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The Unravelling – Relationships, Leadership and Love in Post-War Iraq


Baghdad 2003

Autobiographies by politicians, diplomats and generals, by their nature, tend to be about what, why and how. What I did, what I said, how I made a difference, what I thought of other people, why I did what I did, why the world is what it is, and how I made it better. The how often tends to be circumscribed by the dictates of secrecy, so you often get the sense of much unsaid. For the latter, you have to wait for a biography, often written after the subject is dead, and after the curtain of secrecy has been lifted.

If the memoir is to sell, it needs to include stuff that is not common knowledge, stuff that provokes, inspires or amuses.

Emma Sky’s The Unravelling is one of the quirkiest example of the genre I have read for quite a while. On the surface it’s a story of hard-won success and ultimate failure. Sky, an Oxford-educated arabist who worked for the British Council – one of the pre-eminent instruments of the UK’s post-colonial soft power – in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank, went to Iraq in 2003 to help build new Iraqi institutions in the wake of the defeat of Saddam Hussain. She ended up spending much of the subsequent seven years as the political advisor to General Ray Odierno, the commander of the US occupying forces.

In the book she describes from her perspective – that of a British woman working at the heart of the American command structure – the torturous progress towards creating an independent, democratic Iraq out of the post-war chaos.

She clearly kept good notes, because she tells the story in meticulous detail: the shifting alliances between the tribal, ethnic and religious factions, the Sunni insurgency, the Kurdish drive for autonomy, the Anbar Awakening, the US Surge strategy, and ultimately the slow descent into civil war.

Most of the reviews of The Unravelling focus on the fact that someone who opposed the war found herself working in the inner councils of the organisation that waged it and had to deal with the consequences: the US Army.

Emma Sky spoke to me in a different way. For a book to be memorable, it shouldn’t just be about what it said to you. It should also be about how you answer back. How does it change your perspective? What would you say to the writer if you met him or her?

I would probably say that what I found most interesting about her book was that for all the painstaking details of hardship, negotiation, hope and fears, the dominant themes were leadership, relationships and love.

What Sky understands about the Middle East, as I do through my experience in the region, is that personal relationships count for more than political positioning. That the ability to forge friendships can overcome seemingly insolvable deadlock. That friendships turn into love, not only of people but of the culture in which they live. And that love is the best guarantor of trust.

When she says on more than one occasion that the years she spent in Iraq were the time of her life, I can relate to that. The many years I spent in the region left an indelible impression on me. As I believe she would probably say, the love of a people and their culture isn’t an unconditional puppy-dog adoration. It accepts that aspects will always repel or offend, but it’s founded in admiration and respect for an accumulation of qualities that manifest themselves in personal relationships and behaviour.

Within the US military, her principal relationship was with Odierno, a big man in all respects, with whom she frequently disagreed and was not afraid to confront with her views. That, she says, was one of the reasons Odierno valued her – someone who would say what she thought, and had the confidence to tell him when he screwed up. But what did Odierno do for her? Above all, he and other senior generals with whom she worked, such as David Petraeus, made her feel valued.

You get the impression that Sky frequently pinches herself. How can it be I find myself in the company of ambassadors, generals and politicians – Bremer, Odierno, Petraeus, Blair, Biden and Obama? How is it that I managed to influence and change perceptions? And she answers those questions with stories that show how her sense of humour, her cheek and her determination made a difference.

The experience left her with a profound respect for the US military that you don’t often find outside the self-serving memoirs of the great and the good. Yet this is a person who came to Iraq with some strong and not very positive perceptions. Let’s face it, American military men don’t often get a good press, either in contemporary journalism or in the history books. For every revered soldier,  a Grant, a Lee, a Sherman or a Bradley, there are bombastic egomaniacs like Patton, MacArthur and LeMay, and cautious, grey, politician-bureaucrats such as McClellan and Westmoreland. And fictional commanders in book and film perpetuate an image of gung-ho insensitivity verging on lunacy. George C Scott as Buck Turgidson in Dr Strangelove, for example, and Robert Duval’s Colonel “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” Kilgore in Apocalypse Now.

Yet in The Unravelling you have Petraeus quoting Thucydides, mid-ranking officers showing great sensitivity and diplomacy, and the bull-like Odierno commanding respect and loyalty both by the force of his personality and by his communication skills. What’s more , she tells of ordinary soldiers who – in contrast to the popular image of the Americans in Iraq as blundering thugs who blasted their way into people’s homes and humiliated the prisoners of Abu Ghraib – took away a lasting respect and affection for their reluctant hosts:

It was not the time or place to explain the influence Iraq had had on the lives of so many American soldiers who served there. A few weeks earlier, I had been invited to Fort Leavenworth in Kansas to help with the review of the counter-insurgency manual. “Should we not examine why we did not win?” I suggested. “Was it due to lack of overall strategy, or wrong tactics, or poor leadership?” But they were not ready to consider these questions. I noticed that a number of officers, after shaking my hand, crossed their hand over their heart, a mannerism they had picked up from the Iraqis. Several asked me if I had news about specific Iraqis they had grown close to. One young officer had taken me to his house to show me the family tree of the Zobai tribe, and had proceeded to talk about the different members as if they were his own relatives. Some acknowledged how much they missed the sense of purpose and mission they had felt in Iraq and guiltily confessed that nothing about life back in the US could match it. They had come to Iraq to transform it; and yet departed having themselves been permanently changed by the encounter.

I have met and worked with Americans across the spectrum from ugly to awe-inspiring. The best of them did for me what they did for Sky: inspired loyalty, made me feel valued and became long-standing friends. I prefer not to dwell upon the worst of them, except to say that every country has its lowlife. Though I have met many good people in the US who have never spent time out of their country except on holiday, those I admire the most are the ones whose experience and outlook has been tempered by prolonged exposure to other cultures, probably because that’s my story too.

The people who equally stand out in Sky’s book are the Iraqis – both exalted and lowly. I could be accused of making a sexist remark here, but The Unravelling is not a book that many men would feel comfortable writing, especially the sort of alpha males that like to churn out political autobiographies. It would be easy when writing a narrative of the events in Iraq since the invasion to focus only on the battles, the rivalries, the impasses and the negotiations.

It’s also easy to think of Iraqis as religious fanatics on both sides of the sectarian divide. As murderers, torturers and decapitators. ISIS, and the Shia militia who rival them in brutality, have caused many of us to de-humanise a whole people (just as some politicians and newspapers in the UK have dehumanised the migrants in Calais). But in every person she meets she manages to find humanity – hope, fear, joy and love as well as the hatred that dominates the headlines.

Perhaps her gender only partly explains why she was so adept in reading the emotions of the protagonists. Her position for most her time in Iraq as an influencer, an observer and a negotiator, often with a different perspective from that of the fighting men with whom she worked, must surely have helped her to pick up and respond to emotional cues that some of the task-oriented male decision makers might have missed.

This is not to say that men are incapable of emotional sensitivity, or that women are incapable of ruthless focus on objectives at the expense of empathy – think of Bill Clinton and Margaret Thatcher, for example. And there are enough examples in her narrative of Emma Sky’s determination to suggest that she was not averse to using her inner bulldozer when required. Yet you are left with the impression that of all her skills, emotional intelligence was perhaps the most critical.

Of the author herself we learn much of her character from her stories: a subtle mind, an impish sense of humour, the courage to venture into dangerous places and situations, a belief in the rectitude of her mission, and a profound concern for the well-being of the country that consumed her energies for the best part of seven years. I get the feeling that there was much more to her personal story than she was prepared to disclose in a book, which is hardly surprising. But there’s enough to suggest that she was on a journey unlike anything she experienced before or after.

If I needed convincing about her intelligence, both emotional and intellectual, and her plain-speaking common sense, her witness testimony to the Chilcot Inquiry into Britain’s role in the Iraq war is the clincher. It’s well worth a read in full. Here’s a transcript of what she said when asked about the impact of the Iraq experience on potential future military interventions by the West:

I think after Iraq, after Afghanistan there’s going to be this sense of, “Gosh! Mustn’t go there again. Mustn’t do that again”. I think it’s important that people stop and reflect. It’s not about whether you should intervene or not intervene, but it’s how we go about this. It’s important that people do understand threats, risks and how to approach them.

So I think there’s going to be this sort of, “Oh, it’s all our own fault”, this sort of whipping that will go on, and ignoring of the threat, and I think we’re facing the world in which there are different threats and there is different pressures, and we need to look at how we respond.

So whether we use — I don’t think we’ll be sending big armoured brigades overseas again in the same way, but there will still be a need for smaller, cleverer, smarter, less visible interventions.

She said this in January 2011, before the Arab Spring, before Syria and before ISIS. Did we spend so much time whipping ourselves since then that we became blind to the risks that were unfolding before our eyes?


Emma Sky

I’m pretty sure that the formidable yet patently humane Emma Sky would have an opinion on that. She is now an academic at Yale University, where she lectures on Iraq and Middle East politics. I can’t believe that she will content herself with teaching rather than doing for the remainder of her career. It will be interesting to see what she does next.

UK Politics: Jeremy Corbyn and the Atomisation of the Labour Party


With apologies to all who have no interest in British politics, I can’t resist commenting on the current struggle within the Labour Party to find a new leader.

First off, I don’t wander down any corridors of power. But I listen, I read and I keep my eyes open. I’d describe myself as an interested outsider. I don’t know much about Jeremy Corbyn beyond what is in the public domain, but I know enough about my own country to say this: the Labour party have lost their traditional constituency and the Conservatives haven’t. Which is why, much as Mr Corbyn and his friends would have it otherwise, it’s futile to talk of Labour as a movement.

The word movement suggests going from one place to another – in other words, not standing still. And in the words of politicians that movement is usually forward, not backward, even if it involves rolling back conditions they see as undesirable – the UK’s membership of the European Union, for example, immigration and multiculturalism.

