Setting a course for a better-run future

September 13, 2022 Leave a comment

One question often nagged me in my four decades as a reporter, writer and conflict prevention analyst: Is the occasional vote for a politician or party truly the best system to choose who runs a country?

Over the past year, I was delighted to learn I wasn’t the only one puzzling over the answer. I was even happier to discover a group of like-minded idealists who are working on DemocracyNext, an independent non-profit dedicated to researching and bringing to life a better-designed paradigm for future governance. Here’s their public online launch event on 15 September 2022 (International Democracy Day).

I’m also very proud that DemocracyNext has asked me to join their Advisory Board. At last, I feel that I have found a political ideal I can believe in and work for.

Learning to love sortition

The key innovation that DemocracyNext is looking into is how to bring people into decision-making through selection by lot, as in jury service. This is also called sortition and is inspired by the classical golden age of Athens, whose definition of democracy was a government by randomly selected citizens. All were equal and took turns, first to deliberate on problems, and then to legislate, judge and act as the executive in the name of the city.

DemocracyNext is one of a number of groups that have sprung up in recent years to promote aspects of sortition. All share many values and principles, but most focus mainly on one country: for example, Sortition Foundation in the UK, Equality by Lot in the US, Mehr Demokratie and its Citizens’ Assembly project in Germany, Tegen Verkiezingen in the Netherlands, G1000 in Belgium, WeDoDemocracy in Denmark, Deliberativa in Spain and newDemocracy in Australia. DemocracyNext adds a more international and radical vision: to put sortition “at the heart of a new democratic system,” not just in government but in the workplace too.

DemocracyNext aims to create brand new institutions, not to bring the sixth century BC back to life or have a lottery to choose the president or prime minister. The approach builds on a growing wave of Citizens’ Assemblies, which are randomly selected so that representatives are a true sample or reflection of their communities or countries. In the past decade, more than five hundred such assemblies in dozens of countries have been finding original solutions to problems that have long stumped politicians: climate change in the UK, France and elsewhere; conflict resolution in the Philippines and Bosnia; and in Ireland, breaking the logjam on abortion and same sex marriage.

Are these assemblies really different from elected parliaments? Two sets of pictures speak volumes to me. One symbolises the current system in the United States, showing the eight top Congressional officials in the Senate and the House. I know that individually some of them – notably Sen. Dick Durbin, whom I’ve interviewed – are wonderfully effective people. But the problem is that collectively, they all look exactly the same. Charismatic, good at raising money, old, male, mostly of one skin colour and likely all pretty well off.

The members of Citizens’ Assemblies, on the other hand, seem exactly like people you might meet on a bus, train or plane. They represent the full, balanced diversity of the community or population. The pictures below – from Citizens’ Assemblies in France, the UK and Germany – also capture both the intense concentration on discussing expert evidence and also the joyful sense of engagement that are characteristic of these gatherings.

Until now, Citizens’ Assemblies have mostly been convened in an advisory capacity. While some politicians have embraced them or joined them, others have stood in their way, seeing them as unqualified or as a threat to their lock on power. In future, such assemblies could achieve much more. At the top of DemocracyNext’s to-do list is the design of and advocacy for sortition-based institutions with real authority.

Why bother?

Personally, I feel many reasons to gravitate towards democracy activism.

I’ve never believed in elections, for a start. They have long struck me as the root cause of the political dead end that delivers government-by-pantomime in my native Britain, the worst polarisation in generations the United States and multiplying numbers of authoritarian leaders around the world. I’m not alone in thinking that something is deeply wrong: a global survey in 2021 by the Pew Research Center found that almost everywhere people have less respect than ever for politicians and are hungry for change.

I’ve never felt that people involved in politics had a special call on my admiration or loyalty. At Oxford University four decades ago – breeding ground of many of the country’s parliamentary leaders – I remember being put off by the stressed and hungry looks of the politically ambitious as they plotted and partied for support. (The parties were fun, though).

I left England a month after graduating to become a reporter and writer. I spent decades criss-crossing the eastern Mediterranean and greater Middle East, from crisis to conflict to economic collapse. Yes, people wanted a better life, including justice, freedom, equality and more. But elections – whether real, faked or only promised – rarely made much difference to what was really going on in most people’s lives. And I never solved the equation that posits: elections equals democracy equals better government.

Take Malta, for instance. In the 1987 elections, an 0.2 per cent swing away from the previous left-wing ruling party triggered a 180-degree about-turn in the small island nation’s rulers. As a young reporter for Reuters news agency, I remember standing bewildered on a midnight pavement in central Valetta as supporters of the triumphant right-wing nationalists went mad around me. For the Maltese, and perhaps many others, it seemed perfectly normal. I however was completely confused by the logic of a system in which a country could so radically change course only because a tiny proportion of the people changed their votes.

Or look at Turkey. In recent decades, the technical side of the electoral process has been generally clean, with lots of parties competing and people able to vote freely. Yet the results are gravely distorted by vote-share thresholds that exclude smaller parties, monopolisation of media by the party in power and the locking up of dissidents. And, in the end, just one man rules.

Iraqi man writes “Yes, yes to the leader” in his own blood on his arm in Mosul, northern Iraq in 2002.

Or Iraq. There was no doubt in my mind, when I observed Saddam Hussein’s referendum on his presidency in 2002, that the process did deliver him something close to the 99 per cent support he claimed. But looking at the traumatised faces of the ‘voters’ being watched every step of the way from the electoral roll to the ballot box, it was clear that the legitimacy Hussein sought was a brittle charade.

Referendums in a much freer country, the United Kingdom, look suspect to me too. How can a decision as serious and multi-faceted as Britain leaving the European Union or Scotland leaving the United Kingdom be left to a majority achieved by a razor-thin number of voters, after a process that is thoroughly politicised and open to all kinds of domestic and foreign manipulation?

Meeting Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, then prime minister, in 2004.

Then there are the professional politicians. I have met and interviewed dozens of heads of state and government, almost all winners of elections. Only rarely, I found, did what they said leave a lasting impact or memory. When I did occasionally admire a politician, it was because of their achievements in life or the charisma of their personality, not because I felt that they deserved to be in charge of so many details of other people’s lives.

All that is before we take conflict into account. When I worked for the International Crisis Group, I once did a back of the envelope reckoning and found that nearly one third of the conflict prevention reports we wrote in one six-month period in 2015 were about violence before, during, or after elections. I wondered: were elections the symptom, or the cause?

Blanking out at the ballot box

As a result, I’ve only voted once in my life, in my Brussels neighbourhood, and I did that because it is a legal obligation in Belgium. I felt so overwhelmed that I just voted for the mayor, probably because he seemed familiar from the monthly commune newspaper. And maybe a bit because he had cancelled a plan for a carpark under our local square that everyone protested about. But I had nothing against the other faces on the voting slip. Compared to the commitment and seriousness of the voting station workers, I felt silly. But I also felt frustrated: as a former reporter, I knew that I would have to do days of work to know if the mayor was really the best candidate, days I just didn’t have.

