Martin Bell: End of an Empire reviewed by Chris Longden

This review was written by a member of the Ilkley Literature Festival review team. The Review Team take part in a special reviewing workshop at the start of the Festival before attending Festival events.

As you’d expect, most of the audience who had bought tickets to hear ‘The Man In The White Suit’ speak about his latest book End of an Empire were over the age of 50. Most of them were pretty clued up too about his various careers as soldier, BBC foreign correspondent, MP, Unicef Ambassador, author and these days – witty wordsmith and poet raconteur (e.g. did you know that ‘Presbyterians’ is an anagram of ‘Britney Spears’?)

So Martin wasted no time in regaling the crowd with stories of his time as a BBC TV correspondent – furnishing the hall with images from Bosnia, Rhodesia, Vietnam, Syria, Kuwait – or Watergate, of John Lennon’s murder.

An audible cheery burst of nostalgia and mirth filled the place as he promised; “But I’m not going to spare you Neil and Christine Hamilton”, and we were treated to reminders of the political soap opera that unfolded when Martin stood as an independent parliamentary candidate against Hamilton, who was facing allegations of sleaze. (“I mean, I’d heard of Neil. But no one had ever told me about Christine…”) After stepping down from Parliament, Martin Bell wrote a book about the MP Expenses scandal and most recently- in giving up his seat at Tatton – was accused of “allowing George Osborne into politics…”

Martin’s opinions on war and the causes of war were thought-provoking; “I’m not a pacifist but yes… war usually is a total waste of time,” and “one of the lessons of history is that we don’t learn the lessons of history.” Perhaps most controversial, is his view that the TV images of the Muslims who suffered during the wars in the Balkans and which were broadcast all over the world – were directly to blame for any subsequent rise in jihadism and in terrorist activity.

It was a shame that he didn’t spend time talking more about his new book The End of Empire, which recorded his experiences as a conscript, serving his time in Cyprus during the insurgence and which he described as “My best book; because it’s real”, as it seemed that he had a lot more to share – not the least the vitriol that he still holds for the officers of the 1950’s (Nb. he twice failed the intelligence test required in order to enter those ranks but said “Although I didn’t mind at all – when I saw the officers who had passed…”).

I imagine that Martin Bell has never been compared to ex-SAS soldier and now war-thriller author Andy McNab, but having heard both of their takes on army life, on conflicts and on ‘boy soldiers’ – along with their concerns over the lack of political leaders who have had direct experience of war –perhaps next year the festival should invite them both along to discuss the subject? i.e. The Man In White and The Man In Black. That would be an interesting discussion to hear…

Organisers would need to work hard on pulling a younger crowd for such an event, as after all, it’s the younger people who need to hear more about the realities of war and the experiences of the likes of Martin Bell – a chap who has devoted much of his life to tackling injustice and to taking a stand.

Chris Longden hails from Manchester but lived in the Kalahari for 4 years with the San bushmen, writing 2 books about them. Chris now lives in a slightly less sandy place – Huddersfield –  and runs an international charity in between writing novels (northern comedy) and blogging at


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