Monday, 22 September 2014


No more smokes for him^ Were you to blame^ - N...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
It must have been wittering about Gin Pahits yesterday that put old times in mind or something, but I found myself in the car on the way home last night reminiscing about how I used to smoke.

It seems odd to think about it now, but I did. And so did Sarah, and her mum. And her older sister. And her husband. We all did it. And none of us do now.

Staying in Tipperary, I'd get up at 6am and nip downstairs for a quick smoke with Mrs W, a cup of tea and some brown bread and jam. In the kitchen. Smoking. Can you imagine?

We used to smoke in the car. I had a natty MR2 T-Bar (lovely, lovely car) and I remember filling the ashtray. The lord alone knows what that motor smelled like. We must have been oblivious.

I used to smoke for England. I qualified for the olympic team. I'd chug a fag in between puffs of shisha. I was on 60 a day. I went for a medical and the GP who did the summing up was in a state of quiet fury. 'You have no right to enjoy the health you do.'

Now it all just seems strange. I can't imagine why we all did it. I look at people smoking now and just think it's odd.

I always said I wouldn't become one of those annoying rabidly anti-smoking ex-smokers, but it kills me now. If I'm in a smoky room - despite still liking the smell of fresh smoke (stale smoke's icky) - the next day my throat's knackered.

I gave up in 2001 after I realised I was increasingly culpable of manipulating social situations so I could smoke and didn't like myself for that. I wrote Space partly to give me something to do with my hands (they did a blog interview with me for the last Emirates LitFest when I said 'I wrote Space so I could find something publicly acceptable to do with my right hand' and the PR types primly edited it out. Le sigh) and had to edit out all the indoor smoking - there was a lot of it, too - when smoking bans came in.

I had a short but nasty fling with cigars and then realised it was a case of clean up or toes up.

It's been over ten years now and I have not the faintest desire to stick chopped up leaves in my mouth and set fire to them. Which is lucky, because when I was going through the initial cold turkey it was all I could think about. What an odd chap I must have been.

Talking of which, I'm doing another series of writing, editing and publishing workshops at DIFC next month and a literary lunch thingy at Trade Centre in November. More news as I find out more myself...

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Gin Pahit

English: W. Somerset Maugham British writer
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
One and a half ounces of gin, half an ounce of Angostura.

It's a very odd thing to put in your mouth. It's the sort of thing meths drinkers would recognise: powerful, alcoholic and somehow carbolic. It's drunk without ice

Somerset Maugham mentions it in his various tales of the South Seas, compelling and luxuriant reading all - if somewhat mean and clinically observed they be. I would love to find myself sat in deep buttoned leather chairs around a teak table in the company of Maugham, Evelyn Waugh and Hector Munro (better known as Saki). You'd be hard pressed to find a more vicious bunch of louche, literary bastards.

It's the sort of thing planters drank to while away the boredom, lift the spirits or cleanse the weary soul. The air in Raffles must have been heavy with its odour. A few of those and you could forget the sultry heat, the soddenness of everything and the sullen glares of the beaten natives.

Pahit is Malay for 'bitter'. Gin bitter is made so by the addition of Angostura, a deeply odd drink which actually hails from Venezuela via Trinidad, which is where it's currently made. It was invented as a stomach tonic for Bolivar's army.

I'm re-reading Alexander Frater's Beyond the Blue Horizon, a travelogue that retraces the Eastern Empire Route of Imperial Airways from Croydon to Brisbane. The drink gets a mention and reminded me I had been curious about it when it came up in Maugham's stories. It's also known as a pink gin although properly composed, as above, it's not pink but a sort of poisonous maroon.

While the cat is alive, I can't say I'm a fan...

It's growing on me. I might be 'going jungly'...

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Sparkle Towers

The Last Time I Did Acid I Went Insane
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
A press release went out on Business Wire yesterday announcing 'Sparkle Towers', the 'first ever crystal inspired residential haven'.

The developer is a company called Tebyan. In the release, its managing director, a Mr Naji Alia, says: 'Dubai is known worldwide as a haven of luxury where simply having a ‘good’ residence is just not good enough. Our style-sensitive residents seek nothing but the very best, and elegance is not only appreciated but demanded.'

