Two-Kilometre Limit: The Horse Rake

The hor28se rake sits right on the two-kilometre limit, not far from its northernmost pole, in the townland of Ballydavid South where the ground rises above the fifty-metre contour line. Two fields to the west, the old railway line to Tuam – closed to commercial passenger traffic in 1976 and shut for good in 1993 – streaks like a contrail through yellow clouds of gorse. A hundred metres east, a little further up the slope, is a ruined church with a crooked sycamore at its eastern gable; an ancient place, already a ruin a century and a half ago. Halfway between the church and the railway: the horse rake, parked at right-angles to a stone wall in a field as close-cropped as a golf course.

The tines have come loose. They look like the ribs of a huge, iron-boned bird. But the rest of the thing is perfectly intact. The ground has risen up a little – or has the rake settled down? The bottoms of the wheels are buried in the hard clay, but a strong horse could probably still haul the whole thing clear. The seat, fretted like the leaf of a cheese plant, tilts at a forty-five-degree angle, and affixed to it at the back is a plaque: “BAMFORDS ‘LION’ HORSE RAKE’; and above the words, a rampant lion.

How long has it been here?

The Bamfords ironworks were established in second half of the nineteenth century in the Staffordshire town of Uttoxeter – biscuits, red brick, horse races. The Bamfords – an old local family of recusant Catholics – produced agricultural machinery of all sorts. In the middle of the next century one scion of the dynasty, Joseph Cyril Bamford, would begin making gorse-yellow excavators branded with his own initials.

Horse rakes were part of the Bamfords output from the early days. Spindly, iron-framed things, pulled by a single horse. The tines could be raised or lowered via a lever at the driver’s side. With a horse rake you could ruffle the cut grass of a meadow to aid its drying, or scrape it into ready piles for collection. In 1919, the Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society declared approvingly that “Messrs. Bamfords’ Horse Rake leaves nothing to be desired in a strong, well made, and at the same time, simple rake”.

A hundred and one years later, you can confirm that judgement in the discarded model by the wall in the Ballydavid South townland in Athenry. The mechanism of the thing is obvious: a lever and a lifting bar. The tines have simply come loose, not broken; they could be fixed readily enough. Every inch of the surface has oxidised squirrel-red, but the metal is hard, smooth, with none of the flaking fragility of an old car. And that lion, that absurdly prancing lion, flipped here from dexter to sinister pose, heraldic charge of a country where no lions ever roamed: it may be angled to face the worst of the Irish weather, but the contours of its ribs, the bouffant curls of its mane, the slender tongue projecting between bared fangs and the angry staring eye – all are perfectly clear.DSC_0100

When was this horse rake imported? They were listed in the Bamfords catalogues from the 1880s to the 1930s – so it may have been shipped to a colonial possession or an independent republic. And how did you transport a horse rake overland? The train, most probably, loaded up onto the North Staffordshire Railway alongside the Uttoxeter foundry then run out to the docks – where? Liverpool? But it would have been like loading an okapi skeleton into the freight waggons.

The rake had moved, 460 kilometres from Uttoxeter to Athenry, by rail and by ship, then by rail again, and then at the last towed home to a farmyard by the horse it was built for. For however-many subsequent summers it clawed its way back and forth over the fields, bundling the yellowed stalks beneath it.

And then, one day, it stopped.

The neat positioning – tight to the wall, midway between field corners – does not suggest an intention of permanent abandonment. Perhaps a single tine came loose, or something in the lifting mechanism jammed. The rake was manhandled to the edge of the field and the driver walked home with the unhitched horse, meaning to come back with tools later, or to send a message for the blacksmith in the town. But somehow there were always other jobs, and the days and months slipped past. Next summer the horse rake was still out in the field. Maybe there was already a new machine for raking hay to be borrowed from the neighbouring farm – one of those tractor-towed contraptions with vertical turners like skeletal sunflowers, the ones that were the norm on farms in Cornwall in the 1980s. An honest intention to fix up and bring home the horse rake remained, for sure, but it was less pressing now, and the following year there was a tractor and a mechanical turner permanently resident on the farm. The halting of the horse rake by the wall – expected to be temporary, perhaps no longer than a few hours or days – had become a permanency.

Something like that, anyway.

The Tuam railway line was surely still in use when the rake was left by the wall. Maybe a passenger, sitting on the left side of the carriage, looked up as the train approached Athenry and saw a man, two fields off, reining back a labouring horse and glancing over his shoulder from the high seat to identify the breakage.

Today the rake sits in the landscape, as immobile as the ruined church and the abandoned railway. The iron forged in Uttoxeter is strong, fit to see out many more winters. In another hundred years the rake may still be here, settled a few centimetres deeper into the clay. Or maybe the field will have been rezoned for housing, and someone will have dragged it away with a JCB.

The right wheel is bogged in the blue shadow of the wall, but the left sits in sunlight. The eight spokes are like radial roads, running out from a solid centre to a fixed perimeter, portioning a confined vista of grass and sky.


© Tim Hannigan 2020

A Circle on a Map

On 27 March 2020 the Irish government put the country in lockdown in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. One stipulation was that people should stray no further than two kilometres from home for the purpose of exercise. The limit was extended to five kilometres on Tuesday. Until then, for six weeks, I had been wandering – usually, though not always, in a clockwise direction – around a space of 12.57 square kilometres. Here is a brief description of my first consideration of that space, and some of the images I’ve collected during the subsequent travels.

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The outer edge of a circle with a two-kilometre radius, centred on Athenry’s Market Square – centred on the fifteenth-century market cross, let’s say, for the sake of precision (and a literal stone’s throw from our front door) – intersects with the M6 motorway at an eight o’clock angle in the townland of Ballygarraun South, close the Teagasc agricultural research centre. From there, running clockwise, it crosses an unbroken kilometre-and-a-half of farmland, before leaping between three roads north of the Raheen Woods Hotel – the little, ring and middle fingers of the outstretched hand. After that, it runs into another arc of farmland, hitting twelve o’clock just shy of the abandoned railway line to Tuam. Then it begins its steepening descent through a townland called Ballydavid South, crossing the Monivea road, the Clarin River and the Galway-Dublin main line. At three o’clock it slices through the Esker road near Pollacappul, then swings south and intersects with the motorway once more at exactly six o’clock, just where the Craughwell road passes beneath it. From here, it curves back towards the start, closely matched by a minor road – yellow on the map – that joins the old Galway road right across from the agricultural research centre.
I looked at that circle as it appeared on the map, laid across my desk. Everything outside it was off-limits for now. Within it, the orange and yellow of the roads divided little slices of pale green countryside (on this scale, the map did not show the field boundaries – and there were no footpaths, of course). Within those little green slices lay a scattering of unfamiliar names: Kingsland, North and South; Farranablake, East and West; Mulpit, Gorteenacra. There were a few features too: two or three little dabs of woodland, coniferous and deciduous; feeder streams, running in from the east to join the Clarin; a smattering of archaeological relics named in red – “Holy Well”, “Mound”, “Fulacht Fia”; and eleven tiny red pimples, circles within the circle – ringforts, I supposed.
I looked at the circle on the map, at the space within it. Twelve-and-a-half square kilometres – a vast, undiscovered country.

© Tim Hannigan 2020

A Vintage Year: Travel Books of 2019

Travel writing is still dead, according to many book trade professionals – or still a “very difficult market”, as the jargon has it. And this despite the fact that these same people have been publishing great gouts of the stuff for the past decade. The key thing is to make sure you don’t call it travel writing. You can put “journeys in search of something-or-other” on the cover; stick the word “odyssey” or even “travels” in the subtitle; have the thing conform to every last travel writing genre convention. But you must make sure that its narrative doesn’t stray beyond the hardening borders of the United Kingdom, and you must insist that its primary quest-object is a suitably patriotic bit of British natural history. Look, I don’t mean to suggest that there’s something a bit Brexity about the so-called “new nature writing” – or maybe I do…

Anyway, in spite of all this, there must be at least a few commissioning editors who missed the edict. Because, from a reader’s perspective, 2019 has been a vintage year for travel writing. Here’s a round-up of some of those new travel books that I’ve had time to read.

trainsJanuary saw Monisha Rajesh’s Around the World in 80 Trains pull up to Platform 1 – and what a heartening way to start the travel writing year! On the one hand, it’s an unashamed, old-school round-the-world adventure which makes Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar look quaveringly unambitious in geographical scope by comparison. But on the other hand, I’ve never read a travel book so at ease with the technological realities of twenty-first-century travel (WeChat, FaceTime, Netflix – this book has more apps than your average smartphone). So much for the old saw about cheap airfares and the internet killing travel writing. And it proves that you can write entertainingly about Big Trips without having to pretend it’s the 19th century. I reviewed the book here.

epicThere was a bit of a breather into the spring, but eyeing the upcoming publishers’ schedules felt like approaching a veritable book mountain. I began the ascent with Nicholas Jubber’s Epic Continent – his best book to date, as far as I’m concerned, an enthusiastic trip around Europe, which manages to be thoroughly immersed in the past without ever ignoring the uneasy present. I reviewed it here.

And then, of course, the big one, the rumblings of its ascent audible months – nay, years – in advance. On 2 May Robert Macfarlane’s Underland came up to grass, as the old men would say. This book has had more than enough praise already, but it’s all deserved of course. Underland is more ambitious than The Old Ways, but it’s also far tighter and more coherent.underland In fact, it almost matches The Wild Places for the controlled elegance of its structure. But here’s the real cause for celebration: Underland’s scope is properly, convincingly international. We might start down a hole in Somerset, but we then dig our way onwards to Italy, Paris, Slovenia, the Arctic. This is a travel book, and its author is way beyond the bounds of that dubiously exclusive British “our” which haunts so much of the new nature writing genre. Mind you, it ought to have a health warning for claustrophobes on the cover…

A couple of months after Underland came a book that plainly made its way to publication along the path that Macfarlane has cut. David Gange’s The Frayed Atlantic Edge will inevitably find itself shelved in amidst all the crow-chasing, otter-bothering, badger-harassing mass of the new nature writing. But it doesn’t really belong there.edge The thematic focus is the densely-peopled past; and the journey it describes – by kayak, down the western seaboard of Britain and Ireland – is probably the most authentically adventurous of all the books covered here. Yes, with its geographic scope we’re in the realms of “the Archipelago” – and yes, there’s something to be said somewhere (but not here) about the troubling idea of British literary territorial expansionism (though it should be said that Gange is specifically concerned with resetting conventional spatial orientation – and does so more convincingly than anyone so far). But, feck it anyway, it’s one of the best travel books of the year! There’s also some pleasing formal innovation in the way Gange lets maps do part of the lifting work of the travelogue aspect. Definitely a 2019 highlight.

July also saw new releases from a veteran pro, the mighty Sara Wheeler, and an excellent newcomer, Jonathan Chatwin (no relation – though as it happens he did write a very good academic book on Bruce a few years back). Wheeler’s Mud and Stars uses a form not dissimilar to that of her previous book, O My America! – a blend of travel and biography.mud This time, however, it’s Russia, and the lives are those of (mostly) male Russian authors. Of all the travel writers of her generation, Wheeler has always seemed to be most thoroughly embedded in the world of literature – that of printed matter, of the review pages, of the literary essay. Her 2011 collection of journalism, Access All Areas, offers a subtle genuflection – not that Wheeler’s really the sort to genuflect to anyone – in the direction of that other great book-world travel writer, Jonathan Raban. And Mud and Stars is very much a book about literature. For an absolute amateur in the Russian field like myself, she’s a perfect, gently authoritative and ever-enthusiastic guide. But she’s a traveller too, of course, and a sense of place is the book’s vital component. The idea of Russia that lingers beyond the final pages is a melancholy, faintly bittersweet, late-summer sort of place. This impression was powerful and enduring enough, in fact, that I found it interfering with the rather different Russian atmosphere in the final book of this round-up, which I’ll get to below…

streetJonathan Chatwin’s Long Peace Street, meanwhile, was more concerned with history than literature, and it tackled it using a brilliantly simply device – a walk across Beijing via the eponymous “Long Peace Street”, an arrow-straight thoroughfare running right through the centre of the city. It works extremely well, chapters spinning off into eclectic historical episodes as the author makes his way along the street. To my considerable surprise, the book that Long Peace Street brought to mind was not one of those by Chatwin’s famous namesake, but W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn – a straight, rather than meandering Rings of Saturn, set in China rather than East Anglia…

And then it was September, and – oh my goodness!

You know that scene in Don’t Look Back? The one where Bob Dylan and his entourage are sitting around in a smoky room in the Savoy? Donovan’s there, and he elects to play one of his thin little ditties (I mean, what was he thinking?). When he’s done, Dylan, smirking atrociously, is like, “Mind if I play something?”. Still smirking, he launches into “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”. The camera lingers mercilessly on Donovan’s face – the face of a man brutally confronted by the relative measure of his own talent.

The Donovan look – that must have been the expression on the face of every other writer of place, travel or nature with a book out this year as they realised that Kathleen Jamie was in the room and was, like, “Mind if I play something?”

surfacingSurfacing – the book of the year? Of course it bloody was! But then, just like Bob Dylan, Kathleen Jamie’s not a normal mortal. She sold her soul at some Scottish crossroads years ago – she must have done, to be able to write like that. I reviewed the book here. (I’ve no reason to believe that Kathleen Jamie suffers from any of Bob Dylan’s obvious bastardry – but I do think she allowed herself a sly little smirk, just for a passing moment, in the opening pages of Surfacing, as explained in the review.)

