James Buchan

The Scot who became more Canadian than the Canadians

When John Buchan was appointed Governor General of Canada in 1935, the country was deep in depression, the western provinces a dustbowl and a quarter of a million people on public relief, while the prospect of war in Europe threatened great stresses in a newly independent country and its relations with Britain. Many or even

‘On Glasgow and Edinburgh’, by Robert Crawford – review

Glasgow and Edinburgh are so nearby that even in the 18th-century Adam Smith could breakfast in one city and be in the other for early-afternoon dinner. For all that, these two cities cherish a rivalry and have followed different paths. Edinburgh, a royal capital until 1603 and a seat of parliament until 1707, and again

A bloody waste

The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 was an act of frivolity without parallel in United States history. The destruction of the Baathist state caused Iraqis to flee into their ancient sectarian and racial communities, and laid out a killing-ground where animosities suppressed in other Muslim countries could be fought out to the last Iraqi.

A certain tragic allure

Towards Mohammed Reza Pahlavi (1919–1980), the last or most recent Shah of Iran, there are two principal attitudes. Towards Mohammed Reza Pahlavi (1919–1980), the last or most recent Shah of Iran, there are two principal attitudes. To the Islamic Republic and many in Europe and the US, Mohammed Reza was a tyrant, womaniser and poltroon,

A foot in both camps

As a five-year-old in the Arab quarter of Jerusalem in the 1950s, Kai Bird overheard an elderly American heiress offering $1 million to anyone who could solve the Arab-Israeli conflict. Tugging on his father’s sleeve, he said: ‘Daddy, we have to win this prize.’ Crossing Mandelbaum Gate, Bird’s memoir of growing up in the Middle

Dangerous liaisons | 1 May 2010

For the impartial reader, this book is doubly disagreeable. An account of National Socialist short-wave radio broadcasts to the Arab world in the second world war, it prints pages of anti-Jewish propaganda as monotonous as it is vile. The author then shows no sympathy at all for Arab grievances, which makes the brew no more

Tensions that disrupt the world

In 1981, two books on Saudi Arabia were published within days of each other: The House of Saud by David Holden and Richard Johns and The Kingdom by Robert Lacey. If the first had the faint air of the Financial Times and the second the hothouse scent of Town & Country, they nevertheless advanced our

The man for the hour

At the turn of 2007, the United States was facing defeat in Baghdad. Shia and Sunni were on killing sprees, the supply line from Kuwait was under constant attack, and F-16s were in action on Haifa Street, less than a mile from the fortified US embassy. Yet commanders in Iraq, and civilians from Defense Secretary

Great expectations dashed

Origins: A Memoir, by Amin Maalouf, translated by Catherine Temerson The Lebanese Amin Maalouf is best known as a writer of historical novels in French, such as Le Rocher de Tanios, which won the Prix Goncourt in 1993. Yet before moving to Paris during the Lebanese civil war of the mid-1970s, Maalouf was a newspaper

Worldly and otherworldly

In ‘The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel’, John Betjeman has Wilde whimper to Robert Ross: ‘So you’ve brought me the latest Yellow Book:/ And Buchan has got in it now:/ Approval of what is approved of/ Is as false as a well-kept vow.’ It is a marvellous scene, but not quite accurate.

The great negotiator

Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, the Talleyrand of our age, was for over 20 years the dominant personality in Arab relations with the English-speaking countries. Born into the obscurest royal poverty, Bandar turned himself into a fighter pilot of dash and elan (if not of the very first proficiency), before serving as Saudi

How the catastrophe happened

Ali A. Allawi has spent much of his life in exile from his native Iraq. Born into a family that had served the royal family that came to grief in 1958, he spent his childhood at schools in England and his career abroad as an academic, engineer and banker. Active among the émigré anti-Baathists in

Geography is destiny

Listing page content here Charles Glass, an American reporter for many years based in Lebanon, in 1987 set off to portray what used to be called the Levant, starting in Iskenderun in what is now Turkey and ending in Aqaba in what is now Jordan. This project, which sought to tell the political story of

The holy terror himself

Osama: The Making of a Terrorist is not so much another biography of old beardie as a worldly and suave example of a once thriving subclass of literature, the newspaper correspondent’s memoir. Born in Buffalo, New York on ‘the day President Roosevelt closed the banks’ in 1933, Jonathan Randal reported for 40 years on the

Before and after Babel

The origin of language is one of the riddles of mankind. History begins with languages already formed, the intricate relics of vanished civilisations. As history progresses, so languages deteriorate. Latin and Sanscrit are richer and more expressive than any of their living successors. As Adam Smith wrote in his beautiful essay of 1761, Considerations concerning

Tom Tiddler’s ground

For many people in the West, the Middle East is a source of perplexity and foreboding. Home to morose despotisms, political violence and a thoroughly ruined natural environment, the Middle East now sends us its refugees, headscarves and, most notably since 11 September 2001, violence. The peoples of the Middle East reply that their lives

Different heavens, same hells

Now in his late eighties, Bernard Lewis is one of the last representatives of a once venerable scholarly type, the Orientalist. Born and brought up in a Jewish family in London, Lewis effortlessly mastered Arabic, Hebrew, Turkish and Persian, wrote his doctoral thesis on the mediaeval Muslim sect known as the Assassins and taught at