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Ebola – The Stuff of Movies?

Ebola Quarantine

We are living through a period of great drama and tragic events. Horrifying as the catastrophe in Syria and Iraq undoubtedly is, the incident that has shocked me the most in the last couple of days was in Liberia. Protesters forced their way into an Ebola quarantine centre and looted the contents, including blood-stained bedding. Several inmates, suspected of having contracted the disease, vanished into the city.

One eye witness claimed that the protesters, armed with clubs, broke into the centre claiming that there was no Ebola, and that the patients had malaria. There are conflicting reports about how many of those admitted to the centre had died before the break-in, and how many have disappeared. The government claims to have moved them to a different location, but others say that several have returned to their families.

The centre is in West Point, a heavily populated area of Monrovia, Liberia’s capital. The potential for further infection among the 50,000 residents of the township would seem to be high, especially if, as claimed, ignorance of Ebola and its consequences is widespread. That ignorance, combined with mistrust of the government’s motives in setting up the centre in West Point creates a heady cocktail of anger and fear that can only hinder efforts to bring the outbreak under control.

As one official commented: “This is one of the stupidest things I have ever seen in my life. All between the houses you could see people fleeing with items looted from the patients.”

It’s the stuff of movies – perhaps. Yet most biological disaster movies are played out in Western locations, the better to scare the audiences with the prospect of panic and disorder breaking out in their own back yards. When an unknown virus causes havoc, it’s usually in the West. Valiant doctors and scientists struggle against the odds to develop a vaccine. Characters drop like flies in the process, but eventually a cure is found. Which is essentially the plot of the most recent bio-disaster movie, Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion.

The drama being played out in Africa would be hard to stage. The horror of Ebola’s end game, with patients bleeding out of every orifice, and dying without the simple comfort of human touch. The squalor of the township to which the patients return. Waves of anger, fear and mistrust sweeping through the densely-packed community. And of course the love, the grief and the pain. Outside the township, hard-pressed, resource-starved officials struggling to deal with a crisis beyond their experience – bombarded with advice from foreign experts, trying to maintain order, wondering which way to turn as people start dying in one location after another. And finally the volunteers who tend to the sick in the full knowledge that the slightest slip in barrier nursing procedures – a piece of skin exposed – can be fatal.

I doubt if any Western movie-maker could truthfully capture the ghastly scenes of the dead and dying without half their audiences walking out of the cinema and throwing up. And besides, the true drama of the Monrovia incident lies in the emotions of the protagonists. Many would argue that the medium best suited for portraying the nuances of emotion is opera. Modern opera has brought us stranger subjects – Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer and Jerry Springer, for example. So I suspect that one day the agonies of the Ebola outbreak will end up most effectively portrayed in music and song. One disaster movie is much like another in terms of plot, but it’s the emotions of the protagonists that transcend the event.

A real-life Contagion is with us. It’s happening in Africa right now. But its grisly details are unlikely to be on a screen near you any time soon – thank goodness.

Fighting Ebola – Too Late as Usual


The World Health Organisation has acknowledged that the threat posed by Ebola is “vastly underrated”, according to the BBC. Well yes – any virus that carries off 80% of those infected and has spread to four west African countries, killing over a thousand people in the process, should most certainly be taken seriously. The more so because we are a month away from the Haj, when millions of pilgrims gather in Mecca from all over the Muslim world. The Saudi authorities have done their best to mitigate the risk of infection by issuing no visas to residents of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, and discouraging its own citizens from visiting those countries. I would imagine that they are watching anxiously as the disease progresses in Nigeria, west Africa’s most populous country, where an outbreak has recently been reported.

Given their vast experience in dealing with infection control among the pilgrims, one would hope that the Saudis will be as successful at keeping the lid on Ebola as they have been in controlling another deadly virus – MERS Coronavirus – which first showed up within the Kingdom. But they must be nervous, as we all should be, since people returning from the Haj will be heading for all corners of the globe.

What surprised me in one respect about Ebola – but not in another – is that we have known about the virus for nearly 40 years. The first outbreaks in 1976 carried off over 400 people. So as an ordinary Joe with little knowledge of epidemiology, the drugs industry and the World Health Organisation, I would be very interested if  someone with expertise on these subjects could answer the following questions:

  1. Why has it taken 38 years for “us” – governments, the WHO and the drug companies – to wake up to the threat of Ebola?
  2. What has prevented the drug companies from producing an effective vaccine years ago? Lack of funding? A sense that the necessary research would not be cost-effective  because the governments whose citizens are affected  – in other words African governments – would not be able to afford the treatment?
  3. What is the point at which a global or regional health emergency becomes so acute that the WHO, or its member governments, start commissioning the development of treatments rather than leaving it up to drug companies to decide whether or not to invest in the necessary R&D?

