Conrad Black adheres firmly to the ‘great man’ view of history

George Orwell has a story that when Sir Walter Raleigh published the first volume of his projected history of the world while in prison, he witnessed a brawl outside his rooms in the Bloody Tower which resulted in the death of a workman. Despite diligent enquiries, Raleigh was unable to discover the cause of the quarrel. Reasoning that if he could not even ascertain the facts behind what he had observed he could hardly accurately report what had happened in distant lands centuries earlier, he burned his notes for the second volume and abandoned the entire project. No such doubts assail the 79-year-old Conrad Black, sometime proprietor of The Spectator,

How Egyptians see the Gaza crisis

I was invited to speak at the memorial service for my colleague and friend, Professor Doris Enright-Clark Shoukri, at the American University in Cairo. It was to be held at the downtown Cairo campus, overlooking Tahrir Square. Doris had worked as a professor of English literature at the university from 1955 to 2017. The same age as the Queen, she too had the aura of a fixed point in the firmament. I live in a new suburb 15 miles west of Tahrir Square. Like Cairo’s other new suburbs, it developed in the Mubarak years without plans for properly connecting it to the overcrowded capital its wealthy citizens sought to escape.

The wonder of the wandering life

Anthony Sattin begins with a quotation from Bruce Chatwin, who famously tried all his life to produce a book about nomads but never quite succeeded (the nearest he got was Songlines). Hoping to persuade Tom Maschler at Cape of the virtues of the project, Chatwin described nomads as ‘a subject that appeals to irrational instincts’ – perhaps not the best way to sell something to publishers, who tend to pride themselves on their rational ones. But Chatwin’s thesis – that we were all originally nomads and need to recover some of that instinct – is now triumphantly brought to its conclusion in Sattin’s fascinating journey through 12,000 years, from the

Does knotted string constitute ‘writing’?

What particularly excites Silvia Ferrara, the author of The Greatest Invention, is not language per se but writing – that is, the specific tool created for recording and conveying language visually. Sound made visible, tangible. The impulse to communicate might be innate, but writing is cultural, and in no way inevitable. It’s a bit of tech, which needed to be developed, and which needs to be learned. Writing has many obvious benefits – allowing communication to survive across time, thus enabling cultural traditions and posterity – unlike purely synchronous conversation, face-to-face, stuck in the present. Yet as a species (and a species with memory, specifically) we could live perfectly well

The opulent Nile cruise that evokes Agatha Christie’s Egypt

We’ve been warned about Aswan’s ‘little crocodiles’ – and it’s not long before they make their appearance. Gliding through the water, sleek bodies shining in the sun, they circle the felucca slowly, eyes glinting with curiosity. As only a handful of tourists currently exploring the Nile, we’re the exotic species – and potential rich pickings at that. ‘A dollar, please, a dollar, please,’ cries the ringleader, stretching out a hand from his paddleboard as another breaks into an off-key rendition of the Macarena. ‘Lovely jubbly,’ grins a third, pocketing a scrunched up note with appreciation. These are not the river’s feared reptiles, of course, which used to dominate the Nile

Marina Warner becomes her mother’s ‘shabti’

There comes a time after the death of parents when grief subsides, the sense of loss eases, and you, the child, are left wondering who those people were. What were they like? Not as you knew them as parents, but as people? For most of us, as the cliché goes, time is a healer, and these questions, thoughts, urges and memories lose their urgency. For others, and Marina Warner is clearly one, there is a more active, urgent, passionate and, yes, Proustian process at work — a need to bear witness — and it does not leave you alone until the questions are answered. For Warner, the questions relate in

The Egyptians knew the value of accidental discoveries

The government has plans to fund a new research agency to back ‘cutting-edge science’. Ptolemaios (Ptolemy) I (367-282 bc), the first Greek king of Egypt, had a similar idea. When Alexander the Great died in 323 bc, his ramshackle ‘empire’ fell apart, and the generals he had left in charge of each region promptly turned themselves into autonomous kings. Egypt’s new king Ptolemy I decided to make Egypt’s ‘capital’ Alexandria the greatest cultural and scientific centre in the world, and the resultant ‘Museum’ became the world’s first scientific research institute. Wielding their cheque-books, the Ptolemies persuaded the finest minds of the day to sign up. These included Euclid, who invented

