Skip to content

difficult second from bottom

difficult second album

difficult second child

difficult second trimester

difficult second album syndrome

difficult second pregnancy

Only Connect: The Difficult Second Quiz Book, by Jack Waley-Cohen

difficult second interview questions

difficult second baby

difficult second coming

difficult second novel

Living in a ghost town

Ten years ago, I wrote the world’s first review of Chinaman, for the Sri Lankan Sunday Times. Last week, I interviewed Shehan Karunatilaka at the launch of his new novel, Chats with the Dead, at Barefoot Gallery.

Here are the (brutally-abbreviated) highlights of those proceedings.

For The Sunday Times (SL)

Boursin – the lost advertisement

I love you.


Truly: je t’adore.

But when I make our lunch,
I still put more cheese in my sandwich
than in yours.

For Roar Media

Selassie come home

The Shadow King
by Maaza Mengiste
Canongate, £16.99, pp. 428

In 1935 the troops of Benito Mussolini’s sinister-clownish Roman Empire II invaded Ethiopia, in large part out of spite for Italy’s embarrassing defeat there 40 years before.

Initially largely uncontested – thanks both to emperor Haile Selassie’s desperate faith in international brotherhood and to a hearty dose of Quislingism from his leading nobles – when ‘war’ eventually did break out it was so one-sided that Ethiopian women were gathering spent bullet-casings for re-use while Italian planes (the older Ethiopians believing these were dragons) dropped poison gas on them. Selassie, meanwhile, fled to England.

The conflict inevitably degenerated into guerilla tactics on the one side and terrible reprisals on the other. Step forward Ettore Navarra, ‘an earnest young Venetian who has come into [the] army with a camera,’ and whose colonel now instructs him to document the founding of this new Etiopia italiana. (Stand by for ‘shooting’ tropes.)

Step forward also Hirut, a highland servant girl, and other women from all levels of Ethiopian society, who reject their traditional wartime roles as nurses and corpse-buriers, and together manufacture the illusion – ‘shadow king’ – that the Emperor has not abandoned his people and his country after all.

As the story of an unremembered war, bedecked with referential trimmings of Old Testament, Homeric myth, and Verdian opera, and book-ended by Victorian and Cold War military contexts, I had expected to enjoy The Shadow King a lot more.

Alas, although – NB – the novel hardly frames itself as Abyssinian Andy McNab, this story of ‘what it means to be a woman at war’ is overwhelmingly more about the former than the latter.

The book is avowedly seen by its author as an act of restitution to ‘those women and girls of Ethiopia… who stood up’ (her great-grandmother included) – but the ramifications of this seem to have spiralled rather. The case is more or less made that women are by nature so inured to horror that war is something they can just take in their stride, and there is a lot of nose-tapping about what they ‘know’ of life (imagine this with gender roles reversed); the insanely murderous Italians are only fractionally more demonised than Hirut’s countrymen (sic); and the prose inclines heavily to the poetical, quite often with a physical aspect to it – ‘the battlefield is her own body’, etc. – that will strain the patience of some (one might guess male) readers.

Ultimately, though, if the complaint is (and it is) that the official histories of this war leave out the women, then – given the freedoms inherent to a ‘work of fiction’ – The Shadow King strangely makes no substantive claim that there were armies (or even companies) of latter-day Amazons roaming the Ethiopian mountains, slaying enemies. As far as war per se is concerned, the roles of these few women remain, frankly, auxiliary.

From the strictly historical view, what’s more, the novel also implies – by near-total omission – that Ethiopian irregulars (of both sexes) won back their country though their unrelenting, native efforts. This chimes well with the proud, continuing claim of Ethiopia to be ‘the only African nation never conquered’; but might be news to the thousands of British and Imperial forces who entered Italian-held Ethiopia in 1940-41, and thus restored the real Haile Selassie to his kingdom.

For The Spectator

Trouble at t’Mill

The curious life of John Stuart Mill, philosopher

When JS Mill was born, his father, James, challenged a friend to ‘race with you in the education of… the most accomplished and virtuous young man.’ That other child has not gone down in history – but he may well have dodged a serious bullet.