According to its statement, the WHO is “coordinating a massive scaling up of the international response, marshalling support from individual countries, disease control agencies, agencies within the United Nations system, and others”. All fine and good, but the simple fact of the matter is that here is a virus that kills the majority of those infected. Preventive measures can reduce infection, but cannot cure those already infected. Surely the massive cost of preventive measures would be unnecessary if “we” had had the foresight to ensure that work on developing an effective vaccine had started many years ago, once we recognised the devastating potential of an Ebola epidemic, or worse still, of a pandemic?

Perhaps I’m being naive. Perhaps work has been going on since 1976 to develop a vaccine. Perhaps the task is a challenging as developing a vaccine for AIDS, for which research has been going on for decades. In any event, there’s no point looking back for lessons to be learned until the current outbreak has been brought under control. Hopefully  the experimental ZMapp treatment will prove effective.

If and when the drains-up does take place, I will be watching to see whether there’s any kind of debate over why the health of millions depends on the efforts of private companies whose efforts are driven by profit, or on organisations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that exist because of the philanthropic vision of wealthy individuals.

“We” spend billions of public money every year in dealing with the effects of natural and man-made disasters, from earthquakes and floods.  “We” spend billions attempting to mitigate the effects of climate change. Some of “us” spend millions on relief efforts to save minorities threatened by homicidal fanatics in Iraq and billions on the wars that preceded the current crisis. Yet Ebola suddenly (but not suddenly) raises its ugly head, and “we” struggle to deal with its consequences.

Are we really that dumb, or am I indeed just hopelessly naive?

Stopping the ISIS Butchers – Too Late as Usual

ISIS Baghdadi

Some people can say in a few hundred words what I might take thousands to express. One such person is David Aaronovich of the UK Times. Here’s what he says in today’s column about the butchers of ISIS:

Last week in the grotesque bazaar of social media, someone posted pictures of Isis executions by a river in Syria or Iraq. On a concrete jetty awash with blood, victims were being brought one by one to the water’s edge, forced to kneel and then shot in the head before their bodies were pushed into the flow.

For this spectacle to exist there needed to be a minimum of four men: a guy to hold the bound victim and push him to his knees, a guy to hold the Isis flag, a guy to blow the victim’s brains out and — indispensable — a guy to take the pictures on his mobile.

By the Mac as I type this, I have a book with a photograph on the cover that shows much the same scene. A group of eight or nine young men — one no more than 17 or 18 — form the background, standing on a low bank. In front of them a man in a jacket and white shirt, holding an overcoat, kneels looking just to the right of the camera. To the side and slightly behind him, legs braced, is a uniformed man with spectacles, his right arm outstretched, holding a pistol about two feet from the kneeling man’s head.

The book, Believe and Destroy: Intellectuals in the SS War Machine by Christian Ingrao, is an explanation of how “handsome, brilliant, clever and cultivated” young Germans came to be in foreign lands shooting defenceless people in their thousands, and thinking that this mass murder was not just necessary but good.

Most things that are bad — even very bad — are not “like Nazism”. But Isis are very like the SS in occupied eastern Europe. There is the same idea of a mystical destiny that doesn’t just permit killing, but demands it. Like the Caliphate for the jihadis, the east, as Ingrao puts it, “symbolised a mythical space for the SS, a tabula rasa for Germandom to shape, a place rich with possibilities”. In service of that vision, the pits had to be filled with bodies.

There are aesthetic differences. The SS would hang people if they wanted to put on a show and Isis men — including young Britons — will behead, stone or crucify them. But allowing for method, one great similarity will shine through. Just like the SS, Isis men will kill more and more, will be more unconstrained in their savagery, stopping only when they are utterly defeated and every executioner — even if he is such a gentle boy from Purley — is dead or tried. Any politician’s talk that does not envisage this defeat is wasted breath.

Easier said than done. The SS did their work in the context of a world war between evenly balanced opponents. It took the defeat of armies numbering millions by even bigger armies to stop them. By then it was too late.

Since then, we have signally failed to intervene in time to prevent mass homicide. We failed in Yugoslavia, in Cambodia, in Rwanda, and now we’re failing in Syria and Iraq. In each case we – meaning the West – were eminently capable of deploying superior forces and firepower in the air and on the ground in order to stop the massacres. What prevented us was a combination of lack of intelligence, superpower tensions, slow-moving diplomacy, ineffective use of peacekeeping forces and war-weariness on the part of actors that could have intervened. Take an average of three from the five factors above, and you will understand why we have allowed millions to die at the hands of bloodthirsty sadists over the past thirty years.

The same factors are in place today, except that in order to have peacekeepers you need combatants who are willing to respect the rules of engagement. Isis respects no rules but its own.

As Aaronovich says, ISIS will not be stopped until it is utterly defeated. That will not happen unless there are troops on the ground who are capable of defeating them. That could mean another “coalition of the willing”, whatever Obama and Cameron say about not deploying ground forces. Air strikes can prevent further territorial expansion by ISIS, but they cannot stop the insurgents from doing their dirty work within the territory they already control. They are doing it now, so it’s already too late to save the thousands whom they have killed already, and thousands more who are in their gun-sights.

