“The moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease for ever to be able to do it.” ― J.M. Barrie

Flowers, shadows and the age of magic

Nigerian author Ben Okri reflects on how moving from the UK to Africa as a child introduced him to new experiences that were to be a big influence on his future writing

Ben Okri

Writing should be a lifelong experience, says Ben Okri, the Nigerian poet and author. Since publishing his first novel, Flowers and Shadows, at the tender age of 21, Okri has risen to international acclaim. His best known work, The Famished Road, was awarded the 1991 Booker Prize.

As a newcomer to Okri’s work, you would be forgiven for seeing it as somewhat obscure. His ideas, he says, are born “out of the strangeness of reality”. To put this into context, he refers to a time when he first noticed the peculiarity of everything around him, when travelling back to Nigeria from the UK as a young boy. “Everything was strange,” he says, “the trees, and the streets, everything was unusual, and therefore brimming over with ideas.”

In order to reflect this perceived strangeness of reality, Okri expresses himself in a very different way to what he calls the “old Western novel”, referring to books written by the likes of Jane Austen. This older style of writing, he says, follows a sequential pattern, born from a sequential way of thinking taught within Western institutions. Okri’s writing attempts to convey a new way of thinking, to show that writing does not need to follow a strict criteria and can instead be perceived in any number of unique ways  – it can be sequential, he says, or “circular and dancing”.

Okri was participating in the Cambridge Festival of Ideas – a week-long University of Cambridge public event celebrating the arts, humanities and social sciences. He reflected on his colourful writing career, sharing a stage with Tim Cribb, an English fellow at the university. Crowds of people turned up to listen to Okri speak. He was invited to begin reading from one of his poems, with the audience duly advised that there was a problem with the sound system, and so we would have to listen carefully. As Okri rose to begin his recital, the audio equipment suddenly crackled into life and the auditorium exploded into applause.

Okri, however, seemed reluctant to speak into the microphone. “I think I will abandon this,” he said, gesturing towards the device. “I do not like to raise my voice. The gentler I speak the clearer I think.

“It is wonderful to be here,” he added, lamenting on what a lovely day it was for such a splendid turnout. “You must love ideas more than sunlight,” he commented, smiling. “That’s unwise.”

Although he was born in west-central Nigeria to an Urhobo family, Okri spent the majority of his early life in London, only returning to Nigeria in 1968 when the country was in the midst of civil war. These experiences dramatically shaped his writing. While Okri has won several esteemed prizes for his work, including the 1987 Commonwealth Writer’s Prize, his ability to write emerged only after completing a long and arduous journey.

“As a child,” Okri reflects, “I would read Plato and the classics, and once, my father told me ‘we have our own Platos’. This confused me, and so I asked ‘Where?’.”

His father’s response to this, Okri shows the audience, was to simply gesture all around him. After many years of not fully understanding what his father meant, Okri says that the realisation suddenly dawned on him. His father’s gesture, he now understood, meant: “It is here, you’re just not seeing it.” This realisation, he says, led to more than seven years of self-discovery through writing, a period Okri refers to as his “critical crisis”. Throughout this time he attempted to break down the barriers of language to establish a way of conveying his new look at reality. “Try and get a dimensional reality into sequential prose,” he challenges, “it cannot deal with it – it does not work!”

“The difficulty in writing,” Okri says, “is finding the language to express these ideas without the need for explanation.” Writing, Okri believes, should serve as the special explanation of ideas, where a literal explanation is not needed. The solution to the problem lies within the discovery of language.

Ideas can only exist outside of the mind with the right language; “Otherwise they exist only in their own reality,” he adds.

And more than anything, you must write something which hasn’t been written before. “What are you going to write if it has already been done so beautifully before? How can you do what Dostoyevsky has already done? The whole point in writing is to not repeat – you invest your life in a journey, and if you repeat each day you are effectively writing yourself out of existence.”

In this way, Okri focuses his own writing on the micro moments that have gone unnoticed in more traditional methods of writing. “Everyone focuses on the big moments,” he says, “but reality is in the micro moment, grind it down and you see the seedbeds of the greater moments.”

While uncovering such a method of writing for oneself may seem slightly terrifying to the fledgling writer, reaching a point where you have something unique is the ultimate challenge. “Writing when you do not know where you are going is frustrating and painful,” he says, “but the process, and the finished work, is more fruitful, more rewarding and more beautiful.”

‘Some things only become clear much later’

The Age of Magic ― Ben Okri

The Age of Magic

Ben Okri’s first novel in seven years, The Age of Magic, follows the journey of a film production team travelling from Paris to Basel while filming a documentary. As the voyage unfolds, the team find themselves followed by shadows, plagued by ghosts, troubled by their pasts and enlightened by the world around them.

“What does Arcadia mean to you?” is the subject of the documentary and, increasingly, the question on each of the crew’s minds. The characters are troubled – burdened with their own physical and emotional baggage, in the form of invisible ghommids, trolls, niebelungens, gnomes, harpies, sprites and an elusive quylph. When they are together, the crew speaks increasingly of a disconcerting presence among them – the ever-present, domineering figure of Malasso, the name given by the crew to a haunting, shadowy spectre which stalks the group.

When they arrive at a hotel in a small Swiss town, in the eye of the domineering Rigi Mountain, they are at once gripped by the serene beauty around them. Over the course of the stay, they each find themselves drawn towards the mystery of the crystal clear lake on the edge of the hotel grounds and the secrets of the mountain town.

The novel takes the reader on a journey unlike any other, presenting characters with a different way of seeing the world and offering the reader a very different way of reading. As the crew are transformed by their journey, so too is the reader.

The Age of Magic unfolds to form a truly dreamlike story, with characters wandering like ghosts in a world that seems to form and fall away before their very eyes.

Both the article and review published here were first published in Global: the international briefing. Many thanks to Head of Zeus for supplying a free review copy of The Age of Magic.

“Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.” ― Gustave Flaubert

A man of the world

Glimpses of a Global Life ― Shridath Ramphal

Glimpses of a Global Life

Shridath ‘Sonny’ Ramphal was born in 1928 in New Amsterdam, British Guiana, to an Indo-Guyanese family. Having been educated at King’s College London, and later at Harvard Law School, Ramphal went on to live a decidedly ‘global’ life.

In his memoirs, Glimpses of a Global Life, Ramphal tells of his experiences working within international institutions, framing his place within the bigger picture of global politics. The book was released in November following a launch party at Marlborough House, the headquarters of the Commonwealth Secretariat and one of London’s best-known stately homes.

Among his acknowledgements, Ramphal speaks of his reluctance to write a set of memoirs, having been asked, somewhat insistently, by multiple friends and relatives, when his memoirs would emerge. He defines multiple reasons for not having written until now, one of these being that his story had not yet ended. His mind was changed over Christmas in 2011, the time of ‘resolutions’, he says, when he felt that it was not just the time, but his duty to begin writing.

Ramphal begins, somewhat unusually for a memoir, 100 years before his birth, with the abolition of slavery. But it was a key time because it formed the roots of Ramphal’s beginnings within British Guiana, a country built on the trade. The first section, ‘Beginnings’, in fact serves as less of a memoir and more of a depiction of the foundations that supported Ramphal’s life. Ramphal traces the history of the abolition of slavery, painting an extraordinary picture of his family’s life in Guiana.

He speaks of his interest in the voyage of women across the Kala Pani under the Indian indenture system and, in particular, the book Maharani’s Misery: Narratives of a Passage from India to the Caribbean, by Professor Verene Shepherd. It was a journey that his own great grandmother took, and a story which could easily have been her own. He begins the book in this way because the events helped to shape his life: “I am a child of all I have narrated,” he says.

There are eight parts to Ramphal’s memoirs, each of which could serve as a volume in its own right, every one covering an important era of Ramphal’s life. From his humble beginnings in British Guiana, Ramphal rose to become Foreign Minister of an independent Guyana, from 1972 to 1975, and later was the second Commonwealth Secretary-General, from 1975 to 1990.

One of the most moving sections of the book is that dedicated to the period of Apartheid in South Africa, described by Ramphal as “the most cruel legacy of slavery”. Ramphal recounts the importance of the Commonwealth community, and himself, in ending this legacy and helping to ensure that “the light of Apartheid’s end was faintly glowing” by the finish of his final tenure as Commonwealth Secretary-General. He speaks at length of the events leading up to the release of Nelson Mandela, whose freedom embodied that of black South Africa. In a chapter dedicated to Mandela’s freedom, Ramphal recounts his own words, emphasising the significance of Mandela’s release to the future of South Africa: “The human spirit survives in South Africa in many ways… But most of all, its survival is symbolised in the person of Nelson Mandela.”

The end of Ramphal’s time as Commonwealth Secretary-General was by no means the end of his story. He went on to become Chancellor of the Universities of Guyana, Warwick and West Indies, and served as the chair of the West Indian Commission. He was also recommended several times for the position of Secretary-General of the United Nations. In the final sections of his memoirs, Ramphal writes further of the ‘honours and intrigue’ inferred upon him, and how he was awarded honorary degrees from 28 universities and made an honorary fellow of another four.

Ramphal ends his memoirs, somewhat fittingly, with a story summing up his relationship with Nelson Mandela. In 1996 Ramphal had the pleasure of conferring upon Mandela an honorary degree from the University of Warwick. The graduation ceremony was a tremendous event held at Buckingham Palace and attended by eight top universities, but it is Warwick, and indeed Ramphal, that are said to have ‘stolen the show’ when Ramphal’s offer of a handshake was dismissed in favour of a familial embrace.