Learning Greek at 3, writing a history of Rome at 6, and tutoring his own siblings from the age of 8, Mill’s childhood became synonymous with intellectual hothouse upbringings.

Groomed to be the strict Utilitarian offspring of his father and Jeremy ‘greatest happiness’ Bentham (Mill’s mother, Harriet, goes resoundingly unmentioned in his Autobiography), he was prevented from associating with kids his own age, permanently off-games, and woken up at 5am to work unpaid on James’s History of British India. If mistakes were made, he got no lunch.

Some of his father’s peers expressed concern – while those merely impressed were kept away from him in case he got a big head. Mill was occasionally allowed such treats as Don Quixote, or Joyce’s Scientific Dialogues; but reading poetry was banned, despite the fact the family had once lived in John Milton’s cottage.

At 14 he took a gap year (as well one might), which he spent hobnobbing with French politicians, and taking university courses in chemistry, zoology, and higher maths. (It was noted, though, he could not comb his hair or tie a tie.) Back in England, he was arrested for distributing frank family-planning literature in poorer areas, and by the age of 20 he had nothing left to do but have his mid-life crisis.

In the circumstances, it is amazing that Mill turned out not merely functional but, in the assessment of one recent biographer, ‘the greatest public intellectual in the history of Britain – and perhaps even the world.’

With the help of Wordsworth’s poetry (indeed), he began to distance himself from the Utilitarians, deciding he should worry less about ‘the greatest happiness’ in the doctrinal sense and more about his – and others’ – personal freedom and bog-standard contentment.

Already educated beyond university, and almost employability, Mill purposely took an untaxing clerical job with the East India Company (he finished work round 1pm), and embarked on the enormous side-career of earnest political journalism that would make his name: or, in Edward ‘Clerihew’ Bentley’s wry summary, ‘By a mighty effort of will, / Overcame his natural bonhomie / And wrote Principles of Political Economy‘.

A unembarrassed ‘elitist democrat’, Mill believed that people could and should govern themselves, in the interests both of personal choice and broader social improvement, free from the tyrannies of law or majoritarian social attitudes – but that The People needed education and constraint. His faith in parliamentary democracy was not unqualified.

Individuals should be free to act as they wished, unless it would cause harm to others. ‘Offence’, NB, did not count as ‘harm’. In fact free speech was critical, for airing of minority opinions and for bringing questionable views into contact with better ones.

As an indication of the currency of these and other high-minded attitudes, when he was 31 The Spectator included Mill in a fantasy (sic) radical cabinet, though he was not even a politician.

Politically and personally, he was probably a hard man to be friends with. He viewed Coleridge as a poetic hero, but also an ‘arrant driveller’ on economic matters. Macaulay he called a ‘dwarf’, and Carlyle a ‘true voice for the Devil’ – an amity not defrosted by his maid using the only copy of Carlyle’s French Rev vol.1 to light the fire (cf. Blackadder).

He found eccentricity preferable to uniformity and stagnation, and his fallings out with former allies were almost always over their perceived political inflexibility. He had a marked penchant for killing heroes, including, famously, Bentham himself.

Pensioned off after the East India Company’s disbandment, Mill was finally at liberty to put his money where his professional mouth had been for over 40 years. In 1865 the titanic philosopher became a Liberal MP, by the unusual expedient of admitting at the hustings that he had called his working class would-be constituents ‘habitual liars’ (much cheering).

In a typically idiosyncratic and principled career, he prophesied the environmental dangers of unchecked economic development, but referred to the abolition of the death penalty as ‘effeminacy’; he continued to argue against the ‘tyranny of the majority’ in domestic politics, but was at peace with ‘despotism’ (his word) when it came to British rule in, e.g., India; he suggested learned folks should have more votes than the uneducated, but was the first man to bring a parliamentary vote on women’s suffrage.

He was, perhaps surprisingly, willing to compromise in the name of practical governance; but interested neither in party politics nor in ministerial advancement, he used the Commons as a pulpit to speak on as-yet-hopelessly-unpopular progressive issues. Having wound up Conservatives and Liberals alike, he lost his seat just three years later.

