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The Siege of Somerstown Part II

3 Dec

The Siege of Somerstown: Being a Portion of the Records of a General of the Fifth Hants Involuntary Air Rifles Concerning an Infantry Sortie on Behalf of the Crown and Portsmouth City Council’s Department of Colonial Warfare.

Having lost his master spy to assassination by scratch card, General Sir Eugene Nicks must lead the charge against the uppity indigenes of the savage and mysterious casbah known in the local lingo as Somerstown. Read it here.

The Siege of Somerstown Part I

1 Dec

The Siege of Somerstown: Being a Portion of the Records of a General of the Fifth Hants Involuntary Air Rifles Concerning an Infantry Sortie on Behalf of the Crown and Portsmouth City Council’s Department of Colonial Warfare

Sir Eugene Nicks, QC, KBE is a modest man who doesn’t normally like to discuss his highly distinguished and widely decorated military career. But as a regular columnist for Star & Crescent he is duty-bound to share his recent experiences and one of these was his appointment by the Civic-Colonial Governess to lead a detachment of troops to repress a nationalist uprising in Portsmouth’s own ‘heart of darkness’.

Read it here.

A Tory Cobweb Speaks

30 Nov

With due caution – and a small amount of terror – Star & Crescent presents a new regular column by Sir Eugene Nicks QC, KBE, Policy Advisor to the All-Portsea Conservative, Regressive and Imperial Association (established 1799). This week Sir Eugene offers moral guidance to the distressed, traumatised and, as he put it himself in a recent parliamentary select committee hearing, ‘those weak, degenerate undesirables who voted anywhere left of Drummond in the last election.’ He goes on to recount his earlier days as a minister in Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet during which he earned a reputation for honesty, integrity and empathy. He also became adept at smearing – and sometimes brutally maiming – anyone who ever questioned his honesty, integrity or empathy.    

Read his peculiar thoughts here.

Got the Pompey Labour Blues? Join the Tories Instead!

30 Nov

In the wake of Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election, reactionary members of the Labour Party are pondering their next move. Sir Eugene Nicks, Policy Advisor to the All-Portsea Conservative, Regressive and Imperial Association (established 1799), has a proposal for them. Read it here!


War is Failure: An Interview with a Veteran for Peace Part III

29 Nov

The third and final instalment of my interview with Graham Horne, South East of England Coordinator for Veterans for Peace, is live right here.

In this part we explore state-corporate propaganda, US-UK war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan and why Jeremy Corbyn isn’t anti-war enough.

War is Failure: An Interview with a Veteran for Peace Part II

15 Nov


The second part of my interview with Graham Horne of Veterans for Peace is available here.

In this instalment Graham talks about combat stress, the relationship between the military and the education system and how the new Cold War might go hot.


War is Failure: An Interview with a Veteran for Peace Part I

1 Nov


Veterans for Peace (VfP) is a group of ex-military personnel committed to raising awareness about the human, social and economic costs of war. It is opposed to the use of war by any nation to achieve foreign policy objectives. VfP’s Southeast of England Coordinator Graham Horne recently spoke to Tom Sykes.

Read the whole of the first part here.

Got the Pompey Labour Blues?

20 Oct


In the wake of Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election, reactionary members of the Labour Party are pondering their next move. Sir Eugene Nicks, Policy Advisor to the All-Portsea Conservative, Regressive and Imperial Association (established 1799), has a proposal for them. Read it here on Star & Crescent.

Portsmouth the Global City

3 Jun

There’s a popular perception of Portsmouth as a monocultural, jingoistic and reactionary city. Taking a very different angle, University of Portsmouth lecturer and foreign affairs commentator Tom Sykes discusses Portsmouth’s role as a global city with social and cultural connections to almost every other part of the world. This article is based on a lecture Tom delivered as part of the nationwide Being Human festival last year.

A few sunny Saturdays ago, I was having a beer with friends in the garden of a laid-back Albert Road pub. To the left of us was a lively group of heavy-set and mostly bald men. All were dressed in black, some wore jackboots in addition. When they’d finished their pints of pissy lager they put on black masks and lined up for a group photograph. ‘Fuck the immigrants!’ they chanted several times before piling outside to, no doubt, repeat this hate crime somewhere else.

When I tell friends from outside Portsmouth about this incident, they tend to smile dourly and say, ‘Well that’s Portsmouth, what do you expect?’ They have a point, as nastiness of this type has been oozing out of our city for a long time. In the 1930s, Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists would descend here to spread racial hatred, although they’d often be challenged by thousands of protesters. More lately, their political descendants – the EDL, BNP, Pie and Mash Squad, Hitler-loving publicans, Islamo- and homophobic football coaches – have hit the headlines a little too frequently for comfort.

