Review – Beautiful Animals by Lawrence Osborne

Book Review, Europe, Greek Culture, Greek life

When I was younger, I stocked my bookshelves with all the markers of the intellectual reader. I made the fatal mistake of confusing obscurity with art and attempted to persuade myself that what I really enjoyed were “difficult” and complicated novelists who rejected bourgeois notions such as a plot and story.

The novelist and travel writer (he has said he hates being called a travel writer but, nonetheless, he is) Lawrence Osborne has repeatedly pointed out in interviews the suspicion of plot and story held by literary writers. Plot is often considered the domain of genre fiction.

“Novels are not essays or ruminations or sentence worshipping. It’s like a film that doesn’t tell the story – you can’t sit through it. Which is not to say you shouldn’t be worshipful of plot, which is what literary writers are terrified of; they think it’s vulgar, which is stupid – after all a story is not a trivial thing.”

Lawrence Osborne is definitely not afraid of telling a story, and his novels have the pace and feeling of thrillers. However, they are definitely literary fiction. They display a mastery of prose styling that is also apparent in his non-fiction work – his ability to evoke a feeling of a place or an emotion is unparalleled. He is undoubtedly a great novelist. His past novels have taken readers to the casinos of Macau, the deserts of Morocco and the jungles of Cambodia. His latest novel, Beautiful Animals, takes us to a more familiar European location, the wealthy Greek island of Hydra.

Like most of Osborne’s work, Beautiful Animals is set amongst an elite – in this case the world of rich English and Americans who holiday on the Greek islands. The central character, Naomi, is a young and beautiful lawyer who has left her job in London under a dark cloud and has retreated to her father’s house on Hydra to drink ouzo, eat souvlakia and smoke weed. Here she meets Sam, a younger American girl, and introduces her to the delights of the Greek island and the summer way of life.

The discovery of an attractive Syrian refugee named Fouad in a cove on the island provides the new friends with a mission, and the decisions that Naomi makes will lead to profoundly disturbing consequences that will affect all the players.

Although the central plot device of Beautiful Animals relies on the Mediterranean migrant crisis, this is not an issue novel. The ethical issues surrounding mass migration and Europe’s duty towards migrants come up, but in a natural way – as these topics do around the dinner tables of the well-educated and privileged. The novel focuses rather on the hidden motivations of people and, in particular with Naomi, the way that we construct themselves and use this constructed version of ourselves as a justification for selfish and fatal acts. It is the logic of “what I do must be right, because I am an essentially good person”. No one comes out of the novel particular well; Osborne manages to make everyone an accomplice in the crime that forms the central drama of the book. Since this novel is a story-driven, I’m afraid I’m not going to give you any more insights into the plot – you’ll just have to read it for yourself.

Of course, this novel has a special feeling for me, living in Greece. I don’t move in the circles that the protagonists move in – I’ve never even been to Hydra – but it’s nice to read a novel that treats Greece as a setting with love, but doesn’t fetishize it. Greece is the location but it is not a novel about Greece – in the same way it is not a novel about the migrant crisis. Lawrence Osborne is obviously someone who is deeply fond of Greece (I believe he has lived here in the past), and this shows in his prose without being overbearing.

It’s hard to write about Greece without falling into well-worn tropes, and in some sense this is unavoidable. Greece is both a major tourist destination and a country that has been defined by the eyes of foreigners. It has adjusted itself to the view of the stranger as a method of survival – to an extent Greece is what the traveller wants it to be (Athens is the exception). So the tropes of sun, sea, wine and ouzo are appropriate in a novel that is set amongst wealthy sojourners on Hydra. In particular, Sam is a newcomer to the island, unlike Naomi who has been coming since she was a child. Although Sam does not appear for large parts of the novel, I think she represents the eye of the reader – a viewer who is dragged in an made culpable in a crime, entranced with Greece and with the glamorous life of her new English friend (representing of course the sophistication of the Old World).

