A Border Incident

aYou know the trees I mean. On that first deep stretch of the A30 heading west, after the tawny shoulders of Dartmoor have fallen behind; the stretch that always seems longer than you remembered, though it’s hard to keep the needle from nudging towards ninety.

And then, just as you begin to despair of ever getting through the billowing infinity of Devon, there they are: a spinney of slender beeches, slewed off the crown of a small rise where the dual carriageway bends to the right. They look like the remnants of an army, a last centuria at bay, with a fine hill to die on. And as they whip past on the passenger side you know that inside of three minutes you’ll be barrelling across the Tamar and up the rise onto home ground.

There are other way-markers, of course, multiplying and diverging as we swing left and right off the grand trunk, narrowing to the tendrils of the purely personal. I have some eighty miles of them still to go: the point where the western half of Cornwall opens ahead on the edge of the clay country; the rough gauge of current tide times with a rightward glance at Hayle; the wind-whipped blackthorn on the hedge at Bull’s View; and the final rise from the Men-an-Tol lay-by to the point where the ocean opens ahead.

But the trees are the first. A rousing signal: almost-nearly. You might make some flashing obeisance to them as you pass, or at very least offer a nod of acknowledgment: “Alright?” “Yeah, you?” And, three miles outside of Cornwall, they are common to everyone who crosses the Tamar.

***

On a heavy August afternoon I finally did something I’ve long been minded to do: at the first distant glimpse of the trees I swung south off the A30, pulled in at the side of a quiet road, unfolded the map, and tried to work out how to reach them.

The trees, I believe, are known as Cookworthy Knapp, but the Ordnance Survey gave them no name. This was the cause of a small outrage. I felt that they should be marked with some portentous symbol – a pair of crossed flags, perhaps, of the sort that guidebooks use to show international border crossings. But they were scarcely even present on the sheet: the smallest dab of green, sitting on the 120-metre contour line and containing a single non-coniferous tree and seven miniscule scratchings suggesting some kind of pit. And to get to them, I would have to go the long way around.

This was Devon at its deepest. The knapped blue lanes seemed to have fallen, ten, twenty, thirty feet down into the clammy base layers of a blanketing jungle. The contours were as convoluted as those of a human brain, but there wasn’t a single hard edge to knock against. Once or twice I saw the trees, suddenly leaping into distant view across the groundswell of the country, as distinctive from this side as from the other. They’d chosen their defensive spot well; I had little chance of creeping up on them.

A lone cow at the bottom of a long field. A faint smell of treacle rising from the verges. White signposts to stows and hams and cotts – the nomenclature of an other land, without the familiar tre and bos and pen that would begin just a few miles further west. A glimpse of two policemen, thumbs hitched to their shoulders, bending at the door of a shop in an empty village; then a turn into a narrower lane.

The hedges were still higher here, and the foliage pressed in tight on either side of the car, brushing at the doors and windows. It was like edging through a silent mob. The trees swam into view again, tall and close, with the light coming through the fence of their trunks. The sky behind them was dishwater-grey. An old blue tractor, expired at the roadside with the weeds growing through the chassis; squalid barns with slurry and straw calcified in deep layers; and then I was on a lane running parallel to the A30, and the trees were standing ahead. They could certainly see me coming.

I drove up onto a grassy bank, and stepped out. There was a gate into the bottom of the long, triangular field which the trees dominated, but I walked towards them up the lane instead. The A30 was whining noisily to the right, but this strip of tarmac carried no traffic. In the hedges: hazels showing a faint rosiness on their crenelated leaves; the port-wine colour of the hawthorn branches behind the green; and blackberries as ripe and melting as foie gras. In the distance behind, Dartmoor faded into sloe-coloured murk.

There was something wrong with the optics of the afternoon. The light was dull, and neither I nor the hedges cast a shadow. But somehow the trees were preternaturally dark, near-black amid the flat grey-green two-tone of the afternoon. I should have taken it as a warning.

