A villainous brew

I ordered a cappuccino for my Mum on a recent visit to England, and she was presented with this baby’s potty of suds. It wasn’t unlike the coffee that Francis ordered in the following extract from An Englishman’s Guide to Infidelity. The narrator is Thea.


I pointed to a coffee shop and we went in. He ordered what looked to be a litre of coffee foam, a supermegaccino I think it was called. I had Earl Grey. I waited for him to speak.

“I never forgot you Thea.”

“Why did you pick on me all those years ago? You did target me, didn’t you? It wasn’t just random?”

“I did. I picked on you on purpose. I wanted what Jack had. What they owed me.”

“You wanted me as part of his chattels?”

“No, it wasn’t like that. First of all I just wanted a life like his, wife, children, some kind of future. But when I saw you I …” He faltered. “I fancied you.”

“Fancied me? What, fancied me like a greyhound? Fancied me like a set of golf clubs? Anyway, there was no money in those days. Jack’s parents were still alive. You couldn’t have had his life or his future. You couldn’t just bundle his life up and put it in a van.”

“There wasn’t any money, sure, but there was you, but you’re not getting my meaning. I really fancied you.”

“I see,” I said. “I think we might be talking about lurv, like in the pop songs … you wanted me to be your lurv. You lurv me. I fall in lurv with you. It’s all lurvely. Stop messing me around.”

Francis sucked on the huge coffee cup. He wiped a foam moustache away with a napkin and looked at me balefully. “Don’t take the piss. I mean it. It’s you I wanted all the time. I do love you.”


Buy Stuart Campbell’s books in paperback and ebook on Amazon by clicking on these title links:

An Englishman’s Guide to Infidelity

The Play’s the Thing

A half of bitter and a bit of solace

half of bitterThis delicious half of bitter that I enjoyed at a pub in Kings Langley put me in mind of the verger in An Englishman’s Guide to Infidelity:

I wandered through cobbled yards and across muddy playgrounds, replaying the ghastly scenes, and rehearsing what I should tell Thea. After an hour I found myself back near the shop and on the doorstep of the Bear and Fox. I slipped in, ordered a double Scotch, and found a seat half hidden behind a timber beam. My meditation was broken by the verger, who had his half of bitter at the bar each evening before going home.

“Not poorly are we?” he asked in social workerish tones.

“Just a little overwrought.”

” I say. Don’t think I’m being pushy, but you know that even if you aren’t a friend of Jesus, the cathedral is a splendid place to just sit and reflect …”

I could have kissed the verger. The certainty of his faith shone from his little currant bun face, and I saw at once that I had to go home and tell Thea everything. Well, almost everything. I swigged off the Scotch, thanked him and went home.


Buy Stuart Campbell’s books in paperback and ebook on Amazon by clicking on these title links:

An Englishman’s Guide to Infidelity

The Play’s the Thing

Places of terror that we must never forget

kdw sign2This large sign greets passers-by as they walk from the KaDeWe, Berlin’s top department store, into the Wittenberg Platz U-Bahn.

That’s more or less equivalent to outside Selfridges in London or Galeries Lafayette in Paris.

The words at the top say ‘Places of terror that we must never forget’.

Berlin confronts its history boldly and openly, from the memorials to murdered Jews and Gypsies, to the carefully preserved sites of Stasi terror during the division of Germany.

Tram ride to evil

tram2The M13 tram snakes its way from Warschauerstrasse station through the uninspiring suburb of Lichtenberg. There are no signs for the Stasi Museum when you get off at the town hall. We had to ask directions in a bakery, and had almost given up when I spotted the modest sign.

The headquarters of the Stasi secret police – now a museum – is in a dull office block at the back of a medical centre where old folks have their knees and hips fixed.

The interior of the museum seems fixed in time, expect that the spookiness is tempered by the almost apologetic air of the staff – are they volunteers, perhaps? There’s no fancy till or flash tickets. In the café, a kindly lady serves filter coffee and marble cake as if at a church craft market.