The trouble is, the Britain from which the Labour movement emerged more than a century ago was very different from what it is today. Not because the causes espoused by Kier Hardie are any less relevant now: elimination of poverty, social equality, workers’ rights and so on. But because the common interests that coalesced to produce a coherent political platform have shattered into a plethora of minority interests, often competing against each other.

From its foundation to around thirty years ago – the date of the last miners’ strike – the bedrock of Labour’s support was to be found in the industries that employed the majority of workers: mining, shipbuilding, steel-making, manufacturing, transportation, dock-working. Underpinned by the trade unions that provided much of the funding and in so doing strongly influenced the political agenda, the Labour Party knew pretty clearly what it stood for and what it opposed.

Today, thanks largely to globalisation (and less thanks to Margaret Thatcher than the hard left would like us to believe), those industries have largely withered away. How many miners are there left in Britain? Shipworkers? Dockers? People making things on which our well-being depends? Their power has gone.

These days the people with clout – in terms of organised labour – are those who work in transportation, services, health and education. We curse when the tube drivers go on strike. We get mad when a small union across the channel uses its bargaining power to disrupt our easy passage to the French hinterland for our holidays. We’re pissed off when striking teachers force us to look after our kids. We’re outraged when the police get uppity, or when the fire fighters decline to work. Unless we happen to belong to one of the groups making a stand, the many are united in resentment at the disruption of our everyday lives by a relative few.

What single causes today are likely to engage enough people to vote down a government? Would we join together in sympathy if beneficiaries of food banks tried to emulate the Jarrow March? Unlikely. Encouraged by the Daily Mail, we would rant about how come these people need food handouts when they sit around at home watching Sky Sports on their big LCD TVs. Or else we would blame the immigrants. For everything.

What’s more, I suspect that if there are issues that cause a majority of people to look beyond the narrow confines of self-interest, it’s those over which we have the least control. Global issues, such as climate change, epidemics and the threat of terrorism exercise us far more than the plight of those who live on Benefit Street.

So take away the power of the unions and the driving anger at poverty, exploitation and social injustice, and what are we left with? Anger fuelled by envy, by blame, by inequality. Vested interests prepared to disrupt the lives of others to maintain their position in the economic pecking order. Opposition to something called austerity, which means vastly different things to different people depending on what affects who, and by its nature is likely to be a cyclical phenomenon.

There are virtually no more houses in the UK without indoor toilets. Poverty-related medical conditions like rickets and TB are relatively rare. These days most of our health issues arise out of plenty, not abject poverty: obesity, alcoholism, even Alzheimer’s – the latter because our health and benefits system is letting us live longer, thus increasing our chances of  bumping up against dementia in old age.

Yes, there are a zillion big issues yet to be solved. And when to a greater or lesser extent they are solved they will be replaced by a zillion others. Take the cost of housing. A hundred years ago did we all expect – as opposed to aspire – to own our houses? And how about the millions of people (of which one of my daughters is one) living on the minimum wage, just getting by? The cleaners, baristas, farm workers, cooks and bottle washers are replaceable, and most don’t have a union to stand up for them. Yet in the 1930s, just getting by would have been considered highly desirable by an equal number of millions thrown out of work by the Great Depression. Different problems for different times.

As for another old rallying point of the left, nuclear disarmament, may have brought together a large, though up to now unsuccessful, alliance who in the fifties and sixties would gather in their duffle coats at Aldermaston’s Atomic Weapons Establishment, seeking to ban the bomb. But how many people today think of Trident more than once in a blue moon?

Iraq and Afghanistan? How many of those who were happy to sit in the seats of power, or voters who rejoiced in that power supposedly being exercised on their behalf, stood up at the time and said “not in our name”? A significant minority, for sure, but still a minority.

So what does Labour stand for today?

Workers’ rights? Which workers? The bankers, the civil servants with their generous pensions, the council workers? The community coordinators, the diversity champions, the communications officers? Or the baristas, the Latvian fruit pickers, the Chinese cockle harvesters, the call centre agents?

Equality? Since the dawn of recorded history there has never been such a thing. There will always be some people who are luckier, smarter, more successful and more motivated than others, and their success is not always down to what school they went to, what degree they want, and who gave them a leg-up. The gap between rich and poor will only ever be a matter of degree. And that gap in the UK will not be significantly narrowed by petty measures like the mansion tax, designed to impress those voters who have no mansions, and feed the animus against the “rich bastards”.

It seems to me that the Labour party is an amalgam of micro-policies with no sufficiently compelling big picture to bind those policies together. In one sense it’s lost its founding DNA and replaced it with anger, envy and self-interest. Not to say that there aren’t lots of idealistic people who support the party. Jeremy Corbyn is certainly one of them. It’s just that those ideals don’t always seem to mesh into a coherent whole as they did a century ago.

What’s more, the political machine Labour created to make itself electable – the marketing, the branding, the grid, the spin – turned many of those idealists, and a few less altruistic careerists as well, into frustrated, bitter, jealous infighters. Think Gordon Brown, Alistair Campbell, Peter Mandelson and the fictional Thick of It crew. How many of those who rode the wave in the nineties and noughties would look back at those times and think “happy days,” I wonder? And for how many of us voters is the abiding image of the most recent Labour years the scowling Chancellor and his praetorian guard of bruisers?

The Labour Party’s rituals and the platitudes remain – the mock solidarity and the formulaic expressions of anger over the wrongs of the country and the damage done to it by the nasty Tories. But it’s almost as if they have inherited an eggshell, robbed of its original embryo, into which the acid of discontent has been poured, dissolving away the structure at the areas of least resistance.

In case my readers in Britain get the impression that I’m a crusty old Tory laughing at the current discomfiture of the opposition, I should mention that I’ve voted Labour several times, but never for the Conservatives. Usually I vote against, not for, based on a lifelong conviction that no political party should be in office for more than ten years. I’ll leave you to figure out why that should be.

Labour’s dilemma is not, as I said, a shortage of principled people with sincere, well-meaning aspirations for their country. It’s that ultimately, through their achievements in government over a hundred years, and when not in government through their influence on the political debate, the party has won most of its original battles.

Thanks to its efforts, no political party today can get away with the patronising attitudes towards the “lower orders” shown by the parties that Labour disrupted and frequently shamed during the first fifty years of the 20th century. Since Macmillan’s government in the early Sixties, the Conservative party – whether or not with good reason – has always been on the defensive against accusations that it doesn’t care about the working person, the welfare state, the poor and the underprivileged. And that defensiveness has informed its policies. Hence “One Nation” and “The Big Society”.

You could argue that Labour is the victim of its own sophistication. By identifying the individual fragments of our society to a greater extent than ever before, Tony Blair’s electoral machine devised messages targeted at as many as possible of the diverse interests of the population. In this it followed the lead of the United States, where special interest groups and lobbyists have shaped the policies of the two main protagonists for many decades.

In the United Kingdom we have many “segments”, as the marketers say, to satisfy. The LGBT vote, the Asian vote, the Afro-Caribbean vote, the rural middle classes, the Scots, the home owners, the unemployed in sink estates, the super-rich. The list is endless. We have the social media, sophisticated market research technology and targeting tools. We have TV debates, staged rallies and tablets of stone. Thirty years ago, electioneering was simpler. Does anybody today remember the “Party Political Broadcast”? The game seems to be to stock the political supermarket with the biggest possible number of own-brand products, and not to forget to put the sweeties near the check-out.

So the problem facing all the parties is that being elected seems to be about reconciling the unreconcilable. About finding the lowest common denominator that unites the most people. How, for example, can you appeal to the significant number of people who are convinced that we should leave the European Union without alienating those (in Scotland, for example) who believe that membership of the EU is key to their personal futures?

Amidst all the posturing and the tailoring of messages to what the maximum number of people want to hear – as opposed to what they should hear whether they like it or not –  the Labour Party seems to have lost its bearings. It has failed to find a core unifying purpose as compelling as its founding principles. If Jeremy Corbyn, who still believes in those founding principles, is elected as its leader, some say that the party might split. Likewise, the Conservatives face a similar fate if it’s torn apart by the debate on EU membership. So it’s not inconceivable that in five years’ time we might end up with a large centrist party, opposed by the far-right Tories in common cause with UKIP, and the hard-left rump of the Labour party, with the Scottish Nationalists as a third significant grouping – with none of the opposition parties in sufficient numbers to challenge the centrists other than via a series of transitory alliances.

Unlikely perhaps, but if one or two catalysts – another financial collapse perhaps, a series of terrorist spectaculars or a major health emergency – were to shake us out of our relatively contented self-interest, not inconceivable. In that case, though, the electoral drivers will not be what people are for, but what they are against.

Whichever way things go over the next five years, the majority of voters are unlikely to be inspired by movements, only interests. Which does not bode well for Labour. And if Labour fails, the country will be the weaker for the lack of a strong, challenging opposition to keep the government honest – or at least as honest as our political systems allows. But I doubt whether any political alignment will succeed in assuaging the bitterness many feel about the country they are living in. Take this reaction in a Facebook post by a friend on the morning after the last general election:

If I were younger, I’d emigrate – somewhere not dominated by posh boy spivs and their corrupt friends. Somewhere where there might be a house and a decent job for my kids, somewhere where the poor were not made the eternal victims of austerity. Desperately disappointed this morning. And knackered.

We can all look forward to the disintegration of the UK, Scotland struggling economically and inevitably exiled from Europe, and England an ex-European decadent offshore trading post known as London with a dismally depressed hinterland. No one has thought this one through.

As for Mr Corbyn, if it turns out that greatness is thrust upon him, he deserves our best wishes and, perhaps, our sympathy. The last thing I would want to do at the age of sixty-six would be to chuck myself into the political snake-pit that he will inherit.

Dreaming of Khiva – From Bactria to Burnaby


Frederick Augustus Burnaby, by James Jacques Tissot. Pic: Wikipedia

So many cities, countries and even continents still to visit. Antarctica for example. Japan, most of South America. Much of Africa. I have a list, which has nothing to do with buckets because I’m not planning to kick one any time soon.

