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Lessons in Life: Politics Begins at Home


Neville Chamberlain – Peace In Our Time


Let me tell you a little story about politics. Actually it’s a tale from the teenage years of our eldest daughter, but it’s still about politics.

Fourteen is an age when the sweetest of little girls can turn into terrorists. Not overnight of course, but the slow build-up of hormonal forces often acquires critical mass at that age. And I’m not saying that had ISIS been around at the time she would have been on the coach towards Dover, dreaming of Syria. She was far smarter than that.

No, her terrorism was more of a domestic nature. Sulks, arguments about nothing, breaks for freedom, usually in the form of escaping the house to join her mates in the park, where tribes of teenagers would gather, seeking solidarity and the freedom to do things of which their parents would disapprove. If you’ve ever been a parent of teenagers you probably know what I’m talking about.

It was a time of walking on eggshells, of never knowing when we might trigger an emotional IED that would roll over civilised discourse in an omnidirectional blast of anger and recrimination. What made it more difficult was that she was our firstborn, and we hadn’t much of a clue about how to deal with this new phenomenon. We had conveniently forgotten what pains in the backside we were at that age – though I should really speak for myself, because I’m sure my wife was never like that.

Anyway, against this tableau of terrorism and trepidation, picture the scene one morning when our daughter, heavily emblazoned with the dark eyes of a goth and an expression of profound misery, comes to Daddy with a tale of woe. Why me? Well, at this point I should explain that she was pretty good at divide and rule.

Daddy, I have no clothes.

Yes you do – they’re all over the floor in your bedroom. I then tell her about the six layers of Troy, and how Schleimann couldn’t determine which of them was the city described by Homer. At least I was in the process of telling her when she interrupted me.

But they’re all out of date and I look terrible in them.

Ah, the fascism of fashion, I thought. The domination of the designer label. The cruelty of cool. So, after making rumbling noises about the fact that she should really learn to look after the clothes she had before coming to us for new ones, I tentatively inquired what she might have in mind.

A new coat, new jeans, several tops and a new pair of shoes. To add to the abundant archaeology already to be found on her floor.

Ridiculous, was my knee-jerk response. At which point she began to describe the deep psychic damage our meanness would cause. How terrible she looked, how unconfident she felt with her friends, how she would grieve every night at her inadequacy. And it was all our fault.

In an attempt to ward off the demons of teenage angst, I agreed to speak to her mother, if only to get her off my back for a while. Oh, another thing you should know. She had an instinctive flair for laying this kind of stuff on me at moments of maximum vulnerability – I might be busy wrestling with a problem of my own, or about to go to work, or with her in a public place where an emotional IED might cause considerable embarrassment. She also knew that I would always prefer jaw jaw to war war.

So enter Mum into the equation. My wife is definitely the Iron Lady of our family. Though she has a heart of gold and a caring instinct Thatcher never showed the world, she takes – shall we say – a fairly robust view of most things. No wobbles for her, though she’s not averse to the odd strategic retreat when pressure from her Cabinet (ie me) is applied. And in the case of our daughter’s demand, predictably, her response was a flat veto.

The inevitable and equally predictable outcome of the stand-off was a period of cold war, occasionally interrupted by outbreaks of hot war. Non-cooperation, sulking, sarcasm (another seemingly natural weapon in daughter’s armoury), sanctions and a generally unpleasant atmosphere around the house.

This state of affairs continued for several days, during which I sought refuge in my study, especially when my attempts to mediate met with little success or even appreciation by either of the warring parties. You’ll notice that by this stage, rather shamefully, I’d joined the non-aligned movement, a tendency when the going got tough that rightly earned me negative brownie points from my wife. Not for nothing did I refer to myself in those days as the Boutros Boutros Ghali of the Royston family.

And then one day our daughter came to me with the sweetest expression – no longer the gothic scowl – to offer a concession.

Daddy, I’ve been thinking about the clothes. Actually, I can do without the coat, the jeans and the top for a while. But please please please please can I have a new pair of shoes?

And it worked. After days of crawling through our domestic Stalingrad, dodging emotional shells and sniper bullets, I could see a possible peace treaty. I presented a united cabinet opinion to my wife, who agreed on the grounds that girls of 14 actually outgrow their footwear, but stipulated that the shoes should be “sensible”. After a bit of wrangling on the definition of sensible, the deal was done. Peace and amicability were restored, and my daughter skipped off to the shoe shop and returned with a very nice pair of heels. Not very sensible, but definitely shoes.

I use that story in workshops on negotiation to illustrate a variant of one of Robert Cialdini’s six principles of influence. It’s called reverse reciprocation. Start with an extreme position. Make a concession by partially backing down. The other party reciprocates with a concession from their original position, which in our case was no. The result: the party taking the extreme position is rewarded with something when nothing was originally on the table.

Does that not sound familiar? I’m not aware of any nations that have imposed sanctions on Russia in the past year expecting Vladimir Putin to walk away from Crimea, for example. A settlement that leaves the territory of the rest of Ukraine intact and ensures that Putin stops playing mind games over the future of Moldova and the former Soviet Baltic republics would be regarded by America, the European Union and NATO as a win. And Russia ends up with something that was never on the table in the first place. Sanctions lifted. Normal relations restored.