But if we accept that the US and its allies will not risk another Afghanistan by sending troops into the killing fields, what’s the alternative? That the Kurdish Peshmerga continue to struggle against their well-armed opponents with the aid of new weapons and ordnance from the West? That the remnants of the Iraqi army, supplemented by half-trained Shia militia take the fight to ISIS and wreak bloody revenge on innocent Sunnis in the process? An Iranian intervention side by side with the Iraqi Shia, triggering anti-Shia insurgency by remnants of the jihadis allied with the tribes in the Sunni provinces?

All are possible. The only other remote chance is that the alliance between ISIS, the Sunni tribes and former Saddam-era Baathists will fracture because the fellow-travellers will no longer be able to stomach the barbarity of the foreign jihadis. An Iraqi government not led by the divisive Al-Maliki might be able to exploit the differences between ISIS and its allies and turn them against each other. But I suspect that we are now beyond the point at which dissenting elements within the so-called Islamic State would be prepared to overcome their fear of the fighters sufficiently to bring about a disintegration of the new entity.

So we’re back to ground troops, or we must accept a containment policy in the knowledge that ISIS is getting stronger by the day both financially and in the numbers of disaffected extremists from around the world who are flocking to the region to make holy war on every state in the Middle East that is unwilling to see things their way. And that includes Jordan, the Gulf states including Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Turkey and God knows where else.

The killing will not stop until the killers are stopped. That’s the essence of what Aaronovich is saying, and I agree with him wholeheartedly. And that, ultimately and at the cost of many more innocent lives, is what Obama and his allies, or their successors, will eventually conclude. Too late, as usual.

UKIP and Hitler – The Perils of Learning from the Bad Guys

hitler practicing

My favourite British political party has put its foot in it again. When I say favourite, I don’t mean that I’m any more likely to vote for the UK Independence Party than I am to take up residence in an Ebola-infested West African village (with all due respect to the brave medics who are doing exactly that).

It’s just that UKIP contrives to provide an endless source of amusement through the loose words of its nuttier officials and supporters. In the latest “UKIP moment”, one of its European Parliament members, Bill Etheridge, urged his audience at a public speaking seminar to learn from the example of Adolf Hitler.

According to a story in today’s Mail on Sunday:

Mr Etheridge, who recently wrote a book celebrating golliwogs, made his astonishing remarks last weekend while training young Ukip members planning to stand in council or parliamentary elections.

The West Midlands MEP was hired to give a class on public speaking at the Young Independence Conference in Birmingham.

He suggested that the audience should take their oratorical tips from ‘a hateful figure who achieved a great deal’.

Mr Etheridge, 44, said: ‘Look back to the most magnetic and forceful public speaker possibly in history. When Hitler gave speeches, and many of the famous ones were at rallies, at the start he walks, back and forth, looked at people – there was a silence, he waited minutes just looking out at people, fixing them with his gaze.

‘They were looking back and he would do it for a while. And then they were so desperate for him to start, when he started speaking they were hanging on his every word.’

He added: ‘I’m not saying direct copy – pick up little moments.’

He clearly didn’t expect some youthful mole in his audience to relay his words to the Mail on Sunday, because his next statement rather embarrassingly revealed an inability to practice what he preached:

When a member of the audience asked Mr Etheridge, who was tasked by his party to deliver the conference, how they should use social media for pro-Ukip campaigning, he warned: ‘If you think for even a second that what you say can be screwed, twisted and spun, do not allow that video to be posted by people.’

About the only thing that commends UKIP to me is its leader Nigel Farage’s preference for real ale over the gassy slop – commonly referred to as lager – that the vast majority of his fellow citizens prefer to drink when they party.

But in this rare instance, for all the stupidity of Farage’s acolyte in exposing his party to yet another accusation of extremism, I agree with every word that a UKIP official has said.

Like him, I have used Hitler as an example of effective oratory in public speaking seminars. My emphasis is slightly different. I don’t suggest that my students stand on stage glowering in silence at their audiences before launching into choreographed tirades. That wouldn’t necessarily go down too well if you’re addressing the annual general meeting of a gardening club, or presenting an interesting set of epidemiological statistics.

My use of Hitler is as an example of the benefit of practising your speaking skills. I use the famous pictures (above) of the Fuhrer adopting various dramatic poses in a specially-commissioned set of images that he used to perfect his technique. The message is that practice makes perfect.

Fortunately, I’m not at the mercy of a pack of baying, rent-a-quote Labour MPs ready to jump on me with accusations that I’m an example of Nigel Farage’s failure to “clean up” his party. But I did once get into trouble for my use of Hitler’s dedication to his craft at the hands of a client who seemed to believe that even speaking of the evil tyrant might turn her impressionable young students into Nazis. Why did you have to use him as your example, she asked? Because he’s the best example, I replied. Why didn’t you use George VI in The King’s Speech? Because I used him as an example of how people can overcome crippling impediments to become effective speakers, I said.

