One of Us – Review


Åsne Seierstad 

Virago Press (2015 – first published 2013), 544 pages

Chapters Bookstore, €3

It’s been ages since I posted any reviews.  I’ve been very busy with work and a few other things that have taken up my time/tired me out!  Hopefully I’ll manage to post a bit more regularly in the coming months.

One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway is a story about evil. Seierstad traces Breivik’s life from his birth to his horrific crimes, his trial, and eventual (almost certainly lifelong) incarceration.  Seierstad’s book is a forensic inquiry into the nature of evil; was Breivik born evil or did his circumstances make him evil?  In the end this doesn’t matter to Breivik’s victims. Breivik killed seventy seven of his fellow citizens in an attempt to further his twisted ideology. Seierstad goes to great lengths to humanise Breivik’s victims, they are not simply numbers.  As Seierstad explores Breivik’s life she also traces the lives of a number of his victims, until their fateful meeting.  Although it was Breivik’s narcissism, personal issues (including unstable sexuality and failed business ventures), and desire to prove himself to the world that were causes of his crimes, the exact reasons why one person will suffer their inner demons and another person will explode in violence remain a mystery.

Breivik’s early childhood was painful.  His mother Wenche was mentally unstable and unable to provide stability to him or his sister Elisabeth.  His father was largely absent from his son’s life.  When he was involved he seemed to be overly harsh almost as if he was looking for an excuse to cut his son out of his life.

Breivik’s sexuality was confused to put it mildly.  Wenche seems to have had sexual issues herself, neighbours commented on her inappropriate sex talk.  As Wenche struggled to cope with Breivik it was agreed that he would be put into care for two weekends a month.  On the second weekend Wenche asked (when Breivik was aged 2) if he could occasionally touch his weekend dad’s penis as he only had contact with females.  He struggled to connect with real women, he seemed more at home with images of women.  He met a woman from Belarus online using a “mail order bride” service. Breivik, as was seen more explicitly in coming years, was a mysoginist.  If he felt any desires for a women at all he wanted his version of a traditional wife, an obedient female to cook the dinner and obey him.  His presumptive bride, Natascha, was the first woman he had brought home to his mother.  Unfortunately Natascha didn’t live up to expectations.  She wanted to go shopping and wasn’t happy with Breivik’s chauvinism.  There were no more girlfriends in Breivik’s life.


Breivik failed to read social signals correctly.  He struggled to connect with his peers.  In school he was a lower order bully who dreamed of being cool.  He became a middle ranking tagger, spraying graffiti around Oslo.  However he struggled to know his place, always feeling he was higher up the pecking order than he really was.  He was tolerated but seen as slightly naff, slightly off-key, he tried too hard, pushed too far, became seriously uncool, and was excluded from tagging circles.  Tagging was also the cause of his final break from his father.  Incredibly, after a third arrest for tagging, his father broke off all contact with the 15 year old.  He joined the right-wing Progress Party but failed to be selected as a candidate for them.  Again he overstepped the mark, thinking he was more more important than he was.  It was not that Breivik had no friends, he even had some immigrant friends in childhood, but it seems as if any time he encountered  failure he dropped any friends associated with the time.  His attempts to become wealthy in business by running a company selling fake degrees came to an end when the police started to take an interest.  His attempts to make money from trading stocks on the internet didn’t work out.  The Freemasons were not what he thought it would be and he rarely attended meetings.

Breivik’s life disappointments could be defined as failures but they are not so different from the occasional life disappointments faced by many people.  However Breivik was a narcissist.  He did not develop the normal social support network of family and friends.  He felt himself superior to everybody he encountered, more intelligent, better looking, physically excellent.  He played no part in his life’s downturns, these were entirely other people’s fault.  He sunk into a life of playing video games in his mother’s flat.  He built a network he could control, an online network, that further distanced himself from normal human relations and was based around simulated violence.  When he emerged from this cocoon he had decided on his course of action.  He rented a farm, built bombs, gathered weapons, and launched his deluded attacks in Oslo and against unarmed children and teenagers on Utøya island. Seierstad points out the numerous security failings around government buildings and failed opportunities to stop Breivik before he reached the island. Seierstad goes through Breivik’s killings in detail.  I couldn’t read it all. Seierstad looked at the full and varied lives of several of Breivik’s victims – you get to know them as you read the book.  Their lives have the ordinary beauty of many of our lives but the hopes and dreams of the victims are cast into sharp relief by Breivik’s murderous actions.

