Monday, August 13, 2007

JEREMY KANE: a Canadian historical novel of the 1837 Mackenzie Rebellion.

JEREMY KANE: a Canadian historical novel of the 1837 Mackenzie Rebellion and its brutal aftermath in the penal colonies of Australia.

This is a BIG book. Big in its geographical scope and its extraordinary capacity to bring alive the Canada and Australia of the 1830s, and the author's ability to spin his compelling story through the words and deeds and thoughts of his main character. Yes, Kane is the hero, yet so completely is he submerged in the actual events that overtake him that we accept the man as every bit as real as the true life governors, colonels, rebel leaders and jailors with whom he mingles.

This is the art of historical fiction, and Sidney Allinson has it in spades. Without once distorting or overstating the often terrifying events and conditions that confront Kane and his fellows, the author breathes life into a fascinating period of history about which all too little is understood. We meet Jeremy Kane during the heady days that led up to the Mackenzie Rebellion in colonial Upper Canada - today's Ontario. Reformist and populist, the rebellion was led by the crabby old Scot whose name commemorates it.

The trusting and rather unworldly young Kane supports Mackenzie as an act of patriotism. Canada is being misgoverned by the 'Family Compact' of local shysters, and the lackadaisical British do nothing about it. The insurrection comes and goes, the rebels are scattered, captured, or killed, and Kane is saved from the gallows only to be deported with one hundred others to a penal colony on Tasmania, off the coast of Australia.It is hard to credit that conditions such as Kane encounters in this book existed only 160 years ago: the plague-ridden convict ships, sadistic torture camps approved by the authorities, a veritable Gulag flying the Union Flag.

This is not light reading, but you'll keep the pages turning, believe me. Still there is hope. Hope that transcends rational calculation and imbues the convicts with the will to survive. This can take one form only: escape. And when the terrors of the sea have been vanquished, there are the horrors of cannibalism in a land so vast and forbidding that the chances of survival shrink daily until, after all manner of adventures, Jeremy Kane, alone, proves that hope reinforced by straight thinking and determination pays off.

For this reader, it was the story with its myriad characters, their encounters with danger, and the impact of events on character development that held me. In the aftermath, however, I found myself contemplating the significance of the historical lesson concealed within the story. Did Canada miss an unique opportunity when the mishandled Mackenzie rebellion failed: Has Canada yet risen above a modern version of the Family Compact? Since Canada had inherited from Britain a top-down form of government, and the Americans had established a bottom-up form, to what extent was opposition to Mackenzie's reforms based on fear that any move towards true democracy would undercut the political rationale for a separate North American nation?

As for Australia, the author dares to defy political correctness by describing aboriginal life, warts and all, an important corrective to the myth that such societies enjoyed some kind of Golden Age until this was overturned by newcomers. Whatever your interests, read Jeremy Kane and enjoy.

– Brig. (Rtd.) Maurice Tugwell, Founding Director, Centre for Conflict Studies, University of New Brunswick, Canada.

PALESTINE: The roots of conflict.

The Palestine Mandate:
"Lucky Tommy: in the middle again."

by Sidney Allinson.