Perhaps electoral politics and voting never had a chance with me. Growing up, my late classicist father Maurice Pope lampooned politics and elections from the head of the family dining table. He even wrote a book in the 1980s, advocating a completely new democratic framework based on sortition. When I read it back then, I teased him about how unrealistic it all sounded. His publishers rejected the work as too outlandish. He put it aside. Years later, the work seemed to be actually lost.

Over the decades, much changed and not just with me. A decade ago, there was only a trickle of books on sortition; it is now a torrent. As frustrations with politicians, corruption and political dysfunction mounted, academics and publishers began rediscovering the democracy by lot that made ancient Athens one of the greatest civilisations the world has ever seen. Looking at ever-more extreme inequalities of wealth in countries with electoral systems, they remembered what Aristotle and many other Greek thinkers took as self-evident: elections create oligarchies, and only the random selection of citizen decision-makers, or sortition, qualifies as democracy.

Those who support electoral systems often quote Winston Churchill in their defence. Britain’s World War II leader famously said in 1947 that: “democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”’

Britain’s electoral democracy may have been freer and more accountable than many others in the mid-twentieth-century – probably a generous view – but such thinking is too complacent and sets the bar too low for us today. Is our democratic ideal really only to be a bit better than dictators, absolute monarchs and monopolists of religion and ideology? Surely, we can at least try to take decisions for the common good in ways that give much fairer weight to principles like equality, participation and justice?

That’s why I’m glad to be a small part of DemocracyNext, contributing something to a real and growing wave of activism in support of sortition-based, deliberative democracy. In the same spirit, after my Dad’s death in 2019, my mother found the manuscript of his lost book in his library; finally able to understand its importance, I was inspired to edit it, with help from my brother Quentin, and pitch it for publication. A noted UK publisher, Imprint Academic, has now taken it on. Watch out for publication next spring: The Keys to Democracy: Sortition as a New Model for Citizen Power.

This text was updated on 19 September after the actual launch of DemocracyNext

“The Keys to Democracy” Has a Publisher

September 11, 2022 Leave a comment

Good news! The UK’s Imprint Academic will be publishing my late father and classicist Maurice Pope’s last and long-lost book, which I and my brother Quentin been busy editing for the past several months. It will appear in Spring 2023 as “The Keys to Democracy: Sortition as a Model for Citizen Power.”

Three decades ago, my father’s then publishers turned down the text. They found his proposals for political innovation too radical, utopian and implausible, even though they were inspired by ancient Athenian democracy. He turned to other projects. The book disappeared into what we thought was an irreparably corrupted 1980s computer file.

Then, after my father’s death in 2019, my mother Johanna found the typescript in his library. Time changes points of view! Back in the 1980s I too thought the text wasn’t very realistic. But now I see how much politics-as-usual needs to change, his argument for decision-makers selected like juries looks fresh, relevant, clear & compelling.

The project to revive the book would have got nowhere unless others had felt the same.

Huge thanks for a generous Foreword to Prof. Dr. Hélène Landemore of Yale University, whose 2021 book “Open Democracy: Reinventing Popular Rule for the 21st Century” sets a gold standard for academic studies of sortition. She calls my Dad’s book “visionary … a prescient and self-assured argument for democracy by lot before pretty much anyone else.”

I much appreciated too a scene-setting Introduction by classicist Prof. Dr. Paul Cartledge of Cambridge, author of the masterful “Democracy: A Life.” Here’s part of what he says: “The Keys to Democracy remains unique in its philosophical breadth and scope. And in its vision it is still bolder than many on offer.”

Many thanks as well for early endorsements from Dr. Brett Hennig of Sortition Foundation, Claudia Chwalisz of DemocracyNext, Dr. Heather Grabbe of Open Society Foundations, Michael Keating, executive director of the European Institute of Peace and ex-UN envoy to Somalia and Prof. Richard Youngs of Warwick University and Carnegie Europe. They have variously supported the book as “Incredibly knowledgeable”; “Gives us hope”; “Required reading”; “Learned and entertaining”; and “[A] masterful tract”.

Much gratitude too to pioneering political scientist Prof. Dr. Peter Stone of Trinity College Dublin, who connected us to sortition guru and publisher Keith Sutherland. Imprint Academic is placing “The Keys to Democracy” in its series on Sortition and Public Policy.

Over the years, we also owe much to the moral and real support of Jonathan McVity, an author and student of philosophy who helped my father in trying to interest US publishers in the text in the 1980s; he tells the story in one afterword. And also Dr. Michael Potter, Professor of Logic at Cambridge’s Faculty of Philosophy, who shared rooms with me when we were undergraduates at Oxford. Michael often discussed sortition with my father, and in another afterword describes what he would have liked to have had out with my father about the use of juries (and my father did love a good argument).

The conclusion of The Keys to Democracy, Maurice Pope’s 2nd draft

It’s been a busy year of typing out the manuscript, editing, reaching out and researching footnotes. But it’s been wonderfully motivating to meet leaders of the new wave of innovators trying to upgrade our democracies, and above all to feel their selfless support.

Personally, I felt a great sense of closure when I pressed the button and sent the final manuscript to the publishers on Thursday.

I’m also so glad too to think that my father – silently but deeply disappointed, I believe, that this culmination of his life’s work didn’t see the light of day – can rest in peace. His ideas will now live on.

Holidays versus Holiday Homes

September 7, 2022 Leave a comment

Back at work in Brussels this week, trying to bottle up my few last rays of Turkey’s summer sun, I took time out with a nice Economist article on why we go on holiday. It made me question my own holidays, which seem to have little in common with this normality.

The Economist’s correspondent, vacationing in Venice, juggled museum-to-gelato ratios, hedged lovely places to visit against saw-you-coming tourist traps and hunted for the occasional ten memorable minutes to treasure – for instance, watching La Traviata in a Venetian palazzo. This kind of destination vacation, the article’s headline said, widens our world.

I too love a horizon-expanding visit to an unknown capital or beauty spot. But, perversely, I rarely do it. For the past 17 years, almost every holiday has meant one thing: visiting The Lazy Olive, the house my wife Jessica and I built from scratch on the flanks of Turkey’s Mount Olympos, near the Mediterranean coast. There we do have fun with beaches, boats and delicious food. But we can also find ourselves caught up in manic days, weeks, even months of our never-ending struggle to finish the project.

The Lazy Olive catches the early morning sun.

We know we are slightly mad and are missing out on ‘normal’ escapist holidays. But the gradual improvements, even if they can take several attempts to perfect, do make us proud. And we know that we absolutely have to make them, since we now have a steady stream of guests who rent it as a holiday home through AirBNB or Vrbo. (We hope you’ll join them, do check out the links).

