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Egypt: Mubarak’s fall opens a new chapter in history and diplomacy


Faint columns of twisty smoke on the horizon. Dry dirt and dust whipped into clouds by the commotion in the street. Baking rooftops stretching for as far as the eye can see in the hot sunlight. Your guide ranting in impassioned Arabic, the immense weight and colour of the rich past hanging in the air around you. You can feel it stirring, something new and meaningful adding to it. Chants and songs of freedom from the crowds below, being marched into action and reality. A sense of being at the eye of a storm of change that will define generations. Then loud voices, angry noise and pounding footsteps on the stairs. Bangs as doors crash open; guns and uniforms glistening. An adrenalin fuelled fear as your face is shoved to the gritty floor.

During recent events in Egypt, articles with these sorts of ingredients and phrases were cropping up on the front pages of newspapers every day. Somehow journalists and writers managed to weave their own extraordinary experiences into some sort of comment on events and the news from the ground. Personally I can’t imagine anything more exciting and fulfilling than to be at the heart of such a historical event; effortlessly writing incredibly, simply by saying what your eyes see happening all around you. To work in such a fascinating country at a time of such dramatic upheaval and change is satisfying enough and probably would have overwhelmed me. But consider the implications of the outcome of the protests in Egypt and the ongoing rebellion in the Middle East, and the unfolding story of history becomes even more intoxicating, inspirational and important.

The opening months of 2011 are proving to be nothing short of momentous. I do not need to use hyperbole. Seemingly permanent regimes, which were unquestionably entrenched through power and fear, have crumbled and sprouted glaring weaknesses. As if this weren’t enthusing enough, the forces that have brought about such changes have been new, modern and democratic. People taking to the streets, tired with repression and the state of their economies, have brought about reform and the toppling of infamous regimes. Mass meetings were organized and propelled by tools alien to historians and political analysts, like Facebook and Twitter. Despite distrust of the West, fuelled by its support of the dictators being ousted, most demonstrators called for democratic systems similar to our own that could transform the way the world works together. The true power of politics has been restored.

Egypt is the most high profile case so far but the disruption is ongoing. At the moment it’s Libya in turmoil. We are living through a new age of productive and successful political action. The scenes in Egypt put student protests in this country from the tail end of last year in the shade, but all the demonstrations are part of a global trend. In the continuing difficulties lingering from the economic crisis, we are once again witnessing the interconnectivity of the modern world. And in a rare time of genuine history in a world which had seemingly seen everything, the need for a new form of diplomacy once again emerges.

It was frankly embarrassing for Britain and the US to have such an ever shifting, vague stance on the Egyptian crisis as it unfolded. Of course the dangers and difficulties were plain. We could not tolerate another radical Islamic country, another Iran in a volatile region, particularly in the place of a moderate tourist destination with a stable relationship with Israel. But it was rapidly clear that President Mubarak’s situation was untenable. As soon as this became obvious it became self-defeating to continue to offer even the slightest veil of support for him. Especially when even before the crisis, particularly with Liberals in government, Britain should have been adopting a more comprehensible, pro-democracy/anti-dictatorship stance. Eventually Nick Clegg refreshingly admitted that events in Egypt were “exciting”. Of course they were, this was a whole new kind of revolution; 21st century and democratic, not 20th and Communist.

Britain may no longer be a big player on the world stage, but it once was. As a result of the actions of the British Empire in the past, British governments shall always have a strong duty to nations it has had a considerable hand in shaping. William Hague therefore, as Foreign Secretary, should always have been supportive of the wishes of the Egyptian people. For too long democracies in the West, cajoled by America, have tolerated regimes that abuse civil rights in favour of “stability”. The events of early 2011 have proved that perfect stability is a myth. Any leadership is prone to volatility and violence. Therefore it’s time governments started to stand truly by the philosophies and politics they claim to espouse, and have faith in the people of other nations to make the right choices. There’s a long way to go in Egypt, but so far the people have proved they want democracy, not just a new controlling leadership in the shape of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Debate continues to rage about the best way to deploy the foreign office in the 21st century; what is Britain’s global role? In the past I’ve argued it should be combating climate change and this remains important. But now, given the changing tides, it’s time we started ending support for corrupt governments and supporting the spread of democratic values in a hands-off way. With influence shifting east to China and India, a process of democratisation in the Middle East could prove crucial to the direction of the next century, given the treasure trove of natural resources and energy stored there. A spirit of cooperation, empathy and understanding is needed to face the numerous oncoming challenges and hurdles. Democracy and the UN can help with this.