The usual suspects are there: Rio, Buenos Aires, Tokyo, Saigon, Sydney. But when you have maybe another fifteen years of active travelling ahead of you, you have to make a decision. Do you cherry-pick or do you immerse?

I have a friend whom I would describe as an obsessive-compulsive traveller. Throughout the thirty-odd years of our acquaintance, she has made it her life’s mission to travel to as many places as possible. If you look at her fridge, you will find the door covered with those little magnets you can buy in every place you’ve visited. Some years ago I sponsored her for British citizenship – she was born in California. In support of her application she was required to provide a list of all the countries she had visited. The list went to several pages.

Before she travels, she researches her destination and plans the itinerary with military precision. We once went on holiday to France with her and her husband. While my family would content ourselves with visiting perhaps a village or a chateau every couple of days, our friend would drag her husband and kids on a route march that would take in at least six attractions in a single day. 30 minutes in this cathedral, an hour in that museum; 300 kilometres of driving in between. She would stride here and there with relentless energy, leaving her exhausted family trailing in her wake.

I often wonder what she gets out of all these fleeting descents into other people’s lives, cultures and experience. How much does she remember of each visit? What effect do the places she goes to have on her outlook, her perception and her wisdom? And why does she do it? To be able to tick off yet another place on her life experience list – because it’s there? I don’t ask, because it feels as if to question her travel bug would be tantamount to questioning her very existence. And anyway, that’s her business, not mine.

Her approach certainly seems to be the embodiment of the classic “American Tourist” stereotype of old: if it’s Tuesday we must be in Paris. And as someone who’s done his fair share of city-hopping, who am I to criticise that outlook in another? On the contrary, I can only admire her awesome stamina and curiosity.

For me, as I’m sure is the case with many others, travel comes in three categories. There are business trips, beach holidays and journeys of exploration. So I go to Saudi Arabia and other parts of the Middle East on business – usually on my own. With my wife I might go to Thailand for a couple of weeks of slobbing out (which more accurately describes my method of relaxing than chilling, the cliché of the decade) in a nice hotel. And where our interests coincide we might go to somewhere like Prague or Istanbul, where we can wander through museums, palaces and side streets, or the coast of Asia Minor, where Ephesus and a hundred other archaeological sites await, untouched as yet by the predations of ISIS.

Unlike my friend, I have no desire to see as many places as time and money allow. I would rather go on journeys that expand my existing base of knowledge, rather than open up a whole new area of superficial interest. For example, if I wanted to make sense of what I might be seeing in Japan or South Korea, I would want to spend time understanding the history of those countries. That would not simply be a matter of looking at a few coffee table books, consulting Wikipedia and then visiting a temple or two. I know plenty about the recent history, but that would not be enough. I would want to read several books, and maybe try to dip my toe into the respective languages. Yes, I would love to see Tokyo and Seoul, but not at the expense of other places that can deepen an existing understanding.

Yesterday I decided that I will go to Khiva, Samarkand and Bokhara. The reason? They are way points on the Silk Road, the commercial and cultural artery that linked China and Europe for much of recorded history. And yes, I would like to go to Homs, Palmyra, Bahgdad, Tehran, Mashad, Merv, Herat and other cities that owed their existence to the caravans that went back and forth between empires that never shared borders. But war and politics currently limit those opportunities.

There are other reasons. When Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire, he marched on beyond the Oxus River all the way to Northern India before finally heading back to Babylon. But not before establishing the province of Bactria, which encompassed much of modern Afghanistan, but also of Uzbekistan, within whose borders sit the three cities in my sights. For three hundred years, Bactria was the easternmost outpost of Hellenism.


Eucratides, King of Bactria. Pic: Wikipedia

Bokhara was one of the major centres of Islamic scholarship in the early years of Islam. It and other cities of the Central Asian Silk Road played a full part in the explosion of knowledge acquisition that took place in the three centuries of the Abbasid caliphate – the so-called Golden Age of Islam. Samarkand was the capital of Timur the Lame – Shakespeare’s Tamarlane – the Mongol warlord who built mountains out of the skulls of those opposed him as he went about creating an empire stretching from India to Egypt.

And in the nineteenth century the khanates of Khiva, Bokhara and Khokand stood in the way of Russia’s ambition to extend its empire across Central Asia and ultimately to add India to its domains – a desire that underpinned the century-long competition between Russia and Britain known as The Great Game.

Why would someone whose life has been bound up first with the history of ancient Greece and Rome, and subsequently with that of the Middle East, Persia, Byzantium and China, with the history of Islam, Christianity and Judaism, and with the geopolitics of the last two centuries not want to visit Khiva, Samarkand and Bokhara?

But why now?

Though each successive layer of history provides its own powerful lure, it was actually the Great Game that has led me to this solemn resolution. Or more specifically, three books. The first, by the travel writer Colin Thubron, was Shadow of the Silk Road. Next was Foreign Devils on the Silk Road, by Peter Hopkirk. And most recently I read A Ride to Khiva – Travel and Adventures in Central Asia, by Frederick Gustavus Burnaby.

Hopkirk and Thubron are contemporary writers. Hopkirk, who died recently, was a distinguished journalist who wrote several books about Central Asia. In Foreign Devils he writes about the efforts of archaeologists and treasure hunters who, in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, flocked to the Taklamakan Desert in what is now Xinjiang province in western China. Many of their discoveries had lain under the sand for centuries, swallowed up by the advancing desert. What they retrieved – Buddhist frescos, parchments and figurines as well as various Christian, Zorastrian and Islamic artefacts – ended up in private collections and national museums, much to the subsequent disgust of the Chinese, who to this day resent the rape of their cultural heritage.

Thubron’s book is more of a conventional travelogue, but with the past never far away. He visits various cities along the old Silk Road and describes his experiences in countries where most of us would fear to tread as solo travellers – China, Afghanistan and Kurdish Turkey for example. He uses the glories of the Silk Road as the backdrop to the shabby state of many of the cities he visits.

Fred Burnaby is a very different proposition. The son of a English country parson, he was a captain in the Royal Horse Guards with an independent streak. In the 1875 he embarked on an epic voyage through Russia to Khiva, which two years earlier had been conquered by the Russians and turned into a vassal state. To do so he had to get letters of permission from various dignitaries in St Petersburg. Though he managed to obtain the paperwork, he was watched with suspicion throughout his journey. Various officials reported on his progress on a regular basis, and close to his journey’s end did their best to stymie him.

The reason Burnaby was able to make the journey was that British officers in those days were employed only for part of the year. He therefore had the chance to make the trip across the Asian steppes in his own time and at his own expense, but at probably the worst time of the year – winter – through thick snow and in temperatures of up minus 30C. What’s more, he didn’t have the benefit of maps once he left Orenburg, the last outpost of the Russian empire in the South East.

The result of his journey was A Ride to Khiva, a best-selling book full of adventure and derring-do, just the sort of thing the imperial-minded Victorians lapped up. Burnaby became a celebrated hero through his various adventures and ultimately by the manner of his death at the hands of followers of the Mahdi in Sudan. He was a big man in all respects. Six foot four and twenty stone, his strength was legendary. It needed to be on the journey to Khiva. Much of the way from Orenburg he relied on a horse-drawn sleigh or on the back of a series of small but hardy horses. He nearly lost his arms through frostbite and several times found himself lost in the middle of ferocious blizzards.

Khiva, Uzbekistan. Pic: Wikipedia

When he finally made it to Khiva, he had no idea what kind of reception he might get from the Khan. The Russians, ever keen to deter him, warned that the monarch had a nasty habit of gouging the eyes out of foreigners to whom he took a disliking. As it turned out, the Khan was a gracious host who was keen to interrogate Burnaby about the relative strengths of the British and Russian empires. The last and only previous English visitor to Khiva had been Captain James Abbott thirty years before. Abbott was an Indian Army officer whose mission was to obtain the release of a number of Russians whom a previous Khan had enslaved, thus removing from the Russians an excuse to invade, and thereby extend the boundaries of their empire ever closer to India. Abbott succeeded, and went on to be a noted Indian colonial administrator. The town of Abbottabad in Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden met his end, is named after him.

A Ride to Khiva is laced throughout with conversations with various Russians that might be interpreted as informal intelligence gathering. Not that his commanding officer was much impressed. When Burnaby got to Khiva the Duke of Cambridge ordered him to return to England forthwith.

Some of his conversations were highly prophetic. The Russian commanders at the time were nervous of Germany’s intentions. Newly unified under the leadership of Prussia, Germany had only five years before inflicted a national humiliation on France, besieging Paris and forcing the French to cede the territories of Alsace and Lorraine.

In one discussion on a train early in the journey, Burnaby talks to his fellow travellers about the various ambitions of the Great Powers:

The carriages between St Petersburg and Moscow are, if possible, more commodious than those which run from the capital to the German frontier. They are also well supplied with sleeping compartments, so the journey can be performed as comfortably as if travelling in a Cunard’s steamboat.

Upon taking my seat, two ladies, dressed in the deepest black, entered the carriage.and solicitied subscriptions from the different passengers for the wounded insurgents in Herzegovina.

“I suppose some of this money will go to the maintenance of the hale as well as the sick” observed a fellow-traveller. “Poor fellows, they want arms very badly.”

“I would give anything to drive out those Mussulmans,” remarked his companion, producing a well-filled purse, and making a large donation to the fund.

His example was followed by all the other Russians in the carriage. Not wishing to appear conspicuous by not subscribing, I added a trifle, my vis-a-vis saying: “Thank you brother. It will help keep the sore open; the sooner the Turk falls to pieces the better. What is the good of our having a fleet on the Black Sea unless we can command the Dardanelles? The longer this affair continues the more likely we are to reach Constantinople.”

“What will the English say to this?” I inquired. “Oh England, she goes for nothing now.” He replied. “She is so bent on money-making that it will take a great deal of kicking to make her fight. Why, she did not do anything when Gortschakoff repudiated the Black Sea Treaty.”

“He (Gortschakoff) chose just the right time for this,” added a fellow-traveller; “it was just after Sedan.”