Our elected leaders – from the mainstream “respectable” parties – appear to fan the flames of such bigotry rather than pour sand on them. Portsmouth North MP Penny Mordaunt was recently accused of lying and ‘dog whistle politics’ when she claimed that EU member states have no veto over Turkey joining the EU and that such an eventuality would make Britain vulnerable to foreign criminals and terrorists. During last winter’s European refugee crisis, Donna Jones, leader of Portsmouth City Council, declared the city closed to her fellow human beings desperately fleeing war, penury and persecution.

All of which implies that tolerance and diversity aren’t Portsmouth’s strong suits. But there is a different story about our city not often enough told. It’s a story of highly successful immigration, integration, assimilation and exchange.

Throughout the industrial era, Portsmouth’s role as a sea port guaranteed ethnic and cultural diversity. The 1851 census shows that the Irish – most of whom were skilled dock labourers – were then the largest minority in the city. They worked alongside so many Russians, North Africans and Southern Europeans that the historian James H Thomas speculates that rarely would you have heard English being spoken during those times at the dockyard – that most potent symbol of English economic and imperial power.

Today, the 270-year-old graveyard on Fawcett Road is the only obvious trace of Portsmouth’s oldest and arguably most influential ethnic minority: the Jews. In 1749, the Portsmouth and Southsea Hebrew Congregation was founded, followed by the building in 1780 of the synagogue at White’s Row (now Curzon Howe Road). During the Napoleonic Wars (1803-15), large numbers of Jewish businesspeople came to Portsmouth to lend money and sell clothes, watches, jewellery and silver trinkets to soldiers and sailors. By the end of the wars, Portsmouth was home to one of the four major British-Jewish populations outside of London.

Compared to other parts of the UK, Portsmouth was sympathetic to the struggle for Jewish civil and political rights of the early 1800s. Leading gentiles accepted invites to dine at the Hebrew Benevolent Institution and, by 1841, Portsmouth had elected its first Jewish councillor. There were three more by the end of the decade. To this day, four Lord Mayors of Portsmouth have been Jews: Emmanuel Emmanuel (1866-7), Abraham Leon Emmanuel (1894 & 1901), Harry Sotnick (1963) and Richard E Sotnick (1978). The former two were not related; the latter two were father and son. For more detail on the compelling history of Portsmouth Jewry please see Dr Audrey Weinberg’s two-part essay here.

Some people believe that the first significant Polish community in Britain was established after EU freedom of movement policies were relaxed in 2004. In truth, it happened in Portsmouth two centuries before. In 1834, 212 Polish soldiers fled Russia after their plot to overthrow the then Tsar was foiled. They came to Portsmouth where the residents not only welcomed them but raised money to pay for their food and shelter. As a contemporary journalist noted, ‘Not the rich and great alone have contributed, but perhaps many a hard-earned shilling has been dropped into the subscription boxes by the artisan or labourer.’

After World War II, Portsmouth’s three major ethnic minority groups were Hong Kong Chinese, Indian and East Pakistani (later Bangladeshi). The Chinese population spiked in the 1950s when a growing demand amongst sailors for Chinese food prompted the opening of dozens of new restaurants in the Portsmouth area.

According to the 2011 census, 205,400 people live in Portsmouth. Council figures from 2014 show that 16% of the city’s population is BME (Black Minority and Ethnic). The largest BME communities are Bangladeshi (1.8% of residents), African and Indian (both 1.4%). Other notable groups – presented here in order of size – are Chinese, mixed white and Asian, white and black Caribbean, and Arab.

Over 100 languages can now be heard around Portsmouth, with Polish the most commonly spoken non-English tongue (1,914 speakers or 1% of the city population). 1,517 residents speak Bengali (including Sylheti and Chatgaya), 1,180 Chinese languages other than Mandarin and 979 Arabic.

The headline here – and a happier one than the hateful headlines above – is that Portsmouth’s BME population doubled between 2001 and 2011.

This article was originally published here.

In Memoriam: André the Shaman

1 Jan


While Portsmouth-based author Tom Sykes was in Ivory Coast researching a Bradt guidebook, he and his photographer Alexander Sebley met  up with a fêticheur, a traditional African shaman.

Alexander and I are led by our translator into a courtyard in Abidjan, Ivory Coast’s biggest city, where women with babies in back-slings sweep up dust and kola nut shells. We scale concrete steps, pass through a greasy curtain and kneel to enter a cubby hole. Its main wall is spattered with burgundy dried blood. Either side of it the skulls of cats and chickens swing from hooks above overturned rum bottles strewn around the floor. Between the bottles are black spheres of rope covered in feathers which, we are later told, represent particular spirits. On another wall is a bizarrely Mughal Indian-style picture of an African fêticheur with an equine tail and two yellow-clad African kids trampling on the belly of a moustachioed South Asian-looking man.

André, the fêticheur, comes into the room and sits down cross-legged. He’s young, no more than twenty-five, but has the deadened eyes of an old man that fail to glow when he smiles and shakes our hands.

