WHAT IN THE WORLD by PEADAR KING : a review

WHAT IN THE WORLD
AUTHOR: PEADAR KING
THE LIFFEY PRESS 264 PAGES; €19.95

Noma, or “grazers’ disease” is a tissue degenerative infection which attacks in particular children between two and six in certain areas of Sub-Saharan Africa. The mucous membrane in the mouth develops ulcers, which in turn degenerate surrounding tissue and eventually attack the bones of the face. The mortality rate is estimated at 80%. Simple treatment with antibiotics and proper nutrition can clear up the disease. It is, in other words, a disease of the Third World.

In 2009, “ What in the World,” RTE’s much praised documentary series, covered the disease during its fourth season in a programme entitled ”Noma in Niger.” The first programme of the series, in 2004, covered the extensive use child labour in India. The second series, in 2006, included a programme revisiting the Killing Fields of Cambodia. This highly readable book, written by the programme’s producer and presenter, Peadar King, recounts the experience of making the series and its high points between 2004 and 2009.

The series was designed to bring into sharp focus, for the Irish viewer, people and situations in the Third or Developing World, with particular reference to the how and why so many people live in abject conditions of poverty and disease. The book reflects this, with separate chapters giving screenshots of particular situations in nineteen countries, eighteen from Latin America, Africa and Asia, plus the United States (where the programme in 2006 covered the death penalty and the high incidence of black males in prison).

The author is unashamedly partisan, both in condemning the current world economic system and in upbraiding the political class in the west for, as he sees it, ceding power and authority to the international financial institutions who underpin this system. He is particularly scathing on the way in which the mainstream media contribute to what he calls the virtual invisibility of the poor and the disfavoured by ignoring them. He is also not slow to criticise Third World elites who misappropriate fortunes and exploit their own people.

Clearly neither the book nor the series can cover all the injustices in the world. However, by concentrating on the people experiencing injustice at first hand, the book brings the issues to life. So in Ecuador there are interviews with the leader of the Cofan people of Lago Agrio, pitched in legal battle with Chevron over pollution from oil drilling, and in Senegal with local fishermen who see their traditional fishing grounds plundered by large factory ships from Europe and Asia. In Laos the book carries heart rending interviews with the families of victims of cluster bombs, relics of US bombings a generation earlier.

There are some interesting revelations. In 1965 there were over 7000 Irish priests brothers and nuns in Africa, Asia and Latin America, 4000 in Africa alone; today there are fewer than 2000 Catholic missionaries in the entire continent. The vacuum, however, is being filled by Pentacostal and Evangelical missionaries with an effective, stripped down version of Christianity. The author asserts the growth of this religion is outstripping even that of Islam and far exceeds the efforts of the Catholic and mainstream Protestant churches, and, moreover, is doing so “ far away from the glare and scrutiny of most media.”

Population growth in Africa is stunning. In 1950 Africa had 221 million inhabitants, Europe 547 million. By 2010 Europe’s population was 738 million while Africa had risen to over a billion. The pressure on resources is enormous and growing. The continent is vastly wealthy in terms of natural resources, yet very little trickles down to the ordinary African. This is most dramatically portrayed in the chapter on oil rich Angola, a proxy battlefield during the Cold War, with the world’s most expensive capital city – Luanda, a country in which half the population subsist on a dollar a day, from which $10 billion in oil revenues seeps out annually, and which boasts Africa’s first billionaire – the President’s daughter.

The book will be an eye-opener for some, a timely reminder for others, of the human cost to those at the bottom, of the current way the world’s economy is managed to sustain the lifestyles of those at the top. Like the series, it is disturbing and thought provoking.

April 2013

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SUDDENLY, WHILE ABROAD; HITLER’S IRISH SLAVES by DAVID BLAKE KNOX : a review

SUDDENLY, WHILE ABROAD

HITLER’S IRISH SLAVES

AUTHOR: DAVID BLAKE KNOX

NEW ISLAND 315 pages; €16.99

On 2 March 1945, William Hutchinson Knox, from Dun Laoghaire, a merchant seaman aged 59, died in the Farge concentration labour camp just outside Bremen after five years in captivity. He died some days after an operation performed without anaesthetic, with four of his Irish comrades holding him down. This moving book by one of his relatives is the story of William and his 31 comrades, seamen from Ireland, who became Hitler’s Irish slaves.

