When you hit the Georgian capital Tbilisi in 1992 you stayed at the Metechi Palace Hotel. Everyone did.
You got a taxi from the airport. It cost $5 and the driver spent more time negotiating bribes with the roadblocks manned by young men with AK-47s and leather jackets than he did at the wheel.
The city was a wreck, smoke-black from the recent fighting. Out the taxi window you saw the shops embracing free enterprise, selling Malaysian exercise books, Korean playing cards, fake Camel cigarettes, leather jackets from Turkey. The bookshops that sold only Soviet engineering texts and copies of the twelve century Georgian epic poem, The Knight in the Panther’s Skin, that everyone in the country already owned. The Stalinist-style parliament building, half destroyed in the fighting, its supporting columns eaten away by RPG rounds. The street vendors selling orthodox icons, nesting dolls, glassware, ornamental daggers, the family silver.
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.
If you’ve ever read any Evelyn Waugh then you’ll know the name Basil Seal. He’s the roguish protagonist of Black Mischief (squeezing money out of an impoverished African nation), Put Out More Flags (squeezing money out of WW2), and Basil Seal Rides Again (squeezing money out … no wait, sabotaging his daughter’s wedding). He also makes a brief appearance in the amputated limb of Work Suspended.
Amoral, unclean, and charming, he’s a bit of a fantasy self-portrait for Waugh. But he began as a stinging caricature of Waugh’s real life enemy from Oxford University: Basil Murray.
A dissolute and rich Oxford graduate who found a cause in Liberal politics and anti-fascism, Murray is probably the only man to be murdered by a monkey during the Spanish Civil War.
I‘ve been off the radar for the last month trying to finish my third book . The writing is almost done and looks like it’ll be in the shops around June 2017.
My publishers have already got a provisional title and cover up on Amazon (or Amazon.com). So it’ll probably look a bit like this when it hits the bookshops … . But parts of the title may change and the cover too. Welcome to the wacky world of publishing.
Research for the book has turned up some strange characters among the foreigners who fought for Ethiopia against the Italian invasion: adventurers, drunks, Nazis, fascists, Pan-African visionaries, evangelical medical men, and racists of all races came together to defend an emperor against a dictator. And it also turned up a few surprises about Haile Selassie’s international friends.
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.