Monday, July 15, 2013

Outposts: Journeys to the Surviving Relics of the British Empire

I fancy myself as another Simon Winchester. For not only does he have a passionate interest in dictionaries, as seen in his remarkable story The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, but Winchester is also a geography nut who likes to travel the world to the most unlikely tourist destinations. Outposts: Journeys to the Surviving Relics of the British Empire is Winchester's travel diary written over the three years he spent travelling the world, in his attempt to visit the remaining bits and pieces of the British Empire.

By 1985, though, when  Winchester wrote Outposts, the empire had shrunk to only a handful of inhabited islands plus Hong Kong and Gibraltar. Not counting all the empire's rocks, skerries, uninhabited islands, Pitcairn Island and British Antarctic Territory, Winchester visited all the remaining relics of Her Majesty's empire. He started off with British Indian Ocean Territory, which happens to be the most tragic of all empire stories. The entire population of two thousand was forcibly evacuated from all the BIOT islands in order to convert the territory into a high-security air and naval base. Over five years and often without any advance notice, the citizens were uprooted and resettled, many to Mauritius. I had read about the forced depopulation of BIOT before, and Winchester has written the most personal account from the perspective of a tourist.

I took the greatest interest in the chapter on Tristan da Cunha. His experience there with a local family seemed pleasant, yet after he left the island and wrote about his experiences in the 1985 edition of Outposts, he discovered that there were repercussions. Winchester wrote in the introduction to the 2003 edition (which is the edition I read):

"For what I wrote in this book about the island of Tristan da Cunha I have been banned, and have never landed there since. I have been to the colony's territorial waters a number of times, but the local police have kept me away--the islanders still vexed that I had written about the war-time romance of one of their number, now an elderly (and contentedly married) lady. Whenever I have since visited I have had to content myself with lying offshore in a boat, gazing at the black rocks and the potato fields I liked so well, from a floating vantage point half a mile away." 

His journey to Tristan is unfortunately typical of many travellers: they get so close to the island, but the ocean is so rough that they cannot land. Thank goodness my trip there this autumn is aboard a vessel that has a helicopter on board, ensuring the passengers a landing. Winchester details the ordeal his ship, the St Helena, endured in its attempt to land at Tristan:

"Bows down and shoulders hunched, St Helena rammed her way around the island, which was illuminated by sudden shafts of sunlight, instant rainbows, and over which streamed veils of cloud. We reached the southern edge--a cape where the three-masted barque Italia had been wrecked in 1892, bringing the surnames of Repetto and Lavarello to the island, where they still survive--but the wind refused to calm. In fact, as we pummelled our way further and further around, it became clear that this, unique among all islands I have known, is a place without a lee--there is nowhere to shelter. The gales either blow around the island in some devilish spiral, or else pour as a katabatic torrent up and over the mountain, striking anything below, no matter at what quarter of the compass."

I have long been fascinated by Gibraltar's smallness, where close to thirty thousand people are crammed into less than seven square kilometres. A good portion of this land area is dominated by an uninhabitable rock (uninhabitable for humans, not for Barbary apes). Winchester got the feeling from many that he spoke to that life on the rocky peninsula was claustrophobic, and that living there was like being in a muggy prison. He explained the history of Gibraltar and Great Britain's ongoing dispute with Spain over the territory, and I appreciated his extensive histories in each chapter behind how these areas became colonies, such as the colony-no-longer, Hong Kong.

Upon arriving via a heart-in-throat landing at Hong Kong's Kai Tak Airport, Winchester noted:

"It is a mesmeric, intoxicating sight, a view to make one gasp. A hundred years ago there was almost nothing: just a thin line of warehouses, a few church towers, the mansions of the taipans up on the slopes, and Government House on Upper Albert Road with the Union flag waving lazily in the steamy air. Today a vast white winding cloth of concrete, steel and glass has been bolted on to the hillsides, obscuring the contours, turning a world once dominated by the horizontal and the gentle diagonal into a pageant of the vertical."