Jessica enjoys this summer of 2022’s (now completed) rebuild of the natural pool’s east wall. She added five stone seats on which to soak up the sun while cool in the water.

All that work seems to be paying off at last. This year, at last, staying at the Lazy Olive felt like a holiday for me too. The work seemed less onerous, I had more time to read and relax, and the property seemed settled. Jessica moved just a ton or two of stones to make new in-water sitting places along the east wall of the natural pool. I satisfied myself with refitting a door, changing a tap and surviving some complex wiring work in the main fuse boxes.

Country retreat maintenance is certainly not what the Economist meant by “the explorer’s delusion, whereby people set out to discover what they already expect to find.” Each day at the Lazy Olive, we have little idea what fate will throw at us. I’ve written a whole book about our adventures, but I can’t finish it because the story never seems to end. Still, I can feel the narrative slowing to a more comfortable pace.

Given how much work it’s all been, it’s not surprising how important our guests’ reviews can be. It gave real joy to read Tiffini, who stayed this year. “The pool is the real gem,” she said, “the perfect place to cool off and watch the fish, frogs and dragonflies.” Or Katya, also here in 2022, who said she found “the place was perfect. It’s definitely not the usual type of vacation home, because the owners created it for themselves with heart and soul.”

For us, such endorsements is how we get our version of those treasured ten minutes to savour over the rest of the year. It’s not the Economist’s mind-widening experience of refreshing touristic novelty, perhaps. But it definitely gives some long-lasting satisfaction and a sense of ever-more deeply rooted connection to an alternative world.

What will post-digital archives look like?

September 7, 2022 Leave a comment

In the picture below are about 150 pre-digital-era workbooks, files, diary entries and sheaves of letters (remember, cc is for carbon copy). They were left behind by a 20th century author and classicist: my late father Maurice W.M. Pope, who died in 2019. Surprisingly, it took me just a couple of days to sort out ahead of its journey to be archived by kind request of Cambridge University’s Department of Classics.

My trip back as far as a 1940s air raid on his school made me wonder: how will the intellectual journey of an individual be reconstructed in the 21st century? Will it matter about all our emails on lost accounts, digital files in unreadable formats, vanishing social media posts and hard disks that were left on the train?

My father had one last unpublished book that we had all thought was lost like this, a file on his computer that disintegrated after few chapters into digital gobbledygook. Then my mother found the annotated typescript on one of his library shelves. We’ve now nearly finished editing it as The Keys to Democracy: Sortition as a New Model for Citizen Power and expect to share some good publication news soon!

Maybe archivists’ work will one day all be done by a know-it-all algorithm in the cloud. But after the last week of looking at sixty years of thinking, research ideas, versifying, essay composition, editing and drawing, somehow I don’t think it will feel the same.

Some of my late father’s 1,500 or so books on the ancient world.

Democratic Wisdom from the 1930s

June 16, 2022 Leave a comment

It’s wonderful when an old book speaks clearly to what’s happening around us today.

I had sought out Pour le Tirage au Sort de la Chambre des Députés (For the Random Selection of the Chamber of Deputies), published by an anonymous French ex-parliamentarian in 1936, because it seems to be the first (in the past century or so) to argue that choosing our representatives by lot, or sortition, would be a better and truer form of democracy than elections.

I’ve become fascinated by sortition-based democracy as I help prepare my late father’s typescript on the subject for posthumous publication. For sure, Pour le Tirage au Sort was WAY ahead of its time. The next books to argue for sortition came decades later. The earliest comprehensive work actually only appeared in 2013 (Against Elections by David van Reybrouck, to whom many thanks for alerting me to the French deputy’s old book).

It wasn’t just the ex-deputy’s proposals that struck me as noteworthy: it was how he described the angst of the 1930s, an age when significant numbers of people thought dictatorship was the best answer to dysfunctional democracy. For some, Adolf Hitler in Germany was a shining example, for others Joseph Stalin in Russia or Benito Mussolini in Italy. Normally, I don’t see much connection between 1930s authoritarianism and today, or worry much about threats to the freedoms we enjoy in Europe and Western countries. But something in the old French politician’s warnings struck home.

Humanity doesn’t govern itself – alas! – by reason. The disquiet that is working on all peoples, in the New World just as in the Old, is pushing them to look to authoritarian regimes for the security and peace that an improvidently and badly run freedom has dissipated in the wind of chimaeras and illusions.

That sounds familiar! The dictators in power in the 1930s were no doubt more bloody than today, the economic situation worse and the sense of impending world war more palpable. Yet today’s range of leaders – Vladimir Putin, Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, Tayyip Erdoğan, Viktor Orban and many others – are ever-more worryingly unreliable and/or authoritarian. The conflict in Ukraine is bringing war ever closer to west Europeans. And there is a whole new range of threats to Western countries from densely populated, unstable, climate-change threatened countries in their neighbourhoods.

Paris by night (1935). Frank Hellsten’s clever new colouring of Dutch photographer Willem van de Poll‘s Champs-Elysées scene highlights how close we are to the past.

The old French parliamentarian echoes the kind of criticism we direct at the likes of Johnson or Trump today, but not against individual politicians. He blames the whole system of elections for producing a political class whose members “have all more or less gone bankrupt, and who, in the disorder of our society, demonstrate the most lamentable egotism or the most culpable profligacy.” His long administrative experience had made him sick of blatant corruption and foreign meddling, but he saw the cure in more democracy, not more elite rule. While ready to see experts in an advisory role, he believed that in terms of moral judgment, educated people “do not always represent the social class with the best grip on reality … the representatives of the masses are less educated [than those with instruction and beautiful diplomas] but more endowed with good sense.”

One cannot chase out the plague with cholera

As he plots a way out of France’s 1930s mess, the author surveys proposed solutions to the country’s problems being discussed at the time. (One book he cites is La France veut un chef, or France wants a chief). But he sees a weak link running through all of them: the idea that there should be politicians chosen through the ballot box. “Because all [these proposals] depend without reserve on elections – considered as a kind of incontrovertible dogma – and because every election, whatever measures one takes to make it just, is based on the corruption of conscience and its consequence, the waste of public funds, the evils one wants to suppress cannot be avoided. One cannot chase out the plague with cholera.”

This all leads him to propose a radical idea: a new constitution based on democracy by lot, because “random selection [is] the simplest and most legitimate way to ensure that deputies have moral independence, without which no government has a serious foundation.” The same is true today: selfish politicians like Trump or Johnson keep proving their contempt for the idea that leadership involves noblesse oblige or any moral compass. And from Putin to Erdoğan, all the problematic modern leaders took and maintain power through elections.

The ex-deputy next outlines a new constitution for France, which in 1936 had about forty million inhabitants. It’s an interesting exercise. He suggests a three hundred-seat parliament: two hundred and forty members would be randomly selected from forty constituencies of one million people (using a system similar to the national lottery); the remaining sixty people would be nominated from the expert class by the head of state from among people in pre-determined top posts (eg heads of unions, industrialists’ associations, administrative bodies, parliament and the like). This head of state would be chosen for life by four-five hundred holders of such top posts during a deep, rapid deliberation that would avoid bribery and lobbying. He compares this to the way the College of Cardinals selects a new Pope. That system has worked pretty well, for much longer than most.

“Elections have a less rational and logical basis than [random selection],” the French politician wrote. “By making those elected the slaves of parties and obligated to financial interests, [elections] suffocate their conscience and kill their personality …. Sincerity, rather than an often perverted intelligence, will be the guide of our institutions …. In all things, conscience and sincerity are worth more than knowledge and cunning.”

For better or worse, nobody heard the former parliamentarian’s call in his own time. Four years after the publication of Le Tirage au Sort, Germany’s army made short work of defeating an unreformed France. I can find no suggestion of the author’s name in online searches or link to the work beyond the facsimile of his book offered by the Bibliothèque Nationale Française.

Fortunately, though, the ideas of sortition and deliberative democracy are now taking off. After David van Reybrouck‘s book Against Elections came Brett Hennig‘s An End to Politicians and his Sortition Foundation, Hélène Landemore‘s Open Democracy and a raft of publications by Claudia Chwalisz at the OECD. There’s much more great research elsewhere. And in the past decade, nearly 600 randomly selected Citizens’ Assemblies have shown that sortition and deliberation work well together to produce practical, credible solutions to knotty political problems.

The 1930s French author would doubtless have been pleased to learn that France has been a trail-blazer of this “deliberative wave”. President Emmanuel Macron used random selection in his grand national debates and successful climate convention, and in 2021 the city of Paris decided to create a Citizens’ Assembly chosen by lot that will from now on be a permanent part of its administration.

On becoming Belgian after Brexit

May 27, 2022 Leave a comment

As a person of English culture and British nationality but living in Brussels and feeling European (with South African and Turkish elements too), I struggled to express what it felt like when Britain withdrew from the European Union.

After the Brexit vote on 23 June 2015, I sometimes wondered if I was on board the Titanic or whether I was on one of the lifeboats. Or I felt like I was a child again on one of the ocean liners at the moment it set sail from Cape Town and Europe in the 1960s (the normal way to travel then). One by one, the streamers held by passengers at one end and their friends and family on the quayside would snap until the separation was complete.

Politico gave me a chance to write up my feelings ahead of the sixth anniversary of this messy British-EU divorce. Luckily, for me at least, they have now begun to heal thanks to the blessing of a grant of Belgian nationality.

LETTER FROM BRUSSELS

On becoming Belgian after Brexit

BY HUGH POPE May 22, 2022

In April, the postman pushed a letter through my door in Brussels, creasing it from the strong spring behind the old brass letter flap. It still didn’t spoil the clear and formal message. 

“A change of nationality has been written into the registers of the state,” the stamped and signed letter informed me. “Please make an appointment with the commune to pick up your Belgian identity card.” 

I felt a surge of relief, a sense of safe haven in my current home. And just as importantly, I felt I could now be British and European again. 

On June 24, 2016, I had woken up a citizen of the United Kingdom, entitled to live and work in Belgium and 26 other European Union countries. But when I switched on the television, BBC presenters were stumbling over the news that more than half of Britons had voted for Brexit. For years after, people in my position could never be quite sure what rights the bruising negotiations would leave us with. What would happen if we lost our jobs? 

I had arrived in Belgium just a year earlier in 2015 and had been overjoyed when my Brussels commune quickly, and automatically, gave me a five-year work and residence permit. It felt like my British identity had at last given me full membership to a real international club. 

Living and working in Turkey and several Middle Eastern countries during the three previous decades, I had struggled to win or renew my residence papers, which could sometimes be valid for as little as three months. A treasured Syrian permit took me a year to get, by which time it had nearly expired. And Britain’s imperial forays in the region meant officials’ reactions to my passport ranged from skeptical to downright hostile.  

By comparison, Belgium just wanted me to be patient. It has no U.K.-style citizenship test on medieval battle dates, prime ministers’ names or 200-year-old poems. I didn’t have to dig up a list of English relatives who had fought on Belgium’s side in European wars to boost my case. All I had to do was work for five straight years, pay my taxes, supply a birth certificate, state that I wanted citizenship and pledge to submit to the Belgian constitution, the country’s laws and the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms…

For the full article in Politico.EU, please follow the link here.

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In Search of the Travel Writer

April 21, 2022 Leave a comment

“You really must write a book about it!” 

Whenever I visited my parent’s home in England while living and reporting in the Middle East, I would hear variations on this well-meaning suggestion. It was as if things hadn’t happened unless they were in print between hard covers. I always felt unequal to the task.

I knew I would be unable to match the erudition of my classicist father and had little desire to imitate my “Oriental Studies” university books on Iran and the Arab world. Yet the travel writers that I loved to read – whose books’ glowing reviews my mother, forty years later, still clips from newspapers and not-so-subtly sends to me – seemed to come from an unreachable galaxy.

I had missed the nineteenth and twentieth century heyday of Britons discovering new places (to them) and didn’t have the will-power for a lonely, deep-diving or world-straddling journey. I doubted I would ever be able to magic up the sights, sounds and asides crafted to delight a fireside English audience. Indeed, two decades later, when I managed to publish two books about what had become many journeys, my stories fell between the two camps: they were neither academic with footnotes, nor had that flying sense of exotic adventure or personal discovery that travel books can conjure up.

Reading Tim Hannigan’s fine new book The Travel Writing Tribe: Journeys in Search of a Genre (Hurst, 2021) has freed me from my sense of inadequacy at last. He clearly worshipped some of the same authors as me and longed to join them too. On his own journey to meet and debrief select names in the game, he struts his stuff, tongue only slightly in cheek. Pen portraits describe planes “scratching the sky” over London or he sees a “dark pubic tangle of withies on the parish boundary” in his native Cornwall. The dialogue is all scrupulously honest, which I love, and his analysis is lightly founded on his own doctoral-level research.

Enter Winston the Pig

I am thus completely at his side when, in an evening field, he quite naturally meets a pig whom he thinks he recognises and greets by his literary name, Winston. Then the porker winks at him, floats up and flies off over the treetops. It’s a lovely, compelling moment. But wait! Has he gone over to the dark side of travel fantasy? On my second read-through, I get it. Justice is being done to this most slippery of genres. With a playful touch, Hannigan demonstrates that the travel-writing church is broad and has room for all. He deservedly won a place for himself as well on the Financial Times’ Travel Books of the Year in 2021.