At the top of the rise, a muddy gateway, a padlock and a faded “no entry” sign. Clearly I wasn’t the first person to have had this idea. But the trees were all of fifty feet away beyond the barrier, their great cumulus of foliage shifting darkly in the electric air. There was no one around, and these trees were our trees. They might lie in Devon, but it was we who nodded at them every time in gratitude for their signal: almost-nearly. Surely they had the status of an embassy, a little pocket of Cornish territory islanded in an alien land.

I awarded myself diplomatic immunity, vaulted the gate, and was across the strip of pasture in half a minute.

DSC_0946It was like being in a great colonnaded hall. There were maybe 150 trees. Their trunks were slender and supremely tall, none quite true, each wavering slightly like a rocket contrail on its skyward trajectory. High above, the light came as through a vast stained-glass dome, with a susurration and the muffled clatter of wood pigeons on the move.

From the inside, the genius of the spinney’s form was plain to see. The trees had been planted – sometime in the nineteenth century, judging by the height of them – with perfect spacing, ten or twelve feet apart, but without any grid arrangement or straight lines. It gave the thing the perfection that marked it out so clearly from the road – a single compact unit that nonetheless allowed the sky to show through from the furthest side.

The pit marked on the map lay at the eastern edge, open towards the A30 at its lower end. Approaching it from uphill, I thought for a thrilling moment that it was some kind of portal, that it led to a tunnel. But it terminated in a blind slope.

Something about the place made me uneasy. I’d expected a sense of sanctuary, protection. Seen from the road, these were the friendliest of trees, offering encouragement for the home stretch to all passers: almost-nearly. But this inner space felt deeply private, exclusive, and I had no share of it. It was the feeling you get when you come unexpectedly upon a site of uncomprehended ritual: burnt-out incense sticks; broken bowls; ragged votive fragments – the kind of place you walk away from with a sickly sense that you may, in your unintended trespass, have picked up an occult contagion.

I stilled such lurid thoughts and sat down at the base of one of the trees to make some notes, but the lingering unease made it hard to concentrate. The main road was in view below, carrying a thick floodtide of caravans. But the hissing canopy overhead managed to block all but the lowest hum, like the sound of beehives on a hot day.

I wrote a date and a first scribbled line, then stopped. There was some other mechanical noise, not from the A30, but from higher up, closer at hand: the harsh clatter of agricultural machinery. A sudden surge of alarm. I was back onto my feet and clutching at the trunk of the tree, trying to shrink behind its slender column. It wasn’t so much the “no entry” sign that had fired the panic as that faint intimation of the uncanny within the spinney.

The engine noise seemed to be very close, and getting closer. It sounded, in fact, as if it was at the very edge of the trees. I ducked and dipped behind the sheltering trunk, glancing wildly left and right. But the field was empty. Behind me, I could see my car through the lower gateway, five hundred yards downhill, away from the noise of the approaching, but still invisible, engine. Should I hunker down, try to hide? But the spinney was open through and through. It was a wood that offered no cover at all for a fugitive. Was that what made it an unsettling place?

The engine was drawing closer still. Why couldn’t I see its source? Then finally a flicker of movement on the other side of the uphill hedge: the figure of a man riding some machine. I didn’t know if he had seen me, but he might as well have had a bayonet and a grey helmet. These were not my woods, and whose woods they were I did not know; I was a trespasser here in every sense. With a queasy jolt I understood that theirs had never been a friendly signal to the wayfarers below. I’d smiled doltishly at them countless times in passing without once recognising their filigreed form for what it so obviously was: a cage. I had wandered into a trap…

What happened next is not entirely clear, but I know that suddenly I was fleeing, a mad helter-skelter dash down the slope, pitching forward, away from the trees, in terrified expectation of something from behind – a shout, a shot, a grasping tentacle. Then I was over the lower gate and into the car, fumbling at the ignition with the metallic taste of my heartbeat high in my throat.

In many years of wandering with blithe disregard for rights of way, confident in my ability to signal that I am, in fact, from this side of the border, that I’m alright to walk across these fields even if they’re not, I have never experienced such a moment of unhinged panic. I could make no sense of it.

