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Debauchery in the Court of a Psychopath

The National newspaper has used that snappy headline over an excerpt from Sikunder Burnes they publish today. It is from the Chapter “Peshawar Perverted” and here is a brief extract of the extract.

These unpublishable moral delinquencies included paedophilia. Several British officers noted the children around Avitabile. Lieutenant William Barr was entertained to a nautch in 1839: “Amongst the number were a few children, varying from seven to ten years of age, who … are gradually being initiated into the mysteries of a craft most derogatory in its nature, as carried on in the East … Behind the governor stood two of his servants, a pair of diminutive Afghan boys … one of whom … would have made a remarkably pretty girl; he, however, looked quite out of place in attendance upon a masculine individual like Avitabile, and would have been better suited for the occupation of a lady’s page.”

SURGEON-GENERAL Atkinson noted of Avitabile the same year: “He lives in good style, and is distinguished for his hospitality, which has been amply experienced and acknowledged by the British officers… On every occasion, his table has been crowded with guests, and, according to oriental custom, the sumptuous entertainments always concluded with a grand nautch, his figurante-company of Cashmeer women consisting of about thirty, singers and dancers from the age of twelve to twenty-five.”

By 1840, Avitabile was entertaining so many British officers that he obtained a monthly allowance of Rs1000 towards the expense. Here we have one of those rare glimpses behind the curtain that reveals the truth about the “nautches” which were such a frequent feature of the lives of British officials: “At the same time the Government of India, who had heard of the disgraceful orgies which attended some of the entertainments, directed that none but the most senior officers were to be entertained by him, and gave the political officer an allowance of 500Rs a month, on behalf of the younger ones.”

So the senior officers got the disgraceful orgies, and the junior officers got dinner with Mackeson.

The National reproduce a large version of the most common sketch of “Alexander Burnes” to illustrate the book extract, despite the fact the book goes to some lengths to show it is not actually a sketch of Alexander Burnes. But you can’t expect picture editors to read books, I suppose. The print edition of the National also contains a sub-heading below this picture in what looks like Latin but isn’t. I have no idea why.

For a broader perspective on the book, there is an excellent account here of some of the themes I highlighted at a talk on Saturday.

As far as I can gather Sikunder Burnes has currently sold out absolutely everywhere except for a few copies left at Amazon, which bought up most of the stock. There were 19 other suppliers available through Amazon alone, but every single one has sold out. It is being urgently reprinted – for the second time – and the publisher assures me will be back in the shops before Christmas. Reminds me of Cabbage Patch Dolls!

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Doubting Thomases

I have been quite amused to receive some – well actually rather a lot of – rather aggressive tweets and other social media messages from people who believe Julian Assange is dead, and are therefore outraged I had supper with him on Friday. This seems to me the ultimate in concern trolling – to pretend to adore someone so much that you are angry and upset to find the object of your adoration has not been killed or kidnapped. There are youtube videos alleging that Julian is dead which together have attracted millions of viewers. It is a peculiar kind of cargo-cult.

We now have the situation where people who had never heard of Julian a year ago are demanding that he must be visited not by long-term associates, like John Pilger and myself, but by a “trusted person”, by which these new devotees mean someone Julian has never seen before, probably working for Rupert Murdoch. Best of all are the demands for photos with a sock on the head or a newspaper. To pander to these silly demands would be a never-ending task, and merely spark a new round of craziness – “that sock on his head is photo-shopped”, “that was a double at the window”. It is not a game in which I have any interest. Undoubtedly some of it is stirred up by security services anxious to muddy the water about the authenticity of Wikileaks’ work. But most of it is from decent and genuine but misguided people.

I have been visiting Julian since before Jane from Idaho heard of him, and the purpose of visiting him is not to provide comfort to Jane from Idaho. If my word does that, fine. If she does not want to take my word, also fine. But if people could at least research who John Pilger, Yanis Varoufakis and myself are before deciding we are a CIA plot, that would be helpful. Stopping the aggressive and insulting tweets would be nice too.

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New Book: Sikunder Burnes: Master of the Great Game – by Craig Murray

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Relativism and Castro

Anybody who, like myself, has devoted much of their life to African development, is bound to have acquired a bias towards Fidel Castro. Cuba played a crucial role in sustaining the liberation struggles throughout Southern Africa. If Castro had done nothing else, he would deserve warm remembrance for that. But much less well-known in Europe is Cuba’s extraordinary contribution to healthcare throughout Africa. Ghanaian, Togolese and Beninois villages and hospitals had excellent Cuban doctors, and I know part-Cuban families in each of those countries as a result. I am sure it was widespread across much of Africa, I just highlight that for which I can personally vouch. That a tiny island, itself a victim of colonialism and slavery, should be able to make a contribution to African healthcare that can without a stretch be mentioned in the same sentence as the aid efforts of the major western powers, is an incredible achievement.

It was of course the export of Cuba’s tremendous domestic achievement in healthcare and education, and some of the attempts these last 24 hours to belittle that have been pathetic.

But human rights are an absolute, and here there is no doubt that Castro’s record was not good. That he came to power in bloody revolution was not something for which I believe
Castro deserves blame. Nobody denies the dictator he opposed was vicious, and the organised crime and government nexus in Cuba pre-Castro was abhorrent. That people would die during a violent revolution was inevitable, that the immediate aftermath would be bloody, also inevitable. That a wealthy displaced class backed by the United States would attempt violent reversal, assassination, sanctions and every possible kind of political, economic and personal device to reverse the revolution was an act of political will. But against that background, could Castro have done more to inculcate basic human rights in Cuba? Yes, I believe he could and should have done.

I am open to the idea that revolutionary change requires revolutionary justice for a short period. The example of Egypt, back under an appalling military dictatorship, shows what happens when a decent leader like Morsi is too kind or timid to solidify revolutionary change by a wholesale clean-out of the corrupt justice system. But once things settle down, you have to restore order and proper process and genuine access to justice for ordinary people, even or especially against the ruling party. You have to leave space for people to express opposition and even organise politically against you. You cannot consider yourself as Nietzschean superman and decide that you know best for the people whatever they may think themselves or – and this is most pernicious – that commanding a majority entitles you to trample any minority. That the USA and its allies, by unremitting and extreme pressure and physical threat, played a counter-productive role in getting Castro to reform and respect human rights, is certain. But that still does not justify Castro’s domestic repression. He was wrong there, and another path was open – as demonstrated for example by Jerry Rawlings in Ghana, who seized power militarily and ruled as a revolutionary before he transitioned himself and his country successfully from dictatorship to democracy, without abandoning left-wing values.

So Castro is not faultless by any means. But on any objective measurement of his actions and behaviour against the accepted standards of western democracy, both Castro’s philosophy and his practice were much closer to Western standards than those of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who nobody could ever accuse of respect for democracy and human rights, and on whose death the British government flew its flags at half mast. The kind of armed struggle which King Abdullah covertly promoted was wahabbist jihadism, not African liberation. Yet he was officially honoured.

The highest figure I have seen attributed to Castro for deaths of political opponents is about 9,000, and it appears that includes people killed during the initial revolutionary fighting and in the Bay of Pigs invasion. I am entitled to criticise Castro for arrests, detentions, torture and political murders. Those who supported and assisted other dictatorships in Latin America which killed, tortured and harassed many more people than Castro, are not entitled to criticise Castro. That embraces most of the critics who are currently filling the news bulletins. The Imperialism and neo-Imperialism against which Castro stood, with undoubted personal courage, has been much more deadly than Castro, and infinitely more aggressive.

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New Book: Sikunder Burnes: Master of the Great Game – by Craig Murray

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Setting the World to Rights

Just got back after a long chat with Julian Assange. We were joined for a light supper by the ever interesting and ebullient Yanis Varoufakis. Another of those brilliant evenings that will live in the mind.

Julian is very aware of the persistent rumours about his position or health. He is fine apart from a cold, and buoyed by recent events.

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Sikunder Burnes Talk, Saturday 26 November 11am, Yunus Emre Cultural Centre, London

I am giving my first ever talk on the subject of Alexander Burnes on Saturday morning, as part of the Open Eurasian Literature Festival. You need a ticket, which you can purchase here for £11.21 and gives admission to the entire festival, which aims to connect people with an interest in the cultures of Central Asia. I am contributing at very short notice to support the endeavour, so I expect my audience will be pretty intimate, but I am not unhappy about that for my first stab at a lecture on this particular topic. If you are coming, I suggest you consider getting a copy from Amazon first to bring for me to sign, as pretty well everywhere else is out of stock (the book is reprinting again on Friday). The Yunus Emre cultural centre is at 10 Maple Street, London W1T 5HA.

The full festival runs from tomorrow for a full week, and whether you are reaching out to new cultures or reconnecting with familiar ones, it is well worth the effort.

I recently came across a remarkable testament to Alexander Burnes’ stature as an intellectual and a scientist, a facet of his character which has surprised many who have read the book. This article relates to a possible breakthrough in spinal cord injury research at Griffiths University in Australia.

Research supervisor at the university, Dr. Hames St. John, explains of this method’s impact on spinal cord injuries as, “Allowing cells to grow in this 3D format dramatically increases their growth and function and is particularly useful for spinal transplantation repair in which cells are transplanted into the injury site.”
Any proposed solution to spinal cord injuries is groundbreaking for the community because there is currently no single cure to remove paralysis after the spinal cord has undergone complete damage. And the number of people who stand to benefit grows everyday, with 12,500 new people experiencing injuries each year in the U.S. alone.
This promising approach to spinal cord repair stems from research on the transplantation of a specialized cell from the olfactory system. These are the cells that form your sense of smell.
“Successful partial regeneration of a completely severed spinal cord in a human was achieved recently in an overseas study, thus demonstrating this therapy can work,” says Mr Vadivelu.”What is now needed is to make the transplantation therapy more effective and suitable for patients with a range of different spinal cord injuries.”
This method of 3D cell growth means transplanted cells have a better chance of survival at the site of spinal cord injury, ultimately meaning better integration and overall more effective and rapid spinal cord regeneration.
The “floating marbles” mentioned above, are actually just liquid marbles and, according to Dr. St. John, are a remarkably simple way to culture cells in 3D. These marbles were observed nearly 200 years ago, by a British explorer named Alexander Burnes. As he travelled through Pakistan in 1830, he noted that while watching the Indus River merging with the sea, “round globules filled with water” could be seen floating on seawater, and formed when “the freshwater detached sand from the sand banks.”
Dr. St. John explained of his method:
“A droplet of liquid that contains the cells is placed upon a carpet of teflon powder to create a liquid marble which can then be floated on cell culture medium. By having an air interface between the liquid marble and the cell culture medium upon which it floats, the liquid marble easily rotates. This allows the cells within the liquid marbles to freely associate to form natural structures without the confines imposed upon them by other 3D culturing methods.”
What’s next?
Of course, this is still relatively new research, and it will be some time before it is being carried out on patients. It does, however, demonstrate promising advances in the field of spinal cord injury research.
Many researchers and techniques have been publicized in recent years, and with growing recognition and funding, even more time and money can be spent on similar techniques and ideas which may, in the near future, be a treatment you or a loved one experience on the road to spinal cord injury recovery.

The extraordinary thing is that Burnes made and wrote up this scientific discovery at a time when he was in great physical danger and seeing the apparent destruction of his career hopes, as his flotilla was being physically blocked from proceeding up the Indus by the Amirs of Sind. It is entirely characteristic of Burnes multi-faceted mind that he should behave in this way.

Doubtless I am doomed for the rest of my life to learn new things I shall wish I knew at the time I wrote the book!

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Where Are Sting and Bill Clinton When You Need Them?

Is Gulnara Karimova dead? The source of today’s reports is Galima Burkabaeva, who is a first class journalist. She personally spoke with the Uzbek security service (SNB) source who told her Gulnara was killed by poisoning on 5 November. Galima does not vouch for the story’s truth, but she believes the source had credibility, and she is well placed to make that call.

Gulnara was once the wealthiest female oligarch in Moscow society. She had amazing friends. Unfortunately she failed to notice that the kind of friends who do not care if you made your money out of child forced labour in the cotton fields, are the same kind of friends who will not care if you are chained to an iron bedstead in an ex-Soviet mental institution being pumped full of lobotomising chemicals with only a tin potty for company.

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You see, it is not only the “celebrities” who just want someone to quietly disappear once their supply of the readies to splash around dries up. Not one western government has inquired of the new President of Uzbekistan, Shavrat Mirziayev, what he has done with his predecessor’s daughter, not to mention her children, who have also vanished.

A lot of people in the West would be most happy if she is dead. Especially in Sweden, where the massive Telesonera scandal over payments to Gulnara for mobile phone contracts implicates an important swathe of Sweden’s tight-knit business and political elite. While the Swedish police are very anxious to interview Gulnara, Swedish politicians are very anxious she never stands up in a witness box. The same is true in France, and in Switzerland, in both of which the police want her. In the United States, where $550 million of her assets have been frozen, there are some major Texas families anxious she is permanently silent. Weirdly enough the UK is the only country where she had a house and major assets but is not wanted by police, because no matter how immoral and twisted your activity, it is probably not illegal in the City of London.

In short, the 1% in the West would very much rather Gulnara were dead than speaking out from witness boxes. That is something she has in common with Osama Bin Laden and with Muammar Gadaffi. Bin Laden could have given fascinating information about his long term relationship with the CIA and the involvement of major Saudi Royals in funding Al-Qaeda and 9/11. Gadaffi would have been very interesting on, among other subjects, his deals with Tony Blair and BP, extraordinary rendition and Lockerbie. Much better for the Western 1% that these people just die. That is why no Western Embassy will ever ask the Uzbek government where Gulnara is.

But there is more than that. It is true that Gulnara joins many thousands who have simply “disappeared” and probably been killed in the Uzbek dictatorship. It is true there are thousands of more deserving political prisoners. But Galima Burkabaeva, who is in exile for bravely opposing everything Gulnara and her family stood for, is genuinely concerned for Gulnara’s safety and that of her children – because Gulnara is a human being. That is true of other Uzbek human rights activists too, and the same networks are now being put into operation, feelers being put into the system, that swing into action when it is a human rights activist, journalist, poet or imam who has been “disappeared”.

There are no phone calls going in to the Presidential Palace in Tashkent from the Clinton Foundation, from Sting or from her former (ahem) close associate, tycoon Joan Laporta, who disgraced Barcelona football club by its links to the Uzbek dictatorship.

Because when it comes down to it, the only people who actually care about Gulnara as a person are the human rights activists she despised, and who her rich “friends” would never deign to notice.

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Signed First Editions of Sikunder Burnes are now available direct from this blog! You can leave a message naming the dedication you want. Sold at cover price of £25 including p&p for UK delivery or £29 for overseas delivery. Ideal Christmas presents!!

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Can a Cyprus Solution Provide a Blueprint for Palestine?

There is a depressing familiarity to the Cyprus peace talks which have just broken up in Geneva. The proposals, issues and arguments are extremely similar to those which featured in the rejected Annan plan in 2004, and before that in talks I helped broker between Denktash and Clerides in 1994.

I was head of the FCO’s Cyprus Section from 1992-4 when we made a concerted effort to achieve a resolution, based on the fact that both Greek and Turkish Cypriots had leaders of commanding authority, who had as young men been partners in a law firm together. As usual, I attempted to use very personal diplomacy to convince the parties of my own sincerity. This caused one of my more threatening FCO career hiccoughs when I had a private, long and enjoyable lunch with Rauf Denktash. Denktash afterwards gave an enthusiastic report of it to a close confidante, who happened also to be an MI6 agent. MI6 issued an intelligence report based on this agent’s account, including that I had stated that our Ambassador to Cyprus, David Dain, was much too close to the Greek Cypriots and his positions were not always the reflection of the view in London. There were also some unflattering comments on Dain’s personal vanity.

I had not actually made the remark straight out about Dain’s view not reflecting London, though Denktash had probably picked up my sub-text correctly. I am sorry to say the more personal remark was probably accurate. You see, Denktash hated Dain with a passion, and to have responded to that with a straight defence would not have helped persuade Denktash to trust me. Plus I was in fact truthful about London perception. What was not helpful was for MI6 to include these remarks in their report. They did so because MI6 did not actually want us to achieve a peace settlement on Cyprus. It is the old Imperial divide and rule. A united Cyprus would very soon start demanding the return of the British sovereign base areas. So there you are – I was undermining David Dain and MI6 were undermining me. Welcome to how the British government really works – and those of you who have read Sikunder Burnes already will precisely recognise the syndrome.

But on the substance, the outlines of the settlement were very similar to those currently being discussed. A federal system, with specific provisions for rotation of executive posts, and a land division giving the Turkish region approximately 29%. I was personally troubled by the idea of any ethnic provisions in the constitution – reserving or rotating specified posts according to ethnicity seemed to me wrong then, and still does now. But it was put to me strongly that these were the established understandings on which a settlement might be reached, so that was the basis of the Denktash/Clerides talks in 1994, and of the Annan plan a decade later. To me, its fundamental flaw was a failure to permit free movement for all Cypriots throughout the island. For North and South Cyprus to be separate states inside a national federation seems to me reasonable, and revolving executive positions between North and South Cypriots is also reasonable, but not if people are defined ethnically rather than by place of residence, and not if there are ethnic settlement restrictions internally. I believe these proposals still exist in the current negotiations.

However I was just a facilitator and I am not a Cypriot, so I tried, over 20 years ago, to help broker an agreement including ethnic provisions which I personally disliked. The biggest practical difficulty was agreeing the territorial division – while around 29% was not hard to settle, precisely which areas was. The major problem was the extremely strong political influence of the Morphou community among Greek Cypriots. The Turkish side was willing to give up the Karpass Peninsula. This made much sense – in Greek Cyprus, every centimetre of shore is covered in cement and every grain of sand with a sunbed. The Karpass has miles of the most beautiful and undeveloped beaches on the island. By comparison, Morphou has famous orange groves. These have much less commercial value but a hold on the psyche you probably have to be a Greek Cypriot to understand. To give up Karpass leaves Turkish Cyprus integral. To give up Morphou splits it in two. Plus there was then a surviving Greek Cypriot community in Rizokarpass. If I could have persuaded Clerides to give up Morphou for Karpass, I think we could have made great ground in 1994.

We failed because both Greek and Turkish Cypriots were less interested in actually reaching an agreement than in asserting their victimhood. The truth of the matter is that it is both pointless and difficult to ascribe blame to the two communities. You could choose any starting point in a thousand years. Many original Cypriots naturally changed religion and ethnicity according to their masters at the time. The island’s history of both civilisation and conflict is truly fascinating. In the modern conflict, the attempt by Greece to annex Cyprus as the first act of a military dictatorship was very wrong. The wave of ethnic cleansing and atrocity following the subsequent Turkish invasion was also very wrong. Turkey’s deliberate and aggressive importation of settlers to change the population balance was wrong. But we are where we are. Greek fury that the world does not accept their simplistic story of Turkish invasion and persecution lay behind the Greek rejection of the Annan scheme in the 2004 referendum. For the EU to admit Cyprus to membership before a settlement was reached was a massive mistake.

There should be much more protest at the fact that, in 2016, Britain still maintains ownership of large parts of the territory of Cyprus and bases substantial military forces in occupation there. This is straightforward Imperialist aggression. Britain uses Cyprus purely in order to interfere militarily in the Middle East, which a large majority of people now realise is not in the interest of the ordinary British population. By giving up its Cypriot territory, Britain could contribute very substantially to breaking the impasse in negotiations.

So here we are again, another decade on and another peace process. My experience of Cyprus was a massive help to me in understanding the Balkans, where the underlying issues are precisely the same. But I also see an interesting parallel with Palestine.

Rather than two state entities, the international community has always insisted that Cyprus must remain a single state, but one which will have a federal structure with provisions for sharing and rotating executive power between communities. While Turkish mass importation of settlers might have been illegal, talks have proceeded on the basis that people are where they are and reverse ethnic cleansing is not the solution.

For me, these principles should also apply to Palestine. There are not two viable states in Israel/Palestine, the land of the Palestinian authority having been split into a few tiny and isolated Bantustans. What is needed is a unitary state of Palestine incorporating all the land of Israel/Palestine, with Federal states within it, and power sharing and rotation arrangements. The principle that people are where they are should apply to the bulk of illegal settlers in Palestine as in Cyprus. Compensation arrangements should be very important; reverse ethnic cleansing on any large scale should be shunned. A deal on Cyprus has been stalled for fifty years, but at least people are talking. It is time for Israelis and Palestinians to start a conversation too, and for the international community to acknowledge that the “two state solution” was only ever a sham, a cover for the slow but very sure Palestinian genocide we are witnessing.

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Theresa May’s Terrible Instincts

In December 2002 I cooperated closely with the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Theo van Boven, who was paying an inspection visit to Uzbekistan. As I recorded in Murder in Samarkand “against the protocols, the Uzbek authorities refused to let him enter the SNB holding centre in Tashkent, the most notorious of all the torture sites.” I upbraided the Uzbek Foreign Minister for this.

That kind of contempt of the UN is perhaps expected of dictatorships. But consider this. The Immigration detention centre at Yarls Wood became notorious for the sexual exploitation of female detainees by staff, on a large scale. In April 2015 the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, Rashida Manjoo, visited the UK. The government denied her entry to Yarls Wood. In accordance with UN protocols, she went anyway, and was blocked from entering – on the direct orders of Home Secretary Theresa May

You very probably did not know that, because the great problem our society faces is an over-mighty executive government backed by corporate wealth which controls a corporate media. But it is typical of May’s instincts, and they are terrible. Her default position is retreat into secrecy and blatant abuse of power. That is precisely what we are seeing over Brexit, where there is no plan and much to hide. May’s natural instinct is to brook no opposition, debate or discussion of her actions, but to proceed on the basis of executive fiat, with as little information as possible given to parliament, devolved authorities and – Heaven forfend – the public.

Everything you do on the web is now stored for twelve months by the security services. They can hack into your laptop or phone to see what is on there without any conditions at all. Not only do they not need to convince a judge you are suspected of a crime, they do not need to even pretend to actually suspect you of anything at all. They can just decide to target you and go fishing. The UK has now zero right to online privacy and the most vicious security service powers of any democracy. Indeed when you combine powers with capability (and the security service are recruiting tens of thousands more staff to our stasi state) the UK is now the most authoritarian country in the world. The legislation. passed this week, was framed by Theresa May as Home Secretary and received no significant opposition from the UK’s complicit political class.

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This mass gathering of data is nothing to do with fighting terrorism – being lost in a massive ocean of irrelevant data is actually a major hindrance to fighting terrorism. It is about social control. I have nowhere heard this better explained than by John Kiriakou, former senior CIA agent who was jailed as part of the Obama administration’s vicious war on whistleblowers, after Kiriakou blew the whistle on CIA torture. Kiriakou’s speech on receiving the Sam Adams award in Washington is well worth hearing, and beings 1 hour and 3 minutes in here.

It was May who sent poster vans around London urging immigrants to go home, and whose anti-immigrant instincts were so strong she banned the tiny number of Afghan interpreters for UK armed forces from being given asylum in the UK. That May is intellectually out of her depth is plain even to Conservatives every Prime Minister’s question time in the Commons. Expect her to fall back more and more on those instincts for secrecy and authoritarianism – and the abuse of the massive powers of the state.

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Chagossians Have No Right of Self-Determination

“We do not agree the right of self-determination applies to the Chagossians”, says Foreign Office minister Alan Duncan, who later clarifies that they are not “a people”. If you can stand it, you can watch the urgent question in the Commons today which forced the government to defend the decision they had sneaked out via a written answer.

http://www.parliamentlive.tv/Event/Index/99da1ec6-4cd2-4f51-9d90-41463e0ed657

The debate starts at 10.34 – if you put the cursor to the bottom of the picture a slider appears. It is excruciating to watch. In an unusually full House of Commons (not a high bar) there is indignation and real anger on all sides, with even Tories describing the decision to continue the eviction of the Chagos islanders as “dishonourable”.

The government argues that the Chagossians are not “a people” distinct from the Mauritians, therefore they do not have a right of self-determination. This piece of sophistry is designed to answer the obvious question of why the Chagossians have less rights than the Falkland Islanders or Gibraltarians. The actual answer – that the Chagossians are not white – is not one the government wishes to give. It also begs the question, if the Chagossians are Mauritians, why are the islands not a part of Mauritius?

The government produced a paper on prospective resettlement, imposing arbitrary conditions on where and how the Chagossians could live designed to make life as difficult as possible. Those conditions included that there could be no civilian use of the airstrip – which I am glad to see Alex Salmond challenged in the Commons. Chagossians could work at the US airbase, but only on condition their partners and children would not be permitted to be with them. Fishing – their traditional activity – will be banned by the UK government’s marine reserve.