Breivik’s psychopathic narcissism is quickly demonstrated to police shortly after his arrest.  He complains about a small cut on his finger.  After murdering dozens of people he is concerned about a tiny cut on his finger. Breivik has never, nor never will, show any remorse for his victims.  He will never be released from prison.  His dreams of starting a far right revolution across Europe have never materialised.  The effects of imprisonment have begun to take their toll.  Despite his best efforts he is perhaps slowly realising that he is not the centre of attention for the world.  He is fading from view.  His recent successful case against his prison conditions is a sign that he is desperately taking every opportunity to place himself centre stage. Breivik will die unloved (except perhaps by his mother). Breivik’s victims’ lives and deaths continue to have a greater impact on the world than Breivik’s depraved acts.


Related Links


Brexit: A Day of Pain for the EU, a Decade of Pain for the UK

Remain Failed to Connect with Voters

The UK’s vote to exit the European Union was a shock but not as big a shock as it was made out in some quarters.  Disillusioned voters in working class areas and the middle classes in English regions voted to leave.  They believed the Leave campaign’s half-truths and outright lies.  The Leave campaign fed on understandable fears about immigration and the overtly racist attitudes of many of their voters.  They built a negative emotional connection with Leave voters – they successfully built on a climate of xenophobia and legitimised the darker aspects British society.  The Leave campaign presented foreigners as taking UK jobs, sponging on the health and education systems, and destroying the cultural fabric of Britain.  Responsible politicians failed to successfully denounce such views.

The Remain campaign was an abject failure when it came to developing a positive emotional connection with undecided voters.  David Cameron could not move beyond his elite view of British society.  The Remain campaign continually spoke about “experts”.  Experts predicted economic catastrophe but Leave voters, by and large, didn’t care about experts.  Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party was inept at trying to rally its voters to the Remain side even though it is poorer parts of Britain that receive large amounts of EU funding.  It is only a matter of time before Corbyn’s head rolls.

On BBC’s Question Time programme a schoolgirl asked a question about British universities.  Cameron spoke about the need for Britain to be in the EU to attract top class researchers.  And there he stopped.  To the average voter research funding for universities is not high on the list of their priorities.  He could have told the girl that if she ever wanted to spend a term studying in Amsterdam she wouldn’t be able to.  If she wanted to do summer work in France she wouldn’t be able to.  If she wanted to go Interrailing across Europe she would need visas for multiple countries and experience extra checks and delays at every border.  Being a citizen of the EU can enrich your daily life, the Remain campaign failed to show this.

Nigel Farage, despite being a millionaire married to a German (who he once employed), was driving an anti-intellectual campaign that fed white working class fears of immigration and an a belief that the EU is full of Machiavellian foreign bureaucrats intent on stealing Britain’s wealth.  The negative aspects of the Leave campaign were balanced by a deluded vision of Britain past and present.  This was campaign looking back to a golden age of British imperial power with Britain civilising the darker parts of the globe, with Churchill and his Spitfires winning World War II, and England winning the World Cup.  Of course this halcyon vision is, in many respects, a myth.  British imperialism stripped its colonies of natural resources and manpower to line pockets at home, Britain was crucial to winning World War II but often the contributions of the Americans, the Soviets, the fighters in Poland, France, Yugoslavia, China, and many other countries are overlooked.  It’s impossible to return to a Britain that never existed.  Post World War II Britain (and indeed Britain just before it joined the EEC) was a poorer country with higher rates of poverty and crime.  The economic growth of Britain has not been evenly spread, London and southern England are far richer, but this is not the EU’s fault.  The policies of successive British governments, including the government of Cameron and Boris Johnson, have been the primary cause of the the widening wealth gaps in Britain.  With the UK out of the EU British politicians will have one less thing to blame for their own failures.

The Irish Connection

Although the UK electorate voted to leave the EU the voters in Scotland and Northern Ireland did not.  The UK’s departure from the EU will have a greater impact on Ireland than any other EU member; Ireland is currently (I say currently as it is possible that Scotland will vote for independence from the UK in the next few years) the only country with a border with the UK.  A reintroduction of physical border posts at the border with Northern Ireland would damage the normalisation of relations North and South that have taken decades to achieve.  They would also lead to criminal gangs exploiting smuggling opportunities to bypass possible tariffs and border posts would present targets for terrorist groups to attack.  It has been suggested by the Leave campaign that the Common Travel Area that exists between Ireland and the UK will be maintained but this might not be possible.  Ireland and the UK joined the EEC at the same time.  The CTA existed when we were both outside the EU and when we were both in the EU.  It is not clear if the CTA could function following a UK departure from the EU.

Brexit, at least in the short term, will have a negative effect on the Irish economy.  The UK is our biggest trading partner.  The drop in the value of sterling will make Irish exports to the UK more expensive and tariffs will further increase this cost.  There will, however, be opportunities for Ireland.  Ireland will be the biggest (and apart from Malta) the only English speaking nation in the EU.  Already Ireland has the European headquarters of Google, Yahoo!, ebay, a large Intel plant, pharmaceutical, and financial service companies that employ tens of thousands of Irish people.  Ireland has a young educated population and Ireland (and Dublin in particular) has no problem attracting educated workers from across the world.  Ireland will seek to lure companies from the UK and encourage companies that might have considered setting up in the UK to establish bases in Ireland.  Brexit will damage the Irish economy so Ireland will attempt to claw back some of these losses possibly resulting in further damage to the UK economy.

British people, by and large, care little about Northern Ireland, have little knowledge of its history and turn a blind eye to human rights abuses (thankfully largely historical now) perpetrated by British security forces and the RUC.  The vital economic links between Northern Ireland and Ireland have been ignored by the Leave campaign.  Some British politicians have suggested that the border between North and South could remain open if passport checks are introduced at Northern Ireland airport and ports going to the rest of the UK.  The patriotism of Farage and Johnson involves them treating Northern Irish unionists as different from their fellow UK citizens.  They have been sold out by Little England voters.  But Northern Ireland is not Scotland.  Despite Sinn Féin’s rhetoric there will be no border poll or referendum on uniting the island of Ireland.  The majority of Northern Irish unionists wanted to remain part of the EU but they do not want to be part of a united Ireland.

A Disaster for the UK

Will things be as bad as predicted for the UK?  Probably not.  The UK will not collapse.  But it will be poorer.  It will be economically poorer.  Inflation will rise, goods and services (especially imported goods) will become more expensive, and the unemployment rate will rise.  But more significantly the UK will become culturally poorer.  Its people won’t have the opportunity to study or work freely across Europe.  In my lifetime Ireland has become a multicultural society and the EU has played a major part of that.  I have worked with and made friends from the UK, France, Poland, Spain, Italy, Germany, Hungary, Greece, Slovakia, Finland, Romania, and Slovakia.  They have enriched my life, taught me about their cultures, and introduced me to their food and drink!  As an impoverished student I could look for summer work in the Netherlands, no questions asked.  I could travel across multiple European borders with, at most, the quick flash of my harp emblazoned passport. These life altering experiences might be lost to UK citizens.  UK pensioners who have retired to other countries (especially Spain) can have their pensions paid into foreign bank accounts and access the local healthcare system freely.  This might all change.  The Leave campaign was very good at focussing on issues that effect very few people (such as voting rights for prisoners or UK fishing rights) but have ignored the thousands of EU laws that protect consumers, that have improved workers’ rights, and have protected minorities.  The economic benefits of EU have led to prosperity (look at Europe before the EU) the uneven spread of wealth across the UK is not the EU’s fault, it’s the fault of UK politicians. The Remain campaign failed to challenge the simplistic and often false Leave statements.  A second referendum is a possibility but, as it stands, the UK is about to enter an economic and cultural dark age.

Related Links

Financial Times: Brexit in seven charts – the economic impact

Irish Times: Brexit fantasy is about to come crashing down

The GuardianBrexit vote sparks scramble for European passports

The SpectatorOut – and into the world: why The Spectator is for Leave

Music from Ireland

It’s St. Patrick’s Day week so I thought I’d share some of my favourite Irish bands.  They’re in no particular order and I’ve decided not to include some of the really big stars (such as Thin Lizzy, U2, and others).  I’m sure you can buy most of these band’s albums online if you like the sound of them.

