A Week in Books: Cheltenham takes centre stage again

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The Independent Culture

No sooner have the real jockeys quit Cheltenham than the desk-jockeys take their place. In a week's time, a paddock-full of champion authors will ride into town for the Cheltenham Festival of Literature's spring weekend (with The Independent as media sponsor).

No sooner have the real jockeys quit Cheltenham than the desk-jockeys take their place. In a week's time, a paddock-full of champion authors will ride into town for the Cheltenham Festival of Literature's spring weekend (with The Independent as media sponsor). As it happens, most of the writers due to show their paces over the three days of discussion can hardly be branded as sedentary stay-at-homes. They range from Rageh Omaar, whose Baghdad exploits for the BBC recently resulted in his memoir Revolution Day, to Gillian Slovo, who, in Ice Road, has switched the location of her fiction from apartheid-era South Africa to the Leningrad of Stalin's purges and Hitler's war.

One theme seems to link many contributors. How should writers respond to the grave public conflicts of their age, especially when those conflicts slide from the battle of ideas to the clash of arms? I shall be chairing a debate that brings together three eminent voices - Bernard Crick, Margaret Drabble and Polly Toynbee - in an event inspired by the memory of George Orwell, and by the prize for political writing that bears his name.

In Homage to Catalonia, Orwell fixed a bar for the literature of committed witness to war that every later reporter with literary ambitions has struggled to clear. Tragically, our own times supply no end of chances to try. And writers still feel as compelled as ever to report, to testify, to mourn, as if their empathy and artistry could somehow make up for the cruelty of the acts that they recount.

Some of these works bear witness merely to Western posturing and voyeurism. Some do an efficient job of conscience-stirring reportage. A few lay bare the devastation, not merely of war-ravaged landscapes, but of the observer's soul. Daniel Bergner's Soldiers of Light belongs in this tiny platoon. It covers Sierra Leone's decade-long civil war and, above all, the British military intervention of 2000 that ended it. This was a brief attempt to validate the long-forgotten "moral dimension" of the Blair-Cook foreign policy, before the PM began merely to echo his White House master's voice.

In the finest Orwellian tradition, Soldiers of Light (Allen Lane, £16.99) will discomfit readers across the political spectrum. Bergner, an American journalist with a drily ferocious, take-no-hostages style, delves into the unsavoury British links with the west-African coast through centuries of slavery, "civilising missions", and cut-and-run withdrawals. Along with a fair-amount of freebooting, "muddled morality" marked, and marks, the UK approach.

Yet Bergner offers no solace to righteous non-interveners. Here, after all, was a neo-colonial invasion that most of Sierra Leone's inhabitants desperately wanted to succeed. In short order, the British managed to rid their land of the repulsive thuggery of the rebel leader Foday Sankoh, and the butchers of his RUF. Bergner salutes an element of "heroism" in the British effort. Even so, he allows himself - and us - no smug repose. At one point, he notes with a twinge of "self-disgust" that scouring the jungle as a welcome white liberator gave him "a vague excitement born of racial dominance".

Bergner tells this tangled tale through a clutch of crisply drawn characters, from the stalwart idealist-in-uniform, Captain Sam Rosenfeld, to the damaged child warrior, Komba, and the eternally optimistic amputee, Lamin. His compact narration, etched in mud and blood, deals in images rather than ideology. He leaves, as he came, sick with "the dizziness and depression of not knowing". Yet a ramshackle democracy puts down tentative roots, polling day at last arrives, and a faint glimmer of light closes the book. The best political writers may prepare us to shed our illusions. As Daniel Bergner proves, they don't demand that we abandon hope.

Cheltenham Festival of Literature spring weekend, 2-4 April: box office 01242 227979

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