Thursday, 22 December 2011

Patrick O'Brian interview: The man behind Aubrey-Maturin

You should never meet your heroes
For fans of Patrick O’Brian and his Aubrey-Maturin series, O'Brian's interview with Walter Cronkite should be of profound interest. Not because the late great author spoke candidly; you get the sense that O’Brian seldom, if ever, did that, to anyone but perhaps his closest friends. He rarely gave interviews. You won’t learn a great deal more about the novels by listening to the exchange with Cronkite, but you can gain insight into the man himself. Unfortunately, the lingering impression it leaves of my favourite author is not really the pleasant one I’d wanted it to be.
The Cronkite interview was given on November 15, 1999 – a mere 48 days before O’Brian's death in Dublin on January 2, 2000 – to drive his publisher’s sales of what would be the final completed instalment of the Aubreyad, Blue at the Mizzen. By that time, details of O’Brian’s closely-guarded private life had been published in the media: he was English rather than Irish; during WWII he abandoned his first wife, Elizabeth, leaving behind two children, one of which was severely disabled and dying of spina-bifida; he divorced and changed his name to Patrick O’Brian before marrying his second wife, Russian aristocrat Mary Tolstoy; and he had been a published author of several books before the war, writing in the 1930s under his birth name of Richard Patrick Russ.
Commentators often remark on O’Brian’s obsessive privacy, living a sheltered existence in the little Mediterranean village of Collioure in French Catalonia. I would say that the author’s own other-worldliness comes across in his character’s style of speech (straight out of Jane Austen), and the often commented on “total immersion” effect, passed on to the reader, within the nautical world of Nelson’s Royal Navy.
O’Brian once wrote: "Obviously, I have lived very much out of the world: I know little of present-day Dublin or London or Paris, even less of post-modernity, post-structuralism, hard rock or rap, and I cannot write with much conviction about the contemporary scene."
The world can be a cruel place, and the joy of a good book can be a great comfort in the spells when real life events seem to be set against us. The Aubrey-Maturin novels are escapism at its finest. O’Brian also lived in a bubble of his own, running and hiding from his past mistakes, inventing a character for himself, and waging an unsuccessful battle to keep his personal life private, once Master & Commander gained him a cult following, and his fame began to spread. By the end, enjoying that fame also allowed the outside world in, ultimately pricking the great author’s bubble.
You can trace his growing bitterness to 1998, when the details of his personal life surfaced in a Daily Telegraph expos√© and in a BBC documentary, exacerbating the decline that had begun  when his wife Mary, soulmate and typist for the books, passed away earlier the same year. The ruthless way in which a number of recurring characters are killed off towards the end of the Aubrey-Maturin books also betrays a growing embitterment.
In death, O’Brian’s privacy is still closely guarded by the villagers, even trying to keep the location of his grave secret from visiting tourists. However, once the painful details of his private life became public knowledge, the motives for his prickliness and hermit-like existence became more apparent. It probably also made an increasing contribution towards his evasiveness in those final years – scurrying to and from the library at Trinity College, still writing – which I think becomes apparent even within the uncontroversial exchange with Cronkite.
O’Brian’s step-son, author Nikolai Tolstoy, said he lived out his final days, "lonely, tortured, and at the last possibly paranoid figure”, in his biography: Patrick O’Brian: The Making of the Novelist (2004).
 It’s obvious that O’Brian enjoys making quips, literary asides, wordplay jokes and generally being evasive far more than speaking about real research, background or inspirational events. I find this an infuriating trick, speaking as a journalist and as an Aubrey-Maturin reader interested in learning more about the background to the books and their author.
It would have been far more interesting to gain genuine insight into the author’s thinking about the characters he created. Instead he bats away questions with brief and teasing replies, giving away very little of value despite the benign, unintrusive nature of Cronkite’s questions. 
Writing was O’Brian’s medium, so I’m prepared to overlook the man’s real-life faults and sins. He was a better fantasist on the page than in his own life. He remains my favourite author. Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin represent the greatest friendship in English literature. O’Brian’s genius is undeniable, creating his protagonists “Lucky Jack” and secretive intellectual (O’Brian-like) Stephen, and the wonderful wooden world they inhabit aboard Sophie, Surprise, "Horrible Leopard", (etc, etc).
In the novels, O'Brian hints at his dislike for the inquisitiveness of strangers, through his mouthpiece, Maturin, who quips, dryly, that: "Question and answer is not a civilised form of conversation."
But then there is that unmistakable relish for the audience’s approval: O’Brian is enjoying the attention and celebrity. That is what I find toughest to square. The author had courted fame, allowing pride to get the better of him by allowing journalists to pry too effectively into his personal life, and the many fabrications that he had sewn into it.
You cannot have it both ways. It’s a similar type of hypocrisy to that which came to the fore this year through the News of the World phone-hacking scandal. That travesty had plenty of genuine victims: celebrities and the families of victims of crimes. But those celebrities that courted coverage, selling stories and photo shoots in the good times looked less convincing when moaning about press intrusion into their dirty laundry. That is undoubtedly an extreme example, but there is a whiff of hypocrisy from O’Brian that doesn’t sit well.
Alternatively, you could argue he was being deliberately consistent. The event was a marketing one, and Cronkite’s questions are predictable and scripted in advance, so there was no possibility of O’Brian being thrown a curve-ball with any awkward questions to answer. Nevertheless, the old man might have decided that it would have been hypocritical to give candid, detailed answers about professional matters while maintaining a policy of stonewalling any probing of his private affairs.
There is truth in the platitude that it is seldom a good thing to meet one’s heroes. Of course, I never met the late Patrick O’Brian. My dad finally succeeded in coaxing me – after a teenage spell of misguided reluctance – into reading the 20-and-a-bit Aubrey-Maturin novels while at University in 2004, by which time their author was dead. Watching him being interviewed by Cronkite – affectionate chatter rather than an investigative grilling – you can quickly gather that to have met with O'Brian in person and to have attempted a meaningful conversation with the great author must have been a confounding and wholly frustrating experience.

