‘You’re brave’, the dog walkers call out, seeing me swimming in the river on winter mornings.  I smile and wave.  It is difficult having a conversation with somebody on the bank from the middle of a cold river, but if I could catch my breath, I would say, ‘this is not brave; it’s cold, invigorating even, but not brave.  Besides, I want to do it.  It makes me feel good and able to face another day’s writing. It’s a means to an end, but brave; no, I don’t think so.  

Bravery is a moral quality.  Psychotherapist Dr Coline Covington, who spoke at a meeting of Sheffield’s Hallam Institute of Psychotherapy last weekend, said it was more about standing out from the crowd and doing something you may fear but you know is right.  

The day before Armistice Day was an appropriate time to be thinking about bravery.  The guns fell silent on the western front a hundred years ago.  Many of us have been remembering relatives who lost their lives in 20th century wars and saying how brave they were.  Millions of men volunteered to fight for their country, not just because it was a great adventure, but because it was their duty.  My father flew Hurricanes for the RAF.  A man, who, like the Prince of Wales, raised self deprecation to an art form, he nevertheless told me that when he and his friends were training to be pilots, they were informed that only 1 in 9 would survive.  None of them pulled out. 

Dr Covington talked about bravery as being true to oneself.  But how do we know what being true to oneself means?   Most of us get our moral compass from our parents.  Through instruction and example they show us how to be, or perhaps more appropriately how not to be.   ‘No’ is the most important word we ever hear.  So being true to ourselves means being true to the values inculcated in us by our parents early in life, which we subsequently identified with as our own.  A parent with strong moral principles will instil those into us. These then become the standards we endeavour to live up to, but inevitably fall short.  When my father had crashed his aircraft in Scotland and was fighting for his life, his father sent this telegram, ‘Chin up as always, Bummer!’   

My father and millions of other men, who signed up to fight in first and second world wars, were undoubtedly brave.  They did what they felt was their duty, they helped to defend their families and country in a time of adversity and were true to the principles they had internalised from proud and patriotic parents. 

This was the moral code I inherited from my father, who was a hero despite crashing on a training flight in Orkney and never engaging in conflict.  The same ethos was reinforced by being sent to a ‘good public school’, where like other similarly idealistic school friends, I joined the Combined Cadet Force, Britain’s last hope.  I learnt a little of what it was like to be a soldier: the endless drill, the polishing of brass buckles and badges, how to get a shine on your toe caps you could see your face in. I also learnt how to strip down the engine of a three ton truck, maintain my ex WW1 .303 calibre Lee Enfield rifle using a pull through and a piece of 4 by 2.  I fired a rocket launcher and sped across Salisbury plain in a Churchill tank.  I went on route marches, which as platoon commander I subverted to nature rambles through the Derbyshire countryside.  I led mock commando nocturnal assaults on ‘enemy positions’ in remote woodlands.  But all of that was just playing at soldiers.  It wasn’t the real thing. 

I needed that frisson of danger.  So I took up rock climbing in North Wales, was terrified, even fell off on a VS climb with the forbidding name of Ivy Sepulchre, but forced myself to climb it again.  I applied for and was awarded an RAF flying scholarship.  In my first cross country solo flight, I got lost in low cloud over Dartmoor and only found my way back by flying 200 feet above the main road to Exeter.  On another occasion, I practiced stalling the aircraft but put it into a spin – the fields rotating in front of me as I dived towards them, but I remembered just in time how to apply full opposite rudder and restore level flight.  Knowing what to do saved me from panic and disaster.  Was all of this brave or was it just doing what was expected of me, proving myself to be worthy of my father’s bravery?  Even when their marriage was coming apart, my mother conceded, ‘your father was a brave man’.  

No doubt all this boy’s own adventure stuff required a kind of courage, a drive to test myself and risk disaster, but it is not the moral courage that Covington was describing.  The soldiers, who obeyed orders and walked through No Mans Land while being raked by machine guns, were incredibly brave but must have felt they had no choice.  It was their duty.  Besides all their mates were doing the same thing; they could not be seen to be cowards.  But the conscientious objectors were also brave; they also stood up for what they believed was right and faced almost certain death by firing squad. The difference lay in the values they embodied: ‘thou shalt defend thy country’ or ‘thou should not kill’.  I remember hearing an interview in which Tony Benn, who resigned his hereditary peerage to campaign for social justice, said how his father instructed him to ‘dare to be a Jonah, dare to stand alone’. Identification with the principles, instilled in us by our parents or teachers, gives us the moral compass that determines our character.

So should we stick to what we believe to be right even when it means betraying one’s friends, society or country?  This challenges our notion of selfhood.  For most people, their notion of ‘who they are’ is constructed with reference to friends, family, community and society at large. So, when faced with a moral dilemma, their duty or need to belong may be stronger than their own convictions.  Covington told the story of a young woman, who was part of a partisan group fleeing the enemy in the forests.  Her baby, just a few weeks old, started crying.  She didn’t hesitate, she took it to the stream and held its head under the water until it was dead.  Was her action brave or an act of cowardice or did she have no choice?  In extremis, people do what they feel they have to do.  

Courage can be an act of moral self defence.  The anorexic defends their independence at the risk of physical survival – she or he is on hunger strike.  Similarly, the freedom fighter risks their life for a cause.  To abandon what we know is right because we are frightened of disapproval, loss or physical danger, or because it is best for our family, may leave us feeling we have let ourselves down. If we do the right thing, we might lose social support for a while or we may even risk our livelihood, but if we don’t do it, the shame and the guilt may haunt us for the rest of our lives.  The problem with being brought up with strong moral principles is that the challenges to live up to them can seem more conflicted and extreme and the burden of shame or guilt after the inevitable moral failure deeper.  It’s not so much what we did that continues to afflict us, it’s what we didn’t do. Soldiers, who survived when their comrades were killed, or holocaust survivors often express a deep sense of guilt.  