Like Etheridge, I also use Churchill and Martin Luther King. In my seminars they are joined by Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Adele, Peter Kay, Abraham Lincoln, Steve Jobs and Benjamin Franklin – all to illustrate different aspects of the art of keeping an audience awake.

My relationship with that particular client was never the same again, but I have no regrets about using Hitler as an exemplar, and will continue to do so, just as I use Genghis Khan to illustrate a particularly brutal negotiation technique now employed by The Islamic State to great effect in Iraq.

The person concerned was an educationalist who should have known better than to suggest that you can’t learn from bad people. Of course you can. Should you is a more relevant question. After World War 2, the United States had no compunction in using Werhner Von Braun’s expertise in rocketry to design the systems that took it to the moon. Was Von Braun a bad man? That’s not for me to judge, but the records show that he was a Nazi party member and an honorary major in Himmler’s SS.

Knowledge in itself is neutral – it’s neither good nor bad, regardless of the morality of those from whom it is obtained. There are of course ethical dilemmas over whether it’s permissible to use knowledge that has an evil provenance. Should you, for example, use the results of Dr Josef Mengele’s cruel and lethal experiments on Auschwitz prisoners if the data he obtained fills a gap in scientific knowledge and thereby benefits mankind?

But the fact is that we learn from bad guys all the time – from the mistakes they make as well as from their achievements. So I really don’t know who is more stupid – Bill Etheridge for his maladroit insensitivity to the use his party’s political enemies might make of his history lesson, or Mike Gapes, the rent-a-quote Labour MP who said of Nigel Farage: “‘One of his MEPs training young candidates to speak like Hitler? Simply unbelievable.’”

If what Gapes said was accurately reported – a big proviso given the source of the quote – then he’s as guilty of distortion as Etheridge is of naivete. A plague on both their houses, say I.

In my humble opinion you learn as much from bad people and evil acts as you do from those who are popularly regarded as the good guys. What’s more, one man’s villain is another man’s hero, so if you start being selective about whom you learn from you end up in a whole lot of trouble. Do you admire Hitler because he was the builder of motorways and lover of dogs and small children, or Churchill because he was a bullying, alcoholic, war-mongering racist who thought that the sun should never set on the British Raj and sent thousands to their deaths in Gallipoli?

The moral of the story is that enlightenment is to be found in unlikely places, whether we like those places or not. What we do with our enlightenment is another matter altogether.

Summer Reading: The Mighty Dead – Why Homer Matters


Achilles Tending the Wounded Patroclus

Back in the mists of time, when I was eleven years old and a geeky boarder at what is known in England as a prep school, I spent three consecutive nights sitting in the lavatory reading the Odyssey and the Iliad from start to finish. No torch under the blanket would last long enough, so I would creep out after the dormitory lights went off and install myself in the only place that offered a night-long source of light. I had just started learning Ancient Greek, and my nocturnal sessions with Homer marked the beginning of a lifetime’s love affair with all things classical.

Since then, when boring necessities such as earning a living haven’t got in the way, I have looked for connections with the ancient world in every place I have visited, in architecture, books, languages, cultures and people I encounter along the way.

A couple of weeks ago I was in Copenhagen – not a city you would immediately associate with Ancient Greece. Because we were only in the city for a few hours, my wife and I decided to go separate ways. I headed for the National Museum, and she happened upon the Carlsberg Glyptotek, of which more later.

The National Museum is small and understated, very much in keeping with the Danish character. I had wanted to see some Viking exhibits, and I was not disappointed. Nothing lavish, but plenty of interesting artefacts and good explanations in Danish and English. The galleries were laid out in chronological order, so to reach the Vikings you passed through the Stone Age and the Bronze Age. The Bronze Age exhibits included axes, swords, spears and armour that looked very like weapons you can see in their Italian, Greek or Turkish counterparts, and of course in the British museum, whose collectors have drawn from every part of the world in which we British have had a commercial or imperial interest.

Unsurprisingly, since Denmark is not so far from the limits of the old Roman Empire, there is a section on the influence of Ancient Rome in Scandinavia. It includes large hordes of coins accumulated by the Vikings. Not just Roman coins but some from the Byzantine Empire, a reminder that the Vikings made it all the way to Constantinople, and thousands of them served as personal bodyguards to the emperors – the Varangian Guard. Which dispels the idea that the ancient Scandinavians lived in some kind of frozen Nordic isolation.

As I was wandering round the modern section of the museum, which consists of a number of tableaux of life between 1600 and 2000 – notable for an oil painting of a Danish man in full SS uniform, (hard to imagine any country formerly under the Nazi yoke candid enough to show one of its own in the uniform of the oppressor)  – I received a text from my wife summoning me to the Glyptotek. You must come, she said, lots of Greek and Roman stuff here.