For the 1999 Cronkite interview, click here.

Click here to "Like" The Aubrey-Maturin novels on Facebook, and here to join The Aubrey-Maturin Appreciation Society discussion group.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Au revoir Entente Cordiale

David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy scuttled their Entente Cordiale in record time. Only last week, The Economist's Bagehot column commented on the post-Libya spirit of Anglo-French co-operation, cautiously welcoming the new defence ties, strengthened by victory over Libya, between Messrs Cameron and Sarkozy. It also, sensibly, left room for future acrimony over the eurozone crisis. A well worn clich√© warns that a week is a long time in politics, but in this case events have moved extra-ordinarily fast. The popular headlines today are of a handshake snubbed by a grandstanding Sarko, contemptuous of his "British friends", and a Churchillian Cameron, risking European political isolation across the Dover Straits. The Economist's Charlemagne online editorial cites the UK's veto of a new European treaty as "Europe's great divorce".

Whether or not you agreed with Cameron's stance or brinkmanship: calling the other EU leaders' bluff over the sovereign debt crisis, to defend the City of London from Continental meddling; you have to admire him for holding firm, after Angela Merkel, Sarko et al had called the Prime Minister's own bluff. Cameron's gamble plainly did not pay off in the way he wanted: in the end Britain stood alone. Following through with a veto was brave but necessary.

In fairness to the PM, he had not been asking for a great deal. The "veto" means that although 26-out-of-27 countries agreed in principle to the deal in Brussels, changes will only apply to the 17 eurozone countries. Which you could say, is quite right. The Euro remains the issue. The City of London is rightfully lauding Cameron for keeping the UK out of a disastrous Tobin tax on financial transactions: fine for France; it would wound the City and its banks, insurers, investment firms, funds and derivatives. The City's political weakness is its apparent disconnect with the apples and oranges of "the real economy", which unfairly brands it "socially useless" and does it a great disservice. The City doesn't fit in with the "French model", peddled in Paris or Brussels, either.

Benedict Brogan at The Daily Telegraph sums up the eurosceptic view of many in the UK (myself included) who argue that the Franco-German axis always pushes Britain to the EU's margins, not because "Europe" is inherently a bad idea, but because French and German federalist largesse thinly shrouds selfish national interests. 

Brogan writes:

"The events of the past 12 hours have exposed a truth that many chose to ignore, namely that in its relentless pursuit of its national interest, France's strategic objective has been to drive the UK to the margins – if not out of the EU – and to destroy the City. The French narrative of the crisis is that it is all an Anglo-Saxon creation, and we must be punished for it. The failings of the euro so obvious to us are not recognised by the French. The British view is that packing the treaty proposals full of changes that Britain could never conceivably accept was a ploy to force us into a veto, and so into the departure lounge. Or here's another way of putting from inside the machine: "The French are out to screw us," one source tells me. "Despite all the jollity, the fact is that Sarko doesn't gives a s*** about us. It's all bull***. They have their view that the Anglo-Saxon model is a disaster and was responsible for the crisis."

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Badass: X-47B Stealth UAV

On an unashamedly aesthetic level, how f*cking bad-ass does this machine look? Grumman Northrop, an American defence manufacturer, this week announced the first test flight of its second prototype X-47B unmanned stealth fighter. The mean-looking stealth combat UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle, or just "drone" to journalists) is being developed for the US Navy. Soon to operate from an aircraft carrier near you...