I drove on up the lane the way I had earlier walked – the quickest route back to the A30, it seemed from the map. My hands were unsteady on the wheel. I passed the higher gateway with the “no entry” sign, and then a second gateway into the next field. There was no sign of any man or any machine.

***

It was only hours later, eighty miles to the west, lying in bed, that it struck me. Chances are that there was someone who knew the spinney driving westward along the A30 at a particular moment on that heavy August afternoon. And as they raised their head to the left, feeling the small surge that comes with the first signal of home, they would have seen something strange, inexplicable, even uncanny: a small figure, pelting away from the trees, propelled by the unmistakable velocity of terror. Surely the unexplained image, torn past at 80 miles an hour, would have left them faintly unnerved. Perhaps they carried that faint unease on westwards, across the Tamar, across Bodmin Moor, past all the other signals, all the way home. It may be, then, that there are now two people who will never look at those trees in quite the same way, ever again.

© Tim Hannigan 2018

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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

A (non-crispy) Rendang Recipe

In light of the current BBC Masterchef “crispy rendang” controversy, here is my own “hot take” (hot as in pedas, that is): my personal rendang recipe (beef, rather than chicken), based on much eating of Padang cuisine over the years:

Amongst the pyramid stacks of loaded plates in the window of every Nasi Padang restaurant in Indonesia – be it a grimy concrete room in a fishing port in Nusa Tenggara or an air-conditioned dining hall in downtown Jakarta – there is always one bigger bowl. Its contents are as ominously dark as a monsoon thunderhead, looking more like something mined from the depths of an old volcano than cooked in a kitchen. The flavour too seems to come from somewhere earthy and ancient: hints of garlic and ginger rendered far beyond their last traces of astringency; the citrus tang of lemongrass and lime leaves, somehow matured and deepened; and a ghost of coconut and chilli. The name of this dish is rendang, the essential base note of all Padang cuisine.

A dish described as rendang sometimes turns up on the menus of pan-Asian restaurants in Western countries. It is often quite delicious, but it most certainly is not rendang; it’s usually more like a Thai red curry. For the point about real rendang is that it is dry. There was a sauce, it’s true; but its alchemical vanishing is the crux of the cooking process.

***

In the Minangkabau villages of western Sumatra in times past there was no electricity, still less refrigeration. When a cow or a buffalo was slaughtered and distributed amongst the families there was a great need to do something with it that would fend off decay – and that something was rendang. A slow, deep, spice-laden cooking process to simmer away the liquids and draw out the natural oils creates meat that will keep for several weeks. But more importantly, it also creates one of the most complexly flavoured of all Indonesian dishes.

There is magic in the long procedure of cooking rendang, and the first time you try it you may well feel a pang of regret as you watch what looks like a very decent curry sauce slowly vanishing before your eyes. But rest assured, you are creating something far more substantial.

***

Ingredients (serves four)

  • 1kg of beef, diced as if for a stew – I cannot stress enough how important it is that the beef should be from a cheap cut with a fairly high fat content. Shin/shank is absolutely ideal. Using a more expensive cut is not only a waste of money; the rendang actually won’t taste as good.
  • 2 cans of coconut cream, or dried coconut cream powder, made up with water to 800ml
  • 4 kaffir lime leaves – Try to find fresh lime leaves if possible; Asian supermarkets often have fresh-frozen ones that work really well. Otherwise the dry ones you find in mainstream supermarkets are just about better than nothing. If all else fails, replace the lime leaves with the zest of a normal lime.
  • 1 tablespoon of dark brown sugar
  • Juice of half a lime, or half a tablespoon of tamarind paste
  • 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil

 

