Olli Thomson

Category: Books

British Watchtowers

My friends had decided to go wind surfing on Camlough Lake. Not seeing the appeal of windsurfing myself I chose instead to go for a hike on Camlough Mountain. Calling it a mountain flatters it somewhat; it’s more of a large hill rising to less than 1400 feet.

I can’t remember exactly when this was except that it was probably in the mid 1980s when Northern Ireland was still in the midst of what we euphemistically called ‘the troubles’ or sometimes ‘The Troubles’. Since Camlough was in South Armagh, an area known as ‘Bandit Country’ in testimony to the intensity and ferocity of the violence there, the area wasn’t exactly a tourist hot spot and so I had the mountain to myself. Mostly.

As I approached the peak a helicopter appeared. I didn’t see it coming; I didn’t hear it coming. It just appeared. I believe it was a Wessex, a variant of the Sikorsky S-34 developed for the British Armed Forces. It was facing towards me and it felt and sounded like it was hovering far closer to me than I wanted a helicopter to be. After a few moments, presumably having had a look at me and deciding I was no threat, it peeled away and flew off.

Songs of Lao

Since visiting Laos a couple of years ago I’ve been on the lookout for a good photobook of the country but the few that I had discovered were mostly aimed at tourists looking for pictures of the country’s best known sites. It was only a couple of months ago that I came across Songs of Lao from Nazraeli Press. The book was published in 2016 but for some reason I had never seen it until recently.

Songs of Lao was published in association with Friends Without a Border, a children’s medical charity founded by Japanese photographer Kenro Izu. Izu set up the charity after witnessing the suffering of children during photographic trips to Angkor in Cambodia in the mid 1990’s. Working with the wider photographic community and beyond Izu’s organisation was able to open the Angkor Hospital for Children in Siem Reap in 1999. As well as providing an extensive range of medical services the hospital also worked with local health care providers to improve the overall standard of both administration and care in the region.

Losing an Enemy

At a time when one of President Obama’s genuine achievements is under threat from the current occupant of the White House, Trita Parsi’s book Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy tells the story of the long and complex process that led to the nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1.

There’s a lot in here I didn’t previously know, like the role of the Omanis in facilitating direct negotiations between the US and Iran where the real progress was made. While I knew that one of the greatest obstacles to the deal was Netanyahu (and his Congressional cheerleaders, both Democrat and Republican) I did not know that Netanyahu’s rhetoric of Iran as an existential threat to Israel has its origins not on the Israeli right but on the left, with Rabin and Peres. The role of John Kerry, while a more sceptical Clinton was Secretary of State, in getting the process established before becoming Secretary of State himself was also new to me.

On the Twelfth Day of Christmas…

My true love, and various other people, gave to me…

A TWELVE year old malt whisky. That’s a lie. It’s actually a 14 year old malt whisky but I didn’t have a fourteenth day available. To be specific, The Balvenie Caribbean Cask 14. I’ve never been a great fan of these experimental whiskies finished in all manner of casks but I once tried a 21 year old Glenfiddich finished in Cuban rum casks and it was excellent. Since then other whisky makers have joined the rum parade.

According to the Balvenie website they use traditional American oak casks and fill them with rum. This is different from the Glenfiddich approach where they bring in the casks directly from Caribbean rum producers. These days the Glenfiddich no longer identifies the specific origin of the casks. I wondered if the switch from the specifically Cuban provenance had anything to do with the American trade boycott, but one of the regional representatives for William Grant I met while in the Philippines told me the reason was that they were not able to guarantee supplies of a sufficient quality from Cuba alone so they had to look more widely. I haven’t opened this bottle yet but on the next cold wintry night I might have a taste.


Part travel book, part ancient history, part early Christian history, part biblical criticism, part historical theology – there’s a lot to this book by Tom Bissell, one time Peace Corps volunteer, now a journalist and travel writer. Bissell sets out to visit the alleged tombs of the twelve apostles, which leads him into his discussions of early Christianity.

His reading of the Bible reflects a fairly mainstream historical-critical approach with a tendency towards the slightly more sceptical Bart Ehrman line, and a fondness for Raymond Brown’s Johannine community. But he has read, and grasped, an impressive amount of material, not only on the New Testament, but also the early church. He’s also at pains to avoid the wilder shores of speculative reconstructions of early Christianity.