There are a few points which stick out uncomfortably, especially to someone living in Greece. I was slightly confused by Osborne’s mistakes regarding Greek drinks nomenclature. Osborne worked for a long time as a wine writer at Vogue, and has since written on all sorts of drinks around the world. He also wrote the absolutely fantastic The Wet and the Dry, documenting his attempts to get a drink in various Muslim majority countries. He is an expert at writing evocatively about alcohol. Take for example this bit:

“Over the years she had discovered from experience that the best moments between them were when they drank ouzo together. That double-edged and flavourless drink was their dark truce, their mutual anonymity.”

However the problem here is that ouzo is not flavourless – it’s heavily flavoured with anise; that’s what makes it ouzo. Tsipouro and raki are the unflavoured Greek spirits. It’s a minor mistake, but it shows up instantly to someone who has spent time drinking in Greece – and given Osborne’s credentials, I was a little surprised.

Beautiful Animals does what I think it set out to do marvellously. It tells a tense thrilling story in a high evocative style. As always I’m looking forward to Lawrence Osborne’s next offering.

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We’re Still Here

Greek life

As the heatwave in Athens finally abated on Monday and the last of the stinking rubbish from the binmen’s strike was cleared away, Greece has slowly but surely slipped into the tourist season. Analysts estimate that 30 million visitors will come to Greece over 2017, that’s three times the country’s population. This is obviously a boon to the country’s vital tourism industry, where the bulk of many people’s annual earnings are taken in the two, hot months of July and August.

For those of us who live in Athens, we will see the city transformed. I can’t decide whether I prefer Athens in the summer or the winter. In the winter we are left largely to our own devices. Events and activities are focused on the residents of the city. That’s not to say that there are no visitors during the colder months. Exarcheia has a continuous conveyor belt of Western anarcho-tourists, come to do a few months of volunteering at the various squats. Plus there are the Erasmus students – also focused around Exarcheia.

This year, the Teutonic behemoth of the art world, Documenta, rolled into town, bringing with it a slew of visitors with interesting haircuts and interested expressions. It was hard to miss the simmering resentment by many Greeks, both in and out of the art world, towards the patronising tone taken by Documenta’s organisers. Even more frustrating was the obscure and mediocre nature of a lot of the art on display. Still, one good thing to come out of this circus is that the modern art museum on Syggrou Avenue has finally opened its doors.

So as summer begins to pick up pace, the tourist industry of Athens and the rest of Greece cranks up the air conditioning, bring out the frappes and beers, dust off the penis-shaped bottle openers and start frying the kalimari, ready to welcome the beer-swilling masses from the frozen North.

Surrender your Privacy – Win a Car!

economics, Greek life, Greek Politics

In the unending mission of the Greek state to become completely omniscient regarding people’s financial arrangements there have been some odd moves.

The Finance Ministry has long been trying to encourage people to make payments by card rather than by cash. Not content with monitoring everything that goes in and out of your account, they want to know when you bought a packet of cigarettes, had a drink in a bar (and which bar), or ate a meal.

Understandably (and rightly), Greeks are reluctant to allow the government see anymore of their financial transactions than absolutely necessary – so the cash economy continues.

In a recent move to entice Greeks to use their cards, the Finance Ministry has introduced lotteries for people who use their cards. The latest announcement from the Ministry that one of the monthly prizes will be a new car! Greece to offer cars as carrots to spur card use.

So that’s a simple decision – give up the last of your right to privacy and freedom of action and you just might win a car.

Be it enacted by the Queen’s most Excellent Majesty

British politics, economics, Europe, Politics

brexit-bill.jpg

After jubilation at the government’s defeat in the Supreme Court, there is frustration amongst the opposition in Parliament at the extreme brevity of the recently published bill to trigger Article 50 procedures. The entire bill, catchily titled “European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill”, is only 133 words long. This has prompted Tim Farron and some commentators to wonder what David Davis has been up to since the referendum.

This is a silly question, since we all know what David Davis has been up to. He’s been trying to avoid presenting a bill to Parliament.

Personally, I’m not sure where I stand on this whole issue. I voted to leave the European Union (hopefully this won’t be too surprising to people who’ve been reading my posts), and generally I believe that the more quickly and cleanly the break with the EU is made – the better. However, I cannot support the government’s attempt to exclude Parliament from this procedure.

