Monthly Archives: January 2019

Barkskins by Annie Proulx

Longlisted for the baileys women’s prize for fiction 2017

A New York times book of the year

From Annie Proulx, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Shipping News and Brokeback Mountain, comes her masterwork: an epic, dazzling, violent, magnificently dramatic novel about the taking down of the world’s forests.

In the late seventeenth century two penniless young Frenchmen, René Sel and Charles Duquet, arrive in New France. Bound to a feudal lord, a “seigneur,” for three years in exchange for land, they become wood-cutters – barkskins. René suffers extraordinary hardship, oppressed by the forest he is charged with clearing. He is forced to marry a Mi’kmaw woman and their descendants live trapped between two inimical cultures. But Duquet, crafty and ruthless, runs away from the seigneur, becomes a fur trader, then sets up a timber business. Proulx tells the stories of the descendants of Sel and Duquet over three hundred years – their travels across North America, to Europe, China, and New Zealand, under stunningly brutal conditions; the revenge of rivals; accidents; pestilence; Indian attacks; and cultural annihilation. Over and over again, they seize what they can of a presumed infinite resource, leaving the modern-day characters face to face with possible ecological collapse.

Barkskins is a riveting read. I had assumed it would be just another historical novel following a few disparate characters but it turned out to be much more. Initially the reader is interested in the characters while the trees and forests are merely something of a backdrop, but as time passes in this wide-ranging novel it becomes obvious that these natural resources are not as limitless as the timber merchants think and we are led on an inexorable path towards ecological disaster. Have the Duke family realised in time that we need to do something to save our planet or is it all too late? The history of the development of the timber trade – the types of trees taken, the methods of cutting and working, the uses of the wood – is cleverly entwined in the story of these two families so that the reader absorbs a great deal of knowledge through osmosis, never feeling lectured to or bogged down with irrelevant information. The amount of research that Ms Proulx has conducted into the timber trade around the world – from North America to New Zealand – is impressive, as is the link to European trade, the whole coming together as an indictment on the dangers of colonialism.

Barkskins is cleverly written as a saga which follows the lives of two families arriving in North America at the same time and in the same condition but then following very different paths. The rich Duke family introduce the reader to the development of business and trade on the new continent while the Sel family show the awful impact that this immigration brought to the lives of the First Nation peoples of the United States, Canada and New Zealand. From the decimation of tribes by European diseases to the discrimination meted out to whole peoples considered to be ‘inferior’ simply because their culture and civilisation were not understood, to the scandal of the Canadian Residential Schools this is a novel which immerses the reader in a conflict of cultures which is still ongoing. Perhaps Ms Proulx in her last few chapters has presented us with a vison of hope in which there may be reconciliation as the First Nations people whose lives were once so closely entwined with the forest may now be the ones with the knowledge and skills to help us save our world from ourselves.

Barkskins is a long novel which might put some people off, but I urge you to read it. The plotting is a tightly-knit web, the characters well rounded – some engaging and loveable, others quite unpleasant, – the descriptions of the forests atmospheric, the prose as a whole beautifully written and engaging. If you are looking for something to keep you occupied on cold winter evenings then curl up with this book and lose yourself in a past world which has such relevance and meaning for our own.

Barkskins can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Annie Proulx here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

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Alexander Wilson – the puzzling story of a Second World War spy

Alexander-Wilson.jpg
Alexander Wilson

Not all battles during a war are fought between armies in the open field. There have always been the men and women who work in intelligence and whose stories can often be very complex and difficult to understand, if we can unravel the truth of them at all. One such example was brought to our TV screens in December 2018 when many people in the UK were enthralled by the BBC drama ‘Mrs Wilson’ which told the story of Alexander Wilson, author, spy and bigamist. What most people found fascinating was that almost eighty years after some of the events took place we still don’t know the truth about Alexander Wilson as the government has still not released all the papers relating to his work. Who was Alexander Wilson? What role did he play in the murky world of espionage before and during the Second World War? Was he a patriot or an inveterate liar? Is it possible that a look at the situation in Egypt, and specifically Cairo, during that period may lead to some answers, or will it simply lead to more questions?

Alison Wilson
Alison Wilson

One thing that we do know about Alexander Wilson is that he was a bigamist. After serving in the First World War (with wounds which meant that he could not go on active service in World War 2) he left his first wife Gladys and son Dennis to go to India as a Professor of English Literature, and it was there that he began to write spy novels. Whilst in India he also married his second wife, Dorothy, without getting a divorce from Gladys. There is no evidence that Wilson worked for MI6 at the time, although that claim has been made by some.

