If it wasn’t for just over two and a half minutes, no one outside his immediate circle of family and colleagues would ever have heard of Captain Chesley Sullenberger and he would certainly not have written – with some help from Jeffrey Zaslow – an autobiography. In some ways, Sullenberger’s life is an exemplar of the ordinary, a man who does his job, raises his family and, in the normal course of events, is barely noticed outside of the circles he moves in. So it was interesting to see if an ordinary life could also be extraordinary enough to sustain a 350-page book. It was. I’m both pleased and relieved to be able to say that, since most of us lead lives that are no more – but also no less – remarkable than Sullenberger’s. There is a beauty, an accomplishment, in a normal life lived well that comes across strongly in this book: a man doing his job and raising his family. Of course, a sizeable chunk of the book looks at the events and aftermath of Flight 1549 but reading the book you realise that what Sullenberger says is true: he was able to deal with this unimaginable emergency because of all the building blocks of experience and decision that had gone into his life up to that point. An ordinary life? The sort of ordinary life that saves worlds.
As a fifty-something man of little standing in the world, I heartily applaud the central premise of this entertaining book: that a fifty-something man of little standing in the world can be the hero of an adventure that includes saving the world, outsmarting a billionaire bad guy and getting the, much younger, girl along the way (I should add, as a happily married man, that the latter simply applies to my middle-aged fantasy self and in no way comprises my real wishes!). So let’s hear it for Don Challenor, down-on-his-luck estate agent (he’s just been let go by his previous employer), who is employed by his ex-wife to value the Cornish hideaway of a mysterious and reclusive billionaire. (Add in to the mix the middle-aged male wish fulfilment fantasy of Don rescuing his ex-wife, she having to admit that he was a better man all along than her new husband, and him still getting the much younger new girl – in fact, there’s so much middle-aged male wish fulfilment in this book I begin to wonder if Robert Goddard might be having a little bit of a mid-life crisis!)
On the minus side, I had realised the twist of what was concealed in the panic room within the first hundred pages. This, though, did mean I could indulge myself in the greatest of all guilty pleasures for the reader: skipping ahead, skimming pages of text, for the simple pleasure of finding out if I was right. And I was! So wish fulfilment all round. What more could the middle-aged male reader ask? Well, a story that was not quite so obvious, perhaps, but there is a pleasure in knowing the outcome and then watching as skilled a writer as Robert Goddard orchestrate the moves towards that outcome.
Proofreading the excellent Bradt Guide to Somaliland, how about this for an insight into travel in and out of an unrecognised country:
Coming by road, a few 4x4s daily connect Djibouti and Zeila to Hargeisa [the capital of Somaliland]. These… cost around US$40 for a cabin seat, US$28 to sit in the boot, and less for a perch on the roof.
Note that the journey from Djibouti to Hargeisa takes a minimum of 12 hours, and that’s if your 4×4 doesn’t break down on the way. One traveller reported it taking him 36 hours to make the journey. That’s a long time to spend sitting in the boot!
When writing about the many small wars that have characterised conflict, particularly since the end of the Cold War, pundits are fond of trotting out the standard line: there can be no military solution, only a political one. This is generally accepted as an a priori truth; so much so that no one argues with it. But thinking about Sri Lanka’s long civil war, I begin to wonder if it is necessarily so, and the human cost of prolonging conflicts in search of those elusive political solutions.
For if we accept the premise that there must always be a political solution, then the pattern that emerges is one of low-level warfare, interspersed with periods of truce while international intermediaries seek that solution and international aid agencies feed the people displaced by the conflict, only for the conflict to flare up once more. By leading the search for solutions, and by taking responsibility for the people the combatants are generally fighting to rule, the international community runs the risk of bleeding the conflict out – allowing the combatants time to regroup and rearm and then fight again. It’s at least possible that, left to themselves, the conflict would end more quickly, although the resolution would surely be bloody. But would more blood be shed in a short war fought to an end rather than the apparently endless rounds of conflict punctuated by periods of exhausted truce, before the whole thing starts up again? That is the question the thirty years of civil war between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers poses. Paul Moorcroft doesn’t try to answer the question in this book: instead, he looks at how the Sri Lankan military were able to create a military solution to a war that lasted a generation, as well as the political conditions that the Rajapaksa government put into place to allow that military solution.