Our sense of morality is determined by the ethos of society and it changes with time. I wonder, therefore, whether the concept of bravery still has the same resonance.  One hundred years after ‘the war to end all wars’, do young people still embody the kind of death or glory courage of their great-grandparent’s generation.  Or is contemporary bravery more about being prepared to campaign for social justice, protection of the environment, demilitarisation or liberal principles?  Is it about expressing opinions that may not gain the approval of their Facebook friends?  As ever, their moral compass, as set at least initially by their parents, may encompass ideas of work, financial integrity and self actuation, all of which serve the individual rather than society.  Young people are too aware of the futility of foreign wars to volunteer as they did a hundred years ago.   No less brave when it matters, but more realistic.  

But those of us brought up in the shadow of war may still require some a gesture of valiance.  No – swimming in cold rivers is not bravery, but the ritual morning survival may feel a bit like it …. until the next time.       

The Cellist of SarajevoA violinist was playing in the subway on Baker Street Station. He had positioned himself at the corner of the space where the stairs from the Metropolitan line met the escalators that descended to the Bakerloo and Jubilee lines. I could not name the piece he was playing but it was so poignant I stepped out the flow of commuters rushing like ants through the tunnels, leant against the wall and listened. It felt like a refuge, a moment of peace among the mounting chaos and insecurity of our collective lives.

I thought of the Cellist of Sarajevo, the subject of Steven Galloway’s recent novel. During the four year long siege of that once beautiful Bosnian city, ringed by hills, a sad looking man with tousled hair and dressed in a dusty full evening dress suit, stepped into the market square at four o’clock every afternoon, positioned his stool in the bomb crater and played Albinoni’s Adagio in G minor. He has been playing the same piece in a window overlooking the square when a mortar bomb exploded outside and killed 22 people queuing for bread. He had stood motionless at the window all night and for most of the next day. Then at 4pm, he carried his cello into the square, and began to play He continued to do this every day for the next 22 days, one day for each victim. People stopped and listened, oblivious to the risk from snipers and shelling from the hills, and for a brief time forgot about the war. Then he got up, gathers his stool and his cello and walked slowly to the door of his house and disappeared. He could have been killed by the men on the hills besieging the city or any of the snipers sent to infiltrate the population, but he wasn’t. On the last day, he picked up his stool, tossed his bow on to the pile of flowers that people have placed at the spot and went inside for the last time. The Cellist of Sarajevo is a work of fiction, but is based on the courage of Vedran Smailovic, who had played for the Sarajevo Philharmonic Orchestra and the Sarajevo Opera before the war.

The Balkans have been in the centre of conflict since Greco-Roman times. For many years part of the Roman Empire, then part of the Ottoman Empire, then the Austro-hungarian Empire, it was the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo that precipitated the First World War, firstly as a conflict between Serbia and Austro-Hungary, then between Russia and Germany; finally Britain and France were drawn in because of their alliances. Under the Treaty of Versailles, the Balkan States were subsumed under a single nation, called Yugoslavia (southern Slavs). During the Second World War, the region was occupied by the Axis powers, but it regained its independence under Marshal Tito at the end of the war and was drawn into the orbit of the Soviet Union as a client communist state. When Tito died in 1980, old nationalist ambitions resurfaced. Serbia had ambitions to reunite the country under their control, but Bosnia-Herzegovina and other Balkan states including Croatia and Slovenia, which had a sizeable Serbian population resisted.

The Seige of Sarajevo

Bosnia declared independence in 1992 and almost immediately were attacked by Serbian forces. Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia; a modern city with a population the size of Bristol, was besieged for four years, much longer than Stalingrad and Leningrad 50 years earlier. The Serbians set up artillery positions in the hills that ringed the city and sent snipers into the city to terrify the population. 11,000 defenders were killed. There was scarcely a house that was not damaged or destroyed by bombs. The main targets were the hospital, government buildings, schools and libraries. The images of high rise buildings on fire resembled the recent Grenfell Tower disaster in London. All services, electricity, water supply, sewage and transport, were cut.

Steven Galloway’s book charts the life of three of the inhabitants during that time. Arrow is a Bosnian sniper who has been ordered to protect the cellist from Serbian snipers sent in to kill him, but she ultimately becomes a target of her own side when she refuses to fire on Serbian civilians. Dragan is a baker, whose family have managed to escape to Croatia, leaving him behind. Kenan runs the gauntlet of sniper and mortar fire every day to cross the river to get water for his family and the elderly widow, who lives in the same block of flats. Life for the 400,000 or more people living in Sarajevo was a matter of life and death every single day.

Galloway’s characters are based on real people, worn out by war, fearful of what might become of themselves and their families. Only the cellist and his music bring hope and respite from fear. For a brief moment every day, it seems that mankind is still capable of humanity and the war has not destroyed everything.

In the last two years, London has been the scene of random terrorist attacks, creating a low level sense of anxiety every time I go down. The music in the underground helps to reassure. Everybody should stop and listen for a few minutes.


Alarmed by the atrocities committed by the besieging Serbian forces and what resembled ethnic cleansing, the United Nations joined the conflict in 1996 and bombed the Serbian positions. Eventually a peace treaty was signed giving autonomy to Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Slovenia and Macedonia. The only state not given nation status was Kosovo and this remains unresolved. The Serb leaders were tried for war crimes at The Hague and sentenced to life imprisonment.


George Blake was perhaps the most successful double agent at the time of The Cold War. Working at the centre of British intelligence, for years he sent invaluable information to the KGB, in particular details of the tunnel the Americans constructed to tap into the Soviet communications across Berlin and the names of over a hundred British agents working there at the time. Blake was captured, escaped and survived and is still living in relative luxury in a dacha on the outskirts of Moscow, but he misses the sun.

So what made George Blake a spy? Was it that he never felt he belonged anywhere? Blake wasn’t even his name. It was Behar, but he was named George after the English King, George V.  His father, Albert, had a small company in Holland making heavy duty gloves for dockworkers, but George wasn’t close to his father; they didn’t even speak the same language. George was brought up speaking Dutch; his father spoke English and French. He was also half Jewish; his paternal grandfather had been a carpet dealer in Istanbul, but the family kept that a secret. George was much closer to his mother, who was very religious; he wanted to be a pastor.  George always had a strong social conscience.