America's current experience of bloody resentment by many of the Iraqi people they liberated from Saddam Hussein's dictatorship has a close resemblance to Britain's problems in Palestine over half a century ago. Recalling those historical events may help to better understand the origins of present-day strife in the Middle East.
Until December 1917, Palestine had long been part of the Turk­ish Ottoman Empire, an ally of Germany in World War One. This rule was finally broken by the conquest of Jerusalem by British and Australian troops under the command of General Allenby.
In 1922, the League of Nations presented Britain with the Palestine Mandate to administer the region. Terms of the Mandate included founding a new Jewish state in the territory, set out in the Bal­four Declaration of 1917. This was sent in a letter from Arthur Balfour, Britain's Secretary of State, addressed to Baron Lionel Rothschild, stating:
'His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achieve­ment of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing will be done which may prej­udice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.'
If more attention had been paid to the old boy's stricture, the Levant could have become a more peaceful region than it is today. As things turned out, the number of Jews immigrating rapidly increased their population from 60,000 to 600,000 during the next two decades. Those 26 years were turbulent, to say the least, with increasing violence between Arabs and Jews, fighting over land occupation and political influence.
Though there was a small garrison of Imperial troops, the bulk of peacekeeping duties was the job of the Pales­tine Police. Mainly British, these civilian police also included a large number of Arabs and Jews, who managed to carry out their duties with remarkable impartiality. Their unbiased fairness only drew violent enmity from both opposing sides, and today the only monuments to the 'Pal Police' are 320 long-forgotten graves.
During the early 1930s, guerrilla warfare became so prevalent that units of the British Army were brought in to combat both camps of extremists. It was an all-too-familiar role for "Tommy Atkins," the affectionate nickname for British soldiers. Used to handling peace-keeper jobs in foreign lands, they resignedly accepted being once more, "Lucky Tommy - in the middle again". Their thankless position then in Palestine is strikingly similar to the Coalition Forces’ present entanglement in the Persian Gulf region now.
The Arab Revolt of 1936-1939 flared because of Palestinian Arabs' resentment against the growth of Jewish immigration, but the violence soon turned against the British as well, because of their firmness in combating the uprising. During the three years it took to finally put down `The Arab Troubles', there were 236 Jews killed by Arabs, 435 Arabs killed by Jews, plus 1,200 rebels killed by police and military action. The British cost came high, too; nearly 200 dead policemen and soldiers.
In World War Two, Britain's Eighth Army defended the Middle East from Germany's Afrika Korps, and Gen. Montgomery's victory at El Alamein saved Palestine's Jew­ish population from becoming victims of the Nazi's Final Solution. But after WWII's end in 1945, the hideous ordeal of the Holocaust made world Jewry unwilling to settle for anything less than the establishment of an independent State of Israel within Palestine, and demanded that Britain relinquish control there. The deadly earnestness of Zionist extremists was first signalled by their assassination of Lord Moyne, British Minister of State, in Cairo, November 6, 1944.
The Arabs, who then still formed most of the local population, were just as adamant that Palestine must be entirely controlled by them. Britain's newly-elected Labour government led by Prime Minister Clement Atlee strongly sympathized with Zionism's goal, yet hoped to remain friendly with the Arabs also.
Parliament cited the Balfour Declaration's original terms to support concerns that too rapid an increase in new­comers could further alienate the local Arab population and destabilize the entire Middle East. Britain's prediction of serious consequences from unlimited immigration was viewed by America and other members of the United Nations Organization as mere colonialism – or even disguised racial discrimination.
Opponents of British concerns could not see the nigh-inevitable tragic results of a destabilized Middle East for generations to come. So the UK government was pressured into the nigh-hopeless role of trying to arrange a compromise political solution agreeable to Jews and Arabs alike.
Meanwhile, in what became a public relations nightmare, Britain imposed a sea blockade to limit the numbers of Jewish immigrants to Palestine. It caused a devastating impression of a callous Britain, shown world­wide in cinema newsreels of Royal Navy vessels turning back ships crammed with refugees. Repeated images of burly Tommies flailing pick-­handles at emaciated concentration camp survivors to prevent them from landing in the Promised Land had a ruinous effect on the UK's reputation. Those scenes made most of the world unsympathetic to Britain at the same time Zionist partisans began a wide campaign of violence to support demands for a separate Jewish state. It was carried out by two insurgent groups: LEHI known as the 'Stern Gang,' under operations chief Yitzk Shamir, and the Irgun Zwei Leumi led by Menachem Begin -- both of whom later became prime ministers of Israel.
Though Winston Churchill had been a staunch supporter of the Zionist cause throughout his political life, the events in Palestine brought this comment from him, "A race that has suffered the virtual extermination of its national existence cannot be expected to be entirely reasonable. But the activities of terrorists, who tried to gain their ends by the assassination of British officials and soldiers, were an odious act of ingratitude that left a profound impression."
Facing international hostility at the UN, and hotly debated in Parliament, the government still continued to send military reinforcements to the Holy Land. These included many peacetime draftees, 19-year-old British males conscripted for their period of compulsory National Service, who formed a large part of the 100,000 troops stationed in Palestine. These units were kept under orders to behave with restraint despite being targeted by increasingly ruthless Jewish guerrillas.
Individual British Army soldiers and Royal Air Force personnel began to be picked off from ambush, often while unarmed and off-duty, easy targets for assassins who ran scant risk of being caught. Troop trains were machine-gunned, mined and derailed; tented camps, airfields, and police stations were attacked, with steadily mounting casualties. One example was the deliberate murder of seven soldiers of the Royal Artillery, shot whilst sleeping in their tents. In perhaps the most infamous incident, two British sergeants, Clifford Martin and Mervin Paice, were kidnapped in Tel Aviv and hanged from orange trees, their bodies booby-trapped with explosives.
Civilians were not exempt as victims, either, often from car-bombs left in Arab marketplaces. On 22 July, 1946, Irgun saboteurs blew up Jerusalem's King David Hotel, with great loss of life; 91 British, Arab, and Jewish men and women being killed, none of whom were soldiers. The heads of the Jewish Agency hastened to denounce the explosion by expressing "our feelings of horror at the base and unparalleled act perpetrated today by a gang of criminals." The death toll among British servicemen and civilian bystanders from increasingly ruthless terrorist attacks continued. Letter bombs were sent to army officers' families in the UK, causing deaths and injuries to civilian relatives.
Understandably, this pressure began to affect the morale of troops. They could see no point to doing their peacekeeping job among people who resented them, or worse. Many Tommies felt their hands were tied by political priorities and regulations that forbade them from combating the attackers more aggressively. Back home in a Britain already weary from WWII, young soldiers' mothers began to question a government that was sending their sons to die in an unappreciated cause. During the Jewish Insur­gency from August 1945 to August 1947, British casualties totalled 141 killed and 475 wounded.
Faced with these mounting casualties and the political and financial costs of maintaining order in Palestine, Britain turned over responsibility to the UN for establishment of a bi-national Jewish-Arab state under United Nations trusteeship. On 14 May 1948, the last British soldier sailed from Haifa, and the Palestine Mandate ended. On that same date, the new State of Israel was born, and continues its battle for survival to this day.
Army Quarterly & Defence Journal.

