My most read blogs of 2021

Summary: from Irish history to Indian civil rights struggles with a bit of Brexit along the way (all linked to the articles themselves for your reading comfort)

1. What a Bloody Awful Country: Northern Ireland’s Century of Division, by Kevin Meagher

2. “Stop and we’ll fight them”: Collins’ tactics at Beal na mBlath

3. The Silence of the Girls, by Pat Barker

4. Embracing Brexit”, and other nonsense from UK Labour’s leadership

5. The Doctor and the Saint: Arundhati Roy’s introduction to B R Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste

Books of the year, 2021

Summary: in no particular order, the best books I’ve read this year (each linked to longer reviews):

1. Anatomy of a Killing, by Ian Cobain

2. The Slough House series, by Mick Herron (Slow Horses; Dead Lions; Real Tigers; London Rules; Spook Street; Joe Country; Slough House)

3. Caste: the lies that divide us, by Isabel Wilkerson

4. Do Not Disturb: The story of a political murder and an African regime gone bad, by Michela Wrong

5. The Power of Geography: 10 maps that reveal the future of our world, by Tim Marshall

6. What a Bloody Awful Country: Northern Ireland’s Century of Division, by Kevin Meagher

7. The Afghanistan Papers, by Craig Whitlock; and Freedom, by Sebastian Junger

8. Master of the Senate, by Robert Caro

9. Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

10. Playing the Enemy, by John Carlin

The Cure at Troy: Seamus Heaney’s version of Sophocles’ Philoctetes

Summary: still with something vital to say about a new Ireland

Odysseus has come to Lemnos with Achilles’ son, Neoptolemus, to procure the bow of Heracles, without which, so it is foretold, Troy cannot fall. Unfortunately for Odysseus this is in the possession of Philoctetes, a former comrade abandoned by Odysseus on this island because of his foul-smelling, unhealing wound.

The Cure at Troy contains some of Heaney’s most famous lines, including that of Chorus reflecting that sometimes “hope and history rhyme”. This became something of an epigram for the Irish peace process organised by Heaney’s former schoolmate, John Hume.

But while there are themes of forgiveness in The Cure at Troy its protagonists are not actually concerned with peace but with the organisation of an atrocity. When Sophocles wrote the original play the audience would have been aware of the horrors that Odysseus and Neoptolemus would inflict in their future on the women and children of Troy. Heaney, a classical scholar himself, would have known this too and Chorus warns these men against the very atrocities that they will go on to commit.

But, just as in the midst of the Troubles, in this play the pleas for peace and restraint are, at the very moments they are being said, falling on deaf ears. Neither Odysseus nor Neoptolemus are interested in such things. Instead they are dreaming of rape, pillage and martial glory. Across the course of the play they do not really change from Chorus’ initial assessment of them: “…every one of them / Convinced he’s right, all of them glad/ To repeat themselves and their every last mistake/ no matter what./ People so deep into /Their own self-pity self-pity buoys them up.”

Perhaps that is a more fitting epigram for the current state of the Peace Process and the hopes of a New Ireland in the aftermath of the UK’s buffoonish Brexit: “Republicans” dwell on the hurt they have suffered and dismiss the pain of those on whom they have inflicted hurt. “Loyalists”, convinced of their fundamental entitlement to privileges they would love to deny their nationalist neighbours, are in denial of the consequences of their own actions, and desperate to blame on someone else the damage that they have inflicted on their own community.

But in recognising the humanity of murderers even as they plan their foulest atrocities, the play reminds us that eventually the pleas for restraint and toleration are recognised to be not mere idealism or wishful thinking but the overwhelming wisdom essential for survival. Sometimes hope and history do indeed rhyme.

Towards a new Ireland: reflections on The Treaty, by Colin Murphy, and Playing the Enemy, by John Carlin

Summary: Unity in diversity requires accommodation not triumphalism

Towards the end of Colin Murphy’s gripping play, The Treaty, there is a scene in which Griffith and Collins present to the Irish cabinet the text securing partial independence that they have managed to negotiate. The minister of defence, Cathal Brugha, berates them brutally for the compromises they have been forced to accept and for failing to meet every detail of his impossible ideal of an Irish republic. As far as Brugha is concerned Griffith and Collins are traitors bought off by the British.

As discussions regarding the constitutional arrangements for a new Ireland are developed over the next few years this scene will be played out again and again across Ireland in households and communities, on social media and in elected forums. The heirs of Cathal Brugha, the self-appointed guardians of the sacred flame of Irish republicanism, will denounce all those who propose any sort of accommodation with unionism as a means to secure Irish unity. Indeed, it’s happening already.

I recently commented on social media that, much as I like the Irish tricolour, a new Ireland might need a new flag. And, really, the only folk who should maybe be singing the Soldier’s Song these days are the national Defence Forces.

That was met with not inconsiderable fury from some folk. John Hume may have taught us that you can’t eat a flag, but Twitter teaches us that flag-shaggers are not just Brexity gammons. There are plenty in Ireland too whose communion with the patriot dead allows for no iota of compromise on their ideals of an Irish republic.

The questions of the compromises needed to obtain peace and unity led me to reread Playing the Enemy, John Carlin’s superb account of the end of apartheid. Many will be familiar with part of the story: the book, particularly its final third, provided the basis of the Clint Eastwood movie, Invictus.

Carlin’s outstanding book is much more detailed in its account of how the peaceful transition of power was achieved. It starts well before Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. There, he had decided not just to endure, but to continue to struggle. And part of this struggle involved understanding his captors. Starting first with his jailers, then with the increasingly senior officials and ministers who came to negotiate with him, then with the far Right who he engaged with to stave off the risk of civil war, Mandela sought to build trust and demonstrate to them that they had nothing to fear from a democratic future in South Africa.

Part of this process involved understanding the power of symbols. He learned Afrikaans so that he could show his oppressors respect as human beings by speaking to them in their own language. He came to appreciate the importance of rugby to the Afrikaners and the passion they felt for their anthem and the green and gold Springbok jersey.

As negotiations progressed he made sure that these symbols, which for decades had represented oppression to the black majority of the population, were retained in the new South Africa. In the course of the 1995 rugby world cup he led his whole country to embrace and share them.

Mandela understood that peace in South Africa depended not on victory for one side over another but through accommodation of all. It was his country’s incredible good fortune that they had in Mandela a person with the moral and the intellectual grandeur necessary to lead his people away from more retributive ideals to a place to where they came to share his vision of unity in diversity.

Ireland does not have a Mandela. So, achieving a new Ireland will depend on much more contentious leaders, and other ordinary people making accommodations with each other and with unpalatable symbols of the past to create a new rainbow nation in the Northern hemisphere.

It is an achievable goal. But it is something that will be threatened not just by the Protestant Supremacists of the North. It will also be put in jeopardy by the absolutist heirs of Cathal Brugha, the hard-faced men and women unreconciled to the variety of the Irish nation, and disgusted by any mention of compromises that may be necessary to achieve a unity of this diversity.

Master of the Senate, by Robert Caro

Summary: some Johnsons know how to wield power

Master of the Senate is the third volume of Robert Carol’s massive biography of Lyndon Johnson. Like the previous volumes, it is something of a history of his times as well as being a biography of Johnson.

So, Johnson is absent for large chunks of this biography as it introduces us to crusading economist Leland Olds, Hubert Humphrey, doyen of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, Richard Russell, the leader of the Senate’s virulently racist Southern caucus, and, of course, Martin King.

Among other things this book is a study in power. It is fascinating to learn how Johnson transformed the hitherto irrelevant role of Senate majority leader into an office of incredible power.

There was little personally attractive about Lyndon Johnson. He was a bully, a serial adulterer, and a racist. But he understood power and he wanted to be president. So to obtain a viable presidential candidacy, Johnson destroyed Olds to keep his financial backers in the oil industry happy, and cosied up to Russell and his determined efforts to maintain state sanctioned terrorism against the black citizens of the United States across the South.

Caro observes in the course of this book, as he has in previous volumes, that Johnson’s life is composed of light and dark threads. However where Johnson’s instinct for compassion conflicted with his personal advancement, then his selfish interests won out.

But, in 1956 as he made his first attempt at the Democratic nomination, Johnson discovered that the support of corrupt oil interests and racist bigots was not enough. He needed support in the North as well. And Johnson revolted Liberal Democrats. So he had to do something to appeal to them. This led him to championing what became the 1957 Civil Rights Act, after first gutting it of all the substantive portions that Russell and his ghouls objected to. The negotiations and manoeuvring towards even this modest achievement provide a gripping climax to this volume, as compelling as anything in The West Wing or The Wire.

Caro argues that ultimately Johnson was by far the most important civil rights president since Lincoln. It is a remarkable aspect of his story how such an extraordinary narcissist was led towards this end from a beginning of overweening and selfish hunger for power.

Glass, by Emily Cooper

Summary: an exquisite collection reflecting on life and loss

“I buy a slide projector in a charity shop/ another woman is after it/ I avoid eye contact” (Glass).

Antje Krog, in her remarkable book on the South African Truth Commission, Country of My Skull, suggested that finding a new way to say, “I love you, but you don’t notice me,” is a measure of a fine poet in Western society. In her book, Glass, Emily Cooper finds new ways of describing this and many other aspects of ordinary life, from heartbreak to cooking to bereavement.

Her poem, Notions of Sex, a poignant description of determined recovery from romantic disappointment, is also overlaid with echoes of the violence and threat that women and girls have to endure. Her poem Old Lives is a mediation on the regrets associated with paths not taken, the repercussions of very real grief, and lonely optimism: “Open the window and/ Drink a glass of cheap French brandy/ To bring in the New Year.”

With her Northern accented ponderings on life through the prisms of some of the quainter corners of our common European homeland, eel cookery, and the myths of ancient Greece, Cooper shows an echo of Seamus Heaney. But her voice is still all her own and she is an exquisite successor to that giant.

The Women of Troy, by Pat Barker

Summary: continuing the story of Briseis, perhaps with diminishing returns

By any measure The Women of Troy is a fine novel. I just have a niggling wish Pat Barker hadn’t written it.

This book is set in the days following the fall of Troy, but before the Greek fleet has embarked for home, it’s departure delayed by inclement weather. However It adds little to the peerless Silence of The Girls, Barker’s retelling of the Iliad and Euripides’ Trojan Women. Instead, borrowing heavily from Sophocles’ play, Antigone, The Women of Troy deals with the conflicts arising around the burial of Priam. While gripping it has few of the arresting insights on war and slavery that made its prequel so powerful.

So, there’s a bit of a Jaws 2 vibe to the whole thing. Still, paradoxically, I will be waiting with bated breath for a further sequel: the character of Briseis is a superb creation and I feel invested in her well-being now.

Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Summary: in the tradition of War and Peace but maybe better

Half of a Yellow Sun is an incredible book. A sort of a 20th century War and Peace but, for me, carrying a heftier emotional wallop than Tolstoy’s masterpiece.

Thirteen year old Ugwu gets a job as “houseboy” for Odenigbo, a lecturer at Nsukka University in Nigeria. There he meets Olanna, Odenigbo’s posh, beautiful girlfriend. He doesn’t quite realise for some time, as he continues with his household duties, that the two have effectively adopted him as part of the family, ensuring that he goes to school, planning university for him, and, when they can, taking care of Ugwu’s blood relations.

