Choosing Heroes

In July I packed my bag. My novel, Soon, was to be published in the UK by Jonathan Cape, and in Canada in October by House of Anansi. Leaving for the airport, I said, "Right, I've seen the future. The royal baby will be a boy. Its name will be George." And then I was on the move, leaving the beloved shantytown behind. Singapore was blanketed with smoke from forest fires in Indonesia, the city eerily absent as the plane came down. Changi Airport stank of smoke, the buildings outside dimly visible through the haze. There were regular updates on air quality, and all the workers wore masks. Twelve hours later, looking down on the great map of London turning beneath the wing, I felt a familiar kind of vehement joy: I was free, let loose again, wheeling through the world.

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John Buchan and Osama bin Laden


Recently I returned to a childhood favourite: the novels of John Buchan. These were first published between 1915 and 1924. I found an ancient volume containing all four books, in which Buchan's British hero, Richard Hannay, does battle with the evil Boche, before and during World War One.
In Greenmantle, the second adventure after The Thirty-Nine Steps, Richard Hannay uncovers a dastardly plot. The Germans, led by a vast, bull-necked monster called General Stumm, have come up with a novel way to win the war. The plot involves a propaganda ploy: they will produce a Prophet, Greenmantle, who will ignite the flames of jihad in the Muslim world. Greenmantle will be an instrument of German power. Once the Muslim masses are inflamed, and ready to follow Greenmantle's bidding, they will become a force that can be wielded by the Prophet's German masters, in their pursuit of victory and world domination.

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Albert Speer Crossing the World

Falling for the Wrong Man

On 17th June 1955, Reichsminister Albert Speer wrote in his diary, "Bad humour for days." He had done his laundry a day earlier than usual, "without asking our Admiralty." A week later Grand Admiral Donitz and Admiral Raeder were still discussing his breach of protocol. "Another of his explosive decisions! An idea leaps into his head and he's got to carry it off right off." Impulsive Speer ignored the Admirals and went out. He had places to be. He wrote, "My Coburg friend has obtained for me the figures for the distances I still have to cover: Vienna to Budapest to Belgrade, 615 kilometres, Belgrade to Sofia to Istanbul, 988 kilometres. I have decided to be in Istanbul on January 1st." He would be "in Istanbul" and he would be in Berlin's Spandau Prison, where he, Raeder, Donitz and others, convicted at Nuremberg as high-ranking Nazis, were serving long sentences, in Speer's case twenty years.

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Barack Obama in London

Confronting the Beast

Recently, outside London's 10 Downing Street, I was handed a pamphlet displaying a mugshot of Barack Obama. The President's face was surrounded by photos of other desperados: Blair, Bush, Brown, Sarkozy, Cameron, Merkel. They were all, the pamphlet told me, Wanted By the Shariah Court for Crimes Against Muslims. On the back was a list of those crimes: Afghanistan, Palestine, Iraq, and "the propping up of Apostate Regimes," by which, the authors explained, they meant the United States practice of supporting dictatorships in Muslim countries.

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On Discipline

Recently I was asked to "name something you've never got around to doing." Owning a dog, I said. The idea was planted. I started looking up breeds, frowning over their characteristics. I fancied a beagle, one of those conscientious little super-grasses at the airport, the drug and fruit police. (The dogs I used to joke to the children I was going to kick as they snuffled self-righteously past.) But beagles, I discovered, can be "ungovernable." I was told of one atrocious local beagle that had driven its owner to nervous breakdown. A cocker spaniel? These innocent-looking creatures, I was amused to learn, are prone to "rage syndrome." As for cross-breeds, controversy swirls around them, a hotbed of snobbery and slander: for every website extolling the virtues of "labradoodles," there's another scorning them as "mutts."

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Russell Crowe on the Phone

What I Learned That Summer

'What I learned that summer' – the subject anticipates nostalgia, childhood adventures, the beach, first love, life lessons. Was there one summer where I learned something momentous, something that makes that particular year stand out? I can't come up with just one. Every summer added to the store of knowledge, every one has been packed with data. I have never been one to hang about doing nothing. Writing about a whole series of summers is the best, most accurate answer to the 'learning' question I can come up with.
Auckland: I remember childhood summers of physical freedom. We ranged and roamed, we were always outside. We lived in Tohunga Crescent, a street that runs down to Hobson Bay. With the neighbours' children we built rafts and sailed around the bay when the tide was in. At low tide we walked on the mudflats and caught eels; we stalked through the mangroves, we played in the cave in the cliff under the pohutuwakas.

We spent school holidays out at Karekare, the black sand beach on the west coast. One summer my brother Oliver, who was ten, told my parents that he was taking me, aged seven, and a visitor, aged five, on a bush walk. My parents agreed, not realising that he was preparing to take us through the Pararaha Gorge, an all day bush tramp down a treacherous river, the walk preceded by a sign that read: 'This track is for experienced trampers only.' I remember setting up a small protest when we came to that sign. Oliver dismissed it. We pressed on, and it was only when we were well into the gorge that we realised what we'd taken on. Some way down the big, boulder-strewn river the track disappeared altogether and we were hopelessly lost.

  I remember the hours and hours in the dense bush, our attempts to find a track, the final realisation that we didn't need to go on looking for a path, that we simply needed to follow the river until the gorge met the sea. We walked, waded, climbed and swam. At various points the five-year-old and I lay down with exhaustion, while Oliver ranged about trying to find the way. Once we thought we'd found a path and followed it up a long, steep bluff, only to discover that it ended in a sheer drop. It was dark by the time we made it to the end of the Pararaha Valley, and were met on the bush track over the hills by our searching fathers.

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City of Stories

One night, after a party, I was given a lift. In the car were Hamish Keith and two other people. Someone said to me, 'In your story "The Body," you used the phrase, "intellectual slum." But your father has already used it in one of his novels.'
There was a silence. Was this an accusation of plagiarism? It would have to be dealt with. Rolling round in the back seat I considered my response. Finally I came out with this: "Well, I stole it."
Hamish began to say something sympathetic, also subtle. "In art, we build on what has gone before. It's not so much stealing as..."
We listened. He was his usual brilliant self. He was right, but there was something more to explain.
In families there's a private language. There are in-jokes, built up over decades, that no outsider can know. There are stock phrases. 'Intellectual slum' was always a favourite of mine. My father once used it to describe the church. I inherited the phrase; it was part of the family silver. I used it with a sense of entitlement. But only in a particular place; only where it seemed to fit. In my story, "The Body," it's uttered by a father figure. An artist, the parent of three adult children. You could almost say he resembles...

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