Not all 2019’s travel books were strictly new. Every aficionado of the genre gives thanks to the gods of literature for the magnificent institution that is Eland Books. In June they published a new edition of Moritz Thomsen’s The Saddest Pleasure. It originally appeared in 1990, and as I read I found myself muttering, “How did I not know about this already?” A remarkable book in so many ways. saddestIn synopsis: an ageing and rather crotchety American sets off on a trip through Brazil. At the outset it seems that he has recently been the victim of a very considerable injustice in his adopted homeland of Ecuador, though the circumstances are left vague – deliberately, it transpires, for (soft spoiler alert) as the book progresses and Thomsen tears more and more strips off himself, your perspective shifts in advance of the ultimate reveal. One hell of a book. My first take was “as if Paul Theroux learnt self-awareness and humility and gained lyricism in the process”, but I don’t think that really does Thomsen justice. There are hints of Jonathan Raban (also kept in print by Eland) at his best, but really he’s in a class of his own.

(Incidentally, Theroux himself reportedly had a new travel book out in 2019. But he’s been signalling his own retirement from writing about foreign travels since at least 2013, and I have long since run out of patience.)goes

Eland were also responsible, in October, for something wholly new – in English, at least: So it Goes, a delicate little collection of freshly-translated pieces (with Robyn Marsack on translation duties) by the great Swiss travel writer Nicolas Bouvier. I reviewed it here.

I wrapped up my year of travel reading with new titles from two writers who, like Sara Wheeler, first appeared at the start of the 1990s, and who are still going strong.

I’d been looking forward to Philip Marsden’s The Summer Isles – which came out in October – for a longer than any of the other books on this year’s list. It did not disappoint. A worthy follow-up to 2014’s superb Rising Ground, this time Marsden is offshore, aboard a wooden sailing boat, and travelling much the same route as David Gange (we’re in “Archipelagic” territory again).summer But where Gange was concerned with hard history, Marsden is looking instead at the islands of the Atlantic edge as receptacles for the imagination. That premise might sound a few warnings of dangerous waters ahead, but Marsden is an old pro at this travel writing business: he’s equally concerned with the lived lives of the present, the chance encounter, the quayside dialogue. Perhaps counterintuitively, The Summer Isles turns out to be a much more densely peopled book than The Frayed Atlantic Edge. It has serious emotional heft too – suddenly and unexpectedly in the first chapter. And as I approached the end (again, a soft spoiler alert) the book that came to mind above all was Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard

Last, but by no means least, the wry trickster of contemporary travel literature, Rory MacLean returned in November, thirty years on from his genre-bending debut Stalin’s Nose, with Pravda Ha Ha (just how to read that “ha ha” I’m not sure – and I think that’s intentional, though it comes to sound decidedly sarcastic by the end).pravda He’s covering the same ground as that earlier book, but this time in reverse, east to west (and without Winston the pig), beginning in Russia. And this is a much darker book, for all MacLean’s customary humour and eye for the absurd. He made the Stalin’s Nose trip as the walls were coming down; now they’re going up again. Russia as it appears here is more dystopian, nightmarish, than in Sara Wheeler’s Mud and Stars. The other countries MacLean visits are often similarly grim – toxic nationalism, truth-be-damned hate speech and all the rest. All told, it’s a powerful portrait of a continent in a pretty bad way. The most chilling moment is the encounter with a trio of “alt-right” media professionals in a trendy Warsaw wine bar. And the Britain that MacLean returns to in the final chapters is very much the same sour place that Nicholas Jubber reaches towards the end of Epic Continent (like Jubber, MacLean handles the contemporary European issue of migration very deftly). He does manage a note of optimism at the very last – though it takes considerable effort.

Make no mistake, the dark shadows are falling. But surely that makes travel writing all the more important – travel writing that goes beyond borders (and beyond badgers). This is a genre with a built-in capacity to find space for individual stories, multitudinous voices, connections, empathy. Judging by this year’s bumper crop of travel books – possibly the best single haul since the glory days circa 1990 – we’ve plenty of writers up to the pressing task in hand.

Travel writing is dead; long live travel writing!

© Tim Hannigan 2019

Notes from the Field: looking for Bruce Chatwin in an Oxford archive

When I’m working in an archive, I naturally type up serious notes in a Word document. But I usually also keep a sort of running journal in my notebook as I go – not the stuff of serious, formal research, but just the images and thoughts that distract me, as well as any random ideas and emotions that the materials prompt.

In December I spent three days in Oxford, in the reading room of the Weston Library where Bruce Chatwin’s papers are held. This was for my Midlands3Cites-funded PhD research, and it followed on from similar trips to look at Wilfred Thesiger’s papers in the Eton College Archives, and Patrick Leigh Fermor’s records in the National Library of Scotland.

Today I found myself reading back through the notes. I’ve typed them up here, just for fun – a glimpse of a not-entirely-focussed researcher at work, recorded in real time during a very cold week. It ends rather abruptly, as these things do…


img_1408Monday 3 December

To Oxford by train on a wet dark morning. I’d slept badly, and dozed to Birmingham. Manic rush-hour change, then into wet country. At Oxford, the light clearing. Bicycles, menacingly silent.

I had a coffee and a pork and apple pie in a hipsterish café which revived me somewhat. Then on. Mud-coloured canals. A sinking city. The stone less honeyed in this wet dark part of the year.

Registration at the library was like a grand old bank. You sit waiting as if to discuss your current account. A nice woman registered me. She said I was lucky to be from Cornwall. There’s a declaration to read in which you promise to “kindle no fires” in the library.

Upstairs to the reading room. A long room with books around the walls to halfway up to the ceiling – “Old Maps in Japan”; “The World of Aldus Manutius”. A strange wooden ceiling like a damascene box, long study benches cross-wise, marbled wood. I sat by a window, high with square panes, giving out onto trees, a tall blueish conifer, and a thin rain now falling.

The poses of the researchers – fingers under noses, or across mouths or on chins. The involved stare at a laptop screen, the angled head in a pool of warm light from a desk lamp.

My place, a leather bucket chair with copper studs.


I’m here for Chatwin, but not quite sure what to feel or expect.

I have called up the MS of “The Nomadic Alternative” first. It sits to my right, MS.Eng.e.7838, in a grey box, date debossed 1998, acid free, lignin free.

It seemed the place to start. There’s a flatness. None of the apprehension of Thesiger or simple pleasure of PLF [Patrick Leigh Fermor]. Just a flatness, perhaps because Chatwin is so diminished as a man for me now. Am I simply going to find more objectionable idiocy here? Well, here goes, at a quarter past midday…


A neat grey folder within, a note on the cover, “lacking pp145–6”. And the first line:

“The best travellers are illiterate. Narratives of travel are pale compensations for the journey itself, and merely proclaim the traveller’s inadequacy as a traveller.”

Well fuck you, then, Bruce…

As I read on – only four pages in – it strikes me that had he been writing in French perhaps he might have gotten away with this…

This is cod-philosophy mostly, an erudite undergrad’s essay run wild.