Their story is harrowing. During the early years of the war, the Germans, using less than a dozen specially designed and disguised ships – Hilfskreuzers – wrought havoc on Allied ships, sinking or capturing almost a million tons of shipping. In the process they took thousands of prisoners, including a number of Irish merchant sailors.

Ireland was neutral during the Second World War though its neutrality was weighted very much in favour of the allies. Many Irish fought on the British side honourably and with distinction. Many thousands more worked in Britain’s factories.

Allied military straying into Ireland were routinely repatriated while their German counterparts were interned for the duration . There was close military and official cooperation between Ireland and Britain. The number of Irish siding with the Nazis was minute.

This neutrality may have been a factor in the treatment meted out to the Irish sailors. In those early years, with the outcome of the war uncertain, some on the German side, in part misinformed by some IRA figures, thought that Ireland could be of strategic value to Nazi Germany, and that some of the captured Irish could be persuaded to work for the Germans. Accordingly the Irish sailors were segregated out and sent to Drancy camp, near Paris.

When they refused to serve the German war effort, they were sent first to a POW camp in Germany, where the regime was tough but where there were limited but acknowledged guarantees of protection, while pressure on them was maintained. When they remained steadfast, they were eventually handed over to the SS in February 1943.

They were sent to a concentration labour camp in Farge in North Germany, being savagely beaten on arrival, some of the hundred thousand odd forced to work in the Neuengamme complex, building the Valentin Bunker, an enormous construction project ( ultimately unfinished) dreamed up by Albert Speer to house the assembly of a new type of super submarine.

Two years of “sheer hell”, as Christopher Ryan described it, followed. Their limited protection under the Geneva Convention and from the Red Cross was terminated. As civilians they should have been repatriated, as happened to some other seamen, but they received no consular visits until 1944 when the Irish Charge gained access and made attempts to have them repatriated, one of which was thwarted, ironically, by Allied bombing. The author is critical of what he perceives as official Irish inaction on their behalf for over a year.

The Irish group remained united, sustaining each other over two years of constant ill treatment, savage beatings and near starvation, as well as the ravages of camp disease, filthy clothing and the absence of any form of hygiene or decent medical attention . They were forced to work twelve hour shifts (with one half hour break) which began and ended with a four km forced march from the camp. Their diet consisted of black bread and turnip soup.

The work involved lifting, carrying and emptying 50 kg bags of cement ( inhaling the dust) or shifting heavy steel girders, where accidents were frequent. Sometimes the prisoners were made fight each other for an extra ration of bread. The camp guards included sadists and murderers. The camp regime included routine beatings and arbitrary murder for minor infractions. Bodies of those shot were left lying for days.

Disease was a major threat. Apart from William Knox four others died , all from typhus, (which killed Anne Frank) which was endemic in the Nazi concentration and slave labour camps. Patrick Breen (58) from Wexford died in May 1943, Gerald O’Hara (50) from Ballina in March 1944, Thomas Murphy (53) and Owen Corr (29), both from Dublin, died a month later.

The rest made it home after the war, weak and emaciated, some ill for months or years; Christopher Ryan lost almost half his body weight and had typhus and T.B. They were largely ignored in an era in which those who had deserted the Irish armed forces, many to serve with the British, were blacklisted from public employment . However, four of the survivors, including Ryan, were well enough to travel to testify against their tormentors in Hamburg a year later. Some of their captors at least were punished.

The book is not an easy one to read. Interspersed with the story of the Irish are tales of the atrocities committed against other nationalities, the Jews, the Russians, the Poles, who were treated much worse than the Irish. Collectively the atrocities beggar belief. The death rate throughout the Neuengamme system, including Farge, exceeded 50%. 43,000 of those who died have been identified; many thousands more remain unknown. The unfinished bunker remains. There is now a monument at Farge and when the author visited last year he saw a wreath placed by the last Irish survivor, Harry Callan above the crosses for the Irish who died.

The War was a titanic struggle between the two mightiest armies the world has ever seen – the Wermacht against the Red Army and the Allies. We know who won. We know what happened afterwards. This book gives an appalling glimpse of what might have resulted had it gone the other way.

February 2013

THE CITY OF SHADOWS by MICHAEL RUSSELL : a review

THE CITY OF SHADOWS

AUTHOR: MICHAEL RUSSELL

AVON 468 pages €11.50, ebook €8.46

This debut novel is a superb atmospheric thriller, set for the most part in the Dublin of the 1930’s, but also featuring Danzig and the struggle between the Nazis and Sean Lester, the (Irish) League of Nations representative in the city. The author, a TV script writer and producer (Emmerdale Farm, Touch of Frost) now living in Ireland, has brought his skills to produce a page turner of high quality.

The story opens with the Phoenix Park Mass during the 1932 Eucharistic Congress and a murder which follows it. The scene then shifts to 1934 and a raid on an abortion clinic catering for the rich and powerful, where the hero, Detective Sergeant Stefan Gillespie, encounters a young Jewish Dubliner, Hannah Rosen, seeking information on her friend, who disappeared after an affair with a Catholic priest.

Later two bodies are found buried in the Dublin mountains, and, as the plot unfolds, Stefan and Hannah find themselves in a Danzig where the Nazis are poised to seize power.

There are particularly evocative portrayals of Dublin in the 1930s, from the Congress Mass with McCormack singing, to the Jewish community and shops around Clanbrassil Street, from the swans on the Grand canal to the streets from Westland Row to Grafton St. and around Stephen’s Green. The rural setting around Baltinglass is also well portrayed. The story imparts superbly the sense of place and local geography of the time, with the historical context particularly thoroughly researched.

It’s all there: De Valera’s rise, Eoin O’Duffy and the Blue Shirts, the Broy Harriers, the reminder that the civil war was in the very recent past and that violence still lurks in the shadows. The all-powerful Catholic church, with a visit to a Magdalen laundry, and the flaunting of the Ne Temere decree as well as the flirting with fascism among some Catholics are accurately portrayed as are the covert gay scene and the cupboard skeletons of many.

The book is populated by a marvellous set of characters, from the fictional hero and heroine, through Gardai, members of the Special Branch, the clergy and ordinary people straight and gay. These are interwoven cleverly with real characters of the era. The sinister figure of Adolf Mahr, Director of the National Museum and Gauleiter of the Nazi Party in Ireland, is memorably drawn as are Garda Commissioner Eamon Broy, and Michael Mac Liammoir, brilliantly described as “ an actor who gave his life’s greatest performance as an Englishman triumphantly playing an Irishman.”

There are equally fine portraits of Sean Lester, the Irish diplomat who became the League of Nations High Commissioner in Danzig in 1933 where he fought almost single handedly against Nazi persecution and discrimination against the Jews, before being eventually forced out, and his solitary ally, Bishop Edward O Rourke, a Russian Count of Wild Geese extraction. Both play a significant (fictional) role in the story.

There are hints from the author that there will be sequels involving Stefan Gillespie. On the basis of this they will be eagerly awaited. Highly recommended.

February 2013

UP THE REPUBLIC editor FINTAN O’ TOOLE : a review

UP THE REPUBLIC
AUTHOR.EDITOR : FINTAN O TOOLE
FABER AND FABER 227 pages €15

Fintan O’Toole is joined by seven of Ireland’s leading academics writers and journalists in this collection of essays which explores where Ireland stands as a republic and how the state of the nation could be improved as the centenary of 1916 approaches. The contributions are informative, provocative and never dull.

After the tragic happening in Galway last week, Dearbhail McDonald’s piece on the relationship as it has evolved between the “Law and the Republic” is of particular topical interest. She traces the role of the Irish judiciary in developing and articulating personal rights not expressly mentioned in the 1937 constitution but implicitly guaranteed by it, citing as an example the 1973 McGee case, which overturned the ban on contraceptives.

She then deals with the abortion debate in Ireland , giving a concise and accurate account of the background to the 1983 amendment, the X case, and the 1992 Supreme Court judgement, noting that, two decades on, there is still “no legal clarity” on the issue owing to the dereliction of duty by politicians, while noting that, ”for elected representatives, it is political suicide.” Meanwhile there has been a “heart-breaking alphabet soup” of cases taken since, seeking for the law post-X to be clarified.

Elsewhere, in a powerfully argued opening chapter, Fintan O Toole examines the history of Ireland’s three “republics” – those declared by the Fenians in 1867, at the GPO in 1916 and in Canada in 1949. His conclusion is that “the vague incomplete half republic that existed” until 2008 “imploded because it was gerry-built” and calls for the creation of a new one based on justice and equality.

