Background essays

A selection of essays and background notes to the books and drama.


Historical fiction & the moral agenda

Extract from a lecture given at the Edinburgh Historical Fiction Festival

April 2013

(This is a short sample. The full text is available in my collection Beyond the Roadblocks from Stupor Mundi Books)

For many years, historical fiction was looked down upon as consisting of little but reheated war stories, or cozy portraits of golden-hearted folk in the back alleys of Salford or Glasgow. Nostalgia, a love of dressing up, and a yearning for a world of more simplistic social relations – it’s all part of this taste.

    But there has always been more to historical fiction than this, many other motivations and other risks. Some of my lines of thought, you will no doubt instantly disagree with. But we can agree on one thing: a large percentage of what is called literary fiction is in fact “historical”. Even Beowulf  was, for its first audience in the 8th century, “historical fiction” in that it looked back to events in a previous time, still earlier, just far enough in the past to have a feeling of myth, while close enough to allow for empathy and identification. Indeed, it is remarkable how true this is of the great canon of 19th century novels. War & Peace describes events that took place some sixty years before the time of its publication, well before Tolstoy’s birth. Wuthering Heights, that early Victorian novel published in 1847, in fact describes events that only culminate in 1801 before Napoleon became emperor, and which begin thirty years earlier again, around 1770 – it is curious to think that Wuthering Heights is an ancien regime tale. Many of George Eliot’s novels, quite apart from Romola set in Renaissance Italy, look back several decades: Middlemarch is set around 1830, forty years before it was published. Thomas Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge is set – again – roughly forty years before his date of publication, while his Return of the Native, published in 1878, carries a preface informing us that:

The date at which the following events are assumed to have occurred may be set down as between 1840 and 1850, when the old watering place herein called ‘Budmouth’ still retained sufficient afterglow from its Georgian gaiety and prestige to lend it an absorbing attractiveness to the romantic and imaginative soul of a lonely dweller inland.

    Maybe the Victorian market felt the same nostalgia for old clothes as we do today. But also, looking back one or two generations, it is possible to believe that we have a more distilled and objective view of how society operated then – easier than trying to make sense of and write about our own times. The social issues back then seem clearer: the coming of industry, rural backwardness, urban poverty, electoral reform and change generally… Society cries out to be understood, and just as an anthropologist may look at primitive communities because the waters are less muddied, so for some authors of historical fiction, the past may seem clearer than the present, and may offer a key to understanding where we are now.

    Certain historic settings carry almost Pavlovian emotional and moral responses: just mention that the troops are whistling as they march cheerfully towards a river in France, and readers feel an awed thrill, murmur ‘the Somme’, and give a nod to ‘the futility of war’. But great events offer the author a chance to grapple with the most serious and moral issues imaginable. Here, for instance, is Tolstoy in War & Peace:

On the twelfth of June, 1812, an event took place opposed to human reason and to human nature…[The French invasion of Russia]. What produced this extraordinary occurrence? What were its causes?… The more we try to explain such events in history reasonably, the more unreasonable and incomprehensible do they become to us…

And so on. Tolstoy is seeking to understand not just historical events, but History itself, and Destiny. Similarly, when it comes to the great sequence of chapters describing the pivotal Battle of Borodino, Tolstoy tells a cracking story, but is chiefly concerned to show how far events were beyond human control – even Napoleon’s control. Whole chapters are given over to analysing this.

     Tolstoy rarely apportions either blame or credit to individuals, but he strives to understand why events turned out as they did. Considering the Battles of Borodino and Austerlitz in particular, he concludes that any attempt to point the finger at Napoleon, or Czar Alexander, or whoever – any such attempt is fatuous, because in reality (says Tolstoy) no one is in control of the rolling tide of history and fate. The Russian and Austrian allies lost at Austerlitz, he claims, because men fought for pointless goals such as glory and fame. The Russians won at Borodino because of moral superiority. Here is what he writes in War & Peace:

It was not Napoleon alone who had experienced that nightmare feeling of the mighty arm being stricken powerless, but all the generals and soldiers of his army… The moral force of the attacking French army was exhausted. The victory of the Russians at Borodino was not that sort of victory which is defined by the capture of pieces of material fastened to sticks, called flags, or of the ground on which the troops had stood and were standing; it was a moral victory that convinces the enemy of the moral superiority of his opponent and of his own impotence. The French invaders, like an infuriated animal that has in its onslaught received a mortal wound, felt that they were perishing…

