Sugar high

<em>The Apprentice</em> boss is more capricious than ever.

It's series eight, and the troops march into the boardroom. Sugar looks up, vaguely harassed, as though disturbed doing some very important work in his office and not, in fact, in a TV studio in Ealing, having just got his make-up done in a trailer.

He's a fascinating man. The camera men think so too, picking up the faintest of mouth twitches, the smallest crocodilian flicker of the eyes. No-one can keep their eyes off him. He's indomitable. He's never wrong.

In fact I find I can't describe him properly without reference to the Dominican dictator Rafael Leónidas Trujillo. Between 1930 and 1961 he wielded complete power over his people - no-one challenged him. The source of this authority? He was irrational. The more unpredictable and capricious he was, the more insecure his subjects became.

Lord Sugar's fearsome charm resides in an ability to switch something, at random, from the category "things that are really important and obvious" to "things he just doesn't give a shit about". Whichever answer the coin flips to, he presents it with maximum aggression - cue sycophantic scrambling from everyone.

In episode one, the boys were lambasted for spending all their time talking about margins, "and ignoring the product!" They win, however, and suddenly margins were "obviously" the priority all along, idiots. "What went wrong, girls?" "The guys were very focused on their margins," plead the girls. "That's called strategy," comes the smug answer.

Mentioning humble beginnings, once a brilliant way to get Alan Sugar on side, is now apparently out. "I don't want to hear your sob story", is the new line. Now he wants "aggression" in his business partner ("if I want a friend, I'll get a dog") - but be aggressive, and you're " far too shouty".

Not that I feel too sorry for the contestants. It's just that they don't seem to have much of a chance. The formula seems to be: film them saying something (possibly with the off-camera instruction, "Can you just say something obnoxious please? Yep, that's great, yep, like that"), and then show a montage of them doing the opposite, with tuba sounds.

The sneaky rug-pulling tactics are used on us as well. So violently edited is the show that it allows radical plot twists (the team that seemed to get everything wrong wins) - and complete character changes (shrinking violet becomes team bully) - from episode to episode.

Having said that, there are a couple of nicely captured moments in episode two. Jane (Irish, shouty) spotted Maria (another one) asleep in the car. A heaven sent chance. She decided to engineer the situation, stuff of classroom nightmares, where you wake up to find yourself required to participate in a conversation you've missed. Waking Maria, she immediately asked her the (completely out of context) question "So, what do you think about that? I mean, do you have ideas ... or ..." Maria had no answer. It was brilliantly evil - and lead almost directly to Maria getting fired.

Azhar was another highlight. "People describe me as a killer whale of the sea world." That's just a regular killer whale, Azhar. That's not how metaphors work.

I won't go on, because they are indeed fish in a barrel, but then so are we for watching it.

Lord Sugar, Getty images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

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How "cultural terrorism" became a matter of international law

The destruction of manuscripts in Timbuktu became a landmark case for cultural terrorism.

When Hegel said of Africa in Lectures on the Philosophy of History that it was “no historical part of the World; it has no movement or development to exhibit”, he was lamenting the perceived lack of a European-style Enlightenment on the continent. Today, we know better. The region south of the Sahara, in particular, is rightly regarded as one of the intellectual centres of the world, with the 13th to the 17th centuries an especially fertile period for the production of its celebrated manuscripts.

In English, we principally know the name “Timbuktu” as a stand-in for the idea of something far away and inaccessible. Since 2012, the name has been said for another reason, because in the spring of that year the Tuareg rebel group Ansar Dine, allied with Islamist militants, set about destroying the city’s ancient mausoleums and manuscripts. Just as the more recent destruction of Syria’s ancient buildings in Palmyra by Isis has captured international attention, the losses at Timbuktu are now irrevocably part of the layers of memory around the old city.

The loss of these unique objects (40,000 manuscripts are thought to have been destroyed, along with 16 mausoleums of Sufi saints and scholars) has raised awareness of what we might call “cultural terrorism”, and has produced an unprecedented circumstance in international law. Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, a Tuareg alleged Islamic militant, has appeared at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, accused of war crimes relating to the destruction of cultural sites. It is the first case of its kind.

At the British Library’s new exhibition about the intellectual heritage of the subregion, “West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song”, the adviser Gus Casely-Hayford tells me that the “war crimes” label is completely accurate. The attitude to ancient manuscripts in places such as Timbuktu is different from that in the west, he explains: they are living documents, meant to be used. An attack on them is an attack on a whole way of life.

“Artefacts like these are the centre of the community, the focus of identity,” he says. “Al-Mahdi wanted it to be known that he is a teacher; a man who understands the significance of destroying these things.”

Marion Wallace, curator of African collections at the British Library, explains that many of the surviving hundreds of thousands of manuscripts – rescued by local “book traffickers” who smuggled them out of harm’s way – are now to be housed in a state-of-the-art research facility. As we examine a loose-leaf “saddlebag” Quran dating from the late 18th or early 19th century, Wallace explains that such manuscripts were never intended to be behind glass, but were designed to be read one page at a time while, say, travelling on a camel.

There is a photograph in the exhibition of an imam sitting on the floor of his sitting room, exhibiting a manuscript for the camera. Around the centuries-old document, you can see a pile of clothes to one side of him, a tray of drinks on the other, the television in the background: the rest of life.

“I can remember being in a library in Timbuktu before 2012,” says Casely-Hayford. “It was poorly lit and there were shafts of light streaming in from the small windows. You could see specks in the light, fragments of manuscript in the very atmosphere.” In this part of the world, erosion is a mark of respect and reverence, rather than regrettable decay.

The exhibition hopes to set this working manuscript culture in the context of West Africa’s intellectual tradition, stressing the continuity from ancient writing through music, storytelling and cloth design. Yet there is tension here, too: although many hundreds of thousands of precious artefacts were saved from destruction, they will likely never be handled in the same way again. Libraries and museums can preserve the past, but they are less good at letting it breathe. 

West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song is at the British Library until 16 February, 2016. See

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror