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.

The Ratline, by Phillipe Sands

Summary: meh!

I once attended an academic conference in which one researcher after another spent their allotted time telling the audience in exhaustive detail how they went about undertaking their research, and how interesting that was for them whether the audience shared their interest or not. Few of them mentioned anything they had actually found out.

It is a common enough story amongst inexperienced researchers: developing robust methodology can be such a challenge that it is the thing that comes to preoccupy them rather than the actual purpose of the research itself. We’ve all been there.

Phillipe Sands is not an inexperienced researcher. The Ratline is his follow up to the very fine East West Street, his hybrid family memoir/ joint biography of the originators of the legal concepts of crimes against humanity and genocide. However reading The Ratline, I did find myself, again and again, transported back to that conference, thinking to myself: But what is your actual point here?

Like East-West Street The Ratline is concerned with the atrocities of the Second World War. It has grown out of conversations that Sands had with Horst von Wachter, son of Otto, a man indicted for mass murder in 1945 but who was never captured.

Horst insisted that his father was a good man, who, in spite of his involvment with the Nazis was never implicated in murder. Further Horst reckons that his father, who died in Rome, was murdered.

All of Horst’ fanciful assertions about his father are exhaustively explored by Sands. Unsurprisingly there is no “THERE” there. What we knew at the beginning is what we know at the end: His father was directly involved in atrocity and he was not murdered.

Some reviewers have found compelling Sands’ account of his painstaking investigations to discover nothing. I didn’t. Much of it I found banal in the extreme, particularly the extensive passages quoted from the diaries of Otto’s wife, wittering on about various domestic and society concerns while her husband is out conducting affairs with other women and ensuring that the machinery of mass murder is running smoothly. I presume that Sands’ purpose in including such material is to illustrate the banality of evil. But that does not stop the material in question from being desperately boring too.

Following the war, and after 3 years on the run in the Alps, Von Wachter senior came into contact with some pro-Nazi elements in the Catholic Church. He hoped these would help him escape on to someplace such as Argentina or Namibia via the titular Ratline.

It is a historical fact that elements of the Catholic Church assisted Nazi criminals to escape justice by facilitating their flight to South America and elsewhere. Other Vatican officials, most notably Hugh O’Flaherty from Kerry, also ran one of the biggest Allied escape networks of the Second World War, but Sands does not mention this.

In any event the impression given by the book of the Ratline is less an organised right-wing conspiracy and more a few corrupt and venial individuals seeking to profit from the desperate efforts of repulsive individuals to evade justice.

Von Wachter did not progress beyond Rome along this Ratline because he could not stump up the cash to pay. Instead he whiled away his time swimming in the Tiber where he contracted the infection that killed him.

Overall then The Ratline offers some methodological insight into how Sands conducts his research, but little new on any aspect of the war, crimes against humanity or genocide that was not much more fruitfully explored in East-West Street. It is a story of the banality of evil, banally told.

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.

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.