For Iseult Honohan republicanism embraces notions of interdependence, self-government and the common good, but notes in Ireland republicanism was long conflated with nationalism. She warns against populism and scapegoating in the current situation. Elaine Byrne writes of a crisis of trust in Irish public life and discusses how this can be remedied, reporting on the deliberative democracy experiment here “We the Citizens”. She deplores what has happened since 2008 and quotes Cicero that a nation cannot survive treason from within.

Tom Hickey discusses the role of education in imparting necessary civic skills, examining the ideal civic mission, the practicalities of educating children to be independent of their upbringing and the relative merits of religious and non-religious education here. Fred Powell explores the issue of whether people are citizens or subjects, and ponders where the policy of austerity in Ireland will end. He suggests that, in the regenerated republic there should be ten core Principles for Critical Citizenship.

Theo Dorgan asks what is law, whence does it derive and how is it formulated. He draws on the works of Michael Hartnett and John Montague in particular in teasing out his thesis. Philip Pettit reflects on the Occupy movements with particular reference to the Zapatero government in Spain; he concludes we are experiencing a perfect storm.

November 2012

A RECIPE FOR DISASTER by JOHN HENRY : a review

A RECIPE FOR DISASTER
AUTHOR: JOHN HENRY
OLD LINE PUBLISHING 296 pages about £13.00 in U.K.

A wry and amusing saga on the life and adventures of Joe Henry, an Irish office machine salesman, covering several decades from the mid-60s. The book is a collection of linked anecdotes on the lows and highs of Joe’s life, and, per the author, evolved from a series of stories written as his weekly contributions to the Torrevieja Writers’ Circle.

The stories are completely true, embroidered fact or pure fiction and the author challenges “anyone to figure out which parts are which.” Take your choice. Did he punch his boss on the nose? Did he lose his license, and job, over drunk driving? Did he close Dublin Airport over a bomb scare and was he strip searched? That’s just a sample.

Some of the incidents are unbelievable, some all too likely to have happened, a catalogue of misadventure. Set against a backdrop of the Ireland of the Troubles, Joe emerges in the book as a basically accident prone figure with a Midas touch for getting into difficult situations both at home and work.

The rollercoaster married life of the Henrys began with Joe –a Northern Protestant – marrying Susan – a Dublin Catholic – in mid-60’s Ireland over the objections of both sets of parents. The episode of their courtship and marriage is one of the strongest and most thought provoking of the book.

Alcohol induced flashbacks take us selectively through the decades with the recipe of the title Joe’s fondness for the drink combined with his tendency, when in a hole, to keep digging. Susan deservedly earns the epithet “long suffering”, but even she has her limits. When finally the worm turns it does so with a vengeance.

As Joe careens from one episode to another, there’s a certain inevitability about the eventual outcome. When it comes, in the book’s most impressive chapters, Joe hits rock bottom. He is forced to confront reality, and, when salvation unexpectedly beckons… well, read the book to find out.

November 2012

SEARCHING FOR AMI by JOHN O’ KEEFFE : a review

SEARCHING FOR AMI

AUTHOR: JOHN O’KEEFFE

RED ROCK PRESS 234 pages €13.99

Dublin GP John O’ Keeffe has written a debut novel with a difference. He breaks ambitious new ground for an Irish author by taking a unique slant on the Israeli – Palestinian situation. Drawing inspiration from the great John Ford Western “The Searchers”, he has produced a pacy impressive thriller with good action sequences set in turn in the Occupied Territories, the Lebanon, Cyprus and Switzerland, before culminating in Dublin.

In the film John Wayne spends years searching for his niece, abducted by Comanche after a raid in which her parents were killed. In the novel, a toddler – Ami – is abducted following a massacre in which her mother and aunt are among those killed at a Jewish settlement in the Occupied Territories close to the Golan Heights.

Her father, Harry, the book’s hero, an Israeli intelligence officer, who, ironically, is both sympathetic to the Palestinians and vehemently opposed to the establishment of settlements, explores every avenue to secure her safe return, without avail. When the trail runs cold he eventually, reluctantly, accepts the near certainty that she is dead.

Years later the trail hots up again. Harry, no longer a government agent, or even resident in Israel, goes in pursuit of the woman he believes has the key to what happened to his daughter. There follows a breath-taking chase through Zurich and London before the action eventually shifts to Dublin. Along the way the body count mounts and there are fascinating insights into the modalities of the on-going struggle between the intelligence services and the terrorists. Harry, seeking resolution or closure, realises he is being used also to flush out a major player.

