August for me has always had a dream-like quality, especially in Britain, my home country. You could easily imagine that half the world shuts down, as politicians, journalists, neighbours and schoolchildren disappear on their holidays. The roads are almost civilised in the morning, thanks to the lack of cars delivering little ones to their places of education. And when we get a run of decent weather, as we are at the moment, we seem to go into a strawberry trance.
This year we’ve been blessed with the sight of rowers, shooters, hockey players, gymnasts and synchronised swimmers going through their bizarre routines in Rio. Sporting mayflies emerging into the spotlight of prime time television for their quadrennial moment of fame. No matter that we won’t see them again until 2020, and that most of us slumped in front of our tellies in holiday resorts, pubs and quiet sitting rooms at home watched with bemused fascination as judges judged on criteria beyond our understanding, and referees intervened to enforce rules so arcane that they could only have been created by committees of Pharisees.
I suppose we all got a bit of a lift when our plucky Brits bumped the Chinese from second place in the medal table – about the only way we “pull above our weight” these days. And it was genuinely heartening to see these athletes, professionals to a greater or lesser extent, succeeding through determination, expert coaching and liberal doses of money, courtesy of the nation’s enthusiasm for the National Lottery.
While we bask in the post-orgasmic glow of all those smiling faces bearing medals, the occasional reminders of the ludicrous reality we have left behind for a short few weeks begin to surface. Boris Johnson running the country. Jeremy Corbyn sitting on the floor of one of Richard Branson’s trains. And Nigel Farage milking the applause at a Trump rally.
No doubt more serious stuff awaits us in September. In fact, the world has never stopped being deadly serious, even if we haven’t been paying attention to it.
Several national newspapers have been busy alerting us to the new Yellow Peril. No, not hordes of Japanese soldiers kicking us out of our empire and forcing our soldiers to build railways. This time it’s China’s attempt to build stuff within our shores. The Hinkley Point nuclear power project, we are warned, is not only a bad deal commercially, but dangerous because the Chinese, who will be a partner in the project, will thereby gain a foothold in the UK’s critical infrastructure. They have already bought a large chunk of our North Sea oil production. What next? Will they soon be building our warships and missiles, and running GCHQ on our behalf? Unlikely, but you never know.
Certainly it doesn’t bode well for the future of post-Brexit Britain that we no longer have the expertise to build our own nuclear power stations. For the Faragists among us, it must be almost as mortifying that we have to rely on France, our prickly enemy/friend, for the engineering capability to make Hinkley Point happen.
Further afield, the multidimensional war in Syria and Iraq is becoming more baffling than ever. Has there ever been a more complex matrix of interests, ambitions and alliances than in the Middle East today? The only constant is death.
Then there’s the turmoil in Turkey. Despite the post-coup purge of the armed forces, the government has still managed to summon up enough troops and tanks to overwhelm ISIS in a key Syrian border town, not – if you believe some narratives – to destroy ISIS but to take the town before the Kurds get there.
And is it any wonder that the average observer outside Turkey fails to understand the paranoia about the Gülen Movement. Why should Mr Erdogan be so obsessed by this seemingly mainstream Muslim organisation, whose followers believe in religious toleration and liberal education? Is it a cult? Is it a wolf in sheep’s clothing? Did its leader, an elderly and seemingly avuncular cleric, orchestrate the attempted coup from his eyrie in Pennsylvania? Is he a Trotsky or a Khomeini, plotting and planning in exile to bring about the downfall of the established order? Or is he just a convenient scapegoat, whose followers are a convenient enemy within?
I don’t know enough about Turkish politics to judge with any confidence, but one thing’s for sure: in the West, his PR is more effective than Erdogan’s. The President is seen as an increasingly authoritarian figure, locking up journalists and purging thousands of army officers, judges, civil servants and teachers suspected of being Gülenist sympathisers. But if you believe the Gülenists, they are no more threatening to the established order than the Methodists were in eighteenth-century Britain.
In any event, I’m hoping that A Strangeness in My Mind, Orhan Pamuk’s latest novel – which I’m ploughing through at the moment – will give me more insight into the current mindset within Turkey. The book traces the life of an Anatolian street vendor in Istanbul. Through his eyes we see the growth of the city and the evolution of the wider Turkish state since the late Sixties. Two things are already apparent. First, the gulf between the cosmopolitan Istanbul elite and the conservative societies in Anatolia from which most of the city’s new population have come. And second, the corrosive effect of successive military coups and of the authoritarian regimes that followed. No wonder the Turks pushed back with great courage against the latest attempt.
Another tome I’ve just finished serves as a reminder that the kind of multidimensional conflict we’re currently witnessing in the Middle East is by no means unique. Max Hastings’ latest book, The Secret War – Spies, Codes and Guerrillas 1939-1945, does what it says on the tin.
Hastings sets out to provide a panoramic view of intelligence activities of all the main participants in the Second World War, as well as the various partisan movements and embryonic special forces deployed by the combatants. So we learn about the familiar stories – the Ultra decryptions by Bletchley Park, the bumbling German Abwehr organisation and the far more effective spies of the Soviet NKVD. We also encounter the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS), forerunners of the SAS and the CIA respectively.
What emerges is that the masters of these organisations, in particular Stalin and Hitler, rejected much of the intelligence presented to them because it ran contrary to their own views. Thus Stalin ignored overwhelming evidence that Hitler was about to invade the Soviet Union in 1941. And Hitler fell victim to deception tactics in advance of Operation Bagration, the Soviet offensive in 1944. He also swallowed the Allied deception designed to convince Germany the invasion of France in 1944 would centre on the Pas de Calais. Similarly, the US ignored compelling evidence of Japanese plans for the attack on Pearl Harbour.
What is perhaps less well-known is the infighting and rivalry between the intelligence services within each of the combatants – the mutual contempt between the British MI6 and the SOE, and in the US, between the FBI and the OSS. Perhaps more surprisingly, the fact that in the latter part of the war, intelligence and special forces activities, especially those of the Soviet Union and the US, were largely focused on the post-war future. To that end, allies spied on allies, and on the odd occasion carried out hostile acts against each other. For example, US fighters shot down two British aircraft carrying French forces on their way to infiltrate into Japanese-occupied Indo-China.
During the Asian conflict, rivalry between the British and the Americans centred on Roosevelt’s anti-colonial views. He was determined to thwart British efforts to re-establish dominion over the colonies they lost to the Japanese, and sought instead to establish areas of American economic influence. The OSS was one of his tools for achieving this end, with the result that it and its British counterpart the SOE hardly spoke to each other. The Soviets, of course, were focused on penetrating the Manhattan Project that resulted in the development of the atom bomb. This they did with some success.
In case we imagine that World War Two was a conflict in which the allies were solely devoted to winning the war, Hastings reminds us that the victors were also determined to act in their own long-term interests in anticipation of the post-war order, even if that meant acting against each other during the conflict.
In reading terms, Pamuk and Hastings are not exactly summer salad for the mind. But I’ve always been a meat eater, so that’s fine. For a little dessert, I’ve turned to Dead – a Celebration of Mortality, by Charles Saatchi. I picked it up for five quid in a local charity shop. It had not been opened, so clearly someone didn’t relish someone else’s idea of a cheery gift. Perhaps it was an eightieth birthday present.
Anyway, despite my misgivings about the author, who grew rich coming up with natty ads for Margaret Thatcher, cornered the market in modern art of questionable merit, and was caught on camera with his hands around his wife’s throat, I am interested in his chosen subject. After all, I’m closer to that momentous event than many.
And very appetising it is too. Saatchi has come up with a hundred-or-so short vignettes, mostly factual, on various aspects of death. No turgid philosophising, though I imagine he sees his choice of subjects as a philosophical statement in itself. He writes with dry wit about Russian gangsters, gallows humour, near-death experiences, of living Indians in Bihar declared dead by relatives to get hold of their meagre inheritances and a host of other subjects. The book cover looks like a tombstone, and the layout reminds you of a Word document in the hands of someone who couldn’t use the table of contents and footer features. Except that it’s clearly a deliberate effect.
Dead is an entertaining, even if rather a cold and cynical, study of the fate that awaits us all. Its bite-sized chapters are easy to read and never boring. The last chapter is short and sweet:
SOME LIVES LEAVE A MARK. OTHERS LEAVE A STAIN.
ALMOST EVERYBODY LIVES A LIFE OF LITTLE CONSEQUENCE TO MANKIND.
BUT WOULDN’T YOU PREFER TO HAVE SPENT YOUR YEARS RATHER USELESSLY, BUT ENTERTAININGLY – EVEN IF YOUR EXISTENCE DIDN’T ACHIEVE ANYTHING MEMORABLY SIGNIFICANT AT ALL?
I wonder if that’s how Saatchi sees his own life. Certainly, it seems to me, his final words are those of a melancholy man. Be that as it may, Dead is perfect fare for the fading days of summer. Available from a charity shop near you, no doubt.
I for one will continue to enjoy my ant-like existence, blissfully unaware of the manner in which the Great Foot will descend on me, but newly enlightened on the vast array of possible exits.
And now, September approaches and the kinderpanzers get ready to reclaim the morning roads. Our attention turns from burkinis to Brexit, as the politicians continue to flounder in the mess they created.
Time to go on holiday.
Enough of this nonsense. The flight crews and passengers of airlines that have arbitrarily got Muslim passengers chucked off flights because they “felt uncomfortable” at the sight of people sweating, writing mathematical formulae, reading books about Syria, texting in Arabic and referring to Allah in conversation should gather in London in two days’ time.
There they will see a cricket match between England and Pakistan.
If the recent international in Birmingham is anything to go by, they will witness men with long beards and Pakistani national dress sitting happily alongside white guys dressed as bananas, as bishops and yes, even as crusaders. They will see Moeen Ali, a guy with a long beard, proudly wearing England colours, playing his heart out and embracing his colleagues. The same guy who won the man of the match award for his magnificent batting in the game just finished. They will see young kids in Pakistani colours cheering their team, but applauding the English team with equal enthusiasm. And why not? Strange as it may seem, you can be English without forgetting your foreign heritage.
They will learn that you can be devout without being a terrorist. That appearance is not a reliable predictor of behaviour. And that the 50,000 spectators in Birmingham may have differences in religious belief and social norms, but are united in the love of a game that was born in England and exported to most corners of its former empire, not least to the Asian subcontinent.
If they can’t make it to London, they should come with me to Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, and join me in a taxi driven by a native of Peshawar – a stone’s throw from the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and listen to the inevitable conversation about cricket – the smiles, the jokes and the sense of something shared.
Or they should go with me to Bahrain, and meet friends of mine who will introduce them to imams, and take them to Ramadan gatherings where the Quran is recited. Friend who don’t have a violent bone in their bodies, who care far more for their fellow human beings, I sense, than many of the pampered, timorous, “uncomfortable” customers of Western airlines.
A couple of weeks ago, John Oliver, host of Last Week Tonight, made the point that feelings rather than facts are dominating the current US election campaign. I feel unsafe, and therefore I am unsafe, no matter that the facts suggest otherwise. Which explains why the Muslim couple who were allegedly sweating in the heat in Paris were kicked off their flight to the US. A flight safety issue, said the pilot.
We need to get real. Islam is not going away. Muslims are not going away. Forgive me for the oft-repeated liberal sermon, but we may be in the middle of a surge of terrorist attacks in Europe, but that does not make the millions of people – who may be dressed in a distinctive way, who may have long beards, who may speak the world’s fifth most popular language, and who may read books and newspapers in a script unreadable to most fellow passengers – potential terrorists.
And yes, 9/11 may have cast a long shadow over aviation, but do all the mind-numbing security checks at international airports count for nothing? And the pre-checks, the no-fly lists, the data crunching by the NSA and GCHQ? The enhanced cockpit security? The threat recognition training given to airline staff and airport security employees? Are all of these safeguards to be disregarded just because a passenger “feels uncomfortable”?
I suppose I find this nervousness hard to empathise with because I fly to, from and between Muslim countries on a regular basis. What to me is normal behaviour would cause some passengers to reach for a double dose of Prozac.
What I find unsettling is not someone in the next seat reading the Quran. It’s people – and I’m not just talking about passengers, by the way – exercising their God-given right to get drunk before boarding an aircraft. And aircraft with bits falling off the interior, where the seats don’t work properly, and whose external paintwork is peeling. Aircrew so rotund that they can barely get through the aisles without banging into passengers on their way, or flight attendants who look as though they’ve just been recruited from a model agency. Flights that are delayed for hours because some “minor problem” that needs to be fixed.
Facts will tell you that terrorism is way down the list of causes of aviation fatalities. They will also tell you that in America far more people are killed by accidental shootings in an average year than terrorists. Even in Europe, your chances of succumbing to a terrorist attack are infinitesimal.
But as we have discovered yet again in this year of toxic elections and referenda, feelings count more than facts. And when feelings – fear, prejudice, hatred – are directed towards minorities, then those minorities will become embattled and bitter. In the case of Muslims, a sense of siege increases the likelihood that they will turn in on themselves and fall for the seductive narrative of the extremists.
What’s to be done? In the short term, Western airlines could help by training their staff to tell the difference between threatening behaviour and non-Western cultural norms. That, for example, when someone says “Allah” – a word that appears in virtually every second sentence spoken by a devout Muslim – they are not about to commit an atrocity. Even “Allahu Akbar” is not necessary the prelude to a suicide bombing. I have a friend who uses those words when admiring a magnificent plate of fish in a restaurant. Because in his view, God is indeed great to have provided him with such a feast.
They could recruit a few Captain Fatimas to fly their aircraft, and guys called Mohammed to dish out the meals. They could learn how to calm nervous passengers by taking them to one side and assuring them the person next to them is not necessarily a terrorist just because they’re speaking in Arabic before take-off. If they see someone reading a book on Syria, they could engage them in conversation, as in “that’s an interesting-looking book – what’s it about?”
It seems pretty obvious that most of the incidents on aircraft arise from miscommunications – people misreading body language, misinterpreting conversations – and jumping to the wrong conclusions. The fact that in each of the well-publicised recent cases where Muslims have been chucked off aircraft, the travellers are subsequently deemed to be no threat, bears this out.
So better training in the art of communication – and particularly listening skills – would help. Airlines have decades of experience in calming nervous passengers. Is it too much to ask that they learn to deal with irrational fear of Muslim passengers? As many pundits have pointed out over the past couple of years, we are in the grip of a hysteria born of fear and ignorance. Airline staff are clearly as likely to succumb to irrational behaviour as anyone else.
Perhaps that ignorance could be mitigated if pilots and flight attendants working for Western airlines were given training on Islam, its principles and observance, as well as cultural beliefs and practices prevalent in the Muslim world. After all, is it not good business to know your customers?
Muslim passengers also need to be aware of behaviour to avoid in order not to trigger extreme reactions. But they do not deserve to be publicly humiliated by their names and seat locations being called out on the intercom, and being told that they are being watched, as happened on a recent flight in the United States.
As the Guardian pointed out in The perils of “flying while Muslim”, it’s not just Muslims who are on the radar. Just about anyone with a dark skin has an increased chance of being singled out for special attention. And if I – a white, middle-aged traveller with a very British accent – more than once came in for close attention from airport security staff in the US in the years following 9/11, presumably by virtue of my passport having lots of visas from Middle Eastern countries, what chance has some poor innocent who “looks like a terrorist”?
Ultimately, the fear of “the other” can only be countered by the societies in which we live. Responsible politicians, religious leaders, civil servants and teachers can play their part. And of course it’s a given that political solutions in the battlegrounds of the Middle East will go a long way towards reducing ideologically-motivated terrorism.
Until then, those of us in England who love our national sport could do far worse than to try and convert America and continental Europe to the joys of cricket, in all its multi-ethnic, multi-faith glory.
We all need a break from time to time. In this summer of hate, a trip to New York, one of my favourite cities, seemed just the antidote to all the grim stuff going on in the old world. No matter that the spectre of the presidential elections hangs over America, I got the impression that New York was preoccupied with more urgent matters. Such as relieving tourists of their money, and staying cool in 35 degrees. Which perhaps explains why one of the best bits of our recent trip to New York was the day we spent escaping from it. Even then, it was difficult to ignore the politics, as I mentioned in my previous post.
Enough of all that. Time to write about some uplifting experiences for a change. What I didn’t mention last time was a train ride up the Eastern seaboard, past pasture, woodland, meticulously tended houses in small towns that eventually opened out to a series of wetlands, creeks and inlets. Beaches sparsely populated with vacationing families. And boats. Thousands of them. If we Brits think that as an island race we’re well stocked with boats, we should think again. The coastline from New York to Rhode Island quite possibly has more recreational boats than the whole of Britain put together.