The towers (one is G+29 and one G+14) are to be 'branded "space marveled by Swarovski', which would appear to mean that the interiors and a number of as yet unspecified architectural and interior features will be based around Swarovski crystal and glass products, or solutions as the release tells us they are known.

As Mr Alia says, 'To enhance Dubai’s global reputation, Tebyan has gone beyond luxury to perfection.'

A chap from Swarovski said the towers would be a 'beyond luxury living experience' and also pointed out Swarovski was delighted to be able to 'experience the joy of crystal through diverse sparkling applications.'

Tebyan says the Sparkle Towers is 'glorious in all the details'. The company's 'aggressive growth vision' makes it 'eager to break barriers of doubt'.

I am too exhausted to do more than present you with the facts.

Monday, 1 September 2014

Book Review: Beyond Dubai: Seeking Lost Cities In The Emirates

"Dubai has nothing. No culture, no history, no character. It has no heart, no spirit, no traditions... It's not a real city, it's just a mirage, all spin and no substance, a city built on sand."

This book starts on that statement and then sets out to prove it wrong. Its triumph is that it does just that and it's a read anyone setting out to explore the Emirates will enjoy.

David Millar lived and worked in the UAE and decided to write a book about the place. He's by no means the only one, we have a small but growing coterie of books left behind by expats like animal spoor, from Desperate Dubai Diaries through to Glittering City Wonders.

I usually avoid these books on the grounds they will almost invariably irritate me. I've spent the past 26-odd years travelling to and living in the Emirates and I've seen enough of it with my own eyes to know I'm not particularly interested in seeing it through someone else's. Having said which, Jim Krane's Dubai: The Story of the World's Fastest City is the Dubai book.

David's taken a different tack, however. Unlike so many commentators on the Emirates, he's decided that below the surface - the half inch of champagne - is a more interesting place to be. Employing the charming little conceit that his visiting girlfriend, Freya, is mulling whether to come to the UAE to join him but won't live somewhere without history, David looks beneath the vavavoom and wawawoo of Dubai and explores the history of the place in a series of road trips. We go up to the East Coast, taking in Fujeirah, Kalba, Northern Oman and the Wadi Bih track; we snake around the fjords of Kasab and the concrete-crushing sprawl of Ras Al Khaimah and we generally do Al Ain, the Rub Al Khali, the Liwa crescent and, finally, Sir Bani Yas.

Each of the book's destinations is treated as a trip to the modern location but the object of the excursion is to unearth its history, the lost cities of the UAE. And David, clearly relishing his subject, mixes observations of the modern and ancient aplenty.

Let me be honest. I fully expected to hate the whole thing. There were times when I felt the discomfort of someone else's view of the place I live in. Having yourself discovered a thing, it's hard to feel a vicarious thrill on behalf of someone else discovering a thing. This is why running up to me and babbling excitedly that whales have belly buttons cutteth not the mustard. Reading Beyond Dubai, I had to fight quite a bit to stop being a dog in the manger all the time and yet - once I'd settled down - I found myself enjoying the journey. Given I have lived here for donkey's, spent quite a lot of time working as a features writer (and so been paid to unearth stuff and write about it) and generally made something of a habit of travelling around and poking things to see if they squeak, there was much in the book I already knew or had experienced myself. Having said that, I've taken a damn sight longer to do it than it takes to read a book: David's efforts have by no means been in vain.

This is a book that will appeal hugely to expats in the UAE or holiday makers interested in going beyond the beaches and taking a look at the rich heritage and culture the country has to offer. If you think that very statement sounds odd, then you need to buy this book. Beyond Dubai is a well written book, a light read that makes its subject accessible and enjoyable. It's sort of Bill Bryson meets Leonard Woolley.

From Jumeirah to Umm Al Qawain's millenia-old city of Tell Abraq, from RAK's lost Julphar and Ibn Majid the famous navigator (whose art eclipsed that of the Europeans whose navies were only then beginning to explore the world systematically while the Arabs had long mastered the arts of astronomy and navigation), Beyond Dubai takes us to the Emirates behind the new roads and skyscrapers and often does so with wit and charm. Brio, even.

