Monthly Archives: September 2009

“There are worse things than extreme tyranny…”

The Revenge of Geography by Robert D Kaplan is an alarming – or alarmist – view of an unstable political future for what he calls the  “shatter zones” of Eurasia. Some critics say Kaplan is too fond of war, but it’s an interesting read whether you agree or not. Here’s the opening, and some excerpts:

 “When rapturous Germans tore down the Berlin Wall 20 years ago it symbolized far more than the overcoming of an arbitrary boundary. It began an intellectual cycle that saw all divisions, geographic and otherwise, as surmountable; that referred to “realism” and “pragmatism” only as pejoratives; and that invoked the humanism of Isaiah Berlin or the appeasement of Hitler at Munich to launch one international intervention after the next. In this way, the armed liberalism and the democracy-promoting neoconservatism of the 1990s shared the same universalist aspirations. But alas, when a fear of Munich leads to overreach the result is Vietnam—or in the current case, Iraq.

“And thus began the rehabilitation of realism, and with it another intellectual cycle. “Realist” is now a mark of respect, “neocon” a term of derision. The Vietnam analogy has vanquished that of Munich…  …and this is the key insight of the past two decades—that there are worse things in the world than extreme tyranny, and in Iraq we brought them about ourselves. I say this having supported the war.

“And of all the unsavory truths in which realism is rooted, the bluntest, most uncomfortable, and most deterministic of all is geography.

 “Man and not nature initiates, but nature in large measure controls.”

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The importance of rebellion

Writing is a solitary business. Has to be, or you get nothing done. Too many distractions. But you miss the interchange of ideas, the conversations that can lead you to elusive insights and better alternatives. At least I do.

So on Saturday evening I was delighted to discover part of the magic formula for inspiration and creativity. It’s rebellion. Just the right amount of rebellion and you’re off.

In my case, the right amount ofrebellionwas two pints. But it may vary day to day. Rebellion IPA to be specific. Though the mild form of Rebellion may be just as effective.

Anyway, that’s what it took me to resolve a couple of niggling points in my narrative. That and some useful conversation of course. ThanksJulian.

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Unhappy Endings

There’s a great nasty new short story from Colin (“Divorcing Jack”, “Murphy’s Law”, etc) Bateman on the Crime Scene NI website. I recommend it. It begins like this: “I say yes to a lot of things I shouldn’t really say yes to…” Now read on.

Here’s the man himself somewhere that looks like Bangor.

Colin Bateman

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What I Am Reading 26th September 2009

  1. The Boy Who Followed RipleyPatricia Highsmith. Refreshing assumptions of amorality, selfishness and ruthlessness. I’ve not found Highsmith’s short stories so enjoyable, and the Ripley series, of which this is the fourth, tails off a bit too. But it’s still fun. And Ripley as a character strongly reminds me of a good friend of mine. More for reasons of style and decisiveness than a total lack of moral compass. (Nor does my friend emit the startling flashes of anti-semitism that trouble me in Highsmith’s Ripley books.)
  2. The One from the Other: A Bernie Gunther MysteryPhilip Kerr. Ex-cop, ex-SS man, current private investigator Bernie Gunther is still poking around the affairs of Nazis, this time as they try to flee to new identities in 1949, post World War Two defeat. Always best when bringing Germany vividly to life pre, during or post war. This one, so far, flags only during a trip outside that familiar territory to Tel Aviv & Cairo, along with Adolf Eichmann of all people. (To be fair, in A Quiet Flame: A Bernie Gunther Mystery, Gunther’s wanderings round Nazi haven Argentina were convincing.) Hard boiled Chandleresque.
  3. Still reading:The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big OneDavid Kilcullen. (See previous reference to jihadist v. takfriri.) Kilcullen quotes a Chinese Colonel Qiao: “The first rule of unrestricted warfare is that there are no rules, with nothing forbidden.” Apparently he said that strong countries would not use “unrestricted warfare” against weak countries because “strong countries make the rules while rising ones break them and exploit loopholes… The United States breaks UN rules and makes new ones when those rules don’t suit its purposes, but it has to observe it own rules or the whole world will not trust it.” This was in the context of US complacency about threat levels pre-9/11.
  4. Finished: Death at the President’s Lodging (Classic Crime)Michael Innes. One of those attractively presented Penguin Crime Classics. Thankfully a lot less annoying than The Moving Toyshop (Classic Crime), but still far too contrived. The solution is revealed thanks to the injection of “the unexpected aid of three precocious undergraduates.” In other words, after much brow furrowing and erudite conversation, a new eye witness appears near the end of the story with vital evidence, making most of what has gone before irrelevant. Er, isn’t that cheating?

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Red Cross Parcel

Parents just been over from Ireland with emergency  rations from deep in the heart of the Ulster countryside.  Yup, the world’s best cheese and onion crisps fromTayto castle.

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Did he win?

It was nearly the end of the night in my local. Two young women worked their way to the bar in time to get a drink before time was called. They were also in time to enter the landlord’s question.