“After Sedan or before Sedan”, continued the first speaker, “it would have been all the same; England is like an overfed bull, she has lost the use of her horns.”

“What of her fleet?” I inquired. “Well, what can she do with it?” was the answer. “She can block up the Baltic – but the frost does that for six months of the year, and she can prevent the corn from our Southern Provinces reaching her own markets; bread will be dearer in London, that is all. England will not land troops in the Crimea again.”

“God grant that she may,” said another, “our railway to Sevastopol is now open.”

I here remarked that England is not likely to declare war without having an ally. “But what if Germany or Austria were to join her?”

As for those pigs of Germans, we must fight them some day or other,” replied the previous speaker, and when the Tzarevitch is Emperor, please God we will beat them well, and drive every German brute out of Russia; they fatten on our land at the expense of our brothers.

“But supposing they get the best of it?”

“Well, what can they do? They cannot stop in Russia, even if they should be able to assail us. We can play the old game – keep on retiring. Russia is big, and there is plenty of country at our back”

All the rivalries that distilled into World War I in a nutshell.

Those last words were spoken sixty years after Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, and a similar distance in time before Hitler’s attempt. The Tzarevitch in question, who subsequently became Nicholas II, did indeed eventually fight, and lost his throne and head as the result, something those cocksure travellers wouldn’t have anticipated.

Political discussions apart – and I wonder how much of the lily Burnaby was gilding for his domestic audience – the narrative rattles along at a fine pace. As he presses on towards Khiva he describes a world in which the accumulated knowledge of travellers along the Silk Road has shrivelled into handed-down heresay. Rather like the Arabian heartland before the coming of oil that Abdurrahman Al-Munif describes in his Cities of Salt trilogy.

To make the reading easier for his audience, Burnaby provides a little summary of the main points of the narrative at the beginning of each chapter. Here’s one of them that gives a flavour of the story:

The Turkoman on his Donkey – Jana Darya – A once Fertile Country – A barren waste – The grandfather of the Khan – English Horses and Kirghiz Horses – Russian Cavalry – A Sea Like Molten Gold – Isles as of Silver – Kamastakak – A Fresh Water Pond – A Return to Vegetation – Saigak – Pheasants – The Camel Driver is taken Ill – The Moullahs – Conjuring the Evil One – A Dog of an Unbeliever – The Guide’s Fight with a Khivan – A revolver is sometimes a Peace-maker – Khivan methods of Preserving Grass throughout the Winter – Deep Chasms – Tombs – The Vision of the Khirghiz – The Khazan-Tor Mountains – Auriferous nature of the Soil.

One can imagine Burnaby holding forth back in the salons of London society in front of a rapt audience of society ladies as they tinkled their teacups in excitement at the savagery of the natives in a far-away country. When he wasn’t describing his feat in becoming the first person to cross the English Channel in a hot-air balloon, of course.

Such was his celebrity that in my home town of Birmingham, where he unsuccessfully stood for Parliament against one of the great political luminaries of the time, Joseph Chamberlain, the corporation erected in the cathedral churchyard an obelisk in his honour. I must have passed it by a hundred times when I was young without knowing the significance of “Burnaby” and “Khiva 1875” inscribed at its base.

So Burnaby has finally convinced me. Reading books is not enough. I will go to Khiva, and if possible I will follow his path from Orenberg, though not in the winter and not on horseback – I don’t have his strength and resilience. And I will visit places he didn’t see: Samarkand and Bokhara. Burnaby will just be a waypoint into the past. Beyond him, I will be looking for Abbot, for Tamerlane, for Genghis Khan, for the Umayyad Caliphs, for Alexander the Great, for the Buddha.

Not this year, but hopefully next. And certainly not much later than that. Because later becomes less of a certainty the older you get. And who knows what will become of the mosques, the ornate tiles, the mudbrick palaces and the freedom to visit them in the age of the new caliphate?

In Search of a Muslim Hero

England's Moeen Ali celebrates after taking the wicket of India's Rohit Sharma at the Ageas Bowl

Last weekend a friend asked me to name one Muslim hero – historical or current – who is held in the same universal esteem as the likes of Ghandi and Mandela. It was a casual question tossed out on the sidelines of a music event in a local park.

Yet it had a serious undertone. My friend is one of the few people I know with as great a love of history as my own. His field of study is different from mine, but his interest in the past is no less intense.

I came up with two names, neither of which seemed to satisfy him: Saladin and Ibn Sina. Saladin not so much because of his achievements as a warlord, but because of one heroic act: resisting the temptation to repeat the massacre in Jerusalem that accompanied the city’s capture by the Franks in the First Crusade. Not a great example perhaps, but at the time he won respect among friend and foe for his sense of honour and chivalry in a brutal age.

Ibn Sina was an easier and less controversial choice. A product of the Golden age of Islam, respected in East and West for his contribution to the advance of medical science.

I suspect that the debate my friend really wanted was over the common perception in the West – fuelled by the atrocities of ISIS – that Islam is a religion in which violence is a core component. I wasn’t prepared to have that discussion, so I said something along the lines of “it’s complicated”, and that perhaps we should talk again after he had read Tom Holland’s In the Shadow of the Sword, and Stephen O’Shea’s Sea of Faith, two books that cast more light and shade on the subject than the “Islam equals violence” narrative normally allows.

I have my views on the subject, which I’ll get into later.

But first, the question about Muslim heroes deserves further exploration. Do we mean heroes who happen to be Muslim, or those whose heroism is inextricably associated with their faith? And what do we mean by hero anyway?

Ghandi and Mandela are viewed by the world as heroic partly because of their personal qualities, which may or may not have been rooted in religious faith. In Ghandi’s case you could argue that his creed of non-violence came as much from India’s cultural DNA as from his Hindu faith. Recently I posted a review of Cultural DNA – the Psychology of Globalisation by Gurneck Bains, in which the author suggests that the abhorrence of violence is a deep-seated trait that goes back to the earliest human settlement of the Indian subcontinent.

In Mandela’s case the Christian faith may have informed his views, yet in his politics he was resolutely secular, and rarely spoke about religion except in the context of his desire to build a South Africa that was blind to faith and race.

What of the heroes who wore their faith on their sleeves? There are plenty of martyrs to celebrate, yet their heroism is usually recognised only by fellow religionists. As for religious leaders, there are not so many renowned for reaching beyond their constituencies to those of other faiths. In recent times, Desmond Tutu, perhaps, but only because he used his authority as a religious leader to press for the social and political reforms that culminated in the end of apartheid.

Which leads me to Moeen Ali. For those of you who don’t follow cricket, Moeen is a member of the England team currently battling against Australia in the ultimate sporting grudge contest – The Ashes. His was one of the most influential performances in the match that ended on Saturday with an unexpected England victory.

That Moeen is a Muslim is instantly recognisable because of his beard. It’s the length of two fists, in the Islamic tradition, a highly visible symbol of his faith. He is not the only cricketer with such a beard. Hashim Amla of South Africa is similarly adorned. But Moeen is English, and the country of his birth is currently, post-Tunisia, wracked by fear of Islamist radicals bearing machetes, guns and suicide vests. On a Muslim male, the long beard and shaved upper lip is as potent a symbol of religious devotion in the eyes of non-believers as the niqab that covers the faces of many Muslim women.

Moeen has said that one of his reasons for growing the beard is to show that not all devout Muslims are the men of violence so feared in the West. There are many top-flight Muslim cricketers – those of the Pakistan national team for example – who do not go to such lengths to advertise their faith. But the Pakistani cricketers come from a country in which the vast majority are of same faith.

You could say that Moeen is brave to bear witness to his beliefs in such an uncompromising manner, to stand out from his peers, to be so obviously different from his teammates. I doubt if he would say that. He would probably take the view that he is what he is – to use the words of Martin Luther, “Here I stand, I can do no other”.

But here’s the thing. Watch Moeen in action. Are you watching a Muslim cricketer? No. You’re watching a man who loves what he does, and has an easy relationship with his team-mates. Right now, you’re also looking at a man who is observing the Ramadan fast, and yet you would never believe that no food or drink had passed his lips since dawn on the days when he caned Australia’s bowlers and teased out their batsmen. No mean achievement, and I speak from the experience of living in Muslim countries where many people are barely functioning by the time it comes to break their fast.

And watch how the fans take to him. It’s becoming a tradition at major cricketing encounters for spectators to dress up in as bizarre costumes as they can conceive – bananas, medieval knights, you name it. Some also pay tribute to the physical characteristics of their favourite cricketers. Silly moustaches, crazy hair and so forth. And lo and behold, a bunch of fans showed up on Saturday wearing Moeen beards.

It was at that point that I thought “here’s a guy who is making a difference”. He’s loved by fans not just because of his atypical appearance, but because he’s calm and modest, a benign figure whose style and behaviour is far from that of the bull-like gladiators you will see pawing the turf on both sides. He’s different not because he’s a Muslim, but because of who he is. His religious devotion makes him different, and yet he fits in with his fellow cricketers who clearly hold him in high regard.

It seems to me that he’s succeeding in acting as a role model who shows another way to those who are tempted to take the road to Syria. A role model who loves faith, loves his country and loves his cricket. And a role model who shows non-Muslims that not all believers from Birmingham, Bradford and Luton despise their country and everything those they call kufurs stand for. I have no idea how comfortably his core beliefs would sit with those who see an extremist behind every street corner, but I don’t really care, provided those beliefs do no harm to others.

So next time I see my friend, I will put forward Moeen Ali as a Muslim hero. Perhaps not yet of the stature of a Ghandi and a Mandela, but a hero nonetheless in his words and deeds.  I will also cite Malala Yousefzai, shot by the Taliban for her advocacy of female education, as a Muslim heroine. If, rather than being acclaimed for a few exceptional acts, achieving the status of hero is rather like canonisation, an accolade awarded in recognition of a lifetime’s deeds, then perhaps it’s too early for Moeen, who is 27, and Malala, who turned 18 yesterday, to be so designated. Hopefully they have plenty of time to do much more with their lives. But what they’ve achieved thus far is good enough for me.

