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Tigerman by Nick Harkaway

Windmill, 2015, 378 p.

 Tigerman cover

When I started this it read like some sort of odd fusion between Michael Chabon and Gabriel García Márquez. Why? Well, there’s the boy whose great interest is in comic books (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay). Then the viewpoint character is referred to all but exclusively as “the Sergeant” (The General in his Labyrinth) and the setting is exotic – to me at least. The island of Mancreu in the north part of the Indian Ocean. The Sergeant has seen (messy) service in Afghanistan, Iraq and Bosnia and been farmed out to the island as a British Brevet-Consul with strict instructions to do, or interfere with, nothing. Yet in his new home he has a quasi-police role. Think Death in Paradise with all the twee bits ruthlessly excised except in a different ocean and a menacing air to the whole island.

For Mancreu has been the subject of an environmental disaster in its subterranean magma well (all sorts of undesirable biological emanations now proceed from there at irregular intervals) and is under sentence of death, “so wretchedly polluted that it must be sterilised by fire,” by the international community. People have already left – Leaving parties de rigueur – and the rest of the population is only biding its time. On land an international force known as NatProMan has a sort of rules-enforcement function. Offshore a Black Fleet is up to no good and tales circulate of a criminal/pirate/underworld type dubbed Bad Jack who lurks in the island’s shadows.

The Sergeant has developed a fatherly interest in the boy – who seems to have no parents but is liberally supplied with comic books and speaks fluent comic. In a meta-fictional moment the boy says of the stories in the comics, “There must be development-over-time or it is just noise.”

Things are shaken up when a bunch of gunmen come into Shola’s bar (where the Sergeant and the boy go to take tea) and shooting starts. Shola is killed but the Sergeant protects the boy with a nifty piece of action using for a weapon a tin containing custard powder which he employs as a sort of grenade. It explodes when the gunmen fire at it in defence. This gives the Sergeant the opportunity to overwhelm the remaining gunmen.

After the Sergeant discovers the boy – who may be called Robin but then again that could be a Batman joke – has been severely beaten and some of his comics systematically ripped apart as a punishment they cook up a plan between them. Inspired by the Sergeant’s somewhat magic realist encounter with a tiger (which he has related to the boy) the Sergeant, with the aid of a mask and some painted body armour, will become “Tigerman” to deal with the island’s bad guys. After all, “Myths and monsters were a human weakness, even on places not about to be evacuated and sterilised by fire.”

The plot sharpens when a missile is fired from the Black Fleet onto the building where the arrested gunmen are being held but it kind of jumped the shark later when the exact relationship between the boy and Bad Jack is revealed.

Along the way the NatProMan chief ruminates, “You had to listen to what a Brit was saying – which was invariably that he thought X Y Z was a terrific idea and he hoped it went well for you – while at the same time paying heed to the greasy, nauseous suspicion you had that, although every word and phrase indicated approval, somehow the sum of the whole was that you’d have to be a mental pygmy to come up with this plan and a complete fucking idiot to pursue it…. they didn’t do it on purpose. Brits actually thought that subtext was plain text.”

The last few pages strive for an emotional reaction from the reader but Harkaway hasn’t done quite enough in the preceding ones to earn it which is a shame as I really liked his previous novel Angelmaker.

Pedant’s corner:- Bad Jack is at one point rendered in French as Mauvais Jacques. I had always thought Jacques was French for James, as in Jacobite, not Jack. Otherwise; the \Sergeant is told to “rest up” by the previous Consul (rest up is a USianism, a Brit would more likely say rest,) “which he could use about now” (use is an USianism; which he could do with about now,)”the bigness of this idea”(x2; what an ugly expression,) mortician (undertaker,) sit-uations (not at a line break so situations,) with with (only one with required,) Freddy Mercury (Freddie Mercury,) “‘She wants a friendly face, is all’” (is all is USian, a Brit would say, ‘that’s all’,) a missing comma before the end quote mark of a piece of dialogue and another missing before a new piece, phosphorous flares (phosphorus,) there were a lot of positions (there were lots of positions.)

Washington Village, Tyne and Wear

Washington Village, Tyne and Wear is not to be confused with the New Town which surrounds it.

The family of George Washington, first President of the US, came from here.