Tolstoy does not believe in grand strategy, or great leaders, or national destiny. He goes the other way. He writes:

Only by taking infinitesimally small units for observation… the individual tendencies of men… can we hope to arrive at the laws of history…

This is the realm of the novelist: looking for the universal in the particular, in the sufferings and personal triumphs of individuals…

(The lecture continues with a discussion of the works of Pasternak and Grossman, Gingrich and Carey, Paul Scott and Salman Rushdie, William Styron and Leon Uris, and writers in contemporary Spain and elsewhere.) 



Writing Poor Mercy

(A shortened version of an article first published in ‘Textualities’ web literary magazine, May 2005)

In 1982 I had a play produced at the Bush Theatre in London. It was called Topokana Martyrs’ Day and concerned the misadventures of a quartet of field staff at a remote African outpost of a British aid agency. The play did well –five productions – and in one respect it is, I think, unique: I know of no other successful comedy about famine relief in Africa.

The comedy derived directly from my own experience. In 1981 I had worked for Oxfam as a junior field officer in Karamoja, eastern Uganda. The famine was real enough but, when I came home, I re-read my diaries and realised that they were pure farce. So I dramatised them. The satire was broad: one character, for instance, was a Mrs McAllister, the Commissioner for Disaster Coordination.

Ibis: Is she any good at that?
Apoo: Mrs McAllister, my sweet, has coordinated so many disasters so successfully that we are now blessed with the spectacle of uninterrupted catastrophe across three continents.

In 1991, ten years later almost to the day, I was in Darfur, Sudan, as ‘Medical Programme Coordinator’ for an aid agency striving to prevent a threatened famine. This time, the comedy seemed to have gone out of the job; indeed, it was one of the most humiliating experiences of my working life. With a handful of nurses, two doctors and a few Land Rovers, we attempted to shore up local health systems, while the major international donors were signally failing to supply meaningful quantities of food to the villages. The vastly expensive operation was, on the whole, a miserable failure.

It became clear that the government of Sudan was being wilfully obstructive, and that all the bluster of Washington, Brussels and Rome could do little about this. Meanwhile, the tribes were in violent ferment, rebellion was in the air and the Army was cheerfully making matters worse. This, remember, was in 1991. If you think you recognise the situation as of 2004-5, you’re not far wrong.

Home again, I felt that I must write about this, as I had about Uganda a decade before. This time, however, I felt no urge to broad satire. I wondered, what format should the piece now take? I attempted non-fiction, a collection of short stories, a film treatment… none seemed to answer the magnitude of the subject. After much hesitation I settled on a novel, believing that only panoramic fiction would do.

There was no shortage of vivid material, and many of the episodes in the book are factual: the assault on the township of Wadaa, destroyed with incendiary rockets; the distribution of date-expired drugs and poisonous seed-corn; the ten-wheel truck found abandoned in the desert with blood splashed down its side – these are taken straight from my Darfur diaries, and are not funny.

On the other hand, grim humour has a way of resurfacing everywhere; I think this was Shakespeare’s view: that there is no human situation so dire that it is does not contain elements of comedy. There was a ceilidh, for instance, organised by aid staff, at which Sudanese male-only couples danced the Gay Gordons dressed in long white robes (they thought it hilarious). And there was the following sequence of radio messages, received over the course of one morning by our office in Darfur:

09.40 HRS: expect delivery 10,000 tons high energy biscuits for children’s supplementary feeding.
10.20 HRS: correction: expect delivery 10,000 tins of high energy biscuits.
11.25 HRS: correction : expect 10,000 biscuits.

We never got the biscuits.

These messages are quite genuine and this, only slightly reworded, is how they appear in the novel.

An abundance of good material, however, does not of itself make for good fiction. One also requires a clear narrative, an organising principle and, above all, a calm that can see the universal behind the particular. For several years I struggled with the project, trying to achieve objective distance on the experience. Finally it was matter of time, and of removing myself from the story; so there is no J.Falla character in the novel.