And indeed there was. Probably the largest collection of Greek and Roman sculptures in Northern Europe, courtesy of Carl Jacobsen, the son of the founder of Carlsberg. In the nineteenth century Jacobsen used some of the profits from his beer empire to fund excavations throughout Southern Europe – often in return for a piece of the action. Which is why so many magnificent sculptures, sarcophagi and other artefacts found their way to the handsome building built next door to the Tivoli Gardens to house his collection. The Glyptotek is a light, airy and elegant monument to the ancient world. The sculptures are of a quality that rival those in the British museum.


Carlsberg Glyptotek Winter Garden, Copenhagen

A museum that floats on a sea of beer, as one of the attendants commented. An interesting reflection on a country whose people first made their mark on Britain through our encounters with the rapacious Vikings. Now we buy their bacon, butter and beer.

My boyhood knowledge of the Vikings was limited to the historical narrative of the time. A restless, sea-faring people who came to my country to rape, pillage and plunder and ultimately colonise. The Viking heroes were fearsome figures such as Harald Bluetooth and Erik the Red. Our heroes were Anglo-Saxons, who sought to defend their prosperous and settled way of life from the marauding raiders. Most notable of these was Alfred the Great, king of Wessex, who defeated the Vikings and laid the foundations for the first political unification of England since the Roman occupation. The abiding impression left by our history books was that was savagery was confronting civilisation.

We know differently today, and the Viking culture was recently laid out for all to see in a magnificent exhibition at the British Museum. But the narrative of heroes, of attackers and defenders has an echo much in much earlier history.

Which brings us back, in my usual roundabout fashion, to Homer. Who was he? Did he actually exist? If he did, when were his words written down? Who were the heroes he wrote about? Where did they come from? And when did the events described in his epics take place?

Nobody has yet come up with definitive answers to these questions, but Adam Nicolson, in his new book, The Mighty Dead – Why Homer Matters, adds his thoughts opinions to those of countless scholars, philosophers, poets and archaeologists who searched for him, starting with the ancient Greeks of the classical era, for whom he was no less an inspirational link to their recent past than Shakespeare is to ours.

Nicolson sees Homer as a window into the earliest origins of European culture. A culture that sprung up not in the fertile plains of Mesopotamia, the forests of Northern Europe or the lands flooded annually by the Nile, but in the steppes of Asia – the huge belt of grassland that stretches from Hungary to Mongolia.

The Homeric heroes besieging Troy – fractious, stubbornly independent, clear-eyed, glory-seeking killers – were representatives of a people in transition. Descendants of nomadic Asian tribes who had migrated south to Greece and Asia Minor, but, as Nicolson sees it, had not yet settled into the Mycenaean palace culture whose major population centres were excavated by the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann and his colleagues in the 19th Century. The people of Troy, a settlement that dominated the trade routes at the entrance to the Black Sea, were from similar origins, but had created a city far more enduring than the homelands of the restless Greek arrivistes.

Nicolson opens the book by discussing the long tradition of Homeric appreciation: from Socrates and the Alexandrian librarians to Alexander Pope and John Keats. The Iliad and the Odyssey have been translated many times. Theories as to the identity and location of the bard have ranged from the scientific to the bizarre. Was Homer a person, or the culmination of an oral tradition – the work of many? Were the stories enhanced. embellished and varied with each telling, in the manner of the Bosnian storytellers whom the Homeric scholar Milman Parry encountered in the 1930s? Or were they word-perfect recitations handed down over generations, like those of Duncan Macdonald, the great storyteller from the Scottish Hebrides, whose rendition of a famous Gaelic tale was recorded five times over fourteen years and found to be almost identical each time?

Or were the stories improvisations, dreamed up on the spur of the moment? One of Parry’s assistants, James Notopoulos, met storytellers from Crete, including one who could produce epics on demand. He proceeded to invent the Kriepiad: a wildly inaccurate account of the kidnapping of Heinrich Kriepe, the German general kidnapped in World War 2 by British special forces led by Patrick Leigh Fermor, one of my favourite travel writers.

Then there’s the language. According to Nicolson, there are over 200 untranslatable words that appear nowhere else in Greek literature. Where do they come from? Minoan Crete perhaps. He talks about echoes of the early Greeks in Hittite and Egyptian manuscripts. Homer’s language betrays the origins of his protagonists. The sea as threatening and alien. The grasslands as familiar and comforting.

The discovery of hinges for writing tablets in a bronze age ship has echoes in the Iliad. The heroes he described are illiterate, but the written word does exist, even if for them it has an unknowable, magical property. Nicolson’s, book shows that archaeology is not merely a matter of digging holes in the ground and finding jewellery, skeletons and foundations of palaces. Even when what is being explored pre-dates the written word, literal and oral tradition is an essential companion, reference point and signpost that can clarify and explain the physical evidence.

There’s an interesting chapter on Bronze Age metals. As I discovered in Copenhagen, subject to regional variations and subcultures, “a single world of Bronze Age chieftainship stretched across the whole of northern Eurasia from the Atlantic to the Asian steppe”. Just as most of the languages in Europe evolved from a single proto-language – Indo-European – that emerged somewhere in the steppes.