The art of the hermit

Late in the afternoon on Valentine’s Day, I walked through an almost empty Uffizi. Coronavirus was then a Wuhan phenomenon. Our temperatures had been taken at the airport, but there were no restrictions on travel and those wearing masks looked eccentric. I congratulated myself on finding Florence so quiet. Off-season, I thought smugly. That’s the way to do it. Heaven knows it’s empty now. The painting that caught my eye on that distant-seeming visit was a long, low cassone-shaped painting on the theme of the Thebaid attributed to Fra Angelico (c.1420). The Thebaid is a collection of texts telling of the saints who in the first centuries of Christianity retreated

Arabian nights

Recall the media coverage at the height of the Jimmy Savile scandal, times it by about a thousand, and you get an idea of the hysteria currently surrounding gay men in Egypt. That’s not an arbitrary analogy. The social ramifications of coming out as a ‘gay man’ in most parts of the Middle East are the same as for some chap on a council estate in Barnsley declaring in a packed pub at closing time that he has a 12-year-old girlfriend. Two detained gay rights campaigners who waved the rainbow flag at a recent Cairo pop concert, and thus provoked the clampdown, are presently learning that the hard way. Their

Portrait of the Week – 12 April 2017

Home Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, having cancelled a trip to Moscow over the Syrian poison gas incident, consulted other foreign ministers at the G7 summit at Lucca in Italy about how to get President Vladimir Putin of Russia to abandon his support for President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. The Scottish Medicines Consortium accepted for routine use by NHS Scotland a drug called Prep which, at a cost of more than £400 a month, can protect people at risk of contracting the HIV virus through unprotected sexual activity. In England, 57 general practitioners’ surgeries closed in 2016, Pulse magazine found, with another 34 shutting because of mergers, forcing 265,000 patients to

Egypt’s Palm Sunday massacre is an attack on Christianity

At 9.30 this morning, during Mass at St George’s Church in Tanto, north of Cairo, Coptic Christians were celebrating the joyful entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. And then, in the twinkling of an eye, He was welcoming at least 25 of them into His kingdom, as a bomb went off inside the church. That, at least, is what hundreds of millions of Christians believe; as Holy Week begins. They will be praying for the slaughtered men, women and children of St Mark’s – and also for the victims of a suicide bombing outside St Mark’s Cathedral, Alexandria, soon afterwards. As I write, the death toll from the second attack is reported

Today’s attack in Egypt is the latest strike in the war on Christians in the Middle East

At least 36 people have died in Egypt after blasts targeted Coptic Christians on Palm Sunday. Today’s attack is just the latest strike in the war on Christians in the Middle East. As Jonathan Sacks observed: ‘until recently, Christians represented 20 percent of the population of the Middle East; today, 4 percent’. In 2013, John L. Allen Jr. wrote for The Spectator on the global persecution of churchgoers — the unreported catastrophe of our time. Unfortunately, the article still holds true today. Imagine if correspondents in late 1944 had reported the Battle of the Bulge, but without explaining that it was a turning point in the second world war. Or what if finance reporters

High life | 3 November 2016

Sixty years ago this week all hell broke loose: Soviet tanks rumbled into Budapest and put down a nationalist uprising in a very bloody manner. Down south Anglo-French paratroopers jumped into the Sinai and, in cahoots with the Israelis, took over the Suez Canal in a last gasp of colonialism by the Europeans. And in Washington DC a very peed-off President Eisenhower ordered the Anglo-French to go home or else. They went home and only the Israelis howled that Ike was an anti-Semite and many other things. And where was your intrepid foreign (future High life) correspondent while all this was going on? On an aeroplane flying from New York