While George was still at school, Albert’s company failed and then shortly afterwards Albert died. His mother struggled to keep the family in their house by the canal, but his father’s sister had married a rich French merchant and George, his two sisters and their mothers were invited to live with them in their mansion in Cairo. It was there that he completed his education and met his playboy cousin, Henri Curiel, who was the joint leader of the Communist party in Cairo. Curiel was later assassinated in Paris.

He was back at school and staying with his grandmother in Rotterdam when the Nazi’s invaded. He remembered the bombers coming over. His mother was desperate to contact him, but escaped with his two sisters on the last boat to England, the same boat that took the Dutch Royal Family into exile. He came home to find nobody in their apartment and the breakfast things still on the table. He stayed on in Holland for a while, running messages for the Dutch resistance. He enjoyed the excitement of living on the edge. In 1942, he managed to escape through occupied France to Spain and hop on a boat to join his family in England.

In London he grew a beard and was recruited into the Special Intelligence Service. They were impressed by his resourcefulness and need to make a difference. He claimed that he was dropped by parachute in Holland as part of the liberating force, but there was no evidence that was correct. George could be a bit of a fantasist, a Walter Mitty character. So it seemed that George possessed all the credentials to be a double agent: strong social and political convictions but no strong allegiance to any country or any religion, somewhat guarded and secretive, no strong emotional ties, resourceful and independent. He told people he wanted to make a difference in the world.

When war erupted in Korea, he was sent to Seoul and was instructed to go north to Vladivostok and recruit Russian agents who would work for the British. He was in Seoul when communist troops invaded and was imprisoned with other members of western legations. It was while he was a prisoner in Korea that he witnessed the American bombing of Korean villages and decided that he was on the wrong side. Together with the other prisoners, he was escorted on the long march through the mountains to the north. He seized the opportunity to escape but was recaptured. It is probable that he made contact with officers from the KGB at around that time and was recruited as a communist agent.

After 2 years in prison in Korea, Blake was released and sent back to England as a hero, seemingly none the worse for his experience. Impressed by his work in the Far East, he joined MI6. One of his first tasks was to take the minutes for the meeting setting out plans to build a tunnel to tap into the Soviet secret communications channel across Berlin. He printed the document out and handed it to his minder on the top deck of a London bus. The Russians did not react; keeping the identity of such a valuable double agent was too important to them.  So they kept their communications open and allowed Blake, now in Berlin, to continue sending his reports on to Britain in return for information from him. He handed over the names of at least a hundred British agents and much more strategic information over the course of the next few years. It was while George was on his next assignment in Lebanon that MI6 grew suspicious of his role in betraying the existence of their tunnel.

Brought back to England for interrogation, he admitted to spying for the KGB and was sentenced to a very harsh 42 years of imprisonment on various counts of treason.  While serving time in Wormwood Scrubs, he was a model prisoner and was allowed certain privileges, such as access to the library. It was there he met the Irishman, Sean Bourke, who was doing five years for being connected with a bomb incident. Bourke was impressed by Blake’s courage and convictions and decided to help him escape using a hacksaw and a crude rope ladder and the assistance of some local helpers from the CND. Blake injured himself falling from the wall, but was whisked away to a safe house, where he was patched up by a doctor, the girl friend of one of the conspirators. It was touch and go; there was a massive search for him. He was nearly discovered when the wife of the owner of the apartment told her therapist that she had a spy in her flat. The therapist, however, thought she was delusional and ignored it. Hiding under the seat of a camper van, Blake escaped through Europe and was deposited at the Russian border, where he walked to the guard house and asked to speak to a member of the KGB.

Later in Moscow, he invited Bourke to join him for a holiday in his luxurious, KGB apartment in the centre of the city, no doubt wishing to recruit him. Once there, Bourke found he was trapped. He stayed for a year and a half but was eventually allowed to return to Ireland. The British Government applied for extradition, but the Irish government refused. So Bourke stayed in Dublin and, in between drinking sprees, was able to complete and publish his book, ‘Springing George Blake ‘. He died in 1982, his life cut short by alcoholism.

Simon Gray’s play, ‘Cell Mates’, covers the time from when Blake and Bourke met in the library of Wormwood Scrubs to when Bourke was allowed to return to Ireland. It covers the trajectory of their relationship from Bourke’s idealisation of Blake in the beginning to his disillusion, a course accompanied by his increasing alcoholism. ‘Cell Mates’ is a play about trust and duplicity that questions what drove Blake to be a spy.

There is something detached, almost autistic, about George Blake. He never acknowledged that he did anything wrong. He was convinced that Russian communism was the practical means whereby the Kingdom of God would be built on earth. He regarded Russia as his spiritual home. More committed to ‘the cause’ than people and a narcissistic desire to make a difference, Blake advised his wife, who had also worked for MI6 and by whom he had three children, to divorce him.

Blake still lives in the leafy outskirts of Moscow in the green-painted, wooden dacha, donated to him by a grateful state. He is 95 and seemingly in good health. In 2007, he was awarded another medal by Vladamir Putin for his services to Russia. He has married again and has another son. His second wife still looks after him. Blake has no regrets over what he did. He had no particular loyalty to Britain, but he is disappointed by the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and does not like Putin, though he keeps that a secret from the Russians.

Simon Gray’s play is as enigmatic as the spy, himself. We don’t really get any insights about the relationship between Bourke and Blake. Were they gay? Probably not; Blake was married twice. Did Blake trick Bourke into staying in Moscow with him, only to arrange for him to leave when he realised how unreliable he was? Was Bourke’s life ever in danger? It seems that Blake was too self centred to feel any lasting attachment to another person and any guilt, but has created a myth that he can live with.

He reminds me of Julian Assange, who continues to live in the Ecuadorian Embassy, protesting his right to do what he did, while the world has largely forgotten about him. A recent report said that the Ecuadorian officials were complaining about his personal hygeine. Wikileaks, it seems, has become Whiffyleaks!

Stephen Fry was originally cast to play Blake and Rik Myall was cast as Bourke when ‘Cell Mates’ first opened in the West End in 1995, but the production had mixed reviews and was panned after Fry dramatically left because of depression. This is the first revival since that disastrous opening. Should they have bothered? Probably not. It seems to me that the back story of George Blake is much more interesting than the play.