One question. Free to enter. If there’s a single winner, he or she wins the prize money. If more than one person gets it right, it goes to a second question.

So I encouraged them to have a go – two scraps of paper, a pen, go on, have a guess.

The landlord’s question was this: In the last election Saddam Hussein contested in Iraq, what percentage of the vote did he get?

What? (they said) How are we supposed to know that?

It doesn’t matter. (said I) It’s free. You could win some money. Just have a guess. Write anything.

Oh come on! (they said) Give us a clue. Did he win?

That question took me by surprise. Has Saddam Hussein become such ancient history that young people of voting age in one of the countries that overthrew Saddam, and whose troops have just recently pulled back from Iraq, that their grasp of events is so slight?

Then again, I’m sure there are vast gaps in my own knowledge. And to be fair to the young women in my local, nobody in the pub got the right answer.

I’ll leave you dangling in suspense for the answer. C’mon – it’s just a number.

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Language wars

In any conflict or dispute, setting the terms, choosing the terrain, defining the terms can be decisive.

In the ongoing political battle over taxation in the UK for instance, fixing in voters minds the concept of a “death tax”, rather than a redistributive inheritance tax, skews the argument one way right from the beginning.

Here’s another example that caught my eye. It’s from David Kilcullen’s book  about counter insurgency, The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One. (See previous post.) He’s trying to label his enemy in such a way as to delegitimise them in the eyes of Muslims – to make the Islamic sea an inhospitable place for so-called terroristic fish. Here’s a passage from the preface:

“I use the term takfiri to describe the enemy’s ideology, and the phrase “takfiri terrorist” to describe those who use terrorism to further that ideology. The doctrine of takfir disobeys the Qur’anic injunction against compulsion in religion (Surah al-Baqarah: 256) and instead holds that Muslims whose beliefs differ from the takfiri’s are infidels who must be killed.

“Takfirism is a heresy within Islam: it was outlawed in the 2005 Amman Message, an initiative of King Abdullah II of Jordan, which brought together more than 500 ulema (Islamic scholars) and Muslim political leaders from the Organization of the Islamic Conference and the Arab League in an unprecedented consensus agreement, a ‘unanimous agreement by all Muslims everywhere as represented by their acknowledged most senior religious authorities and political leaders.’ Al Qa’ida is takfiri, and its members are universally so described by other Muslims, whom they routinely terrorize.

“In my view [David Kilcullen’s view, that is], and compellingly for me in the daily vocabulary of most ordinary local people, religious leaders and tribal leaders with whom I have worked in the field, ‘takfirism’ best describes the ideology currently threatening the Islamic world.

“I prefer it to the terms jihad, jihadist, jihadi, or mujahidin (literally  ‘holy war’ or ‘holy warrior’), which cede to the enemy the sacred status they crave, and to irhabi (terrorist) or hiraba (terrorism), which address AQ’s violence but not its ideology.

Takfiri is also preferable to the terms salafi or salafist, which refer to the belief the true Muslims should live like the first four generations of Muslims, the ‘pious ancestors’ (as-salaf as-salih). Most extremists are salafi, but few salafi believers are takfiri, and even fewer are terrorists: most, although fundamentalist conservatives, have no direct association with terrorism.”

So – is this a credible attempt to come up with a better term than “jihadist”? Is it more accurate than “terrorist”? Or is it nothing more than a self-interested transparent attempt by one side to undermine the other by resetting the definitions?

Can it catch on? It is sometimes difficult to budge accepted terms from the popular and journalistic lexicons – hence the persistence of the term “joyriders”, despite efforts to rebrand them as “death drivers” or something similar.

Any thoughts from Muslims out there on the appropriateness or otherwise of takfiri in this context? Is it right? Does it work for you?

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Scraping the margarine as thinly as possible

Why is that I often find myself sitting at the computer, trying to write, pondering this word or that turn of phrase, until I realise I’m cold, chilled, almost shivering? Anyone with a titter of wit would have got up and turned on some heat. But, of course, you get distracted, caught up in things…

But I don’t think that’s it. I reckon it’s some kind of austerity mentality. I’m far (far far) too young to remember “the war”. I can’t remember it because I wasn’t even thought of, never mind born. But when I was growing up there was a kind of self-rationing in our home. Maybe it was to do with “the Troubles” outside the front door. Or more likely it was from the World War Two home front experiences of my parents, or their parents.

So, you’d turn down the heat. You’d turn off a bar. You’d layer up with jumpers. You’d turn off lights. You’d hold out as long as possible before turning them on in the first place. You’d be extra vigilant to prevent any heat escaping. (See Des Bishop for a hilarious update on this.) No door to be left open.  No tap to be left running. All sorts of bits and bobs to be gathered and stored away for some fantastical future possible use. (“Oh, might come in handy some day if you were stuck on a desert island.”)

And, in a country full of cows, milk, butter and cheese, you’d always spread the margarine across your toast as thinly as possible. More of a scrape than a spread, to send burnt crumbs bouncing behind your knife.

It wasn’t because we were poor. We weren’t. Nor am I now. But I suppose some attitudes are hard to unlearn.