The eternal problem with referendums is that often you are left with a policy without any political will to enforce. This was the case the EU referendum and David Cameron quite rightly stood down. However, we then had a load of Tory frontbench Remain campaigners transforming themselves into hard Brexiteers in a shameless display of bandwagonism.

Since then, the government has been incredibly coy as to exactly what their negotiating strategy will be and what post-Brexit looks like according to their plan. All we know is that its going to be hard.

The logical conclusion to take from this is that they don’t really know what they’re doing. It’s possible to imagine that they have some amazing negotiating strategy that they want to keep secret and then unleash upon the European at some undisclosed point. But this way of thinking reminds me of Syriza supporters during the memorandum negotiations. Every apparent fuck-up by Varoufakis was actually some amazing negotiating technique that we couldn’t possibly understand.

This is precisely the kind of situation where Parliamentary oversight is required. We are presented with vague statements and rhetoric by Her Majesty’s Government and it is the job of Parliament to scrutinise them and work out whether they actually have a plan. This is doubly important given that this is a policy derived from a referendum, for the reasons above. Since we do not have a government elected to enforce this policy, we require our elected Parliament more than ever to hash out exactly what Brexit will mean and how we will proceed. This is what Parliament was designed for.

On the other hand, the longer this process takes, the worse the economic outlook for an independent Britain looks. Also, the British Parliament is full of people who didn’t want Britain to leave the EU and who will most likely push for a severely watered-down Brexit. In a well-meaning attempt to maintain the advantages of EU membership we risk ending up with the worst of both worlds – in other words, we will be constrained by the rules of the European Union without having a say in them.

So, our MPs should scrutinise the government as thoroughly as possible, but they also need to move quickly to shape policy that fulfills the clear result of the referendum in a way that maximises sovereignty and minimises damage.

Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay

economics, Greek life, Greek Politics

Greece is rapidly becoming one of the most unfree countries in Europe.* For many years now, our bank accounts have been monitored by the tax authorities and every transaction must be accounted for in our tax return. In principle, the government can also take money directly from our accounts for unpaid tax. Although I do not believe that this has been used, the fact that it is structurally possible is shocking. (CORRECTION – they HAVE done this. In just the first half of 2016 money was confiscating from 151,ooo bank accounts, for example – from Kathimerini).
But the greatest hindrance to freedom in Greece is the prohibitive level of taxation and bureaucracy. Greeks are enterprising people in general, but many small businesses find themselves unable to meet their tax obligations despite running reasonable successful (relative to the current situation) businesses. Almost any profit an individual or small company makes goes towards paying extortionate social security payments or equally extortionate taxes.
Recent “luxury” taxes on certain products will have an effect over the coming year, on both a human and economic level. The price of a kilo of coffee has gone from around €9 to around €14 in under a year because of these types of taxes. This will have the obvious effect of reducing consumption (putting many of the smaller coffee distributors out of business), but it will also have the effect of making the simple act of going for coffee with friends more expensive. The actual revenue that is brought in by these measures will most likely fail to make even a small dent in Greece’s massive national debt.
Starting a business is even more daunting. Obviously, Greece has been through many years of crisis and the economy is doing very badly. But you would think that in a situation like that, the government would want to make it easier for people to produce money, rather than harder. In fact, it has long been the rhetoric of Greece’s European “partners” that they want to liberalise the Greek economy and labour market, making it easier to do business. They have focused on making wages lower, destroying job security and making it easier to fire people.
But alongside this there has been a relentless increasing of taxes and social security contributions, especially for self-employed people (coupled with a decrease in what is received from the state in return). How can they claim that they want to liberalise the economy when they insist on laws that bankrupt businesses before they’ve even had a chance to fail on the market? What is the incentive for employers to hire people legally if that means almost doubling the amount they spend on each employee?
For small companies this is an special problem. A small bar opening up may be able to afford to pay an employee a passable salary even given the crisis, but they may not be able to afford to pay almost double this. This discourages both giving people jobs and even opening a business in the first place. If the members of the troika actually wanted their money back at any point they would be moving quickly to reduce the burden of excessive taxation on individuals and businesses.
How can there be a hope of recovery when people cannot even make small steps by themselves to alleviate their situation? It feels like every avenue is being blocked in Greece and not by the economic situation, but by the interfering, excessive and complex laws supposedly designed to solve the problem. I am afraid that Greece will be killed by these “helpful” solutions.