Glimpses of a Global Life is a truly fascinating look into the life of a key figure within the Commonwealth of Nations, serving not only as a memoir, but as a recollection of serious global issues spanning several decades. All this is presented in the form of a worldwide show, in which Ramphal stands centre stage, alongside a whole host of the world’s most prominent figures in international politics.

This review was first published in Global: the international briefing. Many thanks to Hansib for supplying a free review copy of the book.

“Individuals pass like shadows, but the Commonwealth is fixed and stable.” — Edmund Burke

The digital age.

Old Links and New Ties: Power and Persuasion in an Age of Networks — David Howell


The suggestion that the world is entering a new phase of globalisation, a so-called digital age, is not a new viewpoint. Digital technologies are increasingly intermingled in almost all aspects of life. Perhaps the most notable transformation is the emergence of social media – itself often in the news for both the positive and negative consequences of its reach – but the effect of modern technologies extends far beyond this realm.

Computers and networks have enabled almost instant global communication, changing the machinery of society, politics and the economy. This has resulted in a widespread shift in the way that people think, exchange knowledge and access information.

In the digital age, new forces are making a practical impact on events.

Old Links and New Ties focuses on the effect that the digital age has had both on the international landscape and Britain’s shifting position in the world. It serves up a renewal of arguments that were laid out in a pamphlet entitled ‘New Networks’, published by the Globalisation Institute in 2007, and advances David Howell’s appeal for “fresh realism as the starting point for Britain’s repositioning in the global network”.

According to Howell, the USA, once a global giant dominating international relations, no longer holds the position of the most powerful nation on earth. Howell argues that, instead, the digital web, which serves to link billions of people every minute of every day, should be seen as the most powerful ‘nation’.

Howell explores Britain’s place in this new international landscape focusing, in particular, on how the country’s presence at the head of the Commonwealth has given it new international significance – a subject in which the author is very well informed, having stood as Minister of State at the Foreign Office with responsibility for the Commonwealth until 2012.

Howell suggests that the Commonwealth holds new opportunities for Britain to assume an important global role and that the geographical blocs of the last century serve only to hold the country back.

The emergence of new economies, which increasingly rely on fluid connections, gives a whole new role to the Commonwealth, he says.

Howell’s argument draws on the words of Queen Elizabeth’s Christmas Day speech of 2009, when she declared that the Commonwealth is the “face of the future” standing as a “necessary network of the 21st century”. As an organisation, the Commonwealth encompasses diverse people from small and large states serving to create a sphere in which such diversity can communication freely and equally.

Howell’s proposal, therefore, is that Britain should “re-join” this organisation that has served to unite many of the newcomers to the global market, including Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya. Britain’s global links with the Commonwealth put it far ahead of its neighbours, leaving it promisingly placed for the future and far away from the label of the ‘sick man of Europe’.

Britain is surrounded by potential allies and prosperous consumer markets, which are “ready and receptive for a rendezvous with the British”. Indeed, recent history is rife with examples of countries bidding for Commonwealth membership – there have been attempts from South Sudan, Suriname, Angola and even Ireland.

Howell’s message to policy-makers is that they must begin thinking in terms of the real and the virtual all at once. The networked age has brought with it new threats and opportunities and the guiding ‘geist’, as Howell puts it, is the importance of interdependence, not independence.

To this effect, he speaks of the importance of ‘soft power’ – that is, power through attraction and co-operation rather than coercion, force or bribery – in place of traditional perceptions of power dynamics.

Old Links and New Ties is an innovative book, drawing on important topical debates without bogging the reader down with excessive jargon and complicated wording. Howell is able to make the book readable and entertaining by drawing on interesting anecdotes from his somewhat colourful career. He adds further to the book by including several thought-provoking annexes, including his departure letter to Prime Minister David Cameron, after being asked to step down as Minister of State at the Foreign Office. In this very personal letter, Howell suggests that Cameron take heed of this.

This review was first published in Global: the international briefing. Thanks go to IB Tauris for providing a free copy of the book for review purposes.

“Hope Smiles from the threshold of the year to come, Whispering ‘it will be happier’…” ― Alfred Tennyson

With Christmas out of the way for another 12 months I am very much looking forward to getting things back on track.

I was very optimistic before I broke up for work for the festive season that I would get a lot of work done during my time off. I had a pile of books waiting to be reviewed which desperately needs cutting down to size a little bit [I have a terrible habit of getting far too far ahead of myself with reading, and not quite keeping up to speed with reviewing]. Unfortunately my optimism was ill-founded, and alas my workload is as big as ever.

The post Christmas lull should be a nice time to get some work done, so here’s to the start of a happy, constructive and prosperous 2014!

I have a lot planned for the next few months, aside from a stack of books I hope to work my way through, I will be assisting with writing a book for the publishing house where I work, which I’m sure you’ll agree is incredibly exciting, if a little daunting. Before Christmas I also was asked to reviewed a book for the magazine Global – the International Briefing, the next issue of which should go to press within a couple of weeks, so be sure to watch this space.