Photo from the press release @

UPDATE: More UAV porn! I want to know when BAE will catch up and get it's "Taranis" flying. 2012? It looks pretty similar to the X-47B. It isn't clear whether they want to use it as the basis for an actual production UAV or just as a test-bed for future projects. Something tells me that ambiguity could have something to do with the UK MoD being so strapped for cash.

The below photo is downloadable from the BAE website @

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Eavesdropping in the City

I overheard a couple of cheerful City workers chatting as they walked past the persistent eyesore that is the "Occupy London" protest outside St Paul's earlier today. Their views go beyond my own, but their chatter amused me, so I thought I'd pass it on for posterity.

City boy 1: "It's so tempting to chuck a few buckets of water on their tents."
City boy 2: "I think you mean petrol."
City boy 1: "No, you need to think 1066. We should hoist a white flag and concede defeat; tell them they've won; let them all gleefully charge down the hill; then rout and slaughter the c*nts."

I think my sudden guffawing immediately behind them may've given me away...

Christmas reading list

The nights are drawing in and evenings curled up in cosy armchairs beckon, so having a good book to read takes on greater importance during the winter months. On the basis that I usually read on average one (or at most two) per month, I now have a considerable backlog that should  keep me occupied through the Christmas holiday period and well into the New Year. Still, what could be more fun? Some of these I freely confess I picked up because it annoys me that they represent irksome gaps in my literary knowledge (Catch 22, Fear and LoathingThe Great Gatsby); others I bought on whims a while back and are simply overdue some attention (The End of the Party, The Third Man); while I've picked up a couple of these via other media (I loved this year's movie adaptation of Tinker Tailor starring Gary Oldman, I read the rave reviews of The Sense of an Ending, and watching HBO's superb mini-series The Pacific led me to Eugene Sledge's memoir With the Old Breed).

PS. Placing Tinker Tailor next to Mandy's Third Man was not a deliberate Cold War / spy pun.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Book reviews

I neglected blogging for much of this year: nothing chronicling News of The World phone hacking, the London Riots, or Europe's sovereign debt crisis; nothing written on the deaths of Osama Bin Laden, Muammar Gaddafi, or Jimmy Savile. But I have not been completely idle. For example, I have read a number of good books, which are critiqued below.
Rather than reviewing these books in onerous detail, immediately after reading, hopefully there's some value in giving brief but lasting impressions, retrospectively, as well as providing breadth in coverage at one stroke, by covering the several titles below.
In the order I read them...

The Junior Officers' Reading Club, Patrick Hennessey
This is a good book, very valuable as a record of what it means for my generation to go to war: pinned down in Helmand; pockets lined with Haribo; and 'Terry' Taliban's RPG's whizzing overhead. The Sandhurst training described provides good insight into what it means to go from civilian to soldier, while the sudden staccato chaos of combat is well described. I've still not made up my mind  on the frequent use by the author of email fragments: the reasons why are clear enough, but I wasn't sure whether they could be said to fit coherently, or were in some cases too contrived. But it's an important book, and it prompted me to read some of the titles on Hennessey's own wartime reading list.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl who Played with Fire, Stieg Larsson
Everyone else has read them, so why not! Great suspenseful novels these, and a zillion times better than your average two-bit airport thriller. Larsson seems to have set off some sort of posthumous Scandinavian crime fiction craze with Wallander, etc, on telly in recent years. Now of course his Millennium Trilogy has been remade by Hollywood.

Stylistically,  these books are simple. Larsson uses some novel devices to assure us of his fiction's realism: the use of banal details like Lisbeth's supermarket shopping lists; or the detailed specifications of her latest laptop computer. Like all good thrillers, the chase builds, and both books have dramatic finales worthy of the silver screen. The first book is, upon several months' reflection, the better of the two, but that's not to say they aren't both thoroughly exciting yarns. 
However, donning my financial journalist hat for a moment (and my own Conservative views), Blomkvist's leftist celebrity crusade against simplified corporate corruption and its right-wing backers, portrayed in naive black and white terms by Larsson, did make me blush a little. Just not realistic.

 Still, it's a relatively minor niggle. The books are still great reads. I will complete the series and tackle the third when I get round to it. It's very rare - Patrick O'Brian aside, several times over - that I will read a series of books in order without interruption.

The Cruel Sea, Nicholas Monsarrat
Strongly recommended: gripping, painful, essential reading. I'd long been fan of the film. Perhaps that's the only way I can start to approach reviewing the book, as it informed me before reading it. Jack Hawkins was well cast as Ericson on screen: stoical, professional, embittered. Donald Sinden was great as Lockhart: dedicated and loyal. Hawkins' spitting "Attacking!", hunting the pitiless German U-boats, and the wonderful way he pronounced the world "Cruel" stick in the memory. Like the movie (1953), the book (1951) was written with memories of the war still raw. The film was gritty for its day: the gore is not shown; instead you see the young men's faces, and must imagine what they witness.

Like the film, the book focuses on the psychological war of the Battle of the Atlantic (the longest-fought campaign of World War II, maybe the least glamorous, but arguably the most vital). The tiredness, boredom, irritability and wrenching command decisions are all portrayed. Decision-making recalls one scene in particular: Ericson's corvette detects an underwater contact in a patch of water where survivors are swimming. The dilemma is whether to be merciful or to drop high explosive depth charges into the water, killing the survivors as well as the enemy submarine. "Attacking!" barks Ericson.

That scene highlights the difference between film and book. The novel tells you what happened to the men in the water. They are "pulped" into nothing, shreds of flesh and bone left where people had been previously. The horror of it hits you. In another scene, several men must spend a night aboard a crippled merchant ship. The bombed ship's bridge is a mess of blood, guts and bone fragments. The job is to clean it up. This was raw to an audience who had recently lost husbands, sons and family members not long before. You know Monsarrat writes from experience; he served his war in Atlantic corvettes. The story is fiction but the details are real. Superb.

The Rum Diary, Hunter S Thompson
Also now a movie with Johnny Depp and Amber Heard. This was my holiday reading in June. It's a book that should be read in summer, preferably with a cold beer, maybe with last night's fading hangover, and nothing much to do with your day. Thompson was a great gonzo author, and you can't help but want to approach life with the same carefree, bizarre adventurer's approach as him and his protagonists. That is his art, and The Rum Diary does it quite well.

That said, there is not much of a plot or direction to The Rum Diary. Like a literary Withnail and I, this book rests on its style, which works to its favour, and on the meandering lives of its characters, loosely based on Thompson's own experiences as a young reporter working in Puerto Rico in the 1960s. There's no great weight to this book, but it is a good read, especially if you have a soft spot for Thompson's course for misspent youth and liquor-soaked adventure. 

For which I do.

The Last Cruise of the Emden, Edwin P Hoyt
Some factual stories, the saying goes, are better than fiction; this is one of them. The literary style is fairly run-of-the-mill, but the true-life content ensures that The Last Cruise of the Emden is a boy's own adventure story to delight most of our inner children.

In short: the Emden was a German warship in the First World War which played havoc with British and Allied shipping in the Indian Ocean, capturing and sinking dozens of ships, becoming famous in the process. Outnumbered, far from home, and surrounded by hostile forces, the daring and chivalry of the small ship became widely reported and renowned even in Britain. Even after the Emden's cruise had ended, some of its crew refused to throw in the towel, instead striking for home, thousands of miles away.

The underdog heroine of the book is the Emden; the heroes are the warship's crew. This is a thousand miles from The Cruel Sea. The ship's crew show chivalry to their enemies, compassion in victory and resourcefulness in defeat. Romanticism for bygone chivalry in war is part of this book's appeal. That's not a fashionable theme now, which dates this book, but should not by default remove its appeal. The First World War is primarily thought about in terms of the mud and mechanised slaughter of the Western Front: so many brave young men killed going off to fight what they thought was a noble or romantic cause, met by the reality of industrial-scale death and destruction. The exploits of the Emden provide a rare twilight glimpse of the sort of  honourable war which the mass slaughter of the Great War left so little room.

Helmet for my Pillow, Robert Leckie
The first of two war memoirs I was inspired to read after watching HBO's brilliant miniseries The Pacific. Leckie writes well, and his memoir is candid. A journalist before volunteering for the US Marine Corps, Leckie goes through the highs and lows of training, combat, veteran, cynic, lover, drunk and 'brig rat' repeat offender, before illness ends his war.

The vivid descriptions of vicious combat and toil on Guadalcanal, Cape Gloucester and Peleliu are probably some of the strongest sections of the book. Leckie gives honest descriptions of unheroic aspects of fighting as a US Marine in the Pacific: hunting for grisly souvenirs from Japanese dead, men cracking up or killing themselves from the strain of combat, tragic mistakes in the confusion of darkness leading to men dying for nothing, and unfairness at the hands of some of his officers.

Leckie keeps the objects of his ire anonymous, but resentment verging on hatred for certain officers becomes a recurring theme.  His common gripes against Lieutenants Commando and Ivy League are made more bitter as an adroit and educated enlisted man, frustrated at encountering less able superiors. Leckie's faults are what makes the book interesting: his anger, bitterness, cynicism and weakness complete his character. This is a good book, and a great historical insight. Bring on the second memoir used by HBO, Eugene Sledge's With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa, which is on my shelf, ready to read.

