In the Critics this week

Richard J Evans on Michael Gove, Amanda Foreman on Lina Prokofiev and A L Kennedy interviewed.

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, Richard J Evans, Regius professor of history at the University of Cambridge, examines Education Secretary Michael Gove’s new draft national curriculum for history. Evans notes that this has been “greeted with dismay by history teachers at every level, from primary schools to universities, and from every part of the political spectrum”. The latter point is particularly important. Even the conservative historians who had previously rallied to Gove’s cause – that of focusing the curriculum on “supposedly key personalities and events within the British past” – were dismayed, Evans notes. The new curriculum, which appears to be the work of Gove alone, “tells pupils what to think”. It is, Evans argues, “preparation for Mastermind or a pub quiz; it is not education … If he really wants more rigour in education, Gove should tear up his amateurish new curriculum and start listening to the professionals.”

This week’s lead book reviewer is the historian Amanda Foreman. She reviews The Love and Wars of Lina Prokofiev by Simon Morrison. Morrison, Foreman argues, has “told the story of a woman who was a desperate little nobody when she was married, and became a courageous heroine when she was single”.

Also in Books: Nicholas Timmins, former public policy editor of the Financial Times, reviews God Bless the NHS by Roger Taylor (“[Taylor] manages to grapple with … some of the most difficult issues in modern health care”); Sophie Elmhirst reviews The Book of My Lives by Aleksandar Hemon (“Hemon tries to work out what to call his life throughout these essays. He doesn’t come up with an answer”); Amanda Craig reviews Kate Atkinson’s latest novel Life After Life (“I would be astonished if it does not carry off at least one major prize”); Vernon Bogdanor reviews Mr Speaker: the Office and the Individuals Since 1945 by Matthew Laban (“Given the centrality of the speakership to the Westminster system, it is surprising that so little has been written about it”); Max Liu reviews How Literature Saved My Life by David Shields (“Shields wants to forge a literary form that can articulate experience and assuage loneliness”).

In the Books Interview, Philip Maughan talks to A L Kennedy about her new book On Writing. Writing, Kennedy tells Maughan, is like “walking out across a great, white wasteland, making little black marks”.

Elsewhere in the Critics: Ryan Gilbey reviews Lee Daniels’s film The Paperboy (“no one in The Paperboy gives a hoot about anything not related to sex. This movie is in heat”); Rachel Cooke reviews A History of Syria with Dan Snow on BBC2 (“In Syria, your enemy’s enemy is your friend”); Antonia Quirke listens to Baroque Spring on Radio 3 (“who cares for Purcell’s words?”); Andrew Billen reviews The Audience with Helen Mirren and Patrick Marber’s repurposing of Arthur Pinero’s Trelawny of the Wells at the Donmar (“mostly [The Audience] gets by, and gets its laughs from, libelling prime ministers”); Alexandra Coghlan reviews the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s performance of Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera as part of the Southbank Centre's "The Rest of Noise" festival (“I wonder whether a better dramatic compromise could have been found than the semi-staging offered by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, London Philharmonic Choir and Vladimir Jurwoski”).

PLUS: "Obit", a poem by Blake Morrison, and Will Self’s Real Meals.

Education Secretary Michael Gove (Photograph: Getty Images)
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The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood