Afghanistan to Zambia: The incredible career of Paul Wilson, author of Hostile Money.

Paul Wilson's incredible career has given him a ringside seat to many of recent history's flash points. His work as a soldier, diplomat, and agent of international commerce has taken him from Afghanistan to Zambia and everywhere in between. 

Paul Wilson's expertise on global politics and finance has been distilled into his debut book Hostile Money: Currency in Conflict, published on The History Press. Here, Paul Wilson talks us through the spectacular career that made him the expert on global finance and war.   

Paul Wilson, you’ve had a remarkable working life, how did that happen?

I’ve been really lucky to have had the professional life that I set out to have when I left school decades ago, which was to have an interesting one. My principal objective was not to make lots of money, which is a good thing because in writing books I’ve discovered you don’t make a lot of money, not in writing the sort of books that I want to write anyway(!)

How did it all start?

After a very brief spell in London I went into the army and I served in all the usual places you’d expect: Cyprus, The British Army of the Rhine, and so on. It was really answering an urge to travel that I had already developed because my family had emigrated to Australia when I was 13 and come back when I was 16. So I’d already literally been around the world by the time I was 16 and that left me with quite itchy feet.

And you ended up in West Berlin?

Spandau Prison under joint British and Soviet control in The Cold War.

The last post I was posted to was in Berlin and was called BRIXMIS, the Commander in Chief’s mission to the Soviet Forces in East Germany. The original purpose of BRIXMIS was to liaise with the other side, the Soviet Army. The unit had other responsibilities which included supporting the management of Spandau Prison where Rudolph Hess, the last remaining living Nazi, who was imprisoned there after the Nuremberg trials. It was extraordinary for somebody of my era then to have the opportunity to censor the correspondence of Hess, and agreeing with a soviet counterpart what television or radio programmes he was permitted to watch or listen to, these were really enriching experiences.

How old were you at that point?

I was about 27 at that stage. Hess was already a very old man by that time. That was the end of my army career, I came out after that because I thought there’d be nothing equally interesting to do.

So you moved on from  The British Army and into the diplomatic service.

Yes. At the end of my time in Berlin I moved into the diplomatic service. And again that was a hugely enriching experience. I had two spells working in departments relating to Eastern Europe and southern Africa. This included responsibilities for the London end of relationships with the ANC. A lot of ANC members were at that time still in exile in Zambia, so I got a trip out there to see some of these young ANC types who were going to benefit from scholarships to the UK. But I also had opportunities to visit other places like Angola which was also on my patch to look after. The foreign office did try to tempt me with a posting to Angola, but that didn’t strike me as quite so attractive, and instead I got posted to the British High Commission in Islamabad, Pakistan.

So from Eastern Europe, to the south of Africa, and then to Pakistan?

Pakistan was extraordinarily interesting because my responsibility was to look after our reporting on Afghanistan. At that time there was no British Embassy in Afghanistan, the building was there, looked after by a skeleton staff including Gurkha guards, but there were no British diplomats in Kabul and all the coverage of Afghanistan was done from Pakistan, and that was my responsibility. So I was travelling up to Peshewar on the north west frontier every other week; it was extraordinary to cross the confluence of the Kabul and Indus rivers and then to enter the North West Frontier Province. I had one trip travelling through the Khyber Pass with the United Nations on a visit to a de-mining operation in Afghanistan. And in 1992 I went on the Foreign Office’s mission to Kabul to establish relationships with the new Mujahidin government which had overthrown the old socialist government. So it was again, an extraordinarily exciting time. The time in Kabul with my colleagues from the foreign office had many interesting moments.

You were put into these very politically active situations in foreign countries, do you feel you made any progress there?

No, absolutely not. I think at the end of the two years clearly the old socialist regime that was just clinging on to power after the Russian withdrawal had been overthrown but it hadn’t been replaced by a more stable regime or a regime that was able to drag Afghanistan out of its terrible conflict which was initiated by the Russians in 1979 when they invaded. Whenever I think about it since I see very little to believe that we’ve made progress. When I came back after Islamabad I went back into the Eastern European section. I had more or less concluded that I was going to go out into the private sector.