Tim Hannigan

Hannigan pays tribute to noted travel authors of other cultures, but sensibly limits himself mostly to what he really knows about: British travel writers. First there were the “travel braggarts” of hundreds of years ago, some of whom may not have made the journeys at all. Then came informative “voyages and travels” narratives, which by the nineteenth century became a real purveyor of knowledge. Then, according to one of Hannigan’s academic interlocutors, from the early twentieth century on it became a “popularising, middlebrow genre.” Ouch.

Along the way, Hannigan usefully defines travel writing to include: a real, immersive journey; an underpinning scholarliness; a knowledge of relevant literature; and a facility in the languages of people described. More generally, he adds the need for an evocation of place, usually one not often visited by outsiders or which doesn’t reveal itself easily. Above all, the account must be written in the first person with the author, narrator and principal character being one and the same.

In terms of style, he sees little real difference between travel writing and reportage. Irish writer Dervla Murphy tells him her work is close to journalism; other writers clearly would rather be seen higher up the literary ladder, on the same aesthetic level as novelists. Indian writer Samanth Subramian splits the difference, explaining that a travel writer does their journalism on the road and the magical leavening later: “The travel has happened, but the travel writing is happening at your desk.”

Bridges between worlds

Hannigan uncovers sides of travel writing that I hadn’t thought about much. The band of aesthete wanderers was “very male and very white,” he notes, not just from the privately educated British elite, but “hopelessly entangled with the history of European colonialism.” Then there is colonialism’s heritage: the supposed demotion of the people being described as a new “other” ripe for appropriation, or “travellees” who are not asked what they feel about being on the receiving end of posh authorial inspection. I learned how a whole university discipline is now devoted to the ins and outs of travel writing.

I was relieved that in the end Hannigan defends the idea that “travel writing is supposed to be about other worlds.” Author Colin Thubron – one of the more sensitive practitioners, even though white, male, married to an academic, London-based and an Etonian – also believed that outside eyes were legitimate intermediaries: “there’s no acknowledgement that travel writing can be an exercise not in power, but an attempt at understanding, and empathy … from people who think this culture has something to teach them … one culture looking at another.” Scholar Steve Clark concurs, telling Hannigan that the travel writers’ comparative ignorance can be a source of “freshness, wonder, power of insight.”

The well-equipped travel writer is indeed a useful person, since just being from somewhere doesn’t make someone an expert on it. I am ethnically and culturally English – before me, my whole family history for the past three hundred years took place within one hundred miles of London – but I would be an unreliable informant about England. I’ve never studied it, lived there much nor spoken to many people about it. If asked to comment, I feel constrained by baggage of class, education and lack of experience. What expertise I have is likely only useful in regard to Turkey and several countries to the east of it, places I’ve been travelling, researching or living in for more than three decades. If the epithet “orientalist” is now doomed to have a negative meaning, I would rather it was applied to those who do no solo travel or research themselves, but make their judgements of the world from Western ideological and analytical bubbles.

Whoever the informant and whatever the process is, Hannigan is in no doubt that travel writing has fallen far from favour. It’s not just that narratives by outsiders are seen as unfashionably elitist, but also because there is no corner of the world left uncovered by social media videos and the like. The once-rich travel offerings in bookshops have shrivelled. Even the fold-out maps that I used to love have lost their appeal, yellowing in boxes in my attic. I first became aware of the trend in 2010, when I was invited to promote my own Dining with al-Qaeda: Making Sense of the Middle East, at the annual book fair of the National Press Club in Washington, DC. I discovered it was one of only three books of the one hundred or so chosen that even touched on a topic outside the U.S., let alone travel writing. Pride of place went to multiple cooking books.

Fact & fiction

Armchair readers’ thirst for books about foreign parts has clearly been quenched, and, to judge by the thin offerings of media international sections outside moments of crisis, their thirst for foreign news as well. Another dynamic may also be undermining the worth of travel writing. The move away from serving up “knowledge” to “popularising” persuaded some authors to pursue aesthetic, novelistic and even surreal qualities that can amp up the more humdrum realities of the road. “In my first flush of infatuation with travel writing, I had read the genre uncritically under its official designation: non-fiction,” Hannigan says. “But by now I had heard the dark stories of fabrication, of invented encounters and counterfeit characters.” He is surprised to find this “one issue that scholars tended to avoid”, unless the author was already centuries dead. I know what he means. I had been surprised when I encountered fabrication in my years as a journalist. Surprise turned to shock when I met the agent who had agreed to represent my first book on Turkey. As I remember in Dining with al-Qaeda:

She leaned forward to give her most important piece of advice: don’t let hang-ups about facts get in your way. Seeing me recoil, she sought to encourage me with the success of another of her clients. This travel writer had taken one of her ex-husband’s stories, she said, and seamlessly integrated it into his text as if it happened to him on his travels through some distant continent. Sure enough, when the same writer came to interview me while on a new Eastern journey, he exaggerated what I said and invented gory details. The technique spiced up sensationally the two pages devoted to our lunch together, but left me unable to believe the rest of the book.

Another writer, Rory MacLean, freely admits to Hannigan that his work should be called “creative non-fiction”; but at least he clearly signposts his moments of magical reality, while insisting that making the trip is an essential part of his art. Hannigan goes through Wilfrid Thesiger’s diaries and finds inconsistencies with the great explorer’s famous books. Even though Arabian Sands “brims with dialogue,” he notes, the writer’s papers contain “not a single line of recorded speech.” The more dependable Colin Thubron only goes so far as to say he is “reliable by the ‘abysmal standards of the genre’.” 

Writer-politician Rory Stewart appears to be the main modern champion of fact-based narrative, but Hannigan points out that he seems almost too priggish, promoting missives of colonial administrators and spies as the golden age of travel literature. Hannigan quotes another academic, Carl Thompson, who charitably tells him that author Bruce Chatwin’s eloquent flights of fancy were ok because it was like guitarist Eric Clapton “introducing you a little bit to reggae, and then you go and find real reggae.”

Subramanian gives Hannigan some hope for the future. Just as nobody needs authors to reach impossible places any more, he says, they also now don’t need dubious inner or fictive journeys. Instead, he believes a focus on the people being described will become dominant. When introducing such travellees, he says: “The only thing you can do is to try to be as sensitive as possible … make sure that they’re comfortable with the way they’re being portrayed … you just have to be as honest and accurate as possible.”

Exactly. And I agree with Hannigan when he says early on that, for him, “what gave travel writing its strange fascination, as well as its awkwardness and its tension, was the idea of an actual journey, bound directly to a text that overtly claimed the status of eye-witness testimony.” It’s the same thing as night draws in round a campfire and the tale begins: all the dramatic tension depends on the listeners believing that the storyteller actually saw the ghost. And if the tale doesn’t brim with novel sensations and insights, all the facts in the world won’t help. Hence the temptation to make stuff up.

What space for a journalist?