*Also, like many other countries in Europe, Greeks have been compelled for decades to carry ID cards that must be presented to the police on demand at all times, regardless of whether the citizen is suspected of a crime – a clear violation of the presumption of innocence. I hope to write something in the future on the problems with compulsory identification.

Link to Handelsblatt- Europe May Buy IMF Out of Greek Bailout

Europe, Politics

Women in Economic Decision-making: Christine Lagarde

Not sure what to think about this. The IMF has wanted to get out of the whole Greece débâcle for yonks. As far as I can see they have experience of the failure of austerity policies during their other engagements around the world and have come round to the view that the only way that Greece can progress is through debt relief. Schauble and that crew cannot abide the idea of letting the Greeks off the hook (even if it actually means solving the crisis).

The possibility of Europe buying Greece’s debt to the IMF using leftover funds from the bailout of the Greek banks looks pretty good on the surface. The ESM charges 0.8% interest  whilst the IMF charges up to 5%. So this move will lower Greece’s interest payments which can only be a good thing. But the exit of the IMF from the proceedings means the removal of the only voice calling for debt relief and some small relaxing of austerity measures. As I have said to many people, you know things are bad when the IMF looks like one of the better guys.

Have a read – Europe May Buy IMF Out of Greek Bailout

Bristol to Athens

Greek Culture, Greek life, Personal

Most of the time Athens does not feel like an ancient city. I live about 20 minutes walk from the base of the Acropolis, but it does not feel very present when I’m walking around the streets of Pagrati. Occasionally whilst walking along Ardittou I look back and see the columns of the Parthenon and I am slightly surprised – what is that doing there?  My life is mostly the roar of traffic up Vasileos Konstantinou on the way to work, the pitted and broken pavements, overflowing dumpsters, iced coffee and cigarettes in the morning on Alexandras.

In this way Athens has more in common with the ancient cities of the Middle East than those of Europe, I think. I have never been to Baghdad or Damascus (perhaps the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world), but these look like cities that wear their great age lightly, or clad with reinforced concrete. In Athens, if you take a bus through the miles and miles of apartment blocks that extend across the Attic plain, the Acropolis seems as far away as it does in Bristol.

Despite this, it is a city that feels like it has been here forever because it embodies the archetype of a city. When I first visited everything about the place screamed “city” to me, in a way that no English town does. London is a grand and elegant city partially because it is 40% green space – Athens gives you little respite from its unrelenting urbanity. Philopappou is one of the few sanctuaries from the heat and the concrete in summer, elsewhere you will see stone, concrete, brick, metal, cars, buses, trams, broken up only by the bitter orange trees lining the pavement. Look below at the satellite images of the two cities for comparison:

Obviously England is a much greener country than Greece throughout at the year, but look closely at the difference in housing density – Athens is a sea of grey, London liberally speckled with gaps in the housing. (These images are not to scale, London is much bigger.)

Bristol, where I was born and spent my formative years, hardly warrants the term “city” when seen from the view of London and Athens. At the most generous of definitions it has a population of about one million. And this is very generous as it includes places such as Frampton Cotterell, which is the countryside, and firmly within south Gloucestershire. Growing up there were very few places that it was not possible to walk to in a reasonable time – which is lucky because the public transport was expensive and often non-existent. The smallness of the city was exacerbated by the fact that we basically refused to go to South Bristol, which for all I know is a lovely place. We went to the same pubs and clubs week in week out: the Duke of York, the Miner’s Arms, occasionally the Farm, the Cadbury, the Golden Lion, the Plough, Lakota, the Black Swan, Cosies, the Black Swan, the Black Swan… the Black Swan. (Apologies if I’m boring any non-Bristolians).