For the spice paste

  • A 3cm piece of fresh ginger, peeled
  • A 3cm piece of galangal – If you can’t get galangal, the recipe still works well without it; simply double the quantity of ginger instead.
  • 2 sticks of lemon grass with the green outer leaves stripped off, roughly chopped
  • 5 large cloves of garlic
  • 10 small shallots, peeled and roughly chopped
  • 2 teaspoons of ground coriander seed
  • 2 teaspoons of ground turmeric
  • 1 teaspoon of salt
  • Chilli to your taste – Two medium-size red chillies work well, but you could add more if you like some fire, or less if you don’t.
  1. Take all the ingredients for the spice paste. You have two choices here. The quickest, easiest option is simply to throw them all into a blender and blitz them to a smooth paste in a matter of seconds. However, an Indonesian cook would pound them by hand, and I do recommend using a pestle and mortar if you have one. Not only does this let each flavour element keep its integrity in the finished dish; you also get to enjoy the tantalising scents of ginger, garlic and lemongrass as they slowly succumb to your efforts. If you do use a pestle and mortar you’ll have to work at it for a good while to get the paste smooth – adding a splash of oil at the start helps.
  2. Add the oil to a thick-bottomed pan – and it really does need to be thick-bottomed – and place it over a high heat. When the oil is hot but not quite smoking add the spice mix and fry it for around two minutes until it begins to darken. You’ll need to keep stirring it vigorously at this stage.
  3. Add the beef pieces and continue to fry on a high heat for around three minutes, until everything has picked up a good deal of colour.

Add the sugar, lime juice/tamarind, lime leaves, and coconut cream. If you’ve managed to get hold of fresh (or fresh-frozen) lime leaves there’s a magical moment as their scent comes rocketing out of the pan in an instant evocation of far-off street markets. As soon as the liquid comes up to the boil turn the heat down to the lowest possible level, and leave to simmer until almost all the liquid has evaporated, stirring occasionally. This should take around two hours. If the liquid is vanishing too quickly, top it up with a little warm water.

Seasoning rendang is a little tricky. If you taste the liquid at an early stage, it will certainly be under-seasoned. However, if you immediately add more salt the finished dish will likely end up over-seasoned. It’s important to add some salt to the spice mix, but you’ll need to wait to the very end to get the seasoning just right.

  1. After a couple of hours the liquid will have reduced to a thick gloop, coating the beef pieces, and beginning to catch on the bottom of the pan. If you look closely you’ll see that it has taken on a gloss, with little beads of oil forming on the surface. The natural oil from the beef, the garlic and shallots, and the spices has now been drawn out. At this point it’s time for the final, fast-paced part of the process. Turn up the heat and you’ll instantly hear a sizzle as the rendang begins to fry in its own oil. You’ll need to keep stirring vigorously for the next two or three minutes, and the entire colour and consistency of the dish will change dramatically before your eyes, the last liquid vanishing and the meat darkening to a rich, chocolaty tone. Make sure that the meat has taken on a good deal of colour from the frying, add a little more salt to taste, and the rendang is finished. Tempting as it is to tuck straight in, it will taste much better if you save it for the next day – or the day after that.

***

Cook’s Notes

English-language recipes for rendang often reduce the cooking time, but the two hours suggested here really is the minimum required to sufficiently deepen the flavours and draw out the oils; some Indonesian cooks take half a day over it. English-language recipes also often include spices such as cardamom and cinnamon, but I’ve never seen these used for making rendang in Indonesia, and I suspect that the authors simply add them for extra culinary exoticism. They create peculiar fruity notes that have no business in rendang.

Some Indonesian cooks omit the initial fry of the spices and the meat. Instead they simply throw the raw spice paste into the coconut cream and simmer it until droplets of oil start to rise to the surface, before tossing in the uncooked meat. This works well enough, but you’ll find an astringency from the raw garlic, still lingering at the end. Indonesian cooks also usually use a huge number of shallots – quantities never replicated in English-language rendang recipes, for some reason. To cook the quantity of rendang described here, some Indonesians would use as many as 20 shallots! They actually make very little difference to the flavour, but they do bulk out the paste, leaving more of a coating in the finished dish.

Several hard-to-find ingredients are often used to make rendang in Indonesia. The galangal and tamarind can be replaced by extra ginger and lime juice, as mentioned in the list above, and if you can’t find kaffir lime leaves the zest of a regular lime will just about work as a stand-in. Other ingredients that sometimes turn up in Indonesian versions include kandis, a sour fruit of the garcinia family, but this is simply an alternative to tamarind or lime juice. Candlenuts also sometimes feature. You can replace these with cashews, but they add little to the flavour of the rendang, and their thickening properties are of no value in this cooking process.