As I finished Hannigan’s book, I wondered again: could my two books of experiences on the road in more than thirty countries – Sons of the Conquerors: The Rise of the Turkic World in 2005 and Dining with al-Qaeda in 2010 – count as travel writing? Real travel – check. First person – check. Immersive – yes, I think so. Literary awareness and knowledge of languages – check. One critical difference, perhaps, is that I created both books out of not one but multiple trips to most of the places described over a period of two or three decades. For me, that time-tunnelling context was critical to having something to say that was both eye-opening and true. But perhaps it undermines the dramatic tension of the one-shot journey. Maybe a half check.

Preparing for a day on the road in an Aleppo hotel in 1982, with folding map and all.

A strike against me as a travel writer, though, may be that my books were often based on journalistic experiences. To be honest, my reporting notebooks, full of terse, home-made shorthand of what people said in interviews, were of only the most basic use for writing books. Indeed, the best source was my diary from visiting Xinjiang in western China in 1999, where reporters were banned and I had only gone for authorial purposes. Sitting in my hotel room each day, I wrote in longhand about the atmosphere, noises, aromas and gestures that struck me – not least the impending bulldozer of Chinese oppression – all impressions not just of what people said, but also of what they meant, and my own actions and reactions too. A real travel writer would no doubt have based their book on such meticulous diaries from beginning to end. On the other hand, without journalism, how would I have met bosses and presidents, financed hundreds of flights, dealt with war zones and kept up my drive to meet thousands of people?

A trip to Iraqi Kurdistan with the Turkish Armed Forces in the mid-1990s.

Another striking finding was that my published articles were rarely of immediate use as raw material for the books. I had assumed that the polished, sharp newspaper prose and the fact that I had answered so many clever editors’ questions at Reuters news agency, The Independent or The Wall Street Journal would make these texts the best basis for chapter sections. In fact, when I could find them, the rough first drafts of my stories proved to be much closer to what I actually wanted to say. If I discovered anything while book writing at my desk, it was how the act of journalistic transmission from foreign parts to a Western audience could distort reality in ways I had never been aware of while struggling to send reports from remote hotel rooms.

Even if I got past the stain of journalism, what might still blackball me from Hannigan’s British travel-writing tribe was a quality that he spots as indispensable early on: a common, cast-iron belief in a shared British culture. I did sign my first book contract in publisher John Murray’s ornate old headquarters in London’s Mayfair, in awe the legions of travel writers who had preceded me and in particular of the century-old oil painting of Lord Byron above my head. Thanks to a wonderful editor, that book, a modern history of Turkey, did fine on both sides of the Atlantic. But on the second time round, when I had to write about the Trans-Caucasus and Central Asia, I gave in to the temptation to combine John Murray’s offer with a three times richer American bid (however fond I am of liberal Englishness, I always sold more books in America). Torn between two distinct travel writing audiences and my day job at a newspaper, I lost both publishers, and, in the end, the day job too.

Luckily, my brilliant Dutch wife Jessica Lutz showed me how to reorder and rewrite the text, a new publisher took over the advance and Sons of the Conquerors made it to the finishing line, in four languages and as an Economist Book of the Year to boot. After Jessica gave the same helping hand to Dining with al-Qaeda, a long hunt found a New York publisher, Thomas Dunne, who signed me up over a cigar in his corner office in Manhattan’s Flatiron Building. The reviews were great and it sold several thousand hardback copies, but it didn’t pay back the advance and I had to print the paperback version myself. And I always hated the way the U.S. marketing team insisted that the back cover blurb start off with me “Following in the footsteps of Sir Richard Burton and Lawrence of Arabia …”, since at least the latter was in part a creator of fables.

Despite Tim Hannigan’s rich survey of The Travel Writing Tribe – and his other books of journeys in foreign and local parts – even he refers to himself in some places online not as a “travel writer” but as a “travel journalist”. Perhaps that’s actually the sub-clan of the travel writing tribe that I can most easily claim membership of, given that my ambition is to give, as accurately as possible, a TV-camera-on-my-shoulder view of the places where I worked and the context and voices of the people I met there. 

Along the way, fortunately, my eventual publications between hard covers did satisfy my mother, a voracious travel reader. And since most of my book talks have been at universities, perhaps there was substance my academic father could chew on too.

In Memoriam Lt. C.M. Pope and Lt. R.T.B. Pope, Ypres

January 5, 2022 16 comments

My daughter whooped. Scouting ahead through patches of cream Commonwealth War Grave headstones amid the grey and polished marbles of Ypres municipal cemetery last week, she’d found the name tucked away under an ivy-encrusted back wall. Lieutenant C. M. Pope. Here was the final resting place of my first cousin three times removed, killed at the age of 26 in a desperate melee in a nearby wood, one of the actions that helped stop Germany’s October 1914 advance toward the ports of the English channel.

Cyril’s death in Belgium is one reason the First World War looms far more regularly in my mind than the Second World War, or in fact any of half a dozen wars that I have actually seen in progress as a reporter. Finding his grave reminded me of why that particular conflict keeps surfacing in my mind.

Maybe it’s the heady abandon with which young soldiers like Cyril plunged into what soon became senseless slaughter in the front line trenches. Maybe it’s outrage at world leaders’ failure to either avoid that war, or to manage the conflict in a civilised manner, or the way the peace treaties afterwards just made the underlying dynamics worse, setting the stage for more wars in in Europe, the Middle East and beyond. For sure, as with so many other families in Europe, it’s because of the memories that echo down the generations from those relatives who experienced it.

My first acquaintance with that history is of sitting as a teenager with my great-uncle Gil, waiting for the moment when he’d allow me to pull a small purse out of the glass-topped display case in his sitting room. Inside it, I knew, was what ended his time as an ambulanceman with the Australian forces on the Western Front: an evil chunk of shrapnel the size of an ice-cube that had been dug out of what was still quite literally a hole in his head. A tall, gentle giant, he seemed to have been little affected physically, but never said anything more about his experiences.

Then there was my father’s father, Philip. Another chunk of shrapnel had ripped into his upper leg on the night of 30/31 July 1915 during the umpteenth attack by one side or the other to capture Hooge Chateau, which, before it was flattened by shelling, sat on a low hill a couple of miles east of Ypres.

A field gun roughly where my grandfather was wounded on the lip of a mine crater on the front line at Hooge Chateau.
War Office telegram on 3 August 1915 to my great-grandmother informing her that her only son, a second lieutenant in the King’s Royal Rifle Battalion, had been wounded three days earlier.

After months in hospital back in England, he was sent back to the trenches. He was gassed multiple times and ended up a prisoner of war. He never, ever talked about what happened. Instead, my parents would tell of how he would often have nightmares and wake up howling with terror.

Lt. K. J. Garle

My mother’s father Kenneth Garle, an engineer and pioneering pre-war car-maker, served throughout the war in Mechanised Transport, ensured supplies reached the front lines and won the 1914 Star (also known as the Mons Star). But he too never talked of what he saw, even when he took his family on a tour of the Western Front lines just after the Second World War ended. 