Yes, there can be no doubt that many civilians were killed in the final desperate months of the war, when the cornered Tigers fought like, well, tigers, for the LTTE had no compunction about using their own population as human shields. The calculation was clearly made, among the LTTE leadership, that if they could get enough pictures of dead children on the TV screens of the world, then the resulting international outcry would be sufficient to force the Sri Lankan goverment to call a halt to military action, giving them time to regroup and escape. Thus, civilian Tamil casualties were a clear strategy for the Tigers in their final struggle. Just as clearly, the Sri Lankan government and military sought to stop such images getting out: they prevented journalists getting anywhere near the battleground, with pointed references to being unable to guarantee their safety which served as veiled threats, while working behind the scenes to keep India, the one regional power that could stop everything in its tracks, on board. Moorcraft is excellent in showing how the Rajapaksa brothers maintained contacts with the Indian government, giving it daily briefings to ensure that the northern behemoth stayed on the other side of the Palk Strait. The book is also good on the overall military reorganisation that allowed the government forces to finally defeat an enemy that had defeated them for so long, although I would have liked more detail about the tactical shifts that allowed the Sri Lankan army to gain the upper hand over the LTTE cadres.
The question remains though: is this an example of a war where the only possible solution was military? For the Tigers, a political solution required the Sri Lankan government to give in completely to their demands – something that was clearly impossible. So the Tigers sought to create their own de facto state. Meanwhile, Sri Lankan governments before the Rajapaksa administration had sought for political solutions, with varying degrees of commitment, only to find that none of the proposed political solutions were possible from their point of view either. In the end, the only solution was blood. Without all the well meaning international intervention over the years, maybe that solution would have come earlier, and many lives might have been spared. Something to think on the next time someone trots out the line that there are no military solutions, only political ones.
Elephant Complex is the best contemporary account of Sri Lanka. There, that’s short and to the point. If you have an interest in the country – and I have, since my father is Sri Lankan – then this book is required reading. It also has a secondary function, that I will concentrate on here, in detailing the sort of preparation, work and temperament that is required to make an exceptional travel writer, and John Gimlette is an exceptional travel writer. What makes him even better in this capacity is that his full-time, day job is that of London solicitor, but every so often he takes off for some far-flung part of the world and brings it back with him in exquisite prose. He even looks like a solicitor!
He is the Wallace Stevens of travel writing.
As to the elements of being a travel writer, first there is the preparation. So far as I can tell, Gimlette has read everything that there is to read, at least in English, about Sri Lanka, from Robert Knox’s account of his 20-year captivity in the 17th century, through the accounts of Victorians such as James Emerson Tennent, through to the many competing and conflicting accounts of the long war between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers. He says in his prologue that he spent two years researching Sri Lanka before visiting the country, and it shows in his writing. But his research was not confined to reading: he made contacts with many of the most significant players in contemporary Sri Lanka, interviewing them either before he went or during his three months in the country. For that is the next remarkable aspect of the book. Gimlette only spent three months there. That might sound like a long time, but having spent six weeks there myself recently, I can only marvel at how much more Gimlette managed to pack in to his schedule. Now that was no doubt helped by travelling there on his own, but what is even clearer is that, to be as accomplished a travel writer as Gimlette, the first requirement is an inexhaustible curiosity coupled with the desire to always open oneself to the country and the people among which you are travelling. Personally, I can manage that for a while, but then I become overloaded and have to withdraw behind the barricades of privilege that being a (comparatively) wealthy in a poor country allows. I simply don’t have the stamina for human interaction that Gimlette has.
So, while the idea of being paid to write about what I did on my holidays might initially appeal, during my own trip to Sri Lanka I realised that I did not have the combination of qualities required of a great travel writer. Gimlette has. Read his book.