Late lunch, sitting on the pitted steps of the Bodleian, cold, damp. I wandered a little – a flash of recognition, I’d been here before. The same bicycles by the fence around the R.Camera. Small tour groups, students in polo necks. There must have been – must still be – an incredible sense of possibility coming up here, one you certainly don’t get at Gloucestershire or Leicester.


I plodded my way to the end of the MS. It was pretty much unreadable – though here and there a fragment – on the Nemadi, on the nomad movement in Persia. Yet at the same time the ideas in The Songlines are all in place. It’s a strange thing – his writing had moved on massively, but his ideas really hadn’t.


It was cold after dark. I walked south to the room I’d got for the stay. An old terraced house, tidied up for guests. A poster for The Master and Margarita on the wall, Dostoyevsky and Dalrymple’s The Age of Kali in a cabinet. Thin wooden doors, stripped of paint at some stage. Quiet. I slept hard.

Tuesday 4 Dec, Oxford

Cold and bright, and a thin glitter of frost on the roofs. Liquid mist over the river. The Thames again – and rowers on the water in that stalled state before they start. Breakfast in a café, cobbles and bikes outside.


Back in the library now, preparing to look at notebooks.

I’ve called up two to start, in different sized grey folders. There’s something here of the old thrill of getting vinyl records in the post.

The first, 3742, is billed as notes from the journey with Toly Sawenko. The box is the size of an average envelope.

On the windows of the reading room, condensation melting to tops and bottoms of the panes.


A sinking feeling – his handwriting is just awful, the worst I’ve seen, indecipherable. Perhaps I’ll be able to tune in later. The notebook here is just a bog-standard reporter’s pad.

The next pad – a WHSmith spiral pad. I simply can’t read his handwriting. It’s like a language you only know a bit of. Every so often a line comes clear, you understand, snatch at it, then the next moment you’ve lost the thread again. Perhaps I’ll be able to tune in if I keep at it, but it’s not looking good.

Of everyone I’ve encountered in archives – Hayward, Raffles, Thesiger, PLF – Chatwin is certainly the most obviously daunting at first encounter.


Hadn’t entirely struck me clearly, but I’ve just realised that these exercises – with Thesiger, PLF and Chatwin – have all been based on the method I came to through my own Ghost Islands exercise.


img_1334Another two up now – 3700 and 3709 – billed in the catalogue as containing Songlines notes. These look from the packaging like they might be proper notebooks. Neat little grey packages.

A moleskine! Bigger than the commercial reinvention, the cover shiny, black, endpapers blue sugar paper, corners rounded off, squared paper inside, elastic to hold in place.

Inside he writes his address and phone number and offers a reward of £25 for recovery.

I start to spy some fragments of The Songlines here – and feel like I’m at something at last. This, always, is what fascinates me – the emergence of the book itself, not the journey.


MS.Eng.e.3709 was mostly a journal of the trip in China in 1985. There’s a strong sense here of the traveller’s working document – though desperately hard to read.

I think I knew, really, that Chatwin would be far less accessible through the archive than either Thesiger or PLF.


At lunchtime, wandered a little, cold and grey now.

Walking around the colleges – honey and charcoal – is like walking through a petrified pineapple field. Gothic and neoclassical – these are borrowed styles.


Afterwards, back to the library. More notebooks.

These earlier, from Africa, and here a few fragments of the writer at work, all in a tiny blue-inked hand. Journey in Niger – Barmou.


Evening, back to guesthouse, ate a ready-meal (lamb curry) and sat on my bed reading The Songlines.

Wednesday 5 December Oxford

Damp, mild morning. Walked up to the library with my suitcase.


This morning there was more of a sense of the process, though still opaque.

When will I learn? The immediate attraction is to the notes made on a journey – Thesiger’s journals, the Green Diary, the moleskines. But always the real fascination is in the production of the book itself, which may be rather far removed from any such notes.


Intriguing sort of note-form draft of TSL [The Songlines] – he did a lot of note-typing.


At lunchtime – a sandwich from the “tuck shop” across the way, then ate while walking on wet pavements to the Pitt Rivers – glorious mash of cabinets, a wayang puppet, a Kalasha effigy.

This is, of course, a problematic museum. But if some impressionable youth thrills to a label mentioning “Naga Hills” or “Java” or “Shan State” can that actually be a bad thing – especially if he or she actually goes there? Same goes for travel books, of course.

Walked back, a lowering light. Coffee in the tearoom. School tables.


After lunch, to look at later drafts. First up MS.Eng.d.3996, tagged “Final draft for copy setters”.

[And that evening I caught a very crowded train back to Leicester.]

© Tim Hannigan 2018

Tip-Topi: Hot Heads and Pithy Helmets in the British Empire

Sola_topee_sideOnly mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun, they say. But the truth of the matter is that during the 19th-century heyday of the British Empire, the sun was an object of horror for most travelling Englishmen. In latitudes south of the Tropic of Cancer, it was widely believed, midday sunshine had the capacity to do terrible injury to the brain of a European.

It was in British-ruled India that this peculiar belief gained most traction. In Rudyard Kipling’s story The Man Who Would be King a horrified official asks of a destitute adventurer ‘Is it true that he was half an hour bare-headed in the sun at midday?’ – and is by no means surprised to hear that the unfortunate fellow is dead as a consequence. Even if Kipling’s ill-fortuned traveller had survived, he would doubtless have gone completely doolally – a condition named for the Indian barracks town of Deolali, where large numbers of English soldiers reputedly let the heat go to their heads…


European travellers arriving in tropical British colonial possessions were deluged with sage advice from old-timers about how to survive the climate – stay indoors as much as possible, drink plenty of gin, and continue dressing for dinner as if it was the middle of an English winter being standard suggested tactics. But above all else, a visitor plotting an Indian itinerary or an African odyssey would be told, get yourself a sola topi…

The sola topi was the iconic headgear of empire. Similar in shape to an old-fashioned policeman’s helmet, but a little broader of brim and usually white or cream in colour, it was also known as a pith helmet, for the simple reason that its seven-inch dome was stuffed with the corky pith of the swamp-dwelling sola plant (many travellers mistakenly assumed that these thoroughly silly hats were actually called “solar” topis; unhelpfully they really were also known as “sun helmets”).

The belief was – and it was very sincerely held by everyone, including medical professionals – that without this deep padding of pith above the crown of your head, the deadly solar rays would drill through your skull in a matter of minutes, and would fatally scramble your brain.

Sola topis were considered so essential that the owner of the Simon Arzt department store in Port Said at the mouth of the Suez Canal made an absolute fortune flogging them at inflated prices to the passengers of eastbound liners who had forgotten to buy one back home before departure.  For a while it was even believed that you had to also protect your spine from the sun, and travellers in India would go about wearing a long tail of cork-stuffed cloth, pinned to the back of their hat and reaching all the way to their posterior. Quite what the locals – many of who sensibly dealt with the heat by wearing as little as possible – thought of all this fancy dress is anyone’s guess.