In the entrance is a Stasi prison van, a people mover containing tiny cells, each with a hook for the prisoner to hang their jacket. Banal detail seems to have been the hallmark of the Stasi.

The middle floor comprises the offices of Stasi boss Erich Mielke and his senior staff, all fitted out in blonde timber and woolly seated chairs. The office technology looks dated even for 1989, when the Stasi was disbanded; it reminded me of the huge vanished wood radiograms I was proudly shown in Moscow in 1974.

The last exhibit we saw before walking back to the tram was a file card with a sketch showing how the monstrous Erich Mielke’s breakfast egg and coffee were to be set out each morning at his desk.


Buy Stuart Campbell’s books in paperback and ebook on Amazon by clicking on these title links:

An Englishman’s Guide to Infidelity

The Play’s the Thing

Shoes under a bridge, Kreuzberg

shoes under bridge 3We took a river trip through the centre of Berlin today, and somewhere near Monbijou Park I watched a troupe of young people – puppetry students? – in black hats and white faces, following a floppy orange skeleton plodding along the river bank, controlled by long sticks manipulated by the students. There was an earnestness about the performance that I suspect might lie behind a lot of the seemingly spontaneousness art you see in Berlin.

The sponge skeleton and its disciples reminded me of our early morning walk across the quaint Oberbaumbrücke bridge, with its fairy tale towers and vaulted ceilings. The shoes hanging from the ceiling are bright and apparently new. In Australia, shoes hanging from a power line are supposed to mark a drug deal location, but are more likely the spot where a drunk had his shoes pulled off by his mates.

So what happened here? An art school assignment? A short film for a competition? Site of a spectacular drug transaction? Or did fifteen drunk people have their coloured shoes pulled off by their mates?


Find out about Stuart Campbell’s novels here.


Micro drama at Warschauer Strasse

warschauer strasse 2A day with Australian friends in gentle Charlottenburg: Saturday morning market, asparagus in season, cake, coffee, a walk to the Schloss, wine and chat in their flat.

When we leave for home, police are massed at the S-Bahn watching the soccer supporters disembark. We take the train east, and at Warschauer Strasse station the evening hordes are streaming over the bridge to the clubs and bars in gritty Friedrichshain.

London voices behind us, a girl and boy:

“Laura said she’d love her dog as much as her child.”

“She really said that?”

“Yeah.  And Ben said he’d love his dog as much as his child.”


“Yeah, Ben said that.”

“That’s so f*cked up.”


Buy Stuart Campbell’s books in paperback and ebook on Amazon by clicking on these title links:

An Englishman’s Guide to Infidelity

The Play’s the Thing


Late afternoon drinks in Friedrichshain, Berlin

friedrichshainThe last of the sun glints through the lime tree canopy and lights up the straw-coloured Riesling in our glasses. There’s a parade past our bench on the cobblestones of Simon-Dach Strasse – a procession of defiantly liberal weirdness, no two people alike, as if each person belongs to their own tribe: A nut brown man in an Alpine hat and peculiar shorts, girls in meticulously studied scruffiness, an elaborately tattooed man in a short sleeved linen shirt with suit lapels, an angular faced woman, pale and wearing clownish tights. Tipsy on our Riesling, we wonder if the defiance of authority here – the graffiti, the public urinating, the ostentatious beer drinking on the trains – is a reaction to the city’s past oppressions. But what do we know?

Yesterday on a train I eavesdropped on two American boys, hotel management students, cranking up their campness. “I hate America,” one of them said, overdoing things a bit, perhaps wanting too hard to be a piece of Berlin.

On the way back to our flat, the same ginger bearded rapper is pounding out poetry at the Warschauer Strasse U-Bahn. It’s seven in the evening and the hordes, the tribe of tribes, flow out of the U-Bahn, pressing against us in the rush to join the parade in Simon-Dach Strasse.