Except that such tactics rarely result in lasting tranquillity. As Neville Chamberlain found out when dealing with Adolf Hitler in the run-up to World War 2, and as we found out again and again during our daughter’s interesting teenage years. Once successful, extreme negotiators continue to push at new boundaries until they either make the fatal mistake of pushing too far or grow tired of the game. Or, in the case of teenagers, grow up to become delightful and responsible adults, as has our daughter.

If you look around the world you can see the consequences of overreach – actual or potential. Saddam Hussein might still be with us if he had not overrun Kuwait. Will the Peshawar school massacre spell the death knell of the Pakistan Taliban? Might ISIS yet consolidate their caliphate within the existing territory that they control if they cease their barbaric treatment of the unfortunates under their control, and agree not to export their ideology beyond their borders? At what stage might Iran swallow the bitter pill and abandon their nuclear ambitions?

These questions remain to be answered. But the story of my daughter and the shoes goes to show that we don’t need to gaze at the world stage to see politics in action. It’s happening under our noses every day in our homes and workplaces. The principles are the same – the only variables are the scale and the consequences.

All we have to do is watch and hopefully learn – about red lines, about listening, about reading intentions and about the importance of time in establishing a modus vivendi, It’s all there on the home front. And one more thought: children know things that adults often forget. We can learn from them as well as they from us.

Ten Questions We Should Ask Ourselves About Torture


“Torture is the systematic and deliberate infliction of acute pain by one person on another, or on a third person, in order to accomplish the purpose of the former against the will of the latter.” (Amnesty International)

Torture is morally wrong. It’s also ineffective as a means of obtaining information. It corrodes the torturers, the tortured and the societies in which it takes place. That being the case, why has it taken the entire span of human existence for us to realise this, and why  – despite almost universal acceptance of international law prohibiting it – does it still take place across the majority of inhabited space on our planet?

Is it because we are more driven by fear than rational thought? Are we as a species less “civilised” than we like to think? Or more civilised than we think, because we’re the only species that deliberately inflicts pain on our peers for purposes other than territorial dominance and sexual supremacy? Or should we be using the term “evolved” rather than civilised?

I don’t know, and I find the subject of torture as disturbing as anyone else who is confronted with evidence of the appalling cruelty that people inflict upon others. I also have no interest in getting into the kind of debate on the subject beloved of philosophy teachers. I have opinions, but more questions than answers.

So here are ten questions we should perhaps ask ourselves when we make sweeping statements on the subject. To some the answers are obvious. To others less so. Most of them lead to more questions.

The questions use as a reference point the definition of torture I quoted above.

Is it wrong?

It surely depends on what we mean by wrong. Do we mean morally wrong? According to what moral framework? A religious framework? Which religions specifically condemn physical punishment? And which religions specifically sanction it? Undoubtedly some religious scriptures can be interpreted as condoning the infliction of pain on others. I leave it to you to figure out which.

Is it effective?

The most common practical argument against torture is that people will say anything to make the pain stop. I wonder. If the information given under duress can be verified as being false, and discovery of the falsehood will result in the certainty of further punishment, is the argument still valid?

Which is more effective, the fear of torture or the act itself?

Perhaps it depends on the certainty that torture will follow as the result of lack of cooperation. If we know that we are about to be tortured, it is an exceptional (or highly motivated) person who is not prepared to go to any lengths to avoid the consequent pain and suffering. So you could argue that yes, in the majority of cases the threat of torture is very effective. So is the fear of the unknown – not knowing what is about to happen to you. Imagination is a very powerful thing.

Can you torture groups as well as individuals?

I would say undoubtedly yes, even if Amnesty’s definition seems to exclude group torture. The random selection of individuals from a group for execution is a time-honoured practice that was used very effectively by the Nazis in World War 2.

Is it wrong to engage with torturers?

Does it not depend on who’s doing the engaging, and for what purpose? If governments ostracise other governments that knowingly employ torture, there wouldn’t be much international dialogue. What large countries don’t use torture in one form or another, at one time or another? International diplomacy is largely a process of the guilty talking to the guilty.

Would you torture to protect your loved ones?

If the answer is yes, then should you judge governments that torture those who threaten citizens that it is under obligation to protect? Would you condone the use of torture in an extreme situation, for example to prevent a nuclear attack on your city? This is the Cheney justification: “our country was under attack – we used any means necessary to defend it”.

Is war a form of torture?

Was the series of assaults on Gaza a form of torture? Was the bombing of Germany and Japan in World War 2 a form of torture? How about the bombing of Vietnam? Is the threat of war a form of torture, given the terror that it instils in populations?

Is there such a thing as non-violent torture?

Is mental cruelty – withdrawal of love, isolation, sensory deprivation, sleep deprivation, lies, exploitation of personal phobias, bullying, threats of violence – torture? If so, how many of us can honestly say that we have never used torture at some stage in our lives?

Are democracies less likely to torture than autocracies?

That probably depends on your definition of democracy. I can think of a number of countries that call themselves democracies where torture takes place unchecked. So it’s probably the wrong question. Better to ask if torture is less likely in countries that respect the rule of law. Recent history suggests that autocracies are more likely to make laws that enable torture because they can do so without public opposition. On the other hand, in extremis, elected governments are just as capable of using it. Think of the US in Vietnam, Britain in Kenya, France in Algeria. The rule of law is effective only if the law is imposed transparently.

Are we as individuals capable of torture?

