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Front cover of A Hell for Heroes by Theo KnellA Hell for Heroes: An SAS Hero’s Journey into the Heart of Darkness, Theo Knell (Coronet 2012)

The title and sub-title suggested that this book would be heavily sentimental or highly warnographic or both. But it turned out to be one of the most interesting, enlightening and well-written war-books I’ve ever read. If it’s not ghosted – and it doesn’t seem to be – Theo Knell must be a very intelligent man. More unusually still, he can write good prose and help you understand what war and soldiering are like: loud, frightening, mind-and-marriage-destroying. I’m not so sure about the vers-libre poems that end some chapters. They’re interesting to read, but they aren’t as skilful or understated as the stories that precede them.

His first stories are about his childhood, which was disturbingly violent and loveless. Lots of children wouldn’t have survived it. In some ways he didn’t, but it made him tough and good at fighting, so he chose the army as a career. Like many others, he was also looking for family and comradeship: there is no bond like the bond of facing death together. Knell has come close to dying many times and can give you some idea of what it’s like. One of the earliest times was on what seemed at first like a routine armoured patrol through a country district in Northern Ireland. An armoured car got a puncture and the patrol stopped while it was repaired. Then a Land Rover drove up from behind carrying technicians on their way to repair a TV mast. They received permission to proceed and carried on up the road. A few seconds later, there was a huge explosion. When the patrol went to investigate, they found a twenty-foot crater in the road:

Although they had initially been invisible, as I now looked around me it became apparent that what I had thought were pieces of rubble were in fact human body parts, arms, legs and chunks of raw flesh. As I took in what lay before me the corporal said something that shook me to the bone:

“That landmine was meant for us. The Ferret getting a puncture and that Land Rover coming along the road when it did was the best bit of luck we’ll ever have, though the same can’t be said for them.”

… There were few visible signs of blood, considering that five men had been literally blown apart, but the smoke, with its smell of iron mixed with cordite, had now invaded my nose, mouth and throat and still hung mercilessly all around us. (“Like a Demon at My Shoulder”, pp. 84-5)

You don’t have to be a psychopath to be a soldier, but it must help at times. Knell isn’t a psychopath, but he’s done things that are very cold and callous from the civilian point of view. Later, in “No Second Chances”, he describes sniping against a sniper, who’s rumoured to be a “Russian or East German” brought in by the IRA to kill a difficult target. It’s a real version of Ian Fleming’s short story “The Living Daylights”. He also writes about the hardships of training and selection, a vomit-inducing practical joke on a parachute jump, serving as a mercenary in Africa, working as a bouncer and saving someone’s life as a medic. It was a difficult job and required all his skill. But he was warned not to do it:

“Don’t work too hard, mate. He won’t thank you for taking him home in that state. Although his wife and kids will initially thank you, he will never forgive you.” Sadly he was right. Although I managed to keep the injured man alive, albeit confined to a wheelchair, he never did forgive me, and although he didn’t die until some years later, he never spoke to me again. (“Angel of Death or Mercy?”, pg. 193)

You have to experience war to fully understand it, but this book will take you as close as paper can go.

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Clive AliveC.S. Lewis: A Life, Alister McGrath (Hodder & Staughton 2013)

Ink TuneNick Drake: Dreaming England, Nathan Wiseman-Trowse (Reaktion Books 2013)

Stan’s FansAwaydays, Kevin Sampson (Vintage 1998)

Words at WarPoetry of the First World War: An Anthology, ed. Tim Kendall (Oxford University Press 2013) (posted @ Overlord of the Über-Feral)


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

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C.S. Lewis by Alister McGrathC.S. Lewis: A Life, Alister McGrath (Hodder & Staughton 2013)

I wasn’t expecting much from this book: Alister McGrath is a Christian who appears on the BBC, which means his theological opinions are bland and Guardian-friendly. So I assumed that C.S. Lewis: A Life would be badly written, smarmy and smug and that I wouldn’t manage to get very far into it. I was wrong. The prose could have been better, but it’s an easy and interesting read and McGrath does what he promises to do in the preface:

This biography sets out, not to praise Lewis or condemn him, but to understand him – above all, his ideas, and how these found expression in his writings. This task has been made easier by the publication of virtually all that is known of Lewis’s writings, as well as a significant body of scholarly literature dealing with his works and ideas. (pg. xiii)

And yes, readers will understand Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1963) better after reading this book, from his roots in Northern Ireland to his silence about the First World War, from his distaste for T.S. Eliot to his late romance with Joy Davidman. And there isn’t much lit-crit jargon en route. McGrath has the same Irish roots as Lewis and I think that gives him an advantage over previous biographers. He’s also good on Lewis’s books, both fiction and non-fiction. He doesn’t write about them to show how clever he himself is a critic, but to show how clever Lewis was as a writer. Or how clever Lewis wasn’t, as the case may be: McGrath’s assessments are objective, not hagiographic. The cover calls Lewis an “Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet”, but I think that’s publisher’s hyperbole and aimed at the American market.