Buy Stuart Campbell’s books in paperback and ebook on Amazon by clicking on these title links:

An Englishman’s Guide to Infidelity

The Play’s the Thing



Ascension Day holiday, Berlin

From the bridge where Warschauer Strasse crosses the railway you can look back across sheet metal warehouses and flat industrial badlands to the TV Tower, the needle with the fat bobble that shoots into the air from Alexanderplatz. To thelidl 2015 east and south there are excavations, rubble sites, graffiti, bicycle graveyards: After that, the square laid streets of austere five storey apartment blocks, many framed with the scaffolding of gentrification.

It is the Ascension Day holiday, cloudy and cool. Ragged crowds pass through the knot of snack bars at the top of the steps leading down to the railway platform. A gang of youths in padded jackets block the way, drinking beer and singing along to a music player. At the U-Bahn station down the hill, a rapper with a ginger beard has attracted a small crowd of onlookers taking pictures with their phones; four or five men with pink ears and red hoodies are swigging from beer bottles as they perform a clunky dance in front of the rapper.

At the back steps of the U-Bahn lies this gaunt street, with the businesses closed for the holiday. Just past the LIDL supermarket is a Billiard Hall where they do breakfast from 6.30. It was open yesterday, very lively, with men drinking coffee and smoking on chairs outside.

Buy Stuart Campbell’s books in paperback and ebook on Amazon by clicking on these title links:

An Englishman’s Guide to Infidelity

The Play’s the Thing

Is Moroccan the new black?


Groping in the shower for the plastic bottles last week I noticed that we had switched to Kazakh shampoo. Mmm, a warm spicy blend to replenish the vital oils my scalp lacks. I popped out at lunchtime to the bookshop to get some ideas for a dinner party and I was staggered at how many Kazakh cookbooks there were. ‘Chuck an ‘andful of cumin and coriander at a lump of lamb, sling a blob of yoghourt on top, whip it onto the BBQ and yer got an authentic  Kazakh feast,’ somebody called Jamie wrote in his book.

I’ve met perhaps half a dozen people who’ve been to Kazakhstan, a country of almost no economic significance to Australia, to which we exported $8m of goods in 2011-2012 and imported $23m. That’s even less than our trade figures with Peru.

Hang on, did I say Kazakhstan? Actually I meant Morocco, that other trade colossus to which we exported $17m of goods and imported $51m, most of which was crude fertilizer. But at least I know a few more people who’ve actually been there than to Kazakhstan. By the way, I couldn’t find any Australian visitor numbers for Morocco, which means that they must be very low. And I think I probably know most of the Moroccans in Australia.

So why I am I picking on poor neglected Morocco? The reason is that I am astonished by the way that the word Moroccan has been appropriated by the food industry and its publishing handmaidens. Every other box of over processed dust or pulp on Sydney supermarket shelves seems to be Moroccan. Search for Moroccan in Amazon books, and the list of cookbooks goes on interminably. I came across a book by somebody with a clearly non-Moroccan name, that contained one hundred and fifty Moroccan tagine recipes! Is this Moroxploitation or what? Is the author a gastroanthropologist who spent years at the feet of peasant women in the Rif Mountains feverishly scribbling in notebooks?  The statistics just don’t work: If the basic protein variants in a tagine are chicken, lamb, fish or pulses, how do you get nearly forty variants on each? The only solution I can think of is to omit ingredients one by one, e.g.  hold the parsley! (that makes eighty four), halve the cumin! (eighty five), put the saffron away! (eighty six), etc. Before I stop let me tell you quite truthfully that I have just found in my fridge a container of Moroccan Minestrone soup! I’m sure I saw a can of Peruvian Goulash in the cupboard last week …

My real purpose for writing about Morocco is to mention that besides an appropriated cuisine, Morocco has some captivating literary associations with the non-Arab world. I was reminded of this when I was recently dipping into an excellent bilingual reader of Arabic short stories, translated and edited by Ronak Husni and Daniel L. Newman and published by the equally excellent Saqi Books. My tactic with this book is to plod through the Arabic text on the right hand side while I use short eyeball flicks to speed read the English translation on the other side.