Obviously it depends on the individual. But enough “ordinary people” willingly joined the Nazis in persecuting the Jews in World War 2. The Milgram Experiment, in which participants, prompted by a figure of authority, were prepared to use potentially excruciating doses of electrocution on subjects, suggested that in certain circumstances many people are capable of inflicting pain and suffering.

It’s easy to point the finger at America’s “enhanced” interrogation tactics in the aftermath of 9/11. It’s an open-and-shut case, isn’t it? Morally wrong and possibly criminal.

The reality is that the waters are far muddier. That’s why I offer more questions than answers.

Postcard from Saudi Arabia – the Hidden Well of Kindness

Riyadh early

Old Riyadh

I’ve just made it back to the UK after two fairly lengthy visits to Saudi Arabia. So this is my last postcard for a while. What began with a single post about a railway trip has turned out to be a series of fourteen articles about a country that I know pretty well, but that as a foreigner I can never know really well. It’s a country that still surprises me, and is changing more rapidly than at any time I can remember.

I’ve written about a number of subjects based on my own experience, on what I’ve read in the local media, and on conversations with Saudi friends and acquaintances along the way. I’ve spent my time in four cities: Dammam and Al Hasa in the east, Riyadh in the central region and Jeddah in the west.

The posts have generally been on the subject of change. Huge infrastructure projects, evolving institutions, changing attitudes as the young become increasingly influential. Old problems in new guises, new threats. By no means a comprehensive portrait of a country I first visited thirty-four years ago, but a series of snapshots that provide a counterpoint to the internationally received wisdom that Saudi Arabia is a country resolutely standing still.

I never expected to see three successive airports at one major city in my lifetime, for example. When I first arrived in Jeddah it was to a decrepit, crowded cattle market in the middle of the city. Soon afterwards it was replaced by the shiny new King Abdulaziz International Airport, which has now become equally decrepit and is doing the Kingdom’s reputation no favours with its limited facilities. And now a new airport, complete with rail links to the holy cities of Mecca and Madinah, is under construction. So it’s quite conceivable that before long I’ll be checking out yet another spectacular piece of infrastructure. Meanwhile the UK has spent at least as long debating and dithering about the future of Heathrow.

But some things never change. Though western observers often portray Saudi Arabia as a harsh, rigid and intolerant bastion of misogyny and religious conservatism, there’s another side to the Saudi character that rarely gets a write-up. And that’s the innate warmth, kindness and hospitality of its people. Not everyone shows those qualities, of course, but I’ve experienced enough examples to know that they are to be found in as much abundance as the hydrocarbons that lie beneath the sand.

To illustrate the point, here’s something that happened to me a couple of days ago. I’d been running a workshop in Riyadh. I mentioned that I’ve had a long-standing interest in the history of the Middle East – from Sumeria to the present day. Over lunch I got chatting with one of the participants, whom I shall call Abdullah. In the course of the conversation he told me that his grandfather was killed in the decisive battle between King Abdulaziz and the rebellious Ikhwan (Brethren) – the Bedouin warriors who had been at the forefront of Abdulaziz’s campaign to unify the Kingdom but had at this stage had turned against him. Abdullah’s forebear was on the wrong side of the argument, and in 1929 met his end with hundreds of others in a hail of machine-gun fire.

The battle of Sabillah was no contest. Camels and rifles against the King’s highly efficient gunnery. It was the last revolt against the authority of the Al-Saud until the 1979 insurrection in Mecca. Abdullah also told me that his father still had his grandfather’s rifle – one of a cache confiscated from the defeated German army after World War I that the British had supplied to Abdulaziz. The rifle, he said, still bears the original military emblems.

The story of Sabillah reminds me of the climactic scene in The Last Samurai, in which Tom Cruise joins a group of rebellious Samurai in a final encounter between bows and swords and the weaponry of the newly-created Imperial Japanese Army. Another unequal clash between ancient tradition and unforgiving technology. The Ikhwan‘s last stand would surely also make a compelling movie, though probably not until the Saudis are able to view the event more dispassionately than might be the case today.

The next day, before the workshop started, my new friend presented me with a photographic history of the Arabian peninsula in the early 20th century. Some photos I’d seen before; many I hadn’t. There were pictures of the Balad, Jeddah’s original quarter, showing magnificent coral and wood buildings, a sorry remnant of which still stands today. Photos of the Haj, of Abdulaziz’s mud-brick palace in Riyadh, of Najran and Asir in the south, of Al Hasa and the east and Qasim in the north. And portraits of foreigners who played a part in the Kingdom’s early history: Captain William Henry Shakespear, who accompanied Abdulaziz on one of his campaigns and fell in battle; Harry St John Philby, father of Kim, a former British colonial administrator who spent years at the King’s court and converted to Islam, becoming Abdullah Philby; Gertrude Bell, the first western woman to meet Abdulaziz.

Though I don’t read Arabic, I was easily able to recognise many of the characters and locations – more with Abdullah’s help.

I was very touched that someone I had only met the day before would take the trouble to bring me such a gift. I was a person he might never meet again, yet my interest in his country’s history was enough to spark this unexpected act of kindness.

Over the years I have been invited to weddings, to people’s houses, on outings to camel fairs and places where Saudis gather to eat, chat and smoke shisha. Yet I don’t speak Arabic well enough to take a full part in the conversation, so my hosts have spent much of the time speaking in my language.