Cell Mates played at The Hampstead Theatre until January 20th. It was directed by Edward Hall with Geoffrey Streathfield as Blake and Emmet Byrne as Bourke.The

Darkest HourThe continued vacillation among those who would rule us is so depressing. It feels like a capitulation, a retreat from a position of power and influence to a place of deep insecurity. David Cameron need not have called the referendum. It was more about political survival of the Tory government than what was in the best interests of the country. He was the man in charge and he bottled out. And now Mrs May, our self proclaimed ‘strong and stable’ leader, is being held to ransom by a European Union, who are no doubt fed up with Britain’s prolonged ambivalence over the whole European project. Many on both sides of the political divide complain and threaten to undermine the process. Their hearts may not be in it, but the people have voted. Britain is alone, cast adrift from Europe. So do we wring our hands and go back to Europe cap in hand and plead for a good deal or do we strike out alone and make the best of it?

It is not the first time, our little island has been alone. In May of 1940, Hitler’s panzers had raced through Holland, Belgium and into France. The total British Army, 300,000 men, were trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk. The House had lost confidence in Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who had tried to appease the Nazis, and somewhat reluctantly appointed Winston Churchill to lead a coalition government.

Joe Wright’s film, ‘Darkest Hour, covers three weeks during the month of May 1940 from the time Winston Churchill was appointed prime minister to the evacuation from Dunkirk. Much of it was shot in the gothic gloom of The Houses of Parliament or in the underground war rooms in Whitehall. Gary Oldman was a surprising choice to play Churchill. He needed a lot of prosthetic work to transform his face and body. Nevertheless, his manner was convincing, though was Churchill really such a clown? Was he so volatile? Kirsten Scott Thomas, playing Clemmie, was a wonderful foil for his excesses. As she remarked, ‘he is just a man‘.

The action centred around the arguments within the War Cabinet.   Lord Halifax favoured contacting the Italians to broker a negotiation with Hitler. Churchill was having none of it: ‘You do not negotiate with a tiger when your head is in its jaws!‘. But he felt worn down by the reality of the situation and the sheer burden of responsibility. The most moving part of the film, totally fictitious and heavily criticised, was when Churchill hopped out of his car and took the tube for the last bit of his journey to Westminster. He got into conversation with the people in his carriage and asked them what they thought of the idea of negotiating with Hitler. They had no doubt. ‘Never‘, they all cried. Churchill then quickly drafted his famous speech to parliament and delivered it to resounding acclaim. ‘We shall fight on the seas and oceans. We shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air. We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.

Within the next few days, the British Army was evacuated from the beaches at Dunkirk by Churchill’s flotilla of little boats. And a few months later, the RAF delivered their own riposte to Hitler’s invasion plans. ‘Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few‘. Such stirring stuff. I was born in 1945, just after the war. My father had served in the RAF. It was in my DNA.

Churchill’s genius was the way in which he sent words into battle to inspire a nation. Politicians since then have aspired to do the same thing, but, with few exceptions, they have lacked courage and conviction. And so, we have arrived at our current depressing state. For a current generation, ‘now’ might be seen as their darkest hour. Only this time, the threat has been self inflicted and there seems no plan and little sign of redemption

isis-flag They are described as mad, mentally disturbed, confused, radicalised by fanatics, escapists from domestic trauma. This may not be necessarily so. The State, which was broadcast on Channel 4 last weekend, shows the Brits who travel to Syria to fight for the self styled Islamic State to be highly committed young men and women looking for a sense of meaning and adventure in their lives. Peter Kosminski’s documentary pulls no punches. The men, called the brothers, are told they are not expected to live for more than a year and they will die martyrs to the cause and live forever in heaven. Some are suicide bombers, but if it is Allah’s will, they go willingly to their death.

There is such a strange logic to their fight. As one instructor explains, they are not expected to win, but their actions will bring about the involvement and ultimate destruction of America and all it stands for and ensure that the purity of Islam will prevail. The brutality and violence are a means to an end. It is not always clear who is fighting who and for what. Shia commit atrocities on the Sunni, the Sunni retaliate. Meanwhile Assad’s forces and the Russians are bombing the cities, and terrorist attacks occur every week in the name of Isis throughout the western world. The women are not really expected to do anything except become brides to the brothers and support their fight. In essence, they succumb to state approved rape and prostitution. It is brutal, violent and chaotic.

But what is it that would make a middle class young person living a safe life in Britain want to risk their lives to fight for a cause they don’t understand. Do they crave adventure and glory? Do they want to become heroes? Is it a reaction to what they see as the meaninglessness and decadence of our western way of life? Do they feel victimised by their family or community and seek revenge? Is this the vanguard of a global revolution not unlike past insurrections in France and Russia, but mirroring other anti-establishment movements like Brexit or Trump? Or are they fighting their own internal psychological battle to self discovery? Does identification with Islamic State provides a fixed reference point in a confusing and insecure world, where little seems to matter? Kosminski leaves us with a lot of possibilities but no certainty.

A hundred years ago, millions of young men went cheerfully to France to fight another confusing war under appalling conditions. And even when hundreds of thousands were slaughtered on the Somme, at Ypres. Mons, Amiens and Passchendale, they still kept going back. Maybe they were too traumatised and fearful to do otherwise. I remember my father telling me that when he was training to be a fighter pilot, only 1 in 9 would survive. Nobody pulled out. Some twenty five years later, when the Cuba missile cruise brought the threat of global conflict to our consciousness, I and most of my friends said that if war broke out, we would volunteer to fight. It was only Tim who said he would buy a gun and shoot himself and his family. We were appalled, but with the benefit of hindsight, he demonstrated a grim sense of maturity and wisdom that the rest of us had yet to attain.

There is a difference between the global conflicts of the last century and the confused mission of Isis. Our parents and grandparents were fighting for their country. Lord Kitchener bristled his moustache and pointed his finger, ‘Your country needs you!’ and most obeyed without question. Later it became something more. As a fighting unit, facing imminent death every day, they could not let their mates down. Exhausted and traumatised, they needed certainties; orders they could not question. Tennyson captured the mood when writing about another war: ‘Theirs not to reason why. Theirs but to do and die. Into the valley of death rode the six hundred.’ But when survivors talked or wrote about their experience, they often declared that it was the time of their lives. They had never felt more alive as when they were near death.