Luke Kelly – On Raglan Road


Tychonaut – Steel Wheels

Dogs (feat. Suzanne Purcell) – Out In Cover

Róisín Murphy – Dear Miami

Joe Chester – Maybe This Is Not Love

The Gloaming – The Pilgrim’s Song

The Cast of Cheers – Animals

Little Green Cars – The John Wayne

Gemma Hayes – Back of My Hand

Beta 2 – Crystal Meth

Bell X1 – Eve (The Apple of My Eye)

My Bloody Valentine

Creative Control – Bloodrush

One Point Two Billion – Quick Review



Mahesh Rao  width=

Daunt Books (2015), 240 pages

A Christmas Present

One Point Two Billion is a fascinating look into the multiple worlds that occupy modern India.  The thirteen short stories in Rao’s collection cover India’s diverse geography, cultural mores, economic status, and social roles.

Rao’s strongest stories are those with the more understated plots.  The opening story, Eternal Bliss, features Bindu, a woman who struggles to cope with her anxieties while working in a yoga centre.  Rao highlights the uneasy interaction between Indians and foreign visitors and pokes fun at both sides.  He also uses the arrival of inspectors from the Department of Culture to highlight endemic corruption.  Rao’s Joycean epiphany is fantastic.

Personally I was not so keen on the stories, although well written, with more shocking endings.  The subtle approach of Eternal Bliss, The Trouble with Dining Out (two wealthy couples struggle to cope with the underlying sexual tension), Suzie Baby (about an ageing Bollywood star), and Fizz Pop Ah (which follows the fortunes of an Indian cola company and a family that worked there) were more to my liking.

One Point Two Billion deals with multiple issues; corruption, westernisation, attempts to conceal the mistreatment of Dalits, army abuses in Naxalite areas, the rise of the super rich in India, and censorship in Kashmir (in the excellent Minu Goyari Day).  Rao’s book covers a lot of ground and offers the reader thirteen little windows into the lives of some of India’s one point two billion people.

Related Post

The Indian Express review

The Emperor – Review


Ryszard Kapuściński 

Penguin Modern Classics (2006, originally published 1978), 192 pages


The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat  looks back at Ethiopian ruler Haile Selassie’s downfall through the eyes of his courtiers.  Selassie had gained popularity when he challenged Italian attempts to colonise Ethiopia.  He did instigate some reforms but as the years passed his primary concern was to keep himself and the semi-feudal system he presided over intact.  Neal Ascherson, in his introduction, makes the point that tyrants, “…tried to use “Development” as a substitute for political and social reform” (p. viii).  When tyrannical or colonial regimes begin to see their power slipping they will try and introduce the minimum level of change that can still insure that the overarching system doesn’t change (“killing Home Rule with kindness” in Ireland in the late 1800s was an example of this policy).  Ascherson also notes that The Emperor can be read as a parable of Kapuściński’s communist Poland.  The Polish dictatorship, despite claiming to represent the people, was a foreign system which had become disconnected from the people (whether it was actually ever connected to the people is debatable) and, like Haile Selassie’s regime, was doomed to collapse.

Haile Selassie was updated on his subjects’ movements through his system of informants.  When Kapuściński interviews Selassie’s courtiers in secret after their master’s downfall the new system is equally paranoid.  Haile Selassie met his ministers everyday.  If a minister achieved something Selassie took the glory, if a minister messed up then the minister took the blame.  In the palace there were three groups; the aristocrats, the bureaucrats,  and the people personally selected by the emperor.  The aristocrats were ultra-conservative, the bureaucrats were the most liberal (many had a higher education), and the personally selected people were fiercely loyal to Selassie.  The emperor micromanaged all of his appointments to give the illusion of total control, “Listen here Mr. Journalist, not only did the Emperor decide on all promotions, but he also communicated each one personally.  He alone” (p. 31).  Likewise Selassie approved all financial expenditure, even a repair to one of his 27 cars.  The Ethiopian state was so foccussed on its emperor that it failed to function properly when its figurehead was absent.  When Selassie was on one of his many trips out of the country his palace virtually stopped functioning.

