In 1936 Vladimir Pozner, a young immigrant writer with left-wing views, was trawling the underground of the Russian community in Paris for information on a dead Baron.
The people he talked with had been driven out of their homeland twenty years before by the Bolshevik revolution. It was a world of former Colonels driving taxi-cabs; aristocrats in genteel poverty scratching for rent; Russian language newspapers on cheap paper predicting the fall of Communism any day now; and tea rooms in which the clock had stopped in 1917.
Pozner had no sympathy for these shards of old Russia embedded in the French capital. He was researching the biography of a General from the Civil War. The best place to find information was among the Russian exiles still mentally fighting the Bolsheviks.
“The taxi drivers and workers in the automobile factories made their way right across Paris to read the memoirs of their former leaders in the Russian Library,” he wrote. “They surrounded the page with exclamation marks and comments such as ‘Traitor!’ ‘Jew!’ ‘Coward!’ Everything that might be read between the lines of these books was shown up here, pencilled in, rubbed out, and scrawled in again by subordinates bursting with retrospective rage.”
Darul Islam was on the run in late 1949. The jihadist army’s jungle camp was a hive of soldiers in short-sleeved shirts and Dutch army helmets. They slept in bivouacs under the palm trees and leaned their old rifles in tripods. The perimeter was strung with rattling tin cans strung on wire.
Down time was spent crouching around cooking fires watching cassava boil. On a good day the jihadists would get an extra pinch of sugar or salt but sometimes food was so scarce they ate leaves. A pack of Escort cigarettes was the kind of luxury that could make a man feel like a king.
The 15,000 strong Islamic army was trapped in a shrinking triangle of territory down in Pasundan’s south-east, a state in newly independent Indonesia. Some locals supported them. Others waited until the green Darul Islam flag with its crescent moon wrapped tight around a star had passed out sight, then contacted the authorities. Villages that openly resisted were exterminated, the houses left in ruins and crops polluted by bodies and blood.
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.
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.