I also didn’t mention our hosts for a day – the delightful family that has been coming to the little seaside town of Westerly for a century. Their great-grandparents built a large house on the shore of a lagoon, and it has remained in the family ever since – jointly owned by the descendants. Every summer, members of the family pitch up from neighbouring states – Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Massachusetts – some for a few days, others for longer. During the day they go sailing or swimming in the lagoon. Young cousins climb trees in the large grounds or wander off into the woodland. In the evening the kids play cards, and the adults sit around – outside on the veranda or around the house – reading books.
They’re a Quaker family. They have a calm and respectful demeanour so impressive that if I should ever return to organised – or, as they might have it, unorganised – religion, it would probably be to the Society of Friends.
My only previous encounter with the Quaker ethos came from a time when as a student I worked in the summer holidays for Cadburys. The founding family created a village for their workers, with recreational facilities in the grounds of the factory. They were perhaps the archetypal benevolent employers of nineteenth century Britain. The company was gobbled up a decade ago by Kraft, but the Cadbury legacy is still in evidence from the cricket green next door to the factory, and the absence of pubs and liquor shops in Kings Norton, the Birmingham suburb they founded. The tree-lined streets and rows of neat little cottages are a reminder that corporate social responsibility was not invented in the late twentieth century.
The Quaker beliefs of non-violence, religious toleration and quiet contemplation that William Penn brought to America have spread beyond Pennsylvania over the past three hundred years. One of our hosts is farming land on the coast of New Jersey that has been in the family for almost all of that period. Deep roots indeed. After delving a little into the story of the founder of Pennsylvania, I wonder why no American production company hasn’t yet come up with a mini-series about him, such were the dramatic ups and downs of his life, and the profound effect he had on what subsequently became the United States.
But there was little evidence of Quaker calm in New York City, which was as raucous and in-your-face as ever. When we were there earlier this month, it was hot, humid and packed with foreigners like us. It was our first visit in July, and probably our last. Spring and autumn are more temperate times of the year.
There seemed an abnormally febrile atmosphere in the city. And that’s saying something in that edgiest of cities. More people than normal talking loudly to themselves on the streets. More beggars on the sidewalks, and more human casualties tottering through the crowds of tourists. More police, and in Penn Station, two burly marines in full armour guarding the entrance to our Amtrak platform. Was it the state of the economy, the heat, paranoia about terrorism, concerns about policing, or does everybody go slightly crazy in the heat of the summer?
Whatever the answer, I’ve never been a fan of wandering around Manhattan for the sake of it. Too noisy, too crowded. And you can keep all that Frank Sinatra, New York, New York stuff. But every visit brings delicious moments of difference which keep us coming back.
If there was one such moment this time around, it was a visit to The Cloisters. For me, no visit to the city is complete without stopping by a museum. The big ones – the Natural History Museum, the Museum of Modern Art and the like – are pretty packed at this time of the year. But take the subway right up to the northern tip of Manhattan, and you will find a place so different from the rest of the city that you could be in Canada. Or southern France.
The Met Cloisters is a museum of medieval art and architecture. It sits on Washington Heights, a wooded, hilly outcrop that overlooks the Hudson River. Why, you might ask, would a Brit come to New York to view pieces of 13th Century France, Spain and Italy, when there are a thousand such treasures to choose from just across the Channel? A trite answer would be to point to the massive delays in Dover, the security lines at Heathrow and Gatwick, and the lurking presence of disturbed teenagers willing to murder priests in French churches.
But to know the real reason, you would need to visit The Cloisters for an afternoon after a few days of incessant traffic noise, of heat reflected from pavements and the constant efforts of guys trying to sell you tours of the city. It’s a respite.
The museum was built in the 1930s by John D Rockefeller Jr to house his collection of medieval artefacts – religious sculptures, windows, tapestries and devotional treasures. The actual buildings include a number of structures from monasteries reassembled and integrated into the buildings. There are four cloisters and two chapels, each housing a variety of works of art.
Within the cloisters are gardens that contain an approximation of the plants and flowers that were widely cultivated in medieval monasteries – as medicines, for food and for decoration. When we were there, many of them were in full flower – a real treat.
The museum has an aura of quiet that seems to radiate from the ancient stonework. It’s perhaps a commentary on the state of Europe at the time, that these works of art and pieces of crumbled monasteries were allowed to be exported from their countries of origin. Today, it’s inconceivable that a wealthy art collector could purchase a monastery or a priceless tapestry and transport them to the New World without cries of outrage at the despoliation of national heritage. A hundred years ago, people in high places cared less about such things.
But as a result, you can go to The Cloisters and see art and architecture from across Western Europe, all in one place, and all in an afternoon. Great if you don’t have the time or the inclination to traipse across four or five European countries in search of examples in situ.
Because the museum is somewhat off the beaten track, it wasn’t crowded. It’s set in large grounds, and if you arrive by public transport you have a bit of a hike up hill and down dale to get there – another reason why it has the feel of a sanctuary. But not just a sanctuary for tourists. Seated around some of the exhibits were groups of children – black, white, Asian, Hispanic – enthralled by young group leaders talking about the meaning of the art. Kids from the city learning about unicorn mythology.
The Cloisters was a joy, especially if, like me, you tire of the streets and the endless crowds.
There are other aspects of New York that make the city always worth a visit – the food, the shops, the theatre and the fabulous skyline. We had a taste of all of these, as we have on previous visits. But it’s also nice to bring back memories of places that that are the antithesis of the busy city – a trip to New England and a few hours in an urban haven.
America is, after all, more than its cities, and its cities are more than its streets. Most important of all, America is more than its politics.