The excavations of Schliemann and others show us an era when grooming and physical beauty were at a premium among high status Bronze Age warriors – again as reflected in Homer’s epics. This is a tradition that continues to this day. Think of the Taliban with their eye shadow, and preening fighters of just about every nation with their immaculate uniforms and glistening medals.

Nicolson takes us to Hades, the scene of Odysseus’s pathos-laden encounters with the shade of his mother, and that of the great warrior Achilles, doomed forever to regret his passing from the light. Homer’s underworld is a grey, gloomy place, there the ghosts are unable to talk unless fed the fruits of the earth above. Its denizens are sad and diminished, whose shadowy existence contrasts strongly with the bliss and the agony of monotheistic heaven and hell.

Homer’s gods are petulant, capricious superhumans, reflecting the whims of nature as well as the unpredictability of their human counterparts. Small wonder that a wise, all-seeing deity became an irresistible lure to adherents of the monotheistic faiths. To conquer the world in the name of an almighty is very different from a revenge mission in the name of honour. Yet Homeric concepts of honour remain in our world, both in the uncompromising savagery of honour killings and in the pious justifications of war.

Nicolson is known for his elegant descriptions of landscapes. One dimension of  The Mighty Dead is of travelogue, in which the author gives beautiful and sometimes moving accounts of his journeys while researching the book: Chios, where Homer is supposed to have lived; Huelva, in Spain, whose poisoned river the author believes could be the site of Odysseus’s Hades; Ischia, where the first written reference to a Homeric character was discovered on a drinking vase.

By accident rather than design,the book provides unexpected connections not only with recent travels but with other stuff I have been reading. The description of Goliath as the archetypal, though hapless, Homeric warrior, chimes with Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath, in which Gladwell discusses the asymmetric clash between the protagonists as a metaphor for solving problems despite adversity. And the capture of the German general in Crete forms a prominent part of An Adventure, Leigh Fermor’s biography by Artemis Cooper.

Homer doesn’t moralise or preach. He doesn’t judge his characters. His heroes are not role models. They are what they are. In a sense, he tells his story from the inside out, through the mindsets of the protagonists, and yet manages to survey the human landscape with compassion and wisdom. Or, as Nicolson puts it:

“Homer – allied to his neighbour and contemporary, Isaiah, another great speaker of wisdom, whose dates and identity also stretch across many generations from at least 1600 to 600 BC, is the archetype from which every great seer is descended: he is Lear on the heath, Rousseau in a reverie on his island in the Lac de Bienne, the Ancient Mariner who waylays the wedding guest at the bridegroom’s door, but who will not ever enter that feast. Homer exists in his other world, almost unknowably separate from us in time and space, a realm whose distance allows us ideas of transcendence to develop around him. His distance from us is itself an imaginative space which his own greatness expands to fill.

This is no modern effect: it was the effect Homer had on the ancient Greeks, as a voice from the distant past, even a voice from the silence, the voice of greatness untrammelled by any connection with our present mundanities. Homer doesn’t describe the world of heroes: he is the world of heroes. As his epitaph said, he made their kosmos, a word which in Greek can mean order, world, beauty and honour. It is used in the Iliad when the commanders set their men in order for battle. It is used to describe the order in which a poet sets the elements of his tale. Those qualities are all different dimensions of one thing. Everything one might associate with the heroic – nobleness, directness, vitality, scale, unflinching regard for truth, courage, adventurousness, coherence, truth – is an aspect of the cosmic and all of it is what ‘Homer’ means.”

Adam Nicolson has brought Homer back to me. In a sense, the bard never left, but remained buried in the bedrock of my life experience – an unconscious influence and perennial reference point. But thanks to The Mighty Dead, he has returned with a vengeance to the forefront of my conscious.

His echoes are everywhere. I read the tweets from Syria by a young British jihadi glorying in the decapitation of their opponents, as reported by the UK Times:

In one post on July 8, he wrote: “Probably saw the longest decapitation ever. And we made sure the knife was sharp. Brother who was next decided to use the glock lol.”

He also posted pictures apparently showing executed prisoners from the rival Jabhat al-Nusra group.

“JN guys we caught & executed. This is how they looked less than an hr l8er,” he wrote alongside a picture of at least two bodies.

He later added that he was there when the men were killed, but suggested that he may not himself have carried out the execution.

Another post in early July said: “executed many prisoners today”, with another fighter said to be originally from Portsmouth replying: “Epic executions bro, we need to step it up like the brothers in Iraq.”

Then I think of Patroclus on his death or glory rampage through the Trojan ranks outside the city walls, mocking the corpse of one of his victims as it leaps out from under the wheels of his chariot:

Hah! Look at you! Agile! How athletic is that, as if you were diving into the sea. You could satisfy an army if you were diving for oysters, plunging even into the rough seas as nimbly as that.