Fifty years on, an unprecedented period of peace and stability is being threatened again by conflict. It seems like a ‘lost generation’ of young people with diminishing prospects, brought up on adventure films and virtual war games, are looking for a sense of mission. The Islamic State might fill the gap. The danger and rigid discipline are all part of the attraction. They are a band of ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ united by a collective delusion, not unlike the crusades of old or the jingoism of the Great War when the enemy was the embodiment of decadence and evil and their martyrdom would change the world. They are going for glory. They do not think of dying, only surviving; if not on earth, in heaven.

It is not my intention or wish to condone what is happening in Syria. I am writing this to try to understand the mindset of those who are fighting. We have to try to make sense of the unthinkable if we are ever to resolve it. Kosminski’s powerful documentary portrays a state which was once fuelled by idealism, but is now controlled for fear. The torture, summary executions, rapes and murders are as bad as the worst excesses of the Nazis or the Russian occupation of Berlin. Have the perpetrators have become so conditioned by what they have witnessed that they have no conscience? Have they become so traumatised, they have dissociated emotionally from the reality of what they are doing. Are they so fearful, that they have to be brutal to survive? Or is it just that they see the enemy as inhuman, an object that must be destroyed? Perhaps, all are correct, but who is the enemy and who isn’t?

War traumatises and dehumanises all those caught up in it. And British soldiers are not excluded. During the worst atrocities of the Peninsular Campaign, which Wellington was powerless to prevent, he said of his troops, ‘I don’t know what the enemy think of them, but by God, they terrify me!’ And we are still only just learning of what went on in the detention centres in Iraq or in Northern Ireland.

One of the most chilling sequences of Kosminski’s documentary was when Shakira, the young doctor, sees 10 year olds being taught to stab a fresh corpse, hung up for their instruction, while her son, Isaac, and his friends play football with the severed head. Even the Hitler youth was not as brutal. When, Shakira tries to remonstrate, Isaac  accuses her of embarrassing him and goes back to his mates. It is only too easy to lose all sense of decency while those around you have lost theirs.

At that moment, she decides to escape. It seems surprisingly easy, but when she arrives back in UK, the choice was either being separated from her son and going to prison for years or agreeing to spy on her her own community.

While most reviewers praised the film, Christopher Stevens in The Daily Mail penned a hard hitting attack on as portraying his film as a pure poison, a work of fiction and like a Nazi recruiting film from the 1930s, and 61 year old film maker, Kosminski, as a Oxbridge educated media luvvie, who was neither a veteran of Syria, nor had conducted a research mission to Raqqa or Aleppo. Stevens is also hardly a reliable witness, being best known for his biography of Kenneth Williams and his book on comedy scriptwriters, Ray Galton and Alan Stevens. Jihadist recruits would have known what they were letting themselves in for. Not so, they were attracted by the idea and would not necessarily believe the evidence until they saw it for themselves, by which time, they were either dead or too far in to return. Stevens would dismiss jihadists as incomprehensibly evil or mad. This happens in every conflict, but it doesn’t get us anywhere except more slaughter and more terror.

Kosminski has made a brave attempt to get into the minds of the jihadists to understand their mission, their rejection of liberal democracy, and ultimately their fear and emotional dissociation. Violence breeds more violence. If we cannot try to understand it, we can only retaliate and escalate the cycle of retribution, as would be revolutionaries are driven underground to launch ever more frequent attacks on the complacent and decadent. To my mind, this documentary was so much more terrifying because the atrocities were conducted by recognisable human beings.

The state was screened on Channel 4. It was punctuated every ten minutes by advertisements that were so crass, they underscored what is deplorable about western consumerism and why people might want out.

In Ancient Greece the Gods were never fair or just.  They were fickle, impulsive, they needed to be propitiated.  And there were so many of them.  If you tried to appease one, the chances are you would upset another.  Human beings were just pawns in their interminable political struggles.  They controlled everything; they made people fall in love, made crops flourish, started wars, killed Kings, impregnated their women and inevitably made them take their own lives.   They were Gods of Rule and Misrule; so inconsistent, they always kept their subjects off balance.  Full of mirth and merriment one moment, they’d turn on a wrong word and cause devastation. 

In her new play, Moira Buffin neatly compares the chaos and destruction of Greek mythology to the more recent tyranny and upheaval in African states such as Liberia and Somalia where the power struggles of the warlords and their complete disregard for human life cause societies to collapse amid widespread massacre and torture. 

In modern Thebes, the people have elected a ruler, a woman, Euridyce, who has ended the civil war and introduced democracy and stability through the appointment of women to key cabinet posts, but  she needs the financial and military assistance of Athens and their powerful leader, Theseus, who is a politician with an eye for the main chance.  He first tries to seduce Euridyce and then when she doesn’t submit to his power lust makes to support her opponent, the warlord Prince Tydeus.  But Theseus is undermined by news of the death of his wife Phaedra and her seduction by his son Hippolytus and leaves in his helicopter.   Euridyce survives, perhaps a little wiser and less naive.   

Welcome to Thebes presents a curious juxtaposition of ancient and modern, but it works.  The themes of politics and war are timeless.  It’s all about personal power.  Ignorance is the enemy of democracy.   No matter how much a leader tries to be democratic, the people see it as weakness and will always vote for the charismatic strength of the tyrant.   But even the best leaders, if they survive, become tyrants.    

Welcome to Thebes is currently playing at The Olivier Theatre on the South Bank.  It has a large cast, mainly composed of talented but little known black actors, all wonderfully directed by Sir Richard Eyre.  It’s scary, awesome, and a must see. 

It is August 1939, the world is going to change forever but the bright young things still cling to the escapism of the previous decade.  Alcoholic hedonism helped them blot out the traumas of the First World War, and now they use it to blank out the looming prospect of the Second.  Rattigan’s ‘After the Dance’ evokes the emptiness of a lost generation. 