(Going back to the shivering in front of your computer aspect of things. I visited the Roald Dahl Storytelling Centre in Great Missenden today. Good stimulating place for the imagination. I recommend it. They have a reconstruction of Roald Dahl’s writing shed. He had a special armchair with a hole cut in its back, to better support his back. An electric heater was suspended from the ceiling to keep his head warm. He legs were encased in a blanket or sleeping bag. And he wrote on a board propped up at just the right angle,  on a roll of corrugated cardboard, each end resting on an arm of the chair. At his right hand a flask of milky tea. Four hours of uninterrupted peace each day.)

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Those magnificent men

It might be thought ghoulishly unseemly the way I tuck into newspaper obituaries with such relish. But it’s not to revel in another’s passing, but to share in the admiration of some dashing boys own (for it is usually boys) true tales of derring do. The (London) Telegraph is particularly rich in these stories.

But here’s one I spotted on the Press Association news service. It’s a great vivid story of a life. And I noticed three things we had in common – city of birth, a school and his tendency to feign madness while in enemy hands. That ruse appeared attractive to me at trying moments during a difficult day.

So here’s the obit:

ASHES OF BATTLE OF BRITAIN ACE SCATTERED 

 By Ian Graham, Press Association.

Ken MacKenzie

Ken MacKenzie

The ashes of Battle of Britain ace Wing Commander Ken Mackenzie, DFC were scattered today during a poignant ceremony attended by family and friends. Born in Belfast in 1916 the dashing airman who became known as Mad Mac was the last surviving Northern Ireland RAF pilot to take part in the Battle of Britain. He died in June at the age of 92. In tribute to one of the last of “The Few” an RAF Harrier mounted a flypast as the ashes were scattered on Lower Lough Erne in Co Fermanagh. It was piloted by Wing Commander Harvey Smyth from Co Armagh – who also holds the Distinguished Flying Cross – and has just returned from duty in Afghanistan. Wing Commander Mackenzie was credited with destroying at least seven enemy fighters during the Battle of Britain – one of them by ramming it after he had run out of ammunition – and all within three weeks of joining his squadron . Later as a POW he was involved in numerous escape attempts and after being transferred to Stalag Luft III at Sagan feigned madness and developed a stammer for the purpose, a stammer he never lost. Educated at Methodist College Belfast and the city’s Queen University where he studied for an engineering degree, he gained his pilot’s licence at the North of Ireland Aero Club at the age of 16 and joined the RAFVR as an airman pilot in 1939. He arrived at 501 Squadron early in October 1940 and shot down his first Messerschmitt within days. On October 7 he shared in the destruction of another over London docks and then went after a second. When he ran out of ammunition he used the starboard wing tip of his Hurricane to snap off the tailplane of the enemy aircraft sending it diving into the sea. His own plane was damaged and he was eventually forced to make a belly landing in a field near Folkestone. By the summer of 1941 he was a flight commander based in Cornwall and shot down two enemy bombers before himself being forced to bail out over the sea during an offensive over France in the autumn of 1941. He managed to get ashore but was captured by a German patrol. On his way to a POW camp he gave his guards the slip on a crowded Paris railway station but was later recaptured and moved to a POW camp in Germany where he joined numerous escape attempts. After his lengthy spell of feigning madness he was repatriated to England in October 1944 and became an instructor on fighters before being promoted to command the Meteor fighter wing at Stradishall in Suffolk. He went on to serve in the Middle East and Persian Gulf and was serving in Kenya when Ian Smith declared UDI in Southern Rhodesia. The following year he joined a major airlift of fuel in Zambia which led to him being invited to join the newly-independent Zambian Air Force as deputy commander, a post he retaining until 1970. He went on to run Air Kenya in Nairobi as managing director until his retirement in 1973 when he moved to Cyprus. During the 1960s be became deeply involved in motor racing , winning the 1963 Tourists’ Trophy Race at Goodwood. He returned to the UK in 2000 and is survived by his third wife, Margaret and daughter from his first marriage. end

*** Now, there are many ways to excel in life, to do good, to exert a positive influence on the lives of the people around you. Bright lights and dazzling adventure are a poor substitute for good friends and a loving family. And the achievements of charismatic teachers, social reformers or any sort of carer are truly significant and worthwhile.

But what can compare to the magnificence of these men and women of wartime? Sometime soon their obituaries will cease, and the world will have lost some of its vivid dash and vigour. And that’ll be that.

Except that we’re sadly managing to keep war on simmer here and there, to ensure a future stream of death defying death-dealing battle tales in obits for years to come.

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How do you measure progress?

I saw widget on emergingwriter’s blog, some kind of horizontal thermometer showing the actual word count and percentage of the intended total completed so far. I assume it’s a crude measure, not taking into account rewrites, editing, general catastrophic crises of confidence, you know, the usual things. However it may serve to focus the mind on the goal.

So I’ve done 127,000-ish. I can’t see it going beyond 130,000, and maybe it’ll shrink a bit. That should mean I’m nearly there. Doesn’t feel like that somehow.

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