And what relative of the dead in Gaza would not recognise the scene after Achilles’s revenge for the death of his fallen companion:

Now the sun of a new day struck on the ploughlands rising
Out of the quiet water and deep stream of the ocean
To climb the sky. The Trojans assembled together. They found
It hard to recognise each individual dead man;
But with water they washed away the blood that was on them
And as they wept warm tears they lifted them on to the wagons.

If Homer was looking on from Hades, he would recognise with a wry smile the blood feud in The Godfather, as Michael Corleone, as a cold-eyed Achilles, puts bullets between the eyes of his brother’s killers. He would see Penelope, Odysseus’s queen, in the faces of long-suffering wives waiting for their men to come home from war. And he would shake his head in sad recognition at the unending conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

And above all, on this hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War he would understand the sentiments of those who stood up at ceremonies to honour the fallen – mighty or otherwise –  just as he would see nothing unfamiliar about their squalid and untimely deaths.

The Mighty Dead, is not a dry, scholarly tome. It’s a vivid, personal and beautifully-written meditation on the deep insight Homer offers us into the origins of European culture and the imperfect nature of humanity.

European Anti-Semitism – a Sideshow Compared With the Abyss Ahead?



Last week’s UK Sunday Times ran a story about anti-Semitism by Stephen Pollard, the editor of the Jewish Chronicle.

“Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident, is not prone to rash statements. He weighs up every word when he speaks, and kept himself sane during years of solitary confinement in Siberia by playing mental chess.

But in last week’s Jewish Chronicle, Sharansky — who runs the Jewish Agency, the main body responsible for the immigration of Jews to Israel — issued the most blunt warning about the future of Jews in Europe that I have seen.

According to Sharansky: “We are seeing the beginning of the end of Jewish history in Europe.” There is, he says, an “intellectual atmosphere which asks Jews to choose between their loyalty to Israel and their loyalty to Europe”.

The Europe he describes is not that of the Enlightenment or even of the noble post-war project to bring peace to a continent ravaged by conflict. It is a Europe that “is abandoning its basic values”, such as freedom and tolerance. And it is capitulating before those who place hatred and extremism above all else.”

Pollard goes on to describe attacks on Jews across Europe, particularly in France and Germany. He points out that many of the attackers are using Israel’s action in Gaza as the pretext for their verbal and physical assaults. The perpetrators, he says are not just the usual mish-mash of right-wing extremists, but an increasing number of radicalised Muslims. He questions why protesters target Israel, when there are more lethal conflicts elsewhere that do not receive the same attention. How many Palestinians have been killed in Syria, he asks? More than at Israel’s hand in Gaza, as it turns out. He also wonders why there have not been demonstrations about the abduction of 200 children by the Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram, and about the vicious slaughter of Iraqis by ISIS, or the Islamic State as it prefers to be known. Why then, if not for anti-Semitic motives, do people take to the streets to protest about Israel’s actions in Gaza?

I should have thought that the answer was pretty obvious. In the case of Boko Haram and ISIS, who is there to demonstrate against? Israel is a well-armed, potent state. The Gaza action is within Israel’s power to stop whenever it wants to. Nigeria, on the other hand is a shambolic, corrupt confederation of ethnic groups and faiths. It did not will Boko Haram on its people, and its ability to deal with this vicious group is limited, not just because of resources but because of a lack of a concerted national will and a concern that military action will result in the deaths of the children.

ISIS is an equally vicious, but a far more successful gang of opportunist religious fascists – a self-declared state with no embassies, no institutions and a currency of fear with which to cow its new-found subjects. What embodiment of ISIS is there to act as a focal point for protests against them?

Now I take issue with Sharansky’s assertion that Europe is abandoning its basic values of freedom and tolerance, because much of Europe never held those values particularly dear. Certainly not Russia, where he was born, and vast swathes of eastern Europe from the Baltic to the Balkans have a patchy record of respect for freedom of speech and ethnic diversity. I would argue that since the end of the Cold War there are more parts of the continent where those values hold sway than ever before, which is why comparisons with the pogroms of the past two centuries and the organised assault on German Jewry on Kristallnacht are somewhat overstated.

As for dual loyalty, being beholden to more than one entity has long been a fact of European political and social life. Germans before World War One could be loyal Bavarians as well as subjects of the Emperor, just as in Austria it was possible to be a patriotic Hungarian yet still be prepared to die for Franz Josef. Moreover, for many hundreds of years, the Papacy was far more than a powerless stakeholder in the lives of those who were the temporal subjects of kings and emperors. Those who feel loyalty to the state of Israel as well as their home countries are not outliers, and such divided loyalty is a rarely a problem unless the interests of one entity conflict with those of the other. There are many people both within and outside the US, for example, who feel that the Jewish lobby exerts a disproportionate influence on US foreign policy, and that without that influence, US politicians would have been more likely to have put stronger pressure on Israel to come to terms with Palestine.