So all the men have slunk away or been kicked into touch, and we are left with two women who would be Prime Minister of the UK. And the responsibility for selecting the person who will be tasked with for pulling us out of our worst crisis since the Second World War falls upon 160,000 members of the Conservative Party. In other words, a quarter of one percent of the population.
If I was going to characterise this tiny elite, I would describe them as latte-sipping, wine-imbibing, gin-and-tonic-swilling, dinner-party-hosting, middle-class, prosperous folk mostly concentrated in the South of England. Nigel Farage’s “decent people”, in other words. Many of them are relatively elderly. Some are deeply reactionary – those who haven’t defected to Farage’s party, that is.
Actually I haven’t really got a clue who these people are. A few hints are to be found in the attendees of the annual party conference, and in the interviews of ladies drinking coffee in country town high streets. Then there are the young ones who seem to grab most media attention – braying, bullying Tory Boys. Yes, I know I’m being unfair. There are good, sensible and sincere people in every party. But one thing’s for sure: the voters in this election are not my tribe. I have never voted Conservative.
As if the horror of Brexit was not enough, we now have to endure two months of non-stop coverage of an election in which I, and fifty-nine million other people with a stake in Britain’s future, have no say. In addition, we face the prospect of a Labour leadership contest in which Jeremy Corbyn – assuming he resigns and stands again – uses his supporters to kick sand in the faces of those beastly, Blair-loving MPs who dared who dared to defy the will of the proletariat. Enemies of the people. Well, enemies of the hundred and fifty thousand people who support Corbyn anyway.
Corbyn doesn’t speak for me, any more than do Theresa May or Andrea Leadsom. And in case you think that makes me a supporter of UKIP, who are also having a leadership contest, I would rather eat a cyanide sandwich than associate myself with that rabble.
I did consider paying my three pounds to become a member of the Labour party with the express intention of voting against Corbyn, or any other member of his benighted shadow cabinet. I’m sure he’s a decent and principled person, but he reminds me of the goat that was supposed to be dinner for a tiger in a Russian zoo, and ended up making friends with him – for a while. The epitome of someone not in control of his own destiny.
Anyway, I couldn’t sign up to such a ridiculous piece of political manipulation. I don’t want to be anybody’s fifth columnist. Since I can’t bring myself to support the Greens, the Liberal Democrats or the Monster Raving Loony Party, I guess that makes me truly non-aligned for the first time in my life.
So who would I vote for, should the political establishment be graceful enough to give me the opportunity? The Dalai Lama, perhaps. The Archbishop of Canterbury. Sir David Attenborough. Mary Beard. Brian Cox. David Beckham even. Yes, I know – this is getting ridiculous. But are they not “decent people”?
If you think I’m raving, you may be right. I do feel as though I’m in the middle of some awful nightmare. I just want to wake up and for all the nonsense that has transpired since June 24th to be revealed as a dream.
But it isn’t just a nightmare, is it? This country, my country, has suddenly turned into a cauldron of witch-hunters, liars, political ideologues and racist xenophobes. It’s as if something has polluted the water supply and driven us insane.
Yet away from the front pages of the newspapers, we’re soothed by the prozac of summer. The Welsh football team sweeps away our memories of the brain-frozen England team. Andy Murray is in a Wimbledon final again. And we’re all thinking about our holidays, even though just about anywhere we go beyond our borders will cost us at least 20% more than we thought it would two weeks ago. The dawn chorus still rings out at sunrise, and my friendly robin still comes to visit me in the morning.
Best perhaps, to focus on the eternals of life – love, hope and friendship. Our capacity for doing good. Tolerance, generosity and kindness. They may be in short supply at the moment. But sooner or later we’ll leave the asylum and settle down to a new normal.
I welcome the prospect of another woman prime minister. But to be honest, I don’t care if our next leader is man, woman or Klingon. Whoever gets the job needs to bring with them a large capacity for common sense. Right now we’ve landed on a ledge halfway down a cliff. Will she throw us down a rope or kick us, screaming, onto the rocks below?
Chilcot disturbs me. Not because of the rationale for the report, or even because of the conclusions.
What unsettles me is the reaction to it. It seems that the attention of the print and broadcast media, the politicians, the social media Greek chorus and the families of the armed forces personnel killed and injured are focused almost exclusively on one person: Tony Blair.
Basically, the dominant voices are of those who want him hung, drawn and quartered. Nothing else and no one else seems to matter as much. Not the planning (or lack of it). Not the inadequate Snatch Land Rovers. Not the disastrous decisions by the Coalition Provisional Authority that arguably created the conditions for the chaos that ensued. Not the fact that war would have taken place with or without Britain’s participation. Not the fact that if there was an arch perpetrator of the war of aggression against the saintly Saddam Hussain, it was one George W Bush.
Do we see calls for Bush to be taken to The Hague and tried for war crimes? Is he required to check with his lawyers when travelling abroad to make sure that a prosecutor in his host country is not liable to arrest him, as opinion suggests Blair will have to do?
Tony Blair, according to Chilcot and by his own assertion, did not lie to Parliament when making the case for the war. He claims that he – and his colleagues, it should be remembered – acted in the best interest of his country. Unfashionable as this opinion is, I accept that he didn’t lie, and I believe – unless the details of Chilcot can subsequently convince me otherwise – that he acted in good faith.
My belief in Blair’s motives doesn’t imply a lack of compassion for the bereaved relatives, as well as for the millions of Iraqis whose lives were destroyed by the conflict and its grievous consequences. I, and surely everyone else in Britain who has followed events in the Middle East before and after the 2003 war, feel deeply for them.
Perhaps now is not the time to make a few supplementary observations that might upset a few people. But here goes anyway.