And finally to my friend’s implication that Islam is a religion of violence. Rubbish. People are violent, not religions. People were killing each other in Syria and Iraq with equal relish long before the birth of Islam. I don’t buy the argument that the presence of hadiths permitting the violence we see in those countries today proves the case against Islam. There are ten times, maybe a hundred times, more devoted Muslims who ignore those hadiths than believers who are guided by them. Moeen Ali by all accounts is among the former, as are many others whom I call friends.

Religions don’t kill. People do. Just as guns don’t kill, but people do. I repeat, people are violent. Most of us are capable of violence under certain circumstances. Christians, Jews, Muslims and Hindus are all capable of violence, not because of their faith but because they are people. Some will look to their scriptures to find justification for their acts. Others don’t bother to find any religious grounds for violence. Think of Buddhists who persecute the Rohingya, and the secular perpetrators of genocide in the twentieth century.

But although I have no argument with Islam, I do have a problem with Muslims and adherents of any other faith who fail to teach their children to think for themselves – to look at the world and come to their own conclusions rather than slavishly follow the dictates of others. Read this interview with Moeen Ali, and you will find that this is exactly what he did. He says that he was not particularly religious when he was growing up. He found his faith at the age of 18. And he found it on his own terms.

Perhaps what I should say next time I see my friend is that actually his question is irrelevant. The world doesn’t need heroes. It needs people of goodwill. People who demonstrate their goodwill in words and deeds. People like Moeen and Malala. And there are plenty more like them.

As this is the season of goodwill for all but a small minority in the Islamic world, I wish my cherished Muslim friends happiness and peace during the upcoming festival of Eid-al-Fitr.

The Iran Deal – If It Happens, It Should Only Be the Beginning of a Long Road


As I keep tabs on the painful crawl towards an Iranian nuclear deal, I can’t help thinking back to the relative simplicity of the bipolar geopolitics of my youth compared with the Gordian complexity of allegiances, competing interests, ideologies and covert agendas currently in play, most of them centred on the Middle East.

Consider the state of the Soviet Union and China 40 years ago. The only area in which the USSR technically matched the West was in weapons. Nobody wanted to buy Ladas, leaking washing machines or ill-fitting suits. China was mainly an agrarian society. Its state-owned industries were antiquated – rusting and inefficient. Nobody wanted to buy Chinese goods. But they had nukes and the ability to deliver them. Both societies operated more or less in isolation from the West. Their GDPs were a small fraction of the world economy, which was dominated by the US, Japan and the major West European states.

Today Russia is fully integrated into the world economy. The reluctance of countries like Germany to impose sanctions as punishment for Russia’s adventure in Ukraine was a reflection of the reality that to re-impose isolation on Russia would hurt the Germans almost as much as it would hurt Russia.

China too is fully integrated. It is the world’s second largest economy – or possibly the largest, depending whose opinion you listen to. Many of the world’s iconic consumer electronics brands are reliant on China to produce components or in some cases the whole product.

Because both countries have much to lose from a return to isolation – as do we in the West – globalisation serves as much as a brake on open aggression as does the ultimate deterrent – nuclear weapons.

It’s no coincidence that the two must isolated countries in the today’s world – North Korea and Iran, are considered the most dangerous. Why? Because cornered regimes, like animals, do desperate and sometimes unpredictable things. The sanctions formula includes the calculation that if you deliberately impoverish a nation, its people will eventually rise up and get rid of the government whose policies led to the measures in the first place.

That hasn’t worked in Iran, and nor has it in North Korea. Nor did it in Iraq. Nor did it in Rhodesia. Not much has changed in that respect since 1806, when Napoleon Bonaparte and his continental allies tried and failed to impose a blockade on Britain.

But sanctions can and do force regimes to the negotiating table. In the case of the current negotiations between the P5+1 (China, Russia, the US, France Britain and Germany) and Iran the main issue on the table is Iran’s capability of developing nuclear weapons. For Iran it’s the lifting of the sanctions that are crippling its economy and impoverishing its people.

The stated objective of the P5+1 – a grouping that 100 years ago would have been referred to as the Great Powers – is non-proliferation. From the point of view of the Western contingent within the P5+1, it’s bad enough that one dangerously unpredictable nation, North Korea, has the bomb, and that Pakistan, a country that has at various times over the past decade teetered on the edge of becoming a failed state, has many bombs. Iran is more predictable than both. Ayatollah Khamenei is not Kim Jong Un, and Iran has a far greater handle on its state apparatus than Pakistan.

But Iran’s activities in its back yard – Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen – which it sees as defensive, but which its local rivals consider part of a bid to achieve regional supremacy, are the reason why the P5+1 are anxious to do a deal. The alternative, they fear, would be countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt acquiring their own nuclear weapons capabilities.

Ultimately even that scenario might be tolerable were it not for the presence of virulent non-state actors in the region. Actors who would be only too happy to turn the nightmare scenario enacted in so many Hollywood movies into reality. One only has to look back at the chaos caused when the planes flew into New York on 9/11 and destroyed a few buildings to imagine the consequences of a nuclear detonation in the same city. Or in London, Frankfurt, Washington, Riyadh or Tel Aviv.

Those movies usually end with the plot being foiled at the last moment, or with the victim nation vowing to rebuild. If an American city was wiped out, it’s conceivable that the resulting wave of paranoia would trigger a set of measures that would make the Patriot Act seem like the work of Amnesty International. Finger-pointing at new axes of evil, enhanced surveillance beyond that seen today in China, trade barriers, the demand for self-sufficiency, immigration clampdowns, the marginalisation of minorities seen as un-American – all scenarios more likely than the redemption narrative in which weepy world leaders vow to work together to ensure that such an event never happens again.

Would ISIS, or some other organisation as yet unknown but with similar aims, be prepared to wipe out a city if the ensuing chaos weakened the globalised economy and created a power vacuum that brought its dreams of a sustainable caliphate dramatically closer? I suspect we all know the answer to that one.

Where would they obtain such a device? A.Q. Khan could probably answer that one. Pakistan’s peddler-in-chief of his country’s nuclear technology was not fussed who he dealt with. Even an impoverished pariah like North Korea had the wherewithal to buy what he was selling. ISIS are probably wealthier than Kim Jong Un’s cabal, so money would not be a problem. They would not even have to own or see the weapon. All they would have to do would be to contract out the job.

A Middle East with nukes in half a dozen national arsenals would be a dangerous place indeed. If a bunch of hard-core jihadists hiding out in camps and caves in the mountains of Afghanistan were destructive enough to embroil the US in a decade of draining conflict in Kabul, Kandahar, Baghdad and Fallujah, how much more threatening would be a nuclear-enabled Islamic State? It would be one more waypoint on a road to disaster.

This is not to say that Kerry, Zarif, Lavrov and the other negotiators in Vienna would be able to erect permanent barriers on that road whose ending lies just out of sight, but not far away. Even if an agreement makes it more difficult for Iran to weaponise its enriched uranium, or prolongs the amount of time it needs to do so, it will take many more agreements to neutralise the underlying cold war – and yes, it is a cold war, but it’s getting warmer all the time – that led to the sanctions in the first place.

Without a rapprochement between the players in the Middle East’s cold war – Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia and its local allies – there will always be forces that will seek to exploit the divisions, whether or not the current bogeyman, ISIS, is defeated. And without that rapprochement those who feel most threatened will do what they believe is necessary to protect themselves in the long run. To reach a comprehensive settlement that sticks would seem to be an impossible ambition, at least without a road map that all parties could sign up to. But in a following wind created by a nuclear deal, their might never be a better opportunity to try.

So the discussions in Vienna should be the beginning, not the end, of a long road. And if the negotiating parties are unable even to take the first steps down that path, there’s another road with a mushroom cloud just beyond the brow that will keep getting shorter.

So yes, things are more complicated today. Probably more complicated than Nixon, Kissinger, Brezhnev and Mao Tse Tung could possibly have imagined all those years ago. More complicated and more dangerous. Which is why we should all hope that the initiative in Vienna ends in smiles and handshakes.

Otherwise, sooner or later, we might all be joining the Greeks as they face the prospect of surviving on vegetables and goats in their back yards.

Bollinger, Boats and Business: The English Sporting Season and How Henley Regatta Changed a Life


Henley Regatta 1882 (Illustrated London News)

Here in England we’re smack bang in the middle of The Season. I should say Britain, because the Scots get involved too. But they don’t want much to do with us soft Southerners these days, so let’s stick with the English Season. It sounds more authentic anyway, as in English Roses, and “This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England”.

Early in June, when the sun finally gets to be more than a fleeting visitor, the decadent upper classes and all those who aspire to share their decadence dust off their summer glad-rags and head for a plethora of events where they might see and be seen. And behave disgracefully often as not.

At many of these events there’s the possibility of spotting Her Majesty the Queen. The Epsom Derby for example, or Royal Ascot. From a distance of course, unless you happen to have wangled a ticket to an exclusive enclosure where only the posh, or those with lots of money, may enter. There you might also see Kate Moss and any number of other celebrities and minor royals who don’t look quite as good as they do in the air-brushed renderings you will find in the newspapers and social media.

The list of attractions is so long that you may wonder how any of the serial attendees manage to do any work for the eight weeks through to the end of July, when the exhausted tribe stagger off to their holidays in the Dordogne, Barbados or their little cottages in Cornwall – or all of them in succession.

In addition to the horsey set-pieces, there’s the Chelsea Flower Show, the home of bizarre floral tableaux and extravagant model gardens, Wimbledon, where Andy Murray is currently making his annual contribution to national sales of incontinence pads, and the Lords Test Match, where the monarch traditionally meets the teams on the Saturday of the match in front of the snoozing members of the Marylebone Cricket Club. Sadly, Queen Elizabeth is not a young as she was, so such sightings are becoming rarer. The same goes for other royals of her generation, although Prince Michael of Kent, looking more than ever like an ageing Russian Tsar and a bit doddery on his feet, was seen handing the trophy to Lewis Hamilton after the British Grand Prix last Saturday.