Copyright Sidney Allinson (revised) 2007.

Historical Ignorance.

"D-Day, 1899, and President Denzel Washington is leading the liberation of New Zealand from the Nazis."

By Chris Hasting and Julie Henry, Daily Telegraph, UK.

It is 1899 and Denzel Washington, the American president, orders Anne Frank and her troops to storm the beaches of Nazi-occupied New Zealand ...

This may not be how you remember D-Day, but for a worrying number of Britain's children this is the confused scenario they associate with the events of June 6, 1944.

A survey of 1,309 British pupils aged between 10 and 14, from 24 different schools, found alarming levels of ignorance about the invasion of Normandy 60 years ago.

Only 28 per cent of primary and secondary pupils who sat the quiz last week were able to say that D-Day, involving the largest invasion force ever mounted, was the start of the Allied liberation of occupied western Europe.

Many of them could only say that it was something to do with the Second World War - though 26 per cent were flummoxed by even that fact. Some thought it took place in the First World War, or was the day war broke out, or the Blitz, and even Remembrance Sunday.

"It's a day when everyone remembers the dead who fought," said a 14-year-old girl at a north Devon secondary school. Only 16 per cent of 918 participating primary school children had the answer right.

One 10-year-old thought it was the day the "Americans came to rescue the English". Another thought D-Day involved "the invasion of Portsmouth". Various dates for the assault were 1066, 1776, 1899, and 1948.

Children also had great difficulty in naming Britain's war-time prime minister. Less than half of the overall sample and only 39 per cent of primary school children correctly identified him as Winston Churchill; a significant number opted for Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair.