Don't get me wrong - I has my quibbles, I does. For a start the big plane parked up in Umm Al Qawain's airstrip isn't a 'bomber', it's an IL76 - a commercial freighter. It hasn't been there since the fifties, either - it was landed in the nineties. I didn't like the reference to the Jumeirah Mosque as the only one in Dubai that welcomes 'infidels', but then that's just me. Jazirat Al Hamra was not abandoned because its inhabitants were lured to Abu Dhabi's oil industry, they fell out with the ruler of RAK and Sheikh Zayed offered them resettlement. Wahhabis are Sunnis, so you can't be 'Wahhabi rather than Sunni'. The drive through Wadi Bih is glorious, majestic and great fun, I'm not sure quite why he makes such a fuss about how hard and precipitous a mission it was. It was always a pleasant day trip and a doddle of a drive (it's closed now, tragically). Strangely, for a couple so interested in finding the history of the place, David and Freya don't visit the many museums strewn around the Emirates. There's no mention of the megalithic tomb or fort at Bitnah, a vital ancient trade route through the mountains to the East Coast (originally the only passage through the mountains) and, indeed, a number of other sites. And so on.

But you get the point here - I'm caviling because I Think I Know Better and that sucks as an attitude when reading a book like this. And yes, I accept that Mr ITIKB is likely just fooling himself much of, if not all of, the time. The point is, anyone with less 'I was here when it was all sand' issues and an interest in the wider UAE will enjoy this book and I reckon will profit greatly from it. And yes, I learned things from this book, so I'm not quite as omniscient as I'd like to think.

If you've just arrived in the Emirates, want to live or holiday there or want to scratch around below the surface a little, Beyond Dubai will give you much pleasure.

I was provided a copy of the book by the author (whom I do not know personally and who approached me seeking a review). You can buy your own copy right here and if you've got a Kindle, you'll only be parting with £2.95!

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

HSBC: Just When You Thought It Was Safe To Go Out Again

Princess Fiona
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Some of you have got bored with the HSBC Whingey Posts. Why not a fun, frothy 'Shiny' post? You ask. A touch of irony, a scintilla of witty flair. Not that anger thing you do. No way, guy, that's just, like, you know, negative.

Well I can't help it. Every time I'm prepared to sue for peace, they go and do something else that makes absolutely no sense unless you are prepared to admit that the bank is being run by a row of Listerine-gargling Orangutans perched on a sapient pearwood branch lighting farts tuned by arraying their relative bottom sizes to squeeze out 'Roll Out The Barrell' every time a decision of any sort is required that will do anything other than ensure the absolute and consummate misery of their beaten-down and exhausted customers.

There is no category of banking service they have not managed to fail to perform in the time we have banked with them. Not one. Issue a cheque book, a credit card, send a draft, make a transfer. Every single aspect of banking has, at one stage or another, been royally muffed up by these vapid goons.

Imagine, then, my amazement that we managed to get new Visa cards issued with only a personal visit to the branch when our old ones were a day away from expiry, having not been replaced automatically (and I having been assured they would be). Imagine we had told the girl we were going on leave and could only accept delivery after the 24th August - and I got a long, rambling call from a drone on a heavily IP-saturated line when I was in the UK (incurring roaming charges that would melt the iciest heart) telling me my cards were ready for delivery.

'HaHa!' I laughed, and 'Fie and Fiddlesticks to boot! I'm on leave! I told you! No can do! Put that in your corporate pipe and see if you can't get a tune out of it by shoving it up the nearest Orangutan's...'

The cards arrived the other day to the office once we had returned. I was, to be honest, sore amazed. They have a sticker across the front of them giving a number to call to get a PIN number as they're 'chip and pin' cards. Called it. Did the rigmarole. It all worked perfectly.

By now I had relaxed. Oh, you know with hindsight and think me a fool. But I had indeed sighed relief and smiled at my wife. "Perhaps, my love, we have broken the spell at last" - imagine Shrek speaking ecstatically to Princess Fiona (I have spent the summer mingling with young nieces and nephew).

And then I went to peel the sticker off to find it wasn't a plastic 'easy peel' sticker that leaves no glue behind. It's a paper sticker that leaves a gluey, papery residue across the front of the whole thing. It's going to pick up fluff and dirt, go grey and grubby.