General view. The War Memorial is just to right of centre:-

Washington Village, Tyne and Wear

War Memorial front view, WW1 names on base, WW2 on pillar:-

Washington Village, War Memorial

War Memorial Reverse. WW1 Names on base, Other conflicts on pillar. Iraq 2003, Gulf War 1990-1, Falklands 1982, seven for Afghanistan, 2006-13:-

Washington Village, War Memorial Reverse

Garden of Remembrance, to rear of memorial. Dedicated to the fallen in wars and conflicts:-

Washington Village, Garden of Remembrance

Buxton War Memorial

Buxton’s War Memorial is prominently situated on a small hill opposite the spa and close to the main shopping area.

From the spa side:-

Buxton War Memorial

Looking towards the main street. First World War names on the plaque:-

Buxton War Memorial, Side View

Looking towards the spa. First World War names above, Second World War below:

Buxton War Memorial Plaques

Other conflicts; Cyprus Emergency, Afghanistan and Palestine Conflicts, Korean War:-

Buxton War Memorial, Other Conflicts

When Will They Ever Learn?

The UK under Tony Blair followed blindly (hung on the coat-tails?) where the US led in invading Iraq – ostensibly to get rid of weapons of mass destruction (which anybody with the slightest understanding of Saddam Hussein’s psychology knew didn’t exist – though he wanted us, but more especially Iran, to think they did) but really simply to be seen to be doing something about the attacks on the World Trade Center (which Saddam Hussein had not a thing to do with; Al Qaida had no presence in Iraq before the war precisely because he had such a firm grip on things they weren’t allowed one) the operations in Afghanistan not being satisfactory in rooting out Osama Bin Laden, or just possibly to “secure” oil supplies.

Now that all worked out terribly well, didn’t it?

About two years ago some of the blowback from the mistakes of those adventures resulted in a vote in the UK Parliament on bombing Syria. No consensus on such action could be found.

Yesterday, more or less prompted by the murders committed by Isis/Isil/Daesh in Paris, a measure to bomb Syria was passed by that Parliament’s successor. This time, though, the target is different. Not the forces of President Assad, but those of Daesh.

The decision seems to be from the “grab at a false syllogism” school. This goes along the lines of, “The events in Paris were terrible. Something must be done about the perpetrators. Bombing is something. Therefore we must bomb.”

The fact that bombing Syria is against international law, notwithstanding the recent UN resolution, that bombing by near enough everybody else has had absolutely no effect in reducing Daesh’s activities does not seem to count against this argument. The facts that it won’t defeat them, that it won’t make us any safer, that it will only increase their appeal to potential adherents, that such a response is precisely what they look for when planning their atrocities weighed nothing against the apparent need to be seen to be doing something. Anything.

I had to give a hollow laugh when in the run-up to the vote Mr Irresponsible, aka David Cameron, havered on about outsourcing our security to others. If the UK is not outsourcing its security to others why, exactly, is it a member of NATO? (And, as a by-the by, what exactly is the purpose of the nuclear deterrent? France’s Force de Frappe didn’t prevent the Charlie Hebdo attacks nor those of this November. Trident didn’t stop the IRA nor 7/7 bombers.)

He also said that opponents of the bombing were terrorist sympathisers. Language such as that proves once again that the man is unfit to be Prime Minister.

Yes Daesh is a murdering, barbaric organisation utterly antithetical to freedom. But, Mr Cameron. Isn’t it possible conscientiously to think that bombing is a strategic mistake? That it will only encourage Daesh that it has got under our skin? That it will be profoundly counter-productive? That it will cause civilian casualties far in excess of any damage it might do to Daesh? That it will not bring about an end to Daesh? That it will not reassure Muslims in Britain that war is not being waged against their religion? That it makes us even more of a target than we were already? That it can only strengthen the position of the man the original bombing was supposed to help oust?

The history of British interference in the Middle East goes back a long way. The Sykes-Picot Agreement carved the area up between Britain and France, becoming effective after the Great War. In the 1920s the RAF (in Iraq) was the first air-force in the world to bomb indigenous rebels though it’s likely civilians bore the brunt as usual. The UK mandate in Palestine led (in)directly to the formation of Israel. Along with the US Britain was instrumental in removing the Mossadeq regime from Iran in the 1950s. Then there was the chaos we recently left behind in Iraq and contributed to in Libya.