When Wilson returned to England in 1933 he left Dorothy and their young son, Michael, and returned to his first wife, Gladys. About eighteen months later (in 1935) he moved to London, leaving his legitimate wife behind yet again. We do know that Wilson was working for MI6 at this time as he met his third wife, Alison, when she was his secretary there (again, no divorce); Alexander and Alison had two sons, Gordon and Nigel. In 1942 Wilson told Alison that the authorities were about to say that he had been dismissed from MI6 but it was all part of an elaborate cover story which would enable him to work as a spy in the field – specifically enabling him to get close to fascists and other targets in prison. The reason MI6 gave for his dismissal was that he had embellished a story about alleged Egyptian espionage and could not be trusted; he was also later accused of burglary and declared bankrupt.

Nahas Pasha
Nahas Pasha

The key reason for Wilsons ‘dismissal’ by MI6 was that they said his reports that the Egyptian Ambassador in London was spying for the Nazi’s were pure fabrication. Yet it was well known by the authorities at the time that a number of factions in Egypt were actively helping the Nazis in the hope that they would gain independence if Britain was defeated. And the Egyptian Ambassador in London was none other than Nahas Pasha, a key nationalist who had already plotted to overthrow the pro-British Egyptian government. To understand Wilson’s story we may need to understand more about Egypt during the Second World War.

Egypt had become part of the Ottoman Empire in 1517 but western countries, including France, German, Italy, and Britain began to have more influence in the 19th century. In the 1850’s Ferdinand de Lesseps was given permission to build the Suez Canal which was underwritten by the Egyptians who were more or less forced to give the Suez Canal Company generous concessions, so much so that Egypt had to borrow large amounts of money to keep her economy going. Egypt was soon over £100 million in debt and had to allow the British Prime Minister, Disraeli, to buy up many of their shares in the Canal. France and Britain understood the importance of the Canal for trade and took over the Egyptian economy in 1876, declaring that they would maintain this role until the debts had been paid. When influential Egyptians tried to take back more control of their country British forces moved in and the British occupation of Egypt began in 1882 with the country becoming a Protectorate in 1914 at the outbreak of the First World War. Many Egyptians felt cheated at the end of the war when the independence they thought they had been promised was not forthcoming, in fact they were not even allowed at the conference to decide the fate of their country. This led to riots in Cairo which spread throughout Egypt. Political instability continued until the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936 which required Britain to withdraw troops from all parts of Egypt except at the Suez Canal by 1949.

King Farouk
King Farouk

Nahas Pasha served as Prime Minister of Egypt before the war but was pushed out because of his nationalistic and ant-British feelings. When young King Farouk came to the throne in 1936 things changed – he wanted an end to British occupation of his country and was very friendly with the Italians. When war broke out many (but not all) Italians and Germans were interned at the insistence of the British, but Egypt refused to declare war on Germany and remained technically neutral until 1945. At the end of May 1940 Cairo was declared an ‘open city’ which meant that as the war in North Africa ebbed and flowed through the desert British troops rubbed shoulders with Italians and Germans on the streets of Egypt’s capital city. King Farouk refused to dismiss his Italian servants who kept lines of communication open with Rome, there were rumours of a powerful transmitter at the king’s Inchasse Palace, and he kept the lights burning at his palace in Alexandria despite the black-out imposed because of the Italian bombing of British facilities. It didn’t take a member of the intelligence community to see that although nominally British those in power in Egypt were firmly on the side of the Axis.

In Cairo itself there was a vocal if ineffectual contingent of Axis spies who frequented nightspots looking for information useful to Rommel, and it was believed by many that the barman at Shepheard’s Hotel (which was frequented by British  officers) was a German spy who listened in on conversations and reported back to his superiors. Hekmet, the most famous belly-dancer in the city was later arrested and accused of being a German spy. Ex-chief of staff of the Egyptian army Aziz el Masri formed a secret anti-British organisation in the Egyptian armed forces, and students held rallies in support of German advances chanting ‘press on Rommel’; at one point Anwar Sadat was imprisoned by the British for trying to get help from the Axis powers to throw the British out of Egypt and Sudan.

One of the novels written by Alexander Wilson
A novel by Alexander Wilson

It is almost impossible to separate truth from fiction when looking at Alexander Wilson so we have little hope of understanding his motives, yet nobody disputes that Wilson was a fervent patriot who clearly wanted to serve his country in any capacity. One wonders why with all of the knowledge they had of the nationalists anti-British activities in Cairo Wilson’s superiors at MI6 said that his reports on Egyptian espionage were wrong and he could not be trusted. Was this and the later accusation of burglary and declaring him bankrupt all part of an elaborate cover as Wilson claimed? Why else would MI6 continue to meet with him until his death in 1963? He said he was still working for them while they said they had him under surveillance, but if he was so disgraced and no longer had access to sensitive information why would they feel the need to keep him under surveillance for more than twenty years?

After the war, Wilson entered yet another bigamous marriage with Elizabeth although he continued to live with Alison who knew nothing of the intricacies of his private life. Everyone accepts that he was dishonest in his relationships, but that did not necessarily transfer to his work for the intelligence services. Was Alexander Wilson simply an inveterate liar or did he work under deep cover during the war and for many years after? One thing is certain, until the British government finally releases their files on Alexander Wilson we will never know the answer.