A glittering new credit card that immediately looks skanky, filthy and worn. Yes, people, this is indeed fitting...

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Book Review: The Paris Trap

March Hare
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Joseph Hone is a spy novelist who made something of a splash in the 1970s but whose star was eclipsed by the likes of John Le Carré. Hone's books have been re-released as 'Faber Finds', including Kindle editions which are, for the back list of a 1970s author, massively over-priced at £5.99.

I bought The Paris Trap because of a recommendation on Twitter - as I buy so many of my books now. And I got a fascinating book for my money. Author Jeremy Duns, introduced by uber-geek Gerald Donovan, shared the first page of the book on Twitter and the text leaped off the page at me. Set in Riyadh, it clearly was going to be an extraordinary read. In fact, the introduction to the Faber Finds edition is by Jeremy, who says he regards Hone as 'One of the great spy novelists of the twentieth century.'

All well and good - but what I didn't realise was quite how extraordinary a read this was to turn out to be.

For a start, Hone was writing in a simpler time. So his editors didn't stop him doing all the things editors throw their hands up at today, from lazy adverbs and clear 'writer's kinks' (he constantly uses 'some' in similes as in 'some great bird' and - actually - constantly uses similes that would give Dan Brown a run for their daftness money) through to sillinesses such as "I tried to remember what the label reminded me of. And then I remembered."

Suddenly, I realised, Faber, for your £5.99, certainly weren't prepared to edit this baby. The text was merely jammed into a file converter, unloved and unread (presumably), leaving us with classics such as "I couldn't avoid an unpleasant sneer oranger."

Of anger. They meant of anger. Similarly "autumntinted" and "attaché casefor a file" and others such as word repetitions - silly 'literals' that shouldn't be in a text from a major publisher. And certainly not for - you may have got the feeling I have an issue with this and you may just be right - £5.99.

Whether this lack of editing is what left idiocies such as "a tactful after-shave lotion" in the MS we may never know. Let alone "the sugary orchestra"...

So what about the plot, the premise, the big idea? Bear with me here, it gets a bit involved. Super-spy Harry Tyson used to write TV scripts and had created a successful series called 'Hero' before joining British Intelligence as a real life spy. Hero is to be made into a feature film starring blue-eyed hearthrob Jim Hackett. Terrorists sympathetic to the Palestinian cause kidnap Harry's girlfriend Katy and Susie, his daughter by estranged wife Sarah in an attempt to coerce Harry into rewriting the screenplay of the film to make it more sympathetic to their cause. We've barely even started here and I'm already drooling and banging my head gently against the laptop keyboard. I also can't shake Jim Hacker from Yes, Prime Minister. I know it's wrong, but it's in my head like a Bony M single and I can't get it out.

Jim Hackett, an old friend of Harry and Sarah's, is estranged from wife Katy - Harry's girlfriend, although Jim and Susan don't know it. They, meanwhile, are sleeping together. Enter the French police, who are brutal, stupid and great at getting shot at. There's a French film maker called Belvoir and a French copper called Brion. With Sarahs and Susans, Belvoirs and Brions I'm already getting confused and that's without adding Anna Kalina the dumpy terrorist intellectual with a habit of wearing baggy jumpers and yet who has a gorgeous face. This makes her a Lesbian, apparently. I'd have thought dungarees would have done, but who am I to cavil at a chap's characterisations?

Anna has kidnapped Katy and Susan and is hiding them in a hole in the ground where she likes to drink Hine cognac and kiss people. She kisses Harry before sending him out into the world to rewrite his script and shoot Hero while his woman and daughter are held by terrorists in a bunker. His woman, Katy (previously Jim Hacker's smacker) is of Russian noble extraction (sorry, Hackett) and yet doesn't know much about Napoleon beyond Empire Line Dresses. She is a dress designer. I might have forgotten to mention that. At one stage, while she is being held by terrorists in a bunker, Jim and Harry work on the launch of her new collection which they aren't going to let a simple kidnapping disrupt. It all gets pretty messy, to tell the truth.