Seventeen per cent of the sample and only 38 per cent of secondary school children identified Franklin D Roosevelt as the then President of the United States. Other candidates offered by both age groups were Denzel Washington (the actor), George Washington, John F Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln, and George W Bush. Some said simply: "George Bush's dad."

Ignorance about the Allied leaders, however, contrasted sharply with knowledge about Adolf Hitler. Overall, 71 per cent of the sample and 64 per cent of primary school children were able correctly to name the Nazi leader. Only one in three could identify the broad location of D-Day, with a number saying that it happened in New Zealand, Skegness, or Germany.

Thirteen per cent could name two of the beaches involved, and only 10 per cent of the sample knew that Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower was the Supreme Allied Commander. Others thought that the invasion was led by Anne Frank, or Private Ryan (the hero of the Steven Spielberg D-Day fictional epic), or Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, Eisenhower's deputy.

The disclosure that school children know so little about D-Day comes a week before the country prepares to celebrate the anniversary and will again focus attention on what sort of history is being taught in schools.

Even in those schools where the Second World War is taught, the emphasis is not on military events or even wartime leaders. One primary school teacher said: "We do study the Second World War, but we do not tend to concentrate on particular military events or leaders. We look at issues that are relevant to children themselves. They learn about civilian evacuation for instance, or the issuing of gas masks."

Dr David Starkey, the historian and television broadcaster, said yesterday that the survey had uncovered what he called a climate of "unfortunately reduced horizons and expectations".

It was "absurd", he said, that children were spending so much time discussing Hitler and Stalin to the detriment of everything else connected with the war.

"There is nothing difficult about the concepts being discussed and no reason why a child of primary school age should not be able to understand."

He said that he did not want to go back to a situation where history teaching was nothing but dates and battles, but he said he feared that the pendulum had swung too far in the other direction.

"I think that trying to begin any subject by relating to a child's own experience is a useful tool. But education is about teaching children things they do not know."

Chris Grayling, the shadow education minister, said: "These are really very recent events that have shaped the lives of all of us.

"It is a real worry that so few children seem to know the basics of what happened during the Second World War. We must not allow this to continue."

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Interview With Wilbur Smith


By Sidney Allinson.

“Victoria’s delightful,” says best-selling author Wilbur Smith, sitting at a window in the Empress Hotel, admiring the Inner Harbour of Victoria, British Columbia. “You have everything here, perfect scenery, beautiful mountains, and salt water, which I love.” Appreciative praise indeed from the much-travelled Smith, who was visiting here for the first time, during a cross-Canada promotional tour. The effort seems almost superfluous, considering his books now top 100 million copies in total sales.

Smith is tall, tanned, and fit-looking for his 73 years, a friendly raconteur with a hearty laugh. Considering he is one of the highest-paid authors in the world, he is open, cordial, and not in the least full of himself.

The death of his third wife of many years devastated him for a sad period, until he married again in 2003. He introduces his gracious, gorgeous young wife, Mokhiniso Rahkimova, who is 38 years younger than him. A Muslim from the Central Asian republic of Tajikistan, Niso was a law student when Smith first met her, appropriately in a London bookshop. Proudly uxorious, he says, “Thanks to her, this is the best period of my life.”

They are in town to plug his latest opus, “The Quest,” fourth in the wildly popular River God series about Taita, Egyptian master of the supernatural. Not to give away the plot, but this time the River Nile dries up, a catastrophe caused by mysterious happenings far away. In desperation for a solution, the Pharaoh sends for the long-lived Warlock, Taita (pronounced “Ty-ee-tah”.)

He sets off on an epic journey, during which his strange powers equip him to win through to the source of the Nile and combat the cause of the disasters. To triumph, Taita must overcome dangerous challenges that are as much psychic as physical, and is awarded an astonishing regeneration that foreshadows modern stem-cell growth.

Smith’s stories set in ancient Egypt are a sharp turn away from his previous action-packed novels about battle, murder, and sudden death -- portraying muscular white hunters, fearless explorers, and lusty female characters in bygone eras. His historically accurate portrayal of how they actually behaved at the time, without inserting any fashionable authorial disapproval, has drawn some flak from liberal-minded critics.