As a Padang dish, rendang isn’t really meant to be served alone. As well as rice, Padang-style yellow curry sauce makes a good accompaniment. Indonesians usually eat rendang cold, but reheating it will bring all sorts of subtle flavour notes to the fore. Finally, for a flagrantly inauthentic but fragrantly fabulous way of serving rendang, reheat it as a sort of instant curry in a little extra coconut cream with a pinch of freshly chopped lime leaves.

© Tim Hannigan 2018

A Geek in Indonesia

gii-coverFinally, after certain delays – which were nothing to do with me, I swear! – A Geek in Indonesia is out everywhere.

This is, to be clear, nothing like my previous books. It’s part of a series which began with A Geek in Japan in 2011, and which now also covers Thailand, Korea and China. When Tuttle Publishing first told me that they were looking for someone to add an Indonesia edition to the series, and asked if I’d be interested, I have to admit to a certain scepticism. “I’m a serious narrative history writer,” I muttered. And then, “Geek? Who are you calling geek???”

In truth, though, I don’t really get to spend all my days digging around in archives and academic libraries, then forging non-fiction narratives from the raw historical ore. I actually spend a lot of my time working on travel guidebooks. It’s not quite so rarefied a role, but I actually take a good deal of pleasure in penning a pithy summation of a destination, arranging the customary travel journalism clichés in as artful a pattern as possible, and cramming a portrait of a particular temple or museum into a fifty-word entry.

UntitledIn an effort to convince me, Tuttle sent me copies of the Japan and Korea Geek books to peruse. I quickly realised that in fact, writing my own version would be something like doing all the fun stuff for a guidebook – the chapters on history, food and culture from an Insight Guide, say – but without at the end of the gig having to knuckle down to the brain-melting misery of adding the hotel and restaurant listings. Better still, the Geek concept encouraged first-person address, idiosyncratic personal opinion and anecdote – and there was no requirement to comply with some grating corporate house style. What was more, I’d be more or less free to cover whatever I liked. If Hector Garcia could devote many pages of the Japan book to manga and anime, well, then surely I’d be allowed to talk about Indonesian punk rock… and dangdut… and sinetron

Untitled2All those pressing questions I hadn’t been able to address in A Brief History of Indonesia, or Raffles and the British Invasion of Java – like “Is bule a racist word?” or why do bules keep saying, “You speak Bahasa, man? I heard it’s the easiest language in the world, right?” I could finally discuss them here. Also – and this is my semi-serious justification for the project – it was a great way to provide an entertaining corrective to traditional guidebooks which like to infer that the “real Indonesia” is exclusively a thing of picturesque villagers in traditional dress and, like, wayang kulit, or something. As far as I’m concerned, Marjinal and The Cloves and the Tobacco are as much “the real Indonesia” as any of that stuff.

Untitled3I also got to rope in some folks I like, who are much better qualified than I to comment on particular topics, to do interviews for the book. So there’s the mighty Devi Asmarani of Magdalene talking about women’s issues and feminism, Diana Rikasari on the Indonesian blogosphere, the awesome Mumun and Vira of Indohoy on Indonesia’s backpacking scene, Antony Sutton on the crazy world of Indonesian soccer, and a quick word on mountain climbing from Dan Quinn of Gunung Bagging. There’s one sad footnote here too – I also had a chat about Indonesian jazz music with Terry Collins, whose unexpected death was very recently announced. I’m really very sad that he didn’t have chance to see his bit of the book.