Other developments in diplomacy mean that we in the West do not merely have to talk the talk of peace either. There are new methods of direct action to punish inflammatory behaviour and enforce calm. Recently details emerged of the Stuxnet computer virus attack on Iran’s nuclear programme, which set it back years. It was a major boost for President Obama’s approach, which has come under fire for its lack of action. Obama can continue to seem reasonable, as he’s always offered the chance of negotiation to Iran. But despite the attack not being officially linked to any government, it’s obvious certain governments sanctioned it. This sort of non-deadly cyber warfare could be the far preferable stick in future diplomatic disputes, as opposed to the nuclear weapons of the Cold War era. Of course not all cyber warfare is so harmless; certain attacks on infrastructure have the potential to reduce societies to chaos and cause scores of deaths. But that’s just a further reason to develop our capabilities, both defensively and offensively, and deploy them in conjunction with our diplomatic aims. Trashing each other’s technical hardware is a far nicer scenario than devastating our cities and if nothing else it will give the West a genuine moral high ground for a change.

As Egypt and other countries begin a transition to fairer governance, it’s innovative methods like these we should use as a last resort to hinder and halt dangerous elements plotting to seize control, as opposed to rash deployments of armed forces. In this new era of history and diplomacy it’s vital we respect the people of other nations and keep them onside. For they now know where the real power lies; with themselves.

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In The Loop


Imagine a world in which Tesco invaded Denmark. That’s right the supermarket, grabbing itself a piece of prime Scandinavian real estate. Imagine television listings brightened by the presence of celebrity game show, Rape An Ape, complete with catchy theme tune. Imagine a political landscape in which David Cameron was a forgotten has-been like the Conservative leaders that preceded him and Tony Blair roams the streets of Baghdad, bearded, greying and haunted by his contorted legacy. These mad and brilliant ideas are all generated by the brain of Armando Iannucci for his hilarious and unique BBC series Time Trumpet. Loving this as much as I did I had no hesitation in snapping up In The Loop from amongst the many varied seasonal offers at HMV.

Released in 2009, In The Loop is of course a feature length, larger scale version of The Thick of It, an enormously successful political satire first launched on BBC4 that has since acquired a cult following. The popularity of the show is not just down to witty and intelligent scripts, but perhaps largely due to the superb and vibrant character that is Malcolm Tucker, political spin doctor. Played magnificently by Peter Capaldi, Tucker is Number 10’s attack dog, unleashed to deal with media storms reflecting badly on government. He spits out line after line of venomous insults, dripping with graphic and vulgar imagery. He hovers around in a frenzy, fretting about the incompetence of others. His swearing is so loud and non-stop that in one scene a passing American accosts him; “Enough with the curse words pal”. Tucker simply replies with a volley of typical vitriol.

In London Tucker is the big cheese, charging about confidently, marching into ministerial offices like he owns the place and intimidating cabinet members. Tom Hollander is an impressive addition to the cast as a bumbling everyman figure, essentially well meaning but conscious of his infant career. He tries valiantly to talk sense to Tucker, only to be bulldozed aside and dominated like the rest. A few too many slightly opinionated responses to interview questions about the developing situation in the Middle East and a “will they/won’t they” war (no prizes for guessing the recent crisis used for inspiration), and Hollander’s International Development minister is dispatched to Washington to quell fears about his resignation and bribe him back on side. Hilariously and accurately he is repeatedly told to stick to the government line, without being told clearly what this is, in fact he is simply baffled by the repeated blasts of explanation from Tucker.

In The Loop is impressive because once things shift to Washington the writers do a wonderful job of creating believable and amusing Yank career vultures too. Across the pond their own inter-departmental war is raging, between those for and against conflict, and no one will overtly announce what they’re rushing around and bickering about. A funny speech from Hollander’s character back home, trying to be ambiguous about the UK’s stance with typical MP speak, has been adapted and taken on by the pro-war Americans, with the cliché phrase “climb the mountain of conflict” isolated.

Tucker tags along for the ride, keen to ensure his mistake prone minister doesn’t balls up again. Hollander is accompanied by his geeky and clumsy new aide, played by Chris Addison, who gives a warm and funny performance. He is surprisingly well connected and becomes crucial to the plot, whilst remaining inept. Drawing his Washington trip he beds an old American university colleague and when this is found out by his British Foreign Office girlfriend on his return, he comically and awkwardly attempts to claim he did it to try and stop the war. Things zip along with laughs in every scene, the stateside action broken up with a constituency visit and an irate Steve Coogan, until the climax of a vote at the UN for or against military action.

