show will wonder why Labour stayed silent rather than tell them the hard truth.

Lots of Brexit benefits for sale at my local supermarket

For centuries, the British Establishment plundered half the world with its empire, using racism to justify its many depredations. Now that same racism and xenophobia has given it a chance to convince enough of their subjects to slip the bonds that have, until now, restrained them from barefaced plunder of their own country. It is almost karmic.

In the end the English will have to rejoin Europe. The political and economic logic of the world already makes that plain to anyone who has ever taken the time to locate Calais in a school atlas. The sooner the slow learners of British politics realise that, the fewer young lives will be blighted by the pusillanimous surrender of government to the wrecking fools currently cosplaying the role of Fascist Italy from their Whitehall offices.

Fragments of Afghanistan


Summary: old memories of a war, with no useful conclusion beyond despair

Afghanistan was in chaos when I worked there towards the end of 1994. The warlords were still squabbling over the spoils following the Soviet withdrawal. So, as usual in war, the civilian population were caught in the middle. 

MSF Holland, who I was working for at the time, had a base in Peshawar in Pakistan from which we operated into Jalalabad in Afghanistan. 

Peshawar was a strange city. A garrison town under the British it fulfilled a similar function for the Pakistani government. Beyond the city limits lay the North-West Frontier province, that lawless area which the British could never control. Neither could the Pakistani government. So it was declared “self-governing”. That meant no government in reality. 

The North-West Frontier province began in the Peshwar suburbs, beyond the official city limits. After this point, marked by an arch across the road, the nature of the roadside shops changed from ones selling food and clothes, to ones selling hand grenades and Kalashnikovs. 

As the road twisted up through the foothills of the Hindu Kush towards the Khyber Pass it passed a palace, believed locally to contain the residence and laboratory of one of the wealthiest heroin processors in the world. Efforts by Pakistan to close down this enterprise were, it was said, always frustrated by the armed tribesmen of the North-West Frontier who valued the revenue this man brought into the region, being a ready market for their poppies and those of their counterparts in Afghanistan.

The relative order of the Pakistan side of the Khyber gates, maintained by the club-armed Pakistani police and soldiers, was wholly absent on the Afghan side, where crowds of migrants, desperate to get across the border seethed awaiting for an opening when the occasional authorised vehicle passed. When this happened they would try to surge through only to be beaten back by the Pakistani border guards. 

I worked designing a piped water scheme for a camp of people who had fled Kabul as a result of the fighting. In the arid countryside between Jalalabad and the border with Pakistan a new city of tents and mud had grown up for a quarter of a million people, scorching hot in summer, bitterly cold in winter. 

It was a land sown with dragons’ teeth. The countryside had been a battlefield for so long that occasionally kids trying to scavenge scrap metal would have lumps blown off them when they picked up some unexploded ordnance or discarded anti-personnel mine. 

In the evening there was little to do in Jalalabad other than play chess. One of the drivers was particularly good. In years gone by he had been good enough to be selected to play the Russian grand master Anatoly Karpov in an exhibition match when he visited Afghanistan.

One night our warehouse in Jalalabad was robbed. We contacted the local authorities and the governor himself showed up to take charge of the investigation. This amounted to him ordering the warehouse guards arrested and beaten until they told the truth of who was responsible. The governor just naturally assumed that these young guards were involved somehow. Still, I don’t think the culprits were ever caught.

Once, in the Jalalabad bazaar to buy some fruit juice, I remember a young Afghan man, sporting bandoliers and carrying an AK 47 slung over his shoulder, screaming at me for reasons that I could not discern. Discretion always being the better part of valour, I tried to make myself scarce. But I noticed his green eyes dilated with drugs as I fled.

There was a shop in the bazaar we called the antique shop. It sold all manner of bric-a-brac. This included buttons cut from the uniforms of British and Soviet soldiers who had died at the hands of Afghan guerrillas during 19th and 20th Century imperial adventures, and whose graves lay still in the mountains around us. I imagined that if you went deep enough into that bazaar there might be a shop where the lamps burned darkness and, for the price of your soul, even a flying carpet could be yours to possess. 