In 1851 he’d married Harriet (NB) Taylor, with whom he had been spending considerable time – ‘platonically’ – for decades, notwithstanding, and sometimes in, the presence of her husband (alive and, well, unstimulating). Alas for Mill, she died in 1858, but such was the impact, both morally and intellectually, of ‘the most admirable person I had ever known,’ that he dedicated much of the final phase of his life to the National Society for Women’s Suffrage, recruiting Florence Nightingale (originally sceptical) and being hailed by Millicent Fawcett as the ‘principal originator of the women’s movement.’

And so, while Bentham sat in state in his ‘auto-icon’ pickle-jar at UCL, Mill died an outsider, thrown out of one last club just months before his death, for his outspoken views on land redistribution.

Despite Monty Python‘s slanderous assertion that Mill became particularly ill on half a pint of shandy, it was actually a skin disorder what got him: erysipelas, or ‘holy fire’ (fittingly or otherwise, for an avowed agnostic in the former papal state of Avignon). He went to his grave believing his life had been ‘uneventful’, leaving one stepdaughter, Helen, and one godson (surely not the mot juste), Bertrand Russell.

For (the prototype edition of) Smith magazine

You want appease of me?!

The Hitler Years: Triumph 1933-1939
by Frank McDonough
Head of Zeus £30

In the early- to mid-1930s my grandmother (Irish, South African, later Australian) lived for a few years in the east of Germany, as a language assistant/housemistress in a boarding school. Her one recorded comment about Hitler’s accession to power was that he put an end to the suffering of an awful lot of German people.

I strongly doubt she hated Jews, or that she was a reckless war-monger (a decade on, her husband would be sent to Abyssinia). She simply recognised that the country was in an absolute mess – politically incontinent, almost bankrupt, starvation looming in the rural areas (for the remaining 60-odd years of her life she drank her tea black, a habit inculcated during those times of acute shortages). Strong solutions were called for – by both left wing and right – and Adolf Hitler seemed to be providing them.

She was not alone in these straightforward views.

The Hitler Years: Triumph 1933-1939 (part one of Frank McDonough’s two-book project on the disgruntled former corporal’s time as Führer) makes it abundantly clear that ‘even if Hitler had never come to power Germany would probably have had a right-wing nationalist coalition during this period.’ This would have had the backing of the humiliated German military, would almost certainly have demanded to renegotiate the Versailles Treaty, and would probably have gained the sympathy of the political classes in England and France, particularly when they were threatened with the alternative (purportedly) of Communism.

Hitler did not create the conditions that enabled his rise, and he fed, however cynically, on genuine – even legitimate – national grievances. He was appointed to the Chancellorship quite constitutionally (pundits both local and foreign not seeing this as any kind of fundamental moment), and his rule began as, and for a long while remained, a necessary and supportive coalition of the Nazi party, upper-class politicos, the army, the civil service and big business.

The reality is that he successfully won over most of the German population to his major public plans, so while all the now-familiar hallmarks of Nazi rule (book-burning, purges, camps, violent anti-Semitism) emerged in some form almost immediately, the German people had – at best – already capitulated. As Hitler himself said in a 1937 interview: “A government like ours could never stay in power without the will of the people to support it.”

But Triumph is the more interesting for pushing back against the cartoon of Hitler as all-conquering monster/supermensch, instead demonstrating the slow creep of the Nazi state takeover, the caution with which Hitler had to move, the resistance that he often faced, and his surprising and instinctive flexibility.

Challenges to his outright authority came from his own ranks (Ernst Röhm), political superiors (von Papen), economic circumstances, and the church (Lutheran as well as Catholic). Criticism was neither unheard of nor unheard. In 1935 the party was complaining that Hitler seemed to have relaxed his persecution of the Jews (he had, for diplomatic reasons), and his generals were outspoken about the country’s unpreparedness for war. As late as 1939 some of the high command were even plotting to arrest him (though, y’know… they didn’t).