Intoxicated with ink

One of the charms and shortcomings of biography is that it makes perfectly normal situations sound extraordinary. According to Michel Winock, Gustave Flaubert (1821–80), the author of Madame Bovary and L’Éducation sentimentale, contracted ‘an early and profound aversion to mankind’. To Gustave the schoolboy, man was nothing but a coagulation of ‘mud and shit… equipped with instincts lower than those of the pig or the crab-louse’. This might have been the influence of his freethinking father, an eminent Rouen surgeon, but perhaps it was just the spirit of the age. The Napoleonic adventure was over; the sun of Romanticism had set. As Winock reminds us, quoting Alfred de Musset’s Confession

Death metal

With its loud guitar riffs and even louder fashion, heavy metal has always been ripe for ridicule. In its mid-1980s heyday, it was epitomised by the fictional rock group Spinal Tap prancing on stage next to an 18-inch polystyrene model of Stonehenge while clad in ball-crushingly tight trousers and floor-length capes. In some parts of the world, however, metal is no laughing matter. In the Middle East, for instance, the potential punishment for wearing all black while wielding an electric guitar is death. These days, against a backdrop of authoritarian suppression in countries such as Iran and China, heavy metal’s trademark theatrics and widdly guitar solos have become less an

Cyprus hijacker ‘detains Brits, while letting Egyptian passengers go’

A number of British passengers are believed to be amongst those being held hostage on a hijacked EgyptAir plane which has landed in Cyprus. The jet – which took off from Alexandra in Egypt and had been due to fly to Cairo – had 81 passengers on board. Most of those, including 51 Egyptians have been let go, according to the airline which said only the crew and four foreign national passengers remained on the plane which is currently sitting on the tarmac at Larnaca International Airport. Details are still sketchy on exactly what the motives for the hijacking are but there are reports suggesting that the hijacker is attempting

A country in crisis

Jack Shenker is a throwback to an older, more romantic age when foreign correspondents were angry, partisan and half-crazed with frustration at the stupidity of the powerful. He made his name in Egypt, arriving with nothing more than a desire to be a reporter. As the revolution began, he moved to Tahrir Square and started to publish stories in the Guardian. He soon began to win awards, notably for a piece on the deaths of African migrants in the Mediterranean. He has continued to report around the world, but his first love remains Cairo. The Egyptians, his first book, is fuelled by anger and frustration. Shenker was there at the

Taharrush Gamea: has a new form of sexual harassment arrived in Europe?

The Swedish and German authorities say they have never encountered anything like it: groups of men encircling then molesting women in large public gatherings. It happened in Cologne and Stockholm, but is it really unprecedented? Ivar Arpi argues in the new Spectator that it may well be connected to a phenomenon called ‘taharrush gamea’, a form of group harassment previously seen in Egypt. So what is taharrush gamea, and should Western police be worried? Here’s what we know. ‘Taharrush’ means sexual harassment – it’s a relatively modern word, which political scholar As’ad Abukhalil says dates back to at least the 1950s. ‘Gamea’ just means ‘collective’. Taharrush gamea came to attention in Egypt in 2005, when

Laughter and tears

The Yacoubian Building, the first novel of the Egyptian writer Alaa Al Aswany, sold well over a million copies in 35 languages, was made into a film, and turned him overnight into one of the most listened to voices in the Arab world. What followed — Chicago, set in the city in which Al Aswany did his masters degree in dentistry, and some short stories — did not have quite the charm of his sprawling houseful of driven, troubled, passionate characters trying to survive in a country of extreme social ills. The Automobile Club of Egypt is a second Yacoubian, a saga built around an institution, rich in absurdity and

Best in show | 31 December 2015

Until a decade and a half ago, we had no national museum of modern art at all. Indeed, the stuff was not regarded as being of much interest to the British; now Tate Modern is about to expand vastly and bills itself as the most popular such institution in the world. The opening of the new, enlarged version on 17 June — with apparently 60 per cent more room for display — will be one of the art world events of the year. But, like all jumbo galleries, it will face the question: what on earth to put in all that space? Essentially, there are two answers to that conundrum.