So, all told, A Geek in Indonesia turned out to be a whole lot of fun to write. Don’t read it expecting another historical narrative (though it does include An Even Briefer History of Indonesia). And don’t come expecting a comprehensive practical travel guide (seriously, look up your own hotels). But if you want an idiosyncratic introduction to the country, that’s not really like any other book, then maybe take a look. It’s got some pretty pictures too…

In all good bookshops, naturally, and in the sinister online places as usual…

© Tim Hannigan 2018

Book review: Travels in a Dervish Cloak

51sBHRX7wbL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_It’s a rare treat to come across a newly published travel book of the traditional sort – the kind that used to be a fixture of the bookshop “travel” section until ten or fifteen years ago. I recently received a review copy of one such – Isambard Wilkinson’s Travels in a Dervish Cloak, about Pakistan – a country I have a particular fondness for, although I’ve long neglected it in favour of Indonesia.

I reviewed the book – which was officially published earlier this week – for the Asian Review of books:

Pakistan was once prime territory for Western travel writers. It offered an attractive combination of subcontinental color and Central Asian romance, plus a lively history and a hospitable population speaking excellent English. Geoffrey Moorhouse, Dervla Murphy and Wilfred Thesiger passed this way, among many others. In The Great Railway Bazaar, Paul Theroux even pondered the attractions of Peshawar as a place of retirement.

But since the launch of the “war on terror” in neighboring Afghanistan with subsequent instability in Pakistan itself, the bulk of the books about the country by foreigners have been made of sterner stuff: bleak journalistic or scholarly commentaries from the likes of Anatol Lieven and Owen Bennet-Jones.

This is what makes Isambard Wilkinson’s Travels in a Dervish Cloak such a welcome delight….

Read the full review on the ARB website here.

© Tim Hannigan 2017

Snow over Surabaya

Snow-over-Surabaya-webPicture this:

Exterior shot: a hot August afternoon in Bali with the trade wind running through the palms.

Interior shot: the dining room of the glorious Biku Restaurant, all antique woodwork and art. At the back of the room a delectable kroncong ensemble is playing “Surabaya” (Kota kenangan, kota kenangan, takkan kulupa!) while the grandes dames of Seminyak sip their tea and nibble their finger sandwiches.

At a table on the right, the patroness herself, the mighty Jero Asri Kerthyasa, is playing host to a pair of writers. Both, as it happens, have written books about a certain Thomas Stamford Raffles, though they have rather different views of the man – Raffled and unRaffled, perhaps. Despite this, they’re getting on like a house on fire.

“Nigel,” says the unRaffled writer; “you should write a novel about Muriel!”

And – blow me! – that’s exactly what he goes and does…

***

A couple of years later, and Nigel Barley’s Snow over Surabaya is now in print – a deliciously funny fictionalisation of the life of the dumpy, bespectacled Scotswoman Muriel Stewart Walker, who somehow ended up joining the Indonesian revolution. (She called herself K’tut Tantri, and became infamous as “Surabaya Sue”, but she was Muriel to her mother, and she’s Muriel to me too.)

Nigel has very generously credited me in the introduction for providing the original suggestion – though I still can’t quite believe that he hadn’t already thought of writing about Muriel for himself. After all, he has fine form when it comes to fictionalising outrageous Bali-based expats, thanks to Island of Demons, his take on Walter Spies.

What I didn’t tell Nigel that afternoon in Biku is that I’d once considered writing a book about Muriel myself. Her story seemed irresistible: lowly Glaswegian birth at the tale-end of the nineteenth century leads – via Hollywood, somehow – to a career as Bali’s original tourist hustler and sometime hotelier, and then, even more bizarrely, to a job as a feisty radio propagandist and general Republican hanger-on during Indonesia’s bloody post-WWII independence struggle. Surely she’d make the perfect hook of a pithy pop history book about that wild period of Indonesian history, I thought…

But I didn’t get far before I realised that Muriel was utterly biographer-proof – as the scholar Timothy Lindsey had already discovered. The problem, quite simply, was that the woman was the most incorrigible mythomaniac, a liar-liar-pants-on-fire bullshitter of the first rank. There was not a single meaningful detail of her life story that she hadn’t redrafted to such an extent that by the end of her days (in Australia in the 1990s) she was surrounded by an impenetrable fug of fabulation. She was also, by all accounts, a pretty difficult person to spend time with. Walter Spies, no less, declared her to be “Awfulll!!!”, while Asri Kerthyasa herself, fully half-a-century later, found her “horribllle!!!”