Haile Selassie’s concern for his own people was also an illusion, “…His Majesty paid the salaries of foreign engineers but showed no inclination to pay our own masons after the construction of the Imperial Palace called Genete Leul” (p. 39).  The Emperor does not look at Haile Selassie’s reign as a whole.  It focusses on the period leading up to his fall. Kapuściński’s book does however mention some of Selassie’s reforms; he forbade extreme punishments such as the cutting off of hands and legs, he introduced a court system, he abolished slavery, he  set up a postal system, and he sent some people abroad to study.  It was this final reform that proved dangerous to Selassie’s rule.  Young people who were educated abroad quickly saw the lack of freedom and economic development in their home country.  Education was a double edged sword.  Ethiopia needed educated people to run the state but too many educated people could result in the overthrow of the state.  Germame Neway came from an aristocratic family and was sent to be educated in the United States.  When he returned Neway was made the governor of a region in southern Ethiopia.  Much to the horror of local nobles he began to build schools and allegedly gave land to landless labourers.


Haile Selassie’s deposition. He is humiliated by being forced into a Volkswagen Beetle, a less luxurious car than one of his 27 limousines. Credit: Wikipedia

As Selassie realised that his position was being undermined he began to turn his attention to his greatest threat – the army, “These generals, with His Gracious Majesty’s help, arranged such a good life for themselves that our Empire, which contained thirty million farmers and only a hundred thousand soldiers and police, agriculture received one percent of the national budget and the army and police forty percent” (p. 93).  The Emperor was dependent on the top strata of society for survival.  But increasing levels of education meant this elite section was expanding beyond the state’s control.  Graduates were placed in the state bureaucracy but these their increased numbers were placing a strain on the budget.  In order to pay for the increased cost of bureaucrats it was decided to raise taxes on the peasants.  It is here that the feudal nature of Selassie’s regime is most apparent.  The peasants rebelled against paying taxes merely funded their oppression.  Anger with the regime began to overcome internalised subservience and fear of the security forces.

As with British rule in Ireland it was a famine that was the final nail in Selassie’s rule.  Jonathan Dimbleby’s documentary Ethiopia: The Unknown Famine (unfortunately I haven’t been able to find this documentary online) exposed the heartlessness of the Ethiopian state.  The juxtaposition of images of starving people with pictures of Haile Selassie feeding meat to his dogs and feasting on champagne and caviar.  The film wasn’t shown in Ethiopia but it’s contents began to filter back to the country.  The Emperor doesn’t look at the ethnic divides that contributed to the Ethiopian state’s lack of concern about the death of up to 300,000 of its people (presumably because the courtiers that Kapuściński interviews are Amharic like their emperor) but famine was used as a method of control by Selassie and the subsequent Dergue regime.  Shamefully one courtier (A.A.) defends the lack of response to the famine on moral grounds, “…it is not bad for national order and a sense of national humility that the subjects be rendered skinnier, thinned down a bit” (p. 112).

Haile Selassie’s regime was eventually overthrown by the brutal communist Dergue.  Life under the Dergue was, for many, worse than living under Haile Selassie.  But Haile Selassie’s failure to create a just society paved the way for further death and destruction. Many of  Haile Selassie’s courtiers talk with a sense of nostalgia for the Emperor’s rule but, as Kapuściński points out, “One could talk about it with sadness and indulgence, were it not for the fact that H.S. – he and his people – took millions from the state treasury amid cemeteries full of people who had died of hunger, cemeteries visible from the windows of the royal Palace” (p. 160).

Related Links

Article on the 1973-74 famine

The Constant Gardener – Quick Review


John le Carré  China.png

Hodder & Stoughton (2001), 512 pages

A Present

My Dad had a spare copy of this book (I think a neighbour gave it to him) which I received at least three years ago.  It’s sat on the shelf glaring at me for those years so I eventually thought I’d bite the bullet and read the thing.  I enjoyed the film, starring Rachel Weisz and Ralph Feinnes, so I knew the general plot.

The Constant Gardener has a plot that goes deeper than the conventional thriller.  Issues such as the power of pharmaceutical companies in Africa, the role of former colonisers in post-colonial states, and the unaccountability of government bureaucrats are all covered.