Winchester was in the south Atlantic in early 1982 just prior to the Falklands War. He flew to the Falklands when Argentina, at first, occupied the island of South Georgia, but was never on the Falklands themselves when war eventually broke out there. Winchester and I certainly share a love of islands; after he first set foot on East Falkland he wrote:

"Everything, so far as I was concerned, was exactly right. It was a place of islands, and I loved islands. It was cold, and I loved cold places."

His time in the Falklands capital, Stanley, was a tense experience owing to the invasion of South Georgia to the southeast, but one without any sense of impending danger. He writes that no one was aware of the Argentine invasion, and if the stationed military did have any advance warning of it, they were keeping it top secret.

Winchester's observations were often occasions I would want to reread. His descriptions of scenery captured a snapshot that seemed high-resolution and always panoramic:

"There may be no native trees on the Falklands, but the twentieth century's sterling efforts to allow the colonists to talk to the outside world has left many rusting iron masts and rotting hawsers that, from a distance and in a mist, look much the same."

Winchester ends his book as he begins, with a stinging belt to the behind to the empire for its devastating forced eviction of the citizens of British Indian Ocean Territory:

"And we deal--or rather we dealt--with horrifying callousness with the people of the Indian Ocean, when we evicted them from their homes, transported them to a foreign country against their will, and lied and evaded our responsibilities for years before a writer discovered the scandal, and told it to the world. Of all the events of post-Imperial British history, those of the late 1960s that occurred in the archipelago we customarily call Diego Garcia remain the most shabby and the most mean. No excuses can be made, by politicians of any persuasion: Diego Garcia is a monstrous blot on British honour, and shames us all, for ever."

Monday, July 8, 2013

North Korea: Beyond Charismatic Politics

I have read many books about the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, those that were printed in the west from both anti-DPRK authors and as well as DPRK sympathizers, by authors who don't resort to anti-DPRK sensationalism, and books which I had purchased in the DPRK itself. A book about the DPRK is almost always an entertaining read, even if I had to give the book a failing review. North Korea: Beyond Charismatic Politics by Heonik Kwon and Byung-Ho Chung failed to make a "friend of North Korea" such as myself the least bit interested in the country. I have never read a book about the DPRK that was as boring as this one. At 219 pages it was however a lot longer than it might at first seem. The library received it in July of last year yet I put off reading it for months because the typeface was so small. Pages of solid bricks of text in tiny print without a paragraph in sight didn't make the book look appealing, although some of the chapter headings certainly did ("The Great National Bereavement, 1994", about the mass wailing that overtook the nation after the sudden death of Great Leader Kim Il Sung, "The Graves of Revolutionary Martyrs", "Gifts to the Leader").

Kwon and Chung analyze the politics behind the Kim dynasty since the creation of the DPRK. They talk about the power of the Kims' charisma, and how national propaganda has had to reinvent itself in order to keep the charismatic element relevant. This was of particularly grave concern to the regime at the time of the famine that devastated the entire country in the mid-nineties:

"The centralization of power, because of its primary reliance on political cultural means and the mobilization of the population to this activity, came with an increasing negligence and ineptitude on the part of the state in the sphere of economic sustenance and growth. The cumulative effects of this failure in all spheres of state life other than the sphere of cultural production were made brutally clear by the tragic crisis of the mid-1990s, which devastated the single most important foundation of any modern state: the economic and moral integrity of its civil society."

Beyond Charismatic Politics was belaboured with repetitious phrases embedded in lugubriously long sentences. I have to confess that I loathed reading this book where I couldn't wait to finish it. Sentences quoted above and below, wherein the authors discuss the political expedience of rewriting history, were typical:

"The succession from Kim Il Sung to Kim Jong Il was 'the communist world's first hereditary transfer of power' and began as early as the start of the 1970s. Contemporary North Korean accounts extend the origin of this process further to the outset of the 1960s and even as far back as the time of the Korean War (1950-1953). These claims represent the powerful efforts in North Korea, as in other socialist polities, to appropriate and rewrite history in the service of a specific political goal. These historical revisions are intended not merely to bring greater honor and dignity to the country's iconic leader but also to appropriate the authority and majesty of the leader's persona to facilitate a desired future--particularly, the continuity of the political order free from the risk of a rupture in the political life of the charismatic authority. In this respect, the evolution of North Korea's statehood has been an epic struggle against the impermanent nature of charismatic authority and against the mortality of this authority, to which all other charismatic personas of the twentieth century eventually succumbed."