Such hospitality would be unlikely to be afforded so spontaneously in my country to ordinary Saudi visitors, especially now, as we come to terms with our newly resurgent spirit of xenophobia.


Ikhwan Warriors

Abdullah’s book, however, despite its portrayal of an innocent and largely peaceful age, also shows a dark side. I keep coming back to the famous photo taken by Captain Shakespear of King Abdulaziz’s Ikhwan marching through the desert atop their camels. The mayhem their leader sowed through his ultraconservative shock troops almost destroyed him and his new kingdom. At Sabillah it took modern technology to overcome the challenge of his disgruntled followers against the settled, law-abiding state he was in the process of founding.

Today his descendants face a similar challenge – the result, many would say, of their use of soft power rather than the machine guns of Abdulaziz. Through the funding of mosques and madrassas, and the distribution of literature promoting the uncompromising view of Islam inspired by Mohammed ibn Abd al-Wahab in the eighteenth century, several decades of influence-wielding has, claim the sages of the west, helped to produce in the Middle East and beyond a generation of extremists who are again questioning the legitimacy of the Saudi state. But today the adversary has technology that equals, and, in the case of internet and social media expertise, perhaps exceeds that which is at the disposal of the Saudis.

The confrontation with the new enemy, ISIS, will be brought to a head not, most likely, by Saudi armies but by others who feel equally threatened and have the means and the determination to see it through.

In case anyone doubts the parallel, here’s a description by Robert Lacey in his 1981 book, The Kingdom, of the Ikhwan’s entry into Taif, a town close to Mecca, when they were still following the banner of Abdulaziz:

“A deputation of Taif citizens, it is said, negotiated a surrender with Khalid ibn Lu’ay and Sultan ibn Bijad. Perhaps the gates were simply opened without formalities by local Ikhwan sympathisers. But certainly the townspeople were not considering any forcible resistance when the brethren’s takeover of Taif suddenly turned into a dreadful massacre.

Afterwards it was said that the Sa’udis had been fired on from a police post, but whatever the provocation, real or supposed, the slaughter was merciless: the town’s qadi and sheikhs retreated to a mosque, to be dragged out and cut to pieces; houses were destroyed, shops and market stalls looted; throats were cut and bodies were flung down the open wells of the town in a rampage that left more than 300 dead in a matter of hours.

The massacre of Taif threw the Hijaz into a panic, and King Husain appealed desperately to Britain for help. But he received no response, for, on hearing the news of the Sa’udi invasion, His Majesty’s Government decided to let events follow their natural course.”

The capitulation of the rest of the Hejaz, including Jeddah, followed shortly thereafter.

Yet it was the kindness of a descendent of the fearsome Ikhwan that stayed in my mind as I headed back to London. A symbol of hope that in a few decades the grandchildren of the fanatics currently rampaging though Syria and Iraq will be equally welcoming to those who don’t share their religion and their cultural values.

Postcard From Saudi Arabia – Getting Employers to Face Up to an Awful Truth

job fair

A recent story in the Arab News about a job fair in Riyadh where 44 employers were offering 1,947 jobs and only had 811 takers has caused a bit of a debate both among Saudis and foreigners.

Was this further evidence in support of the oft-repeated canard about Saudis being work-shy – content to sit at home while an army of foreigners do all the work, and if they happen to be in jobs, doing the least that they can get away with?

Rasheed Abou-Alsamh, a columnist for the paper, issues a stinging rebuttal of that view in an article published today: We aren’t a nation of lazy, spoiled brats! It’s well worth a read.

He pinpoints a number of issues that contribute to the perception. Many Saudis prefer to work in the civil service because they see government jobs as being more secure and prestigious than work in the private sector. But the government can’t accommodate all the school leavers in a country that – like many others in the Middle East – has a huge youth bulge. He goes on to comment:

I think there are many reasons behind the reluctance of more Saudis entering the private sector. And I seriously doubt that the majority of those who remain unemployed or underemployed are happy, and don’t want a shot at a stimulating job. There is no massive government scheme that I know of that pays young Saudis to stay at home and do nothing, and as far as I know most of these unemployed Saudis are from middle and working class families. For sure the educational system is partly to blame in that it is producing Saudis who are incapable of analyzing situations on their own and taking decisions when needed. With its emphasis on rote memorization has unfortunately resulted in young Saudis not being ready for today’s competitive job market. The extended family system that most Saudis are born into also tends not to encourage independence in actions, as we know that there will always be some relative there ready to help us financially when the need arises and a maid to clean up after us. Saudi families should start raising their children to be more independent and responsible. They should start with small things such as helping set the table for lunch and dinner; helping clear the table; washing the dishes occasionally; learning how to wash and iron clothes; vacuum the house and clean their own bedrooms. This teaches discipline and self-reliance. Instead of always expecting the maid or your mother/sister/aunt to clean up after you, why not do these things yourself?

Well said. The education system, the extended family and the reliance on domestic help are all factors that fashion attitudes among the young.

His take on the job fair  – born out by friends – is that perhaps a number of the job specifications set the bar too high in terms of experience required.