So this is the next career transition, from the Foreign Office to the private sector…

The transition could hardly have been better, because I moved to De La Rue, a company that has been around for over 200 years. Its principal business is supplying printed currency to countries all the way around the world. So that means dealing with ministers, central banks, presidencies and so on in all sorts of different countries and the experiences of the army and the foreign office gave me a huge leg up in trying to work with people from quite different societies, conducting oneself cautiously with the top decision makers in those countries.

Were you interested in money before that?

Well I had no more interest in money than the average person, who looks forward to receiving some of it at the end of every month(!) But what was striking about working for De La Rue  was just how interesting the company was. It was always very closely involved when something new was about to happen: when a new country was about to born, or a country was collapsing into turmoil, or emerging from turmoil. At one point in the late 80s early 90s it was managing elections for countries coming out of conflict: Angola, Mozambique, Bosnia, Cambodia. They also helped produce ballot papers for the first post-apartheid election in South Africa so it has this tremendously exciting world in which it plays, dealing with currency, passports, and elections.

Sounds perfect for someone who likes to be in the thick of the world’s current affairs!

That’s it. And I was fortunate to rise up the ranks of the organisation and find myself running the sales team for currency division which at various times was supplying to Iraq and Afghanistan, as they emerged from conflict, and that has definitely been drawn on for my book. Not only the broad experiences of the sort of things that happen when people have to make these decisions: ‘are we going to introduce a new currency or not?’, but also just generally it fired up my thinking in a load of these areas where I was responsible for advising the most senior people in the company: ‘should we be going down this route?’ ‘Is it appropriate?’ ‘Do we have to wait a little longer to see what pans out in this particular country?’ So that kind of political sensitivity, understanding what’s going on and how far you could and should go was definitely left over from the foreign office.

A childish question, but do you have a favourite currency?

Cape Verde’s vibrant currency

Funnily enough I was always struck by some of the work that had been done by one of De La Rue’s managers for Cape Verde. He was very uncompromising in achieving designs for currency that were really world leading. Beautiful designs. It’s very attractive and it has an impact on people when they arrive in a country and say ‘Wow that’s beautifully designed!’. He ended up producing some really fine designs for Cape Verde, so they always struck me as really fascinating, very attractive.

Cape Verde! That’s a great curve ball answer, who’d have thought!?

Sometimes the more powerful countries have the more boring designs.

That’s interesting actually. It’s true that US dollars are very boring, and the UK’s always had quite conservatively designed currency, although I like the £2 coin. Why is that?

Well, I think some countries see the currency as more of a necessary statement about national pride, culture, ethos, and so on, than other countries do. It’s almost in almost inverse proportion to the power of the country.

And in this long career working in places around the globe, where have been some of your favourite spots, that still have a place in your heart?

Well, Berlin was a fantastic place in the 80s, and it’s still a fantastic place now. But I spent a lot of time in Central Asia covering Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and I think if I went back there tomorrow, I would not be lost. It would be pretty comfortable for me.

I imagine not many Brits can say that about Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan! And where should we be paying attention to now?

Now I’ve spent a lot of my time outside of the currency world, outside the world of De La Rue, and now I’m very focused on Iran. Since last year I’ve been running the British Iranian Chamber of Commerce. And in the time I’ve been sitting in the hot seat, it really has sharpened up, the whole US-Iran position. As you can see from the news these days it’s getting more and more fraught, more and more tense.

And once again your job’s given you a ringside seat! But Iran’s the place to keep an eye on right now?

Paul Wilson is currently running the British Iranian Chamber of Commerce.

Oh yeah absolutely, it is a test case for Trump and his whole style of government. It’s a test case for the UK which lifted sanctions on Iran in early 2016 in return for Iran giving up its nuclear programme. And everybody has agreed, the international atomic energy authority, and most national governments agree that they (Iran) have performed their part of the deal, whereas the reality is that I think they’ve got good grounds to believe that The West has not fulfilled its part of the deal, so it’s a big test case. And of course, we all hope that it doesn’t decline into open conflict.

And any other things we should be worrying about?

The thing that really gives me pause for thought at the moment is the dependence on the internet as a platform for our monetary systems. Everything we do now with telephone banking, and internet banking etc – we’re so dependent on the internet that that leaves us, our monetary systems very vulnerable to attack by cyber hackers. We’re now moving into a brave new world but one where our fundamental way of doing business is open to serious attack. The point is that governments need to have a plan B in their pocket. Because if someone decides they’re going to mount cyber attacks on an unprecedented scale to bring down a country’s economy, then you need to be able to have good old fashioned currency to hand. It’s no good leaving that to another day.