The book fell open at a story by Mohamed Shoukri, the Moroccan ‘poet of the dispossessed’ who the editors tell us, was illiterate until his mid-twenties but went on to be one of the most celebrated writers in the Arab World. Shoukri had an important connection with Paul Bowles, the American composer and writer who spent much of his life in Tangier, where he was visited by literary figures like William Burroughs and Christopher Isherwood (who named Sally Bowles after him, for those who remember Cabaret). Now, somehow I’d missed Shoukri’s novel For Bread Alone, translated by Bowles and apparently much celebrated in the seventies; presumably I was too busy collecting arcane degrees to fit in celebrated novels. Coincidentally I happened to be in Tangier in 1971, but being ignorant of Bowles and Shoukri, may well have brushed past them in the Petit Socco.

At any rate, Bowles, despite his long residence in Morocco, did not read Standard Arabic, although he was proficient in the spoken dialect of Morocco, which is about as different from the standard language as German is from Dutch. The formerly illiterate Shoukri in the meantime had written his novel in Standard Arabic (as all Arab novelists do), so he orally translated the text into dialect so that Bowles could render it in English. Tangier was then a multilingual city where almost everyone spoke Arabic, French and Spanish, and Bowles tells us in the introduction to For Bread Alone that he and Shoukri would use French or Spanish to help work out shades of meaning.

It’s hard to find an analogy, but imagine that a Moroccan writer comes to live on a cattle station in outback Australia and learns to speak a variety of Pidgin English from the Aboriginal stockmen. One of the stockmen’s children comes back from Sydney after getting an Arts degree and writing a novel about his early life in the bush. He sits down with the Moroccan writer and retells his novel in Pidgin. The Moroccan writer translates it into Arabic and it becomes a hit in the Middle East. Weird or what?

Of course I swiftly downloaded an e-book copy of For Bread Alone and finished in just over one sitting. The verdict: This is the novel that the word gritty was invented for. It follows Shoukri’s squalid childhood and adolescence as he endures beatings, poverty,  grinding work, and a descent into a grim stew of alcohol, hashish and sordid brothels.  The colloquial style – apparently an artefact of the translation process – is elusive and fast moving. Quite a contrast from tagines and shampoo.

So this is my dinner party story gift to you, dear reader. Have a rewarding read of Mohamed Shoukri so that you can set the record straight the next time you are served Moroccan taco dipping sauce that tastes like crude fertilizer.

I originally wrote this article a part of an anthology called ‘On Becoming a Butcher in Paris’. You can download the whole collection for free under a Creative Commons Licence here.

Buy Stuart Campbell’s books in paperback and ebook on Amazon by clicking on these title links:

An Englishman’s Guide to Infidelity

The Play’s the Thing

1976 Minority Rights Group Report on the Armenians well worth returning to

armenian lessons 001The centenary of the Armenian Genocide in April 2015 has seen a deluge of online publications about the events of 1915. But there wasn’t always such a plethora of materials. I became interested in the Armenian question in the seventies, but there was very little scholarly literature available. I was saved by the 1976 Minority Rights Group Report on the Armenians, and I got hold of copy, I think by sending away for it. It was somehow lost during house moves over the decades, but I was delighted to find this week that it is available to download on the Minority Rights Group website, along with a 1987 update.

It is still an impressive document, but what I’d forgotten on a rereading was that there had been virtual silence on the Armenian question from 1923 until 1965. As the report says, ‘It suited all parties to keep quiet’ – and this included the USSR. How things have changed!

I was also rash enough to try to learn some Armenian in 1976. The only guide I could find was a grammar book in French. I decided that if I translated it into English, I’d learn some Armenian on the way. The picture is a page of my translation.

Forty years on, I’m writing a novel that is in part a homage to the Armenians. The amount of research material is almost overwhelming – a long way from the days when a scholar in London sent off a stamped addressed envelope and a postal order to obtain the MRG report. Download it and see what you think.