I acknowledge that Beyond Charismatic Politics was an academic read more for a student of political situations and conditions, versus for a student of Korean history, which might explain why I was so turned off by all the politicobabble. Even so, I have read many such books about North Korea before which never made me feel like throwing it at the wall. Any book about North Korea is of course going to be full of political theory and analysis of the Kim regime. I would like to read a thoughtful review from a scholar of political science who favoured the book so I might appreciate if from a different perspective.

The chapter entitled "Gifts to the Leader" discusses the diplomatic act of presenting gifts to the Great Leader and Eternal President Kim Il Sung and the Dear Leader Comrade General Kim Jong Il. Leaders and diplomats from around the world, as well as delegations from international socialist institutions, and even private citizens the whole world over have presented the Kims with elaborate gifts. There must be a place to store them all, and the International Friendship Exhibition Hall was built to display thousands of these items in a dazzling and luxurious representation of international esteem for the Kim administration. I visited this exhibition hall and walked down its kilometre-long corridors as my tour group saw room after room after room of often garish and ostentatious examples of folk art. No wonder the Kims didn't want to put such kitsch in their own homes. There is one such piece that has acquired mythical status among North Korea watchers. I had heard about it before I left for my trip yet had never seen a picture of it. My roommate during the trip warned our group about what we were going to see in the exhibition hall, this one kitschy item in particular, and that as hard as it might be we had to keep a straight face or run the risk of offending the authorities. One must not laugh in the International Friendship Exhibition Hall:

"The gifts to Kim Il Sung include a bulletproof automobile from Joseph Stalin; a large handicraft depicting a roaring tiger from Mao Zedong, sent in November 1953 in celebration of Kim Il Sung's victory in the Korean War (these items are 'tributes' to Kim Il Sung made by Comrades Mao and Stalin, according to the labels next to the gifts); and a gigantic porcelain vase offered in 1978 by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party specially for the opening of the Hall of Gifts. Most of the gifts are displayed according to their geographical region of origin. Gifts from Latin America include a silver machete and a machine gun from Nicaragua, decorative plates from Ecuador and a Peruvian university, an oil painting of an Andean market from Guiana, and a briefcase made of crocodile skin from Fidel Castro. A stuffed, standing crocodile holding a plate of wine glasses, a gift from the Sandinista leadership, is a favorite for many visitors to this section."

I appreciated the trip down North Korean memory lane when the authors talked about the cult of gifts in the International Friendship Exhibition Hall in this one chapter, but I cannot recommend North Korea: Beyond Charismatic Politics to anyone but post-graduate scholars of North Korean politics.

Monday, July 1, 2013

C'mon Papa: Dispatches from a Dad in the Dark

To commemorate Dominion Day, I am posting a review of a Canadian book.

C'mon Papa: Dispatches from a Dad in the Dark is Ryan Knighton's second memoir, written after the birth of his daughter, Tess. I posted my review of Knighton's first book, Cockeyed: a Memoir in mid-June. In his latest book, Knighton writes of his experiences as a blind father raising a daughter.

C'mon Papa is divided into three parts. The first part deals with the conception, where Knighton's wife Tracy suffers a miscarriage as a result of a molar pregnancy. Tracy goes through chemotherapy and the Knightons must wait a year before trying again to conceive. The second part is about the birth and Knighton's trials with an infant. The third part deals with blind life with a two-year-old. I did not find this story as funny as Cockeyed, although it still was a book I couldn't put down. Knighton writes of his failures at diaper-changing and baby-minding. After a heavy snowfall, Knighton loses his daughter while they are playing outside and there is a sense of panic that infects the reader until they are reunited. More tales of near-disaster, or even near-death, are included. The toughest time for Knighton is trying to care for Tess while she is a baby. It gets easier for him when she is a toddler since she, even at the age of two, can walk and see and lead her father around.

Unfortunately I missed seeing Knighton at an author appearance in Toronto while I was in Halifax. It would have been a pleasure to meet him; even more so now that I have read his latest memoir. I am hoping that he will continue to write about his experiences as a blind man and father.