You’ve worked all over the world, you’ve been involved with some of the major global political issues of our age, when did the penny drop that you really ought to write a book about all this?

In my De La Rue time I looked at a lot of these issues not just as a sales opportunity but I was always interested in the political, military, diplomatic dimensions of what was going on. I was Director of Government Relations, when there was a lot happening in the world. There was a civil war erupting in Libya where the currency had a part to play, South Sudan emerged as the world’s newest country. And I had ringside seats in these things. And I was accumulating by that time so much knowledge and experience and expertise in the crossover between the commercial and the political worlds that quite a senior civil servant said to me, ‘You’re the guru on this sort of stuff’, this was around 2011, and I suddenly thought, ‘well perhaps I am, and isn’t this something I should be writing about?’. ⬛️

Our thanks to Paul for letting us interview him, and for the on-going pleasure of being his literary agents. Interview edited for clarity.

Paul Wilson’s book ‘HOSTILE MONEY: Currencies in Conflict’ came out in May on The History Press. The book covers the interplay of money and power across centuries of world history; from civil war in Ancient Rome to today’s economic sanctions on Iran. ORDER YOUR COPY HERE.

 

Noireland Festival: Belfast

Friday 8th - Sunday 10th of March 2019 saw Belfast host NOIRELAND, a new International Crime Fiction Festival. The three day festival celebrated all things crime with panels, workshops, and talks. 

Artellus director Leslie Gardner was in attendance. Here she reports from the bustling festival in mid-Brexit Belfast.

Leslie writes...

A day in Belfast for The Noireland International Crime Festival. Decades after my first visit, it was an entirely refreshing occasion and a changed city. Last time when I was attached to the BBC Radio Drama Department police were everywhere on the streets, and you were constantly frisked. No photos then or your film would be confiscated – this time: sweetness and light, friendly locals, and I took a slew of pictures.

The organisers, like good detectives, had left no stone un-turned when it came to content: True Crime, the role of mothers in crime, the Victim Point of View, and talks from top crime writers like Stuart MacBride and Belfast’s very own Adrian McKinty (a revelation – as smart and funny as his main protagonist Sean Duffy, a Catholic cop in a Protestant town when the Troubles were still in the air). The evening only built on the successes of the day– Gothic crime, social media crime, ‘outside’ crime, a rageful Brexit panel … and at the end of each event we were (quite rightly!) exhorted to go drink-up and buy their books.

Karen Sullivan, founder/editor Orenda Books was in attendance and particularly entertaining, cheering on various authors in the panels on her list. Seasoned readers, practising new crime writers, and published authors peppered the panels with questions. Attempts to hold down the rabble rousing in the Brexit meeting, and a pitch to create a viral event when two panellists threatened to get into a fight, were the tamer parts of the discussions.

The day was as relentless as the reading experience of these crime stories – dark and tough for the most part. No ‘cosies’ here! Darkened rooms, spotlit panellists, and no time to eat contributed to a dynamic and intense day. The quality of the talent and content on offer made it all worthwhile.

Adam Hamday’s scary explorations of the crimes on the internet caused many parents to think of denying their children smartphones.

Take, for example, Alex Reeve’s exploration of historical transgender issues in his crime novel. Set in a remote corner of the Scandinavian forests, the deaf and transgender Will Dean must hide who they are to escape being hanged as a murderer. Claire Allan’s ‘dark domestic noir’ is perhaps a new genre unto itself – and the involvement of children adds a new level of tough. Adam Hamday’s scary explorations of the crimes on the internet caused many parents to think of denying their children smartphones.

Brian McGilloway, Martyn Waites, and Declan Hughes warn us of the changing nature of crime with advent of Brexit (of which they are deeply critical). The current political dramas may be notable for their presence in the press, but for their absence in their novels; domestic and familial crimes instead of international thrillers and crime stories will prevail they determined… escapism. Spooky crime stories like Laura Purcell’s increasingly introduce the Gothic supernatural into the genre. In the process they supplanting traditional thriller themes, making it all much more up close and personal.