I can believe that. I was discussing the event with a couple of Saudi friends this afternoon. One of them commented that there is a wide mistrust of job fairs, because they tend to talk up the jobs with the highest salaries. When young hopefuls turn up, they are disappointed to find that only a small fraction of the jobs on offer are at the upper level, and that these roles demand a level of experience that they don’t have. Thus highly qualified high school or university graduates find themselves being offered low-paying jobs, or not offered jobs at all.

The other friend told the story of a large fast food chain that put signs in every outlet offering jobs at SR8,500 a month – more than twice the minimum wage. Thinking that this was a pretty good deal for youngsters, he got talking to one of the Saudis who was working there about the offer. The employee told him that actually he was on a wage of SR3,500 a month, and pointed out the very small print at the bottom of the poster. It said that the higher wage was for assistant managers.

This kind of misleading hype is not confined to the job market. In Jeddah recently several well-known stores have been hauled over the coals by trading standards officials for advertising discounts that don’t exist.

All these practices lead to a sense of cynicism, not to say distrust, of advertising claims across the board.

What about the young people who do find jobs in the private sector? I learned this afternoon that in retail particularly, most young Saudis leave their jobs within three and six months. Why then would an employer invest in training and development if the people they train are out of the door in a relative instant? Well, it doesn’t help that these kids, who have no experience of work, no career guidance at school and no idea of what is expected of them, find themselves thrown into jobs with little supervision, no idea of any career path and no training or mentoring. In other words, they are left to sink or swim. And most swim away at the first opportunity, either back home to wallow in disillusionment or, if they’re lucky, to what they see as better jobs in banking, telecommunications and so forth.

In construction, which in Saudi Arabia is a particularly dog-eat-dog industry, foreign hiring managers apparently actively resist taking on young Saudi engineers, preferring to recruit from within their own ethnic groups. Very discouraging for people who have studied for years, and graduate with the expectation that they will easily find jobs in the most dynamic sector in the economy.

So this leads to a question that needs to be posed to owners of private sector businesses who moan about the poor work ethic of their fellow nationals. If you treat your Saudi employees as expensive burdens, only to be taken on because you are required to do so by increasingly aggressive government regulations, if you do nothing to train, motivate and encourage them, and if you recruit them with all the finesse of a cattle market trader, isn’t it pretty obvious that your concerns about their work ethic will be a self-fulfilling prophecy?

I agree with Rasheed – there are plenty of motivated, hard-working Saudis in all walks of life. When I visit the Kingdom, I see them, interact with them and talk to them every day. But the ones I don’t see so often are those who don’t have jobs. These are the ones who need to be cared about as well. And if employers don’t care for the young people they recruit, encourage them, introduce them into workplaces where even if the first job isn’t ideal it’s still a fun place to be, give them goals, show them where they can go, help them to achieve dreams and ambitions, there are others waiting on the internet or north of the border who will be only too pleased to give these impressionable kids ideals, dreams and ambitions. The trouble is, the kind of dreams on offer will be extremely bad for business in the long run.

As Rasheed says:

The government has for many years been trying to convince Saudi business owners that while training and employing Saudis may be more expensive in the short term, in the long term it is a much needed investment in the future well-being of our country.

I would go further. These owners have benefited from the extraordinary good fortune of being born in a country whose government has for decades bent over backwards to help them, and thanks to the Kingdom’s abundant resources, they have prospered. Now it’s time to give something back, however painful that may be in the short term. The consequences of not doing so could be disastrous, not only for their businesses but for the country as a whole.

And those owners who don’t get the point should be prepared to see their businesses wither on the vine. The sooner the better.

Comparing Autobiographies – Stephen Fry, John Cleese and Alan Munro: My Winner Is….

Fry 2Cleese

I usually take a large number of books with me on business trips. I know I won’t read them all, but it means that I have a choice. Two I was looking forward to reading were autobiographies published around the same time this year. The first was More Fool Me, the latest episode from Stephen Fry, and the second was So Anyway… by John Cleese. A third, very different, autobiography by Alan Munro I’ll talk about later.

Having just finished Cleese’s book, I’m trying to figure out why it took me only three days to read, and three times as long to finish Fry’s. And why Cleese, from my perspective, has written by far the better book.

Both deal with a period of the writers’ lives rather than the whole span. This is the modern way. Why spill all the beans in one volume when you can extrude them over several? Both are full of stories about famous people with whom the authors have worked or played. And there’s a good deal of self-examination, which is unsurprising given Fry’s well-known bipolar condition, and Cleese’s long-standing interest in psychotherapy.

But one difference between the two narratives is that the names dropped by Fry seem to feature mainly as supporting characters in his personal dramas. Cleese, on the other hand, uses his portraits of friends and acquaintances to illustrate his thoughts on the art of comedy. In fact you could argue that Fry’s book is mainly about cocaine, whereas Cleese’s is about comedy.

Perhaps because I’m closer in age to John Cleese than I am to Stephen Fry, I feel that I can relate more easily to the former. His acute observations of early influences on his life – his parents, his teachers and the nuances of the class system – are rivalled only by those of his near-contemporary and fellow-dramatist, Alan Bennett.

I had the same kind of education as Cleese, and like him, I taught at a prep school before going up to university, and so experienced the sudden role change from pupil to teacher that he describes. I will always treasure the memory of acting out the Battle of Cannae in front of a bunch of bemused ten-year-olds.

Also we are similar both in terms of having a pretty even left brain/right brain balance and of having a strong degree of introversion. And more importantly, we both loathe the Daily Mail. The major difference is that he has towering talents way beyond any that I possess.