At some point he did bring back a carved stone flower from the rubble of Ypres. From the earliest days there were light-fingered souvenir hunters, and a facsimile of an old sign by the town’s Cloth Hall hall still commemorates the ban on the taking of stones. Winston Churchill had even wanted the utterly ruined town preserved in rubble as a place sacred to British sacrifice. But its Belgian townspeople firmly rebuilt Ypres to nearly what it had been before.

Cyril Montagu Pope (L) and his brother Reginald Thomas Buckingham Pope (R)

Before last week, I hadn’t realised Cyril died near Ypres. I first met him by accident in my father’s library, where I found a slim edition of Cyril’s war diary printed by his mourning family. It told of the confusing progress of the British Expeditionary Force that landed in France in August 1914 to try to stop the German advance. There was an amateurish enthusiasm in his account of the doomed column of infantry, cavalry and guns marching this way and that through the French countryside. Then, two months later, the narrative of this privileged and talented young man – a scholar at both Winchester and Oxford – suddenly ends. A blog dedicated to Sussex people picks up the story: 

“On 24 October, the battalion fought a desperate action in Polygon Wood, to the north-east of Ypres. In hand to hand fighting, with bayonets and swords, the Worcesters were able to clear the woods of enemy soldiers, but suffered 200 casualties … A fellow officer, Major [Michael] Sweetman reported: “I saw him [Cyril] just after I was hit, leading on his men most gallantly against a strong position of the enemy”.

Three months later, Cyril’s brother Reginald, 24, was also in action near Ypres. A book by his school, Brighton College, commemorates its war dead and quotes his commanding officer on what happened:

“We had a terrible time … [Reginald] thought he had seen a sniper and got up with his rifle to try and shoot him, when almost immediately he was hit right through the forehead. He died at once without any suffering at all. When night fell, I managed to get his body back and had him sent out of the trenches.”

Reginald was buried three miles from his brother in another Commonwealth War Graves cemetery, 2,500 of which dot the world in honour of more than one million dead soldiers. The Portland stone is beautifully engraved, and even Cyril’s obscure corner has freshly mown grass and a neatly cut verge.

How is it, I wondered, that a country could so spectacularly mismanage the stumbling into and out of a dreadful war – even losing the personal effects of both dead brothers as they were being sent back to the grieving family – and yet be able to keep the graves of the dead so immaculately manicured for ever after? And what was the point of sacrificing so much to shape the European order in 1914, just to throw in the towel a century later? 

I don’t know if there are proper answers to those questions. But it makes me even more attached to my grandfather’s stone flower from Ypres, which I have mounted on the wall of my garden in Brussels. 

The Secret in the Mountains

June 28, 2021 Leave a comment

Verity and Agatha hate being left behind by their father when he goes off on his travels as a British diplomat. So after he tells his daughters he’s being sent to visit a mountain kingdom in southern Africa, they wangle their way into joining him. When the King’s grand-daughter tells the young sisters of a plot against the royal family, however, their adventure becomes a dangerous mission for them all.

I wrote The Secret in the Mountains more than two decades ago as a bedtime storybook for children in the family. Now it’s in a nice printed version, several people have now asked to buy copies and I’m delighted to share it further. I apologise in advance for the sometimes steep postal rates over which I have no control!

The cost of the book, with 104 pages and 18 illustrations, is €10 (ten euros) or nearest equivalent in your currency (£9 UK pounds sterling, $12 USD). Thus the total cost with postage is as follows:

£11.65 pounds in the UK (including £2.65 postage)

€14.80 euros in Belgium (including €4.80 postage)

€21.50 euros in wider Europe/Mediterranean (including €11.50 postage)

$27.30 USD in the U.S., Canada, rest of the world (including $15.30 postage)

With any order I’m happy to add an extra copy or copies at half price, or £4.50/€5/$6 each. The postage cost is the same for one, two or three copies.

Please message me at hughpopebooks@gmail.com with:

  • Your first name and family name
  • Your address (including postcode, city and country)
  • Let me know whether you’d like to pay by bank transfer in the UK, in the euro area or in dollars in the U.S. PayPal is also available. I’ll send details in my reply.

This is the third book I’ve enjoyed printing privately. I can also supply copies of the new edition of my Middle East reporting memoir Dining with al-Qaeda or a paperback version of my father’s memoir Amateur. Amateur is also freely downloadable as a PDF here.

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My Father Prof. Maurice Pope’s Farewell to Apartheid South Africa

June 13, 2021 2 comments

Fifty-two years ago, my family left South Africa by ship from Cape Town harbour. My British father and mother, Maurice & Johanna Pope, had lived and worked there for 20 and 15 years respectively, and had no doubt that they were doing the right thing in taking their leave. They felt they couldn’t stay after my father resigned his much-loved post at as a Professor of Classics at the University of Cape Town. He was protesting the fact that his university had, under pressure from the then apartheid government, withdrawn the offer of a senior lectureship in African studies it had made to to a Black South African, Dr. Archie Mafeje.

I was nine years old and understood little of what was happening. Still, I was pretty sure that I was being uprooted from what for me was a paradise. I remember just two things clearly from that day. Firstly, being deeply upset as the ship readied to leave and going to my cabin, and – a warming memory on this Father’s Day – that my father came down to sit beside me and did his best to console me. Second is an indelible image of slow departure as the tugs pushed our ocean liner away from the dock. All of us passengers had thrown streamers to their friends on the quay, each side holding an end of the thin strips of light paper until, one by one, the web of physical inter-connections tore apart.

Over the preceding weeks my brother Thomas and I had sat on the arch above the gate to our house, watching the traffic of people and reporters who came discuss the drama with our parents. If we thought we wouldn’t be seen in the shade of the oak trees around us, we’d vent our resentment by lobbing one of our collection of acorns at them. A few weeks ago my mother, tidying up my father’s library after my father’s death in August 2019, has found the clippings of one of those farewell interviews. I’d read in his memoir about his considered reasons for their decision. But here, more clearly than ever, I can hear my father’s voice explain why he felt that he, and we, had to go. It made me really appreciate how journalism can preserve an authentic snapshot of time.

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From The Sunday Times, Johannesburg, 9 March 1969

Last year the Council of the University of Cape Town agreed to the appointment of an African, Mr. Archie Mafeje, as senior lecturer in social anthropology, but changed its mind when the Minister of National Education, Senator De Klerk, said the Government would not countenance the appointment. As a result of this decision by the university’s governing body, Professor Maurice Pope, Professor of Classics, resigned.

Professor Pope, who was born in England and attended Cambridge University (Magdalene College), came to South Africa in 1948, and joined the staff of U.C.T. as a lecturer, becoming Professor of Classics in 1957. He has served also as Dean of the Faculty of Arts. He is a specialist in Aegean writing systems and in Greek medicine. His last contribution before leaving U.C.T. was to give a series of lectures on Greek tragedy at the summer school.