Throughout the day there were constant references to the trusted friends their editors had become in the writing process. Indications that agents were dampening (yet necessary) while editors more receptive. Once I’d had my fill I left those still standing to their drink and late-night final event of the day, listening to John Connolly’s new one. I trekked across town to my hotel behind Belfast Cathedral, thoroughly satisfied at the good talk and company. Here’s hoping Noireland Crime Fiction Festival proves to be a repeat offender⬛️

Saira Viola: Under The Influence

Saira Viola is a pioneering writer of fiction and poetry who splits her time between Italy, London, and Baltimore. Her experimental ‘Sonic Scatterscript’ style has been critically acclaimed by the likes of Benjamin Zephaniah and Heathcote Williams. Viola’s two novels Jukebox and Crack, Apple, Pop are published by the fiercely independent Fahrenheit Press who celebrate ‘Fahrenbruary‘ this month. For this month’s blog post we asked Saira to list three of her literary influences…


Dickens

Dickens has been a major influence and continues to provide me with a rich vein of source material to tap into.  Few can equal Dickens when it comes to vibrant and eccentric characters, revealing the darkest of humours. Dickens has a Shakespearean heft and scale when describing villainy across the various strata of society. The characters bear the physical marks of a deformed society. Daniel Quilp, the shady money lender and ship breaker in The Old Curiosity Shop  is a perfect example, with his  ‘black sly eyes crooked long yellow nails,’ and ugly grin. He eats hard eggs shell and all and bites his fork and spoon until they are bent again. His protagonists experience a corresponding identity crisis as they struggle to reconcile the social conflicts that define their environment and inform their individual being.  They provide a connection, a portal into the novel, to the reader who, even at this late date, experience much the same tensions.  When I was ten, I was given a copy of Great Expectations. My family and I had recently settled in England after a blissful few years in Africa. I felt an outsider in English society alienated and alone, and so I immediately connected with the protagonist in the novel.  Pip is unclear about his identity and desperate to leave the brutal poverty of his childhood and establish a new identity on the glittered streets of London. When I was mercilessly teased at school about where I came from Pip’s words struck a chord “It is a most miserable thing to be ashamed of home.”

William S. Burroughs

But for tone and style I turned to William Burroughs. I bought a copy of Naked Lunch during my angst ridden teens, going through a punkish phase. Reading Burroughs’ pyretic prose, for the first time was revelatory to me and ultimately freed me from self-imposed conventions I never even knew existed. The raw sex and violence inspired me to write without fear, to try a riskier style of prose. The poetic punch of Burroughs’ novels propelled the rhythmic style of my own work and much later, I developed and experimented with my own writing resulting in a style I dubbed ‘sonic scatterscript’.

Marvin Gaye

I am often drawn to art-forms outside of literature for models that suit my purpose. Which brings me to the importance of music. Certain musicians  have been as important to me as the authors I admire, because the music of language is key. Take someone like Marvin Gaye, whose poetic street idioms, though deceptively simple, are weighted with great emotion and honesty. ‘What’s Going On?’ is a perfect example of Gaye’s song writing technique. The song is eternally fresh and manages to convey in only a very few lines the civil unrest and mood of dissent that characterised the end of the 60s. My favourite lines of the song are :

Picket lines and picket signs
Don’t punish me with brutality
But just talk to me
So you can see
What’s going on… 


Thanks to Saira Viola for the pleasure of being her literary agents, and for providing us with February’s blog.

“How do you translate bread?” An interview with Prof. David Coward.

David Coward is a professor of French literature at the University of Leeds and veteran translator of French literature. His translation of Arthur Cohen's Belle du Seigneur won a Scott Moncreif Prize. He is currently translating Georges Simenon's popular Inspector Maigret series for Penguin Classics. A Maigret Christmas is available now.

We caught up with him to talk translation, his newest Inspector Maigret, and the impossibility of exact translation.

David, could you start with a quick summary of how you got into translating?

I was teaching French at the University of Leeds and in 1986 OUP rang me up and asked would I translate The Lady of the Camellias, which I’d never read. I thought it might be quite dreadful, but of course I said yes. Later on I was asked by Penguin to translate a book by Albert Cohen called Belle du Seigneur which was really rather long and quite hard, it came out at about 1000 pages, but it won the Scott Moncrieff Prize. Anyway I’ve now translated about 30 books.  I fell into it, if you like.

And how long did 1000 pages of Albert Cohen take to translate?

Oh god, years. I was working at the time, it was about 5 years on and off, I did other things as well.

What do you enjoy about translating?