I, Partridge: We need to talk about Alan, Alan Partridge
Probably the best satire of the present generation of celebrities' vacuous trend for slapdash, semi-fictional autobiographies. Steve Coogan returns as Partridge, allowing fans of the original fly-on-the-wall mockumentary to relive some of the classic moments of cringe comedy through the protagonist's rose-tinted view. Okay, rose tinted is a vast understatement: wholesale fabrication is nearer the mark.

There's much more to I, Partridge than mere reminiscence. I'm still considering buying the audio-book to listen to get the full benefit of hearing Coogan deliver his choice lines. The Partridge style is hilarious, and this medium gives vents it with the most freedom yet.

Phrases like "Snow flakes fell from the sky like tiny pieces of a snowman who had stood on a landmine" and "I'm pretty gungho about cod liver oil" spring to mind. There are so many more that I can't recall without delving back into it. I, Partridge is a great comic autobiography from one of the greatest comic characters in UK television history.

Dispatches, Michael Herr
I was led to this book by its prominence on Patrick Hennessey's own reading list. Since then I've become more aware of Dispatches' place on the pantheon of war literature. First impressions within a page or two were of disorder, chaos and hazy recollection. Herr was not a soldier or marine, but a war correspondent in Vietnam.

The fog and madness of the war is brought to bear like an epic militarised version of a Hunter S Thompson-esque binge. The memories are raw; the results are searing. Grim anecdotes abound: flying home in a helicopter full of body bags; the look of aged fatigue on a young soldier's face; swapping horror stories with Marine grunts and with the other reporters.

As the book progresses, it weaves together a coherent narrative of experiencing the Tet Offensive with the muddy Marines and dashing helicopter-borne "Cav", brutal fighting to recapture Hue, the misery of bombardment and counter-bombardment at Khe Sanh, and the utter wasteland left behind by the war, on the terrain and on the men fighting for it. Essential reading.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Occupying themselves

I work around the corner from ‘Occupy London’, or ‘#OccupyLSX’, if you want to give it oxygen via Twitter. The protesters have been encamped outside St Paul's Cathedral since October 15th. I snapped the above picture on my phone a few days later. You may well ask whether passing taxis or other motorists beeped for change. They did not.

The main problem, as I see it, is the lack of any coherent message from the protesters. What is their objective? Judging from their placards, they have a whole myriad of aims.

Some signs oppose “The War”. Afghanistan, Iraq or Libya? Iraq – fair enough five years ago but we withdrew already. Afghanistan you can argue over – but would they surrender Afghan women’s rights to the Dark Age treatment of the Taliban? Oh, that’s got them stumped. Libya – that one went surprisingly well, surely?

It’s “a demonstration against economic inequality, the lack of affordability of housing in the United Kingdom, social injustice, corporate greed and the influence of companies and lobbyists on government”, according to the protest’s entry page on Wikipedia.

End the bailouts read other signs. Yet these were enacted by politicians of different stripes to those in office: the Republican Bush administration in the US (almost universally reviled); and Tony Blair’s Labour government in Britain. Steady on, you’re not telling me these young vegans are Tories.

Stop corporate greed. I won’t be trapped – Gecko-like – into saying that unchecked greed is anything else but a bad thing. Too much of it contributed to the financial crisis –from over-adventurous mortgage borrowers as well as greedy lenders, bankers and eager-to-please governments.

There can be no doubt that unregulated, unsupervised greed also leads to nasty corruption. That also tends to be a barrier to fairness in open markets (now there’s a slogan lacking in signage). But yes, making money is rather the point of commerce. I think we can presume many protesters are socialists – they usually are – but still, no matter how deeply they suspect private enterprise, if they want to get anything done, they might at least want to gun for something a bit more specific.

Let’s not kid ourselves the image of ‘Che’ Guevara represents Che’s murderous struggle for Castro-Communism: probably just a naive label for youthful rebellion? Some protesters wear Jamaican Rastafarian clothes and colours. There is an arrow pointing to Mecca. A Buddhist shrine has even been erected. Some of my fellow office workers have milked free vegetarian lunch from these sops. It all makes me feel nauseous.

Then there's that cheeky Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament logo sneaked into the "O" in "Beeeeep [sic] For Change". What does that have to do with anything? Are these the same people that picketed RAF bases during the Cold War? Or let me guess, do they embody the revolutionary spirit of the 1968 protest movement? I think I just threw up in my mouth.