Despite its limits, Bristol is undoubtedly the best city in England and if I had to go back to live in the UK I can’t imagine living anywhere but there. It has a huge variation of things for such a small place, the people are possible the friendliest in southern England (I know that doesn’t sound like it’s saying much). But moving to Athens (after a colourful sojourn in Colchester) was a shock. For the first time I was living in a city. Huge, dirty, monstrous and with more than one area to go out of an evening.

st_john_the_baptist2c_bristol2c_from_south

St. John’s on the Wall, Old City, Bristol

Bristol, conversely, does feel like an old city. Its history is very visible. Much of the housing stock around the centre is Victorian, the unused shipping cranes stand idle by the Floating Harbour and the nails outside the Corn Exchange still stand – where tradesmen used to shake hands to cement a deal. (The origin of the phrase “on the nail”). The street pattern around Broad Street and Corn Street displays the route of the Saxon city walls. Also pleasing is how the Church of St. John on the Wall at the end of Broad Street, with its old city gate, has been built into the fabric of the modern buildings and stands still. It is not a museum site but a part of the living city. Despite all of the modernisations of the city centre the rivers Avon and Frome are still very much part of the city and is a reminder of the past.

Athens on the other hand has covered up its rivers. My mission to find a possible scene for Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus led me to the intersection outside the Athens Hilton. In fact the river would once have flowed a couple of blocks from my house, along what is now Vasileos Konstantinou and in front of Kalimarmaro (the Panathenaic Stadium).

river_illissos_1900

The River Illisos 1900 – my house would be out of frame to the right, although it wouldn’t have existed at the time

Athens has grown so enormously over the last century that the ancient centre has almost been swallowed up. Much remains, but it is behind glass and fences, preserved as museum relics, separated from the life of the city. Few people know that there were once people living on the Acropolis and the Parthenon itself had been at various times a church and a mosque. Old photos show a café nestled between the columns of the Temple of Olympian Zeus. This was all cleared away in favour of a pure vision of 5th century BC Athens around which the modern city must pick its way, careful not to disturb the past. An constant reminder of this is the excruciatingly slow progress of the new metro line, which must stop every two metres because a new archaeological site as been uncovered. This is perhaps symbolic of the uneasy and complicated relationship Greeks have with their illustrious history.

Clearly it is great that the Greeks take such great pains to preserve their past, my complaint is that the time period is arbitrary and was determined by foreign philhellenes. Millions of people every year visit the Acropolis and its museum, but when I went to visit the wonderful Christian and Byzantine Museum, my companions and I were the only visitors. The Byzantine and Ottoman history of the city is far more enmeshed within the fabric of the city but, for various reasons, they are not promoted with the same energy as the ancient stuff. The presentation of Athens to the rest of the world is as if nothing happened for 2,500 years. Likewise, little thought is given to preserving the beautiful 1930s architecture of the city – the crumbling state of our house is testament to this.

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Lucy and I outside the beautiful but crumbling house that we share with Anastasia

So I find myself myself, like the Greeks, living in the shadow of history and also within history itself, for, like I have said, it is not always so distant. Once you start to appreciate the full span of Greek history its presence is not so distant – it is in the churches and street names, the grand buildings around Omonoia. You just have to scratch the surface in Bristol and Athens to find hidden stuff in the roots of the city. Bristol is perhaps blessed by not having Athens longevity and great history, but when I push my everyday life to one side and think about it, it is thrilling to think that the river that Socrates and Phaedrus sat by runs next to my house. And there are few things that equal sitting on the Areopagus, where Saint Paul preached to the Athenians.

*Final note as this has gone on long enough – I’m planning on getting hold of a basic camera at some point so I can start taking pictures of my favourite buildings around Athens. I may do that on this blog or somewhere else. I’ll keep you posted.