***

K'tut_Tantri_bersama_Bung_Karno

Karno and K’tut

Muriel’s mythomaniac tendencies certainly make her untouchable for a nonfiction writer, and if I’d suggested writing a book about her to a fellow narrative history author, it would have been a devious act of sabotage. But Nigel Barely is one of those lucky blighters who can do fiction and nonfiction with equal panache (he’s the author of many, many books, including the brilliant The Innocent Anthropologist, and Not a Hazardous Sport, republished as Toraja, as well as being a bone fide scholar). He’s also very, very funny, and the one thing you can say with confidence about Muriel as a character, is that she’s hilarious. I couldn’t think of anyone better to take her on, and Snow over Surabaya is everything I might have hoped for.

The book has Nigel’s customary blend of airy prose and wicked humour, plus the sort of solid historical background familiar to readers of his other Southeast Asia-set novels. There is, as yet, no single narrative history account of the Indonesian revolution, but Snow over Surabaya actually fulfils that function remarkably well, despite being a work of fiction with a notorious liar for a narrator. All the noteworthy players – from Sukarno to Turk Westerling – get walk-on parts, and you’ll come away with a decent sense of how the revolution played out.

***

But, of course, the real reason for reading is Muriel herself. As a non-novelist, throwing a blithe suggestion Nigel Barley’s way, I never stopped to consider the fact that an unreliable narrator might be as tricky a thing for a fiction writer to handle as a biographer, but he deals with it deftly. For the most part we simply get a ripping romp through Muriel’s adventures, complete with saucy tales of early Hollywood, run-ins with sleazy Dutch imperialists, nail-biting gold-smuggling runs through the Javanese hinterland and more besides. There are hints, here and there, that all may not be quite as it seems. But mainly it’s just a good ol’ adventure – until, that is, Muriel winds up detained by British police in Singapore. At this point Snow over Surabaya gets all meta, as the cool kids say, and turns into a comic tropical version of The Usual Suspects (is Muriel Walker actually Keyser Söze?) It’s a nifty reminder that you can’t believe everything you read…

My only disappointment was that the book ends just as Muriel ascends into her bloated post-Revolution period – a period during which she took the physical form of a pink blancmange with winged spectacles, attained new heights of Awfulll!!!ness, and made a career out of permanently inhabiting international hotels at other people’s expense. Still, that at least leaves open the possibility for a sequel in which Muriel gives an unreliable account of her attempts to flog her unreliable account to Hollywood – now that really would be meta!

***

Muriel Manxy-K’tut-Tantri-Surabaya-Sue Walker always wanted to be the hero of her own story, and as I came to the end of Snow over Surabaya I found myself supposing that, actually, she’d probably be delighted by the way that Nigel Barley has told her tale. Because whether you decide to trust her as narrator or not, the hero is what she ultimately is. But then I recalled something rather important…

During the many ill-fated attempts to turn her tale into a movie, Muriel drove would-be producers and script-writers to distraction with her blunt insistence that there should be absolutely no hanky-panky, no torrid trysts with Balinese princes or steamy clinches with rugged revolutionaries. It was precisely this “bizarre and stilted sense of sexual propriety”, as Nigel calls it, that stymied all attempts to bring her legend to the silver screen.

IMG_0290

I’ll show you mine, if you show me yours…

But in the Snow over Surabaya version of events, Nigel Barley’s naughty streak has come to the fore. Outrage of outrages! – he’s given Muriel that thing that she surely must have had in reality, for all her public prudery: a sexuality!  Pudding basin haircut, distinct physical resemblance to a Javanese clown, and voracious appetite for cream cakes are all in place. But Barley’s Muriel also lusts after handsome tram boys and has her wicked way with Ambonese truck drivers. It’s a devilish touch, and one that would surely set the real Muriel spinning in her grave, which is exactly as it should be!

Snow over Surabaya
Nigel Barley
Monsoon Books 2017

© Tim Hannigan 2017