McGrath also discusses a fascinating theory about astrological symbolism in the Narnia series. The Middle Ages recognized seven major heavenly bodies, there are seven books in the series and Lewis was a dedicated medievalist. So the Oxonian scholar Michael Ward suggested in 2008 that Lewis assigned each book to a particular heavenly body:

For example, Ward argues that Prince Caspian shows the thematic influence of Mars … the ancient god of war (Mars Gradivus). This immediately connects to the dominance of military language, imagery and issues in this novel. The four Pevensie children arrive in Narnia “in the middle of a war” – “the Great War of Deliverance”, as it is referred to later in the series, or the “Civil War” in Lewis’s own “Outline of Narnian History”. (ch. 12, “Narnia: Exploring an Imaginative World”, pg. 299)

Elsewhere, The Silver Chair is assigned to the Moon, The Horse and His Boy to Mercury, and so on. It’s an ingenious theory and it makes me think again about the Narnia books. I used to find them confused and incoherent. If Ward is right, I was missing a lot.

And McGrath has a theory of his own about the true date of Lewis’s return to Christianity as an adult. He proposes that Lewis finally accepted “the divinity of Christ” not in September 1931, as previous biographers have thought, but in June 1932. McGrath argues that the latter date better fits the description Lewis gives in his autobiography Surprised by Joy of the “final stages” of his conversion. Lewis mentions a trip to Whipsnade Zoo, “birds singing overhead and bluebells underfoot”. So birdlore and botany shed light on biography. McGrath says that the bird-song strongly suggests that the bluebells were the early-flowering English kind, not the late-flowering Scottish kind, “known as the ‘harebell’ in England” (ch. 6, “The Most Reluctant Convert: The Making of a Mere Christian 1930-1932”, pp. 152-6). This is careful scholarship: I like a literary biography that bandies names like Hyacinthoides non-scripta (the English bluebell) and Campanula rotundifolia (the Scottish).

Lewis would certainly have approved: like Landor, he loved both nature and art. But would Lewis have approved of all his modern admirers and spiritual protégés? I strongly doubt it. Christianity has degenerated since his day – or rather, has continued to degenerate. Whatever some of his supporters might claim, Lewis is an important figure in liberal, not conservative, theology. “Mere Christianity” would not have been accepted by the Middle Ages and though it might be useful for individuals, it’s not useful for institutions. This helps explain why Lewis became so popular in America, which has always been full of Christians but has never had a national church. And Lewis’s popularity in America helps explain his popularity in Britain – and his rejection by Ireland. McGrath notes that there is “no entry for ‘Lewis, C.S.’ in the 1,472 pages of the supposedly definitive Dictionary of Irish Literature (1996)” (ch. 1, “The Soft Hills of Down: An Irish Childhood 1898-1908”, pg. 13).

Why? McGrath explains that Lewis was “the wrong kind of Irishman”, an Ulster Protestant who rejected Catholic Dublin and Irish nationalism without ever losing his love of his birthplace in the north. Lewis became a friend and ally of the Catholic J.R.R. Tolkien, but that didn’t help his popularity in the south. Tolkien too was an important figure in liberal, not conservative, theology. Like Narnia, Middle-earth is syncretic and heavily influenced by pagan myth. Yes, as McGrath explains, Lewis thought Christianity was a myth that had the unique virtue of being true. But that again is not something that the Middle Ages would have accepted. And like Narnia, Middle-earth achieved most success in rootless, restless, multi-denominational America. McGrath discusses the flowering and fading of that friendship and sets it into the context of scholarship and university politics at Oxford, which was “late in recognizing the importance of English literature as a subject worthy of serious academic study” (ch. 4, “Deceptions and Discoveries: The Making of an Oxford Don 1919-1927”, pg. 98).

Good for Oxford. And when it did finally succumb to EngLit, it held off further rot by employing men like Tolkien and Lewis, who did not like literary theory, psychoanalysis or modernism. Lewis might have been the wrong kind of Irishman, but he was the right kind of scholar. Like his religion, his subject has degenerated sadly since his death. McGrath’s biography shows that the degeneration isn’t complete, but McGrath is more than simply an illuminating biographer. He’s a laudator temporis acti too, a praiser of times past, whether he intended to be or not. Either way, he’s done justice to an interesting and complex writer. If you want to understand C.S. Lewis better, this is a good place to start.