The time was when distant observers, if they weren’t watching on TV, would only get to see the great and the good – and the wannabees – on the pages of the national newspapers. These days anyone with a selfie stick can win instant fame – well OK, maybe a couple of likes on Facebook – as they pose seductively in their garish outfits while being unintentionally photobombed by the Duke of Edinburgh.

For a sizeable number of those who go to these events the sport is irrelevant. It’s all about who’s there, how they look and how you look. And how much champagne and Pimms you can drink without falling flat on your face, or being caught in a compromising position with a total stranger.

Most of the events have been set in stone for a century or more, though there is a relatively new addition to the social calendar: Glastonbury, or Glasto as it’s known to aficionados. This giant music fest is a great opportunity for the rich, the famous and the exalted to pretend they’re just like the rest of us. Like everyone else, they get wet. They can get drunk, out of their brains on horse tranquilliser, fornicate and stagger around in their elegant floral wellies completely unnoticed, because everyone else is doing the same. The one thing they can’t do is fall over in a stupor, because  vultures with iPhones will be lying in wait, hoping to sell the picture to The Sun, as happened to poor Lily Allen a couple of weeks ago.

As with all the other gigs, the key attraction is the existence of a sanctum sanctorum. In Glasto’s case it’s the backstage area. This is where the celebrity count is highest, and at a music event you get to rub shoulders with the people everyone’s supposedly there to see and hear. Unlike Royal Ascot, where the denizens of the Royal enclosure wouldn’t be seen dead socialising with someone as low down the social scale as a jockey – unless of course they could get a reliable tip from one.

Of all these dates in the social calendar there’s one that in my book stands out for pure silliness. That’s the Henley Royal Regatta, which is taking place as I write. This is where once a year grown men decide that they want to look like schoolboys. Take a look at Angus Wilson of AC/DC and you’ll get the picture. Well not quite – even the cream of our high society baulk at wearing shorts with their stripy jackets and school caps.

The idea of Henley is that lots of rowers get together and race their boats of varying sizes down a leafy stretch of the river Thames. But the real action takes place on the river bank, where marquees and enclosures host tribes of paunchy former oarsmen dressed in the colours of their ivy-encrusted private schools. Those who didn’t attend Eton, Harrow and their ilk most likely hire the gear from their local fancy dress shops.

The women parade in their flowery garb and big hats. The ones who can afford it buy new outfits for every event. Those who can’t rack up huge dry cleaning bills and hope they won’t encounter anyone they met at Royal Ascot. No such problem for the guys, who just exhume their moth-eaten blazers and caps from the ancestral burial ground in the cupboard.

Henley, like all the other events, is big on corporate hospitality. For a king’s ransom you can spend your company’s hard-earned marketing budget entertaining ungrateful clients. There are several marquees where this happens. Quite often the occupants never leave the tent. They spend the entire day eating and drinking before being taxied away in various states of dishevelment.

A mate of mine has much to thank Henley for, because it was after one such corporate day that he finally decided to risk his hard-earned savings by going into business.

Richard’s company had invited a party of clients – middle managers from very respectable banks and insurance companies – to join them in one of the corporate tents. His job was to make the clients feel welcome, engage in witty conversation and make sure that he was less intoxicated than they were. As he tells it, the witty bit was tough – actuaries are not generally known for their sense of humour. But as he isn’t a big drinker, staying on the right side of sobriety was no big deal.

What led him to his Damascene moment was the behaviour of the husband and wife who owned the business. The husband, aside from the odd foray on to the river bank, spent most of his time in the tent getting progressively and embarrassingly drunk. He managed to stay upright for lunch, but by afternoon tea – scones, strawberries and all that quintessentially English stuff – he was gone. It was a long time ago, and Richard can’t recall whether the the clotted cream and strawberry jam afforded his boss a soft landing when the great man’s face hit the table. But there he lay, head resting gently on the crisp white tablecloth, moaning and muttering, for the rest of the afternoon.

His wife, on the other hand, whose liver was clearly more resilient than that of her husband, cast the occasional scornful look at him, and flounced off to watch the muscular young rowers as they heaved their way down the river, dragging a couple of the female clients with her. She was not seen again until the cavalcade started on its uncertain way towards the car park.

Meanwhile Richard had the unenviable task of entertaining those of the clients who remained at the table, trying desperately to divert their attention from the train wreck slumped opposite them.

When he got home he thought back on the day, and made his decision. As soon as possible he would leave the company and set up on his own. or with a partner as it turned out. He figured that if you can run a business and still make a profit despite making a total ass of yourself in front of your key clients, how much more can you achieve if you keep your nose clean? Of course that wasn’t the only consideration, but that day at Henley was the tipping point. After all, how can you give your all to a small company if you’ve lost all respect for its leaders?

This might make my friend seem a bit of a prig. But, as he says, it wasn’t just a matter of his respect for them, but of their respect for their clients.

Anyway, it all turned out well in the end. The owners ended up selling their business and retiring to some sun-kissed hacienda. Richard left them, set up a business and did OK as well. So, he recalls, “in a strange kind of way I suppose I should thank them for showing me what not to do, and motivating me to try and do better.”

Which is why, as thousands drink, snort and vomit their way through the glorious summer season, I can’t look at the selfies and the sneaky shots of personal devastation without thinking of my buddy and his epic day at Henley.

Cultural DNA: Digging for Gold Among the Bones of Our Ancestors

Lascaux Cave Drawings

Cave Painting in Lascaux, France

There’s a lot of money to be made from culture. I don’t mean the sort you indulge in when you go to the opera, or sample when you wander through a Brazilian favela, dodging drug gangs and pickpockets. I’m talking here about business.

If there’s one thing that obsesses corporate leaders more than anything apart from the little black number at the bottom of the profit and loss account – and their share of it – it’s the culture of their organisations. And the bigger they are the more they obsess, because the less they can control their people’s behaviour and attitudes, especially when the little single-country acorns turn into mighty multinational oaks.

Once upon a time I was a principal in a company that provided IT services in the UK. Two of us founded the company in the early nineties. From the off we grew our revenues at an average rate of 30% per annum. We had the advantage of starting up at a time when our competitors were suffering from one of those recessions that rear up from time to time. Most of them had big overheads, nice offices, lots of people. We had few people, grotty offices and lots of energy. As the opposition floundered, we prospered.

We thought of ourselves as small furry animals destined to rule the world while the dinosaurs were sinking into the mud. As it turned out we didn’t end up ruling the world, but we did OK. By the late nineties we had a hundred-odd employees, and turnover kept growing. Then we got into outsourcing. Within a couple of years we took over some specialised functions from several large IT and telecoms companies, and our staffing grew to around two hundred and fifty.

From being a small outfit based in a satellite town outside London, we had become something quite a bit larger. At various times we had offices in Dublin, Manchester, Edinburgh, Helsinki, Stuttgart, Grenoble, Budapest, Kuala Lumpur, Beijing and four locations in the US.

From then on, things got complicated, and I won’t bore you with the details. The reason for this little tale was that the furry animal had morphed into something quite different. Not so agile and much more difficult to manage. Not only did we have to come to terms with different ways of thinking and behaving in each location, but in many cases we inherited the mind-sets of the outsourcing organisations in the people whose employment we took over.

You might think that our main problem was coming to terms with the way the French, the Finns and the Malaysians think and do business, but it was more complex than that. Consider this little vignette.

The people whose employment we took over in Manchester had worked for thirty years or more with a British IT company. It makes me laugh to think that we considered them to be somewhat elderly, given that I’m now older than all of them were at the time. Several were approaching retirement. Some  had health problems and their energy levels left much to be desired.

There was a close-knit group of six or seven who chose to sit together in one particular area of the smart new office we set up for them. We called them the back row, ostensibly because they arranged their desks in a row by the back wall, but in reality because they felt like the last line of resistance. If you were to visit the office at lunchtime, you might have caught a glimpse of them having a little snooze at their desks. This in a business that saw itself as young, progressive and dynamic. Not exactly the impression we wanted to make on visitors. Worse still, if the phone rang at lunchtime, nobody answered it. Why? Because it was lunchtime.

What also complicated matters – and I use that word with care because I don’t want to send the wrong message – was that the thirty-odd staff we had taken over belonged to a trade union. So any changes we wanted to make had to be negotiated not only with the staff but with their union.

Eventually, some of the older ones retired, the outsourced group got smaller, the business changed and new people came in. But I felt that the office never fully rid itself of the institutionalised ethos that the original team brought with them. Whose fault was that? Ours of course. We were the leaders of the business. Our decisions made the difference, or didn’t.

Which goes to show that culture – of the corporate variety – isn’t just about Gallic obstreperousness, Finnish dourness or Irish charm. It can be about North versus South, about old and young, about workers and management. It can be tribal. It can be a matter of Liverpool versus Manchester United. And it’s not changed by a bunch of enthusiastic managers swooping down from head office and spouting about values, missions and messages. Or by diktat, memos and intranets. Replicate the idiosyncrasies in just one part of a business across multiple locations, and you get some idea of the challenge.

Culture has always fascinated me. I’ve written one or two pieces on the subject in this blog. My main thrust has usually been that organisations spend huge amounts of money on what they call culture change. Often the driver is a new owner looking to integrate a business into something larger. Then there are chief executives looking to make a name for themselves, or more often trying to find ways of boosting the value of their share options before cashing in and moving on.

Culture change is often an emergency project. A new competitor emerges with a product that threatens to put you out of business. A recession forces you out of your complacency. It can also be led by technology – the internet and all its implications being the prime example over the past two decades. And when you sense an emergency you spend what it takes to turn things around.

To avoid the emergencies, the gurus tell you that your business should be constantly changing. So you set up change management teams, with visions, coalitions, champions and evangelists. But because you don’t have the resources to do some of this in-house, you hire expensive consultants, whose proposition is based on fear. Fear of competitors, fear of being left behind, fear for the future, fear for the share price, fear for your job.