Given these conditions, Duncan kept reiterating, only 223 Chagossians actually wanted to return. And that was not a viable population (which will be news to many inhabited islands).

Support for the government was very thin. The most notable contribution was from the Rt Hon Sir Desmond Swayne MP, who oozing contempt for dusky foreigners intervened solely to state that it would be impossible to return the islanders because the government would be put to the expense of building a prison for them. (He really did say this, I am not making it up, you can see it on the link.)

It takes New Labour however to win the lying through your teeth prize, which the unctuous Chris Bryant duly did. He deplored the deportation of the islanders, ignoring the fact that he had served as a minister in the 13 year Blair/Brown governments which did nothing to right the wrong and indeed fought against the islanders as hard as the Tories. But Bryant wished it to be known that the Labour government’s introduction of the marine reserve had no connection at all to denying the islanders the right of return, as was frequently wrongly claimed. Having said that the lying little bastard sat down.

The most amusing moment was when Kate Hoey stated that she knew Alan Duncan personally and he was a decent chap whose heart was secretly not in this despicable decision. Duncan felt the need to deny this vehemently, knowing that being less than totally heartless, particularly in matters relating to Imperial treatment of foreigners, was career death in the May government. I must say, from Duncan’s demeanour I saw no sign he has ever been troubled by humanitarianism.

I was proud that no less than five SNP MPs intervened and many more bothered to turn up, while another Scottish MP. Alistair Carmichael made a very good and principled point on the absolute right of the islanders to live on their islands. It was the SNP who made the most obvious point of all, that it made no sense for the government to claim that a population which had sustained itself on the islands in the 1960’s quite happily could not do so again. Indeed modern technology will make it rather easier.

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The United Kingdom is a Malign Entity that Must Be Broken – Indefensible Chagos Decision

I argued for Scottish Independence on the grounds that we should break away from the UK – a state which was continually complicit in illegal war, support of dictatorships, purveying arms for war crimes and torture.

I have friends of all kinds of political persuasions, but I do not know a single person who is prepared to defend the British government’s decision today to continue the ethnic cleansing of the Chagos Islanders. Do you?

I have been campaigning on the subject on this blog for a dozen years, and the only hopeful sign has been an increase in public awareness from a very low base. There is no possible defence for deporting an entire island population to make way for a US military base on Diego Garcia. It ranks with the worse crimes of Empire, and let us not forget it happened in 1971, not in old history. Let us also not forget that both Labour and Tories supported this crime.

The decision is the more disgusting as it is taken under the “Royal Prerogative” after years of court battles. As I posted a couple of days ago, the government stated that returned islanders would not be allowed civilian use of the US military airport. They now state that without an airlink there could not be a viable population on the outlying islands.

Let me give you this quote from Sikunder Burnes p.376

Those who believe the British Empire was beneficent might consider this account by a junior officer:

“Their wells, by which they irrigated the land, were blown up with gunpowder and rendered useless. These people lived, in great measure, on dried mulberries, as the land would not produce enough corn for their consumption. There were beautiful mulberry trees around the forts. Every morning and evening two companies from each regiment were sent out to cut them down.

We found that by cutting rings through the bark into the heart of the trees, it was effectively destroyed as if it was cut down… and it was lighter work… we became quite adepts in the work of destruction, and a greater scene of devastation was perhaps never beheld.”

The deliberate starvation of the civilian population was an appalling crime. A rural economy dependent on tree crops could not survive the complete destruction of the trees, as there was nothing to live on until new trees grew. Some areas have never recovered from the deliberate devastation of the rural economy.

I have no doubt the majority of people in the UK would be horrified by the deportation of the Chagos Islanders. But the entire political and economic structure of the UK state is such that it is inevitably a satrap to United states Crimes, be it in Diego Garcia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya or elsewhere. The only remedy is for the United Kingdom and its worldwide imperial pretensions to be ended as a state. I express this view succinctly here:

I do hope that outrage at the Chagos decision will cause my friends in England to renew their determination to effect revolutionary change. Here in Scotland we must renew our determination to break up the UK at the earliest possible moment.

For the Chagos Islanders we send our love, and encouragement, and urge them not to give up hope. This must be the start of a new and more radical phase in the struggle. Perhaps it is time for a Chagos flotilla?

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Neo-Liberalism Under Cover of Racism

It is indeed peculiar that Trump can be elected President on 47.4% of the popular vote. But not nearly as peculiar as that the Conservatives can have untrammelled power in the UK on 36.9% of the popular vote. Both electoral systems need reform, but the UK’s is absolutely indefensible.

There is a tiny blogroll down the bottom right hand margin of this blog, and most of the blogs on it have fallen by the wayside over the 12 years we have been going. But one which goes from strength to strength is Informed Comment by Juan Cole, whom I view as a towering intellectual figure. I have read reams and reams of comment on the direction of politics with the election of Trump, but Juan’s take is the best I have seen and I do urge you to read it.

The fact that death rates are actually increasing among middle aged white males in the USA is truly startling. To my understanding that is not yet the case in the UK, but what is true here is that the life expectancy gap between the rich and poor is growing again after a century of falling.

I think it is pretty common ground that we are seeing a reaction against the political class by the dispossessed former industrial working and middle class. That is scarcely remarkable. Given the vast increase in wealth inequality, against which this blog has been railing since its inception, a reaction is inevitable.

There are two ways the establishment has sought to divert this anger.

The first, and highly successful method is to convince people that it is not the massive appropriation of resources by the ultra-wealthy which causes their poverty, it is rather competition for the scraps with outsiders. This approach employs pandering to racism and xenophobia, and is characteristic of UKIP and Trump.

The second approach employs the antithesis to the same end. It is to co-opt the forces marginalised by the first approach and rally them behind an “alternative” approach which is still neo-liberalism. This is identity politics which reached its apotheosis in the Clinton campaign. The Wikileaks releases of DNC and Podesta emails revealed the extreme cynicism of Clinton manipulation of ethnic group votes. Still more blatant was the promotion of the idea that Hillary being a corrupt neo-con warmonger was outweighed by the fact she was female. The notion that elevating extremely rich and privileged women already within the 1% to top positions, breaks a glass ceiling and benefits all women, is the precise feminist equivalent of trickledown theory.

That the xenophobic strand rather than the identity politics strand won will, I predict, prove to have no impact on continued neo-liberal policies.

