Some short book reviews

It’s been a bit quiet here on the blog, not least because life has been like that too. Apart from the odd bit of hiking (with crappy visibility, so no pictures) I’ve been trying to make inroads in to the pile of books beside the bed, so here are a few quick reviews.

The Catholic Orangemen of Togo and Other Wars I Have Known
This is the prequel to Craig Murray’s excellent and thought provoking Murder in Samarkand (which I reviewed here), and it had the the same gripping effect on me – once I’d picked up my personally signed copy (thanks Craig!) I couldn’t put it down until I’d finished it. It is hugely informative about African history, politics and society, and yet also works for entertainment value – Mr Murray doesn’t allow political correctness to restrain his comments, nor does he hold back on the sometimes less than palatable aspects of his own life. I feel this should be obligatory reading for people with an interest in the recent history of West Africa, but it can also simply be viewed as a most entertaining read even for people with only a passing interest in or knowledge of the area. Highly recommended!

A Fortunate LifePaddy Ashdown’s Autobiography
This is quite a weighty tome, but then for someone who’s packed as much into his life as Paddy Ashdown that’s no surprise. Written simply in chronological style it actually struggles to fit everything in to the 400 pages. In many areas tantalising glimpses left me thinking I wanted to know more, and there are some episodes, particularly his employment by what I take to be MI6 that are just completely blanked. Mr Ashdown is obviously still very much an establishment man so there are none of the diatribes that give Mr Murray’s books their edge. And that’s the problem with this book – although you can but admire someone who has fitted so much in to his life (Royal Marine Special Boat Service, Diplomat/Spy, Member of Parliament and then leader of his party, High Representative (essentially, Governor) for Bosnia) the whole thing comes across as rather too smooth. Real life isn’t really that easy is it? Apart from a brief admission of the affair with his secretary that led to him being branded “Paddy Pantsdown” in the British tabloid press there’s nothing much here that lets one really get inside his head. So it’s an interesting and entertaining read, particularly for those with a British background, but it’s not really a thought-provoking book.

Diamond Hill Memories of growing up in a Hong Kong squatter village
This was written by an acquaintance of mine from the FCC, and there are very few books written about Hong Kong in English by local Hong Kong people, so I was keen to get a copy when it was published recently. The structure of the rather slim book isn’t really what I expected – it isn’t written as a chronological autobiography, but rather is organized by topic, with chapters on “Schools”, “Fires”, “The food we ate”, “The games we played”, “Thugs & Gangsters”, and so on. It covers the period when the author was between nine and nineteen years old, i.e. 1956-66, which was a period where Hong Kong saw many changes (although obviously it misses the 1968 riots and events around them).

Once I’d got used to the fact that was I was reading was essentially a series of vignettes primarily about the place and the other people rather than an autobiographical tale then I found them quite fascinating. But the nature of this book is that it gives you a series of tantalising glimpses into the area and the lifestyle of the people living there but, frankly, doesn’t provide much deep insight into causes, consequences and so on. Occasionally also the author seems to forget that he’s writing a series of vignettes and not an autobiography, and strange out of place glimpses into his much more recent life appear from nowhere, immediately to disappear again. If I had to summarise the experience of reading the book I would say that it is actually the written equivalent of watching old silent newsreel footage – you think you can see what’s happening, and it’s fascinating, but you find yourself deluged with questions about what it all really means. And then occasionally you get those few frames of his recent life spliced in from an altogether different movie.

So if you’re at all interested in old Hong Kong and want to realise how different this place was even within the last 50 years then this is a must read (and it won’t take more than a few hours at under 200 pages). But expect it to whet the appetite rather than sate it.


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