Smith laughs uproariously, “So what? I revel in being politically incorrect! Hah, they’ve even called me sexist, too. I love women! Gutsy women, fiery women. I believe that women are superior in many ways, their resilience and courage. Furthermore, most of my readers are female.”

Whatever his unfashionable views, they reflect his own origins. Smith was born in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) in 1933, the son of English settlers. His earliest childhood memories are of his artist mother reading adventure stories to him. He grew up to be a voracious reader, between rifle-toting forays into the bush, where at age thirteen he shot his first lion. His father, an implacable big-game hunter who claimed to have never read a book in his life, sternly discouraged young Wilbur’s ambition to become a journalist. “You’d starve doing that -- get a real job!”

So he reluctantly became a government tax accountant, married twice, both ending in divorce, and then turned to writing novels. In 1963, he scored enormous first success with “When The Lion Feeds,” and never stopped from then on, having since written 31 international best-sellers.

He explains matter-of-factly how he produces them in such volume. “After a lot of research, I just go to my writing place every second February and start writing. I keep doing that seven hours a day, five days a week, and at the end of eight months or so I have another manuscript ready.”

This workmanlike routine has earned him great wealth and the freedom to live life to the fullest -- posh homes in Cape Town, London, and Davos, leisure for skiing, hunting safaris, deep-sea fishing, and luxurious travel, with time out to write another novel every second year.

Asked why his last four books have veered away from his previous usual theme of two-fisted outdoor adventure into supernatural fantasy, he says, “I wanted to create an entirely different focus, and I was always fascinated by ancient Egyptian lore, whence the River God series. Now, with “The Quest” I like to think I have come up with something even newer again, both in story and narrative style. Writing it gave me a tremendous amount of pleasure, and favourable public response has been huge already, especially among young women, I might add.”

He says the story in his latest book owes a debt to many other authors, particularly Rider Haggard, whose Victorian novel ‘She’ was the first adult book Smith ever read. Fans of Smith's series set in early Egypt will be interested to know “The Quest” takes another leap forward from an historical basis to a mystical one, in which the continuing character Taita encounters a evil superhuman entity.

Summing up, the contented multi-millionaire author says, “My books are each offered as a finished piece, to enjoy or not. They have all been enormous fun. From my early thirties, I have called no man master. I have been able to choose exactly what I want to write about, free to shoot my mouth off on any subject. Quite a lot of people like me for it, and I have given pleasure to many and offence to few. So it’s been a good life.” Wilbur Smith beams happily towards Niso, “And it’s not over yet.”

-- Sidney Allinson is author of
"KRUGER'S GOLD: A novel of the Anglo-Boer War."

"A Good Innings."

(Book Review)

I’ve Had A Good Innings, Paul A. Mayer, General Store, Renfrew, 2006, 219 pages, photos.

This admirable memoir recounts the experiences of a professional soldier and diplomat who epitomises the phrase “an officer and a gentleman.”

Colonel Paul Mayer served Canada for more than 50 years in war and peace; as a front-line infantry officer in the Second World War and the Korean War, then as a peacekeeper in such dangerous hot-spots as Vietnam, the Congo, and Dominican Republic, then finally as personnel director of international development banks.

He starts by telling how he emigrated to Canada as a teenager, proud that his family came from a long line of soldiers in the British army since 1689. He followed this tradition by becoming a career officer in the Canadian army the very week the Second World War began. The dangers he encountered from then on demanded every ounce of inherited steely resolve, ranging from German tanks and Korean human-wave attacks, to narrowly escaping from being staked out to die on an anthill by homicidal African rebels, and surviving an assassination attempt in Santo Domingo that was thwarted by his equally resolute wife.

His lucid style and clear recollections are all the more impressive, considering the book was written during his 90th year. Col. Mayer is poorly served by his publishers though, with badly reproduced photographs and type set ragged-right which gives an unfinished look to the book. However, even that cannot spoil this sprightly account of real-life adventures.

-- Sidney Allinson.