Harry's daughter, a pebble-glassed schoolgirl, is fascinated by Napoleon and so she and Katy set to in their new bunker home, making a Napoleonic puppet theatre. If only Terry Waite or John McCarthy had thought of this, the years would have simply flown by for them. 

Katy, by the way, buys Harry a present of a 'sweetly pornographic peepshow'. Before she is kidnapped, clearly. The market for sweetly pornographic peepshows in terrorist bunker hideouts being - as far as I am aware and you can please feel entirely free to correct me here - limited. 

We are reminded of this sweetly pornographic peepshow many times for some reason. Perhaps because Katy turns out to be a lesbian, too, eventually suddenly realising in a single moment of Anna's animal magnetism that she doesn't like boys and sex hurts her. If sex hurts you, you are clearly lesbian. And vice versa. Hope that clears up things for any of you gels out there feeling a little confused about things. Go get yourself a baggy jumper see if you feel any the better for it.

There is much in the novel that doesn't belong in a novel. For instance: "The Inspector stood up, walked over to the top of a filing cabinet, put the top back on a thermos of coffee and adjusted his shirt and tie in a little mirror on the wall behind. Then he blew his nose and settled his moustache."


BTW, Thermos is a proper noun and so gets a capital T, Faber.

Simile. Often odd if not a wee bit looney. "Striding around the first-floor salon like a minor prophet" had me wondering how minor prophets stride, while a warring couple "returned to the fray like sleep walkers". 

If you really want to go to town, try "I took in the two absorbed figures beneath the arched ceiling, set against the white-washed background, in a moment - as in a picture: this suddenly proffered domestic interior, like the vision of a room seen while walking down a foreign village street at midday: an old man shaving from a bucket, or a woman turning a mattress - the work of other people's worlds, which we may share intimately for a moment, before losing it all in the next step we take down the street going back to our hotel."

I mean, whaaaaat? The shouty man's scaring me, mummy...

There are many Wisdoms: strange descents into claptrap and odd gobbets of tossed-in half-thought that draw the reader up and leave the questing mind wandering around, clutching at imaginary butterflies in search of anything that might be justification for the latest surreal assertion: "Children can remain the same for months on end and then suddenly change overnight." and, later on, "She wanted to surprise herself - not be the surprise."

Put the gun down, dude. Step back slowly.

There are issues of POV (or Point of View) throughout. I wouldn't usually bring this up as I think POV quibbles are the territory inhabited by Word Nazis, but they genuinely interfere with the flow in this book. The whole mixes Harry's first person POV chapters with third person chapters, but then we also flip-flop between the two and Harry has a nasty habit of knowing what everyone else is thinking. Show not tell, my editor would be screaming and I'd have to hit the cur hard to shut him up. "Katy, I could see, was conjuring up that lost world of sleigh-bells and privilege and sensibility even as she spoke - as a person will plan future holidays to take his mind off a serious illness which he comes to forget, poring over time-tables and sunny brochures."

Harry's a mind reader, although he would appear to be dyslexic.

There's a whole scene featuring Alain Belvoir the film maker and his old parents or someone like that. It features a loving portrait of an old lady called Chummy who has flaking skin and shitty ducks. I do not know for the life of me why any editor would have left it in the book.

The dialogue is generally a horse's arse, too. "Brion was tired: he could only speak in clichés." had me laughing precisely because that's what Brion had been doing all along. And everyone else, for that matter. Later on Harry puts his finger on the very button. "Sometimes," He opines, "it all gets too stupid."

Reluctantly I have to stop, although there's a lot more. I had started making notes in my Kindle text, something I rarely, if ever, do unless I'm working on an edit or my or someone else's work. I like to enjoy books I'm reading, not pick them apart. But I couldn't help myself, simply because there's just so much in here you can't read fluidly or without being brought up time and time again by the flubs and bumps. To channel Hone, it was like a turbulent flight peppered with constant changes at foreign terminals like a series of interruptions that reminds one of the workings of complex roundabout systems such as those found in city centres that have a concatenation of major routes like some long piece of Italian pasta.