First, the political motives of Jeremy Corbyn in condemning Blair seem pretty transparent to me. Tony Blair is at fault. The Labour MPs who voted with him in 2003 are at fault. I, Jeremy Corbyn, didn’t vote with him. Many of the current MPs who want to get rid of me as leader did vote with him. Ergo their views on the current leadership should be discounted. Ergo I should remain in place because I have been given a mandate by the party, not the MPs. And, by the way, the “Blairite faction” should be rooted out of the Labour Party by any means necessary, including intimidation by the membership and ultimately deselection. They bear the mark of Cain.
I’m sure Corbyn would not publicly condone intimidation, but I feel confident that he would privately acquiesce in it if achieves the end result he desires. Am I being overly cynical in suggesting that he – or at least his praetorian guard – sees Chilcot as his means to hang on to his office? Subsequent events will surely prove me right or wrong.
Second, there may be reasons for incompetence on the part of the politicians, generals and civil servants, but no excuses. Each owe a duty of care for our armed forces. But the fact is that those who serve as soldiers, sailors and airmen know when they sign up that their profession is riskier than others. To put it bluntly, they know that they can be killed or wounded in action. If we were to examine each and every conflict involving British troops from the Napoleonic Wars onwards, we would find equally reprehensible failures of political and military leadership, of logistics and of tactical command. There were no inquiries into the Somme, Arnhem, Suez and Helmand. Perhaps there should have been.
Today’s wars – at least those involving Western powers – are carried out in the full glare of media coverage that didn’t exist at the time, say, of the Somme. The seeming destruction of Blair’s reputation will surely make any Prime Minister extremely leery about proposing any kind of military action at least in the near future. They will be fearful of the consequences – not just of the war itself, but for their personal reputations.
All well and good, you might argue. That’s central plank of Chilcot – that these decisions should be rigorously justified and expertly planned. But the trouble about some wars fought in the face of aggression – be it real or implied – is that they are fought in reaction to events. Some events can be foreseen to the extent that the military can make contingency plans, which basically what NATO has been trying to do since 1949. But others come out of the blue. Stuff happens.
So my concern is that we don’t put measures in place to prevent another Iraq so stringent that they prevent us from reacting with military force to ANY situation. If our future is to become a nation of conscientious objectors, then that should be a matter of debate even more profound than the one that is currently taking place over EU membership. It raises the question of why we need to be a member of NATO, and why we need to maintain a military capable of doing anything beyond protecting our borders from small-scale, non-state incursions. It would also call into question the viability of our domestic defence industry, on which thousands of jobs depend. If we don’t buy the weapons we build, why should anyone else? And if we are no longer to be part of the European Union, will we be content to see ourselves not sheltered by any alliances than those motivated by trade?
If that’s the future we see for ourselves, fine. But we should walk towards it, not stumble upon it as an accidental consequence of Chilcot. I don’t see such an extreme outcome taking place. But then again I didn’t see the Leave decision coming either.
Finally, we should consider our faith – or otherwise – in our politicians. I find it ironic that our nation is consumed with the question of Tony Blair’s good faith at a time when lies and bad faith seem to have become common currency. I’m not just talking about my country, and the shameless embroidery that has been traded on both sides of the EU argument. In the United States, Donald Trump has made a career out of exaggeration and outright lies. Hillary Clinton’s reputation has taken a blow over her attempts to sex down the email furore.
In both countries there is a level of cynicism about politicians and mistrust of their motives that has not been seen since the end of the Second World War. The current crisis in confidence exceeds even Vietnam and Watergate on the US side. In Britain – at least in my memory – the only comparable event has been the miner’s strike and the three-day-week in 1973.
We should welcome the findings of the Chilcot Report, and the fact that it was commissioned in the first place. But the timing of its publication, by accident rather than design, means that there is yet another reason for us to be repelled by our political establishment. In the United States – perhaps because of an ethos of “my country right or wrong”, and perhaps because of the shock of 9/11 – the debate over Iraq has never been as damaging to George W Bush and his administration as it has been to Tony Blair and his colleagues.
Yet on both sides of the Atlantic, the cumulative effect of 9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan and the 2008 financial crisis has been to replace prostitution with politics in the public’s perception as the world’s oldest profession. And distrust of politicians goes hand-in-hand with lack of faith in our political institutions. Faith in the integrity and sovereignty of Parliament in the UK, and in the effectiveness of the checks and balances enshrined in the US constitution.
The ability of the British government to trigger Article 50 of the EU treaty by royal prerogative rather than by Act of Parliament threatens to create dangerous paralysis in the months to come. In the US, many argue that partisan Republicans in Congress have repeatedly blocked legislation and executive actions put forward by the president, not on the merits of the proposals, but out of a visceral hatred of the president himself.
What makes the current situation extremely dangerous is that if reforms to political systems are needed, how can they gain popular acceptance if the politicians who propose them are not to be trusted?
Chilcot adds yet another brick to the wall of scepticism that currently surrounds public life in my country. Commendable though the headline findings of the report seem to be, will it ultimately help to make Britain less governable? That would be an irony, considering the sorry state of Iraq following the war it was commissioned to examine.
Yesterday’s publication was not about the destruction of one man’s reputation. That happened long ago. It’s far bigger than Tony Blair. It’s also about what kind of a country we want to live in, and how we wish to be governed.
And those questions are what we, and our cousins in America, should be thinking very carefully about over the next few months. We live in interesting times.
OK, enough about Brexit for the time being. There are things happening in other parts of the world that are worth writing about. In Turkey, for example.
