Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Hay Festival

Several years ago I walked the length of Offa's Dyke with a friend. We were at school and did the southern half one summer holiday, and the rest the next after we had finished our A-Levels. The Welsh Marches - the frontier between England and Wales that the dyke originally delineated and which was then fortified by castles in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries - are undoubtedly my favourite part of lowland Britain. In March 1188 Gerald of Wales came through the border town of Hay-on-Wye with the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was on a recruiting tour for the Crusades; Jerusalem had been captured by the Turks the previous year. Gerald recorded that "we saw a great number of men who wanted to take the Cross come running towards the castle where the Archbishop was, leaving their cloaks behind in the hands of their wives and friends who had tried to hold them back."

I'm really pleased that I've been invited to speak at this year's Hay Festival. I'll be talking about the book on Sunday 3 June, the Festival's last day, and I'm thoroughly looking forward to it.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

ABC's Book Show

To my surprise I've discovered I made an appearance on Australian ABC's Book Show earlier this week, talking about my book at last summer's Edinburgh Book Festival. Click here for the programme and fast-forward 29 minutes to hear what I said.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Mixed views of the Australians

Today is, or nearly, was, Anzac Day. 92 years ago today a force comprising a substantial number of Australians and New Zealanders landed on the Gallipoli peninsula in the Dardanelles. They were the spearhead of a brave and very risky attempt to grab the Ottoman Empire by the throat. Having landed on the Gallipoli peninsula the force was supposed to advance north-eastwards to Constantinople, the capital, knock the Ottomans out of the war and open a new front against the Germans.

In theory it was a brilliant plan. In practice, of course, it turned out to be a disaster. There was too little preparation, surprise or firepower. There were a quarter of a million casualties. yet, as its continuing commemoration indicates, the operation sealed the reputation of both Australian and New Zealander troops. Britain owes both nations a great debt.

That winter Gallipoli was abandoned. The British army - as it was called - withdrew to Egypt to lick its wounds. There there were problems with discipline. The British general, Sir Archibald Murray, reviewed the Australians' strengths and weaknesses and it was his memorable opinion that came to mind today. “They are unquestionably from a physical point of view a magnificent body of men and hard and fit as they can possibly be. The finest by far that I have ever seen. As regards discipline, I wish to make it clear that I have never seen any body of men in uniform with less idea of discipline. Drunkenness is extraordinarily prevalent, and many of the men seem to have no idea of ordinary decency or self control. ”

Sir William Birdwood - the Anzacs' British commander - tried to temper that opinion. But he acknowledged, wonderfully, that “On the [Gallipoli] Peninsula we certainly had two great advantages: One, drink was unobtainable; two, there were no women.”

(Source: British Library Add Mss 52463, Egypt 1916-17, Private letters between General Sir William Robertson and General Sir Archibald Murray, Privately printed in 1932. Murray to Robertson, March 1916, and Birdwood to Murray, 25 February 1916.)

Friday, April 20, 2007

A sharp rise in British casualties in Iraq

These tables on the Ministry of Defence website document the sharp increase in British casualties and fatalities in Iraq so far this year. The figures do not include the numbers for April: so far this month 10 servicemen and women have lost their lives, according to the Daily Telegraph. The two deaths yesterday happened in Maysan province, where the handover from the British to the Iraqis is being portrayed as a sign of growing stability.

One figure stands out. After three months of the year, the total of seriously and very seriously injured/wounded (at 24) is already 80% of the full-year total for last year. It suggests that there has been a dramatic increase in violence directed at British troops.

A report in The Times today also shows how the numbers of physically injured are dwarfed by the numbers of soldiers suffering from combat stress.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

How American's Arab experts were sidelined

Here's a thoughtful, fascinating article on the US government's use (and failure to use) Arabists in Iraq. There's not much to add, save to say that you might enjoy reading the splendid debunking of Edward Said by Robert Irwin, which was published recently.

Friday, April 13, 2007

The poppy harvest

Here's an interesting article on the poppy harvest in Helmand, southern Afghanistan.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Books, tears and blood

You can read Saad Eskander's diary for March here. Amid his description of his attempt to live a normal life in Baghdad, he covers the bombing of the Al-Mutanabi book market: "Tens of thousands of papers were flying high, as if the sky was raining books, tears and blood."

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The diplomatic dividend of dealing with Syria

It looks as if the Iranians are about to release the 15 British service personnel they captured in the northern Gulf. Earlier today the Syrians said that they had played a role in mediating between the Iranians and the British and bringing the matter to a conclusion. The British have been cultivating the Syrians for some time and this has brought a diplomatic dividend now.

Contrast that with the slating Nancy Pelosi has received from the White House for meeting the Syrian President Bashar Assad. The White House says that Pelosi is sending the wrong signals; but the fact is, whatever the rights and wrongs of the situation - and it is a complex one - the Syrians are influential in the region. No peace deal will be achieved without their backing, and that is something the White House needs to accept.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Venice - gateway to the east

Venice: built on the infamous Fourth Crusade

The sun was shining in Venice this morning, where I've just spent a few days. What I liked most about the city was the feeling that it is the gateway to the east. Lofty campanili poke like minarets above the skyline. Buildings like the fifteenth century Doge's Palace have distinctly arabesque architecture. The canals smell rankly of sewage. The galleries are full of paintings of the martyrdoms of saints by men in turbans. The zenith of this genre came in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, just as the threat from the Muslim Ottomans was at its height. The paintings were designed to rally public opinion against the enemy in no less compromising a way than the crusading rhetoric of George W Bush.

Venice was the starting point for the infamous Fourth Crusade. Viewing the expedition as a commercial opportunity, the Doge apparently offered the crusaders transport and armed galleys if they would agreed to a straight split of any booty. Having watched money evaporate from my wallet over the last four days, I know the sensation.

The numbers volunteering for the crusade proved disappointing however, and the expedition plunged into debt. At this point, the Venetians offered to restructure what they were owed if the crusaders would help them capture the city of Zadar on the opposite coast of the Adriatic. The only hitch was that Zadar was then part of Hungary, whose king had himself supported the crusade. The pope - who had called for the crusade in the first place and could see its momentum ebbing - forbade this diversion. When the crusaders ignored him and captured Zadar late in 1202, he excommunicated them. It was there that the crusaders were approached with yet another plan, to restore the former Emperor of the Byzantine Empire, Isaac Angelus, on the throne. The Doge, who wanted to cut a better set of trade agreements with Constantinople, supported this idea. Thus it was that Constantinople was sacked by the crusaders in 1204, who had entered the city on ladders made from the spars of the Venetian ships which had carried them there. St Mark's Cathedral in Venice today is a rococo confection of stones taken from Constantinople. Venice, the gateway to the east, was built on the profit of this most infamous crusade.