Don't get me wrong - don't think I disliked this book, because I didn't. I enjoyed it immensely. But for the wrong reasons, I suspect. This book is a text book raw MS for editors to practice on. It contains every quirk, error, oddity and clunk you'd want to demonstrate every aspect of good book editing for the modern self-editing author or professional editor. It's a classic 'before' manuscript that fails to tell its story well because of its legion flaws - including the fact the basic story premise itself is as stupid as a pair of gin-pissed March hares who've got their paws on an inexhaustible supply of Amyl Nitrate soaked carrots.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Belfast: Of Marches, Parades And Protests

We put away a serious Irish Breakfast Merchant style, then took to the rainy streets to clear our heads having put in a considerable amount of 'research' at various venues, a team effort that concluded at The Spaniard, the nearest thing to a Hamra bar to be found outside Hamra. Belfast's weekend nightlife has got SO much of Beirut about it - the same frenetic, buzzed vibe packed with shiny, happy people and dotted with oddballs, eccentrics and generally eclectic splashes of colour in the serried hordes of overdressed fellas and half-dressed Lovely Girls.

A glorious evening, not without its subsequent toll exacted on Mr Potato Head.

We started spotting coppers dotted around, our first thought being maybe TK Maxx had been turned over by some enterprising souls as we - and the rest of Belfast - were busy carousing. And then a column of white PSNI (Police Service Northern Ireland) Range Rovers filed by, all black cages and white concrete roofs. Yes, I kid you not, concrete. They each weigh six tonnes and are designed not to be a pushover. These babies are riot equipped and if we didn't by now work out something serioo was up, the appearance of two water cannon tankers put things beyond all doubt.

I wandered up to one of the clearly hundreds of officers on duty, little clumps of them at every street corner, huddled in shuttered shop doorways away from the rain. What's the craic? I mean, it's nice of you chaps to be putting on the Range Rover Fan Club annual gathering but...

They were happy to chat: they were all on time and a half or double time, but none of them were particularly pleased at spending most of their Sunday arsing around in the downpour waiting for 4,000 marchers protesting internment (the controversial imprisonment of suspects without trial employed by the Brits during 'the troubles' in the 1970s) and the opposing marchers protesting the protests against internment.

'Put it this way, when I've finished being dressed up like a Ninja Turtle this afternoon, I'll pulling on me jeans and shirt and going for a load of pints an' try and catch up on me weekend,' one chap told us. They were all cheerful, approachable and open - pretty impressive PR for a force created out of the sectarian disaster that was the infamous RUC - and all clearly had no time for the marchers or their opponents, seeing it all as a throwback out of pace with the movement of the times.

'Who wants this? Who, our age - with a life and kids and a future - wants to go back to this?'

I have to say, I never thought I'd see the like on Belfast's streets these days. Roads blockaded with Rapid Response Unit Range Rovers, phalanxes of cops in high-viz gilets and bullet-proof armour festooned with batons, CS gas spray and radio handsets, the lot. 'Yeah, I know. Forget us, you didn't see us. This isn't Belfast, our beautiful city.'

Well, it's all a bit, you know, Gaza... 'Don't. We've got a cruise ship in full of Israelis. You couldn't write this stuff...'

We missed the march, or parade or protest or whatever it was they were calling it. Unlike last year, when 56 cops got pounced by a group of loyalist protest protesters ('swhy we're all deployed here so early this year, we've got over a thousand officers on extra duty today. What a waste of money we could be using for schools or hospitals, eh?) it went off peacefully with only a couple of minor injuries.

It all felt a little like a tourist attraction, but then again we were just tourists anyway. We heard an Italian tourist ask a copper, 'Which side is protesting?'

'Both, love. It's always both.'

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Book Research Is SUCH a Drag...

English: Street sign of Belfast's Crumlin Road...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
There comes a time when some form of reality has to intrude into writing novels, usually when you feel someone with access to the Internet is going to bother to work out if a fifty metre luxury yacht with such and such engines would take three days to go from Northern Spain to Malta, whether turning left from the main Dead Sea to Amman highway would take you to Bethany now there's a dual carriageway in place and you'd actually have to take a U-turn or indeed if you can actually buy terminal cancer drug Roxanol over the counter from a Lebanese pharmacy.