I’m no less an admirer of Stephen Fry. He has a superb turn of phrase, tells a great story and has done some fine work on TV and film. Where he loses me in his latest book is in his description of his long love affair with cocaine.

The only thing I’ve ever put up my nose is nasal decongestant, so his descriptions of coke-fuelled nights at the Groucho Club leave me cold. Not with disapproval – after all most of us have our favourite methods of killing ourselves – but because I just don’t find the antics of snorting celebrities to be particularly interesting. You can read about stuff like that in gossip columns, on the net and goodness knows where else. That said, in an exception to my comment about name dropping to serve his personal narrative, he writes with great affection and respect about Hugh Laurie, his long-time writing partner.

But when Cleese talks about Peter Sellers or Ronnie Barker, for example, we learn as much about the way they went about their craft as about their personalities. Fry fills much of the later stage of his book with a diary covering a period when he was writing his second novel; his purpose seems mainly to illustrate how ridiculously busy he was at the time. Whereas at a similar point, Cleese talks us through a series of comedy scripts, and comments on why they worked and why they didn’t. Much more instructive and satisfying.

I also like Cleese’s character sketch of David Frost. He describes him as “pronoid” which is the opposite of paranoid. Frost, apparently, always worked on the basis that everybody wanted to help him. Thanks to his charm and organisational skills, they usually did. And when he claimed the lion’s share of the writing credits for some of his more successful shows, none of the writers who did the donkey work, including Cleese, seemed to object. Remarkable, when these days so many writers and entertainers seem to consult their lawyers before they get out of bed in the morning. I’m sure the fact that he was the rain-maker for so many of their careers had something to do with it. A great case study for those who make their living prattling about the power of positive thinking.

Cleese comes over as the humbler of the two. Prickly, yes, and probably a bit of a pain to work with, but never less than honest about his shortcomings and deeply committed to his life’s work. Fry does a good line in self-deprecation as well. He’s also very serious about his work, yet I get the impression that he has an inner confidence in his talent that Cleese always struggled to maintain.

I also I don’t get the same sense of curiosity in Fry’s outlook on life as I do from Cleese. We learn more about the drama around Fry than that which plays within. No problem with that. He hasn’t had the easiest time managing his inner self and he’s entitled to set his own boundaries of disclosure. But Cleese – at least on the evidence of the two books, seems more rigorous and analytical, both about himself and his work. Unfair perhaps, because Fry has done much to increase public awareness of bi-polar disorders.

A couple of years ago I review Keith Richards’ autobiography under the heading of All About the Music. By which I meant that for all the Rolling Stone’s graphic tales of drug abuse and debauchery, the underlying theme of the book was music, not Keith’s lifestyle. I feel the same about John Cleese’s autobiography. As I said earlier, it’s fundamentally about the art of comedy, whereas Stephen Fry’s book is mainly about Stephen Fry – and his relationship with cocaine. Funny? In places, yes, but lacking the light and shade – and the forensic observations – of Cleese’s work.

Anyway, enough of the comparisons. They didn’t ask to be judged against each other. I just happened to read the books in quick succession.

Both write in an engagingly conversational style, far less formal than that of a very different autobiography I read around the same time: Alan Munro’s Keep the Flag Flying.


Munro is a former high-flying diplomat. I bought his book mainly for his experience as British Ambassador in Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War. I can’t say I learned much from his revelations. I shouldn’t be too surprised, given that he is bound by the Official Secrets Act, but apart from a few amusing anecdotes he doesn’t have much to say on the Gulf War that I don’t already know. Incidentally, isn’t it the case that the great and the good tell anecdotes, whereas normal mortals tell stories?

The writing is very polished, and in a style typical of a well-brought-up product of Oxbridge born in the early thirties, whose phraseology was honed through years of critical editing by legions of Foreign Office bureaucrats – witty, dry and understated. I could imagine him dictating his memoirs from a comfortable chair beside a roaring fire at one of London’s better gentleman’s clubs. As John Cleese wrote when describing the qualities of his favourite prep school master, Mr Bartlett, Munro’s writing evidences:

“…the Edwardian gentleman’s approach to life: courtesy, grace, restraint, the careful avoidance of embarrassing others, non-intrusiveness, considerateness, kindness, modesty – nay, more than modesty, self-effacement; the kind of qualities that would disqualify one for ever from employment by the Daily Mail.”

Though I suspect that Sir Alan might disagree. He certainly had more ambition and cutting edge than poor Mr Bartlett, who discovered late in his career that the headmaster had for years been paying him less than the odd-job man.

About the only time Munro gets close to bitchy is when he reveals his strong disapproval of Alan Clark – chancer, cad and brilliant diarist who served for a time as Defence Procurement Minister under Margaret Thatcher, and was caught up in the row about export licences to Iraq.

Still, there’s plenty of interesting stuff for a lover of the Arab world, especially his descriptions of pre-Gaddafi Libya and Lebanon before the civil war. And unlike Mr Bartlett, he has a strong sense of the absurd.

All in all, A-minus for style, B-plus-plus for content and C-minus for insight into the person behind the diplomat – just as you would expect, I guess.

But my winter term prize for autobiographies goes to John Cleese by a mile – a man much more after my own heart than the other two. At this point I confess to a bias.