Our politicians seem to have forgotten all this. Unlike them, the locals have long memories.

I can’t see anything good coming out of this at all.

The Holocaust and the State

There was an interesting article in the Guardian of 16/9/15 where Timothy Snyder argued that the conditions necessary for the Holocaust of Jews (and others, but mainly Jews) by the Nazis to take place have largely been misunderstood.

Snyder sees it as crucial that in the areas where most killings occurred, principally in the lands of pre-war Poland, the Baltic States and what had been Soviet Belarus and Ukraine, the apparatus of the state was no longer functioning – had indeed been deliberately destroyed. This was the necessary precondition for the activities of the Einsatzgruppen and the SS to be so unconstrained.

Though Snyder’s focus is on Eastern Europe I found myself thinking that in Western Europe too the absence of state institutions was a factor contributing to whether or not transportations to the killing zones of those whom the Nazis saw as undesirables came about. In Denmark, where the king remained and most institutions stayed intact (at least until 1943,) most of the Jews escaped or survived. By contrast in the Netherlands, whose monarch went into exile in Britain, and in France, where the Third Republic collapsed and Vichy was a puppet, deportations were much easier and in some cases even facilitated.

We have seen the consequences of the absence of the state relatively recently in Afghanistan – the Taliban would not have come to power there if not for the chaos engendered by, first, the Soviet presence and then its retreat (effectively driven out by a mujahideen aided and abetted via US and Western support) – in the disarray of Libya and now in Iraq and Syria where ISIS/ISIL/Daesh would not have had the opportunity to grow as quickly or at all if there had not been the vacuum created by the destruction of the Iraqi state and the failure to replace it.

Contrary to what some libertarians appear to think it seems the state really is a force for good.

Postscript:- While looking over the above it also occurred to me that the killing fields in Cambodia, while a consequence of Pol Pot’s take-over, were also due to state collapse, in this case that of the pre-revolutionary government. I suppose too that La Terreur in revolutionary France and the turmoil in the former Russian Empire after the Bolshevik coup are examples of what happens when state organisation suffers disruption. To avoid chaos a polity requires not people with guns but checks and balances; plus a functional judicial system capable of holding those in power to account.

Never Invade Afghanistan

Apart from providing the phrase for the category under which I have posted this (though the attribution is apparently disputed) 1950/60s Prime Minister Harold Macmillan also outlined the first rule of politics, “Never invade Afghanistan.”

I’m not quite sure exactly how many times British forces have been embroiled in that country over the years but the present conflict is at least the fourth. They have not usually turned out well.

I knew when the Soviet Union sent troops there in 1979 that they would be kicked out. I always suspected that our latest foray there would result in tears. As it does.

Why did – why do – our politicians not know? What are their advisers for?

Or did they just not listen?

The First Afghan War (1839-42) was particularly disastrous for the British as it encompassed their greatest defeat in Asia until the fall of Singapore in 1942. A withdrawal from Kabul through passes clogged with snow resulted in a massacre.

There is a relatively well-known painting “Remnants of an Army” by Elizabeth Butler which was said to depict the sole survivor. In fact around forty of the 16,000 who set out managed to survive.

I remember hearing a radio programme about the retreat which used a line from Thomas Campbell’s poem Hohenlinden, “The snow shall be their winding sheet,” as its title.

The Second Afghan War (1878-80) was the one that turned Major General Frederick Roberts into a national hero, Lord Roberts of Kandahar, when he force-marched his troops to the relief of a British force beseiged there. Nevertheless the British eventually withdrew.

The Third Afghan War (1919) was a smaller affair amd resolved little but still had many British casualties.

One of the few survivors of the retreat from Kabul in the First Afghan War described it as “… a war begun for no wise purpose, carried on with a strange mixture of rashness and timidity, brought to a close after suffering and disaster, without much glory attached either to the government which directed, or the great body of troops which waged it. Not one benefit, political or military, was acquired with this war. Our eventual evacuation of the country resembled the retreat of an army defeated.”

Nothing much changes.

Infamy

I suppose a seventieth anniversary is something special but perhaps it is more so when it involves an almost iconic event.