Researching Olives - A Violent Romance took huge dedication and involved drinking Martinis in the Four Seasons Amman, sploshing about smoking Cohibas in the Dead Sea and necking red wine in conservatories overlooking the rain-swept streets of an Amman winter. I had to eat sunny Mezzes overlooking the Golan Heights and wander around the warm spring streets of Madaba before lunching on pan-fried potato, eggs and Mediterranean herbs washed down with icy cold beers. It was hard, hard, hard people.

Still reeling from the exertions and huge personal distress I had to invest in Olives, researching Beirut - An Explosive Thriller was breathtakingly difficult. Walking the city's streets with a variety of highly attractive and personable companions, pottering around the Mouawad museum and investing many selfless hours in exploring the labyrinthine bars of Gemmayze, Monot and Hamra were nothing to the long, hard hours of toil drinking in Raouché, wandering the sun-dappled corniche sipping little cups of piping hot espresso from Uncle Deek's and, of course, eating a huge amount of stuff in the name of veracity.

You'll begin to appreciate I have Suffered For My Art. And if that weren't enough, writing Shemlan - A Deadly Tragedy took me into the mountains above Beirut for long AlMaza-laced lunches sipping sweet chai nana as my companions sat around puffing shisha in the balmy late afternoon, bees and cicadas competing to provide the soundtrack to our panoramic view of the blue city far below - let alone forays into Aleppo's tragically destroyed C14th Ottoman souk. The sweet days foraging around Tallinn and nights chasing hot plates of rich stock with bobbing islets of pelmeni down with iced vodka were agony, I can assure you. Agony.

So you'll understand the sacrifices I'm about to make in Belfast's pubs and its finest hotel, the endless journeys across Ireland's green sward to possibly the best restaurant in the world and other terrible hardships I'm currently putting into A Simple Irish Farmer. Interviewing an IRA man who did 15 years of a 27-year sentence in Long Kesh, part of the game plan, is probably the nearest thing to real 'work' I'll have ever devoted to researching a book. I'll try not to let the platters and pints distract me. Honest...

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

If Gaza Were Ireland

English: A republican wall mural in coalisland...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
As the world stands idly by and Ban Ki Moon waffles incomprehensibly about peace, it struck me what would have happened if Britain had behaved in Northern Ireland as Israel has in Gaza and the West Bank.

It's the same sort of gig, after all. The occupation of a territory and all that. Religious divisions and an artificial border. 'Freedom fighters' bringing their violent protests over that border into the heart of the occupying power.

Except the IRA was actually quite good at it, where Hamas is rubbish. The IRA killed hundreds of British citizens and soldiers, in fact murdered thousands in their campaign for Irish freedom. Hamas' rocket attacks have yet to hit a significant target or result in any major loss of life - claims for fatalities from rocket attacks so far total two Israelis and a Asian worker. Even the recent celebrated kidnapping and killing of three Israeli youths turned out to have no connection to Hamas. And the provocation dealt out in Gaza to cause these attacks is all too little discussed. Those rockets didn't come from nowhere - they were Benjy's reward for his vicious little campaign against the coming together of Hamas and the Palestinian Authority.

The whole - bloody - conflict in the North since the start of 'the troubles' (whether you date them back to 1916, 1922 or 1969) has taken a smaller toll of human life than the Israeli-sponsored massacres in the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps alone. The Israelis are already well over a third of their way to beating the total all-time Irish Troubles Death Record after a couple of weeks' conflict in Gaza. That's some going.

Imagine the global reaction if the UK had sent in helicopter gunships to blow apart Irish Republican houses in Nationalist areas of Belfast. If our response to bombings such as Canary Wharf were to send in ground troops and tanks to lay waste swathes of houses around the Falls Road and reduce whole districts of Tyrone and Armagh to rubble? If our troops poured shells into schools and our politicians glibly trotted out platitudes about them being used as human shields for bomb-making factories? There was a huge political and civil rights fallout from the few - highly targeted - extra-judicial killings that UK forces carried out - but these (and no, I am by no means justifying them) actions were pinpoint intelligence-led operations, not high explosive bludgeoning of tenements, terraces, schools and hospitals packed with innocent civilians.