The Irish dimension is not confined to the streets of Dublin, or to the involvement of the Gardai. The role of Irish troops in UNIFIL is covered and indeed one of Harry’s friends throughout is an Irish army officer who plays a key role in assisting Harry.

The book is well researched and handles the serious themes of the current situation with sympathy and sensitivity. There are good and bad individuals on both sides with more innocent blood spilt following the inevitable Israeli retaliation for the original massacre – an eye for an eye.

The book concludes with enough unfinished business on several fronts to suggest that there will be a sequel. John O’Keeffe, or Harry, will be back.”

November 2012

DEMISE OF THE DANDY by SEAN FARRELL

DEMISE OF THE DANDY
By Sean Farrell

Back in 1990, I was seated at a media lunch beside one of the directors of the D.C. Thompson Publishing Company. I was reminded of this last week at the news that, after 75 years, the print edition of the children’s comic The Dandy will cease next December, though the company assures us the title “will be taken in a different direction.”. The news is hardly surprising. Even twenty years ago the titles were in decline as technology advanced and fashions changed.

From its heyday in the 50s and 60s, when the circulation of the Dandy and its sibling, The Beano (which is to continue), was several million, the Dandy has slumped to a mere 7,000, the Beano to 60,000, mainly under 10s and, interestingly, overwhelmingly from the A, B and C social classes.

There was traditionally fierce brand loyalty among readers, none more so than in our house, where my two boys scorned the anaemic Dandy and fought so fiercely over the more full blooded Beano that, reversing Solomon, we the parents swallowed hard and bought two Beanos every week. There was always something slightly subversive about the Beano, with its flagship characters Dennis the Menace, Minnie the Minx and the Bash Street Kids, which the Dandy lacked. Students of the sociology of the comic can trace, in the Beano, the spiritual inspiration, if such be the phrase, of that comic for grown up boys, VIZ, still going strong, though also far down from its heyday.

The Beano and Dandy were only two of the extensive Thompson stable aimed at the post – 1945 children’s market in Britain and Ireland. In the era before television copies of both comics were snapped up as soon as they hit the newsstands. The Thompson empire, which included newspapers as well as comics and magazines, was built up by David Coupar Thompson, a bigoted curmudgeon who hated trade unions, Catholics and Winston Churchill, and who remained company chairman until his death, aged 93 in 1954. His feud with Churchill caused him to ban Churchill’s name from his newspapers until World War Two, when using it became unavoidable.

Dandy and Beano readers eventually graduated, with many a fond backward glance, to the next generation up of Thompson publications, for boys the quartet of the Wizard, Rover, Hotspur and Adventure, for girls Bunty and Judy. The successful formula in all was a mix of high adventure, sport and boarding school stories. The school stories in particular were interchangeable with the boys having the same adventures as the girls a year apart.

The boys’ adventure and sports stories featured a succession of working class heroes. Boys played soccer not rugby, tennis was unknown and the cricketers habitually crushed the Australians. In the war stories the Germans were constantly outwitted and out fought, not to mention Afghan tribesmen. It was British heroes all the way, chief among them Flight Sergeant Matt Braddock, V.C. who more or less defeated the Luftwaffe single handed, yet was scornful of brass hats, red tape and officers.

A special word here on the strangest character of all, the Wizard’s Wilson, the Wonder Athlete. With Wilson the writers excelled themselves. Living in a cave on the Yorkshire Moors, Wilson was almost 200 years old, surviving on a special diet of herbs and berries. He broke world records casually, ran the mile in three minutes and won the Ashes for England (the Year of the Shattered Stumps). A morale booster during the war, he kept Johnny Foreigner in his place.

Production all round was cheap and cheerful and, with growing prosperity the Thompson comics entered a slow decline. The superbly produced Eagle was first to dent them, then Roy of the Rovers stole their soccer thunder. By the 1980s most were gone. It’s a testimony to their creators that the unique characters in the Beano and Dandy helped them survive for so long.

A final note. Several months later, as Christmas approached, I received a parcel from my Thompson lunch companion. The covering letter recalled that lunch, and my anecdote about being obliged to buy two Beanos every week and enclosed not one but two copies of the Beano Christmas annual.

August 2012