Prior to the vote Malcolm Tucker is slapped down by his American superiors. In Washington he is a castrated beast, a joke to the hot shot Yanks. Push aside his vulgarity and the obvious point of the film and the series, to get us to look at the ridiculous and distorted nature of modern political spin, truly engineered and evolved by Blair with Alastair Campbell, and Tucker is irresistibly likeable as a character. He is weirdly brilliant at what he does. And bewilderingly you root for him as he rises from the ashes, despite the immorality and twisted motivation. You don’t mind so much as Hollander’s eventual moral stand is crushed by his masterful scheming. You laugh along and rejoice in his charisma and sheer balls, as he and fellow Scott sidekick Paul Higgins, playing Senior Press Officer Jamie McDonald back in Britain, smash their way to their objectives. In The Loop is an intelligent and endlessly funny Christmas present, but however much Tucker’s insults have you splitting your sides, you wouldn’t want him around the family turkey dinner table.

On London/Birdsong at the Comedy Theatre


I have fallen in love again. How refreshing though that it’s not a woman that is the focus of my affection, but a city. Like a woman, this city is indifferent to me, but unlike with women this vast, inexpressible indifference merely adds to the irresistible charm of the place. I like feeling insignificant and anonymous within its boundaries, in fact I positively relish the sense of oblivion. The hustle and bustle, the noise, the possibilities; it all submerges every little, trivial concern I might have. I drown in the ocean of seemingly limitless fuel for my imagination and oh how good it feels. To feel simultaneously satisfied that I am gradually gaining a geography of the place, whilst barely scratching the surface of what is really there, of all that’s on offer. Gorgeous girls galore, lines and lines of landmarks, tearaway taxis, bulging buses, teeming theatres, pulsing pavements and many marvellous museums; it’s all there. If variety is the spice of life then London has a hot twang I am acquiring a ravenous taste for.

But now I am worried, I do not have my next trip lined up, pencilled in the diary. I am hungry for the city and fear the withdrawal symptoms. Having only recently discovered the joys of walking the capital I crave the stroll crammed with sights and sounds. How can anything else compare? Things simply happen in London. And on such a majestic scale that it still feels like the centre of a world empire, still feels like a great, churning engine of commerce that could achieve so much. There’s so much to discover. I’m not one for shopping, unless it’s an awe inspiring jaunt through the grandeur of Harrods, not buying anything but soaking up my surroundings. And yet this weekend the scale of the shops in London surprised my senses and seduced me. Why I don’t know, I’ve always known they were there, been there before. But this time I found myself thinking how wonderful it would be to able to pop out from home, my own base, to these places, perhaps with one item in mind, only to leave with others you forgot you wanted or didn’t know you did. I could have spent hours and hours trawling through books, it seemed impossible that they would not have what you wanted and even if they didn’t there was bound to be at least three or four alternatives you’d never have thought of. You’d feel nervous about the state of your bank balance and a little guilty, but in an exciting way; how could life ever be boring? And in some places things were cheaper anyway! What am I still doing out in the dead limbs of the countryside, when everything gathers there at the heart of everything?

Of course I know this is naive and not everything about London is great. I felt pursued by Cafe Neros the whole weekend for example, to such an extent that my train even passed one of their out of town storage facilities. They seem to have an outpost on every street. It’s either them or Pret A Manger, or often both. And I know perhaps a prolonged stay might have me cursing the dirty grime and toil and danger of city life. But increasingly now, in what I would like to think of as my clearer moments, I am realising that “life is islands of ecstasy in an ocean of ennui”, as The Dice Man puts it, and London is the sort of place that the islands are more frequent. I mean for me at the moment simply a glimpse of the skyline is thrilling and I can’t imagine that thrill ever dying out completely. So I think I’ve decided as one of my life’s few certainties that I want to live in our glorious capital city, even if I must wait a few years: London is the goal.