Bissell speaks favourably of his youthful Christianity as an altar boy in the Roman Catholic church, a faith that he later lost. Yet he retains an interest in Christianity, hence this book. Well worth reading.

America in Laos

When I was in Laos in 2016 I visited the UXO Lao Visitor Centre in Luang Prabang. There are only two rooms but, despite the small size, it’s a sobering place to visit. During the bombing campaign in Laos the US dropped an estimated 2.5 million tons of explosives – more than the US dropped on Japan and Germany combined during WW2. Among the weapons used were cluster munitions which dispersed 260 million bomblets across the country. An estimated 30% of these failed to explode – that’s 75 million of them. Today, more than forty years after the bombing ceased, people, including many who weren’t even born at the time, continue to suffer as a consequence. Despite the best efforts of de-mining groups large areas of the country are still contaminated with unexploded ordnance.

Joshua Kurlantzick’s book, A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military C.I.A., tells the story of how the CIA launched and ran ‘Operation Momentum’, the anti-communist war in Laos of which the bombing was part. It’s a fascinating book, not least because a number of the key people in the conflict who were interviewed by Kurlantzick had died by the time the book was published earlier this year, so the book is in a sense their final word. While Kurlantzick occasionally relates the history of this conflict to other more contemporary events he doesn’t over stress this. Not that he needs to; any thoughtful person can make the connections.

Buda’s Wagon

Growing up in Belfast in the 1970’s car bombs were an integral part of the soundtrack of my youth, so Mike Davis’ book, Buda’s Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb was, as they say, a must read. The Buda in question was Mario Buda, an Italian-American, and his wagon was a horse drawn carriage packed with explosives and shrapnel which he left at the corner of Wall Street in New York on 18 September 1920. Thirty eight people died and hundreds more were injured in the cause of anarchism.

Davis defines car bombs as ‘delivery systems to create deadly explosions in public spaces’, excluding the use of booby traps on vehicles designed to kill the occupant, and traces their development and spread in the years since Buda’s wagon. It’s a fascinating read. Davis covers a lot of ground without getting bogged down in too much detail and brings to light the use of these devices in a host of conflicts across the world and down through the decades. As well as tracing their use by non-state actors Davis also looks at the way in which agents of the state – usually intelligence agencies with the US, Pakistan and Russia to the fore – have become adept at making use of car bombs to further their own goals.

Ragnar Axelsson – Fjallaland

Visiting photography galleries is always high on the list of must do activities for every trip. In Reykjavik I spent a morning at the Museum of Photography, which is one of the five sites making up the Reykjavik City Museum. The Museum houses a collection of over 6 million images dating back to 1860 and is continually expanding its holdings. The collection includes both amateur and professional work and, commercial and personal photographs.

The exhibition spaces are relatively small but the works on display when I was there were excellent – definitely a case of quality over quantity. There are also a number of monitors giving access to the museum’s digitised photo collection of 35,000 images. These can also be accessed directly online.

The museum also has a publicly accessible library of photography books and photographic records and I took the opportunity to browse through some of the works after viewing the exhibitions. It was while browsing that I came across a number of books by Ragnar Axelsson. I was vaguely aware of Axelsson, but not sufficiently aware to make the connection when I decided to visit Iceland, so he was still something of a new discovery.

The Revenge of Analog

A couple of years ago I had a job interview. As part of the process I had to read a couple of documents and summarise the key data. The interviewer’s assistant sat me down in front of a computer and pointed me to the files containing the information. Then he walked away. I called him back.

“Could I get some paper?”


“Yes. Paper. For making notes.”

Oh. Eh. Yeah. Sure.”

He pulled some pages out of a nearby printer and gave them to me.

I assumed from his response that I was the only candidate with, what appeared to be for him, such an odd request. He was young, though, so perhaps the idea of writing things down on paper with a pen seemed strange.

Martin Parr

In 2014 Phaidon published an updated edition of their Martin Parr retrospective called, imaginatively enough, Martin Parr. In numbers: 464 pages, more than 600 photographs, and a list price of £60 / $100.

I’ve always liked Parr’s work so when a new copy showed up on AbeBooks for less than $40 last year, I snapped it up. The book covers Parr’s photographic work from his earliest days up to 2011 and has broad selections from many of his projects and publication. The images are accompanied by an extensive text from Val Williams, detailing Parr’s career and discussing his work.


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