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Front cover of Mo Mowlam by Julia LangdonMo Mowlam: The Biography, Julia Langdon (Little, Brown 2000)

(A revision of a review first written in 2005)

When you’re poisonous, it pays to advertise. When you’re not poisonous, it pays to steal that advertising. Wasps have distinctive yellow-and-black stripes, and so do some harmless moths. They’ve evolved to mimic wasps without running the physiological costs of actually being poisonous. It’s cheaper to pretend than to be, in other words, and in nature pretence works. In politics, where mimicry has evolved too, it only works in the short term, because politics is based on promises of delivering good, not threats of doing harm. So you’re in trouble if you can’t find a good excuse for failing to deliver.

Mo Mowlam managed to get some good excuses for not meeting her lying promises, but I don’t think Tony Blair will. Whether he does or not, I can’t understand why people saw Mowlam as such a “refreshing” contrast to Blair. They were very similar in many ways. Like Blair, Mowlam was a not-very-bright egomaniacal fake whose success was based on manipulation and deceit. But in fact she was helped to escape detection by the media’s desire to set a villain, Blair the Liar, off against a heroine, Holy Mo. We don’t like to think that the alternative to a bad ruler might be equally bad or worse, and Mo was a kind of Queen across the Water for those suffering under bad King Tony. Her ill-health and the undoubted malice shown to her by Blair and his cronies added to her romantic image, and when she died in August 2005 the UK even relapsed briefly into mild Di-mentia.

But Mowlam is now sliding back into deserved oblivion. Why she deserves that oblivion is explained by this book. And I suspect that this was part of the author’s intention, though probably not in a fully conscious way. Langdon may have thought she was producing a “balanced” portrayal of her subject’s “complex” personality, but when someone is supposed to be honest and “unspun”, evidence that she can be deceitful and calculating doesn’t so much balance her honesty as suggest that it’s fake. Langdon describes Mowlam calling loudly for a drink in a bar at the House of Commons “because I’ve got the curse” (ch. 8, pg. 171) and either not noticing the “slight frisson” this caused or not caring. But Langdon goes on:

Some of her colleagues are convinced, however, that she actually sets out to shock or take people by surprise as part of a deliberately considered strategy. There is some evidence for this. For example, in an interview for the Mail on Sunday in early 1998, the writer and photographer waited to see the Northern Ireland Secretary for quite some time in an anteroom. She suddenly burst into the room wearing no shoes, no wig and no jacket, and on seeing them exclaimed in apparent surprise in a fruity four-letter way. The reporter, Louette Harding, wrote that the freelance photographer who was with her later disclosed privately that he had photographed Mo Mowlam before for another publication in London, and that, curiously, exactly the same thing had happened on that occasion. He had waited, she had burst in, appeared aghast, done a double-take and then cursed in surprise. (ch. 8, “‘I have as much right to be there as they have’: Westminster 1987-1991”, pp. 171-2)

Langdon’s conclusion is that the “surprise tactics she employs helped present her at Westminster and later to the wider world as someone who was different, a woman who was prepared to challenge the norm” (pg. 172). If that’s an admiring assessment of Mowlam’s behaviour, it’s a cynical one too. However, Langdon says elsewhere that Mowlam’s “spontaneity” — in this case a comment to a male reporter about the discomfort of a new bra — is “quintessential Mo” and “the way she is”. So perhaps Langdon wasn’t expecting her readers to read between the lines of other anecdotes, like this one from Mowlam’s time as an MP in the north-eastern constituency of Redcar:

On one occasion she dropped a friend back at a junction in Grangetown late at night and a passer-by mistakenly thought she was a taxi-driver. He climbed in the back of her car, giving an address as he did so, and rather than pointing out his error she drove off. They started a conversation and a few minutes into the journey he recognized her voice and was quite naturally horrified at his presumption. ‘You’re all right. I’m going that way. I’ll drop you off,’ said his MP. (ch. 9, “‘I’ll be back to see you after’: Redcar 1987-1995”, pg. 192)

But was she going that way before she realized the opportunity the mistake had given her? A story like that would quickly spread, adding to the “Good old Mo” legend, and Langdon goes on to describe how “this popular and saintly woman who is regularly mobbed on the streets of Redcar can also get very angry when she doesn’t get what she wants from her staff” (pp. 192-3). Then Langdon seems to slip back into naïve Mo-groupie mode: Mowlam’s failure to match casual acts of kindness to strangers with consideration for her own staff is explained by the fact that she was “‘driven’ — partly by the impetus provided by her background, partly by her profound political beliefs and partly by fear of failure” (pg. 194). Langdon seems to forget here the way she has shown elsewhere that Mowlam didn’t have any profound political beliefs: like Blair, she was a “pragmatist” who avoided commitment to any particular group as much as she could. She wasn’t particularly left-wing or particularly right-wing, and she didn’t identify herself as a feminist. She was just “good old Mo”… except to those perceptive few who claimed she was devious and a control-freak.