The trickle of reports about an attack on Istanbul’s airport turned into a torrent. The grainy videos showed a sudden flash, people running for safety. Lives ruined, fear redoubled, and the inevitable reaction. All so familiar to cities – Beirut, Baghdad, Dammam, Sana’a, London, Paris, Brussels, New York, Dhaka, Jakarta, Kabul – that have experienced such traumas, some many times over. Wait a few days to comment on an attack in one city, and attention has shifted to another. Last week Istanbul, this week, Baghdad and Madinah.
Istanbul – sitting on the edge of Asia, suffered its latest attack in a week when we on the Western extreme of Europe remembered the Somme, where more than twenty thousand British soldiers died on the first day of the offensive a hundred years ago.
At that time, Britain was at war with the predecessor of the Turkish state. The Ottoman Empire, even after a century of decline, still presided over a land mass comparable to that of the present-day European Union. In addition to the current territory of Turkey, most of the Arabian Peninsula, Syria, Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq answered to the Sultan and his government in Istanbul. Its population included Turks, Arabs, Circassians, Kurds and Armenians. Although the ruling class was Muslim, its people also embraced Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism.
We British, along with our cousins in Australia and New Zealand, think mainly of Gallipoli when we remember the war against the Ottoman Empire. We might also recall Lawrence of Arabia, and his part in the Arab revolt against the Ottomans in the Hejaz, now the western half of Saudi Arabia.
Before the First World War, for most British people the Ottoman territories were “faraway countries of which we knew little.” Wealthy travellers might visit Istanbul and Anatolia. Merchants would travel to the Levant for business. Pilgrims and priests would go to Jerusalem. And the occasional explorer would venture forth to the interior of the Arabian Peninsula.
The Ottoman Empire, to the extent that it impinged on our conscious at all, was the “Sick Man of Europe”. Its Balkan dominions had fractured into a set of belligerent nation states – Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria. The assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria by a Serbian nationalist was the catalyst for the outbreak of the First World War. The Ottomans entered the war on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary. The consequences were fatal for the 400-year old empire.
My interest in Turkey and its Ottoman heritage comes from two directions. I spent nearly a decade in Jeddah, the commercial capital of the Hejaz. For many Jeddawis, Lawrence was not just a remote historical figure. The parents and grandparents of people with whom I rubbed shoulders knew him. Some fought with him. Remnants of the Hejaz Railway that the Bedouin tribesmen attacked are still there to be visited in the desert. Many in the region think of themselves as Hejazi first, and Saudi second.
I’m also deeply interested in the Byzantine Empire. The last remnant of the eastern Roman Empire, Constantinople, fell to the Ottomans in 1453. The city we now know as Istanbul entrances me. Not so much because of the Byzantine traces – the land walls, Aya Sofia and other buildings from the period – but because of what came after – Topkapi, The Blue Mosque, the cafes, the markets, the bridges, the wooden palaces along the Bosporus.
I love the food, the music and the coffee of Turkey. I love the works of Orhan Pamuk and Elif Shafak. That doesn’t make me an apologist for fratricidal sultans, the Armenian massacres and the penchant of the present government for locking up writers. But it does mean that I look on the tribulations of today’s Turks with sympathy, not with contempt and condescension. And I don’t believe that people always get the governments they deserve. How could I, living in Brexit Britain?
Aside from the tragedy in Istanbul, I have two other reasons for thinking about Turkey at the moment.
A couple of weeks ago I went to a production of Terence Rattigan’s Ross at the Chichester Festival Theatre. Joseph Fiennes was superb in the role of the tortured T.E. Lawrence as he sought anonymity by enlisting in the lower ranks of the Royal Air Force under the alias of Aircraftman Ross. The play looked back at his career in the Hejaz with the Arab revolt against the Ottomans in the First World War. Whether Rattigan accurately captured the complex character of the hero with any accuracy is debatable. There was a post-show chat between audience and cast to which one or two people contributed who clearly knew a lot about Lawrence. One of them, for example, quoted a relative who served with him in the RAF, and who was convinced that he was not, as some biographers contend, gay. The discussion was almost as interesting as the play itself.
Overall, it was a compelling production, well-acted and directed. If I had a reservation, it was the portrayal of the Turkish protagonists. In the way that they were acted, they came over almost as cartoon baddies – sadistic and supercilious. Lines that could have been delivered otherwise were played for laughs. The effect made the production somewhat lopsided. The British – Lawrence, Allenby and Storrs – and Auda abu Tayi, the Bedouin tribal leader (played by Anthony Quinn in the movie Lawrence of Arabia) were believable. The Turkish governor wasn’t.
I suppose that was understandable. Rattigan wrote the play in 1960. It was a time when Britain’s other arch-enemy, the Germans, rarely had a sympathetic portrayal in the numerous war films that celebrated the defeat of Nazism. Good Germans, in the estimation of the dramatists, and so perhaps good Turks, were in short supply.
An antidote to Rattigan’s caricature portrayal of the Ottomans comes from The Fall of the Ottomans, Eugene Rogan’s history of the First World War in the Middle East. Historians tend to take a more balanced view of protagonists in major conflicts – or at least they do these days.
The Great War was as much a tragedy for the people of the Ottoman Empire as it was for the Western combatants. Famine in Lebanon, slaughter at Gallipoli and the death of between 800,000 and 1.5 million Armenians (depending on who you listen to) were major events. But throughout the period, there were other smaller but no less vicious encounters as the Ottomans sought to defend their territory on several fronts simultaneously.
Rogan is excellent on the doomed Gallipoli campaign, and on the woes of the Anglo-Indian expeditionary force in Mesopotamia that culminated in the British defeat at Kut. Both campaigns resulted from a perception that the Ottomans were the weak link in the Central Alliance, and that to take them out of the war would bring the overall conflict to an early close. Those who advocated the operations, Winston Churchill among them, were gravely disappointed. The Ottomans with commanders and logistic support from Germany, fought with great courage and inflicted damaging defeats on the British-led expeditionary forces.