Where anti-Semitism comes into play in the issue of divided loyalty is when a citizen is asked to chose between being a Jew, with all that culturally Jewishness entails, and being French, or German. These kind of pressures existed long before the the state of Israel, particularly in Germany, where Jewish musicians such as Gustav Mahler converted to Christianity in order to advance their careers.

Pollard is right to raise the alarm against European anti-Semitism, but wrong to compare it with conditions in play in 1938. Much of the anti-Semitism he describes is by groups that would themselves claim to be discriminated against – such as under-privileged Muslim minorities and others who have missed out on economic prosperity. For all the electoral gains made by the far right parties in France, Hungary and other European States, no member of the EU is likely to elect a government that advocates and subsequently practices institutional anti-Semitism on any serious level, let alone on a scale comparable with what the Nazis did. And if it did so, it would be unlikely to remain in the EU for long. It would also be subjected to international opprobrium and punitive measures far more severe than those being introduced against Russia.

Israel, whose unending conflict with the Palestinians appears to be at the bottom of the current upsurge of anti-Semitism, fights its battles with every weapon at its disposal, including the underlying threat of its ultimate nuclear deterrent. Its use of hasbara, Hebrew for “explanation”, is one of those weapons. Every embassy has a representative whose job is to put forward Israel’s point of view in the media. The state deploys armies of volunteers to scour the web for opportunities to rebut material critical of Israel and its policies. Journalist Brian Whitaker has posted two interesting articles about hasbara on his website Al-Bab here and here.

It seems that in addition to having created a fearsome citizen army ready to respond to military threats at a moment’s notice, Israel is systematically equipping its citizens with the rebuttal narratives. This is a concern, because consistent arguments can easily turn into ideology, and those who question the top-down narratives become liable to accusations of being unpatriotic. And rigidly enforced orthodoxy can the the first step towards totalitarianism.  The other night I watched a BBC current affairs program hosted by Rageh Omaar, in which a young Israeli pilot talked about his role in the selection of targets in Gaza. His answers to questions about the moral dimension of his work used the same diversionary techniques employed by professional Israeli spokesmen. It was pretty obvious that he had received media training – otherwise it would have been unlikely that he would have ended up on screen.

Stephen Pollard, as a prominent British Jew, would probably be insulted at the suggestion that he is an instrument of Israeli hasbara. Yet the recent torrent of reports about anti-Semitic activity across Europe surely serves the purpose of diverting attention from Israel’s activities in Gaza towards what is being portrayed as a widespread wave of anti-Semitism. He rightly points out that there is still a latent seam of anti-Semitism on the continent, particularly in France. And Gaza has provided the pretext for latent becoming blatant. But vicious as they are, individual and collective acts of violence against French Jews are not state-sponsored as they were in Germany in 1938.

Unfortunately, as Whitaker points out, hasbara is starting to wear thin, as more people start to see through the stonewalling techniques it employs. This is particularly noticeable in the social media. Whether the result of individual sentiment or organised counter-hasbara initiatives, Facebook, for example, is rife with anti-Israel posts. A video of Jon Snow of the UK’s Channel 4 News interviewing an Israeli spokesman and struggling to break through Mark Regev’s formulaic defence tactics recently went viral. Suggestions that Snow “destroyed” Regev’s arguments are a bit wide of the mark, but it was certainly a good example of the line that all official Israeli commentators take with the media. A video by an emotional Snow shot after his return from Gaza, not broadcast on the terrestrial news show but on the station’s YouTube channel because of fears that it breaches the TV regulators stipulations on impartiality, has notched up over a million views in five days.

To paraphrase one commentator, Israel is winning its war on Gaza, but is in the process destroying what remains of its reputation as a bastion of personal freedom and democratic values in a region dominated by autocrats. Sadly, the reputational blow-back is indeed sparking the attacks by bigots who are only too happy to blame innocent Jews for the actions of the Jewish state with which they have no ties and for whose policies many have no sympathy.

I repeat, we are not looking at 1938 all over again. But ahead of us is a new, equally worrying threat, in which the Palestinian cause becomes inseparable from the most extreme forms of political Islam, and fuels ever more virulent incarnations of ISIS-type insurgencies. With the ever-present possibility of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East (if Iran get the bomb, Saudi Arabia has to have it, and then the Emirates and so on), we may be approaching a point at which Israel’s much-vaunted Iron Dome missile defence system becomes no more effective than a greenhouse in protecting its population from weapons that may become available to a future rogue theocracy. At that point attacks on European Jews will become a sideshow.

Because I frequently write on these subjects, people sometimes ask me how I think the conflict will end as if I was some kind of authority. I’m not. I shrug my shoulders, because I honestly don’t know. But deep down I sense that it will not end until some catastrophe occurs that wipes out the memory of participants in the last seventy years of conflict in the region. And that will only happen if the participants themselves are wiped out.

Let’s hope I’m wrong, and that there are enough sane people to call a halt to this cyclical madness before insatiable bloodlust produces the biggest fire-break of all time.


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