So Hitler was also simply lucky. In any case – one must grimly conclude – from the German/Nazi/Hitlerian viewpoint, from 1933 to 1939, almost nothing went wrong. (The rest is volume two: Catastrophe).

All well and good (non sic); but did we really need another book about the Nazis?

With its no-nonsense chronological account, ‘immense readability’ (see press release), and, of course, parade of fascinating details, Triumph is essentially an undergrad primer on pre-war Germany, albeit a handsome one, decked out in appropriately-ominous black and red, and nicely illustrated (look: some ‘ordinary Germans’ pointing and laughing in the aftermath of Kristallnacht).

Avowedly for the ‘general reader’, however, the book has just a six-page introduction to cover all things relevant pre-1933, whereafter McDonough cannot seem to decide whether this is the first book that his reader will have read on Nazi Germany (‘Hitler, who had been an artist in his youth…’ [p311]) or if he should already know the details of the Locarno Pact.

The text is not flawless, either technically or stylistically (Hindenburg’s son Oskar is mentioned, by name, six times in half a paragraph), and McDonough’s ‘blow-by-blow’ approach inclines towards stolidity and repetition. There are also strange anachronisms (someone described as Göring’s ‘line-manager’, for heaven’s sake).

Finally, the book makes no important claims to access/info/revelations we’ve not heard before, and yet announces (press release again) that the completed, two-vol. publication will constitute ‘a definitive history of the Third Reich’. At this point, frankly, that seems optimistic.

For The Oldie


There are more kilts in London than in Scotland.

The Nelson Evening Mail, Thursday, May 9 1907

At 45% of the population, white Christians are a shrinking demographic in America.

Hermal eggings are so leek.

No sensitive person would choose to be the historian of the Irish asylums in the first part of the last century.

Spinoza fucks Hegel up the arse.

Carol Drinkwater has just enjoyed a nice glass of Rioja.

WG Grace achieved 83 ducks in his first-class career. One man alone - Shaw (A.) - clean bowled him 20 times, and six times Grace hit his own wickets.

Smak is full of natural goodness.

Poet Laureate Robert Southey was once elected to parliament without his knowledge, while on holiday.

During the Russian Revolution, some people named their daughters ‘Terrora’.

Satire and humour are more common among royalists.

A trifle can do you a lot of harm.

Goldfish pheromones were discovered by accident.

Only in the English language is there the phrase ‘too clever by half’.


The Government of India collects about £7,000,000 from the sale of opium.

The Nelson Evening Mail, Thursday, July 19 1906

Jacob Zuma is the only black South African president never to lift the rugby world cup.

At Morrisons, your opinion gets rewarded with a £500 voucher.

Vegetarianism, which is based on false hypotheses and ideas, does not have followers in the Soviet Union.

Property blinds all eyes.

You must be prepared to stabilise if you need to excavate earth.

Apples don’t have daddies.

Only humans know that trees are beautiful.

Yudhanjaya Wijeratne is appearing at the CENS Workshop on Understanding and Countering Online Falsehoods and Influence Operations.

Necessity, Manitoba, has a population of 1,230 souls.

Almost everyone is happy to accept the cookies.

The lion-keepers at Dublin Zoo have a remarkable record in breeding lion cubs.

Gustav Mahler wrote the Kindertotenlieder before any of his own children died.

Basketball is not an interesting sport.


During one year a high police official in New York was offered £120,000 in bribes to “look the other way.”

The Nelson Evening Mail, Tuesday, June 22 1909

The night is chilly to a man without clothes.

You get a free tote bag if you subscribe to almost anything.

Sussex folk have few superstitions.

There are four benefits to sleeping with a garlic clove under your pillow.

Half a ducat is what monarchs pay their whores.

Only one man ever shook Thomas Mann’s hand.

The English have always been uniquely torn.

There is an Irish cricketer named after Pocahontas.

Towns are attractive to the discontented.

Glasgow University is stamping out rabies.

Elephants use their long noses to climb trees (but only when nobody’s looking).

Because the Lonely Planet says it, doesn’t make it so.

The great game is finished when everyone is dead.

Master class

An evening with Kumar Sangakkara.

For the Sri Lankan Sunday Times