My book about the crazy gang of foreign mercenaries who fought for Ethiopia in the 1930s went to the printers last week. It has a shiny new cover in gold and marble grey, and should be in the shops some time this summer.
The Italian invasion of Ethiopia in late 1935 outraged the world. Communists saw it as proof of Fascist barbarism, liberals as outdated imperialism; even the empire builders in London and Paris were reluctant to welcome Mussolini into their club.
It was a war between far-right modernity and patriarchal traditionalism. The Italians had airplanes, high explosive, and mustard gas. The Ethiopians preferred swords and spears. Emperor Haile Selassie needed expert foreign help. What he got was a crazy gang of mercenaries who could barely shoot straight and leaned further to the right than Mussolini.
Lost Lions of Judah tells the whole colourful, blood-stained story.
On 18 November 2015 Islamic State soldiers in Syria murdered a hostage. A 48-year-old Norwegian man in a prisoner’s yellow jumpsuit was casually shot dead.
Islamic State had been trying to get a ransom for Ole Johan Grimsgaard-Ofstad since it grabbed hold of him in March. His previous captors had given up trying to squeeze money out of the Norwegian government and passed him on to the Islamist fanatics.
Norway refused to pay kidnappers. It tried to persuade Islamic State to let Grimsgaard-Ofstad go free. All the Nordic negotiators got in return was videos showing the hostage suffering the after effects of sadistic torture.
The negotiations were top secret until September when Islamic State published photographs in its Dabiq online magazine showing a grim looking Grimsgaard-Ofstad, along with a 50-year-old Chinese hostage called Fan Jinghui.
The headline read: ‘For Sale‘.
In Franco’s International Brigades I mentioned a mysterious Cuban called Miguel Ferreras who fought for both Franco and Hitler then married into the Guinness family and became stepfather to a man immortalised in The Beatles’ song A Day in the Life. Quite a ride.
Now Paul Howard’s biography I Read the News Today, Oh Boy shines more light on Ferrera’s strange life and times through his relationship with stepson Tara Browne. Howard’s book is a great read that covers everything from swinging sixties London to Paris’ gay underworld. Definitely worth buying.
Ferrera’s stepson was a gilded youth born into money, privilege, and bohemia in Ireland. His mother was brewing heiress Oonagh Guinness. Browne was precociously advanced, quitting smoking at the age of eleven, and never getting more than a few year’s schooling. He got his own kind of education from his mother’s artistic friends.
In 1957 Oonagh married Cuban fashion designer Miguel Ferrera in New York. Oonagh had two ex-husbands and Ferrera quickly ditched his first wife (who’d given him an American passport and a few kids) when all that Guinness money walked into his showroom. Tara hated his new stepfather and so did most of Oonagh’s friends who considered Ferreras rude, provincial, and untalented as a designer. They didn’t know the half of it.
My post about French mercenary Dominique Borella, who died in Lebanon during the civil war, stirred up some interesting responses. Fans, onlookers, and family members got in touch. Ultimately it all lead to Dominique’s son Gunther heading over to Beirut and meeting his father’s former comrades.
Gunther was 4-years-old when his father died but grew up knowing little about him. Dominique’s wife divorced her mercenary husband when he went to Lebanon to fight. She preferred her son not to know much about his adventurer of a father.
Later on, Gunther’s grandmother (Dominque’s mother) filled in the gaps.
“I remember that her house was like a museum dedicated to the memory of my father,” said Gunther. “Until the end of her life, she expected to see her son knock on the door and return home.”
Photographs and family legends kept Dominique’s memory alive until 2016 when Gunther went hunting on the internet for more information.
Crusading Catholics, foreign Fascists, and Muslims with a grudge. The Spanish Civil War set right against left when centuries of grievances erupted into a bloody settling of accounts in 1936. The left-wing volunteers who came from around the world to fight for the Spanish government are well known but foreigners also joined the other side. I wrote a book about it. Here’s a FAQ.
Q. What was the Spanish Civil War?
A. In July 1936 a cabal of right-wing generals tried to overthrow the Spanish government by force. The generals believed the recently elected hard-left government was speeding the country towards anarchy and Marxism. The government saw the generals as Fascists. The overthrow was meant to be a short, sharp coup d’etat, over in a few days. Instead the country was plunged into a bloody and divisive Civil War that lasted three years.
Hundreds of foreign volunteers have joined Ukraine’s eastern separatists in the last few years. The Kiev government claims they are puppets of Putin, used to expand the Russian empire. The volunteers describe themselves as modern versions of the left-wing International Brigades from the Spanish Civil War.
Serbs, Czechs, Poles, Spaniards, Brazilians, and others can be found in the ranks of separatist militia units. Despite the guns and uniforms, few get to see the front lines. The separatists prefer to put them to work away from the fighting in ruined villages where they soak up Novorussia propaganda and take pictures of homeless refugees. They tell their compatriots back home about the horrors of a united Ukraine in internet chats and interviews.
The volunteers are men, mostly young and right-leaning despite the rhetoric about fighting fascism. Margarita Kaempfer-Seidler is a rare female volunteer. This blonde 45-year-old German former paramedic has been all over the internet condemning Kiev, fascism, NATO, the EU, and America.
Who is she and why does she support Ukrainian separatism?
In February 2001 two Belgian smugglers met their contacts in the town of Doornik. There was some small talk, a few jokes, then the smugglers showed off the merchandise. Copies of a comic book called Tintin in Thailand. The buyers flicked through a few pages and pulled out handcuffs. They were undercover police.
Shortly after, Antwerp police raided the home of the mastermind behind the operation: Baudouin de Duve, 50-year-old former expat and member of a prominent Belgian family. His uncle had won the Nobel Prize for Medicine.
Tintin is a comic book hero created in Belgium but globally famous. Hergé (aka Georges Prosper Remi) first drew the adventurous boy detective for the kids’ section of Brussels newspaper Le Vingtième Siècle in 1929. For the next 54 years the Belgian cartoonist sent his creation exploring a ligne claire world, from the African jungle to outer space. Most readers encounter Tintin in the elegantly slim hardback versions of the comic strips. Tintin in the Congo, Tintin in Tibet, Tintin and the Picaros, and 21 more.
But Hergé never wrote a book called Tintin in Thailand.