The ‘male lead’ of Poor Mercy is an African, specifically a southern Sudanese, washed up by violence in the south and arriving in Darfur. His name is Mr Mogga; he’s cherubic but ludicrous, shrewd but innocent, highly efficient but finally helpless. Like the hero of Conrad’s Nostromo, he is the essential factotum without whom things fall apart. The foreigners come to rely on him entirely, while not noticing his growing doubts and fears. They take him for granted – and fail to fully appreciate the extent of the peril that he is in, until very late in the day.

Mogga exemplifies a character type met frequently in aid work: the effective local staff-member, intelligent, adept at coping with a crisis, semi-educated by inadequate schools and semi-westernised in a sometimes destructive way, such that they are readily seduced and confused by foreign can-do attitudes, and by foreigners’ seeming freedom to roam the world ad lib. These local people are terribly vulnerable. Employed by an aid agency as factotum and interpreter, such a person is responsible for conveying to their compatriots all the hope and grand promises that the agencies embody. When the promises fall flat and the schemes fail – as is so often the case – then the foreigners depart, and people like Mr Mogga are left to bear the brunt of the lingering resentment.

“Where’s Mogga?” asked Rose “ What of him? What’ll he do?”
“Well,” said Xavier, “that’s up to Mogga. He’s a free man.”
“No,” exclaimed Rose Price, “Mogga’s not free at all, he’s trapped here. With us gone, they’ll be gunning for him.”
Xavier looked more and more uncomfortable.
“He’s not responsible for anything.”
“But they’ll hold him responsible! They’ll go for him; God knows what they’ll do. If we run off, he’ll be all that’s left.”

Mogga is the go-between, the saviour of many situations – and the likely victim. He is, however, very astute. He is also the focus both of humour and of love, and his tender relationship with the sophisticated Arab scientist Leila forms the emotional heart of the story.

Theirs, too, is the wonder at an extraordinary, harshly beautiful landscape:

Mid-afternoon, they were scudding over naka, hard soil that glittered with silicates. Then came black shale and pockets of ironflake where the desert was rusted. They continued due north, climbing steadily into starker lands. Now the crust was replaced by countless pebbles rolled against their neighbours until smooth and oval. The pebbles were spaced and spread evenly as far as the eye could see, like a grainy photo. In all that empty space, you could not lie comfortably down to sleep; there would be no rest. Next there was lava detritus, and packed gravel. Furrows in the ground showed where once it had rained, but now the Land Rover was burning up, the dust that came in through the vents singed and scoured their skin and made it raw. On such a day, the tribes say that the sun is the liver of the sky, smoking with pain.
Away to the north, the sky was darker, almost purple.
“You see?” said Leila, “You see that? Someone is getting wet at last.”

Poor Mercy occupied me, off and on, over a period of some ten years. By the time its publication was being negotiated, Darfur had almost begun to seem like history – until it sprang into ghastly prominence once again in 2004. I was working on the final editing of the novel when The Scotsman began running front page headlines denouncing genocide in Darfur. Topicality is a mixed blessing; there have been times when I have considered sending the Government of Sudan a card thanking them for their publicity efforts on my behalf, but more often I felt wary; it can be frustrating watching a work that was so long in the making being viewed in the press purely in terms of relevance to current news. ‘Writing to the moment’ carries the risk that, when that moment in world events passes, the writing may be forgotten.

An aspect of the novel which will not, I believe, date in a hurry is the matter of the aid agencies. These are quite extraordinary bodies. The NGOs, the ‘non-governmental organisations’, are precisely that: non-governmental, undemocratic, unelected, unanswerable to anyone but their own boards of trustees, and yet largely unquestioned. They are a bizarre feature of our society and, I think, far too little studied. They make, for example, a wonderfully convenient proxy for government – as the novel’s principle British character, field director Xavier, soon realises:

Xavier, on his grass-rope bed under the massy black night sky, found his head too heavy to lift, so full was it of worry. As this supposed crisis had developed, Xavier Hopkins had seen that he was a fall guy of peerless quality, Grand Master of the Most Illustrious Order of Patsies; it was, if nothing else, a steady position. For if the Government in Khartoum really had let its people slide into starvation, why then, an aid agency was the very thing to blame.