7/12/2011 marks seventy years since the Pearl Harbor attack, the event which turned relatively localised war into World War. “7th December 1941: a date which will live in Infamy,” – FDR.

It is sobering to realise that the Second World War lasted less than four years after that. The US and UK have now had troops dying in Afghanistan for much longer than that; and in Iraq for not much less time. Not so many troops dying admittedly, but dying nonetheless.

I vaguely remember Gore Vidal saying something to the effect that the difference between Pearl Harbor and the September 11th attack was that no-one saw the latter one coming. He had a personal reason to blame the US authorities for the war with Japan, though. His lover died in the Pacific fighting.

The Eagle

Off to Dunfermline for this adaptation of Rosemary Sutcliff‘s novel The Eagle of the Ninth. I don€’t remember if I’€™ve read the book; if so it was as a child. I have a vague recall of a television production of the story in my youth but forgot all the details except that it involved the legend of the loss of a Roman legion, complete with imperial eagle, in the wilds north of Hadrian€’s Wall (or would it be the Antonine Wall?)

I read recently the latest historical thinking is that the legion may never actually have been lost, just absent from the records. It might simply have been redeployed elsewhere in the Roman Empire. Still, print the legend, eh?

The film’s plot is simple. Marcus Aquila, the son of the lost (and hence disgraced) legion commander comes to Britain, is wounded, saves the life of a gladiatorial combatant who becomes his slave and the pair go off to search for the lost eagle. Cue male bonding and the dawning of mutual warmth and respect. There was a strong Breakback Mountain type of undertone towards the end.

Echoes of current imperial adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan (now add Libya?) are of course present – especially in the patrician Romans’ lack of understanding of the ways of the indigenous population.

The scenery was stunning – even if it was shot in Super Gloom-o-Vision. Lowering clouds and twilight vistas abounded. Plus lots of rain.

It may seem silly but I could have done with a little less violence; not that there was much actual blood spurting. Why must the cinema sound be so loud, though? This was particularly true of the adverts and trailers beforehand – almost deafening.

The acting was convincing enough throughout. I had never seen either of the leads, Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell before. Donald Sutherland was spectacularly ill cast, though, as Marcus Aquila’€™s uncle.

Can Someone Not Rid Us Of This Clown?

I see our PM, the inestimable Mr Irresponsible wants to use our already overstretched military forces to become embroiled in the situation in Libya. (There is by the way a fantastic typo in the headline of that link.)

Has he learned nothing from our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan? And he’s just downscaled the RAF’s training programme, the very service whose input will be most required in the most likely operations in Libya.

Any use of UK military force in Libya is liable to backfire as it did in those other countries. Can DC guarantee no innocent casualties from such a development? Even deaths or injuries to those loyal to Gaddafi, those in the firing line in other words, could be a provocation too far.

If Gadaffi subsequently goes their families will resent the fact they were killed/injured by foreigners. If he stays his regime is not going to be enamoured of us. Either way our national interest is weakened.

While I personally would like to see him gone Gadaffi’s destiny ought to lie in the hands of Libyans.

DC’s survival is unfortunately not in the hands of us Britons. We won’t get the chance to chuck him out for another four years (think about it) by which time the damage he and his smirking side-kick George Osborne – have you ever seen such a smug, irritating so-and-so, he outranks even Kenneth Baker in that regard – will have done to the fabric of British life will be unrepairable.

Where are the Lib Dems when you need them?

Forgotten they’re supposed to be jointly in charge, it would seem.

Boer War Memorial, Edinburgh

On a sudden impulse we went to Edinburgh on Sunday morning. (Well the good lady wanted to return an item to a shop.)

It was a pleasure not to have to fight our way through crowds on Princes Street as we would have on a Saturday.

I had the camera along and ended up taking 46 photos.

This is the war memorial that stands on North Bridge (the one above Waverley Station.) The uniforms are of the South African War/Wars.

If you read the writing (click on the picture to enlarge) it’s not just to commemorate those wars but also engagements in Afghanistan (nothing changes, eh?) Egypt, Chin Lusha, Chitral and Tirah.

This bottom picture is of the plaque below the memorial. It commemorates the laying of the foundation stone of the North Bridge by some local worthy.

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