T.E. Lawrence – a fan of the Orientalist dressing-up box in other circumstances – trying to keep a cool head.

The curious thing about the craze for sola topis – which spread beyond British territories to the empires of the French and the Dutch – is that they only came into common usage in the second half of the 19th century, by which time Europeans had been thoroughly engaged in travel, trade and colonialism in hot places for the best part of three centuries. Plenty of previous generations had managed to survive the sunshine without going completely bonkers. The truth behind the ubiquity of this daftest of hats had more to do with racial identity, than with practical heat-avoidance.

The basic principle of wearing a hat when the sun is shining has always been a very sound one. And the idea of topping your hot-weather outfit with some sort of thick padding was nothing new. But there was already a perfectly good item of headgear, worn across continents since time immemorial for this very purpose: the turban. They wore it in North Africa; they wore it in Arabia; and they most certainly wore it in many parts of India. And here’s the thing: for around 200 years, Englishmen wore it too. ‘When in Rome’ (or ‘When in Rajputana’) was always a sensible approach, and throughout the 17th and 18th centuries plenty of the servants of the East India Company ditched their periwigs and frock coats on the voyage east and dressed themselves in loose-fitting robes and turbans as soon as they disembarked. It was comfortable. It helped you fit in.

But by the time Queen Victoria was on the throne attitudes had changed entirely, and the last thing an Englishman was supposed to do was try to fit in with “the natives”. Enthusiastically engaging with local culture and dressing Asian-style was a sure-fire way to end up a persona non grata in colonial society, and as for taking a local wife and converting to Islam or Hinduism – which was not unheard of in the 18th century – perish the thought! But the trouble was, turbans had seemed like such a good idea for travel on hot days…


Topi, heading south…

And so, enter the sola topi as a distinctly European replacement. The peculiar belief that you absolutely had to wear one if you didn’t want to lose your wits quickly developed. On one level, this idea of a morbid climate for which English folks were constitutionally unsuited was ideologically handy. It implied an essential distance from the place and people they ruled, and made it clear that any sort of acculturation – “going native” – was not only morally but also physically impossible (try telling the boys from the barracks, out roistering with their rum-jonnies that – but so long as you didn’t talk about such things, all was well).

But there was also a simpler truth: the topi was, ultimately, an uncomplicated badge of imperial identity.


The sola topi gradually began to go out of fashion in the early 20th century, and though there were always plenty of stick-in-the-muds who clung to theirs until the very last, by the time the sun finally set on the British Empire there were a fair few travellers who had realised that a simple panama hat – or even a knotted hankie – would do instead. And of course, as sunbathing Brits spread-eagled on baking beaches from Bali to Barbados demonstrate, these days the average travelling Englishperson has no fear whatsoever of the midday sun…

© Tim Hannigan 2018

Surabaya: before sunrise

DSC_0530 (2)I’ve been thinking a lot about Surabaya, after the dreadful events there at the weekend. The city was my main base in Indonesia, on and off, between 2006 and 2012, and I miss it in sudden unexpected moments. For me, Surabaya was always a night city. In the white heat of the day it could feel flattened, dulled. But after dark – which comes in early there, and with the quickness of a drape falling – the city seemed to rise up into itself. Here’s a piece I wrote about Surabaya during its waking, nocturnal hours for the Jakarta Post’s Weekender magazine in December 2007.


5.30pm; Saturday. From the high rooftop of Tunjungan Plaza the sprawl of red-tiled houses curves away in all directions. A late flight to Jakarta is roaring westward through the paling sky, and the lights of the big advertising hoardings are flickering on. The sun – a crimson thumbprint in the murky air of the East Java capital – touches the horizon.

“Allaaaaaaah uh Akbar…” From the city below the call to Maghrib prayer rings out into the dusk. Night has fallen over Surabaya.


Every town shows a different face at night, and Surabaya, a vast collection of villages by day, seems like a real city after dark. Tonight I plan to stay awake until dawn, criss-crossing the city by motorbike, exploring its nocturnal side.


7pm; the traffic is at its thickest now, roaring through the web of one-way streets that wrap around Surabaya’s modern downtown. The crushing heat of the day has passed and people are outside, relaxing; cafes and ice cream parlors are packed. Taman Bungkul, one of Surabaya’s few public spaces, is crowded with families. Teenagers in baggy jeans practice their skateboard tricks on the ramps and railings, and kids play with the cheap plastic toys sold by wandering vendors. And I am hungry.

Food is a passion in Surabaya, and the best place to eat is on the streets. Since sunset the roadsides have been lined with makeshift cafes. Each has a specialty, from the ubiquitous nasi goreng, to obscure regional dishes. Some are mediocre, some are excellent, and some are famous. Roti Bakar Citras is in the latter category. On a roaring side-street off Jalan Kertajaya, wonky tables are set up along a narrow strip of pavement. I order a sweet coffee – the first of many tonight – and one of Citras’ famed toasted sandwiches.


000023.JPGa9.30pm; north of the city centre, past the Heroes’ Monument, towering into steamy darkness, along dark streets to Chinatown… The thoroughfare of Kembang Jepun is closed to traffic, and plastic chairs and tables are set out under the red Chinese lanterns. This is Kya Kya, the al fresco dining strip held every night. At the end of the street a gaggle of women – of a certain age – are slyly knocking back Bintang beer and dancing enthusiastically to karaoke dangdut.

From Kya Kya I drive east, way out into the suburbs along streets where lamps burn in simple night stalls, and burly security guards lounge at the gates of middle class compounds. Jembatan Merr, the bridge over the Kali Jagir River, is packed. Pavements are lined with worn mats and low tables, crowded with young couples. Coffee again for me, and some steamed peanuts in a twist of old newspaper from a vendor. It is after 11 o’clock and I notice that the traffic has thinned, only a few motorbikes streaking through the night. I finish my coffee, drop a few coins in the cup of the buskers playing battered guitars, and head back for the centre.


Tengah malam – midnight. The downtown streets have an edgier feel. Shops and restaurants are closed, though here and there lights blaze in an all-night warung or internet café. Huge mobs of youths in skin-tight jeans and black sweatshirts crowd the pavements, vigorously revving the engines of their motorbikes. Every Saturday these motorbike gangs gather in Surabaya, racing along dark streets and cruising the city in convoy. I fall in among one of the gangs for a while, and they call out cheerily to me despite their sinister appearance: “Hello mister! Good evening!”

I make a sharp turn into a side street to avoid a police checkpoint and head north again. The streets of the Old City are eerily empty. I catch the smell of garlic and onion skins, and see one ghostly becak creaking through the night. This part of the city, with its narrow alleys and derelict shop-houses, is a creepy place at night and I am glad when I see bright lights on a street between Chinatown and the Arab Quarter. Men in rubber boots are lugging barrels of fish from trucks and tough Madura women are haggling over prices. The fish market has been open since late afternoon and the ground is slimy underfoot. The air is pungent with fish and kretek cigarette smoke.