In 1974, during a short-lived and not very successful career as a concert promoter, I wrote to him with an offer to come and do “An Evening with John Cleese” at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. He wrote a very courteous personal reply – not the kind of standard rejection you might get from an agent nowadays – explaining that he would love to do it, but that work commitments made it impossible in the foreseeable future. I’ve had a soft spot for him since then.

If he hasn’t yet managed to finish paying off his third wife’s divorce settlement, with a bit of luck we’ll hear from him again. After all, we still have the Python years, Fawlty Towers and A Fish Called Wanda to come.

Postcard from Saudi Arabia – Filipinos: Unsung Heroes of the Kingdom

Filipina nurses

Yesterday evening I paid one of my rare visits to my nearest mall – the one underneath the giant bottle opener that is the Kingdom Tower. Since the hotel restaurant was closed on Fridays I decided to treat myself to a Big Mac – just what you need to feed a cold.

The guy who served me had probably been at work for eight hours or more. Yet he was the most cheerful, positive and charming person I’d met for days. Not just to me but to the overweight, sour-faced, spoilt-looking eight-year-old who wanted to swap the barbecue sauce that came with his chicken nuggets for ketchup.

The guy was from the Philippines. Not for the first time it occurred to me that the Filipinos are the unsung heroes of modern Saudi Arabia, and have been for as long as I’ve coming to the Kingdom. Without them, the country would struggle to get by as it does today.

I don’t want this post to come over as a “you’re a better man than me, Gunga-Din” paean to an ethnic group who are fairly well down the social pecking order. I admire and respect them.

The Filipino men are the waiters, the drivers, the mechanics, the technicians, the draftsmen, the guys in black waistcoats and bow ties who bring you your coffee in smart offices. They’re also doctors and engineers. The women are the hospital nurses, the secretaries and the housemaids. Over a million of them are currently working in the Kingdom.

I first worked with Filipinos in the Eighties. One of them was a superb cartoonist, and his work still decorates my home in England. They were diligent, hard-working and loyal. Not all of them were as outgoing as my guy in MacDonald’s, but they were all worth their weight in gold. My small daughter became so attached to Benjie, the girl who cared for her in her crèche, that we seriously considered trying to bring her home with us when left the Kingdom.

The vast majority of them are artistic, fun-loving and cheerful. They put up with a lot. Most  – even those in similar jobs – earn a fraction of what a westerner can. Often they put up with pretty grim accommodation. Most of their earnings go back to the Philippines to support their extended families. So much do they depend on their Saudi income that they seem to arrive with an inbuilt deference.

As a westerner, you would have to know a Filipino pretty well before they would call you by your first name instead of “sir”, an appellation we British associate with a more class-conscious age. The fear of losing their jobs can result in their being terrified of making a mistake, so perhaps unfairly they have a reputation of lacking initiative and creativity. In fact I’ve found them to be highly resourceful, especially when it comes to making few riyals on the side to boost their remittances.

Could it be that centuries of colonisation and the years of brutal oppression by the Japanese in World War 2 have left them short of self-confidence as a nation? I don’t know. But I do sense that with their many talents their best days are yet to come.

Those above them in the pecking order often treat them with arrogance, working them long hours, clicking their fingers to summon them and, in the case of housemaids, abusing them. Yet if you see groups of guys in the mall, they will be laughing and joking in stacatto Tagalog. The same goes for the girls who work in the hospitals. Their sing-song voices remind you of the dawn chorus. Ever cheerful.

An example: recently I was doing a workshop on creating positive attitudes at work. The assistant who looks after me when I visit this particular institution is a Filipina in her early forties. Every time I go there we manage to have a chat about this and that. On this occasion she told me that she had breast cancer and had recently undergone a double mastectomy. No self-pity. She told me she couldn’t understand why her colleagues were expecting her to be an emotional mess. She took her illness and operation in her stride, and was as positive when I saw her as she’d ever been before. She put her outlook down to her faith in God and to her natural optimism. I was so impressed that I asked her to come into the workshop and close it by saying a few words about her experience. She carried it off like a professional. She could and should be a trainer, yet most likely she’ll stay in the niche assigned to her by virtue of her nationality

The Filipinos in Saudi Arabia are no saints. The Philippines can be a pretty violent country, and I’m told that here some of them form into little mafias who can be pretty ruthless if their interests are threatened. But I’ve never seen that. What I do see is a bunch of hard-working and resilient people with a great sense of humour who make many sacrifices for their families. It must be hard not being able to see your kids more than once every two years, even if skype alleviates the separation somewhat. And I can only imagine how they must feel as yet another typhoon approaches their homeland.

All the while they work away in the knowledge that the government is putting increasing pressure on employers to replace them with Saudi nationals.

Yet if I was working for the government, of all the expatriate groups I might seek to put on planes home, the Filipinos would be the last, and the most missed. They, more than any other ethnic group, are the glue that holds the Kingdom together. And for that reason, they deserve the appreciation and respect of their hosts.

Postcard From Saudi Arabia – Winter Woollies in Riyadh

Riyadh December 2014

Riyadh at Dusk: December 2014

2014 may have been the hottest year on record, but try telling that to the people of Riyadh. To look at the clothes some people are wearing, you would think we were in Siberia. Over the past few days the temperature has dropped by about ten degrees. Yesterday morning it was 8C – colder, as I told one local, than it is in England.

