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On Rory Stewart’s ‘Occupational Hazards’

I wanted to build a gate for the souk as a permanent gift from the [Coalition Provisional Authority] to Amara, so that there would be at least one enduring trace of our presence. We discussed this with the governor, showed him photographs of traditional souk gates from Egypt to Kuwait, and suggested a competition for the design. The governor returned the next day with a design for a concrete arch, to be faced with bright modern bathroom tiles and fairy lights. Again we had to choose whether to empower the governor. We overruled him; the gate was never built.

Acknowledging failure is never an easy thing. It requires maturity, character and practice, so much so that the spectacle of seeing it done really well is strangely moving — at once levelling and liberating. This, for example, probably explains why even those of us who can’t stomach Orwell’s politics nevertheless regard Homage to Catalonia as a masterpiece. Effective rhetoric matters as much as sincerity: lack of bitterness is as important as the appearance of candour. Irony is necessary, up to a point, yet if taken too far becomes unwelcome, a distraction both from that necessarily wry, ‘what can I have been thinking?’ tone, but also from the flashes of real, still-raw anger, without which the whole exercise fails to persuade or convince.

By any standard, Rory Stewart’s Occupational Hazards (2006) deserves to be set alongside Homage to Catalonia. In September 2003, the 30-year old Stewart — an ex-diplomat whose almost uncannily assured, entirely compelling account of a journey on foot across part of Afghanistan, The Places In Between, appeared in June 2004 — was appointed deputy governor first of Amarah and then Nasiriyah, provinces in the marsh regions of southern Iraq, working on behalf of the occupying Coalition Provision Authority [CPA]. Continue reading

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