Thursday 26 November 2020

Who let that thing out!? My new book 'Assassins' Deeds'


Out today. My new book Assassins’ Deeds. A history of assassination from Ancient Egypt to the present day. It does what it says on the cover.

Assassins’ Deeds identifies the earliest assassination in history so far as I can tell. An Egyptian pharaoh murdered about 4,300 years ago by his bodyguards. Then there is Britain’s first assassination in 293 AD – of Marcus Carausius, the self-styled ‘Emperor of Britain’, who was hired by the Romans to protect the south-east coast of England from Saxon raids, but was more interested in grabbing loot from the raiders than protecting the local residents.

I analysed 266 assassinations from ancient Egypt to the present day, and discovered the ace sniper of Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal is a rarity. Most assassinations are up close and personal, with only 19 performed at a distance. Until the nineteenth century, stabbing was the favourite method, but even when firearms took over, it was usually the handgun at close quarters rather than the sniper’s rifle.

The book covers some of history’s weirdest assassinations – the king of Scotland killed by a booby-trapped statuette, the Swiss military leader hacked to death by a man disguised as a bear, and the Austrian empress murdered with a customised needle so fine the victim did not even realise she had been stabbed. She could count herself particularly unlucky as her assassin, an Italian anarchist, had been hoping to murder someone else, and she was a late substitute.

Fate moved in mysterious ways for some assassins too. An Italian nationalist was sentenced to the guillotine for a failed assassination attempt on the French emperor Napoleon III, but the emperor had a lot of sympathy for the would-be assassin’s cause of unifying Italy, and reprieved him at the last minute. He was sent to Devil’s Island for life, but escaped to the United States and went on to fight in and survive Custer’s Last Stand.

Then there is the story of King Zog of Albania, probably the only monarch to survive an assassination attempt by opening fire on the men who attacked him (as he was leaving the opera in Vienna).

Assassins Deeds’  also tells the story of history’s most famous assassinations – Julius Caesar, Thomas Becket, the French revolutionary Marat, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the Kennedy brothers, Martin Luther King, John Lennon, etc., coming right up to the present day with the murder of Kim Jong-nam, renegade brother of the North Korean dictator, whose killers thought they were taking part in a reality tv show.

Assassins’ Deeds. A History of Assassination from Ancient Egypt to the Present Day by John Withington is published by Reaktion Books, price £18.



Saturday 14 November 2020

Brexitwatch: of cakes and decisions

Another way of saying: 'I want to have my cake and eat it' is 'I am incapable of taking a decision'. Big political decisions usually involve making painful choices. Take Covid. The harder you lock down, the more you'll limit the spread of the virus, but the more damage you'll do to the economy.

The UK was late in imposing both of its lockdowns. Was this because Boris Johnson was incapable of taking the tough decision about how you balance economic damage against saving lives? Certainly, plenty of people complain about his indecisiveness when he was Mayor of London.

Brexit involves equally painful decisions. The more distant you want to be from the EU, the more damage you do to jobs, businesses and public services, and the greater the danger that you will break up the UK.

Johnson still seems not to have progressed from cakeism. He's still telling the dwindling band of people who believe him that we can have the benefits of EU membership without the responsibilities. The UK has tried demanding this for the last four years without success, but with perhaps just a week left to secure a deal, Johnson seems to have no fresh ideas.

Even if authoritarian nihilist Dominic Cummings has really departed, it will make the central decision no easier. What does the UK want: more distant and poorer, or closer and better off? With time running out, if Johnson continues to prevaricate, we will end up with no decision. And that will mean no deal. And that will mean we won't be able to have our cake or eat it.