I quite like translating because being a bit of a ham, I always think the translator gets to play all the parts, you can do all the voices you know? You are the narrator, all the characters, sometimes you talk in different accents, but that in itself can be quite difficult.

Talking of difficulties, what’s the biggest challenge?

One of the things you have to do as a translator is clear up the vague bits in the original text, because authors try it on, sometimes they will try an image and you’re not quite sure what that image means. You then have to interpret it and force a meaning on the reader and hope to goodness that you’ve got it right(!)

Then there’s the cultural challenges: for example how do you translate ‘bread’? Bread in English conjures up in the eye of the average British reader something that is square that you make sandwiches with and form triangles, whereas bread in french is something long you put under your arms. When you change the nationality of objects, then of course all the historical references that every nation has change with it.

Can you give a good specifically historical example?

Well, in terms of translating a French book from the German occupation of France, you talk about ‘semelles de bois’: The merry sound it made as you crack along on your wooden shoes because there wasn’t any leather around. But in England we wouldn’t understand that so you have to convey that without putting a footnote, which is terribly boring and taboo as far as I’m concerned(!)

Right! 100% direct translation is basically impossible, isn’t it?

Ultimately I suppose, direct translation is not possible. Somebody in the 16th century said when you read a translated book it’s really rather like looking at a Flemish tapestry from the back, you get a lot of fluff and inklings and the broad idea but the finer points skip you.

Can you think of any phrases or passages that really gave, or give, you a headache when it comes to translation?

Oh gosh. Well, ‘the cat sat on the mat’ is a bit of a snorter to put into French. Is this cat a male cat or a female cat? And when it sat, was it sat sitting? Or did it sit down, at that moment? These tenses are much more distinct in French than they are in English. Now what about your mat? What sort of mat are you thinking of: something behind the door? In front of a fire?

If you wanted to put that into French you’d bear in mind the general sense of what this sentence means, it’s heavily rhythmic and alliterative isn’t it? Now instead of making the cat sit down on some mat or other that I can’t actually translate, I would call it a female cat, ‘la chatte’, and then there’s a verb in French which is to scratch, which is ‘se gratter’, and then the word for a cat’s paw is ‘la pate’. So I would translate that as ‘la chatte se gratte la patte’ which gets the rhythm of ‘the cat sat on the mat’, and it’s just as nonsensical. But you see how something that appears to be quite simple is in fact fiendishly complex.

Sounds like a headache…

It does take a bit of time, absolutely. I mean, to talk about Simenon, it was his habit to lock himself in a room for 10 days with a pencil and paper and he would emerge with a novel ten days later in 20 chapters, and it took him less time to write the damn thing than it takes anyone else to translate it!

When it comes to Simenon, you’ve translated many books in the Inspector Maigret series, which is your favourite?

I think this Christmas one. It’s three longish short stories. The variety is very interesting and the stories are very compelling. It’s good Maigret stuff, it’s about the psychology of the individual, tracking what they do, judging them by what they’ve done, and then trying to second guess what they might do next. French detective fiction is very different to ours, we tend to go by ‘there was blood on the floor’ or ‘the train went at six forty five that day instead of half six’ therefore the butler is lying!

More quantitative clues?

That’s right! The french have gone according to the psychological makeup of the criminal which can be deduced from his actions.

Are the three tales straight up detective stories?

One is not really about crime at all but is a very subtle short story and full of humanity, which people don’t often associate with Simenon, because he has this terrible reputation for being a rather louche character, and the others are plain detection. They’re very satisfying because the wicked are brought to justice.

A big Scooby-Doo resolve at the end?

Umm, not my generation I fear…

I mean… a good Shakespearean resolution at the end?

Much better! Yes that’s the one.

Finally, the big question: French or English?

Oh English every time! Oh yes, English has got a wider vocabulary and is much more down to earth and its range is wider. The reason why the French have so much slang is because they their vocabulary has been reduced whereas ours continues to proliferate. It seems to me English is much more wedded to practicalities, whereas french is a language of abstraction. There are times where French can be opaque, although it seems clear, which explains I think, why until the early 18th century French was the international language of diplomacy because you can say nothing more elegantly in French than in any other language ⬛️

Thanks to David Coward for speaking to us, and of course the pleasure of representing him as literary agents. Interview by Angus MacDonald; transcript has been edited for clarity.