Monthly Archives: June 2013

Maryam Sachs

Last night we marked the publication of The Passenger by Maryam Sachs. The reception took place at Henry Sotheran’s bookshop in Sackville Street, where tout Londres flocked to congratulate the author. Here is the text of my short address on this sumptuous occasion.

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, please lend me your ears but for a brief interlude.

We are here this evening to celebrate the coming of age of Maryam, a writer who excels in unveiling the depths of human feelings with a lyrical style of her own.

When we published her first novel, Without Saying Goodbye – translated from the French – I was confident that her literary endeavours would develop and gain momentum with the passage of time.

I was right. Her current book, The Passenger, confirms her status as a serious observer of human frailties, as well as a captivating storyteller who holds the attention of the reader with a kind of flow that has clarity and a real sense of purpose.

Her use of words has a certain elegance and sensitivity that seems to adapt itself to the characters of her novel.

There is always poetry in her writing, subtle in concept and simple in effectuation.

She’s a born writer, with a flair for the unusual in human rapport, and strange relationships that speak volumes of the modern age we live in.

The Passenger not only deserves your attention, but merits a much larger circulation despite the bleak recession in the book trade – which we must totally ignore this evening.

Maryam is a gem which is a good investment for the future. I suggest we encourage her and honour her by purchasing many copies of The Passenger, and give them to friends who in turn will hopefully do the same.

While we’re at it, her first book, Without Saying Goodbye, is still available and worth a flutter if you appreciate a story well told and brilliantly presented. Please dig deep in your pockets and show us the colour of your money. A well-spent fifty-pound note will certainly do the trick.

Please come forward and don’t be shy. You will brighten our evening and earn our gratitude.

Blair and his World

There is no point in making a resolution when you know quite well that at some point in the future you are bound to break it.

Mine is uniquely confined to one subject: my bête noir Tony Blair.

Every time I write about him I promise myself not to mention his name again, for fear that I might get addicted to the man and his interminable machinations – and thus become a reluctant acolyte.

I must admit I hate myself for succumbing to the temptation of not keeping my word to forget about the man and leave others to do my dirty work. The price of inconsistency is something that relieves tension and makes us feel better, at least momentarily, although in my case this is a meagre excuse which does not amount to much.

As Blair’s tentacles reach Mongolia, there seems no conceivable limit to the millions he is making under one guise or another from some of the world’s most evil regimes.

He has become an emperor in his own right whose territory has no boundaries. From Columbia to Brazil, the US, Switzerland, Albania, Kazakhstan, South Korea, the Philippines, China, the Maldives, Abu Dhabi, Qatar, Kuwait – the list of his business interests grows on a daily basis. His political contacts in high places only help grease the wheels of his various opaque business ventures, which have propelled the ex-PM into the ranks of the mega-rich.

What is astounding, however, is despite his less than savoury record of being a warmonger, lying about it and causing the death of many innocent people in the process, he remains highly influential in world politics and able to persuade the good and the mighty of his righteousness and his religious fervour towards the unprivileged living among us.

He has without doubt the gift of the gab and a sharp intelligence that shields him from his many critics.

But what’s hard to understand is how he managed to retain a picture of respectability when the odds stacked against him would sink anyone else in his position.

He must have been born under a lucky star which we are yet to discover, but notably his apparent lack of ethics plays a significant role in attaining such heights of success.

Who knows? If I had access to the devil I would have been able to unlock the mysteries of the man and his deeds, but alas, since it is not the case, I raise my hands in unconditional surrender and concede to my dismay that the slippery Blair has outmanoeuvred the lot of us.

Catapulted to Fame

Zahia Dehar has become a real celebrity in France. A remarkable story.

The daughter of an impoverished Algerian immigrant who lived off food hand-outs in order to survive, is the figurehead of a flourishing lingerie business at the young age of twenty-one.

Although officially she holds ninety per cent in the company which bears her name, she designs the collections and is currently behind the initiative of opening her Parisian boutique next month, which will sell cakes and culottes. The reality may be more complex than meets the eye for her company is apparently controlled by public relations specialists and Chinese financiers who all spotted Zahia’s marketing potential.

Her working day starts at 6pm, she does not seem to remember how many people she employs and is helped by couturiers who once worked with Christian Lacroix – which leads one to believe that her input is questionable.