You might conclude from all this that I’m a bit of a cynic about what companies think of as their cultures. Not so. I’m certainly cynical about the motivation behind the so-called cultural changes organisations seek to make, and about the ham-fisted methods they use to implement them. But I’m absolutely convinced that the only way for an organisation can succeed over the long term is if it has leaders who have a good understanding of the patchwork of cultural influences that make up their staff, stakeholders and customers.

Notice I didn’t say “corporate culture”, because I believe that in any organisation larger than a small group of people there is no such thing. The secret is to channel the sub-cultures in the direction in which you want to go. And that’s no simple matter, especially when you’re running an organisation with many locations and a diverse, multi-skilled and multi-ethnic workforce.

I also said “over the long term”. You can achieve much in a short period by focusing on motivations shared across all cultures. Greed perhaps. The excitement of innovation for sure. A sense of belonging inspired by religion, politics or social concern. A common purpose that everyone can buy into. But the bigger the organisation, the easier it is for the commonalities to erode. And over time they can disappear altogether. Which is often the point at which an organisation launches a “transformation programme”.

Psychology has always played a part in corporate change programmes. Consultancies wheel in tools developed by psychologists to determine attitudes, capabilities and potential of employees. Assessment programmes, succession plans, compensation and benefit schemes all have their foundations in what makes people tick, what fires them up and what turns them off.

Thirty years ago, the Dutch psychologist Geert Hofstede carried out a huge multinational survey on behalf of his employer, IBM. The result was a series of cultural dimensions that he turned into a framework for communications across those cultures. For each of the countries and regions he surveyed, he mapped his subjects on a scale across each dimension.  For example, to what extent does a culture value equality in the workforce? To what extent are the powerful remote from those on whom they exert power? How do people deal with uncertainty? Which cultures are more male dominated than others?

Hofstede’s work answers a lot of questions about mindsets in different areas, including the Middle East, where I have a fair amount of work experience. In that region it accurately reflects the importance of the family, patriarchal attitudes among business and political leaders, and the comfort people derive from lack of ambiguity in their personal and working lives.

But where do those attitudes come from? I’ve just finished a book whose author goes further than Hofstede.

Gurnek Bains is the CEO of a corporate psychology consultancy, Young Samuel Chambers. I came across his latest book, Cultural DNA, the Psychology of Globalisation, in an unusual way. A friend from Holland with whom I have worked in the Middle East asked me if I knew about the book. I hadn’t, but it turns out that Bains quotes a couple of passages from this blog. I was a bit surprised, because I would have expected him to have told me that he was using my stuff. Not that I was bothered – in fact I was quite flattered.

Cultural DNA 2

So I bought the book out of curiosity and, I have to say, a little vanity. It turns out that the bit of my work he quoted was from a piece I wrote about culture change: Middle East Organisations – The Vain Pursuit of Culture.

I once had reason to talk to a number of British private schools on behalf of a Saudi client who wanted to “bring Eton to the Middle East” – or some similar institution. So I talked to a number of schools, and was struck by a remark by one headmaster, who said that he would only be interested in setting up a foreign branch of his school of he could be sure that it would be infused with the DNA of the parent institution. Since that was his condition, he was fortunate that the conversation never went any further, because he would have been disappointed. Cultural DNA provides some of the reasons why.

Bains goes beyond Hofstede and others in the field by attempting to link the cultural dimensions of eight regions to the DNA mix of the populations. For each region – North America, Sub-Saharan Africa, India, the Middle East, China, Europe, South America and Australia – he tells the story of how these regions were originally populated, using evidence based on the DNA of the current inhabitants.

He then describes some of the factors behind the successive waves of migration, and the environmental conditions that the migrants had to deal with that subsequently shaped their outlook and behaviour.

Take the USA. After tracing the origins of the original settlers – now referred to as native Americans – he looks at the migrants who displaced and marginalised them. He explains differences between the northern and southern states as originating in the waves of arrivals in the 17th century – first Puritans and Quakers escaping religious persecution in England, and then what he calls “distressed cavaliers” – refugees from the losing side in the English Civil War. To complete the mix there was a large influx of Catholics from Northern Ireland and clannish families from the English-Scottish borders.

The Puritans and Quakers were devout, disciplined and imbued with a determination that in their new world no government would dictate their religious belief. They tended to settle in the North, in states like Pennsylvania. The distressed cavaliers reflected the hierarchical character of pre-Civil War England. They were accustomed to living off the land by the efforts of others, and so quickly embraced the opportunities that slavery presented. They were joined by the settlers from Ulster and the borderers, a wild, stubborn and individualistic people who populated the Appalachians and the Carolinas.

It’s not hard to trace early American stereotypes back to these migrations. God-fearing farming communities in the North, illicit moonshine distillers in West Virginia and Kentucky and elegant plantation owners in the deep South. And thus, it seems, began the North-South divide.

All pretty broad brush stuff, but he then uses recent genetic research to suggest  that America’s most obvious characteristic, relentless positivity, stems not only from the qualities required to go to a new world and create something that was not there before – the pioneer spirit if you like – but from a genetic predisposition towards optimism and risk-taking. In other words, your pioneer spirit is embedded in your genes.

Bains then uses evidence from his own work and that of other experts like Hofstede and Fons Trompenaars to determine pronounced traits that have a bearing on society, business practice and leadership.

In the case of the US, morality, pragmatism, materialism, plurality and the ability to embrace change are the dominant themes. There is also the expectation that new migrants assimilate – plunge into the melting pot and accept the “American Way” – rather have their differences accommodated. The very opposite to the multicultural communities that have arisen out of recent immigration to western Europe, and most notably the United Kingdom.

Although he sees the assimilation culture as a strength, he points out some downsides when America embarks on adventures abroad:

“However, as America plays out its global role in a context where other powers are emerging, there is plenty of room for missteps and error if your predominant orientation is assimilation rather than accommodation. This is demonstrated in the sheer surprise Americans show when others are not open to American values in the way they normally expect. The expectation that vast proportions of the Iraqi population would enthusiastically embrace Western values after the overthrow of Saddam Hussain is an example. One of the most successful global colonialists of all time, the British, recognised this and trod a fine line between preserving British traditions and values versus adapting and working with local rulers. Americans need to appreciate that they cannot simply export their values with the same ease with which they set up Coca-Cola plants or factories for building iPhones.”

What he doesn’t say is that Britain’s approach evolved after the hard lesson of the Indian Mutiny in 1857. Perhaps the chastening experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan will do the same for the USA.

Bains identifies American business strengths as willingness to improve, embrace change and take action. Weaknesses include a lack of self-awareness among leaders and an almost cult-like cultural emphasis among big companies such as GE, Proctor and Gamble and Coca Cola. Echoing his earlier observation about Iraq, he provides another example of “the need to hold a clear schema and to socialise people into that worldview”:

“Many outsiders who engage with America commonly encounter a precise script and routine one is expected to follow – across a myriad of areas. Processes like checking into a hotel, ordering a drink in a bar, boarding a flight, or just about every other day-to-day activity involves dealing with people who engage you in a friendly but scripted and semi-robotic manner. If what you say and how you say it is not in line with expectations, then you’re likely to face incomprehension and a sense that you have completely failed to get through. One female executive explained to me how she had to repeat her request for a gin and tonic four times before finally finding an intonation that allowed her to be understood. One might think that this is natural when speaking a language with a different accent. However I have rarely heard Americans in England complain of a difficulty in getting through, whereas by contrast virtually everyone from Britain experiences this problem in America.”

The last statement is a bit sweeping, perhaps, but he makes a good point about the formulaic “have a nice day” customer service culture that unfortunately seems to have spread across the world over the past couple of decades. Added to that, a startling degree of ignorance about the world beyond. One of my more enjoyable encounters in America came when a shop assistant in North Carolina asked me in which part of England Paris was located.

For each region he analyses, Bains uses a similar format in analysing the link between migration, genetic selection and the “founding culture” – reflecting the response of the first migrants to the environmental conditions they encountered – and what he calls the psychological DNA of the present populations: social, business and political traits and mindsets. At the end of each chapter he summarises what the region has to offer the rest of the world as well as aspects of their culture that hold them back.

In sub-Saharan Africa he celebrates exuberance, intellectual flexibility and creativity as strengths, while warning about the future consequences of inter-group rivalry, poor governance and lack of long-term thinking. Another factor holding the region back is the presence of dangerous pathogens. The recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa is a good example of disease derailing hard-won social and economic progress.

Another factor is huge ethnic diversity, even within a single country. As Bains points out:

“The Congo, for example, which is the size of Western Europe, has close to 250 ethnic groups and languages among its 80 million people. Nigeria has over 500 living languages within its borders. Many of the political and economic difficulties facing Africa stem, in part, from the imposition of artificial national structures on countries embodying extremely high levels of genetic and cultural diversity.”

The legacy of the demon colonisers of course, of which Britain was the demon-in-chief.

India’s distinctive qualities include an abhorrence of aggression, a high level of self-reflection – internalised thinking free of the outside environment that has given rise to exceptional mathematical abilities among the population. Also an appreciation of the importance of personal development, tolerance of diversity and a high level of individualism. And intuition. Bains quotes Steve Jobs thus:

“The people in the Indian countryside don’t use their intellect like we do, they use their intuition instead and their intuition is far more developed than in the rest of the world. Intuition is a very powerful thing, more powerful than intellect in my view.”

Among the factors that hold India back, he believes, are horizontal stratification – the caste system – and horrendous bureaucracy. Yet thanks to what he describes as the the country’s open and vociferous democratic culture, he believes that some of those social obstacles to economic progress are slowly but surely being cleared away. I’m not sure the women of India would entirely agree, but time will tell.

Looking at the Middle East, Bains zeros in on two parallel aspects of the culture: the challenge of desert living, and commercial instinct of those who settled on the seaboards. To survive in the desert you need to stick together and abide by strict rules of behaviour. Individual initiatives – like wandering off on your own accord – can literally  be fatal. Thus in the Arabian peninsula itinerant tribes developed rules relating to property (mainly women and livestock!) and social structure long before the coming of Islam led to the codification of behaviour down to the smallest detail.