Around this time we first heard the stirrings of the Taliban. I don’t know where I first heard the suggestion, whether it was in Afghanistan or Pakistan, that this might be a good thing. At least they were a national movement, it was said, who might finally end the years of factional and ethnic conflict in the country. Certainly uniting in the face of a common enemy would be one way of obtaining national unity. Unfortunately women and girls seemed to be the ones who would obtain that unfortunate designation of “common enemy”. 

Not that it was a feminist halcyon up to that. One Afghan engineer I worked with was nervously hoping that his pregnant wife would give birth to a son. If she didn’t his mother and sisters were already pressuring him to take another wife who would produce a boy.

***

Years later, on a beach outside the port of Massawa in Eritrea, I fell into a fragmented conversation with a small group of Russian sailors in port for a couple of days. One of them, the one who spoke the most English pointed to the eldest of the group. “He is an Afghanski”, I was told, a veteran of the Afghan war.

“What parts of Afghanistan did he serve in?” I asked. 

From the litany he repeated one name stuck out: Jalalabad. “What did you do there?” I asked.

“You know the power plant in Jalalabad?” he asked, via our translator. 

“There was no power plant.” I said. “It had been blown up.”

“Yes,” the Afghanski said. “I blew it up.”

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon

Summary: a spectacularly absorbing story of the collision between dreams and realities

Since its publication in 2000 Chabon’s Pulitzer prize-winning Kavalier and Clay has come to be regarded as a modern American classic. It is the story of two cousins, Joe Kavalier, a refugee from Prague, and Sammy Clayman, who when then meet in New York in the late 1930s discover that they have just the complementary talents necessary to produce successful comic books. This includes one storyline featuring a Nazi-fighting superhero known as ‘The Escapist”.

The book skips back and forward in time, from Joe’s escape from Prague, up to the early 1950s taking leisurely excursions along the way into Jewish folklore, the legends of escapology, and the birth of the American superhero genre. 

It is a wildly entertaining piece of work, often funny, occasionally horrific, with central characters Joe, Rosa and Sam who you properly care about, aware that the brutal realities of the time may also consume them as they have so many others. 

Exquisite.

A Moment of War, by Laurie Lee

Summary: a haunting account of a fragment of the Spanish Civil War

A Moment of War is Laurie Lee’s memoir of his experiences of the Spanish Civil War.

His account is determinedly anti-heroic. Much of it deals with the bureaucracy of the Communist dominated forces that he is assigned to once it is accepted finally, after periods of incarceration, that he is not a spy and they did not have to shoot him after all. Ironically, he tells how he was subsequently assigned to what in the North of Ireland would have been called a “nutting squad” – a unit responsible for identifying and liquidating perceived threats, from deserters and saboteurs to little old men with lingering allegiance to the Catholic Church.

Apparently in sympathy with the anti-religious temperament of the Republican forces Lee relishes the sexual promiscuity he believes that this has bred. He describes an episodic affair with a young Spanish girl, Eulalia, who seems to represent to him a new spirit of sexual liberation in revolutionary Spain. Eulalia despite being at least five years younger than Lee calls him “very young” – perhaps what she has already lived though, like millions of women and girls before her and since, has aged her. So maybe what seemed like romantic abandon to someone as naive as Lee may have been a survival strategy for Eulalia. Lee’s English lover, presumably Lorna Wishart, a married woman with whom he was having an affair during this period, is also a recurrent, though mostly unseen, presence in the book, representing memories of humanity and normalcy away from the bleakness of war.

Towards the end of the book Lee states, almost in passing that he killed someone, blotting out the life of another young man in a confused skirmish during a hopeless battle that could have no bearing on victory or defeat in the war. Some have suggested that this is a fabricated incident, and that Lee was never actually a part of the International Brigades – assertions that Lee’s widow vehemently disputed. 

Both George Orwell and Tim O’Brien crafted elements of their experiences of war to sharpen literary effect. In The Things They Carried O’Brien is explicit about this, questioning whether a story describing how he killed a young man is a more honest accounting of his role in Vietnam than a description of his experiences in which he never personally pulls the pin on a fatal grenade.

Whatever the literal truth of Lee’s involvement in the International Brigades, A Moment of War is an atmospheric and haunting book, exquisitely written and deserved of its reputation as a modern classic.