In my old university town there is a pub called The Volunteer. Hanging outside is the traditional painted pub sign showing the traditional recoat soldier with his musket. Walk past the pub and look back, however, and you see that the reverse of the sign is different; it shows a white medical student vaccinating an African villager. The received meaning of ‘volunteer’ has changed entirely; in our society, it is now the aid worker who is the institution. But, after I came back from Sudan, the agencies were just beginning to acknowledge how very stressful aid work is. They began to offer counselling, de-briefing. There was a serious proposal to set up a convalescent home in Devon for clapped-out aid workers. How institutionalised these aid workers have become, if our society might offer them a specialist rest-home.

Does the aid actually do any good? It is a bitterly contentious topic, but in many instances the conclusion has to be that it does harm. Think of Ethiopia, which in the mid-80s was torn apart by war with secessionist Eritrea, and then by famine. Many people who have looked at the effects of the Live Aid programme have concluded that the Ethiopian government used the aid food with colossal cynicism as a honey-pot with which to shift populations out of the war zones to the Ethiopian advantage.

Even where the right food is supplied, the actual amounts are often virtually worthless. In Darfur, during famine after famine in the eighties and nineties (including the one I witnessed), each family actually received no more than a few kilos of food aid grain, amounts that can have made no serious difference to anyone. Alex de Waal, commissioned by Save the Children to study what had happened, concluded that the people had simply tightened their belts, searched for grubs and berries, roots and herbs, and had survived as best they could.

But the notion that people might not need our aid is unpalatable. We cannot help meddling. If you believe that the current obsession with “Africa the basket case” is new, think again. I have on my shelves a leather-bound volume of poems published in London in 1809 to celebrate the abolition of the slave-trade (the so-called abolition, one should say; the trade is alive and well today). The poems are unreadable bombast, tedious pentameters depicting noble Albion freeing Africa from its chains. The interest of the book lies in its title-page dedication: To the Directors of the Society for Bettering the Condition of the Natives of Africa. But in 1809, almost no one in Britain had ever been to the interior of Africa; only three years earlier, Mungo Park had died in the attempt. Therefore, almost no one had the foggiest idea of the condition of the natives – but already there was a society for bettering it. We have not ceased meddling since, and the week before Poor Mercy was published (March 2005), the report of Tony Blair’s “Commission on Africa” was published, once again telling the Dark Continent what is good for it.

In the novel, Poor Mercy, the preoccupation of field director Xavier Hopkins is whether there is actually a famine, such as might remotely justify the invasion of Darfur by aid agencies. He looks back at a previous intervention in the country – the disastrous military campaign of 1883 led by General William Hicks – and is forced to ask himself the crunch question:

On Xavier’s desk the reports clamoured, also the accounts, the interim this and provisional that, but the ink was furry where it had sunk into cheap foolscap and his eyes were drifting out of focus. This plethora of words helped nothing. The terms were too narrow, the questions too petty, compared with that devastatingly simple challenge put in his mind by Colonel Hassan al-Bedawi: Should we be here at all?

Poor Mercy is not (I hope) a humourless tract, but a humane account of a human situation. I’ve tried to offer more than a passing response to a moment’s crisis. After all, the meddling will continue long after I am forgotten.


4 thoughts on “Background essays”

  1. Cool Article! My spouse and i had been simply just debating that there’s a whole lot absolutely wrong details at this matter and also you precisely replaced the belief. Many thanks for a marvelous contribution.
    ip camera – Jan 12, 2011

  2. Can I just say what a relief to find someone who conveniently knows what they’re talking about on the internet. You beyond a doubt know how to bring an issue to light and make it beneficial. More people need to read this and understand this side of the story. I cant believe youre not more popular because you definitely have the gift. Deb Steinbach – Jan 9 2011

  3. Wow! I’m impressed how your passions and experiences have fueled your writing so remarkably. My husband and I met in India when we were involved with a non-governmental aid agency many years ago. I still struggle ‘trying to achieve objective distance on the experience’ and whilst a long and happy marriage came out of that experience, we remain a little cynical and disillusioned with some aspects of aid work in some agencies. We pity the poor Mr. Mogga’s and the Xavier Hopkins of this world. We continue to be thoughtful about what and who we support abroad, but perhaps with the present economic crisis, who knows, charity may well begin (and stay) at home!

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