It would appear that some of these signs might have been used before. Could it be that these are the same repeat protesters who regularly turn up for climate change demos, student fees protests, pacifist rallies and anti-G-20 marches? The phrase professional student has come into use in recent years, for dilettante students too lazy and lackadaisical to get real world jobs. At the other end of the spectrum, Venezuelan terrorist Carlos the Jackal today described himself as a “professional revolutionary” in a Parisian court. I would say that the Occupy London campers are professional protesters

Some of them probably take their role as professional protester seriously; they travel far and wide to campaign against the status quo; they sacrifice comfort by camping on cold paving slabs to raise awareness; and earnestly believe they are doing something worthwhile to get a message across – rather than trying to climb the rungs of jobs and housing ladders, like the rest of us. 

But if the message is diluted, and we begin to see the same agitators again and again, surely their impact is lessened. Then there are those others lacking in true revolutionary steel. I suspect that many of the Occupy protesters retire at night to the warmth of their parents’ leafy North London semi-detached family homes, just a few avenues away from the Milibands. Perhaps they get home in time to catch Downton Abbey. If not they can catch up on their iPads.

If a single Occupy message exists, it has become hopelessly muddled by the protest’s link to the cathedral. What, you may also query, does Christopher Wren's seventeenth century masterpiece, have to do with the aims of the protesters?  Sod all, you might answer. It is close to the London Stock Exchange, from which the "OccupyLSX" moniker arises, but you won't find any money lenders residing in the temple. The London Stock Exchange (commonly abbreviated to LSE, not LSX), just around the corner in Paternoster Square, has successfully insulated itself from the grubby protesters at the gates. Entering Paternoster Square requires a ticket and a reason to be there, keeping agitators at bay.

St Paul's on the other hand, has suffered to those camping below its steps. Its churchmen took a liberal stance that won many plaudits: showing some early tacit support for the protesters' occupation of its frontage; even keeping the police from making an intimidating presence by standing on the cathedral's steps. Then the church played central counterparty (to use a City term) between the protesters and those they seek to influence. The analogy works because neither side knows who they are talking to, and the middle man assumes the risks. Once drawn into the politics of protest, the churchmen duly fell like nine-pins. The cathedral's Dean, Graeme Knowles, resigned saying his position had become "untenable". His departure followed those of the Canon Chancellor of St Paul's, Giles Fraser, and part-time chaplain, Fraser Dyer.

Still, in choosing their location, the protest has picked a choice spot. St Paul's symbolism for the City of London and to Britain are immeasurable. Even if it is nothing to do with finance, the building itself has resonance. Talismanic, surrounded by smoke and flame, the cathedral defied Luftwaffe bombs to survive Hitler's Blitz. In the context of all that genuine global struggle, whether this protest dies quickly or slowly, nobody is going to remember these muppets a few years from now.

Friday, 10 June 2011

China and Vietnam: Future Asian conflict

Confrontation at sea between China and Vietnam in the South China Sea presents a handy example of how future conflicts in the Pacific are likely to arise. The details of blame (which fishing or research ship caused the incident; whether or not the tension was orchestrated in Hanoi or Beijing) are perhaps interesting, but there are broader issues at stake. There is a real likelihood that, sooner or later, one of several maritime border disputes between China and one of its Asian neighbours will flare up into an East Asian conflict.

A February 21 entry in The Economist’s Banyan column and blog ('A Sea of disputes') neatly summed up the major sovereignty disputes within this major shipping route:

“China and Vietnam claim sovereignty over the Paracel island chain, from which China evicted Vietnam in 1974, in the dying days of the Vietnam War. Taiwan—because it is the “Republic of China”—mirrors China’s claim, so that huge unresolved dispute also has a bearing on this one. The same three parties also claim the Spratly archipelago, to the south. But in the south, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei also have partial claims.”
Further to the North, China also has designs on the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands (known as the Diaoyutai to the Chinese). That sovereignty dispute flared into bilateral tension when a Chinese trawler collided with a Japanese coast guard vessel. The parallels with this week’s China-Vietnam stand-off are obvious. Again, US-supported Taiwan is a complicating factor, as it predictably also claims the islands. Fuel to the fire is provided by the oil and gas reserves in the disputed seas around the islands which Japan started exploring in 2004.

These disputes cannot be resolved. The only question is how they might be kept from deteriorating into open conflict, or perhaps how long it will take for conflict to break out. I was lucky to listen to a presentation given in May by retired Royal Navy Rear Admiral Christopher Parry, who spoke about the likelihood of conflict in that region, becoming more likely as China enters a crucial 20-year period after which its economic surge will fall away, giving way to the problem of an ageing population, such as faced by Japan today.

Inferred is the temptation to achieve hegemony one way or another while the clock is still ticking. This is the same conundrum faced by Germany's strategic planners in the 1900s, fearing that if they did not strike out soon to win dominance in Europe, through the First World War, the Kaiser's empire would lose its place on the world stage.