David and Joan married in the twenties, a frivolous, romantic excursion from the horrors of the Great War.  They were rich, well connected, they could afford not to take life too seriously.  So they partied, they drank, they made love; their whole purpose was to have fun. For fear of being thought too intense and to avoid the depression that could bring, they masked their true devotion in a relationship of mutual, just-good-pals flippancy.  But there is a serious side to David that Joan failed to nurture;  he is a writer, a would-be historian, a romantic, he plays Chopin badly and he is depressed.  He anaesthetises the sense of his own pointlessness in alcohol, poisoning himself with self disgust and slowly dying of cirrhosis.   And now, as the Nazis march into Poland, he  dictates his tedious dissertation on a previous German dictator of much less significance and drinks more whisky.   

Redemption materialises in the sylph-like Helen, a trim zealot who has fallen in love with the idea of saving him and is quite prepared to destroy his marriage in order to achieve her mission. When David falls in love with her, you can smell disaster. 

Joan, David’s wife, learns on the evening of her party that he is going to leave her.  Just for old time’s sake, she makes David play ‘Avalon’ one last time, slips through the curtains on to the balcony and kills herself.  A week later, Britain declares war on Germany. 

Rattigan sees the glimmering meaninglessness of these not so bright nor young things.  He feels their sadness, understands the need to evade reality, but is critical of their somnambulistic trudge to catastrophe. As the one dour party guest, a refugee from the Mayfair set and one-time fiancée of Joan, points out, ‘They ran away from reality after the last war. The awful thing is that they’re still running away’.

The cast are superb. Benedict Cumberbatch conveys not just the surface smoothness of the self-destructive David but also the intelligence of a man who realises he is a wastrel. Naomi Carroll as Joan is stoically jaunty. She carries on with courage, but you can see she is not waving but drowning.    Carroll captures the subtle poignancy of their doomed relationship; she knows she got it wrong.  Faye Castelow  as the trimly seductive Helen, conveys a combination of naivety and  determination and a hint of acid that makes her the angel of their destruction.     

John, (Adrian Scarborough) is the most likeable character.  He is like Shakespeare’s fool, a bibulous court-jester who creates an art form out of his subtle self deprecation, but he also has the wisdom and empathy to warn of the disaster that is about to come. 

Everything about Thea Shurrock’s production works, from the orgiastic glee of the ageing socialites, the ghastly over-the-top Moya and her wooden toy-boy,  even the glimpse of oral sex on the balcony, and especially the use of a haunting 1920s foxtrot, Avalon, which seems to express the sadness of make believe.   


Rattigan’s play opened in August 1939.  It was a sell out, but when the reality of the war started to come home to people, the audiences dropped off, the play closed and was not rediscovered until  60 years later.  

Rattigan’s early life was unhappy.  His parents were diplomats but his father lost his position after an argument with the foreign secretary, Lord Curzon.  Terence was sent to live with his grandmother who was cruel and controlling.  He was very unhappy, but then discovered the theatre and also that he was homosexual, which was of course criminal at that time.  Many wondered a gay man could have such deep understanding of women.  I’m inclined to say ‘how could he not?’.  Surely that is part of the essence of homosexuality; many gays form a much closer identification with women than men; so much so that some are caricatures of women in a man’s body.  It is Rattigan’s men who are stiff, like cardboard cut outs in their parted hair, their sculpted moustaches, sports jackets and flannels. This is the emotional repression in the English psyche that often turns heterosexuality into a love that dare not speak its name.

‘It’s still the same old story; a fight for love and glory; a case of do or die.’ 

It is 1885 and there’s  trouble in the Balkans – as usual!  Sergius, so ambitious for glory, leads a foolhardy cavalry charge against the Serbian machine guns.  He’s not to know that the Serbians had been issued the wrong ammunition and could not retaliate.  So his glorious charge scatters the enemy, who disperse into the countryside.   The population are advised to keep their doors and windows bolted, but Bluntschli, a Swiss mercenary , shins up a drainpipe into stumbles into the bedroom of Raina, who is not only the daughter of the Bulgarian commander , Colonel Petkoff, but is also betrothed to the heroic Sergius. 

Raina is moved by Bluntschli’s fear.  She gives him chocolate creams to eat and hides him.  He falls asleep on her bed.  Raina and her mother, Catherine, then help him escape by disguising his uniform under their father’s old coat. 

A few months later,  peace breaks out and Petkoff  and Sergius return from the war.  Bluntschli, who has been promoted captain, calls to return the coat.  It’s the stuff of farce.  Petkoff and Sergius must not know their wife and fiancée concealed a deserter, but how can the return of the missing coat with Raina’s signed photograph,’ to my chocolate cream soldier’, in the pocket.  But Petkoff and Sergius are more  bluster than brain.  They welcome Bluntschi  as an honourable foe and use his practical abilities to help them organise the demobilisation of their troops and horses.  

Bluntschli is a professional.   For him, war is a job of work.  He keeps his head down, does his duty and waits for the peace.  By comparison, his erstwhile opponents appear ridiculously pompous.  Petkoff is actually scared of his troops and wants nothing more than to retire to his country house.  Sergius is a liability. He would sacrifice the safety of his troops in his desperate quest for personal glory. So much for honour! 

But what of love?   Sergius is not in love with Raina; he does not know or understand her.   Besides, he can’t keep his hands off Louka,  Raina’s wily, cynical maid, who sees the little boy inside and is more of a challenge.  Raina, meanwhile, has developed a soft spot for her chocolate cream soldier; he understands her and makes her laugh.  Even her parents are won over when they learn of his inheritance. 

In ‘Arms and the Man’, George Bernard Shaw points a satirical Irish finger at the ridiculous hypocrisy of honour and romance.  As Bluntschli explains, sensible people are frightened, they lie, they deceive, they pretend.  They may like to think themselves honourable but faced with  mortal danger, they will do all they can to stay alive.  Only the mad will sacrifice everything for love and glory.

What Shaw is writing about, in cold psychoanalytical language, is narcissism.  Sergius doesn’t love Raina;  he is merely in love with the reflection of his own image in her eyes.  The beautiful and spirited Raina makes him feel much more of a man than he knows he really is.  He lacks confidence and can only gain self esteem by exciting the admiration of others.  He lives in the regard of others.  It is his life blood.  Without it he dies.  His need is so desperate, he will risk everything, even the lives of his men, the future of his country.    