Update: I found this quote on the blog Anatomy of Melancholy from “The Names” by Don DeLillo, it seemed apt:

“There were Cypriots here, Lebanese, Armenians, Alexandrians, the island Greeks, the northern Greeks, the old men and women of the epic separation, their children, grandchildren, the Greeks of Smyrna and Constantinople. Their true home was to the spacious east, the dream, the great idea. Everywhere the pressure of remembrance. The black memory of civil war, children starving. Through the mountains we see it in the lean faces of men in flyspeck villages, stubble on their jaws. They sit beneath the meter on the cafe wall. There’s a bleakness in their gazing, an unrest. How many dead in your village? Sisters, brothers. The women walk past with donkeys carrying bricks. There were times when I thought Athens was a denial of Greece, literally a paving over of this blood memory, the faces gazing out of stony landscapes. As the city grew it would consume the bitter history around it until nothing was left but gray streets, the six-storey buildings with laundry flying from the rooftops. Then I realised the city itself was an invention of people from lost places, people forcibly resettled, fleeing war and massacre and each other, hungry, needing jobs. They were exiled home, to Athens, which spread toward the sea and over the lesser hills out into the Attic plain, direction-seeking. A compass rose of memory.”

Blowout: a Greek crisis parable

Uncategorized

Dateline: Atlantis

20shair

One of Aunt Cassandra’s few remaining luxuries in life is getting her hair done twice a year in her favourite posh hair salon in the old money enclave of Kolonaki. Fortunately, Uncle Aristos’s prudent financial management left her with enough pocket money allow her the occasional indulgence. So she nearly required a dose of the smelling salts this time, when she called up for an appointment to be told by an equally perplexed sounding receptionist that the business was closing down.

Gosh, she thought, things must be really bad if such an august institution is forced to close its doors, a real humanitarian crisis for the french polish and blowout set… But as is generally the case, there is more to this tale of financial woe than meets the impeccably kohled eye. After a bit of detective work among her more worldly friends, Aunt Cassandra was able to track down her favourite stylist…

View original post 1,523 more words

Tax, tax, tax

Europe, Greek Politics

I have been trying to wrap my head around the new bundle of tax and national insurance hikes that the Greek government has just rubber-stamped. It is not unusual that I misunderstand tax legislation in Greece, partly because I am not very well educated in tax matters, but mainly because they seem to be expressed in the most confusing possible way. With this in mind, I was cautious about deriving any quick conclusions. However, even on a conservative reading the tax changes are ludicrous and seem to have as their sole objective the final and absolute collapse of the possibility of life in Greece. And I am only being slightly hysterical.

To quote www.keeptalkinggreece.com:

“700,000 self-employed will be called to pay 75% tax in advance for the income of 2015… As the incomes of 2016, the same category of taxpayers will have to pay 100% tax in advance.”

Since many self-employed people already owe money to the tax man for previous years due to drops in income (plus extortionate levels of national insurance) it is a practical impossibility for many people to pay this amount of tax in advance. What the troika does not seem to understand is that the raising of taxes only translates into the raising of revenue if the taxed subjects have the money to pay. It brings to mind Eric Campbell Geddes’ 1918 quote: “We shall squeeze the German lemon until the pips squeak!” But then we’ll carrying squeezing and hoping more juice will appear somehow through the pure effort of squeezing.

Along with all these advance taxes, there have been a whole load of indirect taxes that seem especially punitive:

  • Raising VAT from 23% to 24%
  • Readjusting ENFIA property tax to cover losses from the reduction of objective tax values*
  • A special tax on coffee (what?!)
  • Overnight accommodation tax for hotels and room rentals
  • Introduction of a special tax on beer
  • 5% tax on Internet bills and 10% tax of subscription television services
  • Increase in the tax on cigarettes and tobacco (fair enough, I guess, but irritating for me and half the population of Greece)

*this is especially ridiculous, the government has had to reduce the objective value of many properties due to the collapse of the housing market. The property tax (ENFIA) is calculated by the objective value of a property, so this devaluing leads to a drop in tax revenue. This is only fair because people have less money and house owners get much less money for rent. But now the government will “readjust” the tax which can only mean they’re going to bump it back up again

I haven’t got the figures at hand now, but I recall the actual revenue that will be raised from this is pretty low. And if it starts off low then the inevitable damage it’ll bring about to commerce will mean that revenue will only go down.

With the personal finances of most Greeks already stretched to breaking point – and most small businesses already deep in the cack – it is hard to see how Greece will be able to limp on. The crisis is back.