Into the orbit of this non-traditional family, comes Olanna’s non-traditional sister Kainene, a business executive, and her English boyfriend, Richard, an academic drawn to this part of West Africa by his love of its art. None of these adults receives much approval from their other relatives and parts of their communities for their choice of lovers. As the story is told from the perspectives of Ugwe, Olanna and Richard, the barbs and abuses they receive, and the tensions they endure, allow for particular insight into the diversity of Nigerian cultures and British and Nigerian attitudes towards each other.

But all of these prejudices pale in the face of the bloodbath of civil war that engulfs Nigeria and leads to the establishment of the breakaway state of Biafra.

When I was growing up Biafra was still a by-word for famine and the punchline for knuckleheaded racist jokes. With Half of a Yellow Sun, Adichie describes the horror of the war there through the eyes of this small group of young people.

As well as the specific details and dynamics of that half-forgotten war, Half of a Yellow Sun tells the universal story of the impact of war on ordinary people, shattering life and love and brutalising and breaking even the best of people.

It is a masterpiece and wholly deserved of its reputation as one of the greatest books of the 21st century.

Yes We Mustard, by Ginny Hogan

Summary: Catch-22 for the millennium generation

Emery gets a job with an exciting new tech-condiment-start-up, Yes We Mustard, a company whose business model and CEO bear ABSOLUTELY NO RESEMBLENCE to Facebook or Mark Zuckerberg. Soon, her desire to be loved for saving the world and become an inspirational GIRL BOSS, leads her to investigate the mysterious “addictive fructose powder” that is being put into the company’s exciting condiment products.

Ginny Hogan’s satire is a glorious affair. With a joke rate comparable to a great Marx Brothers’ movie, she lampoons everything that crosses her path, from corporate culture (“now you can listen to your great and heroic CEO”), to faux-feminism (“when a man fires someone it’s mean, but when a woman fires someone it’s empowering”), to the eternal shallowness of men (“men don’t like her because she’s a good person. Men like her because she’s insanely hot”). Her real targets though are ignorance and selfishness – things that the ENLIGHTENED leaders of Facebook and their ilk are in no way responsible for just because their entire business models are based on their promotion.

Ginny Hogan has been an impressive stand-up for a number of years now. Based on Yes We Mustard she is also a gifted playwright. I look forward to more of both from her in the years to come.

Check it out on audible or here: https://podtail.com/podcast/the-audio-verse-awards-nominee-showcase-podcast/2021-showcase-yes-we-mustard/

William Wilberforce, by William Hague

Summary: an exceptionally fine and engrossing biography of a great humanitarian

In the sublimely brilliant film, The Ladykillers, the exquisite Katie Johnson’s character is called Mrs Wilberforce. In giving her that name the producers wanted to signal immediately to the audience that this little old lady represented the epitome of English decency and moral courage.

Her character’s namesake, William, is a rarity in British history: a hero who is celebrated not for their participation in conflict or colonialism, but for their role in a humanitarian campaign – the ending of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

The trans-Atlantic slave trade was one of the worst crimes against humanity in history. Over the centuries the slave-trading European powers stoked wars in Africa and trafficked over 10 million human beings into brutal enslavement in the Americas, killing millions more along the way.

William Hague’s biography of this key parliamentary figure in the struggle against the slave trade is a richly detailed and elegantly written account of the man’s life. Along the way he makes some fascinating excursions into the wider history of the time, including 18th century parliamentary machinations, evangelical religious revivalism, and the dubious electoral politics of that era.

Hague is generous in his assessment of Thomas Clarkson, the towering anti-slavery campaigner, without whom Wilberforce’s parliamentary efforts would have come to nothing. Of course, Hague argues, without Wilberforce Clarkson’s campaigning would also likely have been fruitless. Instead he asserts the critical complementarity that these two brought as the cutting edge of a national movement brought into being by, more than anyone else, the Quakers.

Similar to Jenkin’s biography of Churchill, this book is enriched by Hague’s understanding of parliament and government gained over the course of his own senior political career. It is an exceptionally fine work of history and reminds the reader why the name Wilberforce remains such a resonant one.