On the Armenian massacres, he writes at some length not only about the event but also about the motivation. Armenian Christians had long agitated for a level of autonomy in the east of the Empire. When the fighting with Russia broke out, some Armenians joined their fellow-Christians and took up arms against the Sultan. The city of Van briefly rose in rebellion. It was fought over by the Russians, the Ottomans and the rebels, and changed hands several times. When the Ottomans finally regained the city, the triumvirate of Young Turks who ruled the Empire decided that the Armenians were unreliable subjects and needed to be dealt with.
Across the Empire, Armenians were sent on forced marches out of their main centres of population. Many died of thirst and starvation. Many, according to reports at the time, were killed by their captors. What was interesting to me was that despite the trenchant denial by the modern Turkish state that the Armenians were the victims of genocide, there were many accounts of what took place. Genocide and holocausts are emotive words. Successive Turkish governments have insisted that they were victims of war rather than of a deliberate act of extermination. Be that as it may, hundreds of thousands perished, and not at the hands of the Empire’s enemies.
Yet after the war, as Rogan points out, the victorious allies encouraged the new Ottoman government to put those responsible for the fate of the Armenians on trial before military tribunals. As a result, the three primary Young Turk instigators, who escaped to Germany, were sentenced to death in absentia. A small number of lesser perpetrators were hanged. The 1946 Nuremberg trials were not the first war crimes prosecutions of the 20th Century.
Another aspect that is little known by those who, like me, are not deeply familiar with the war in the Middle East is that the Ottoman leaders prevailed upon the Sultan, in his role as caliph, to declare jihad against the enemy powers. Throughout the war, the British were nervous at the effect the pronouncement might have on the loyalty of their Muslim Indian troops. Likewise, the French were concerned about their colonial forces from North Africa. In the event, there were desertions to the Ottoman side, but not in numbers that made a material difference to the outcome of the war. A reminder though, that the use of jihad in modern times didn’t start with Afghanistan in the 1980s.
As for the Arab revolt in the Hejaz, and Allenby’s campaign in Palestine and Syria, T.E. Lawrence takes his place in the narrative as an influential figure, but not as the principal instigator around which the legend of Lawrence of Arabia was built. Although the British encouraged and funded the revolt, it didn’t gain universal acceptance in the Arab world, let alone among the wider Muslim constituency. We look on the Middle East today primarily through the lens of faith – as a Muslim region with embattled pockets of Christians, and with a Judaic state sitting defiantly in the centre. Christian communities at the beginning of the 20th century were far larger, and many leading nationalists were driven more by ethnic than by religious considerations. It took Allenby’s army to tip the balance. His capture of Jerusalem marked the beginning of the end for the Ottomans in the region.
As part of the post-war settlement, the Empire was partitioned. The British and the French acted according to the notorious Sykes-Picot agreement and established their spheres of influence over the Levant, Palestine and Iraq. The British occupied Palestine and the Jewish immigration – sanctioned by the Balfour Declaration of 1917 – began. Thus the seeds of all the subsequent conflict in the Middle East were sown.
In 1923, Mustafa Kemal, the victor of Gallipoli, overthrew the Sultan, and Turkey became a republic. Kemal, now given the title Ataturk (father of the Turks), became its first president. Ataturk abolished the symbols of the Ottoman Empire – among them the fez and the veil. He disbanded the religious orders, banned Arabic script in the education system and established a secular state. He is so revered in Turkey that anyone insulting his memory is still liable to prosecution.
Rogan’s narrative ends with the abdication of the last Ottoman sultan. His account of the war in the Middle East is a heart-breaking story of political duplicity, civilian suffering, remorseless fighting, courage on all sides of the conflict. Hopes of a unified Arab Kingdom that fuelled the revolt in the Hejaz were dashed. Another kingdom, Saudi Arabia, emerged in the Arabian Peninsula. The sons of Sharif Hussein, the figurehead of the revolt, took their places as Kings of Jordan and Iraq. When finally free of Anglo-French domination, Egypt, Iraq and Syria led the surge of Arab nationalist sentiment, and the descendants of Ibn Saud, enriched by the mineral wealth that lay beneath the desert, consolidated their power.
The Fall of the Ottomans doesn’t explain everything that has happened in the region since the Great War. And the Ottoman Empire has a rich history that is well worth exploring if you want to understand why the Middle East has come to be as it is today. But he’s produced a clear narrative of a conflict overshadowed in Western European memory by the horror of the trenches.
Few people in Iraq are likely to remember the Somme. But they will remember Kut, the fall of Baghdad, their Hashemite king and the Gallipoli campaign in which their conscripts died alongside Turkish comrades. And, thanks in part to ISIS, they especially remember the Sykes-Picot Agreement.
Which takes us back to those who died, it appears, at the hand of ISIS in Ataturk International Airport, the gateway named after the hero of Gallipoli. As an admirer of Turkey and its rich heritage, I grieve for their people, just as I grieve for the dead of Baghdad, of Palestine, of Lebanon and Syria. The people of the former Ottoman Empire have paid dearly in blood over the past century for the accident of their geography – for their civilisation, their beliefs, their culture and their rich and diverse heritage.
The successors of the Ottomans are a proud and sometimes prickly people. The people of Istanbul are, Orhan Pamuk contends, suffused with melancholy – perhaps for good reason. But they are also kind, warm and creative. Turks don’t deserve to be demonised. Especially they don’t deserve to be used as a political football by the xenophobes in my country who have stoked up fears of a flood of Turkish immigration. In short, they deserve a break.