Parry’s presentation highlighted the importance of littoral population growth over the next few decades in Pacific countries such as China, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines and Vietnam. The sea will become increasingly important to those populations, as they look to exploit the finite energy, mineral and other natural resources of the region, potentially exerting sovereign claims by force. The growth of large coastal cities will also enhance the importance of the balance of power between naval and amphibious forces in the region.

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is perhaps the biggest ever giveaway-name for a land power only now dipping its toe into the pond of expeditionary naval power. China’s fleet is becoming a more potent force. It was able to intervene in the Libyan crisis this year, withdrawing some Chinese nationals from the North African country. China has now entered into the club of countries operating aircraft carriers, through its acquisition of the former Soviet Varyag, renamed Shi Lang.
That ship, and the results of China’s own highly secretive future aircraft carrier build project, can give it an edge over other would-be maritime powers. That is happening while the US Navy is fighting to keep its Pacific Fleet maintained, with pressure to drop below its desired strength of 12 supercarriers, backed up by almost as many amphibious warfare ships (which can operate vertical takeoff aircraft like the Harrier as well as helicopters). These amphibious warfare vessels are the equivalent to many of the smaller flat-tops operated by the likes of Italy, the UK, Spain, etc.

Meanwhile, Australia – not knowing whether it can expect a peaceful neighbourhood to its north within a decade or two – has expanded its own capabilities to meet the likelihood that competition in the region might not be peaceful.

It looks like the Americans will want Australia to play a more active part in Pacific gunboat politics. Australia’s 2009 defence white paper called for a future fleet of at least 12 non-nuclear submarines, with scope for more in the 2030s, with three or four air warfare destroyers, backed up by at least eight frigates primarily fitted for anti-submarine work but of large size and able to operate UAVs. Two new helicopter carriers will form an expeditionary capability, which Australia will hope can stabilise the strategic balance in the case of a US drawdown and an expanding Chinese fleet.

China's Shi Lang, ex Varyag.

Monday, 30 May 2011

On Libya, aircraft carriers, and the importance of marketing

No illustration of Britain's defence cuts was so emotive as Ark Royal emerging from fog, homeward-bound to Portsmouth for its final decommissioning. Huge White Ensigns hung in the ship's hangar to greet the crowds, who had queued in long lines to bid farewell to the Royal Navy's flagship. But it was a sad day, for all that. The Navy had struggled to fight its corner in last year's Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), which led to some poor decisions being made, which may yet damage the national interest. Losing the fleet's flagship a few years early was just the most poignant emblem of decline.

That was in part caused by 'back-to-front' pressure on the SDSR from the Treasury to keep fiscal realities in mind, with the UK facing an unprecedented peacetime national debt. Rather than conduct a serious strategic review, beginning by underlining what was necessary to maintain the country's defence policy, posture and priorities, the review began by defining how much needed to be cleaved, before taking the scythe to the country's armed forces.

Of the three services, the Royal Navy failed most conspicuously to grasp the need for adroit marketing and lobbying within those political constraints. The Army could rely on the short-term rationale of Afghanistan to guarantee its place in the queue for scarce assets. It will undoubtedly shrink after 2015, but it can probably afford to do so, and part of this will come at the expense of 40% of the MBTs built to meet the Red Army across the North German Plain. It won't lose any of the capabilities it has got now.

Not so for the Navy and the RAF, left to fight for the scraps. The 2015 deadline for Afghan withdrawal, combined with Westminster's naive willingness to believe that the UK would not involve itself in an overseas intervention in the meantime, had a major consequence: a scramble for remaining funds between the senior service and its youngest sibling. The RAF probably won that marketing battle, headlined by the nonsensical decision to keep the Tornado (also designed for a Cold-War-gone-hot scenario), at the expense of the Harrier (a much more useful aircraft, able to deploy flexibly in any number of roles on land or sea).

Intervention through Nato's no-fly-zone in Libya, at sea and in the air, has made a mockery of the SDSR within a matter of months from its release: potentially “one of the fastest failures in modern British strategic history”, according to Paul Cornish, an international security lobbyist at think-tank Chatham House. Damage to the UK's national interest will yet depend on what happens in the world over the next decade. Libya could be just a warning shot against strategic stupidity.

Much was made of the early contribution of RAF aircraft; Tornadoes flew initially from the UK and were refuelled in the air to transport small payloads to Libya at disproportionate expense. France and Italy, despite their relative proximity to Libya, opted from the outset to use aircraft carriers to cut the distances involved by crossing the Mediterranean, getting the most value out of sea-launched air power, from the Charles de Gaulle and Guiseppi Garibaldi, respectively. The French and Italians seem to have better maintained Admiral Jacky Fisher's notion that: "Our frontiers are the coasts of the enemy and we ought to be there five minutes after war is declared."