While there is plenty of action, spread across Europe and Africa, Le Carré’s great skill is to create believable characters.  The characters are not merely tracks along which the plot runs.  They shift  and twist in the breeze of changing circumstances, memory, and new revelations.

The Constant Gardener does not have a happy ending.  If you are looking for the cathartic effects of justice you will be disappointed.  However if you want to look look into a dark immoral world where money, power, and corruption intersect then The Constant Gardener is a novel for you.


Melancholy Witness – Review

Witnessing Troubles

Seán Hillen  

The History Press  Ireland (2014), 120 pages

The Winding Stair Bookshop – €10 (second hand signed copy)

Melancholy Witness: Images of the Troubles is a collection of artist Seán Hillen’s photographs of Northern Ireland between 1979-1990.  Hillen, a native of the border town of Newry, was perfectly placed to capture the violence, fear, and occasional black humour that pervaded Northern Irish society.  Hillen is better known for his photomontages which take a wry look at modern Irish society through the mythical lens of John Hinde postcards.  I might look at his photomontages in another blog post.

Hillen’s photographs cover more than scenes of violence.  There are photographs of Twelfth of July parades, a religious pilgrimage, people going about their daily business.  But there is an almost constant undercurrent of violence, the possibility that something unexpected will happen.  Policemen or soldiers are present in many of the photographs, heavily armed and twitchy.  What look like building sites are the aftermath of bomb attacks.  There is constant government surveillance, the army, the police, security cameras, army watch towers, the knowledge that your phone could be tapped, your post opened, that you could be talking to an informer.  This oppressive surveillance was often ineffective.  You lived with of the psychological effects government oppression (even if often meant to prevent violence) but seemingly without the benefits of government protection.  In some cases the forces that were supposed to protect you ended up killing you or causing horrific injuries with “plastic bullets” (like Bloody Sunday or the numerous instances of State collusion with terrorists).

Hillen Photo

Newry, c. 1985

I visited the North shortly after the Good Friday Agreement with some Dutch friends.  The watchtowers were still on the South Armagh border hills, bristling with antennae and cameras to watch the local population.  Some were IRA members and supporters but many were not.  There were “Sniper at Work” signs and “Free the Colombia 3” graffiti.  Hillen captures the architecture of a chronic conflict.  As an outsider all of this seemed extraordinary but to the local population this became normal.  Talking about the helicopters that buzzed across the sky (in many places it was too dangerous for the British army to travel by road) Hillen notes that, “…the noise of the helicopters became so familiar that its absence then became strange.” (p. 86)  In Northern Ireland I visited Crossmaglen with its large army base that dominated the centre of town.  It had the busiest heliport in Europe, it was far too dangerous for soldiers to travel by road.  There were no police (or tax collectors!) allowed into the town.  The army base was seen as an occupying presence.  When footballs from the local GAA club dropped into the army base they weren’t returned.  Local resentment (especially Catholic republican resentment) at the inbuilt discrimination, poverty, and lack of equal civil rights often overspilled into protests, violence, and riots.

Some of Hillen’s most effective photographs are of riots (see cover photo above).  He successfully captures the adrenaline, the anger, and the game of rioting.  Poverty, boredom, resentment, and (in some cases), a desire to kill British soldiers and police were all motivating factors in riots.  The rioters were virtually all young men.  Like many conflicts the Troubles was primarily fuelled by young men; rioters, terrorists, police, and soldiers.  These young men were often guided by older men, invisible from the public but the guiding hands behind the conflict, moving their pieces across a deadly chess board.


A colour version of an image from the book.  “Taken through the window of my sister’s car; a teenager is seen being dragged to a waiting police car after some questioning.” (p. 92)

Melancholy Witness is an excellent collection of photographs.  Hillen’s local knowledge adds a depth to the accompanying captions.  What comes across most strongly is Hillen’s empathy with his subjects.  He does not distinguish between Catholic or Protestant, rioter or policeman – they are all trapped in a situation which they have little control over.  They are striving to live their lives, to make their lives better, and to overcome the circumstances that surround them.


Related Links

Irelantis – Irish photomontages by Seán Hillen

John Hinde Postcard Archive – A major influence on Hillen’s photomontages.