Thursday 29 December 2011

Making an End

The subject of year end posts came up in Blog Catalogue. I’ve never written one for the simple reason that in the time that Ana the Imp has been in existence I’ve never been around at the year end, signing off just before Christmas. Well, here I am, close to the midnight hour; so, in the absence of anything else, here is my premier year end post!

In a Janus-style I look back and I look forward. Speaking personally, it’s been a good year for me, one of the best ever, though I feel a slight sense of guilt for saying so, with all the troubles in the world, troubles in so many lives. I’m conscious of how fortunate and privileged I am, able to do things that so many others can only ever dream of. But it’s the only life I will ever have and I simply must make the best use of it in the way that I see fit.

My year began in Austria, there on a skiing trip; it will end also with a skiing trip. I was in Paris at Easter, pursuing every romantic cliché that you can imagine and a few you probably can’t! Then there was Peru and latterly Egypt, more experiences that will leave an indelible impression on my mind, not just because of the marvellous monuments I saw but because the people I met, decent, lovely people, no matter their race, religion or politics.

But travel is not just about personal gratification; it’s about understanding a little more about the world, seeing the mountain, so to speak, through other eyes and from other angles. If at the end, if in looking back, I can say it was all worth doing, that I have no regrets and I would do it all again without changing a thing, then I will be satisfied. Let's plunge ourselves into the roar of time, the whirl of accident; may pain and pleasure, success and failure, shift as they will - it's only action that can make a woman. I offer apologies here for a slight adaptation of the words of Goethe.

My personal development continues; my reading gets broader and my experiences deeper, my intellect more subtle, my judgements less harsh; well, not quite as harsh as they once were. I have so many people I am thankful for: my wonderful parents, old friends and new friends, here, there and everywhere. And of course there is you; yes, you know who I’m talking about, my ever faithful shadow.

I look forward into the year of the Maya, the year of great events, anticipated and projected. Do I think something cataclysmic is going to happen? No, quite frankly, I don’t, but even if I did what could I do, what difference would it make? If the world goes then I go with it, a happy fatalist.

I certainly hope for the sake of America, and for the free world as a whole, that Barack Obama goes. I care nothing about his race, his ethnicity, his religious beliefs and the ambiguity over his birth certificate; all of that seems utterly irrelevant. What is relevant is his complete incapacity for high office, the almost total absence of the qualities of steadiness and determination that are essential handmaidens of leadership. America seems to be drifting at the moment; and when America drifts we drown.

Turning closer to home I see the European Union, that unnatural monster, descending ever deeper into chaos, a farce played out in several unappealing acts. I find it difficult to express how much contempt I have for the sad mediocrities in the chanceries and palaces across the Continent. In the words of Margaret Thatcher, they are indeed a pathetic bunch. The sane thing is for Britain to get out of the club, something I hope to see one day.

On the subject of Margaret Thatcher the first film I intend to see in the New Year is The Iron Lady with Meryl Streep in the title role. I can’t think of anyone else I would choose for the part. The advance publicity I’ve seen looks good. If it helps understand one of the truly great figures of the last century then it will have served its purpose very well, even if it is a warts and all portrayal. There is indeed a price to be paid for power, and with the highs come the inevitable lows. Enoch Powell was absolutely right in his assessment of political careers.

Well, that’s it, that’s enough, my end of year report. I’m leaving for France on New Year’s Day for a week’s skiing. So, I’ll see you all over another border in time. Have a very, very happy New Year and may it bring everything that you would wish for.

For last year's words belong to last year's language
And next year's words await another voice.
And to make an end is to make a beginning

Wednesday 28 December 2011

Several Uneasy Pieces

In its beginning was its end. Actually that’s not quite true; the Soviet Union came in with a bang and out with a whimper. Even so the two events were united, a long, slow motion curtain-call for the old Russian imperium. Aleksandr Kugel, a Russian theatre critic and editor, writing a few months after the Bolshevik coup in 1917 put the matter rather well;

The dying process has begun. Everything we see now is just part of the agony. Bolshevism is the death of Russia. And a body the size of Russia cannot die in one hour. It groans.

It certainly did groan, decade after decade, a body in terminal decline, a body destroyed by the most aggressive form of ideological cancer. Mikhail Gorbachev, the last president of the USSR, made one fundamental error: he formed the belief that he was a doctor; in fact he was an undertaker; he tried to raise Caesar only to bury him. His twin medicines, glasnost and perestroika, openness and restructuring, only served to reveal just how bad the patient was, how terminal the condition. The benighted man finally opened to the truth, delivering a funeral oration on Christmas Day, 1991. It all ended with mealy-mouthed good wishes.

There are odd historical ironies here. Imperialism, according to Lenin, is the highest stage of capitalism. His communist state was the highest stage of imperialism. In other words, the revolution of 1917 preserved in aspic what was in effect a Tsarist colonial structure built up over centuries. The Russian Slavs had taken up the white man’s burden, ruling over Kalmyks, Uzbeks, Chechens, Inuits, Tatars and patchwork of other nationalities, races and ethnic groups. As it was, the nationalities suffered the harshest colonial oppression at the hands of Stalin the Georgian, whose first post in the Soviet government was - another irony - Commissar for the Nationalities.

The house that Lenin built collapsed that Christmas Day in what is surely an event unparalleled in the history of anti-climaxes, but the aftershocks were quite devastating, the fall-out from this post-imperial scramble. Lawrence Scott Sheets, an American reporter working for Reuters and National Public Radio, witnessed the whole thing, his experiences now written up in 8 Pieces of Empire: A 20-Year Journey Through the Soviet Collapse, which serves as a personal record; part memoir, part travelogue, part political analysis.

There are surely few regrets over the death of the Soviet Union; there must be lots over what followed - the crazy ethnic conflicts, the revival of quarrels sublimated for generations; the murders, the kidnapping, the anarchy, the criminality, the chaos and the terrorism. Then there was the flight into fresh forms of dictatorship in some of the new states, based on personality cults that might have embarrassed Stalin.

This terrible scattering left peoples and countries trying to establish a place for themselves, a sense of identity, a sense of belonging. With borders defined in the past by bureaucrats, taking little account of history or ethnic composition, the outcome was sadly inevitable – a series of racial and territorial wars that are thought to have cost the lives of up to 200,000 people.

It’s the pathology of upheaval, to use his own phrase, that Sheets writes about, in an intimate, honest and wholly revealing way. It was at its worse in the Caucuses, particularly in Georgia, whose post-Soviet history might very well serve as a case study in political lunacy. This was a place that went, as the author puts it, from being the crown jewel of empire to a failed state by steady stages. There was Eduard Shevardnadze, once a respected Soviet politician, fleeing from his homeland, the newly-independent country’s first president, in a ravaged, jet-fuel-dripping plane covered in bullet holes, the principle victim of the so-called Rose Revolution

Conflict, fissure and war were to follow, in a country so extreme in forms of behaviour that notices had to be posted in parliament reminding the legislators to leave their guns outside. What astonishes me most is that Georgia was once a serious candidate for NATO membership, with all its smouldering resentment against Russia, coming to a head in 2008. How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we might have been involved in a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing, as someone or other once said. :-)

The book concludes with the greatest horror of all – the Beslan Massacre of 2004, when a school in North Ossetia, the scene of a hostage crisis, saw the deaths of almost four hundred people, many of them children, caught in a vicious cross-fire between Chechen terrorists and heavy-handed government forces. Sheets is at his most poignant here, recalling how he gave a shocked teenager his phone so he could contact his sister. She was already dead.

“Feeling at best an interloper and at worst a tragedy speculator,” he writes, “I put my equipment away. Covering war and tragedy is a bit like exposing oneself to radiation. In carefully measured doses, it often poses few well-established health risks…Unlimited exposure over very long periods, however, is unwise for the mind and the soul.”

He stopped, I feel sure, just at the right time, for the process of fragmentation, as he warns, is by no means at an end. A return to these horrors was unthinkable, save for the fact that in Russia nothing is unthinkable, as Isaiah Berlin once wrote.

There is no analytical depth to Sheet’s book, no meta-narrative, but it cuts in a personal and revealing way, without fuss and burdensome detail, into several tragedies in several acts, staged all the way from Saint Petersburg in the west to Sakhalin Island in the east, all in eight uneasy pieces and more. It’s a story told with moving sincerity, one that goes far in helping to understand how a country evolved from a bureaucratic morass into an ethnic mess. I will never think of journalists reporting from the front line in the same way again.