Since moving to Italian bases, the still-small number of Britain's Eurofighter interceptors yet equipped for ground attack has also become apparent. Clearly little or no vestige remains of Colonel Gaddafi's air force, so there is precious little work for air superiority fighters to do except 'police' an empty no-fly-zone. Harriers would be useful: the Italians are using them on their own carrier.

The Navy's role in Libya began by firing submarine-launched missiles at ground targets ashore, quickly followed by diverting scarce ships from deployments elsewhere, first to evacuate UK nationals and then to blockade the coastline. Many of these SDSR-canned assets are living on borrowed time, including HMS Cumberland and RAF Nimrod R1 aircraft, both of which were deployed just months from the scrapyard.

Cornish adds: "The obvious question to ask is whether Britain could have made a contribution to the intervention in Libya had the crisis developed later in 2011 when most of the decommissionings, disbandments, and retirements would otherwise have taken place."

Only months after the SDSR, Apaches are embarked on Ocean, bound for Libya.

Stepping up UK ground attack capabilities in Libya has meant using Apache helicopter gunships, four of which have been sent aboard HMS Oceanthe UK's helicopter carrier (or Landing Platform Helicopter, to use the ugly service jargon). There is a risk involved in this deployment. For starters, the limited UK Apache force is being stretched between two conflicts far from home. Added to this, attack helicopters like the Apache are vulnerable to shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles: the Americans lost twelve in Iraq to hostile fire.

There are alternatives, but they are in even shorter supply. The US Air Force's A-10 Thunderbolt II (Warthog) tank-busting aircraft would be ideal as well as less vulnerable in the close air support role aiding rebel ground forces, while AC-130 gunships (a heavily-armed version of Lockheed's Hercules transport plane), can circle high over the battlefield under the protective cover of darkness. Both types can destroy more tanks and materiel with each sortie than fast jets, using cheaper munitions than the most expensive precision missiles, while operating at less risk if used appropriately. These aircraft types were deployed in March, in the opening stages, but the Americans seem unwilling to commit them in the longer term.

The Apache has been navalised by the UK to do a similar job to the Harrier. It has only recently been converted to operate from the deck of Ocean (and presumably also Illustrious, as the two ships take turns as the fleet's helicopter carrier). Until the Royal Navy's capable new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers enter service a decade from now, the fleet will not be able to provide more.

Grounds for optimism?

Construction work has started on the second of the two new carriers, said to be named Prince of Wales. Whether or not the ship, a major component of the SDSR's so-called 'Future Force 2020', will be fully fitted out for service is still not possible to say. That will depend on the UK's fiscal condition for the next decade. There is still a real threat that the ship might not be fitted out to full fast jet-flying specifications, or spend its life in a continuously one in, one out of port relationship with its sister ship. Other undesirable scenarios could involve the 65,000-tonne ship being shared with (or sold to) France, or else sold elsewhere abroad. Still, it's being built; that's a positive development; one step at a time.

Hopefully, the Treasury will be less hard up for funds by 2020. Libyan intervention is being borne by 2011's cash-strapped Treasury, at considerable expense. In order for 'Future Force 2020' to be more than a second-rate sham, the defence budget will need to rise considerably and consistently after 2015. This is one battle which must be won, and for which the lobbyists (for the Navy and the Armed Forces generally) need to prepare for now

What's in a name?

I'm no mathematician, or an economist. But there is more to budgets than bean counting. Why did the NHS budget swell so much under New Labour; why was it a ring-fenced sacred cow from the 2010 cuts; and why has been so staunchly defended from Conservative reform plans in 2011? The Armed Forces, esteemed as they are, cannot compete on the same level. Labour is the NHS's best friend, while traditional 'friends' or influence within Tory government were unable or unwilling to prevent the SDSR bloodbath.

Because of this, it's all the more vital for the military to embrace the dark arts of PR and savvy marketing. The Ark Royal is a great name for a ship, totemic, steeped in popular memory as well as glorious history. Prince of Wales: less so.

While speculation mounts about what the old Ark Royal might become once sold into civilian service (Thames heli-port or Hong Kong casino have been suggested), there is a very real possibility of a new Ark Royal. One of the greatest things that Prince Charles has ever done, is reportedly agree to a request, made behind the scenes by somebody with a head for marketing, that the Royal Navy's second new aircraft carrier, should not be christened Prince of Wales, but instead be named as the Navy's sixth Ark Royal. That would be a triumph of naval marketing skill. Disposing of an expensively constructed Prince of Wales would be politically awkward in 2020, but for a politician to decide to sell off or mothball a brand new incarnation of the Ark Royal would be much more politically unpopular.