The British Labour Party has played identity politics for generations just as blatantly, as I know from my experience campaigning in Blackburn. The resources of state institutions are directed to obtain geographically and politically cohesive ethnic block votes.

Both Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn faced intellectually risible accusations of misogyny from the neo-liberal faux-feminists when they presented an alternative economic policy. This is the most conclusive proof of the appropriation of identity politics to the neo-liberal cause.

Opinion polls both before and after the US election appear to demonstrate beyond doubt that Sanders would have trounced Trump. But to a certainty, the financial and international interests who bankrolled Clinton would much prefer Trump to Sanders.

A number of people have been questioning what Hillary’s banker backers will make of her defeat. The answer is they will not be too disappointed. She earned her money by seeing off Sanders.

It is fascinating to see that the attitude of the salaried establishment, both elected and administrative, of the Labour and Democratic parties to Sanders and Corbyn has been identical.

The Labour nomenklatura tried to defeat Corbyn’s election by disqualifying or barring from voting well over 100,000 voters. The Democrat nomenklatura succeeded in their equivalent task by devices including a rigged count in Nevada, collusion with Clinton in sequencing of primaries to harm Sanders, and passing of debate questions in advance.

While Corbyn has retained his leadership position, he is not in control of the party machinery which daily leaks and spins against him. His leadership has been fatally undermined from day one by humiliating, vicious and continual attacks given to the media by his own party. As time goes by, it is more and more plain he is not able to get rid of the MPs and functionaries whose sole purpose is to promote right wing ideology. There is currently a controversy as to whether Dave Nellist and other old socialists should be permitted to rejoin. I cannot understand why they would wish to be in a party with John Woodcock, Simon Danczuk, Jess Phillips and lest we forget, still Blair, Mandelson and Campbell.

In short, in neither the US nor the UK is a viable radical alternative going to be put before the electorate in the near future. Those who believe either Brexit or Trump presage a break from neo-liberalism will be sore disappointed. They represent the continuance of neo-liberalism, but with popular discontent diverted into added racism.

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Minimum Alcohol Pricing: The Middle Class Sneer at the Unworthy Under-Privileged (Again).

Alcohol Focus Scotland state “Minimum pricing will mainly affect the low cost, high strength drinks favoured by harmful drinkers and younger drinkers.” By which they mean poorer drinkers.

My Chateauneuf du Pape and Lagavulin will be unaffected. The middle classes of Scotland can quaff their claret and Burgundy to their hearts’ content. Not only will the price be unchanged, there is a social message here. Six stiff G and T’s at the golf club is fine. The price won’t go up. The poor guy with his four tins of super strength lager in front of his TV is the problem. His cost will go up.

I cannot find words to express for you my depth of contempt for a measure which – by design – only affects the price of drinks drunk overwhelmingly by the lower socio-economic classes and – horror of horrors – the young! I drank a great deal more at university than I do now, and I consider the pleasures of that time a great boon to my life.

For those who find the hardships of life hard to take, the solace of alcohol can be considerable. It can assist the shy. There is very little social activity that does not carry risk of some kind. We see a determined effort to price the poor, and the poor alone, out of drinking. Should we try to price them out of driving too as that is also a risky activity causing many deaths?

I would object less to the law if the price increase also extended to the drinks of the middle class. I would still be against it, but at least it would not be aimed at targeting just the poor for daring to believe that, no matter how poor you are, you are still entitled to fun. This is worse than nanny state law; it is a law informed by the contempt the bourgeoisie feel for their social “inferiors”. It is despicable.

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A Tale of Two Airports

The folly involved in the United Kingdom continuing to cling on to tiny relics of Empire is underlined by considering two airports. Firstly we have St Helena, where DFID have famously wasted £250 million of taxpayers’ money on an airport which cannot be used because of wind shear.

st-helena-airport

Private Eye is having some fun at DFID’s expense, on the back of Tory MP Stephen Phillips pointing out that Darwin had described the wind shear well over a century ago. Here is the full passage from Darwin:

“The only inconvenience I suffered during my walks was from the impetuous winds. One day I noticed a curious circumstance; standing on the edge of a plain, terminated by a great cliff of about a thousand feet in depth, I saw at the distance of a few yards right to windward, some tern, struggling against a very strong breeze, whilst, where I stood, the air was quite calm. Approaching close to the brink, where the current seemed to be deflected upwards from the face of the cliff, I stretched out my arm, and immediately felt the full force of the wind: an invisible barrier, two yards in width, separated perfectly calm air from a strong blast.” (from Chapter 21 of The Voyage of the Beagle)

My general criticism of DFID is that they should be doing more infrastructure projects, rather than handing over cash to highly corrupt governments as “budget support”, or channelling funds through the big charities which spend them on massive executive salaries, consultancy fees and housing, air conditioning and Toyota Land Cruisers for their expatriate staff. But now it seems DFID can no longer deliver a large project half sensibly either.

It really is a tragedy for Saint Helena, where the economic prospects could be transformed by an air link to the rest of the world. The island is now far more isolated than it was in the nineteenth century, when it was a vital provisioning stop for vessels. I note in passing that Napoleon’s hat was taken from St Helena by Lord Panmure and now rather incongruously rests in a cabinet in Montrose Museum.

British attitudes to St Helena were for generations of malign neglect, and the recent laudable attempt to improve things has been destroyed by gross incompetence – for which nobody has resigned or been sacked.

By comparison, the equally isolated Chagos Islands have an excellent airport, owned by the British Government, on Diego Garcia. The problem here of course is that the British government brutally uprooted and deported the entire local population, and leased the base to the United States, keeping the previous inhabitants away by force.

diego-garcia

In its regal majesty, the British government has condescended to consider a proposal whereby a tiny fraction of the deported population will be allowed to return to certain outlying islands. The bad faith of the entire approach was underlined by the British declaration of the entire 200 mile exclusive economic zone around the islands as “the world’s first marine protected area” where all fishing is banned. That Britain nowhere else shows an interest in extreme marine conservation, except around a military base from which it has ethnically cleansed the population, we are supposed to believe is a coincidence. To underline the cynicism and deliberate immorality of the move, I need only say it was the work of David Miliband. The International Court of Arbitration at the Hague declared Miliband’s action in support of ethnic cleansing illegal last year, which of course has not affected his £400,000 a year job in “charity” work.