What values, then, prevented our Western style democracy from acting in the way that Israel has acted towards the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza? How is it that the British - for all their pursuit of influence and power in Ireland over the centuries - found a fundamentally more decent way to manage conflict with rebellion against our occupation - against paramilitaries - than tearing their adversary's children to pieces?

Would the British people have been supportive of our government's bloody treatment of a people under our occupation if we had been blowing up their houses, degrading their basic infrastructure and killing innocents? Or would we have concluded that our government was monstrous and refused to let our whole society be led into unforgivable monstrosity in the name of a 'war against terror'?

Imagine if we'd killed a thousand Irish people in a week-long 'ground war' against the IRA in Belfast.

Do you think the world would have stood idly by as Ban Ki Moon waffled incomprehensibly about peace then?

Monday, 21 July 2014

Of Gaza And Telegenically Dead Palestinians

(Photo credit: AlphaBetaUnlimited)
I have long been struck by how little people back home knew - or cared - about the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Advancing that understanding was a big part of my intent in writing Olives - A Violent Romance, which has a go at perhaps deepening a reader's understanding that the situation behind those nice, easy to understand CNN or Fox bumper sticker headlines is perhaps all a little more nuanced than 'Palestinians are all terrorists and the good guys are trying their best to sort out a nasty and difficult situation that's not of their making'.

I got an email yesterday from an American reader who said she was thinking about what was going on in Gaza right now all the more deeply because she'd read Olives. It was sort of nice to get and I know there are many others out there who feel the same way, so that all sort of makes the book worth the effort (without the millions, fame, fortune and all the rest it's clearly brought me).

And yet I still feel utterly impotent when confronted with the realities on the ground. I sat looking at Twitter last night trying to contain the surge of anger, trying to retain some sense of objectivity and not just fall off the deep end. I follow a lot of 'activists' and others involved in Palestine on Twitter and so my feed is rarely free of a clamorous little group whose intentions are of the finest, but whose constant barrage of one-sided opinion can be counter-productive. It gets wearing - you just don't want to hear it any more.

Watching the demolition of Gaza's infrastructure, the sight of F16s, precision guided artillery, helicopter gunships and now tanks, warthogs and troops battering one of the world's most densely populated - poorest and most desperate - cities was awful. It's beyond cynical - Benjamin Netanyahu's exploitation of Hamas' pathetic rocket attacks would only be possible in a country that has been consistently radicalised by the constant propaganda pushed by a polity with a wholly evangelical Zionist agenda.

Could you even contemplate a Western politician responding to international outrage at the unacceptable civilian cost of his government's military might being hurled at a defenceless city with the charge that the other side was 'piling up telegenically dead Palestinians'? They're pulling lifeless, dusty little bodies out of the rubble every minute - over 300 innocents are dead already in this latest incursion. And Israel's leader demonstrates his regret by accusing the children his military have murdered of being telegenic? God help us all.

Those impressive sounding Hamas rocket attacks have not killed a single Israeli. There are no Israeli children being pulled out of the rubble. In return for which Israel is pounding densely packed population centres with all the might of a modern military machine, blasting away at the rats slithering around in the dustbin of Gaza. They've got nowhere to go: north, east, west, south. They're all 'legitimate targets' as the Israelis mendaciously blether about ceasefires and continue to send high explosives, flechettes and fragmentation warheads into homes, hospitals and schools.

And so sitting in my comfy chair in Sharjah, I watch it and the only thing I can do is get the hell off Twitter before I lose it completely and become yet another skewed, furious voice railing against the monstrous unfairness of what they're doing, the awful media reporting (TWO ISRAELI DEAD screamed one bold type headline, only underneath did we see that some three hundred Palestinians had chosen to run into explosives) and my own complete impotence.

I didn't even want to write this, just let my book stand as my effort and comfort myself that if only a few people are watching all this and thinking about it more because of what I've done, then that's a good thing. But, of course, I'm kidding myself. A stupid book won't change one iota of what's happening. Nothing I could possibly do will.

So I went upstairs and watched it all on Sky. At least then I was just shouting at a television and not constantly restraining myself from flinging abuse at people tweeting recipes for butterfly cakes just because I care about this and they've chosen to prioritise how much butter makes the sponge as light as an angel's kiss.