Anyway onto the main event then, after the distracting diversion of my musings. I was in London yet again to see a stage adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’ successful novel Birdsong. It seemed appropriate that I would see this acclaimed First World War story dramatised a day before Remembrance Sunday, but insensitively inappropriate, if only in a trivial way, that the home of the production was the Comedy Theatre on Panton Street, just around the corner from Trafalgar Square. Whilst there were moments of comedy in Birdsong this was hardly stand-up and the key overarching themes were mainly grim and immensely serious. Nevertheless I swallowed my grievances about the suitability of the theatre and purchased a programme.

Perusing it prior to the start of the play I was intrigued by the sensitive artwork and pleasantly surprised to recognise a number of the performers. I knew Ben Barnes, of Prince Caspian fame, was playing central character Stephen Wraysford but couldn’t really care less about his previous body of work. However Nicholas Farrell has an impressive stage, film and TV CV. I think it was predominantly Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet that I recognised him from, in which he played Horatio. But he’d also been in Torchwood and Spooks. Spooks is one of my favourite series, not least because of its endless vistas of a glamorous London, and I was delighted to find that Isabelle Azaire, the main female love interest of Stephen, would be played by Genevieve O’Reilly, who played a double crossing CIA agent in the last series, working for a shadowy secret organisation and seducing MI5 officers with sultry American tones. The other most recognisable face was that of Lee Ross, playing the role of vital sapper character Jack Firebrace, whose credits included Eastenders and The Catherine Tate Show.

I did have slight misgivings about the fact that Farrell would play both cruel, unloving French husband Rene Azaire in the early scenes and Captain Gray later on, just as Iain Mitchell would play both the insufferable French oath Berard and then the insufferable English oath Colonel Barclay. But both actors produced such accomplished performances that I was willing to overlook this choice of economy. In fact in my view Farrell’s experience clearly showed and he was the highlight of the play in terms of quality acting. I had wondered if the performers would adopt French accents for the French scenes but was relieved they did not, with Farrell differentiating between his two characters sufficiently with a well executed Scottish accent for Captain Gray. The fact that everyone was speaking English in France was dealt with as matter-of-factly and skilfully as in the novel, with one of the characters remarking at some point that Stephen’s French was excellent, for which he thanked them.

I had always liked the novel by Faulks. In fact at the time I had first read it I was enthralled by it. A friend of mine remarked the other day that it had felt too much like a novel and I know what she means. It feels terribly contrived at times and is riddled with cliché and the play does not get away with them so well. I really should have re-read the book in order to properly critique the play and also in order to recall whether or not it was truly as good as I remember. Perhaps I was simply seduced by the period as the war fascinates me, as well as the romance, I’m a hopeless romantic. But from memory I know that the narrative sucked you into Stephen’s predicament so you felt strong ties with him. What I liked was the way the powerful and passionate love scenes early on gave Stephen a back-story and purpose that differentiated him from the usual heroes of the trenches. The book is rich with incident and historical detail but is not overloaded with it; here I disagree with my friend. I have read historical fiction that makes a fetish of research, David Mitchell’s latest The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet did it for long periods, but Birdsong did not. In Birdsong the focus was the emotional and timeless themes of humanity.

Some of the most affecting and accurate of these themes are difficult to express in words on a page, let alone dramatically on stage. There’s no doubt that a lot of what is good from the novel does not successfully transfer and the shame for the play is that Rachel Wagstaff tries to convey Stephen’s motivations and musings poorly. Neither Wagstaff’s writing nor Ben Barnes’ acting is up to the long passages in which Stephen is supposedly composing thoughts for his diary, alone at the front of the stage. Much of the first act, in which Stephen falls for the married Isabelle, is driven by his private reflections. Of course it was always going to be impossible to transform the explicit, erotic sex scenes of the novel to the stage without creating a very different type of production altogether, but for the entire first act you can sense Wagstaff wrestling with the dilemma of how to convey the intensity of Stephen’s love adequately, knowing how vital it is to the events that follow. Somehow in the novel you get caught up and follow Stephen along, not questioning whether this is just seedy, passionate lust or misguided youthful emotions. In the play though when Barnes says “I love you and I always will”, each time it sounds childish and clichéd and I would find myself agreeing with my friend more and more. Barnes just seemed far too smitten in a sickening sense, rather than a stirring, moving one.