If the mighty British sovereign graciously permits a few of these islanders – who were her subjects before she deported them – to return to their own land, the British government does however have a trick up its sleeve to make sure to prevent a viable economy from being established. The government proposals for “limited return” are specific that regular flights will not be allowed to use the airport.

Personally, I should like to see the US air force removed and the islands demilitarised. But even without that, dual military and civilian use of runways exists in a great many locations all round the world and there is no reason whatsoever why civilian flights could not land. Indeed, passing billionaires are permitted to land their Lear jets already to refuel. But of course, making the islands viable for tourism and a population is not the goal here. The goal is to make them unviable.

So there we have it, a tale of two airports on extremely remote islands. One built at vast expense which cannot be used, and one perfectly viable which the government will not permit to be used. It is a story which sums up the shame, immorality and international criminality of the UK’s continuing Imperial pretensions.

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Mainstream Media: Don’t Mention Wikileaks

I have been six hours watching “experts” across mainstream channels analyse why their earlier statements were totally wrong. There has been not one single mention of #WikiLeaks – or of social media at all. The clapped out old journalistic hacks are in denial that their mechanisms of control are now irrelevant, and they as greasy cogs in those mechanisms are viewed with contempt. The contrast between the mainstream media political narrative and what people were saying on social media was absolutely stark. People got their information from #WikiLeaks.

The Democrats chose the most Establishment candidate possible. Probably the only Democrat candidate who could have lost to Donald Trump was Hillary Clinton. Oh alright then, Weiner could have lost too, but that was about it. All those journalists who WikiLeaks showed contrived with Clinton and the DNC to cheat Sanders, may directly have caused President Trump. All those who contributed hundreds of millions to the Clintons and their “charity” Foundation to buy influence, look at this moment like they wasted their money.

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The Lesser of Two Weevils

Obama was a massive disappointment. Promise of economic change proved empty. It is difficult now to recall what a big emphasis in campaigning he placed on civil liberties, including ending torture and closing Guantanamo. What we got was the opposite. There was no proper legal process for Guantanamo detainees. Those responsible for the policy of torture were promoted and protected. The only CIA officer jailed over torture was John Kiriakou for blowing the whistle on it. Obama’s War on Whistleblowers has been the fiercest in US history. There is no doubt that in Obama’s USA, Daniel Ellsberg would have gone to jail for a very long time. The surveillance state has extended its reach still further, while execution by drone is so routine as to pass without notice. Between drones, bombs and troops on the ground often as “advisers” or “trainers”, there has not been a single day in Obama’s eight years in which US forces have not killed a Muslim in a Muslim country.

Yet a year from now we are very likely to conclude that things have got much worse since Obama. I fully expect Clinton to be elected. What was for me most interesting about the various WikiLeaks releases was not the mesh of sleaze and corruption. There is no doubt that Hillary was peddling influence in exchange for massive donations to the Clinton Foundation and fees and gifts to Bill and herself, and that the Clintons were able to access the resources of their “Charity” for personal use through a variety of subterfuges, quite probably legal. I knew all of that. Anybody who had not already worked out that the same Saudis who have top western politicians in their pockets are also funding ISIS, is a fool. I have been saying it for years.

No, what particularly interested me was the hundreds of examples, day to day, of the close media collusion with the Clinton camp. The leaking to Hilary in advance in advance of debate questions, and the planting of questions for Trump, was but the tip of the iceberg. What the emails reveal is a huge slew of journalists who are actively in the Clinton camp. Of course politicians and journalists engage in a certain degree of mutual schmoozing – though less than you might imagine. Of course politicians are often sources. But the sense of collaborative purpose in the relationship of the Clinton camp with the mainstream media that comes through the emails is striking.

It is of course a wonderful irony that the mainstream media failed to then report on the WikiLeaks emails in any meaningful or proportionate way. The gulf between the way the election looks on mainstream media and social media is massive – otherwise Clinton would be 20 points ahead. I expect the mainstream media to come out on top on this occasion and get their woman in, just.

Like most people this side of the Atlantic, I prefer Clinton’s slightly more state interventionist approach to health, social care and of course gun control. But abroad she is an extreme hawk, and I genuinely fear she will foolishly push confrontation with Russia over Syria, and could end the détente with Iran. Civil liberties does not register with Clinton at all, and we can expect the security state to redouble.

Trump is of course much harder to read. I suspect in office he would be just as corrupt as Clinton. I fear he would pander to the Republican right on questions of state spending and economic intervention. But there is every indication that in foreign policy he may be a great deal more sensible, reducing the US military profile abroad and attempting a more pragmatic relationship with Russia. There are few votes to be won by his more pacific stance, so I am inclined to think it is genuine, at least at the moment.

But there is much we recognise about Trump – the right wing populism, the battening on the economic travails of the poor caused by neo-liberalism and the vast wealth inequality of society, and shamelessly blaming the poverty on immigrants. This is a nasty, racist trick, which has firmly taken hold in much of England as with Trump supporters. It is unforgivable. Whether Trump really intends to build a wall on the border with Mexico I can’t tell – he probably meant it when he first said it. The border is not exactly unguarded. He seems to have rowed back from the desire to ban Muslims. But Trump’s willingness to appeal to dog-whistle racism ought to disqualify him from serious consideration for high office.

Yet the WikiLeaks emails cast a bright light on the other side of that coin – the Clinton camp’s blatant manipulation of identity politics. This goes beyond the stupidity of the appeal that women should vote for somebody merely because they happen to be of the same sex. The cynicism of the approach to blacks and Hispanics and the manipulation of these voting blocs is chilling to me. The WikiLeaks emails leave you unconvinced that black lives matter to Hillary. Black votes do.

So, by this time tomorrow we will know who the new President will be. Probably Hillary, but either way it will be somebody of whom most Americans strongly disapprove. They are voting on the basis of which candidate they wish to punish most by making them lose. Both options are awful. My advice to my American friends is to refuse to be co-opted into expressing a fake approval of either of these horrors, and vote Green for Jill Stein.