He even feels compelled  to seek regard in the cynical arms of Louka, though he knows that she will be the one to destroy him.  An overweening desire for fame and celebrity is always accompanied by a tendency to self destruct.  Think of George Best, Gary Glitter, Paul Gasgoine,  Jade Goody.     

And for Raina, the commanders daughter who cannot go to war herself, Sergius is the embodiment of her own inbred projections of bravery and honour, the only man worthy of her love;  it’s glory by proxy.   The  narcissistic love object has to be impressive; it doesn’t work otherwise.  Raina is in love with how the attentions of so brave a man can make her feel adorable, admirable, desirable, loveable; all a self centred woman could even want.       

So are we to believe that romance and glory are but the delusions of a fragile psyche,  make believe; the stories we tell ourselves in order to conceal a reality we can’t accept.    Bluntschli explains that humanity is never that wonderful or glorious,  but he’s an administrator, the son of a hotel owner.  But do we always want to be that sensible?  There’s no meaning in that and life without meaning is not worth living.  Don’t we need make believe too?   If not, what would be the point of literature, music, the visual arts?   The moments of madness, falling in love, crazy projects, bring us life and permit change.  Banish them and we become depressed and die a little more.   But contain them,  allow our healthy narcissism, our self confidence and esteem to receive nourishment  of novelty  from friends and family and who knows, we could even be happy.     

‘The world will always welcome lovers.  As time goes by.’        


‘To live is to suffer, to survive is to find meaning in the suffering. If there is any purpose in life at all, there must be a purpose in suffering and in dying.  But no man can tell another what this purpose is.  Each must find out for himself, and must accept the answer that his solution prescribes. If he succeeds, he will continue to grow despite all the indignities.’   

So writes one time Harvard Professor of Psychology, Gordon Allport in his preface to Viktor Frankl’s abiding monument,  ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’.   He claims it as the central theme of existentialism.  We might, however question whether it is always necessary to suffer in order to grow.  There is something Calvinist in that notion.  But what Frankl shows us through his narrative is how it is possible to withstand the most dreadful pain, torture and privation by finding and retaining an essential meaning in life. 

Viktor Frankl was a jewish psychiatrist, living in Vienna in 1939.  He could have escaped to America; he had a visa, but he could not bring himself to abandon his parents to their fate.   He was arrested by the Nazis and taken to Auschwitz, but he survived.  He wasn’t a Capo, a privileged collaborator; he found the meaning in his suffering to survive.    

‘Man’s Search for Meaning’  focuses on everyday indignities and privations, the cruelty, the lack of food, sleep and adequate clothing, the lice, dysentery, work, and endurance.      

After the initial shock of becoming a number instead of a human being, a prisoner enters into phase of apathy and indifference.  He tries not to be noticed, merges in with the crowd, gives an impression of smartness and fitness for work; does  anything that would stop him being singled out and sent to the gas chambers.  Many gave up, refused to work and accepted their fate, but those who survived discovered and nurtured an essential purpose in life that was worth clinging on to. 

 Frankl describes how the memory and love for his wife kept him alive.  In the midst of the most dreadful degradation, he focussed on thoughts that uplifted the soul;  an image of mountains, the coming of spring, music, snatches of poetry, the book he wanted to write.      

There is nobility in suffering,  Frankl claims, opportunities to find a moral compass and retain human dignity.  Suffering can bring out the best in a person if he sees meaning in it.

Fyodor Dostoevsky said that the only thing he dreaded was not to be worthy of his sufferings.    Those who let their inner hold on their own dignity and meaning, eventually fell victim to the camp’s degrading influence.   They gave way to introspection and retrospection, lost purpose and hope, and just lay on their bed of stinking straw and were taken away to die.     

Frankl described a strange timelessness in the camp.  Hours or days of degradation and pain, passed slowly, but months and years passed quickly, punctuated by suffering.  Survivors saw it as a provisional existence, something to be endured for as long as it took; they retained the hope  they would be free. 

Prisoners were supported by  the companionship of mutual privation.  They tried to help each other.  They kept each other warm at night, they remove the lice from their hair, they shared their food, they told grim jokes. They were a kind of community; they trusted each other.  Religion was a potent bonding force; prisoners often gained solace by praying together every night.

Unfortunately, their suffering did not always end when the guards left and the camp gates were opened .   Release was all too often associated with bitterness and disillusion.  Life had moved on.  Their family had died.  There was no work and they had lost the companionship of shared suffering.  Others could not understand   

For Frankl, his experience in Auschwitz became the mainspring of his life.  From it he developed a philosophy of hope and a psychotherapy for those in despair, based on the discovery of the meaning  of their suffering.   It was Niezsche who said, ‘He who has a why (a purpose) to live can bear almost any how.’   Frankl explains that the ‘why’ of existence is was not so much what we expect from life, more what life expected from us in terms of work and family.   Life ultimately means taking responsibility.   Sometimes action is needed, sometimes contemplation, sometimes it’s just necessary to accept fate.  When a man realises that suffering is his destiny, he will accept it as a challenge.  Such thoughts can keep a prisoner from despair.   Again, Nietzsche,  ‘That which does not kill me, makes me stronger.’

Few of us in the west have ever been tested in the way Frankl was.   But meaning can be threatened in other ways,  such as the  death of a spouse, the devastation of divorce, the collapse of love, the loss of purpose in retirement or unemployment, the estrangement from one’s children, the disillusion with a cause or faith.   When people lose meaning and purpose, then they succumb to an inner emptiness, an existential vacuum,  the boredom and loneliness, which lies at the base of much of the unhappiness of modern life. 

Empty people try to fill their lives with thrills and diversions;  the sexual libido becomes rampant in existential vacuum, so does the pursuit of power, the addiction to shopping, alcohol, drugs, the accumulation of money.  It is pure escapism into immediate gratification, a frantic search for meaning in sensation.  ‘We had such a wicked time, I got smashed, the sex was fantastic!’ 

