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Book Review November 25, 2003
 
Nostalgia for the Whip-Hand
By John Dolan Browse author Email
 
Page 3 of 4
 
All the unemployed Imperialist Hartleys can do is carp about the incompetence with which their Imperial successors, the Americans, handle colonial war. In mentioning the 1982 Beirut suicide bombing, he casually halves the US death toll, from 241 to "120 Marines." Watching a GI sobbing on TV during the Vietnam war, Hartley's mother "...looked cross and said, 'They're always so emotional. The British never behaved like that.'"

There it is, the bitterness, the all-too-rare Experience of Defeat which alone makes Hartley's voice bearable. Only when, after 75 or so pages of whingeing at losing the family's ill-gotten gains, he zooms to his own life as war correspondent, does the book pick up. His university career is compressed to a single phrase: "After three happy years at Oxford..." That's it; we leave England (which Hartley can't stand, for all his Imperial loyalties) and it's back to good old gory Africa, with sidetrips to Yemen, where Hartley's parents met and married while his father was at work "pacifying" the local tribes.

The rest is storytelling. Good storytelling, too. Like most war correspondents, Hartley has saved the best stories for his own memoir, and some of them are great. But the stupidity of the man becomes oppressive. He can't even punctuate correctly, and his publishers seem not to have sprung for a proofreader. (If they hire one for the second edition, I suggest taking a careful look at pages 6, 23, and 107, all of which feature Hartley's distinctively dangling clauses.) His history is as bad as his syntax. He has learned nothing from his family's grand role in the destruction of Africa. Assigned to the Balkans, he accepts the standard Western Press prejudices, hating the Serbs ("Jesus, the Serbs got me down"), mocking their accents ("'darty filums'") and crowing over their alleged impotence ("...that onerous crusade of defending Europe against the Oriental hordes had played havoc with the male Serb warriors' libidos") contrasted to his proud fucking of every Serb girl he can drag into bed. The Russian pilots who fly him around Africa have "...the Mongoloid faces of Soyuz astronauts from my boyhood stamp collection," and their breath is "sour with drink."

You can teach a Tory not to savage a particular people. It takes time, and you need a good cattle prod and lots of Duracells, but you can do it. What you can't do is teach a Tory the underlying principle that it's not really right to mock the tribes you want to trample, then portray yourself as victim of their savagery. That notion is simply beyond people like Hartley.

So, though he has learned not to sneer too openly at black Africans (No! Bad Tory! Mustn't bite!), you can't trust him around strangers. He may have been warned not to moan too loudly about losing the farms to the Kikuyu, but don't expect him to see that similar cases, like what's happening in Zimbabwe now, as blacks take back land from families like Hartley's, aren't just "theft and vandalism." You can't get the Hartleys of the world to notice the similarities between Whiteboys hamstringing cattle on the Earl of Mayo's estate (which Hartley's relatives used to rent for the summer) and black men hamstringing his father's cattle in 1950s Kenya.

And even Hartley's minimal deference to post-colonialism slips now and then, as when waxing sentimental over a former servant: "I don't mean to be patronizing when I remember my Kipling and say, 'You're a better man than I am.'" You may not mean to be patronizing, Hartley, but you are. Very.

But I want to be fair. Well, no; I want to be unfair in a defensible way, which is what the idiom means anyway. So I should say that this is a big, meaty book, and there's a lot in it. A lot of vain nonsense, such as Hartley's claim to have invented the term "warlord" to describe the main players in Somalia on page 175, or his cretinous friend Julian's "Wildean" attempts at wit (page 106). And a lot of brave, honest description, as in Hartley's appreciation of the joys of the Somalis' drug of choice, Qat (pp. 196-7).


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