Monthly Archives: May 2017

Rory Stewart Q&A: “I’ve always wanted a full-size, fully functioning Batmobile”


Article first published in The New Statesman on 15 May 2017.

What’s your earliest memory?

Trying to shuffle on skis when I was three or four, behind my father down the thin snow of a flat London street.

Who is your hero?

My father, who spent three hours playing with me every morning before school: he specialised in fencing in the park and later, when we moved to Malaysia, in building rafts in the jungle. And Indiana Jones. I am still in awe of archaeologists.

What was the last book you read that made you envy the writer?

Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis – for his learning, the precision of his grammar and his historical imagination. I find it impossible to imagine ever being able to think with such subtlety and care.

Which politician, past or present, do you look up to?

I admire the speeches of John Lawrence, who returned to parliament from India and whose pragmatism, decades in the field, knowledge and eloquence enabled him to demolish the foreign policy of the day.

What would be your Mastermind special subject?

I’m terrible at general knowledge but, if I were forced, I’d choose the vanished Middleland of Britain – the kingdoms of Cumbria and Northumbria, which were crushed out of existence by the new states of England and Scotland. Or anything on the history of the English-Scottish border.

Which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live in?

Macedonia in 334BC – Aristotle, horses and an opportunity to canter towards Afghanistan.

What TV show could you not live without?

The Wire, as a portrait of human nature and practical politics. And, come to think of it, as entertainment.

Who would paint your portrait?

When I was 18, I would have gone for Pompeo Batoni, the Italian swagger painter. Now I’d go for Paul Benney. He painted a picture of my father aged 92, which I loved and my father didn’t like, on the grounds that it made him “look like an old man”.

What’s your theme tune?

“The Barren Rocks of Aden”, the first tune I learned on the bagpipes, linking the Middle East to the rocks of the Highlands.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

To set up a vocational training programme in carpentry when I was working in Iraq. I did it reluctantly, feeling that it was the last thing anyone needed with bullets flying around. But I found it was the only programme that genuinely caught the imagination of the local community.

What’s currently bugging you?

Rewilding. Rural broadband. The impossibility of fitting two prams in the hall.

What single thing would make your life better?

I have always wanted a full-size, fully functioning Batmobile. And I’d also like more time to play with my two-year-old.

When were you happiest?

Running a charity in Afghanistan in 2007: living in Kabul, building an organisation, being around Afghans and working with extraordinary volunteers.

Are we all doomed?

Not doomed, perhaps, but fate does iron wedges drive and always crowds itself betwixt.


Parliamentary Candidate for Penrith and The Border, Rory Stewart, last week visited Typhon Treatment Systems, a Penrith-based water treatment equipment manufacturing company specialising in using ultraviolet LED to remove harmful pathogens from water, to learn more about the company’s plans to reduce the cost of creating safe drinking water.

Rory was shown around the company’s facilities by Dr Matthew Simpson and Peter McNulty, who founded the company three years ago. They formed the company after working together on an off-grid water project in Nigeria, where the need for electrical efficiency and simplicity of operation inspired them to investigate the possibility of using high flow LED ultraviolet water treatment equipment. None existed, and no existing UV water treatment equipment supplier would build one for them. So, in 2014 Typhon Treatment Systems was formed to create it. From there, the pair have attracted admirers for their work- which is 90% more efficient than current high-water volume purification methods which use mercury lamps. They are currently working with United Utilities on a prototype project which is getting installed at Cumwhinton, and they are looking forward to monitoring the results over the coming months.

After giving Rory a tour of the site, they demonstrated their patent-pending product to the MP, who was impressed by their ingenuity and the amazing potential of UV LED to treat water. Furthermore, their commitment to using local suppliers, and employing staff from the region, was commended by the MP.

Speaking about the visit Rory said: ‘Typhon treatment systems is an amazing example of the way in which Cumbrian Businesses is going. Underneath all the science, is an incredible idea. This company is going to reduce the energy costs by 90% of treating the water and produce purer drinking water as a result, and this is a great example of the dynamic pace of business in Cumbria.’

Typhon attached photo


Rory Stewart recently held an informal meeting with Director of Eden Arts – Adrian Lochhead and Eden District Council Leader – Kevin Beaty, to discuss ‘Cumbria Route 66’ – an exciting Eden Art’s project that aims to increase tourism to sites of cultural significance along the A66.

Cumbria Route 66 is an identity for mid-Cumbria from the fells in the east to the coast on the west. Aiming to emulate the success of Route 66 in the USA. Eden Arts are working with partners at Eden District Council, Allerdale and Copeland Borough Councils, Whitehaven Harbour Commissioners, the Local Enterprise Partnership and ARUP to develop a sustainable project that seeks to promote this part of Cumbria’s tremendous cultural and landscape and heritage offer.

Adrian Lochhead, Director of Eden Arts, says, “we are delighted to be working with a broad range of partners and contributors from across Cumbria on this project which is being so positively responded to as a welcome approach by tourism, cultural and heritage sectors”.

The project aims to create a ‘brand’ that describes a different area of Cumbria to the Lake District – by highlighting cultural assets all along the A66; from Brough and Appleby Castles and towns, through Penrith, Keswick, Cockermouth to Whitehaven, Workington and Maryport. Which, the organisers hope will boost the county economically and culturally.

Speaking about the project Rory Stewart said “Cumbria Route 66 is a fantastic opportunity for Cumbrian businesses to help create a tourist brand that stretches right across our county. The commitment from local businesses has been fantastic and by promoting our region’s very own Route 66 I am hopeful we can develop our region’s strong tourist identity. Cumbria Route 66 is the latest in a long-line of great ideas from Eden Arts, and I cannot wait to see it take off.”