Professor Pope, who will live in England for the time being (although he does not have a new post to go to yet) left South Africa on Friday with his wife Janna [Johanna], and his three young sons. Before leaving he discussed his resignation with STANLEY UYS in this interview.

Uys: Professor Pope, you resigned six months ago. What do you feel like now that you are actually departing?

Prof. Pope: Very sad at leaving behind so many friends.

Do you regret having resigned?

No.

Did you resign just because one man was prevented from taking up an appointment?

Yes, it meant that Cape Town had ceased to be an international university.

In what way?

The council said that in future it will appoint only White persons to academic posts.

Surely the council was forced into this position by the Government?

Perhaps by the Government, but not by any law.

Nevertheless, it took the decision reluctantly. The university has, after all, always stood for non-discrimination. Aren’t you therefore deserting the ship?

But the ship scuttled itself.

But no one else has resigned, not even your principal, Sir Richard Luyt, who is well known for his views on autonomy.

Sir Richard has taken on the job of running a university: my choice is whether I want to belong to it.

But is there any alternative institution to go to in the South African academic world?

No, that is why I am leaving the country.

Do you the think everybody should follow you?

Obviously not, especially if they are South Africans and want to go on living in South Africa.

Should one’s decision on what is right and wrong depend in what country one is born in?

It might do if you are a nationalist, but I am not. As I said at the beginning, it is because the university has lost its international character that I am leaving.

Obviously, you do not agree with the present Government that a university is a place where a “national character” should be moulded?

Not if means propagating a 17th or 19th century set of values. But, of course, not all universities can be photo-copies of each other. Every country is different in its history, economy, geography, etc., and its universities must reflect this.

So you concede that universities ought to have a national flavour?

Yes, I do, otherwise all we would need would be one vast television station from which experts would lay down the truth for the whole world.

But if it was the truth what would be wrong with that?

In the first place, the truth about the Arctic tundra might be irrelevant to Cape Town students and bore them stiff; in the second place, the truth is never known – universities exist to search for it.

What’s all this got to do with Mr. Mafeje?

A lot. The social sciences are accepted as a very important subject these days, and one is going to get a very distorted view of them if one always looks at them through white-tinted spectacles. What should give South African universities their “national flavour” is the country’s multi-racialness.

You believe a university in South Africa cannot be a true university if it is uniracial. is this how you see the future of South Africa – in multi-racialness?

Yes, in its diversity. South Africa’s national motto should not be “Ex Unitate Vires,” but “Ex Diversitate Vires”.

This is all very well in principle, but what real alternative was there for the university – after all, the Government pays more than half its running expenses, and it also has the power to legislate to see that it gets what it wants?

In that case it cannot want a university. At least it will not get one. A university does not exist to propagate existing standards and knowledge, but to explore new paths.

The Government could argue that White people are perfectly able to do this unassisted?

In the first place, you would not necessarily get the best experts in a subject if you insisted on them all being White; and also you introduce distortion, especially in the social and humanistic subjects but the most important of all at the present time you are likely to deter the best scholars and scientists. Their skills are international and they naturally prefer to work where they can find a free environment.

What you are saying suggests the idea of an academic boycott of South Africa. Do you think this is desirable?

I didn’t mean to suggest that. Boycotts are dictatorial and self-righteous things, and in any case they tend to have the opposite effect to the one desired.

If I may bring the discussion back to Mr. Mafaje: was it this incident, and this incident alone, that made you resign?

It was. I resigned immediately I heard of the council’s decision. But of course I cannot say how I might have reacted had the background been different.

Meaning?

Well, there has been a record of government interference with university staff – Professor Simons, Alan Bishop and Dr. Hoffenberg at Cape Town alone. The message is clear enough: if the Government dislikes a member of the university staff sufficiently, it will get rid of him.

You mean all university staff members are present with the tacit consent of the Government?

Yes, and that is not all. We have for some time not been allowed to admit freely non-White students and our student leaders are under constant threat. All this adds up to an atmosphere which is far from congenial for academic people, to say nothing of the censorship of books, which affects not only the university but the country as a whole.

In that case aren’t you letting down your students by depriving them of the opportunity of being taught by you?

I should be very arrogant if I believed that. In any case, it is the Government’s actions that have made it uncomfortable for people who think like I do to teach in a South African university.

You are not being very optimistic about the future of South African universities?

Institutions don’t change overnight, but as far as Cape Town University is concerned, the Mafeje case is a symbol of a major defeat.

Is there any way in which, in your opinion, the university can fight back?

Well, it obviously cannot fight the Government, but it cannot be forced to cooperate.

You mean it could close down altogether?

Yes, as some German universities did during the Hitler regime. This would of course be the most honourable course.

But suicides are useless. Is there no way in which the University of Cape Town could in honesty continue to serve the community it is intended to serve?

Well, if it believes, as it claims to do, that a university must be autonomous, and if it has lost its autonomy (as I believe it has), then the only honest thing it could do is to stop calling itself a university. It could renounce its title of the University of Cape Town until such time as it had regained its freedom, and go back to using its former name of the South Africa College.

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For Archie Mafeje, the denial of his UCT appointment was one of the great disappointments of his life. He went instead to Cambridge University in the UK, earned PhD in Anthropology and went onto a noted international career including professorships in the Netherlands, Egypt, Tanzania and Namibia, only moving back to South Africa in 2000. He died in 2007.

My father went on to teach and write in Oxford and to write several books, summed up in a memoir available electronically or in paperback from hughpopebooks@gmail.com. His other published work after leaving Cape Town ranged from academic publications about his speciality in the ancient Cretan Linear A script, an acclaimed history of decipherment, a book on everyday life in ancient Greece and a pithy essay of political philosophy which is still being prepared for publication. In this posthumous work he reflects on the lessons ancient Greece, Venice and Florence have to teach about how to improve democracy through introducing the random selection of decision-makers.

As for me, I loved the 10-day sea journey to Venice aboard the Lloyd Triestino ship Asia, and the subsequent drive through Europe, including the novelty of mountains covered in snow. But if I thought I was really English, boarding school with other pale-faced boys who had rarely left their country taught me that this was not the case. I made some good English friends, but I sought out schoolmates from an international background. I chose to study exotic-sounding Persian and Arabic at university. Within a month of getting my degree, I booked a one-way flight to Damascus, and never went back to England.

After more than three decades in Turkey and the Middle East, and now living in the international melting pot of Brussels, I am almost at peace with the idea that I will never feel fully at home anywhere. Even a four-month journalistic assignment to post-apartheid South Africa failed to convince me that I belonged back there. I am not made of the clear-cut moral fibre of my father. But reading his in-the-moment description of the trade-offs between university ideals and state power, I feel a new sense of clarity about the tough choices everybody makes who has experienced life under authoritarian rule.

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