Such diversions rarely lead to meaning.  Quite the reverse;  often the will, the hope, the purpose and the self respect dies a little more.  Frankl states that people can transcend the thrill-seeking self and discover a meaning in their lives by creating a work or a deed, by experiencing something or encountering someone (such as falling in love), and most of all, by the attitude we take towards unavoidable suffering. 

He claims that we can be ennobled by taking on the suffering another would have to bear, like giving up a relationship that would devastate them, an ambition that would cause them pain. This might give suffering a meaning, but it is avoidable.  And is martyrdom and self sacrifice ever a valid route to redemption and happiness?   Only if the sacrifice has a deeper meaning to the integrity of the ‘soul’,  outside of the act itself.   

 Survival of identity and meaning  (what I tend to regard as the soul) is more important than mere corporeal integrity.   The anorexic starves their body so that their basic identity and meaning can thrive.  And for many other sick people,  illness endures the meaning of what has happened, until a person can bear to bring it to mind.   If the meaning and purpose are devastated by life’s vicissitudes, then the body will easily become vulnerable to disease.  Mind, body and soul (meaning) are a continuum, which contains health and happiness.   

‘Man’s search for meaning’ was first published in 1946 in German under the title of ‘Ein psycholog erlebt das konzentrationslager’.  Frankl developed the existential concept of logotherapy from his experience.  Unlike psychoanalysis, logotherapy  does not dwell on the past, but focuses on the  development of a meaning in a person’s suffering that can break the cycle of loneliness and unhappiness.   

Mao Tse Tung said “first the mountains, then the countryside, then the cities.” But he left out the fourth: the home front.  If you can attack the enemy at their soft under-belly, their home front, using behavioural psychology, stirring up feelings against the immorality of war, then this is a very powerful weapon.  The Vietnamese War was the first war that was waged in the lounge, on television.

The Vietcong were very good at exploiting contradictions in the enemy camp. They launched their devastating Tet Offensive at the time of the American election, bringing home to the American people, the escalating human cost of the war. Too many soldiers were being killed, too many were taking drugs; there were too many atrocities, too many massacres.  This was no longer an honourable war. The politicians, the commanders and even the soldiers were not glorified.  The draft of 300,000 young man to fight in Vietnam was already deeply unpopular.  There were student revolutions.  “Hell no, won’t go!”  Even the leaders became disenchanted.  Robert McNamara, the Minister of Defence, was one of these. Johnson could not bring himself to run for re-election; he pulled out.  This was seen by the Vietcong as a great victory.

The Americans didn’t really understand this war. They were using military solutions to fight a political war; a war of ideologies. They didn’t understand communism. They saw the world as divided, with themselves as the leader of the free world and the Russians as the leader of the enslaved world. Theirs was a mythical conflict, the stuff of romance; the American Crusaders against the Evil Empire; Uncle Sam against the wicked Uncle Ho. Communism was an informed conspiracy of hungry revolutionaries that threatened to engulf all of Asia. But there was no question they wouldn’t win it. There had not been a war that the Americans had not actually won with honour. Weren’t they always the good guys, who rode out in the sunset and defeated the evil enemy?   Remember the Alamo!  Remember their victorious intervention in both European conflicts!  And surerly God was on their side in this war.

The Americans never tried to expose their enemy’s flaws.  The North Vietnamese were committing terrorist acts against their own people all the time but the Americans never really exploited this.  And they also created  divisions in their own ranks.  They first supported Ngo Dinh Diem, then turned against him when he persecuted the monks and sacked the monasteries and did nothing to prevent his assassination by his own troops. They just failed to understand that that was the way things were done there. Politics never has been a branch of morality, but in the Camelot Court of JF Kennedy, people came to believe it was.

And they were shocked to discover their popular image in Indochina.   They were seen as the unwanted imperialist invader.   When they weren’t trying to destroy the country with bombs they were taking over its infrastructure, its water, its power supplies, its transport. They should have showed more political wisdom, less naivety, less arrogance.  They should have never have gone there in the first place.  Do these arguments have a familiar ring to them? They should!  The war in Iraq, the unwinnable war against terror – had all the same elements. 

The Americans were in Vietnam very early.  It was Eisenhower, who committed resources to support Diem and the French colonial war, picking up 70% of the bill in 1954.  But the French were defeated; they committed more and more troops, suffered unacceptable casualties, the war became unpopular in Paris, and they could not win.  Why did the Americans not read the runes? Arrogance?  Hubris?  Paranoia? 

So Kennedy pledged to prop the dominos up.  Johnson escalated the commitment,  claiming this was a war on poverty, a war on ignorance, a war on discrimination, Nixon began to withdraw troops but sent in the bombers. It was left up to Gerald Ford to disengage. But even he tried to get Congress to agree more military aid for Southeast Asia.  They refused; one suspects he was relieved.

The war in Vietnam was the longest in America’s history, and second only to World War II in terms of blood and money. So the American leaders went to war because of paranoia and they failed to end the war because they needed to save face.  The Americans realised early on that the war was unwinnable, but they wanted peace with honour. After so much bloodshed, the electorate would not accept the humiliation of defeat and it was political suicide for a president to suggest it. That’s why it went on so long.   

The Vietnam War was started without a formal declaration and ended with a false peace.  It  had no clear objective, no obvious moral imperative, no identifiable enemy.  America underestimated the task, they never issued a formal declaration of war and mobilisation took place by stealth. Air strikes would never win hearts and minds.  The draft was deeply unpopular at home.  There were too many gadgets that did not function in the jungle. But there were lessons: helicopters add mobility to jungle warfare; atrocities happen when conditions are wretched and the priority is survival.  Amid booby traps, chaos and confusion, conventional moral standards are eclipsed; any Vietnamese, even children, can be seen as the enemy.  It’s them or us.

But a war was being waged on the home front between the soldiers, who were just doing their duty and an ever growing corps of politically informed student peace demonstrators (the brutes and the draft dodgers). Besides, Uncle Ho was more of an iconic leader than LBJ, and successive American presidents failed to hang on to the hearts and minds of their own citizens. There were no heroes in this war, no victories, no spoils, just amputees and body bags. .

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