Attached photo l-r Kevin Beaty, Rory Stewart, Adrian Lochhead

Attached photo l-r Kevin Beaty, Rory Stewart, Adrian Lochhead


‘I hope the audience will leave still confused by why it went wrong’

rory 334

Article first published in The Times by David Aaronovitch on 3 May 2017.

The playwright looks like a junior minister and the junior minister looks like a playwright. In 2003 the junior minister-looking one was on the Great Demonstration Against the War. A few weeks later the playwright-looking one was governing a province in southern Iraq. The three of us are meeting in a nondescript office upstairs at the Hampstead Theatre (which is actually in Swiss Cottage), north London — the playwright is Stephen Brown, neat and smiley, and his muse is Rory Stewart, MP, one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever met.

By the age of 31 (he’s now 44) Stewart had tutored Prince William and Prince Harry, served in the Black Watch, been part of the Foreign Office team in the former Yugoslavia, walked alone across Afghanistan in the immediate wake of the fall of the Taliban and helped to run a remote province in southern Iraq. So you’ll understand that it’s an act of jealous spite on my part to write here that his real name is Roderick.

Wiry and slight, Stewart is a man who never looks totally shevelled, though today he has a reasonable excuse, since he has a five-day old baby in the house. He also has a habit of answering questions while looking down at his hands, which conveys a sense of modesty. As though he is trying to disappear, or at least give the impression of someone trying to disappear. Maybe he’ll suddenly remember what he really should be doing, pick up a rucksack and walk out, en route for a hike down the Colombian drug trail or among Filipino jihadists.

We’re here because Brown — an old school friend of Stewart’s — has written a play, Occupational Hazards, based on Stewart’s account of his time in Iraq. (The book was published as Occupational Hazards in the UK and The Prince of the Marshes in the US.)

Why did Brown want to do this as a play, given all the other plays there have been about Iraq? “Most of those,” he says, “have been all about being a soldier. But what is unique about Rory’s story is that it takes you into the nitty-gritty of the political confrontations in Iraq itself after the invasion. No other story really does that.” To Brown (“does this sound pretentious?”) the confrontations between Stewart, representing the well-meaning occupiers, and the Iraqis he has to work with had him thinking. “I read the book and thought, ‘God it’s like the Oresteia or something.’ It’s an extraordinary story about blood feuds and deeply held feelings. It’s very comic and absurd and there’s a lot of misunderstanding in it. It’s something deep in the roots of drama itself: Greek tragedy came into being at the same time as democracy and they’re grappling with vendetta and feud and those sorts of things. That’s my grand, pretentious claim!”

The play, then, is partly a schematised version of the problem Stewart faced as deputy governor in the provinces of Amara and Nasiriyah. In essence Stewart, while trying to bring basic services to an area that had been partly destroyed under the Saddam Hussein dictatorship, had to decide which Iraqis to talk to and which to exclude.

In the play this becomes a three-way power struggle between the charismatic Karim, “Prince of the Marshes”, the incoming Shia Islamist, Seyyed Hassan, returning from Iranian exile, and Stewart himself. Brown’s objective, he says, was “to give each an independent life and viewpoint and I’m hoping that, as a result, the audience’s sympathies are complicated”.

For Stewart this question of whether to accommodate the Islamists was a horrible dilemma. On the one hand they were dynamic and well organised and had suffered at the hands of Saddam, and on the other they were brutes. One man they murdered, recalls Stewart, was his translator, Haydar, who was dragged from his car by the militias. In the morning they’d talk and in the evening they’d kill.

Stewart is reflective. “I think I believed that if I worked hard enough and was attentive enough to what happened at a very local level, listened enough, it would be possible to shape something which was at least slightly more humane, prosperous and stable than what was there when I arrived. Even 13 years on I’m still not able to provide a completely clear answer about why that didn’t work. What it was about that moment in Iraqi society that made it so difficult, when there were so many Iraqis that wanted to make it work, and there was a huge coalition presence that was desperate to make it work?”

Has he discovered anything surprising from Brown’s play? “Yes,” he tells his hands, “he makes me see how young I was and how much it was for me, in a way that embarrasses me, a sort of adventure. How excited I was to go there, how fascinated I was by the whole process.” And what about the playgoers who might be expecting a story of a naive western booby who bumbles into a place of which he knows nothing and where he has helped to create chaos?

Stewart becomes emphatic, passionate even. “I get frustrated by this conversation, when I encounter this clichéd criticism of it. What I want to say to them is that you don’t know anything about Iraq. And Stephen’s trying to make you see what it was like. And all these assumptions you have that it all went wrong because George Bush is an idiot are themselves wrong. By extension, I’d say I’m not an idiot either. People are underestimating how much we knew, and how hard we worked and what we did. That it wasn’t an amateur project at all. It failed for much more elusive and deep structural reasons. I hope that the audience will leave the play still confused by why things went wrong.”

And what about the experience of seeing yourself acted on stage? “That’s going to be really, really, really weird. The director’s not letting me into the rehearsal room — he sees this as a work of art so I’m being kept out. What I can tell you is that the actor, Henry Lloyd-Hughes, is much better looking than me.” The actor’s eclectic CV includes Indian SummersThe Inbetweeners and, amusingly, playing David Miliband in the TV documentary-drama Miliband of Brothers. “He’s a tall, sporty guy where I’m small and bandy-legged. I think I’d be more comfortable being played by Danny DeVito,” says Stewart.

Brown has been kind, he says, partly because they’ve been friends for years. “For thirty years!” laughs Brown. “Up until this point!” They met at Eton College aged 13, co-edited the school magazine and then, at 18, engaged in their first theatrical collaboration. And last, till now. It was a 45-minute show written by Brown called Geometry and it showed at the Edinburgh Fringe. “It was to do with black magic,” says Brown, turning to Stewart. “And you were playing Death.”