‘Twas ever thus

At this time of remembrance and national gratitude, a slew of books about the First World War, one of which is Lawrence in Arabia. In this, Scott Anderson aims to debunk the mythology, nay hero worship, that still accompanies Capt TE Lawrence. 

When we think about Lawrence, most of us naturally gravitate to David Lean’s soaring cinematic masterpiece (minus the hackneyed portrayal of race) and Lawrence as a hero fighting the British military/governmental complex from within. 

While he was undoubtedly a very brave man, this book also paints a picture of him as a rule breaker, a renegade, a traitor. 

But it was not just Captain Lawrence speaking with a forked tongue. With peace in the Middle East today seeming further away than ever, it is now fitting to reevaluate the very real and duplicitous role played by Great Britain during (and after) Lawrence’s time in the region. 

In the early 20th century Britain (as a nation) was far from being the honest broker, duelling honourably with other major powers. Already staring down the barrel of imperial decline, even if the government of the day didn’t (or chose not to) see it, this meant anything went for HM government. 

Lawrence’s deep and abiding love and interest for the region and tribes is well documented here. Which likely also made it more painful as he saw first hand many of the supposedly solemn promises made by the British (and other powers) which were then rapidly broken as demanded by political expediency. 

Promises were made to Jews in exile, about a Jewish homeland. These were reneged on. Promises were made to various Arab tribes for statehood. These diverse and often warring groups were encouraged, militarily and financially, then reneged on, even once hostilities had begun.

When we look at the current maelstrom in the Middle East it is not hard to see its roots in the turbulence which kicked off in the 1910s and feel that one chance after another was missed. 

According to Anderson, Capt Lawrence was a man of paradoxes.  Here was a man who didn’t just militarily support the burgeoning Arab “nation” but also actively committed treason, so the author claims, by releasing top secret documents to those he was supporting. 

Here was a man who loved the cause of Arab nationalism and their fierce cry for self determination. Here was someone who saw a path to peace through war out to self rule. In the final analysis I came away feeling that here was a man thwarted by history but who still lived an amazing life.

This is a huge book, at nearly 600 pages, and as such as is a real pain to carry around. I also found it sporadic in parts with some brilliant passages, but others where the action dragged just a little. This was not fatal though to the overall story, which is very engaging and well written and I’d recommend this book to people looking to understand both the history and genesis of the current turbulence in the Middle East. 

(Thanks to the team at Atlantic Books for the review copy). 

This is a crisis

What will my death be like? How will I feel as I take my final breath?  Will I know where I am? Or will I find myself in a fog? What about those left behind?

Whenever I think about death, these competing, unknowable questions scramble my thinking and all I can do is shut them out.

If I am honest with myself, I still struggle to believe that I will ever die. Instead I spend my life trying to live the perfect life. Which is more ridiculous?

This made reading The Iceberg (by Marion Coutts) a distinctly uncomfortable proposition.

For here is a book that shatters comfy deceit and offers little hiding.  In it the author details her husband Tom’s diagnosis with a brain tumour and the path toward his passing.

This is a beautiful but terrifying novel.  The writing is taut, spare, elegant. While the destination is pretty clear from the outset, I found myself torn between hope and despair, light and shadow throughout. 

At points, I felt that I was intruding in the most intimate and private moment of a life. At others, hope intruded as I found myself wanting a good outcome, but equally hoping their struggle would soon be over.

Whether this was the real view of the author, or my own prejudices, I was unable to divine. 

Love, duty and transience are themes that keep cropping up.  

In what the author doesn’t say are some of the most perfect written (non) descriptions of impermanence.  

Now a few weeks after finishing the book, what I took most from it was the importance of cherishing individual, fleeting moments with those I love.  Not that this book offers any discernible advice to others.

Because this is also a book about togetherness and particularly the changing nature of our relationships as we age and become ill.

It also explores the duality that during crises, people want people around them but also want space.

When friends of mine have died all I have wanted is to talk about them non-stop, but also never to be asked about them.  When others have passed, I have often felt totally unable to engage (much to my shame).  This paradox about the myriad reactions to death has rarely been written about better.

The Iceberg is a compelling and banal description of a life, of death, of unity and isolation.  

It has helped me think not just about how I live my life, but begin to conceive how I may face my death.

(With thanks to the team at Atlantic Books for the review copy).

“Poor quality housing an issue that so many people have personal experience of”

In the first Everything Anything podcast for a while, and in 2015, Sarah Mitchell shares her personal thoughts on the state of the private rented housing sector in the UK.  Sarah’s perspective comes from working in charities, private tenants organisations and experiencing poor quality housing herself.  Sarah also makes the case for how we can all take action to improve this most vital provision.  Thanks Sarah!

A campaign I ran

In 2011, I got involved in supporting Dan Sencier, in a case which revolves around freedom of speech and right to protest.  It also has a wider significance as it plays to the heart of how the state uses citizens’ own money to suppress their opposing views. Here’s what happened.

Continue reading

Interview with Tom Grogan

I have long been an admirer of The Civility project, which is trying to engender a greater sense of civil discourse and discussion among the citizens and politicians of Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

It got me thinking, what could I learn from “our friends in Oshkosh” to help amplify our message on protecting civil liberties in the UK and in 2011, I was delighted I got the chance to chat with Tom Grogan, who is involved in the project, who riffs here (in a personal capacity) about the importance of civility in fighting and winning tough arguments, while respecting the common humanity of those you speak with. Unknown Object Continue reading

Interview with James Baker

In 2010, I was lucky to chat with James Baker about his work and the work of No2ID – which was campaigning against the introduction of identity cards in the UK.  Thought it would be fun to republish this interview as many of the issues still hold true.

James, thanks for agreeing to be interviewed, could you introduce yourself and your organisation?
Hi, I’m James Baker and I’m a political campaigner with a special interest in civil liberties & privacy.  I currently work as the local groups co-ordinator for NO2ID. We are a single-issue group that works to defend privacy and liberty from the rapid growth of the Database State. We are best known for our campaign against “ID Cards” that represented the most visible part of this style of governance.
Unknown Object Continue reading

Interview with Thomas Beagle

In 2011, I put out a Twitter shout for interviewees. Answering the clarion call was Thomas Beagle, spokesperson for the New Zealand based civil liberties campaigning organisation, Tech Liberty NZ. 

Thomas, thanks for agreeing to be interviewed, I really appreciate it. Here in the UK, one of the biggest stories last year (2010) connecting civil liberties and technology was the arrival of the Digital Economy Act (which allows for the disconnection of alleged music downloaders from the internet without trial). How are the tensions being resolved in New Zealand between online music downloading and copyright? Continue reading

Console Wars by Blake Harris

Over the past few months, I have read far more slowly than ever before.  Blame work, blame becoming a new dad (no drats to that), blame busy-ness – or maybe it is just life getting in the way.

The times when I have sat down to read have been sporadic, short and to be savoured.  It was therefore with some trepidation that I eschewed the Anna Karenina and Rosemary Sutcliffe that have been waiting for my attention and moved to Console Wars by Blake Harris – an account of the apparently epic battle between Sega and Nintendo. Continue reading

“We feed people in our own language”

The Ebola crisis in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia has dominated the media but it is easy to feel as though there is nothing you can do.  In this podcast Memuna Janneh tells the totally awe-inspiring story behind the lunchboxgift.com initiative delivering hot meals to people in hospital and quarantine in Sierra Leone that she set up.

To find out more about the work of this tiny but hugely impactful organisation, follow on Twitter (@lunchboxgift) or visit  lunchboxgift.com