Tuesday 27 December 2011

Preserving Tradition; Preserving Liberty

I was out on the Boxing Day hunt, the first time this great occasion on the hunting calendar has been unmarred by the weather for two years past. I was out with an estimated 300,000 people, attending 300 hundred hunts across the country. Some were there as riders; others just to enjoy the spectacle. I say the event was unspoiled by the weather; it was also unspoiled by the killjoys and snoopers, the dirty mac brigade who have marred previous occasions.

Of course we are no longer allowed by law to pursue the fox itself, ever since the ghastly Labour government of the ghastly Tony Blair (oh, how I would like to hunt him!) introduced the Hunting with Dogs Act in 2004, a piece of legislative spite based on the worst forms of inverted snobbery and incomprehension. Instead we now have to pursue an artificial trail, a ‘drag hunt’, a bit of a drag, really.

Oh, foxes are still killed aright, but they are fortunate if they are killed ‘accidentally’, getting in the path of the hunt. Otherwise these animals, defined as vermin, a danger to the rural economy, have to be killed in a variety of ways, including snaring and gassing, which only serves to prolong their suffering, a ‘mercy’ inflicted on them by those canting hypocrites who pride themselves on their dislike of animal cruelty.

The government of David Cameron is committed to holding a free vote on the possible repeal of the 2004 Act, when ‘time allows’. I rather fear that it’s not going to be allowed in the present Parliament. One understands that there are other priorities just at the moment, but one also has the feeling that the – foxy – Liberal Democrat tail is wagging the Conservative dog, or at least wagging Cameron.

In the meantime I’m delighted to see that George Freeman, a Tory MP, has come out suggesting that a parliamentary inquiry should be held to prove the case for repeal. Reported in the Telegraph he said;

I am pleased that the Government has committed to a free vote on the ban in its Coalition Agreement. But before we have that vote let’s set up a parliamentary inquiry to find out what effect the ban is really having. All the anecdotal evidence is that the ban is bad for animal welfare, bad for the countryside, bad for the rural economy and a waste of police resources. Let’s look at the evidence properly so we can decide on repeal on the basis of the facts rather than political bigotry and class war against the countryside.

Yes, let’s.

Anyway, my meet was a real John Peel occasion. It was such a delighted to be there, riding with mother and father and the other person who is closest to me in the whole the world. Yes, it was absolutely thrilling, to ride, to chase, to hunt, to be young and to be alive. I will continue to ride with the wind, to enjoy the freedom of the English countryside, to preserve an ancient tradition, to preserve liberty itself.

Thursday 22 December 2011

Please, no more Jingle Bells!

There is a store on the west end of Edinburgh’s Princes Street near the Caledonian Hotel which sells Scottish-themed products, the sort of tartan tat that’s most likely made in China. I’ve never been in – I can’t stand this sort of thing – but I could not help but notice it on the two occasions when I walked past – it blares out pipe and drum music, horrible stuff really loud. It was bad enough for me, passing in moments; it must be intolerable for the staff, who have to listen to this ghastly racket all day long.

I have music in mind, or rather muzak, the sort of background noise that Wikipedia defines as elevator music, sounds on a cycle, an endless loop. In discussion recently I mentioned that one of the horrors of Christmas is that supermarkets (I have my local Tesco in mind) insist on pumping out seasonal noise, jolly tunes on the loop, tunes coming round time and time and time again.

I don’t know what they are attempting to do in this, put people in the mood, perhaps, for spending and happy times in Tesco. Well, it’s not working, at least so far as I’m concerned; I work on a different psychology. It makes me shop as quickly as I can, get what I need and get out before my ears are hammered by Frosty the Snowman yet one more time! It’s the people who work there I feel most sorry for, people who have no choice but to be beguiled by Frosty or Rudolf for as long as they are on shift. To my mind this constitutes the very acme of cruel and unusual punishment!

I had an experience of this once myself. I was in Havana over the Christmas and New Year period a few years ago, staying in the Hotel Parque Central, right in the heart of the city. The usual Christmas horrors were played from the bar by the roof-top swimming pool. I’m not much for sun-bathing (frying like a fry bores me!), which is just as well, as I would have gone quietly mad with that as a constant background. Swimming or lunching to this accompaniment was bad enough!

I finally cracked on 2 January. “Look”, I said to the barman in my broken Spanish, “Christmas is over. Can we please, please have some Cuban music, some salsa, anything but Jingle Bells?” And that was that, a sigh of universal relief.

I’m not Scrooge; I do enjoy some Christmas-themed music, just not the mass market stuff. What’s my favourite Christmas song, you may wonder? Why, it’s a fairy tale, a strangely poignant one. I do hope you all have the kind of holiday you most wish for yourself. :-)

Wednesday 21 December 2011

One Martini

Hotel standards vary hugely across the world and five stars does not always mean five stars. I’ve stayed in some wonderful places, formerly with my parents and latterly with lovers, friends and other travelling companions. I’ve been fortunate enough to tick off some of life’s ‘must does’ including relaxing in the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, the old wing that was blown up by Irgun in July, 1946, and enjoying a gin sling in Raffles Hotel in Singapore, the place where this famous cocktail was born.

I love cocktails; I love the tradition of the cocktail hour. My favourite is a champagne cocktail closely followed by a Pimm’s number one cup, though there are others I like when I’m in the mood, particularly a simple, or not so simple, dry martini. That’s the classic, that’s the drink by which all hotels should be measured, by their ability to mix a martini, not by stars.

The hotels I stayed in when I was in Egypt were all five stars by local assessment. They were generally good and the staff were highly obliging, always mindful of the prospect of baksheesh to make good the gap in their dreadful salaries, but my, oh, my, their martini standards were poor or non-existent!

Now, this is Egypt, a Muslim country, a country with a Muslim majority. Alcohol, while available, does not play a big part in the national consciousness. In future it may play no part at all, if the Islamist advance continues and the stricter forms of sharia law adopted. As it was I flew there and back with Egypt Air, which does not serve alcohol. My, all those hours without a snifter; how frustrating!

So, yes, alcohol is not that important. But one still expects a certain standard in international hotels, particularly those with a cocktail menu. There it was on the menu in Luxor, clearly stated - a dry martini. So, on this particular evening, having had enough of the gin fizz, I decided to have one. There was just one problem: I had to explain to the barman how it was done. Surely to goodness I’m not the first person even to have asked for this drink!

Perhaps the particular barman was a greenhorn? No, for none of his colleagues was any more knowledgeable. Basically I ended up mixing the drink myself, to the amusement of the other guests. It was done and it was good (I mix a fabulous martini!) There is just one problem; I like an olive in my drink, another essential the bar was without. “Just one moment, madam, and I’ll fetch some.”

Fine; off he goes and then he comes back, with a little dish of olives, green and black. One was pierced with a cocktail stick and added to my drink. For me it’s a little bonus at the end, eating my alcohol-saturated olive. I did, popped it in my mouth. But there were no hints of gin and vermouth; no, just a strong taste of vinegar. It was pickled. Definitely a one martini establishment.

Tuesday 20 December 2011

The Year of Dickens

David Lodge, writing in the December issue of Prospect magazine (Our Mutual Friend), has reminded me that this coming February marks an important event in the literary calendar – the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens.

A whole series of events are planned to mark the occasion, a torrent of Dickens, in publications, conferences, exhibitions, as well as new film and television adaptations of his work. A statue is also scheduled to be unveiled in Portsmouth in August, the town where he was born.

I’ve written before just how much I love his work (Adoring Dickens, May 27, 2010), so I expect to go, to see, to attend and to read as the mood takes me. The Museum of London is putting on a special exhibition about the writer’s links with the city. In so many ways he’s the chronicler of nineteenth century London, in good times and in bad. His is another human comedy. When asked why he was my favourite author I replied it was because I loved his Dante-like journeys through Victorian London, a great panorama, peopled with the most wonderful eccentrics; with the bad who are very bad and the good who are very good, archetypes one and all.

The BBC, who have produced some excellent adaptations of his novels in the past, are apparently planning several new screenings, including two of Great Expectations – a serial and a movie – and one of The Mystery of Edwin Drood. I shall be particularly interested in the latter because the mystery was never solved, the novel a permanent enigma, unfinished at the time of the author’s death. Presumably some kind of resolution will be offered.

I have a number of previous adaptations on DVD, including two TV serials of Bleak House, a 1985 version starring Denholm Elliot as John Jarndyce and the 2005 version, which I watched at the time, broadcast twice weekly in a half hour, soap opera-style, format, as opposed to the usual hour long classic series format. The latter was particularly noted for the performance of X-Files Gillian Anderson in the role of Lady Deadlock.

Dickens' place in the imagination is now unshakeable, second only to Shakespeare. Even people who have never read him will almost certainly know of some of his characters, Ebenezer Scrooge most of all, as much a part of Christmas as Santa Claus. Indeed in A Christmas Carol Dickens might have been said to have invented the modern form of the seasonal holiday. In past time, before the seventeenth century Civil Wars, it was in part a religious holiday and in part an excuse for a drunken ruckus, represented by the slightly disreputable figure of Father Christmas (not at all like Santa!) and the Lord of Misrule. A Christmas Carol recreated it in the image of Victorian bourgeois respectability and homeliness, a time of feasting, family togetherness and fun, all of the most wholesome kind! God bless us, every one.

After his death in 1870 Dickens work went gradually out of fashion, at least among the high priests of literary taste. The process accelerated, as Lodge argues in his essay, after the First World War, a time of a revaluation of all Victorian values by a generation that left cosy sentimentality in the mud of Flanders. In Evelyn Waugh’s 1934 novel A Handful of Dust the protagonist is held captive by the mad and illiterate Mr Todd, who forces him to read the work of Dickens aloud until the day he dies. This particular fate was among the worst that Waugh could imagine, as his father, a past president of the Dickens Society, insisted on reading aloud to him and his brother.

In a brave new literary world, given to introspection, psychology and floating along on a stream of consciousness, there was no room for someone as playfully unconcerned with deeper motives and states of mind as the great Victorian bard. F. R Leavis in The Great Tradition, a seminal work of literary criticism, excludes Dickens altogether from the pantheon of English literature, on the snooty grounds that “…his genius was that of a great entertainer, and he had for the most part no profounder responsibility as a creative artist than this description suggests.”

But Dickens has endured. He has found a new and ever growing audience. Why? Simply because he is beyond all fashion; because he is so human, a true craftsman in words, a great shaper of the human spirit, a writer of boundless humanity and simple generosity. I’ve read most of his novels more than once, David Copperfield three times in all, finding fresh delights each time, hating Mr Murdstone just as much as I did on first acquaintance! Doubtless I shall read it and the others again. I may even, in future times, read them aloud to my own children. :-)

Monday 19 December 2011

The Revolution Bare

I saw lots of political graffiti in Egypt. I can’t read Arabic but I know it was political because it was often accompanied by an illustration or even some English text. In Aswan one wall had a depiction of Mina Daniel, a Coptic Christian killed by the army in October. It was close to one of Che Guevara, a figure with whom he identified, something I found out later.

There was something else, something that puzzled me, an image of a woman who appeared to be posing naked; she was certainly wearing stockings or holdups and her shoulders were bare, but the central part of her body was covered in Arabic text. Well, she was posing naked, an Egyptian woman, and I missed the storm it caused because I was in Egypt! Oddly enough it wasn’t reported on BBC or CNN, both afraid, perhaps, of the naked truth

Anyway, her name (you may know this already) is Alia el-Mahdi, a twenty-year-old student at Cairo University, who posted a full frontal nude picture of herself on Facebook, Twitter and her personal blog as a ‘revolutionary’ gesture. It’s certainly another interesting dimension of the ferment in the Arab world. Women in Libya are taking to wearing the niqab, now that they are free from the secular pressures of Colonel Gaddafi, and a woman in Egypt has found freedom in nakedness!

This is what she wrote on her personal blog;

Put on trail the artist’s models who posed nude for art schools until the early 70s, hide the art books and destroy the nude statues of antiquity, then undress and stand before a mirror and burn your bodies that you despise top forever rid yourselves of your sexual hang-ups before you direct your humiliation and your chauvinism and dare to try to deny me my freedom of expression.

Hmm, yes; it’s certainly a gesture of a sort, a brave one, given my knowledge of Egypt and Egyptian culture, but I’m not really sure what she hopes to achieve beyond ‘freedom of expression’; it certainly did not advance the revolution, just the contrary, judging by the results of the November elections, which saw mass support for the Islamists.

Alia is in every way untypical, even, I would hazard, of the most advanced sections of Egyptian opinion. She describes herself as an atheist and lives openly in Cairo with her boyfriend, a city where some women wear the niqab just to escape unwanted sexual attention. And, believe me, it’s bad.

I’m torn here between a certain admiration for her boldness and bafflement over her folly. Life in Cairo must have been difficult enough for someone like her. Now, with such a high public profile (she’s had over a million hits on her blog), it will be impossible, especially as a group of graduates in Islamic law are taking her and her boyfriend to court for ‘violating morality’, ‘indecency’ and ‘insulting Islam.’ If convicted she could face up to eighty lashes.

The graffiti I saw was a reproduction of her nude picture. It was beside the image of another woman, head shot only, a woman wearing a headscarf. This is Samira Ibrahim. She did not pose naked, no. She alleges that she, along with seventeen other women, was forced naked by soldiers last March and subjected to some intimate probing to determine if she was a virgin or not. She is now taking the military to court over the matter. The text on the wall contrasts the way in which this outrage was ignored while Alia’s antic has caused a huge media and public fuss.

There is certainly a serious point here, a point about hypocrisy, about the hypocrisy of Egyptian culture and society. Is this the way to make it, though? I simply can’t be sure. There seems to be an awful lot of me, me, me in this, empty self-promotion, shock for the sake of shock.

Alia has been criticised for her actions not just by the conservatives but by the liberals. A spokesman for the April 6 Youth Movement denied that she or her partner were members, saying they could not possibly accept “a girl who behaves like this” into their ranks.

Predictably she has attracted support from beyond Egypt, from the arbiters of liberal opinion, and from naked Israeli women, which is certainly not going to help. There is a tiresome piece – of course – in the Guardian by one Mona Eltahawy, a woman who clearly knows next to nothing about the nature of Egypt, conservatism or revolution. I wonder what she would have said if an English woman had appeared on the pages of the down-market Sun like this. Would her nudity still be ‘a weapon of political resistance’? I rather think not. Actually, Alia’s picture is not good enough for the Sun; it’s much more readers’ wives, the kind of amateurish thing favoured by some English porn magazines.

I find myself in agreement – the horror! the horror! - with a piece written by Nelson Jones in the trendy left New Statesman, a publication I normally think of as a retirement home for intellectual and political mediocrities. He said that the gesture was curiously old-fashioned, a harking back to the days when, as he puts it, “sexual liberation and nudity were part and parcel of revolutionary politics.” (Part and parcel; what a cliché!) It's awfully old-fashioned, that's true, trendy 60s stuff; Hair, OZ and the Age of Aquarius. Hey, let the sun shine in!

Yes, things have moved on and Egypt is advancing into a counter-revolution. Alia, in her own naked way, may have made that process just a little quicker.

Sunday 18 December 2011

The Mirror of Virtue

On the first morning of my first full day in Egypt the first place I visited was the old Citadel of Cairo, with fortifications built by Saladin in the late twelfth century to protect it from the Crusaders.

I first came across this remarkable figure, an historical giant who stands across both the Muslim and Christian world, in the pages of The Talisman, Sir Walter Scott’s nineteenth century historical romance of the crusades, which I read in my early teens. In so many ways Saladin was the real hero of this book, a verray, parfit, gentil knyght, a Victorian recreation of a chivalric ideal.

Saladin has long been celebrated by his enemies, much more than his friends, even as far back as the Middle Ages. He seemed to be the very personification of a code of conduct that was more mythic than real, a reproach to his Christian opponents, who professed an ideal which they ignored in practice. Saladin here was the mirror of virtue. In Dante’s Inferno he is to be found in the mild first circle of hell, along with Homer, Euclid, Socrates and other virtuous pagans.

In contrast, he was a largely forgotten figure in the Muslim world, his reputation surpassed by Baibars, the Mamluk sultan of Egypt who was instrumental in bringing the Crusader presence in the Middle East to an end. He was only rediscovered in the late nineteenth century as an avatar of Arab nationalism, rather ironic considering that he was Kurdish.

Given that Saladin is a man possibly more wrapped in myth than any other it would take a bold person to attempt to disentangle the Gordian knot; to separate out fact, fiction and dewy-eyed romance. So, it was with keen interest that I opened the pages of Saladin, a biography by Anne-Marie Eddé, originally published in France in 2008. The new translation by Jane Marie Todd, published last month by Harvard University Press, was the first book I bought on my return from Egypt.

It’s a remarkable piece of work by a woman I can only describe as a historian’s historian. It’s well-argued, scholarly, and thoroughly researched book, rich in all sorts of detail. It’s also an excellent exercise in deconstruction or exploration. It does not demolish the myth of Saladin; it simply makes him, and it, more understandable.

Eddé, a specialist in Medieval history, begins with one basic question: how did this relentless jihad fighter come to be identified as valiant, generous and magnanimous figure among his former foes? Some truths are simply stated: Saladin was everything he was cracked up to be: he was pious and he was tolerant; he was a man of his word; he was a skilful soldier and an even more skilful politician; he was a patron of the arts and the sciences…and he was the world’s first spin doctor.

The Saladin myth, in other words, really begins with Saladin himself. In the complex religious and political world of twelfth century Islam he made his way to the top by selling himself, by advancing his own platform, by convincing others he was the man and this was his moment.

He was a deal-maker without parallel, moving by soft degrees to the point where he replaced the Fatimids with his own Ayyubid dynasty, uniting Egypt and Syria. He was a self-promoter, convincing much of the Muslim world that only he was capable of leading it against the threat posed by the Crusaders. He was pious, certainly, but he was no Osama bin Laden, no stupid fanatic. He could be pragmatic as occasion demanded, making bargains even with the enemy, all part of a bigger political game. Such was his success that he laid the basis for multiple interpretations of his life and actions, something the author explores with admirable skill.

Some of the details are fascinating, things I was not previously aware of. For instance, even in the midst of conflict, Saladin negotiated trade deals with Italian merchants, obtaining the wood, pitch and iron that enabled him to build the Egyptian fleet, no matter how hard the Papacy raged.

There is another truth here worth emphasising, that the Crusades themselves, from beginning to end, were a political disaster, which in the long run weakened and destroyed Christian power in the east, the power and integrity of the Byzantine Empire. Compared with such cynical ‘crusaders’ as Venice’s Enrico Dandelo it’s little wonder that Saladin is such a paragon, a true Christian gentleman!

Another virtue of Saladin is that it helps to give some understanding of what the Crusades looked like from a Muslim perspective, this movement of outlandish outsiders they generally referred to as the Franks. It was their beliefs that the Muslims found most perplexing, as one twelfth century Syrian document makes clear;

The most amazing thing in the world is that the Christians say that Jesus is divine, that he is God, and then they say that the Jews seized him and crucified him. How can a God who cannot protect himself protect others? Anyone who believes his God came out of a woman’s privates is quite mad; he should not be spoken to, for he has neither intelligence nor faith.

And for once my comment is to say no comment!

Saladin was of and beyond his times, a figure I personally would parallel with the Hohenstaufen emperor Frederick II, another wonder of the world. Eddé certainly gives us a better sense of the man, as a politician as well as a soldier, an individual who was inevitably going to appear like Ozymandias to subsequent generations. She disposes of the exaggerations while still leaving us with a figure whose myth was in a traditional form, a simple narrative explaining a complex truth. Saladin was no icon; he was a man, but what a man.

I thoroughly recommend this book and I’m going to give it five stars. I should say, though, that its strength is in academic detail rather than narrative line; some people may be discouraged by her thematic arrangement. Notwithstanding this, Eddé’s approach is forensic and exhaustive, and on that level I really don’t think this book will ever be surpassed, either as a work of history or of biography.

Thursday 15 December 2011

Russia without Putin

In my previous article I said that Russian democracy was a hollow façade, based not on respect for the people but on condescension and contempt. But the Duma elections earlier this month brought a major shift, a bloody nose for the Putin’s United Russia, “a party of crooks and thieves”, a title given to it by Alexi Navalny, a Russian blogger.

The crooks and thieves won but on a greatly reduced majority, with their share of the vote falling to under fifty per cent. This is all the more remarkable because the whole election was rigged, blatantly so. The principle followed here is based on one of Stalin’s maxims, that it is counting rather than voting that matters. But even positive counting and ballot rigging could not stand against an adverse tide; the ballot boxes could not be stuffed fast enough. According to independent monitors, the real figure for United Russia might be as much as fifteen or twenty points lower.

Putin has long been a puzzle to me. He’s a colourless apparatchik, a bureaucrat of little imagination and less charisma, Soviet man at his dullest. But at least he brought stability after the chaos of the Yeltsin years; and for Russians ‘managed democracy’ was far more tolerable than drunken anarchy. Managed democracy and stability is one thing; cronyism, corruption and stagnation quite another.

In my previous piece I said that Russia’s democratic institutions were a joke, that elections were no more real than they were in Soviet days. I now have to amend this view. Russia has spoken with a different voice. Politically speaking the country may be a little like the dull-witted giant of fairy tales, but even giants can be prodded too far.

Putin may long for the Brezhnev years (the former leader is promoted as a positive figure by his government) but things have changed. The present is a foreign country; we do things differently here. We do things differently in the age of instant communication, the age of the internet, the age of Twitter and Facebook. In Russia’s former days heterodox opinions circulated around a small number of people in printed samizdat. Now communication takes the form of an electronic hydra; cut off one dissenting view and dozens more appear. People had enough of United Russia.

The election was never going to bring real democracy; it’s open to question if the Russians even want such a thing, tainted as it is with past miseries, but it acted as a popular referendum on the party of Putin and the way things are being managed in Russia.

Putin has been highly effective in the past, promoting himself as a patriot and re-establishing national self-respect after the nadir of Yeltsin, but he has allowed the weed of corruption to grow to the point were it is a serious danger to Russia’s economic well-being and his own political future.

Russia is a gas giant. It depends on its natural resources. Its prosperity is tied into the price of energy. But so much of the national wealth is being siphoned off in shady deals that the budget will not balance if the price of oil does not remain high, which is unlikely given the world’s present economic woes. With foreign investors already being frightened away by graft, intimidation and a weak system of contract law, guarantees which guarantee nothing, the Potemkin mirage is already beginning to break up.

We’ve been here before, this predictable cycle of Russian history, where unresponsive and sclerotic governments buckle under tectonic pressures, Tsarist days and Soviet days, it’s all much the same. Putin is not yet ready to go the same ways as Nicholas II or Mikhail Gorbachev, but he has received a warning. If I can put the point another way, the Duma elections is his 1905, not his 1917 or his 1991.

He is likely to survive, at least for the present; he his likely to dump United Russia, too horribly tainted as a political vehicle, he is more than likely, given the system, to win the coming presidential election. But the system he stands atop of, the bureaucratic hydra based on a monopoly of power and wealth, a parasitic state, looks vulnerable.

December 2011 may be dress rehearsal for something bigger. “Russia without Putin”, demonstrators shouted on the streets of Moscow after the results were announced, before they were dispersed by the army. It may yet be.

Wednesday 14 December 2011

Prince Putin’s Façade

This is another article I wrote for Broowaha under the heading Putin’s Potemkin Democracy (subsequently stolen by a Russian English-language publication!). It was clearly written before the recent Duma elections and I intend to follow it up tomorrow with a fresh assessment of the new political realities in Russia in the light of the drubbing of United Russia, Putin’s party, at the polls.

A Potemkin village, if you’ve never heard of the expression, is one of the enduring myths of Russian history. The reference is to fake settlements, hollow façades supposedly set up on the orders of Prince Grigory Potemkin, chief minister of Catherine the Great, to impress the Empress when she toured the Crimea in the late 1780s, territory recently conquered from the Ottoman Turks. It was simply a way of increasing his political prestige.

I say it’s a myth but in Russia myths have a habit of fleshing out into a reality, which really is nothing more than a myth! In the 1930s various western intellectuals, a group more easily fooled than most, toured the USSR, there to be shown rich settlements, model factories, happy rustics and beaming workers, the whole thing a shabby lie hiding an ugly truth.

Now Russian democracy itself is turning into a kind of Potemkin illusion, an empty shell around an authoritarian core. I suppose I should be generous and say that some honesty has entered the system, that the illusion has been partially lifted. Dmitry Medvedev has been exposed for what he always was – a Potemkin President. He’s been there, sitting in the Kremlin, keeping the seat warm for Vladimir Putin, the once and future king.

Like the mummy, Putin, the present prime minister, is set to return, in deal worked out with his manqué some years ago; set to return, incidentally, after a ‘free and fair’ election to be held in March of next year. Yes, that’s the way they do things in the brave new Russia – the result is known in advance!

There is a kind of massive joke here, all at the expense of the people of Russia. They now know with a certainty that their democratic institutions are a joke, that elections are no more real than they were in Soviet days, that Medvedev was no more than a placeman, not at all the liberal reformer that many had supposed, a placeman that fifty million people were fooled into voting for in 2008.

It’s really the nature of the Russian state that’s at fault here, a state that has never come to terms with its past, a Model-T state, where you can have whatever colour you like as long as it’s black; you can have any president you like as long as its Putin. This is the state, as I pointed out in a review of Donald Rayfield’s Stalin and his Henchmen, that is effectively run by the apparatchiks of the FSB, the Federal Security Service, the colourless Putin its most typical example. Just imagine the FBI announcing the result of the American presidential election a year in advance! Yes, that’s Russia.

Vasily Grossman, a writer of unique and biting genius, wrote that Russians have a ‘slave soul’, that they are wedded by history to a long tradition of servitude. We really have to ask how much has changed since the days of Stalin. Yes, the terror has gone, the coercion less obvious, but the moral corruption is still in place, they still have a polity “unrestricted by law and based on force”, the definition Stalin gave of the dictatorship of the proletariat in The Foundations of Leninism. They have political system where a prime minister is inside a president is inside a prime minister, like a nest of Russian dolls.

Serfs they are, serfs they will remain, giving Putin a 50% approval rating, seemingly unaware that they are being treated with contempt, that the Kremlin justifies its actions by describing its own people as ‘mindless.’ There they are, a people without a civil society, without a mature tradition of law, abused and taken for granted by their political masters, like cattle.

Meanwhile the Potemkin democracy gets hollower by the day, creating clowns and clones, as a report in the Economist said, to keep up a pretence of democratic choice. Why bother, what’s the point, who’s being fooled? But this is a country much given to illusions, even when they serve no purpose at all. Myth simply becomes reality and then myth again, in and endless and pointless pavane, a dance with a meaningless destiny.

Tuesday 13 December 2011

Europe's Perfect Storm

What follows is an article wrote for BrooWaha. The subject matter is in part covered by my previous article on the great European fiasco (The Majority is Always Wrong), though I tailored this piece specifically for a North American audience. BrooWaha is in lockdown at the moment (there have been no fresh articles in two days), so rather than see it lost in a logjam I’m publishing it here.

Are you following events in Europe, the slow motion death of democracy? Yes, that’s what’s happening, all part of the continuing attempt to stabilise the troubled euro, all part of an attempt to restore the confidence of the financial markets in the benighted single currency.

The latest proposal, one that Britain opted out of, is to introduce more centralised control over the tax and spending decisions of the individual members of the euro-zone, some seventeen in all at present. European leaders, in their boundless wisdom, have suddenly discovered that one cannot have monetary union without fiscal union; or rather one can, if one wants to see the madness that has beset the whole vanity project over the past few months. And fiscal union has to involve some mechanism for overruling national governments.

No taxation without representation, was the battle cry of the American Revolution. It really does not matter who represents you in future; in practical terms they will be irrelevant, is the manifesto of Europe’s more perfect union. Just imagine if King George had agreed to all of the rebel demands in 1776. Yes, that’s fine; choose your government, elect your president, raise your taxes, but just make sure that the details of your national budget are sent to London so that we (the royal we, of course) can say yea or nay. There will be penalties if you don’t.

There is a terrible irony at work here, as I noted on my personal blog, an irony that sees countries like Greece and Poland, countries that struggled for centuries for national freedom, giving away the last traces of sovereignty to a new central power, a new Ottoman Empire or a new Soviet Union. Under the proposed arrangements it will not matter who or what the people vote for; the real decisions will be made not in Athens or Warsaw but in Brussels, not by elected politicians but by bureaucrats, a bloated and corrupt officialdom.

It would be wrong to assume that this sinister process has come about purely by accident, a by-product of the present financial crisis. Writing about the euro last month, Nigel Lawson, once the chief financial minister in Margaret Thatcher’s government, mentioned a particular faction of Europhiles, people who had a different agenda all along;

They fully understood the dangers yet promoted EMU [European Monetary Union] precisely because a crisis could be overcome only by full fiscal and political union. For them, this was the objective. But such union is only practicable if it is the clearly expressed wish of the majority of the people of Europe; and that is manifestly not the case. Contempt for democracy has always been one of the least attractive characteristics of the European movement. It lies at the heart of the present crisis.

There is indeed contempt for democracy in this; that is not too strong a way of expressing the point. There is also a deep condescension among those charged with the responsibility of directing the whole European project from offices in Brussels, a belief that the process is too technical, too complicated for ordinary voters to understand. In the past when new treaty arrangements were rejected in national referenda they were simply repackaged in a different form and accepted without the inconvenience of the vox populi.

I’ve written before that Europe is now in a post-democratic age. The evolution towards a centralised, technocratic future just got faster. There is no repression, there will be no repression, other than repressive tolerance, allowing people to say all that they want, confident what they want will always be ignored. This is a recipe for political disaster, for a deeper political crisis that cannot be long delayed, a perfect storm. Remember, you read it here first.

Monday 12 December 2011

Santa Wants a Ho

A few years ago an attempt was made in Australia to stop Santa Claus giving his jolly Ho, Ho, Ho greeting to children, substituting Ha, Ha, Ha in its place, anodyne and wholly (!) without any kind of character or provenance. Why? Because ho is slang in America for, well, a ho!

That’s just the sort of thing that would be bound to upset every Australian girl and boy, just as it annoyed every Australian parent, many of whom were discovering for the first time what a ho was and what the jolly old, red-nosed (possible alcohol problem?) fellow was calling for.

Generally speaking Santa is a disreputable old man, don’t you agree? All parents should be warned against this December interloper. After all, with school teachers being subject to levels of background scrutiny that was formerly reserved for candidates for senior office, with schools being turned into mini-prisons, we still give this unvetted stranger completely free range, to come, go and do as he will.

Every alarm bell should be ringing over the actions of this ho-monger. Every year he commits an act of mass breaking and entering unparalleled in the history of crime. More worrying still, he urges children to be ‘good for Santa’, to be good boys and girls, seduced by promises of gifts. What’s his motive here?

Here we have a stranger, coming silently in the night, creeping into the bedrooms of children with material inducements; just how much more of this are we prepared to take? Why are questions not being asked? Are social service departments not concerned? Do something, before it’s too late! Oops, sorry, it is too late; centuries too late.

Alas, we live in a humourless age. I’m tempted to write a journal message to the future, in the style of Winston Smith from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, a greeting to a hoped for time, a time free from the absurdity of Big Nanny and Political Correctness. Will such a time ever come? I have a feeling that things will get worse before they get worse still.

The attack on Christmas and the traditions associated with Christmas is as predictable and relentless as the season itself. We’ve seen it all here in England, with one local authority substituting a ghastly ‘Winterval’, and another referring to Christmas lights as ‘Luminos’, all to avoid offending those capable of taking offence.

The disease is spreading by degrees. This year a school in Stockton, California is reported to have placed an interdict on classroom displays of Santas, Christmas Trees and even Poinsettia plants for fear of upsetting people of other faiths. Bah! Humbug!

I’m sure there lots of other tiresome examples, of initiatives thought up by tedious people, the thought police of the PC brigade who would treat us all as infants. I imagine these joyless, sour and literal-minded types were just bad girls and boys in the past, those who never, ever got presents from Santa. Christmas is in the winter of their discontent. They want the world to be like Narnia, a place where it is always winter and never Christmas.

Meanwhile the old fellow is going quietly mad, locked away in the North Pole, not much given to ho ho ho-ing or even ha ha ha-ing. Maybe he should have another look at his contract, to check if there really is a sanity clause.

Sunday 11 December 2011

The majority is always wrong

“Heavy fog in the Channel – Continent isolated”, so a headline in an unspecified newspaper at an unspecified time is alleged to have gone. True or not, it immediately came to mind when I read the reports that a mouse had roared; that David Cameron had said no to the latest scheme to shore up the crumbling euro. After surrendering so much over so many years we, as a nation, were finally fighting back.

Yes, he really did say no, exercising a British veto for the first time ever. We stand alone but we have, throughout our history, a proud tradition of standing alone against excitable French and German bullies. Personally I welcome the rediscovery of Splendid Isolation, a splendid policy for a splendid period in our national story.

This for me was a reverse Neville Chamberlain moment – there will be no appeasement, appeasement of the likes of France’s President Sarkozy, a man I find more laughable by the day, and Angela Merkel, Germany’s pig-like Chancellor.

Despite their differences the pair seem to blend into one another, the German woman and the French man, the pig and the frog - Merkozy, a monstrous synthesis that might very well have been tortured into existence on the Island of Doctor Moreau!

This is the Minotaur of the new European Union, a new Thousand Year Reich in the shaping, that looks set to end the forms of democracy and direct accountability that at least some on the Continent fought so hard to attain in the first place.

I’m going to come to this in a moment but first a few words on Cameron’s stand. It was all perfectly simple: he gave assurances to the government, his own party and the country beyond that he would not agree to a new European Union treaty that did not contain safeguards for Britain’s financial services industry.

This was hardly surprising, considering the amount of revenue the City of London generates for the Exchequer. But, no, Merkozy did not like this; the bumbling giant growled and slavered, whereupon David lifted his sling.

Now the other governments of the European Union, Britain apart, have to manage to form their ‘more perfect’ union in the best way that they can. All of them have agreed to a plan that that will allow for more centralised control of the tax and spending decisions of those countries that have the euro as their national currency, seventeen at the present. Why on earth those outside the euro have allowed themselves to be steamrollered into this is wholly beyond my comprehension.

Supposedly a way of introducing forms of fiscal discipline, the new arrangements effectively make a mockery of the last vestiges of national sovereignty. In future it really will not matter who the Greeks, the Poles or the Spanish vote for. The real decisions will be made in Brussels, not in Athens, or Warsaw or Madrid.

What irony there is in this; how strange it is to see history standing on its head. It makes a mockery of the Greek War of Independence, makes a mockery of that country’s struggle to re-establish itself after centuries of domination by the Ottoman Turks. And then there is Poland, a country served up as lunch time and again by the Germans and the Russians, a country that not so long ago freed itself from the one unrepresentative bloc only to cast itself into another, from Soviet Union to European Union. Democracy did not come easy to Spain, established by stages after the death of General Franco. It did not come easy but it’s going easy. At least Franco brought prosperity.

Setting the politics aside, the deal itself, another conjuring trick to reassure the financial markets, is little more than a promissory note – we will all be good girls and boys in the future. From the outset the euro was based on vanity, or the economics of the madhouse, I’m not sure which. It was based on the belief that it was possible to have monetary without fiscal union, that it was possible to bed down countries like Germany and Greece, the lion and the lamb, all for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Now we are to have fiscal union, a European Super State. The horse may have bolted but at least we have shut the barn door at last, is that not something? Meanwhile the debt gets bigger and bigger.

As for Cameron, well, bravo, that’s all I want to say, other than to remind him of some words from Enemy of the People, the play by Henrik Ibsen, that the strongest man in the world is the man who stands most alone, and that a minority may be right; a majority always wrong.

Thursday 8 December 2011

The Midget and the Pig

I laughed out loud on the flight to Cairo, causing some stares from across the aisle. I simply couldn’t help myself. I was reading Rod Liddle’s column in the Spectator, the one headed Go on Sarko, tell us another, a few gems from a supposedly off-the-record conversation between Nicholas Sarkozy, France’s comic opera president, and Barack Obama, giving a personal lowdown on a other world leaders.

Now, of all people, of all presidents living in glass houses, Sarko is the very last who should be throwing stones. This is a man, after all, so sensitive about his diminutive stature that he wears built-up shoes, who insisted that a studio audience on a television appearance was made up of people even smaller than he is, a man who stands on tiptoe when photographed beside Obama and his wife!

Obama’s opener was to ask Sarko which world leaders he really hated. He could hardly start with the American president himself; that would be too stupid even for the mighty midget. But his choice was in some ways just as startling: it was Angela Merkel, his partner in the present Paris-Berlin Axis, his fellow fiddler, playing as Europe burns.

“That German hag”, he let rip, “You know, I half believe those internet rumours that she was created from the frozen sperm of Adolf Hitler. And have you seen her at dinner? Watch later on. She eats like a dinosaur, cramming stuff into that fat German gullet like they’ve just abolished rationing. Keep an eye on the filet mignon, Barack.”

So, the next time you see the artificial smiles and the back-patting (how revoltingly predictable they all are) just remember these words, this curtain drawn aside. I expect they all hate one another, all of our benighted world leaders, not just Sarkozy and Merkel, that appalling double act, so stepped in hypocrisy and obvious mutual loathing.

Liddle, in his usual corrosive style, sums up the Midget with prefect accuracy, writing that there is something wonderfully music-hall about Sarkozy and his big French gob, gurning and spitting out globules of spite. It would be truly comic if the situation was not so serious, if this risible little clown was not the president of France, a man who reminds me of Henry’s Cat, who knew quite a lot about nothing and not too much about that. A little man with a tall wife; that, I predict, is how he will go down in French history.

Think of the laughable degeneracy here. Karl Marx, paraphrasing Hegel, said that everything in history occurs twice, the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce. His example were good – Napoleon I and Napoleon III. I have one problem, though, with the strength of this statement. Sarkozy is clearly the farce, but who in French history is his tragic predecessor, who is the first act? Come to think of it, French politics has been quite farcical for some time past. There is the tragic figure of Charles de Gaulle, of course, but it’s impossible to draw any comparison, however remote, between him and the present occupant of the Élysée Palace.

Oh, well, I shall have to dig deep, perhaps all the way back to the Third Republic to find a possible comparison for Sarko and even that may not be deep enough. Meanwhile I intend to keep a close eye on Chancellor Merkel’s table manners.

Wednesday 7 December 2011

Brothers in the Wing

“There are two groups trying to undermine the transition to democracy in Egypt – the Israelis and the Saudis”, so I was told by one of the most educated and informed people I met in the country, a Muslim of impeccable liberal outlook, a man who played an active part in the events that saw the departure of Hosni Mubarak in February. Both countries, apparently, are financing Islamist extremists.

“OK”, I said, “I can understand that an Egypt committed to a new path, an Egypt committed to free elections, representative government and human rights would seriously unsettle the antediluvian gerontocracy in Saudi Arabia, but Israel, why on earth would Israel want to see the advance of forces that most threaten its security, forces that are at best lukewarm to the 1979 peace treaty and at worst actively hostile?” “Because the victory of Islamic extremists would end all support for Egypt in America and the West.”

I did not push the point because I felt that we were moving on to the quicksand of conspiracy theory, ground in which even the strongest counter-arguments are certain to sink beyond recovery. But it was perfectly obvious to me that Egypt, taking this man as an avatar, the best of the best, is facing a deeply uncertain future; that liberal opinion, such as it is, is weak and confused, uncertain of the direction to follow, apprehensive about the outcome, looking to blame forces beyond its control.

Prior to the election the demonstrators in Tahrir Square were calling for the army to step down from the commanding position it has held ever since the fall of Mubarak, but there seemed to be no real idea of what was to come in its place, no idea how order would be maintained. It’s all very well to call for civilian rule. The real question is which particular group of civilians will rule?

I left the country on the first day of the first free parliamentary election that Egypt has seen in decades. On the plane home I read that day’s edition of the Egyptian Gazette, the country’s oldest English language newspaper. “Monday November 28 2011”, the leader declared, “will indeed emerge as a watershed…”

And so it is proving. An election that was generally fair, an election with a high turnout, an election where the result was not known in advance…and an election that has seen the advance that my Egyptian friend most feared, a victory for the Islamists, a double victory, by his lights, for Israel and Saudi Arabia.

The simple truth is that the protesters of Tahrir are representative of not very much beyond themselves. There is a bigger constituency that sees things in far simpler terms. If you like they see things in black and white. Our benighted leaders, from Barack Obama to David Cameron, also saw things in black and white; that the fall of the old regimes was a preamble to democracy. But democracy is not a panacea and elections do not guarantee freedom. In Egypt one tyranny looks set to replace another, more frightful in every way – the tyranny of a majority.

Last Saturday the online version of the Egyptian Gazette reported on the early results of the ballot, showing that the Islamist parties are “sweeping to victory”, not just the ‘moderate’ Freedom and Justice Party, the political face of the Muslim Brotherhood, but the more hard-line Salafists, represented by the Al-Nur party and Al-Wassat, which calls for a strict interpretation of Islamic law. Liberal movements like the Wafd made a disappointing showing. In all Islamists won two-thirds of the votes cast and look set to dominate parliament when the whole process is finally complete. Their message was simple enough: non-Islamist candidates were ‘infidels.’ This is a black and white that a great many of the poorer Egyptians understand, those not of the educated middle-classes.

In February, right at the beginning of the Arab Spring, I wrote a piece called Reflections of the Revolution in Egypt, making the following observations;

I cannot myself say what the outcome will be, though not a stable western-style democracy, that much I will hazard. The Islamists in the Brotherhood may not be as strong as they were in Iran, but they are still a potent and organised force, in much the same manner that the Bolsheviks were a potent and organised force in Russia before their putsch in November, 1917… What do the Egyptians want themselves? For some time now polls have shown that they want democracy…but they also want sharia law, a glaring contradiction. The source of law can be God or it can be the people; it can’t be both. Will another Nasser emerge – could the country take more of the absolute misery that he inflicted on it? – or someone altogether more sinister, more brotherly?

February and November, there seems to be an unsettling historical symmetry here, Bolsheviks and Brothers. In the same article I also quoted from Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, my favourite political testament by far. “The effect of liberty to individuals”, he wrote, “is, that they may do what they please: we ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risk congratulations.”

Are we now seeing what pleases Egypt, what pleases the ‘Arab street’? If so, I can only feel sympathy for the many tolerant people I met, Christian and Muslim, people like the friend I mentioned above. If he reads this I would only ask that he look more deeply at the issue, to reflect that if democracy in the sense that we understand it in the West is frustrated in Egypt it will not be the fault of the Saudis or the Israelis.

Tuesday 6 December 2011

Brouhaha at BrooWaha

I’ve been writing for BrooWaha, the American-based online citizens’ newspaper, since the end of May, so far contributing over seventy articles on a wide range of subjects, all of the things that reflect my varied interests, from politics to popular culture.

It’s a fine endeavour, an excellent platform for writers of all sorts, superbly run and managed by Tony Berkman and Angie Alainz, one I’m absolutely thrilled to be associated with. Besides writing for the general pool I also contribute a regular Tuesday column, Letters from Ana, chiefly touching on aspects of life in England, though occasionally ranging more widely.

Yes, as I say, I’m delighted to be associated with Broo, invited to participate by Cher Duncombe, the former editor, who was particularly helpful and encouraging. But, alas, there has been a little blood on the carpet of late, after a silly and self-regarding clique decided that they did not like the general direction the paper was taking. They left, now declaring their splendid isolation in a risible and pompous mood, full of inflated self-importance. Personally I feel that Broo is all the better for this cleansing of the Augean Stables.

I honestly could not care less about this childish gang, but what I do care about is the truth. I care when comments are made about me, inaccurate and lying comments by a – Scotch – bear of very little brain and even less understanding, a sort of pathetic journalist manqué. Oh would that my enemy wrote a blog! No mention is made of me by name, of course, (it’s all oblique references to a ‘right-wing writer’) and I’m not going to bother adding a link. I simply intend to return the compliment in a cryptic and crystal mood, just a way of shattering an ego made of glass!

I write in direct and uncompromising style; I write as honestly as I can, with as much integrity as I can, not seeking favour, not attempting to mollify in any fashion. If you can’t stand the heat get out of my kitchen. My articles are almost always opinion pieces based on a substratum of fact, pieces in which I advance my own political perspective, firmly set to the libertarian right.

Inevitably I attract enemies, the small-minded and the intolerant, people who cannot bear to see an alterative view, people who come at me like a blunt-witted hurricane (hurricane, yes, that’s the word!), stalkers of all sorts. It’s always the same wherever I go, wherever my footsteps take me, from My Telegraph to BrooWaha.

People are at liberty to challenge my opinions, something I welcome. What I can’t tolerate is gratuitous and distasteful abuse. If it comes in comments attached to my public articles, so be it; I have a personal policy of ignoring trolls and leave it to the site editors to determine if particular remarks should remain or not.

It’s quite a different matter when it comes to unsolicited personal messages, containing implied threats of all sorts. It happened on BrooWaha. The individual in question, also to remain nameless, was advised to back off, initially, as I understand it, by Ms Duncombe, the former editor, who asked me to let her know if there was any repetition of the problem. Some time after this he complained that he was not allowed to comment on my articles. He was then told by Tony Berkman that it was a matter of indifference to me whether he commented or not, as I would continue to ignore him.

That, as they say, is that. Actually, it wasn't; for further unsolicited messages were sent not long before I left for Egypt, with content that suggested unsettling forms of obsession, content that suggested, at least to me, that this person had serious mental health problems. Supposedly of the political left, he shows unbelievable levels of intolerance bordering on carpet-chewing hysteria. No surprise there, I suppose.

Duncombe having since departed, I reported the matter to Berkman in his capacity as editor-in-chief, for the first time ever revealing the full contents of a private message, partially because the abuse was directed at him as well as me, gibbering, incoherent stuff. The said person was immediately banned, a pity in a way, a pity when any community is diminished, though quite understandable in the light of his bizarre behaviour.

My attention was drawn to the blog I alluded to above, a sort of rambling hate piece, directed chiefly against Berkman. The Scotchman in question, another intolerant lefty (left-wing and tolerance are obvious contradictions), prides himself on ‘facts’, though his own ‘facts’ come in a highly selective form.

First, I was not brought to BrooWaha by Berkman but by Duncombe, following a published interview with me by the former on Blog Catalogue. Second, and more important, the alleged favouritism shown towards me by Berkman is a complete fiction. I have a good working relationship with him but he has never demonstrated any open bias beyond expressing a general agreement with some of the things I’ve written about. The protection he offers to me is such that is offered to all without favour.

The other thing I’m accused of is making derogatory comments about the banned contributor, including supposed suggestions that he was an anti-Semite. Rather odd, considering that I gave up reading his tiresome articles at an early stage and stopped addressing him directly on any subject. He was banned not for “exercising his right to free speech”, something I personally hold sacred, no matter how much I despise particular views, but because of the aforementioned personal abuse.

Maybe the sycophants who congratulated the Scotchman on his plodding skills will read this too, just for the sake of a spot of balance. It’s rather a pity that I no longer have the private messages in question because they reveal so much, meat for all sorts profiling insights. Still, good manners and a hatred of vulgarity in any form would doubtless have prevented me from publishing.

Oh what fun this is, what fools these mortals be!

Monday 5 December 2011

A Perfect Read for a Perfect Moment

I suppose it’s not a terribly good idea to read a crime thriller when one already knows the outcome. Half the fun, after all, is in the surprise, or in discovering that one is as sensitive to the clues as the sleuth! I came to Death on the Nile for the first time in no need of clues because I already knew whodunit from watching an old movie with Peter Ustinov in the role of Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie’s ace French, sorry, Belgian detective.

I’m not a huge fan of traditional crime fiction. The only other novel by Christie that I’ve read is The Murder at the Vicarage, which was a little too twee for my taste. It’s odd, though, because I’ve hugely enjoyed the film and television adaptations of her work, engaging and escapist.

So, I knew that the book would be no mystery; I read it because I, too, was in Egypt, in the Cataract Hotel and sailing down the Nile. I read it, in other words, for the location and for the romance, if that’s the right word for a novel centring on a murder! The whole experience, the country and the novel, the country in the novel, the novel in the country, was hugely enjoyable.

This is not literature; it’s simple, uncomplicated stuff. The style is limpid if a little old-fashioned at points (the younger women are horribly patronised!) The characters are reasonably well-drawn, much better, I thought, than the shallow figures that populated The Murder at the Vicarage, and the plot very well constructed. I suppose that’s the thing about crime fiction, it’s much more about plot than people. I really can’t imagine Christie’s people having much in the way of an interior life, even Poirot for all his talk of ‘little grey cells.’

Death on the Nile carried me very nicely along the Nile. It was interesting to note the variations between the film and the novel. For instance, the scene in which a large stone almost kills Linnet Ridgeway, the chosen victim, comes at the temple of Abu Simbel and not at Karnak. It’s also interesting that the party were able to visit the temple straight from their cruise ship, no longer possible since the construction of the Aswan High Dam.

Incidentally for those who have seen the movie and not yet read the book the latter is far more plausible. The movie is enjoyable enough, with some wonderful costume designs, but there are simply far too many suspects, just about every other passenger on the cruise ship apart from Poirot and Colonel Race, his friend. It’s less necessary to suspend disbelief, especially over the rather risible scene when everyone gathers together in one room while the detective eliminates them one by one prior to identifying the real culprit. Poor Poirot; he never, ever gets a break. Why on earth do people always insist on committing crimes in his presence, especially when they have previously identified him as the ‘famous detective’?!

I shouldn’t give too much away in spoilers, especially if you, dear reader, have neither come to the book nor seen the movie. Let me just say that the crime is truly monstrous, a young woman, rich and beautiful, a woman with everything to live for, is butchered not for love but for money, not for high passion but for low greed, killed by a man (he does not act alone in the conspiracy to murder) for whom love is not enough. The criminal, a shallow dilettante, is a kind of version of Sir Percival Glyde from Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, less monstrous and more monstrous at one and the same time, if you understand my meaning.

The other interesting thing for me is that some things in Egypt have hardly changed at all. Death on the Nile was first published in 1937. There is a scene in Aswan where Poriot is walking down the streets, perstered all the way by touts. His companion tells him that it’s best to pretend to be deaf and blind. If you ever go to Egypt I urge you to follow this advice!

This isn’t really a review, more an appreciation of a book, of a time and of a country, a personal assessment in which the experience of reading and the experience of seeing came together in perfect harmony. Death on the Nile is far from being a great book, but I give it five stars, that judgement notwithstanding, simply because it now has an abiding personal meaning for me. I’m unlikely ever to read it again because it’s been absorbed into one of life’s perfect moments…and perfect moments should never be revisited.

Sunday 4 December 2011

Tale of a Sphinx

I’m sure that you will agree that we all visit certain places in our imagination, places we may never see in reality, whether it be Memphis or the Moon. There is something more, though: the power of imagination is often greater than mundane realities; but sometimes the power is just too petty.

I’ve been lucky; I’ve seen some wonderful places in my life, places that mostly met with the impression formed in the eye of my mind. Egypt was different; Egypt exceeded all. My imagination is too little. The traces left by the past are too great. Shelly was wrong. The mementos of Ozymandias are everywhere. I looked on his works and was filled with awe.

I’m in danger of exhausting my stock of superlatives, so I’m going to let someone else speak for me. She is Amelia Edwards, an English artist and writer who visited Egypt in the nineteenth century. It was standing in the great hypostyle hall in the temple of Karnak in Luxor that some words by her put everything into proper perspective, some words I read to my companions;

It is a place that has been much written about and often painted; but of which no writing and no art can convey more than a dwarfed and pallid impression…The scale is too vast; the effect too tremendous; the sense of one’s own dumbness, and littleness and incapacity, too complete and crushing.

It’s true, believe me, it’s true.

Egypt is such a contrast, a magnificent past and a not so magnificent present. Still, I met some wonderful people, including a highly knowledgeable local Egyptologist, full of hope for the future, hope that the promise of the February Revolution will be met. My natural disposition is one of caution to the point of cool reserve, but I could not fail to be impressed by their enthusiasm. I have things I have to say, though, things about the possible future of the country. I think it best if I to hold off on this for a day or so, a subject, possibly, for a Broowaha article.

My journey began as most journeys to Egypt begin, in the mad metropolis of Cairo! Incidentally – and thanks for all the emails and texts of concern – I missed the recent trouble in Tahrir Square, flying to Aswan a few days beforehand. I really only spent enough time in the city to visit the Museum, the Mosque of Mohammed Ali and the Pyramids to the south. More would have been excessive; more would have damaged my lungs and my temperament; for Cairo is the most congested city I’ve ever visited; the traffic is simply impossible.

Aswan, in Egyptian Nubia, is such a contrast, more relaxed, less demanding. Here one can really appreciate the beauty of the Nile, blue and utterly captivating. This was our base for a few days, on an island hotel. From here we set out across the Sahara to the great temple or Ramesses II at Abu Simbel. It was on a convoy, I might add, all complete with a police escort!

I’m looking out from the window of the bus at the passing Sahara, mile upon mile of sand and strange looking rocky outcrops, livened up by a growing number of watery mirages. I saw the beginnings of this great desert the day we visited the pyramids at Giza. It wasn’t at all what I expected, a sad disappointment of dirty, grey-looking sand, with shards of stone scattered around. But this is the wilderness as I imagined it, yellow and pure, vanishing into an impossible horizon. Day does not gradually evolve into night here; the division is sharp, first one condition and then the other.

Here, at Abu Simbel, I’m almost as far south as I can go in Egypt; not much further lies the Sudan. Here the ancient pharaoh still stares out in majesty, carved from the bare rock thirteen centuries before the birth of Christ. The temple is supposedly dedicated to the gods Amun, Ra-Horakhty and Ptah but the more obvious dedication is to Ramesses himself, a silent guardian over Upper Egypt, a statement about naked power, a warning to the Nubian raiders who dared venture north. This is Ozymandius, king of kings.

Others have been here before me, some of whom have left their own mark, elaborate and painstaking graffiti that go right back to the early nineteenth century, modern cartouches that must have taken days to carve. It’s possible to see this elsewhere, on other monuments, this pathetic and pointless plea for immortality, a tradition that seems to have been started by the soldiers of Bonaparte at the end of the eighteenth century. Gustave Flaubert, on his own sojourn some fifty years after, remarked on the sad emptiness of it all;

In the temples we read the travellers’ names; they strike us as petty and futile. We never write ours; there are some that must have taken three days to carve, so deeply are they cut in the stone. There are some that you keep meeting everywhere – sublime persistence of stupidity.

Now back in Aswan, I had dinner in the Old Cataract Hotel. Yes, I was hungry but there was another reason for eating here. You see, I’m a complete literary groupie; I followed Hemingway to Havana, Somerset Maugham to Singapore and now Agatha Christie to Aswan! She stayed in the Cataract Hotel and it features in Death on the Nile, the crime thriller I started to read before leaving Cairo.

The place itself is wonderful, the staff attentive, the food marvellous. There was only one thing: it was draped in a tomb-like silence. We were the only guests. It was the same everywhere: people seemed to have been frightened away. The numbers are absent, good for us, bad for Egyptians trying to make a living from tourism. “There is no business”, we kept being told.

So, yes, I started Death on the Nile in Cairo but I finished it in true style sailing on the Nile! We journeyed north from Aswan to Luxor, two nights on the river. At Kom Ombo, where the ship moored briefly before sailing on into the night, there was time to visit the wonderful double temple, dedicated to Sobek, the crocodile-headed god, and Horus, the falcon-headed god of the sky, the avatar and progenitor of all of the pharaohs. We have passed through centuries since leaving Abu Simbel; for Kom Ombo was built in the time of the Ptolemys, the Greek interlopers who were to be the last dynasts of pharonic Egypt.

I’m running out of wind, not short of impressions, of further wonders to tell, but in danger of exhausting your patience. It’s all so much to take in, Karnak, Philae, Luxor and Dendera, temples, monuments, museums and tombs, treasures of all kinds. The Valley of the Kings and Queens defy words, with figures of gods, goddesses and earthly rulers as vivid in colour as they were when first painted some three thousand years ago. If you ever go do be sure not to miss the tomb of Ramesses VI. The great tomb of Nefertari, the favourite wife of Ramesses II, a wonder among wonders, unfortunately can only be visited by special permission and at eye-watering expense.

My final days in the country were spent relaxing, swimming, reading and dreaming in a hotel in Luxor, just trying to absorb the whole experience. Oh, and not forgetting a wonderful evening in a café, the only woman in the place, smoking a sheesa with some friends. :-)

Uprose the merry Sphinx,
And crouched no more in stone;
She melted into purple cloud,
She silvered in the moon;
She spired into a yellow flame;
She flowered in blossoms red;
She flowed into a foaming wave:
She stood Monadnoc's head.

Thorough a thousand voices
Spoke the universal dame;
"Who telleth one of my meanings
Is master of all I am."