One of the unanticipated pleasures of finishing The Northumbrian Thrones trilogy is the freedom that has brought in its wake to read other books set in 7th-century Northumbria. While writing Edwin, Oswald and Oswiu, I read one other novel set in that time and place, Jill Dalladay’s The Abbess of Whitby, and while I enjoyed the story, reading ‘my’ characters filtered through another writer’s perception of them produced a strange disorientation: it was like looking at a scene where everything is doubled. What was worse, that disorientation carried over for a while to my own writing. So I had to resolve to leave aside reading any other books set in 7th-century Northumbria until I had finished writing my own.
Now they’re done, I’ve been released. I’ve read, with great enjoyment, two of Matthew Harffy’s Beobrand novels (and am looking forward to reading the third as soon as time allows), with his own takes on the characters of Edwin, Oswald and Oswiu, and now I’ve finished Theresa Tomlinson’s The Tribute Bride. The heroine of the book, Acha, figures large in Oswald and Oswiu, as mother to kings, but in The Tribute Bride we see her as a girl and young woman, entering into her fateful marriage with Aethelfrith. So the vast majority of the events of the book occur before the start of Edwin, and I thoroughly enjoyed Tomlinson’s ingenious solution to the historical question of how Acha came to marry Aethelfrith and why her husband killed her father and sent her brother into exile. Because of the paucity of our sources, we can never know for sure exactly what happened in this bloody family saga, Tomlinson’s version rings with the verity of dramatic truth – if it didn’t happen like this, it should have!
So, for an engaging and engrossing journey into the deep roots of the struggle for mastery in 7th-century Northumbria, I commend this book to anyone who has enjoyed Edwin, Oswald and Oswiu.
James Aitcheson does, supremely well, what I hope to do in my own books: employ a profound knowledge of the history of the time he is writing about to make the actions of the men and women of the time understandable to modern readers. His Sworn Sword trilogy looks at the aftermath of 1066, and how William really conquered England, while his latest book, The Harrowing, represents a huge departure from the somewhat hackneyed norms of historical fiction writing, giving a determinedly downbeat and realistic portrayal of the impact of the Conquest on ordinary people. He’s also an excellent speaker – my boys were rapt when he spoke at the Battle of Hastings re-enactment last year and James will be there again this year. If you’re going, make sure you look out for him.
This is James with the boys:
And with me:
So I was delighted when James agreed to read Oswiu: King of Kings before publication – and even more pleased by what he thought of it. Here’s what he said:
In Oswiu, the concluding instalment in his Northumbrian Thrones trilogy, Edoardo Albert takes readers back to seventh-century England: a shadowy and turbulent era when Britons and Anglo-Saxons, heathens and Christians, contested for political and spiritual supremacy.
Albert writes with great passion; his love for this period of history shines through at every stage. His research is worn lightly, and yet his depiction of early medieval life has a strong ring of truth. In particular the post-Roman landscape of northern England, littered with roads, walls and other crumbling relics of the imperial past, is vividly described: a constant reminder that power is transitory and that even the mightiest empires must fall.
As regards the eponymous Oswiu, king of Bernicia, Albert paints a credible picture of a man struggling with the many burdens of rulership: weighed down by expectations of what a good king should be; plagued by threats to his power both at home and abroad; and overshadowed (as he has often been in history) by his celebrated elder brother and predecessor, Oswald.
Dynastic rivalries, shifting allegiances and pagan mysticism combine in this atmospheric novel, evoking a volatile world in which life is uncertain, authority and respect are hard-won, honour is all-important, and divine forces hold sway.
There. I couldn’t have asked for better. Thank you, James and remember, if you’re going to see the 950th anniversary re-enactment of the Battle of Hastings on 15 and 16 October, look for James in the book tent.
He was not going to die, not here, not now.
This is a review written by two people, or rather, the same one, separated by so many years that he is, to all intents and purposes, two different people. The first is me, now, age 52, married, with three sons; a home owner, a writer, a man set in the tramlines of a life that has barely moved six miles north on the Piccadilly Line through those years.
The second is me, age 6: a child, a boy who loved reading above all other pleasures, a mixed-race child in a ’60s London that was not, at least where we were living, in the least swinging or happening; a boy whose physical boundaries were circumscribed by being a shy child but whose mental scope had widened immeasurably when he discovered, first, reading and then, the local library.
