Some stocktaking, part 2

Summary: not dead yet

Last year, about 12 months into the lockdown, I thought it would be a good idea to make a note of what I had done to see what it amounted to. Thought it would be a good idea to do the same again as 2022 turns to autumn. So:

1. Finished reading Don Quixote.

2. Wrote another bundle of expert reports on trafficking cases. One (at least) helped force a reverse in the UK’s unjust decision to deport a survivor of slavery.

3. Conducted virtual evaluations of three projects in Myanmar and left in awe of the extraordinary courage of local civil society’s efforts to mitigate the consequences of the military’s brutal onslaught on the country’s ordinary people.

4. Edited a special edition on the Journal of Modern Slavery on slavery in humanitarian crises, with an introductory essay entitled, Older than Troy

5. Read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie mighty novel of the war in Biafra, Half of a Yellow Sun. Think it might actually be better than War and Peace.

6. Finished writing and published my book, Ethical Leadership: moral decision making under pressure

7. Wrote an article for Open Democracy identifying the UK’s plan to deport migrants to Rwanda as a crime against humanity.

8. In aid of Children in Crossfire, I did my first 10k in years, around Kew Gardens, very badly.

9. Delivered a couple of public lectures in the great city of Belfast, including one at the legendary First Church in Rosemary Street.

10. Managed to go for a swim in Margate. Don’t think I will try that again until the British government decides that dumping raw sewage into the sea is not really much of a Brexit benefit.

11. Read Apeirogon, by Colum McCann, a desperately sad but inspiring perspective on the struggle against apartheid in Israel.

12. Completed a first draft of my second novel, Some Service to the State, about the repercussions from an enquiry into the fate of a missing girl in a newly partitioned Ireland. Started looking for a publisher.

Apeirogon, by Colum McCann

Summary: a desperately sad but hopeful perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Rami Ethanan, a graphic designer, and Bassam Aramin, a scholar, are friends. They have a lot in common. Both are smokers. Both are former combatants. Both understand the deep, moral corrosiveness of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. Both understand that peace requires people to talk to each other and try to understand each other’s point of view. Both are the fathers of murdered children: Rami’s daughter, Smadar, was murdered by Palestinian suicide bombers; Bassam’s daughter, Abir, was murdered by Israeli soldiers.

Apeirogon is the story of how, in particular, these two men have sought to advocate for peace by building mutual understanding. But it ranges even more widely, into the lives of their families, including their murdered daughters, and into the cultural and political history of Israel and Palestine.

(From the Guardian)

I finished this book just before Israel launched its latest series of child-killing attacks on Gaza. As usual, in such situations, American politicians are to be found on social media congratulating themselves for the US military support to Israel that allows its leadership to launch such attacks on Gaza with impunity. Such politicians find the slaughter of children with rockets, and American journalists with bullets, much more palatable than the murder of children by suicide bombers. But that is the logic of the US’s military alliance with what the Israeli human rights organisation, B’Tselem, has called an apartheid state.

The asymmetric nature of the warfare between Israelis and Palestinians is very much on display with the latest Israeli attack on Gaza. In prison, for throwing a dud grenade at an Israeli patrol, Bassam realised that responding to Israeli violence with violence, even if only stones, plays into the hands of those who want to sustain the occupation: it allows them to portray Israeli violence and theft as defensive, and the Palestinians as less than human. As a result of this realisation Bassam became committed to the ideal of non-violence.

Rami, recognising the common humanity of Palestinian and Israeli families who had suffered similar losses to his own, came to his own realisation that the status quo offered no real security for Israelis either. His wife, Nurit, a distinguished academic and peace activist, had understood this much earlier: with enormous courage she explicitly and publicly blamed the racist and militaristic policies of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the death of her daughter.

Apeirogon reminds us that as well as the meat-headed terrorists in the high echelons of government and the military, Israel and Palestine also have thousands of people like Rami and Bassam: people committed to non-violence, human rights and dialogue as a path towards justice.

For success such activists need international support. Yet the US and Europe fail utterly to do this, privileging Israel with arms and trade rather than compelling the dialogue that is essential for any meaningful peace to be forged.

Apeirogon is an extraordinarily important book. It is a tribute to the thousands of (asymmetrically) marginalised Palestinians and Israelis who have sought to build peace and fraternity through dialogue and understanding rather than acquiesce in violence. How many more children will be slaughtered before their path is recognised as the only truly viable one?

Photo by Sarah Lee for the Guardian

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.

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.

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

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.