*****************************************************************************

Meanwhile, across the sparkling water of the Aegean, Davutoglu has been deposed as Turkish Prime Minister and Erdogan presses ahead with his constitutional reforms that will make him an executive president. This should give the whole world the heebie-jeebies.

ISIS, Brussels and Occam

Europe, Middle East

What is there to say after the recent attacks in Brussels? I do not mean this in the melodramatic “no poetry after Auschwitz” sense, but in a completely literal sense. What is there to say? Humans being humans, there is already a scrambling for reasons and causes. We are told that it is possible retribution for the arrest of Salah Abdeslam, one of the perpetrators of the Paris attacks. We could also point out that these attacks came at a crucial juncture in the talks between the EU and Turkey regarding the migrant crisis. In the age of instant comment and opinion via the World Wide Web, people expect analysis and answers within an hour of any major event. The only way this expectation can be met is through drastic simplification. Relevant factors are expanded to provide a full explanation with no loose ends.

This very human tendency to seek clear and complete explanations of complex events is the mother of conspiracy theory, in a strange and self-undermining perversion of Occam’s Razor. Occam’s Razor states, loosely, that one should not create entities without necessity – in other words, the simplest explanation is probably the correct one. International politics and especially the politics of war in the Middle East seem to be the greatest challenge to this principle. Or perhaps it is merely a misapplication of the principle. The rise of ISIS has been a boon both for those in power that want to create a simple narrative of antagonism and for those who want to point the finger at those in power. The rise of an apparently centralised organisation that calls itself a state gives people something to latch on to in a way that the complex and interconnected militant groups across Syria and Iraq did not. Al-Qaeda, All-Nusra Front, Jabhat Ansar al-Din, PFLP-GC, Army of Monotheists, YPG, YPJ, Free Syrian Army, Fatah Halab… etc. etc. This list goes on. Whether or not ISIS is as unitary and coherent as it appears to be, it allows us to simplify our explanations of what is going on in the area.

The emergence of intelligence suggesting that private individuals in the Gulf States are involved in the funding of ISIS is also convenient for those who want to generate simple explanations. Rather than trying to delve into the complexities of Gulf politics, this is taken to mean that Gulf States, known US allies, are the chief architects of ISIS policy and action. Likewise, those with different prejudices invoke the obvious involvement of Turkey with ISIS as evidence of ultimate Turkish control. Since this is still too complicated, we must find some other actor, preferably the US, who has final control. Once this single actor has been found, any facts that pop up later can be explained in reference to the real or supposed interests of this actor. The further up this explanatory chain that one goes the further one goes into the realms of conspiracy theory. Of course nothing I say here proves that the New World Order does not exist. But of course, nothing can – that is why conspiracy theory is so appealing.

Closely related to this is the tendency of the commentariat, particularly those on the left, to explain every event, particularly Middle Eastern events, as purely reactive. In the face of violent attacks against citizens of the West this tendency is exacerbated. We are told that, whilst the attacks are abhorrent and could never be condoned, they are a reaction to Western policies in the Middle East. We are told that this does not excuse them, but that it explains them. (In the same way we were told that the 2011 UK riots were a reaction to poverty, disenfranchisement, etc. but that this does not excuse them, rather it explains them). Whilst I completely understand need to give an account of events as reactive to certain conditions it is not consistent. Because at least one truly active power is always recognised – the West. Only one character in the story is imbued with the power to act and not merely to react. In this way we do not excuse ISIS’s actions; we refuse that they are even actions at all, since only the West is capable of action. This view will radically hinder any attempt to understand the motivations of ISIS and, more importantly, those of its members.

This should not be misconstrued as the old right-wing refrain that we should constantly and aggressively hold oppressed groups fully responsible for their actions (indeed to a greater extent that we hold any else responsible for their actions). My point is that if we are really concerned with finding out what is happening in our world we should not resort to pat accounts or grandiose theories. Do not forget that people will be writing hundreds of tomes on the events of our times, let us not suppose that we can give an explanation an hour, a day, a week or even a month after the event. But the reality is that people are desperate for reassurance at these times and it appears that any clean explanation is better than none, even if it requires pretty advanced mental gymnastics to maintain.