In the programme I found that Wagstaff’s first play had been called The Soldier and was set in 1915. So she was on more familiar ground in act two when the action jumps forward to The Somme in 1916 and a wartime setting. It’s disappointing that someone could not have done a better job of act one though as I know how riveted and gripped by it I was in the book and genuinely despondent to find the action skip so far ahead. And caring about the love story becomes so crucial later on. Nevertheless I am making it sound worse than it was. Despite the clunky awkwardness of Barnes’ soliloquy like sections at times, the actual scenes were passable to good, if lacking the emotional  power (and erotic excitement) of the novel. And act two was a considerable improvement, despite the tedious diary format continuing, only this time with working class lad Jack Firebrace’s toned down, simpler reflections on things and letters back home. Generally though the camaraderie of the front Wagstaff captures well, with the humour of jolly idiot Berard in act one replaced by male banter and the idiocy of officers.

Another friend of mine, this one a fellow fan of Birdsong, was eager to hear how the tunnels were reproduced on stage. For this was another unique feature of Birdsong’s take on the war: action in the competing tunnels both sides dug out beneath no man’s land for various reasons. There were communication tunnels, fighting tunnels and explosive tunnels for blowing up the enemy from below. Birdsong has nearly been made into a film several times and I always thought that the claustrophobic, atmospheric scenes in tunnels, particularly the shoot-out, would make dramatic action set pieces. And so they did on stage too. Much of the effect of being underground was created through lighting, with blackness enveloping the stage besides gentle amber glows at the front. The rest was done by a low overhanging wall that came about half-way down the stage. The actors would then crawl beneath this, before emerging into the front of the stage, further along the tunnel where you could stand. Then for the fight with German soldiers, when two tunnels found each other, dust poured out along with sounds of an explosion. The Germans emerged stunned and surprised, brandishing pistols at the elevated rear of the stage, looking down on the Brit characters at the front. Shots that smash your ear drums were fired and an even louder, brighter grenade thrown. I had never seen such exciting scenes on stage.

But then I’m still a relative newcomer to theatre. I now have the inclination to discover more of it (particularly the charm and sophistication of Shakespeare) but it’s a world that was mostly cut off to me whilst growing up. Edging my way to my seat was still an act of deft, death defying balance as far I’m concerned. This is not me moaning though; I absolutely love the look and feel of the theatre. Just to know the building oozed history compared to the local multiplex was so interesting and fascinating to me. And even my balcony seat, when suitably armed with £1 binoculars, was the best of both worlds; broad overview of everything coupled with close-ups.

In the final act Birdsong came into its own. Even Barnes, who had struggled to convince me he had the required acting heft to play Wraysford, upped his game a gear. It was now that I remembered how this portion of the novel was the most moving and the play benefitted considerably from ditching the unnecessary modern day section of the novel, which seemed to be there simply to reflect Faulks’ own experiences in researching the book. Faulks and Wagstaff had both been heavily dependent on the diaries of soldiers in their writing process, but the difference was Faulks had interweaved his research in a different, rich style, whereas Wagstaff had actually simply used the diary device in her drama; it seemed unimaginative and unable to truly engage the audience. In this final chunk of the play the lonely speeches at the front of the stage were ditched almost completely and when they were used they worked much better. There was also more time on stage for both Jeanne and Stephen, who had a connection I did not recall from the novels but was intriguing. Jeanne was wonderfully played by Zoe Waites. She seemed strongly drawn to Stephen, desperate to share her sister’s secret with him to ease his gloomy woe but too loyal to break her promise.

Then there were the big climatic scenes: a reunion between Stephen and Isabelle and a claustrophobic collapse that imprisons Jack and Stephen in the tunnels. I wish I could remember the novel better, as I have a feeling there were changes, particularly as I remember a bird being used in the tunnel and Stephen’s phobia manifesting itself down there. Generally though this theme was dealt with well, with some nice dialogue between Stephen and Jeanne when she tries to lift him from depression and they debate the merits and evils of Birdsong. The scene in which Stephen sees Isabelle again was so moving, far more so than the joyous larking about of the early affair by the river and despite these scenes not completely convincing me. I was so affected by the speeches about love, even with some corny, cheesy lines, that I had to rush to the toilet when the play had finished and dispatch a rash text to the one I love in vain; my equivalent of a drunken splurge of affection, so intoxicated was I by the drama that I simply had to tell her I loved her, it was all that mattered. The effect this scene had on me somewhat overshadowed the final scenes with Jack in the tunnel and the rescue and the end of the war. But these were also well done. I was so relieved the play ended on a high and overall there’s no doubt that it was a quality production, if a little flawed at times. From my recollections of the novel though it was never going to surpass its brilliance, merely echo it and be good in different ways.