Sikunder Burnes Master of the Great Game

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Sikunder Burnes Signed First Editions Now Available Direct


“Murray’s book is a terrific read” – Peter Oborne –

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‘Murray’s book is a terrific read. He has done full justice to the life of a remarkable British hero, without ignoring his faults’ — Peter Oborne, Daily Mail

‘An important re-evaluation of this most intriguing figure’ — William Dalrymple

‘This is a fascinating book … his research has been prodigious, both in libraries and on foot. He knows a huge amount about Burnes’s life and work’ —Allan Massie, The Scotsman

‘If you are a fan of the Flashman series of books, you will be gripped by the story of this British spy’ —Hannah Ferret, The Sun

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Not all Americans are Barking Nutters

That should not need to be said, but given the antics of Clinton and Trump it is as well to say it anyway to remind ourselves. Here is Green Party candidate Jill Stein explaining that you do not have to vote for either a “proto-fascist or a warmonger”.

The journalists of course attempt to say that to vote for Stein is to let Trump in. Stein sticks strongly to the argument that the “Queen of Corruption” and “Warmonger” Clinton is not in fact a real choice from Trump. This is of course absolutely true, Clinton is a dangerous extremist – she just happens to support the extremism of the right wing establishment and its poodle media.

I have been fascinated by the apoplexy generated in the pretend left by the notion that people ought not to vote for Clinton. The go-to argument is that not to vote for her is in itself an act of misogyny. I wonder if they will argue the same for Marine Le Pen. The second argument is that a corrupt warmonger is better than the racist bigot Trump. The interesting thing is, close examination reveals an almost 100% correlation between those apoplectic at any lack of support for Clinton, and those who supported Tony Blair. The idea that being an ultra-corrupt warmonger is not a big problem is obviously a fixed principle with these people.

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Sikunder Burnes and the Blurred Narrative of Real Life

I confess that when I saw that Sikunder Burnes was being reviewed by the ultra conservative romanticist Allan Massie, in the staunchly British unionist Scotsman, I was braced for a broadside. But overall I think the review is both interesting and reasonably fair, making some intellectual points worthy of contention. A review that states “This is a fascinating book”, and praises my research and mastery of the facts, is not a bad review, even if it outlines ways Massie thinks it could have been better.

But the criticism that there is too much detail, and the narrative line is blurred, is interesting because it is something of which I was highly conscious in writing, and discussed as an issue. Though regular readers of this blog, who followed the struggle to cut out 80,000 words from the book, will recognise the criticism that I threw in everything I knew as completely misguided.

Real life is very messy. Individuals sometimes do things that appear completely out of character, or contrary to all their usual motives and inclinations on a subject, and sometimes a couple of centuries later we can’t understand why they did that. And not just individuals – social trends and movements will always throw up inconvenient counter-examples that buck the trend.

Allan Massie is a historical novelist, and a fine one. It is unsurprising he likes his historical characters to move consistently, clearly and at a good reading pace along neatly plotted narratives. But real life is not like that, and thus real history should not be. History cannot elide, or it is not history. Real life is messy, and real biography is obliged partly to reflect that.

To give just one example from Sikunder Burnes, Henry Pottinger was an extremely irascible, indeed bellicose, British imperialist who had no time for Burnes’ interest in local cultures and institutions and desire to give responsibility to Indians. He was gung-ho to annex Mandvi and to attack Sind from an early stage, and was a vicious driving force behind the First Opium War. Yet in 1839 he suddenly had a crisis of conscience over the annexation of Karachi, and stood firmly against the Governor-General on the ground of two inconvenient facts. Firstly it was untrue that Karachi fort had fired on a British warship, and secondly that it was true that the Amirs of Sind had a written contract releasing them from a tribute obligation to Shuja.

This noble behaviour of Pottinger was completely out of character with a career of trampling local rights, which had never shirked from imperial dissembling or brutality. The conflict between Burnes and Pottinger over how Indians should be treated is an important theme of the book. Pottinger’s behaviour here undermines that powerful theme. I did not have to include it. I could have just omitted these letters, and there are not three people in the entire world who would be equipped to notice. It would have made for a shorter book and a clearer, more dramatic narrative. But it would not be intellectually honest, which is my main driver. Plus I have this rather illogical compulsion to be fair to people, even if they are long dead. Indeed a conviction that Alexander Burnes has been treated very unfairly by history is my major motive for writing the book.

I discussed this exact question over drinks in Delhi with the brilliant William Dalrymple. His general advice was that readability is essential, and that small counter-facts are always omitted from any general narrative; which is true. I do accept that Massie has a point – the specific Pottinger case is one of scores of examples, and perhaps I leaned too far towards completeness and had insufficient pity on my readers. William Dalrymple’s books are superbly written with a quality of description I do not even seek to match, and do move along very linear narratives, while not leaving out important detail. I do not claim to be in the same league as a storyteller, but I rest in the hope that others will find the muddle of life as endlessly fascinating as I do.

I confess to checking how online sales are going, and was happy to see that the only historical biography on Amazon outselling Sikunder Burnes is The Invention of Nature, Andrea Wulf’s life of Alexander von Humboldt. Purely by chance von Humboldt turns up in Sikunder Burnes playing a brief but key role, helping to pluck the convict soldier Jan Prosper Witkiewicz from obscurity in Orenburg.

Finally, I should address the fact that Sikunder Burnes appears to have completely disappeared. Their appear to be no physical copies available anywhere that I have been able to determine. Amazon are selling extremely well, but don’t actually have any. I have received literally dozens of reports of people not being able to get it in bookshops, and not one report of anyone actually seeing it on a bookshop shelf.

I wish I could give you a proper explanation, but obviously with the book already reviewed by the Mail, the Sun and the Scotsman, its lack of sales visibility is a major blow to me. I think part of the explanation is that Birlinn, who have produced an extremely handsome volume of which I am very proud, have just been taken aback by the high level of demand. They promise me there will be stock widely available imminently.

The second and much larger problem is that very few bookshops appear to have ordered the book in for their shelves. For example three different readers of this blog have reported ordering it at the same Waterstones Birmingham store, but that Waterstones has not ordered it for stock. I have been told that Foyles, who sold many dozens of my Murder in Samarkand, have not ordered in to stock. Yet the prominent tables of Waterstones and Foyles are stacked high with books which Sikunder Burnes is massively outselling online, even though listed as currently unavailable. I think part of the reason for this is the problems of an excellent but independent publisher in this corporate world, and partly that it is conceived as a Scottish interest book (the situation is rather better in Scottish bookshops).

Anybody with the time and inclination would do me a huge favour by attempting to persuade your local bookshop, chain or independent, that they should have it on their shelves. I do not think there are many books given a prominent review by the Daily Mail which are never stocked. And Murder in Samarkand was a bestseller. I need somehow to get this book visible.

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