Her celebrity status is enhanced by a luxurious lifestyle, with a baby-sitter for her Shih Tzus, a chauffeur-driven limousine and a hairdresser who accompanies her everywhere.

However, this week the latest star of French fashion will face an unwanted reminder of the scandal that set her on the path to fame and fortune as Karim Benzema, twenty-five, and Franck Ribéry, thirty, the French international footballers who play for Real Madrid and Bayern Munich respectively, go on trial in Paris for allegedly having sex with her when she was a child prostitute.

Both will plead not guilty. Mr Benzema denies that he slept with her while Mr Ribéry admits that he did, but claims that he never imagined she was under eighteen.

With the players facing up to three years in prison, the case shamed the French national team and embarrassed the country’s football authorities.

However, the rise of Zahia, as she is known, has generated a mixture of fascination and controversy over the values that hold sway in modern French society. The hypocrisy of the French administration where sex is concerned has become legendary in recent years when people are imprisoned merely for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. That’s a subject for another occasion.

Despite the scandal Paris Match magazine last week devoted six pages to a visit Zahia undertook to a factory in central France that makes her lingerie. ‘The ex-bimbo has become a business-woman,’ it said.

Asked about the trial, which starts on Tuesday, Zahia said: ‘I’m afraid that it will all start up again. I don’t want to go through the stress that I experienced.’

A tear rolled down her cheek, but was wiped away by her personal make-up artist who is in permanent tow, alongside the hairdresser who rushed up with some Kleenex and mascara.

Under French law, Zahia is a victim of the pimps and of the clients with whom she had sex. But she is unlikely to claim damages at the trial, which she is not attending.

On the contrary, she has done her very best to help the defendants, saying that when Mr Ribéry’s friends flew her to Munich as a birthday treat for him in 2009, she disguised the fact that she was sixteen. She has also withdrawn her initial claim that she slept with Mr Benzema.

Yet Zahia’s desire to bury the scandal that made her a celebrity is unlikely to be fulfilled according to Sabrina Phillipe, a psychologist. ‘She creates a buzz because she highlights things about which we don’t talk, but which nevertheless exist, and that makes people dream. But it sets a bad example because young people watching her will think I can become famous by showing my body, by prostituting myself.’

Well, how often have we seen notoriety bring success in its wake? Much too often, I say, especially when respectability is not far behind.

Power and money are the real culprits, for they can miraculously wipe your slate clean. They are to be condemned, not the victims.

My Weekend Review: Proper Use of the English Language is in Decline

English as a language is becoming more democratic as even MPs fail to speak it properly, a study from Cambridge reveals.

The average English-speaking child is likely to utter the word ‘like’ five times as often as his or her grandparents. English-speakers also use the word ‘love’ more than six times as often as ‘hate’ and ‘save’ is used with ‘money’ twice as often as ‘spend’.

These are among the findings of the Cambridge English Corpus, one of the biggest and most eclectic collections of the English language in the world.

In twenty years the researchers have compiled more than two billion words, which would take eighty-eight thousand, seven hundred and sixty-six hours to read out loud. They include more than seventy-five million words of spoken English, gathered from sources as diverse as Radio 1 news bulletins, American chat shows and sound recordings of everyday conversations submitted by the public.

The database offers a clear insight into modern usage of words and phrases and is also full of surprises.

The British, for example, are not solely obsessed by the weather as one might expect. The word is as common in American English as it is British, and is usually used next to words such as ‘bad’, ‘cold’, ‘wet’ and ‘extreme’.

One thing that might not come as a surprise is the decline in the correct use of grammar.

Michael McCarthy, emeritus professor of applied linguistics at the University of Nottingham and author of Cambridge Grammar of English, said that the corpus showed a ‘growth towards informality’ over the past two decades. ‘We can listen to debates in Parliament and hear MPs saying things like “gonna” instead of “going to”‘ he said.

This shift towards casual English was epitomised by an appearance by the Prince of Wales on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme in 2005 that contrasted sharply with his usual immaculate speech, according to Professor McCarthy. ‘If you didn’t know that it was Prince Charles speaking, you would think it was a lazy, sloppy speaker of the language. It was because he gave a very nice informal interview. I’m sure the royals even thirty years ago would not have gone on air and chatted so informally.’