Sometimes the temperature goes below freezing, which is hard for some to believe in this country known to the outside world for its hot desert sands. And all of a sudden residents of Riyadh respond to what we in England would see as a nice sunny day by cladding up for life on the permafrost. Ear muffs, balaclavas, thick jackets. The Saudis swap their white thobes for coloured versions – black, brown and grey. In the service stations off the highways you can buy a farwa – a full-length embroidered overcoat, rather like a woollen version of the Afghan coats the hippies used to wear in the 60s and 70s. The south Asian residents, especially those who work outdoors, not surprisingly seem to be worst affected. They wander around looking particularly miserable, scarves wrapped around their heads in a vain attempt to keep out the cold.

And of course the changing season gets blamed for the colds and flu that do the rounds at this time of year. Unfortunately I’m one of the current victims. As I write this I’m sitting in my hotel room trying to avoid flooding the laptop with my runny nose. Occasionally I shake the foundations with bouts of sneezing. Anyone next door trying to get a bit of weekend sleep will have problems this morning. Not that I’m particularly sympathetic. My room happens to be directly facing the nearest mosque, whose huge speaker mounted on top of the minaret seems to be pointed in a direct line at my window. So at 5am every morning I am wakened by the dawn call to prayer. It actually starts a good hour before daylight, and it’s loud. Whether the interrupted sleep contributed to my ailment, or it worked the other way round, is debatable.

One’s hypochondriac instincts are exacerbated by the fear of MERS. This is the coronavirus that has been popping up round the Kingdom and carrying off one in three of its victims. It’s a cousin of SARS, and research suggests that it originates from camels. Since it first emerged three years ago over 300 people have died from it. Hardly comparable with the annual mortality from flu, and a tiny fraction of the deaths from road traffic accidents. But enough to get me nervously looking at the web to check out the symptoms. I discover that those who are heading for the pearly gates usually suffer from flu-like symptoms, but also vomiting and diarrhoea. That’s OK then, it’s a common cold you wimp! And the fact that I’m able sit here at the laptop suggests that for now at least the grim reaper has left his scythe in the toolshed.

Talking about the weather is a comforting cultural norm for an Englishman like me. The Saudis like talking about it too. In the summer there are debates about the cruelty of some employers who force their workers to slave away cleaning the streets and constructing buildings in the midday sun. In the winter we read reports about “unseasonable weather”, though usually that refers to flooding and dust storms. Yesterday we learned that the King has personally donated around $100 million to those affected by the cold weather in the north of the country – not exactly the institutionalised winter fuel allowance that we get in my own country, but announced with more of a flourish.

A friend showed me a video from his home area near Qassim, which is about 400 kilometres north of Riyadh. When the rains come they create huge temporary lakes that enable the locals to engage in their version of inland water sports. The video showed a bunch of guys in a jeep ploughing into the lake at speed, towing someone what looked like an inflatable raft. The jeep became completely submerged, but kept going, while those on top of it gleefully plunged into the water, white thobes and all. Apparently they did something to the carburettors that prevented them from flooding, and sure enough, the jeep emerges from the lake still firing on all cylinders.

He showed me another video taken from the far north of the country showing snow-covered desert. Quite spectacular – rather like how the polar regions of Mars must look from the ground, I imagine. All a reminder that deserts can be very cold places as well as hot. Something that travellers in the Gobi know well.

But when the rains come, the desert briefly blooms. For a short while whole areas are carpeted with green, much to the delight of the camels. This was once the raiding season. Raiding was a ritual sport carried out under strict rules, in which bedouin tribes would pounce on rival encampments, plundering livestock and settling scores. These days, the forcible appropriation of camels is frowned upon, but city dwellers delight in making weekend forays into the desert to camp out, say hello to their camels, and perhaps do a bit of hunting for small animals and birds. If they are sufficiently well-heeled, they will use falcons – some of which cost as much as a Rolls Royce.

Once upon a time these desert pastimes were a matter of life and death. In Endings, Saudi novelist Abdulrahman Munif tells a compelling tale of a village on the edge of an encroaching desert as drought and the advent of city-dwellers threaten its ancient hunting tradition. A while ago I reviewed Munif’s monumental Cities of Salt trilogy.  A great read for those interested in the Arab world.

The Saudis regard winter weather as a blessing, even if heavy rain brings with it flooding, with inevitable casualties. Every year people get swept away when they get too close to the flash floods that burst down desert gullies into the plains. The cities also suffer – mostly Jeddah but also Riyadh, where flood drainage either doesn’t exist or doesn’t work properly. See my recent postcard from Jeddah for more about this. But water brings life too, so it’s not surprising that the King leads the traditional prayers for rain at this time of year.

As for the cold, few people in this country are unaware of the plight of refugees north of the border – babies dying of exposure, families with inadequate clothing and not enough to eat. Most Saudis are generous and charitable by nature, so individuals and the government provide regular humanitarian support, even if they can’t reach all of the millions affected by the vicious fighting.

For which reason I don’t expect much sympathy as I struggle with my man flu. And anyway I’m soon to return to the UK, where my wife will no doubt be attempting to force hot whisky down my gullet – something that doesn’t feature among the many cold cures available in this shivering city. Being a man, I shall of course resist, so that I can enjoy my suffering for as long as possible.


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