As I and many others with experience of the region know, the people of the Middle East are great traders and deal makers. That skill started with the Sumerian civilisation of Mesopotamia and that of Dilmun, in present-day Bahrain, which had strong trading links with the Indus Valley civilisation in Gujarat. A prime example of that tradition is Dubai, which, for all of its glitz and bling, derives much of its prosperity from its trading relationships with the rest of the world.

It’s that commercial flair that the author identifies as one of the Middle East’s primary strengths, along with its profound respect for knowledge. No period in its history better illustrates the passion for learning than the so-called Golden Age of Islam, one of the greatest ages of technological innovation, adaptation of ideas and systematic preservation of knowledge. He puts the eclipse of that era down to challenges to the supremacy of the Islamic empires from the West, starting with the Crusades, and the East, in the form of the Mongols. It’s difficult to be expansive and confident if your lands are riven by conflict and your deep-rooted societal norms are challenged and eroded by aggressive invaders, be they cultural or military.

Bains also writes at some length about about honour and modesty in the region – the avoidance of shame that can attach itself through the actions of an individual to the family and the tribe. Also what he describes as concentric circles of belonging – the importance of relationships that foreigners don’t always recognise. In the minds of many, tribe and religion trump the nation state and loyalty to commercial organisations. Hence the longstanding chafing – currently exploited by ISIS – at the artificial boundaries created by Sykes and Picot a hundred years ago, and the difficulties foreign businesses face in trying to bind their workforces into a common purpose when they don’t understand the forces that work against those efforts.

Moving to China, the book focuses on the concept of Zhong Yang – the virtues of harmony and interdependence – that leads the Chinese to seek the middle way, and view fairness as more important than the letter of a contract. Something that politicians and business leaders who deal with China find somewhat challenging, to say the least.

The Chinese also have a strong respect for authority, which Bains suggests is partly genetic. A specific gene most commonly associated with migration is virtually absent in mainland China (as well as Japan). Is this because most of the Chinese who have the gene have already emigrated from the mainland to join their ethnic communities in other parts of the world – not least the UK and the US? If so, it’s unlikely to be out of a desire to blend into the native populations, as the presence of Chinatowns in London, San Francisco and Toronto suggest.

The authoritarian streak is also evident in the high level of hierarchy and protocol in Chinese business and political dealings. Bains gives this fundamental reason:

“The central thrust of the Chinese character emanates from the distant past and from a strong sense of historical continuity has had literally over tens of thousands of years. The settled populations of China faced two pressures that were discussed earlier. One was that they were an incredibly driven, energetic and proactive people who cleared their initial environment with intensity and focus. As social structures were established, there was – and still is – a fear of this underlying intensity surfacing and becoming disruptive. Second, the settled societies existed under constant threat from attack by the aggressive, nomadic pastoralists that existed in relatively large numbers on the edges of settled society. Over the ages, the Chinese population made an implicit pact with their authorities: Keep us safe and we will accept the collective authority that is imposed on us. Historically, authoritarianism has always been an attractive proposition for people who feel under threat.”

In my view the same goes for Russia and the absolute monarchies of the Middle East. Though Bains points out that respect for authority in China breaks down if people perceive that the leaders are not treating them fairly, if he is right with his central premise it will take a lot of provocation for the current hierarchy in China to disintegrate.

Europe, my seemingly decadent and declining continent, gets relatively kind treatment.

Humans didn’t have things all their own way when they entered Europe. They had to compete with a large population of Neanderthals who had been there much longer. One theory about how modern humans ended up in ascendancy is that we had superior social skills. In any event, after five thousand years of overlap the last Neanderthal enclave died out.

We then had to deal with the Ice Age. Our Northern ancestors had to cope with conditions as extreme as those faced by their cousins in the Middle Eastern deserts, whereas those in the South had it easier. Hence perhaps the root of the difference between the easy-going Italians, Greeks and Spanish, and the more emotionally attenuated and resilient Germans, Dutch and Scandinavians. And our European masters thought they could integrate these tribes into a single economy? They should have looked at the DNA.

It’s no surprise that that we Europeans come out tops in terms of “equality, tolerance of individuality and a rigorous and systematic approach to thinking”. Unfortunately, as it seems to me, in some countries the first two qualities are wearing a bit thin. Most notably in France, the home of liberté, egalité et fraternité. Equality in some respect perhaps, but France has long been ruled by a political elite even more exclusive than the British Conservatives. And French business is as hierarchical as any in Europe.

France also leads the way in its intolerance of manifestations of multi-culture – for example the veil. Its concerns over its Muslim minority are echoed in Germany, the Nordic countries and last but not least, the UK.

We also apparently have an aggressive gene, which partly explains why we’ve spent so much time since the end of the Roman empire fighting each other. And when we’re not clobbering our neighbours, we’ve been out colonising the world, often with brutal methods and dire consequences.

Today many non-Europeans, according to Bains, believe that our best days are over. We’re still good at thinking, it seems, but we’re useless at following through once we’ve done the thinking. We’re seen as lazy, self-indulgent, drink-addled (that’s a special accolade for Britain, I would say) and ponderous in our decision-making.

I think you can exclude the French from last accusation, especially more recently when they seem quite happy to ride roughshod over local objections in order to plonk down their high-speed train tracks, or to send their bombers and foreign legionaries where others fear to tread, such as to Mali and Libya. But the snail-like deliberations of the European Union surely have much to do with our reputation as a lumbering dinosaur.

Yet across the continent – with the exception of poor old Greece – we seem to be pretty content with our lot, and in many ways rather complacent. Perhaps, as Bains suggests, we’re sleepwalking into relative decline. I’d go further than him and state that we’re in decline and we know it. But as long as the sun shines occasionally in our backyards, even if it’s pouring with rain next door, we’re OK with that. Nonetheless I do feel that there’s life in the old dog yet provided we can reconcile all the inherent contradictions in the European Union project.

Finally we get a briefer tour of what he calls the Far Continents – South America and Australia, where the lines of migration out of Africa ended.

South America, as Bains observes, is a huge genetic melting pot. From the original settlers sprang great civilisations such as the Maya, the Incas and the Aztecs. But all indigenous civilisations gave way to the Spanish invaders. The subsequent arrival of the Portuguese and a vast African slave population completed the mix.

The subsequent history has been one of power ruthlessly applied, mainly by the European masters, and continual insurrection, revolution and local rivalry. The indigenous populations didn’t go away. They just melted into poverty, though in some cases, in Argentina for example, they were exterminated.

On the plus side the peoples of South America are proud of their resourcefulness, flexibility and creativity. One only needs to visit Brazil to see those qualities in action. But the continent is held back by its authoritarian traits and tradition of conflict. As the author observes, its progress comes in two steps forward and one step back.

And finally to Australia, whose indigenous population first arrived 50,000 to 60,000 years ago, earlier than any other settlers whose gene pool is still extant. But the lineage of the Australian Aboriginals is something of a sideshow as far as the cultural DNA of the continent is concerned. Bains takes us through the convict settlements, the voluntary migrations, the long-standing White Australia policy and the subsequent arrivals of people from Southern Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Genetically, the country is more a work in progress than any other. Will the new arrivals erode the chippy, slightly insecure “mate culture” – personified by the plain-speaking, friendly ocker stereotype in the movie Crocodile Dundee? Perhaps that’s happening already.

Cultural DNA is a relatively short book – a mere 250 pages. But it’s packed with science, history, theory and reasoning. I’ve barely scratched the surface in this review. The publisher, Wiley, specialises in academic, scientific and business books, and this is no easily digested piece of Gladwellesque “pop psychology”. I use that term reluctantly because I think it’s rather insulting to people like Malcom Gladwell and Jon Ronson who have produced plenty of thought-provoking books without force-feeding us all the underlying science.

When Gurnek Bains uses stories  – usually delivered with a dry wit – to illustrate the theory, they sometimes come as a welcome relief from long passages about the DNA variants in our make-up and what they might signify in terms of cultural development. But this is essentially a business book that reflects how he makes a living – by applying psychological techniques that are intended to help his corporate clients function more effectively.

As such it probably has a limited audience, though I’m sure it sells well in the ever-curious USA. Yet I don’t see why business books always need to be intense and serious, whereas mass audience works by the likes of Gladwell and Jon Ronson make good, easily digested holiday reading. There should be a middle way.

The subject certainly has a relevance beyond business. We are all participants in globalisation. Many of us travel extensively. Sometimes we struggle to understand the reasons for all the disturbing and threatening political developments we read about. Even if some of his conclusions seem a little pat, and don’t take into account the myriad subcultures in the regions he covers – China versus Japan for example, or the northern Maghreb region versus sub-Saharan Africa, he does provide a very broad and useful picture of the major cultural fault lines.

I have a few quibbles about his factual accuracy. He refers to the ship that brought a couple whose defective genes ultimately led to high rates of colon cancer in their descendants in Utah and upstate New York as the William and Mary. Given that William and Mary came to the English throne forty years after the ship sailed, it was a potential error that leapt out at me. The ship was actually called the Mary and John. The error probably came from a paper written in 2008. Nit-picking, I know, but accuracy is important in a book as serious as this one.

He is also prone to some sweeping statements that led me to put some question marks by the text. For example: “Africa has always been a cauldron of activity and change, and this is the reason that virtually all the advances in the human species have occurred on the continent”. I think he’s referring to physical and cognitive advances. If not, I suspect that people from the other regions might raise their eyebrows. A little clarification might have helped.

I would also like to have seen some tabular information. More concise summaries of the main arguments, for example, and region by region comparisons of the research data he quotes, such as power distance, emotional openness and change orientation.

Despite these reservations, I found Cultural DNA a fascinating read. It gave me insights into some regions I don’t know so well, and the odd smile of recognition when it nails truths about cultures I am familiar with that hadn’t occurred to me.

If you’re prepared to wade through the genetic jargon, you’ll find it a useful companion next time you board your long haul flight to another continent, be it for business or pleasure.


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