He said that the art critic Brian Sewell and historian David Starkey were among those who upheld formal English in the public eye, while the broadcaster and journalist Janet Street-Porter and the footballer David Beckham were ‘on the more demotic end’.

What do I make of all this? It is absolutely clear that the formal use of the English language is in decline. We no longer have pride in articulating every syllable when we speak and use so many abbreviations, which sound so terribly mundane and rob the language of its beautiful rhythmic impact.

The days seem to have gone when debates in Parliament by such dominant figures as Winston Churchill and Aneurin Bevan used to be a master class in elocution and a revelation of the richness of the language.

Even the written word today is suffering a great deal. It often lacks clarity, phrases are botched up, and the flow is sometimes awkward and haphazard. Elegance is rarely visible to give the language the poetic quality it deserves. For words are another form of music. They have to be expressive and melodiously catching. Then their legacy as an art form will endure indefinitely.

The cheapjacks of politics will do well to take heed and clean up their acts by using the language clearly and to its most coherent optimum.

The Perils of Going Commando

What drives women in the public eye to dispense with their knickers on a night’s outing, wearing a mini-dress or a long one precariously slit to the hips – which makes them liable to show their private parts when negotiating the most natural of moments?

Is it perhaps the need to satisfy their caprice, to live dangerously in order to gain the maximum attention? And in so doing self-generate an excitement of pure sybaritic tingling that many of them secretly yearn to project to their prospective audience.

Any views on the issue will probably give rise to a most enlightening debate, so take up the challenge and come forward.

The Dignity of a Simple Life

Once in a lifetime you come across people who map out your destiny, despite their seemingly impossible backgrounds.

In my case, there were two old ladies whose own lives since childhood had been blighted by poverty and dire circumstances under the yoke of the Ottoman empire – of which Palestine was an integral part.

They were born in Nazareth, lived there for the duration of their time on Earth, never travelled except where their feet could take them – and suffered in silence for being forlorn without the support of family or friends, when their hour of need desperately engulfed them.

They survived by the skin of their teeth in a harsh biblical environment that showed them no mercy nor a bout of rare tranquillity, which they hankered for.

Their salvation was merely the strong desire to survive amid a world that hardly recognised or cared for their existence. They struggled and made do with the little subsistence they could derive from a small plot of land, which gave them a meagre income and fed them just enough to keep body and soul together.

Although unable to read and write, they possessed an earthy wisdom – the basis of which formulated my future life and gave me the resilience to forge ahead and believe that the insurmountable only exists in the minds of those whose dreams are but a figment of a sluggish imagination, and a feeble disposition to life.

In 2004 I wrote a small book about them, and rather than divulge their identity and close relationship to me  I suggest my readers secure a copy – entitled The Old Ladies of Nazareth.

Of all the books I have written, this one will always remain so dear to my heart – and hopefully will inspire a new generation of young people to revere those less fortunate than themselves, whose lives, although not privileged through education or a comfortable upbringing, will always shine for their closeness to nature and pure dignity.

My Only Childhood Adventure

I was born in Haifa, Palestine, a boy among three girls.

Our family was staunchly Catholic and as a child I went to school with my sisters to a convent.

Being an only boy, and in line with Eastern tradition, I was spoilt and pampered. At least once every night my mother would get up to ensure I was properly covered in bed lest I caught a cold.

The more my family took care of me, the more vulnerable I became. I was poorly for most of my childhood.

With this background of over-protection I was virtually a prisoner in the house. Apart from going to school, I was never allowed to venture into the world outside for fear of an accident.

During my school years I was never taught to cycle, nor to swim, nor to play football. All I did while at home was to crouch on the balcony of our third-floor apartment and watch the world go by.

My cousins, by contrast, lived life to the full and engaged in sport and fun activities in which I was never given leave to participate. However, one day my aunt leant heavily on my parents and persuaded them to let me join my cousins on a school trip to the mountains. I was so excited that I almost wet myself.

To begin with, everything went according to plan. We picnicked and played and ran havoc. I enjoyed myself no end, until one of my cousins threw a rock into the air. As fate would have it, the rock landed on my head. Bleeding profusely, I was rushed to hospital and ended up with eight stitches.

This adventure was the first and last while I was in the care of my parents. When I reached the age of eighteen I came to London, bought a bicycle, went wild and grew up into a fulfilled adult.