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. But it had a wonderful book market where I discovered George McDonald Frazer’s Flashman books and bought a fine jackknife, made, the seller told me, from steel scavenged from the battlefields of Afghanistan.

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 gather the scrap metal that could be recast into fine knives, 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 miserable 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.”

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

Summary: a fine and concise history of the bloody consequences of a failed state

With this book Kevin Meagher seems to have two principle objectives: to provide a concise history of the conflict in the North of Ireland, and to identify British Government culpabilities in this conflict.

He fulfils both of these things admirably. While never excusing the routine atrocities of the IRA and the Loyalist paramilitaries, or the intrinsic bigotry of wider unionism, he identifies successive points where political courage on the part of the British Government may have staunched at least some of the bloodshed.

It was the British government which deliberately created a sectarian Orange state in the North of Ireland. This led to, until recently, a parallel illiberal state in the South as the ideal of a plural Ireland, uniting “Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter under the common name of Irish”, was shattered by British policy. 

The British excuse for Partition was to avoid civil war. But that came anyway, both in the South until 1923, and, off and on, in the North for the next 80 years. 

Meagher identifies 1914 as the last year in which this protracted conflict might have been avoided, had the newly passed Home Rule Act been implemented. It is not unreasonable to imagine that this may have allowed Ireland to have had a bumpy evolution into modern statehood akin to that experienced by Canada, Australia and New Zealand. 

But that didn’t happen. Instead from 1921 onwards the British government was content to acquiesce in the establishment of a state which institutionalised a type of caste-based discrimination within the borders of the United Kingdom. Meagher shows how the use of the first-past-the-post electoral system was foundational to the gerrymandering of Northern Ireland in favour of bigoted unionism, just as FPTP is today foundational to corrupt Tory power in Britain.

Successive British governments, even under Irish-heritage Labour politicians such as Jim Callaghan and Dennis Healey, were content to let this apartheid-style system fester so long as it didn’t bother them. They were not even stirred to do something when the Catholic community in the North of Ireland, inspired by Martin King and the black civil rights movement in the United States, took to the streets to peacefully demand their most basic civil rights. 

The British government only reacted when their puppets in the Northern Ireland government embarrassed them internationally by turning civil rights protests on the streets of Derry into a re-enactment of the sort of nakedly bigoted police brutality seen earlier on the streets of Selma and across the US South. By sending in the troops the British government blundered into escalating civil unrest into civil war.

Thereafter, as the death toll mounted, British Labour and Conservative governments alike missed opportunity after opportunity to deescalate. But eventually, starting with the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, a peace process began to be pieced together following John Hume’s blueprint of dealing with the “totality of relationships” – within Northern Ireland, North-South and between Britain and Ireland – within the context of common membership of the European Union. 

It was this painstaking and still fragile process that Boris Johnson – and I choose these words carefully – decided to shite over in his fevered scramble for the British premiership.

Meagher identifies a number of British politicians who made, on balance, constructive contributions to Irish peace – Whitelaw, Prior, Brooke, Mayhew, Mowlam, Major, Blair, even Thatcher, in spite of her inept handling of the 1981 hunger strikes which made her, in effect, the fairy godmother at Sinn Fein’s political rebirth. However, it is difficult to think of a politician since Lord John Russell who has been more damaging to Anglo-Irish relations than Boris Johnson. 

As Unionists try to celebrate 100 years of Northern Ireland, Meagher has commemorated this anniversary with this important book that shows why Northern Ireland has been such a disastrous political project.

And yet there are still those forlorn souls who bleat about the possibilities of a new “progressive” unionism for Northern Ireland’s second century. But, as Meagher shows, this is hardly a new idea. Terrance O’Neill as Prime Minister of Northern Ireland tried it in the 1960s and was destroyed for it. Every unionist leader since who has made even the slightest move towards equality has been dispatched. Most recently Arlene Foster was removed because she wasn’t homophobic enough, and Edwin Poots brief leadership was ended when he acquiesced in a British government move to give effect to his own party’s commitments regarding parity of esteem for the Irish language.

“Liberal unionist” is a relative term in a political ideology that is inherently reactionary. That is why unionism eats progressives raw, and always will. True progressives must instead turn their eyes to the prize of another of John Hume’s ideas: that of unity in the diversity of a New Ireland. 

As the ugly spectre of Johnson’s Blackshirt-hued politics continues to assert itself in England the prospect of a New Ireland will become ever more attractive to people of all traditions in the North of Ireland. For now, Kevin Meagher’s fine book shows why it’s time to put Northern Ireland out of our collective misery.