This absence of ideology — and principle — helps explain why Mowlam and Blair were such close allies in the beginning, but she soon fell out with the homosexual cliques that surrounded Blair and Gordon Brown, as Langdon hints when she reports what “one Labour MP” has told her: “People were jealous of her because she was pretty and personable and popular. This MP said: ‘Nick Brown couldn’t bear Mo being close to Gordon. He couldn’t bear a woman being close to Gordon.’” (ch. 8, pg. 186) And yes, Mowlam was attractive before her brain-tumour and the treatment that made her put on weight and lose her hair. Before she revealed she was ill, one female journalist infamously described her as looking like “an only slightly effeminate Geordie trucker” (ch. 11, pg. 264). But that masculine side always seems to have been there: she looks like a boy in some of the childhood photos reproduced here and her features were always large, solid, and rounded.

I’d diagnose the higher-than-average testosterone levels that seem to be characteristic of female politicians, and that may also have manifested themselves in Mowlam’s “earthiness”: her swearing, her enthusiasm both for sex and for talking about sex, and her endearing habit — to some — of helping herself to other people’s food and drink. She was extrovert in a masculine way, in other words. Testosterone helps explain why men are more extrovert on average than women and also more ambitious. Langdon doesn’t use biological explanations like that, of course, preferring to use Mowlam’s early environment instead. Mowlam had an alcoholic father and sought escape from her childhood demons first in academic success, becoming a professor of politics, and then in politics itself.

But she doesn’t seem to have been very intelligent and Langdon’s naïvety and Moöphilia may be apparent in her description of Mowlam’s preparation for her role as “Spokeswoman on City and Corporate Affairs“ in Neil Kinnock’s shadow cabinet:

She worked, as ever, extraordinarily hard. Night after night she could be seen walking down the Library Corridor in the Commons with a huge pile of books in her arms. She had no particular expertise in City affairs and she had some catching up to do, but she was going to get on top of this portfolio and she was going to prove that she could make it a success. (ch. 8, pg. 181)

Well, she “could be seen” carrying “a huge pile of books”, but did she ever read them? As on many other occasions, Mowlam is doing something ostentatious or flamboyant that will be talked about. But, like the warning yellow-and-black stripes on a harmless moth, there may have been no substance behind it. I remember hearing or reading her admit in an interview that when she had that job in the Shadow Cabinet and hadn’t prepared properly for a meeting with financiers, she would go and ask them to explain what they thought, which she knew they were always happy to do. Meanwhile (I assume), she nodded and looked intelligent. Langdon reports that later, after Labour achieved power and Mowlam was appointed Northern Ireland secretary, she

prepared diligently for this post and impressed her friends and colleagues … with her degree of application. [One of them] came across her studying a calendar she had compiled containing all the dates and anniversaries of historic and political consequence in Irish history. (ch. 12, “‘Discipline Before Desire’”, pg. 265).

Had she set that encounter up too? Either way, her calendar doesn’t seem to have helped her much in Northern Ireland, but success there would have been beyond a much more intelligent and capable woman. Peter Mandelson, another homosexual in Blair’s inner circle who fell out with Mowlam, began to brief against her as he manoeuvred for her job. Some of what he said does seem to have been true: her brain-tumour was affecting her judgment. After all, when she left Northern Ireland she started to believe her own hype and wanted to become Foreign Secretary. Surprisingly, the acerbic cartoonist Gerald Scarfe believed her hype too, because as she was being pushed out of favour he portrayed her as a puzzled and unhappy dove of peace with the title “Mo Grounded”. It’s the last photo in the photo section and would be the lasting image of Mo Mowlam: a good and decent woman done down by dark forces.

Well, there’s enough evidence in this book to show that this image is false, though she does seem to have been targeted after the standing ovation she received during a speech by Tony Blair at the Labour Party Conference in 1998. He mentioned “our one and only Mo”, and then had to pause for “90 seconds” of applause touching “110 decibels on the clapometer” (ch. 12, pg. 299). It’s said that Blair’s lieutenants — people are still reluctant to admit the sickness starts at the top — disliked both the ovation and the polls that showed she was more popular than he was, and set out to undermine and isolate her.

If so, it was a falling-out among thieves. Although Mowlam’s illness and death were sad, she and Blair were very similar. Like him, she was a fake who used politics as a stage for her own self-serving psychodrama. I felt sorry for her when she deteriorated intellectually in the final days of her illness, lapsing into a kind of amiable premature senility, but then I’d feel sorry for Blair in the same circumstances. It wouldn’t undo the harm he’s done to British politics or excuse his earlier deceit and dishonesty, and the same goes for “Mo” Mowlam.

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