This young me read Babar, all the Babar stories, and loved them. This young me could not see why there should be this barrier of wordlessness between us and animals – why shouldn’t they speak? And, for that matter, why shouldn’t Babar wear a bowler hat and take tea outside a cafe in an unnamed city that bore a striking resemblance to Paris. Nor did it seem odd to me that Babar should be able to get to Paris on foot, when running away from the horrible hunters who had killed his mother. If, God forbid, hunters killed my mother, I’d want to run away too, and preferably to somewhere where a nice, rich old lady would take me in, give me cake, dress me up nicely and teach me to speak properly.
The old me, getting the book from the library to rediscover his childhood, discovered rather how far away that childhood was. The faith in story – even though I am a writer – is not strong enough now to carry me over what seem to adult eyes the glaring gaps in the story. I think my adult eyes are wrong. Why shouldn’t animals talk? They were obviously meant to. Would I really be surprised if, one day, my cat looked up at me, sniffed, and said, ‘You really are an insufferable bore?’ before sitting on a newspaper to absorb the latest news.
No, I wouldn’t be surprised. In some deep sense, I’d think this the return of a natural order, somehow unaccountably lost along the way. But, for my young self, that lost natural order seemed so much closer and the leap, in book form, hardly any leap at all.
There are many reviews from old people decrying Babar for all sorts of reasons. Don’t believe them. They read with old eyes and older minds. Those for whom Babar was written see him, see story, with different eyes and clean minds. We old people bring the accretion of decades to him, when Babar needs to be read fresh, by a child still barely touched by the world. They will read him, and they will love him, and they will be right to do so.
I’ve now read six of Andrew Norriss’s books and I think I know what his work is about: every story I’ve read has been a drama of the good. But if drama requires conflict, how can there be drama where all the characters are good? That is the question Andrew Norriss seems to me to be setting out to explore in his books, and his writing, and its success or otherwise, represents an answer to that question.
‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ Thus begins Anna Karenina, with one of the most famous quotations in literature. And of course, if happy families are all alike, they must be inherently less interesting than unhappy ones. But thought and experience both tell me Tolstoy was wrong. Happiness ramifies, producing unique results; misery contracts, collapsing everything down to a cold, solid core. In this, Dante was right over Milton: the devil in the Inferno is encased in the ice of his own evil, immobile, but seeking to draw everything and everyone down into his own eternal stasis, whereas the Satan of Paradise Lost is active and engaged, more of a character than anyone else.
Here, Milton and other writers and film makers have fallen foul of one of the great shortcuts of dramatic art: it’s much, much easier to write an interesting evil character than a fascinating good one. Why should this be? One answer is that evil, at least in its everyday modes, is encoded into our substance. You don’t have to be an Augustinian to note the evidence of something very like original sin in our substance: simply think of the ease, the positive relief, with which good habits are shucked off when compared to the struggle against bad and destructive habits. We are creatures bent out of true, and thus it is much easier for a writer to understand what is so readily to mind in his or her own nature.
But goodness, true goodness, now, that is something else. Rarely encountered, even more rarely written about, it is almost impossible to capture in words or images precisely because it escapes the categories of thought: the normal binary operations of our mind (black/white, right/left) fail when we encounter true goodness and real evil. Evil is not the opposite of good, it is its absence, the hunger of the abyss for a being it is determined to expunge.
We are empty creatures, seeking fulfillment, and goodness is that fulfillment, in all its various, simple, ordinary forms. Each happy family is unique; it is the unhappy families that are alike, tending towards the dark attractor that is the cause and gourmet of human misery.
Andrew Norriss, is his deceptively slight books, provides a glimpse of escape from that core of despair. In his stories, good people are, genuinely, good, and work towards good ends, yet the threads of circumstance and the workings of providence (which is not without its own humour) conspire to provide the narrative tension that, on the artistic level, pulls the reader along, a smile of unknowing recognition on his face, towards the denouement. For, somewhere in our hearts, buried under the hurts of lives, we know that, really, this is what the world should be like – and will, one day, be.