Tiredness creeps up. The dark band of the Kalimas River cuts through the night as I speed along empty streets. The next two hours blur into a jumble of brief images: a pair of youths in hooded sweatshirts furtively marking a wall with graffiti; a group of men seated around a television in a narrow, blue-walled room; streetwalkers of questionable gender stepping suddenly from the shadows; the shark-and-crocodile statue that commemorates Surabaya’s founding myth starkly white in the darkness; an enormous transvestite in a limp red dress striding along the cracked pavement, and the shadowy outlines of becak, loaded with mysterious bundles, rolling through the gloom.

I am tired, and hungry, and surprisingly cold. I find a simple all-night café on Jalan Mayjend Sungkono. Indonesian pop music is playing on the stereo, and a boy with weary eyes serves me a bowl of Madurese soto and a cup of sweet, grainy coffee. A shining SUV pulls up on the street outside. Three obviously drunk men stumble out and order food. I have a good idea where they have come from: most of Surabaya may be sleeping, but there’s a place where there’s still something going on.


000025.JPGb3am – Jalan Dolly. Somewhere among the graveyards and working-class kampungs on the high ground above the Banyu Urip Canal the narrow streets of Dolly and Jalan Jarak are packed. Taxis and motorbikes clog the road and the throb of high-volume dangdut music shakes the air. This is Surabaya’s most notorious corner, claimed – wrongly, apparently – to be Southeast Asia’s biggest red light district. Wonky neon signs glow along the shop-fronts and bright strip lights shine in big-windowed “guesthouses” where bored women with blond-streaked hair and short skirts lounge on sofas, waiting. I’m too tired to face the rough gloom of the dangdut bars, so I opt for a soft drink at a roadside stall. No one bothers me and the place seems lively, almost festive. But I remember the reports I read almost weekly in the Jawa Pos of trafficked women, some of them horrifyingly young, in the brothels here.


As I leave Dolly I sense a change in the rhythm of the night. The darkness is as heavy as ever, but there is a little more traffic on the roads: the people who have been awake all night are beginning to meet the early risers of the coming day.

Beside the river the Keputran vegetable market is a blaze of light. All night trucks have been rolling in from the East Java hinterland and porters squelch through the mud under enormous loads of carrots, onions and beans. The workers and stallholders seem to get through the night on a brew of ready humor, and I am met with cheerful greetings and bursts of riotous laughter. Then I hear something above the voices: the loudspeaker of a mosque across the river has been switched on and a taped prayer is playing into the darkness. The end of the night is within reach.000021.JPGb


From the market I drive south through silent suburbs until I reach Mesjid al-Akbar, the Great Mosque, better known as Mesjid Agung. The summit of the Ottoman-style minaret is floodlit, burning like a candle flame against the blackness. As I arrive men in clean white shirts and loose tartan sarongs are hurrying up the steps and into the cavernous interior. I can hear the low hum of traffic on the toll road beyond the mosque, and birds are singing in the darkness. Through the arched doorway I see the men forming neat lines, facing towards Mecca, their backs to a faint white stain on the eastern edge of the night. A woman in a loose head-covering pads swiftly across the marble floor and suddenly the loudspeakers crackle into action. “Allaaaaaaah uh Akbar…” The men bow and kneel in unison; the night is over.


As I ride away from the mosque people are out jogging in the first light. Buses and trucks are rolling on the big streets now and a pearly color is leaching into the sky. The new day is beginning and Surabaya is showing a different face. But I am going to bed…

© Tim Hannigan 2018

From the vaults: Melanie Phillips and ‘the terrorist threat’

Earlier this week, Melanie Phillips published a column in the Times, headlined ‘Islamophobia is a fiction to shut down debate’. I’ll make no comment on the piece here, but this response from Nicky Woolf in The New Statesman does the necessary.

Reading Woolf’s deconstruction of Phillip’s argument brought on a bout of scholarly nostalgia. A decade ago I wrote a dissertation titled With Us of Against Us: Moral Panic, Orientalism and the Reporting of ‘The Terrorist Threat’.

As the title suggests, I framed media coverage of ‘post-9/11’ terrorism in terms of familiar theories around moral panic, then historicised them by means of ‘Orientalism’ (and pre-colonial proto-Orientalism, actually). The central section featured discourse analyses of three comment pieces, all responding to a single incident (the Mumbai attacks of late 2008), one each from the biggest selling British dailies in the traditional newspaper sectors – broadsheet, mid-market and ‘red-top’ tabloid. There was a piece by Ed Husain (who we don’t seem to hear so much from these days) in The Telegraph; a ‘The Sun Says’ editorial, and a column in the Mail by the perennial Melanie Philips.

I dug it out of the vaults yesterday evening and took a look. It’s interesting to see what’s changed – not a word of IS, of course, but much discussion of al-Qaeda (though I seem, perhaps, to have caught a moment of shift in that respect). What hasn’t changed, though, is Melanie Phillips…

Here, as a sort of curio, is the section looking at her piece, and the subsequent conclusion.


Text Two: Melanie Phillips in the Daily Mail, 01/12/08; ‘The Mumbai atrocity is a wake-up call for a frighteningly unprepared Britain’

This is a longer, more complex piece, opening with a series of rhetorical questions about the nature of the Mumbai attacks, and the ‘motives’ of the ‘terrorists’, and then proceeding to ‘answer’ them in definitive fashion. But its fundamental argument is, like that of the Sun, that Britain is under threat, but is “frighteningly unprepared”, that “we don’t know what we are up against”, and that more must be done.

There are some key differences between this piece and the earlier text, however. The first piece was not attributed to any individual writer, and was presented as the opinion of ‘the Sun’ as a single entity. This piece is not only attributed to a named writer; it is by a regular ‘opinion’ columnist whose views are not necessarily those of the paper in which they appear. This immediately creates a slightly different relationship between the text and its readership: this is an individual stating an opinion, rather than the newspaper (and perhaps its readership) speaking with one voice. And indeed, in this piece Phillips to some extent separates herself from the ‘national we’.

I will deal first with the terms used in this text to label ‘the threat’. In the text from the Sun this labelling was simple: an initial “terrorist” segued to a consistent use of “Muslim”, which, possibly unintentionally, carried an implication: that “terrorist” equals “Muslim”. There is no such consistency here.

In labelling the ‘threat’, the term “Islamist” (that which I consider most appropriate) appears here, eight times in total. But this is by no means the only label used. Within this piece, as well as “Islamist”, Phillips identifies the threat as “terrorists” (sometimes unappended; sometimes tagged with “Islamist”), “fanatics”, “attackers”, “extremists”, “fundamentalists”, “militants”, the fetchingly alliterative “Islamic fundamentalist fanatics”, “home grown radicalisation”, “violent extremism”, and “a capable and motivated enemy spanning the globe”. There are also two references to “Al Qaeda [sic]”. Almost the entire gamut of potential labels is here.