‘Why exactly do people come and see you?’ I ask him through our translator; André is Burkinabé and prefers to speak Mandinka to French.

He fastens his palms together. ‘If someone comes to me with a problem,’ he says, ‘I can perform a ritual that will allow me to contact a good spirit for assistance. If a bad spirit is causing the problem, I can ask him what we can do on Earth to gratify him.’

‘What sorts of problems do people come to you with?’

‘Money or family issues, sickness also. I can perform a ritual either in person or by phone.’ He goes on to tell us that he inherited his magical gifts from his father and that this been a place of fetishism for 47 years.

Alexander asks him which animals he has sacrificed.

‘Goats, chickens, lambs and cows,’ says André casually.

Looking this toilet-sized room up and down, I marvel at how he ever got a cow inside, much less slaughter it.

‘Do you use a knife on the animals?’

‘No,’ he smiles.

We ask him if we can take pictures and he tells us that the last foreigner who tried to do that here died instantly.

‘Best we don’t then,’ says Alexander.

A man wearing Snoop Dogg braids and a STOP EBOLA t-shirt enters the room. He gives André some sachets of gin and a plastic bag. From the bag the fêticheur removes a black chicken with its feet tied together, and lies it down on its front.

André looks to the north, the west, the south and the east. He places two blobs of karité butter onto the floor and one into the palms of my hands.

‘Is what you are doing in Ivory Coast your idea or someone else’s?’ he asks.


Into my hands he then adds a lump of shea butter, some sea shells, a kola nut and a 1000 West African francs note. He asks me to think about all my current problems and I do so. He then takes all the items away from me, cracks the kola nut in half and tosses it onto the floor. He stares at it while muttering incantations. The chicken looks on with beady eyes.

‘What are you doing here?’ André asks.

‘Researching a tourist guidebook.’

He looks puzzled.

‘I’m writing about hotels, restaurants, tourist attractions, that sort of thing.’

‘What do you want from life?’

‘Er… health and happiness, I reckon.’

He tosses the nut again, mutters some more and turns to me gravely. ‘You have to go out and buy a small can of Bonnet Rouge condensed milk and give it, along with 20 francs, to a poor person. When you get back to Britain you must fill a calibas jug with salt water and talk to it about your business plans.’

I try to think what my ‘business plans’ might entail. I’m not sure I’ve ever had any.

‘And in the short term,’ he adds, ‘I don’t see any health issues for you.’

‘Great.’ As a fairly committed rationalist and materialist, I struggle to comprehend how talking to a jug of water will have any direct bearing on my future life chances. But, at the same time, I’m fascinated by the rituals and symbols of fetishism – or more specifically their cultural meaning to and influence upon Ivorians. And, lest anyone for a moment think we in the “developed” West no longer believe in supernatural causality, don’t forget about Derek Acorah or the extraordinary political sway of Christian evangelists in the US.

André repeats the procedure for Alexander and tells him that he must purchase three different kinds of millet and one white kola nut, put them down in a garden and talk to them about his business plans. ‘Did you lose something important in England?’ he asks Alexander.

‘No, but I lost a camera tripod in Ivory Coast.’

‘Be careful,’ says André, ‘because you may lose something important in the future. To try to stop that happening you should buy another kola nut, a red one, talk to it and then throw it away. Your health is good too.’

André picks up a sachet of rum, tears it open, pours some of it on a calibas and chucks the rest over the other fetishism objects. He reaches into another plastic bag and withdraws some black medicinal powder that he won’t divulge the name of. He asks me to take two pinches of the powder and drop them onto the floor. He adds karité and mixes the substances together to create a paste which he uses to draw a cross on the inside of the calibas. He picks up the chicken by its bound feet and flips it onto its back, his hand pressing against its stomach. Eyes bulging, the chicken occasionally squeezes out a cluck. Using his free hand, André wraps up the calibas with a cloth, closes his eyes and incants some more. ‘I am asking the spirit if I am permitted to kill the chicken,’ he tells us. He then turns the chicken onto its side and breaks its wings in four places. The animal goes quiet, perhaps out of shock. André continues his incantations as he returns his hand to the chicken’s breast. Eventually its head flops to the side, eyes slowly shutting.

While Alexander and I suspect André choked the chicken using brute force, he is adamant he killed it by channelling his supernatural powers. ‘I didn’t press hard,’ he says. ‘I can do this to human beings too, but it would be an abuse of my position.’ I think of the cow again and how he could have possibly suffocated a beast that size.

At any rate, Alexander and I are now blessed. André douses his trinkets with a further sachet of rum.

‘What will you do with the dead chicken?’ I ask him as we leave.

‘I’ll have it for dinner,’ he smiles.

Postscript: André sadly passed away only yesterday, some three months after I met him. The official cause of death was untreated malaria, but those around him suspected he fell foul of evil spirits and dark forces.

Originally published in Star & Crescent.

The book will eventually be available here.