We know that “labelling, defining and interpreting the problem” (Critcher, in Allan, 2005: 179) is a key aspect of the process of moral panic. But the use of over a dozen different terms, none of them particularly definitive, to label ‘the problem’ in this text highlights something important about ‘the terrorist threat’ as moral panic: the problem has not been definitively labelled; a satisfactory vocabulary has not been created. Because of this a wide range of terms is used. But if the ‘problem’ has a multitude of imprecise names, it is difficult precisely to identify it. And in attempts to make sense of ‘the threat’ it is natural to search for a constant in this unsatisfactory vocabulary. The consequence of this is manifest in the first text from the Sun: there is a perceivable constant in this sprawling vocabulary from ‘al Qaeda’ to ‘home grown radical’; the constant is ‘Muslim’. And so, as in the Sun, ‘terrorist’ and ‘Muslim’ are conflated, and therefore Muslims, already long-subjected to hostile othering, become identified with ‘terrorists’ whether they are in fact ‘extremist’ or otherwise.

But in this text the word ‘Muslim’ is actually used very judiciously. It appears five times in the piece, but is never used directly to label ‘the threat’. That troublesome term ‘al-Qaeda’ is also used judiciously.

But despite – or arguably because of – this avoidance of sloppy use of ‘al-Qaeda’, a powerful implication remains. Phillips avoids labelling the Mumbai attacks ‘al-Qaeda’; she uses only generic terms that do not imply an organised group. She references “home grown radicals” in the UK, “Islamists” in general, and the specific, localised conflicts involving Islamist violence in Thailand, Nigeria and the Philippines, without suggesting the involvement of an ‘organisation’. And yet she also uses the phrase “a capable and motivated enemy spanning the globe” to describe ‘the threat’. This could be seen as a contradiction: ‘home grown’ British Islamists, regional conflicts in Southeast Asia – these are surely disparate issues. And indeed, Phillips seems never to suggest that they are organisationally linked. Yet a “capable and motivated enemy spanning the globe” has connotations of an identifiable, unified entity, an organisation (the very way in which al-Qaeda is so often portrayed).

It is possible to read through this apparent contradiction: in all the inconsistent vocabulary used to label ‘the threat’ in this text, that same implied, latent constant remains: ‘Muslim’. And if there is a “capable and motivated enemy spanning the globe” which has not been identified as an organisation, then the connotation could be that this ‘enemy’ is simply Muslims – all of them.


The ‘enemy’, the threatening other, in this text, then, is Muslims. But there is also reference to a ‘we’. The ‘we’ here is not treated in the same was as in the Sun. In that text the voice of the Sun is identified with that of the ‘national we’, at odds with ‘them’ – the Muslims, and the unresponsive ‘non-us’ of the Government. Here, instead of differentiating the ‘we’ and the state authorities, Phillips conflates them and differentiates herself from the ‘we’: “we don’t understand what we are actually up against, we are not doing nearly enough to prevent this [my italics]” she writes; “Britain is still in a trance of denial”.

But Phillips makes it clear that she understands precisely “what we are actually up against”. She does this with a series of declarative statements about the nature of ‘the threat’ such as: “it has nothing to do with Muslim poverty, oppression or discrimination” (these are in fact opinions, but the use of the declarative structure presents them as ‘fact’). In this Phillips presents herself as a ‘maverick voice’, separate from the broader national ‘we’ (this is, to some extent, the convention for such ‘radical’ commentators).

The fundamental difference between this text and that from the Sun, then, is the object of its address. The Sun’s piece is presented as addressed to the Government on behalf of a ‘national mainstream’ at once identified with and indistinguishable from the Sun itself. This piece by an identified columnist is instead addressed at a ‘we’ in which government and national mainstream are conflated.

But despite this subtle difference in the target of the texts, what they both have to say is essentially the same: the ‘threat’ is Muslims, and ‘we’ need to “get tough”.

Summary and conclusion

Though there is a perceptible decline in the coherence – and therefore the force – of the argument across these three texts, from the Sun with its clear defining of ‘us and them’, and of its demands, to the ambiguity of Ed Husain in the Telegraph, they share a common position: there is a ‘threat’, “a war is being waged against civilisation”, and “short-sighted politicians” are not doing enough about it.

This conceiving of a ‘threat’ and demanding of action from the authorities is a familiar part of the process of moral panic. That all three of these texts appeared in response to one specific ‘terrorist incident’ demonstrates the way in which ‘the terrorist threat’ has developed as prompt for panic. I would argue that the idea of ‘the terrorist threat’ as a whole, the genesis of which in the widest public and media consciousness can probably be identified as ‘9/11’, now forms a constant ‘super-panic’. Individual ‘terrorist’ events – such as the Mumbai attacks – prompt individual moral panics within that ‘super-panic’. The media response to these panics-within-panic is very rapid, with the identifying and (unsatisfactory) labelling of the ‘problem’, the agenda formulation and the demands for action, coming almost instantly. This is because a discourse on ‘the terrorist threat’ already exists; the language, the claims, the demands are already in place.

What is not in place however, as I have shown in this analysis, is an adequate vocabulary. Almost eight years since the inception of the ‘super-panic’ the ‘threat’ has yet to be satisfactorily labelled. This leads to either incoherence, the questionable use of ‘al-Qaeda’, or the conflation of the ‘threat’ with its only obvious unifying connector – Islam – and the identifying of ‘Muslims’ in general as ‘the threat’. That 1400 years of folk memory, and an Orientalist discourse in which Muslims are a threatening other already exists only makes this easier.

It is interesting that despite the sprawling vocabulary used to label ‘the threat’ in the pieces by Phillips and Husain, the term ‘al-Qaeda’ (with its connotations of an organised group) is hardly used at all. In all the reports of the Mumbai attacks in my initial sample, there are only oblique references to ‘al-Qaeda’. This suggests the possible beginnings of a shift away from the kind of uncorroborated usage of this term that was prevalent a few years ago.

I believe that a shift away from instant, uncorroborated use of ‘al-Qaeda’ to label any incidence of Islamist violence would be a positive development: suggesting that ‘the threat’ is a formal organization is likely to lead to the formulation of different agendas and responses to those that might be formulated for a ‘threat’ that can merely be identified as an ideology and a motivation. The term ‘al-Qaeda’ will probably still be around for some time, however: journalists “find it a lot easier to sell a story to a news editor if they can involve bin Laden” (Burke, 2007: 18). And because of that deeply unsatisfactory vocabulary for describing and labelling ‘the terrorist threat’, when attempting to view ‘home-grown’ British suicide bombers, Iraqi insurgents and Thai rebels as somehow part of a single phenomenon, there are only currently two obvious means available: ‘al-Qaeda’, and ‘Islam’. Neither is appropriate.


At no point in the course of this dissertation have I suggested that ‘the terrorist threat’ does not exist: it does; manifestly. But on the basis of my research here I would argue that what does not exist is a satisfactory definition of what that ‘threat’ actually is. There is no vocabulary, no set of definitive words with clear, unambiguous meanings with which accurately to describe it. This, I believe, is a problem.

In the text from the Mail, Melanie Phillips states that “if we don’t understand what we are fighting, we cannot defeat it”. There is a certain irony here: this line concludes a text in which she has used at least 12 different terms to label ‘the threat’, none of them offering a precise definition. Phillips has no more idea of what “it” is – or at least no more ability to explain – than the next person.


Throughout this dissertation I have framed the basic media response to ‘the terrorist threat’ as moral panic: a ‘problem’ appeared; it was labelled and defined in a stylised and stereotypical (and deeply unsatisfactory) fashion; a response was demanded and formulated (‘getting tough’ and the ‘war on terror’). But there are a number of points about ‘the terrorist threat’ as moral panic that are unusual. The first is its longevity. Few other panics have maintained such a high media profile for such a long period. This has allowed the development of what I have termed a ‘super-panic’. This ‘super-panic’ is the continuous panic-driven media discourse on ‘the terrorist threat’. Within this ‘super-panic’, specific events prompt episodes of a smaller scale: rapidly unfolding panics-within-panic. In the media response to an event like the Mumbai attacks, the key elements of moral panic are identifiable – the identifying and (unsatisfactory) labelling of the problem, the agenda-setting, the demands. But because the routine of a ‘terrorist threat’ panic is well practiced, because the demands and agendas are already in place, these panics-within-panic unfold at high speed, with all of Cohen’s (2002) and Critcher’s (2005) stages of moral panic sometimes being identifiable within a single newspaper editorial.

It is also possible to see the ‘terrorist threat’ super-panic as part of some even wider phenomenon. Andy Beckett writes that:

[O]ur striking susceptibility during the 90s to other anxieties – the millennium bug, MMR, genetically modified food – [was] a sort of dress rehearsal for the war on terror. The press became accustomed to publishing scare stories and not retracting them; politicians became accustomed to responding to supposed threats rather than questioning them; the public became accustomed to the idea that some sort of apocalypse might be just around the corner. (Beckett, 2004)

The media response to ‘the terrorist threat’ appeared in this existing framework of regular moral panics where the media routine was already well-rehearsed. It could be argued, then, that the media response to an event like the Mumbai attacks is a moral panic, played out at high speed, within the ever-present ‘terrorist threat’ super-panic, which in turn is the ultimate manifestation of something even larger – a ‘mega-panic’ perhaps. So we have panic-within-panic-within-panic in a finely practiced routine.

But – and this is the central finding of my research here – what we do not have, despite this vast framework of moral panic, is a clear definition of ‘the problem’. I identify two main reasons for this situation.

The first is due to the initial ‘post 9/11’ oversimplification of the ‘problem’. In the early prosecution of the ‘war on terror’ – namely the invasion of Afghanistan – ‘the threat’ was much more definitively labelled than it is today: Osama bin Laden, and an organised ‘al-Qaeda’. But in the years since, that the ‘threat’ is rather more complex has been abundantly demonstrated in the form of ‘home-grown’ suicide bombers, instability in far-flung corners of the world, and the framing of the 2003 invasion of Iraq as part of the ‘war on terror’.

Though the concept of an organised ‘al-Qaeda’ clearly does remain, my research suggests that it may be becoming less readily used. In the ten stories about the Mumbai attacks in my initial sample, not once was the event tagged as ‘al-Qaeda’, or even ‘al-Qaeda-linked’. But as the ‘al-Qaeda’ label (which, though inaccurate, is at least definitive) becomes less common, nothing replaces it; no new, absolute term to describe ‘the threat’ has appeared. Instead we have the sprawling collection of imprecise terms that appear in the pieces by Melanie Phillips and Ed Husain. This may in part simply be because ‘the threat’ is beyond definition – it is sprawling itself; it would be much better viewed as multiple ‘threats’.

But there is another reason: in the process of moral panic as described by Critcher “labelling, defining and interpreting the problem and its perpetrators” (Critcher, in Allan, 2005: 179) occurs at an early stage. If that initial label and definition (in this case bin Laden and ‘al-Qaeda’) collapses at a later stage – which may now be beginning to happen – long after the agendas have been set, the claims legitimised, the actions demanded, then there is no need to replace it. Indeed to do so would likely prove impossible: you cannot stop a moral panic and start it all over again once it has already begun.

The other reason I identify for this absence of a defining vocabulary is that an idea of ‘Muslims’ as a threatening other existed long, long before the emergence of the current ‘terrorist threat’. Connecting ‘the threat’ to Islam instantly provided a pre-existing discourse with which to approach it: that of Orientalism and ancient hostility.

Often in the reporting and discussion of ‘the terrorist threat’ there is a latent suggestion (perhaps unintentional) that the threat is simply ‘Muslims’ in general. This suggestion was fairly overt in the editorial text from the Sun that I analysed; it was also perceivable in Melanie Phillips’ column. This identifying of ‘the threat’ as Muslims happens partly because of the absence of an otherwise useful vocabulary (only ‘Muslim’ identifiably links ‘home-grown radical’ with ‘Thai insurgent’). But it also happens because a sense of a threatening Muslim other has a very long pedigree in ‘the West’.


To conclude: the moral panic response to the ‘terrorist threat’ may have been inevitable, but its development has certain features that are linked directly to the idea of a threatening Muslim other, and as such, form an aspect of a continuing Orientalist discourse. The use of crude yet imprecise labels, the ready conflation of ‘Muslim’ with ‘terrorist’, and also the lingering concept of an organised ‘al-Qaeda’: none of this helps the formulation of clear agendas and responses to this particular ‘problem’ (which really ought to be termed problems in the plural).

In 1981 Edward Said wrote the following in criticism of reductive terms:

Respect for the concrete detail of human experience, understanding that arises from viewing the Other compassionately, knowledge gained and diffused through moral and intellectual honesty: surely these are better, if not easier, goals at present than confrontation and reductive hostility.  And if in the process we can dispose finally of both the residual hatred and the offensive generality of labels like ‘the Muslim,’ ‘the Persian,’ ‘the Turk,’ ‘the Arab,’ or ‘the Westerner’ then so much the better” (Said, 1981:xxxi).

Three decades later it is hard to be optimistic about this: until we have some better, more appropriate, more meaningful alternative we will continue to use ‘the Muslim’, ‘the Persian’, ‘the Turk’ (or their modern equivalents), and indeed ‘the Westerner’. And in this respect it is hard to foresee any more positive developments in the public, media and Government responses to ‘the terrorist threat’.  In this much at least, Melanie Phillips is right, though perhaps not in the sense that she intends: “if we don’t understand what we are fighting, we cannot defeat it”.

© Tim Hannigan 2018