Thursday, 25 February 2016

Stephen Masty, communications adviser - obituary

I first met Steve Masty in a club in Peshawar. He was managing the Khyber Club. It was late 1993, Steve was lounging in a wicker chair, wearing white Shalwar Kemeez, looking like a young Hemmingway. I used every drop of charm and decorum I had to try and get club membership as I knew I was going to work some years in Afghanistan and wanted membership badly, as it was the only place in this fundamentalist frontier city one could have a wee dram when visiting.

“No problem, “ he smiled. This was the start of a friendship that has lasted ever since.

What a talented man: Song writer, movie director, singer, author, artist, poet, development specialist, cartoonist and raconteur. He once was a speech writer for Ronald Reagan, Steve studied for a PhD at St. Andrews in Scotland and his thesis lies there unmarked.

In 2006 he published a book called The Muslim & Microphone: Miscommunications in the War on Terror (Social Affairs Unit, London, 2006). An astounding book.

Our relationship bonded strongly during the tough winter in Kabul in 1995 when the Taliban were relentlessly bombarding the city. I recall spending many winter evenings with Steve discussing literature, history, local savagery and world politics. I would often prompt Steve to get out his guitar and sing one of his songs about Afghanistan. Steve  and I spent the year of 1994 in Afghanistan together midst death and destruction. We saw in the New Year of 1995 together and celebrated with a bottle of cheap Russian vodka and sang Auld Lang Syne, a version that Steve had modified.

Since 1993, Steve dropped in to see me in Delhi and Dhake where I was living at that time, and I visited him in London in 1998 with my wife to be, Naila. When we arrived at a posh hotel in London, Steve had told the manager that a very famous and beautiful Kazakh Princess was arriving from Kazakhstan, and that they should address her as Princess Naila or H.R.H. Naila was amazed at the Royal treatment she received.

Steve, Kees Rietveld, Naila and I went to the London Musical 'Showboat' and a few days later went to Grenwich where we discovered a bookshop with a run of over one hundred Central Asian Journals that Steve and I divided between us. I have many cartoons that Steve drew for Naila and I.

When I heard that Steve died on Boxing Day 2015, I hoped someone would write a decent obituary of his life. Just recently I found the Daily Telegraph did that on 06 January 2016.

It is below.

Stephen Masty, communications adviser - obituary

Globe-trotting writer and adventurer who championed privatisation in the developing world

Steve Masty in central Asia
Steve Masty in central Asia Photo: Lisa Schiffren
Stephen Masty, who has died aged 61, was a speech writer to Ronald Reagan, a communications adviser who successfully sold reform to the developing world, an author, cartoonist, musician, song-writer, journalist, film-maker, and one of clubland’s more engaging raconteurs.
He also spent many years in Afghanistan and his work there gave an early warning of the rise of Islamic extremism.
Stephen James Masty was born in Grosse Point, on the edge of Detroit in Michigan, on December 12 1954. His father was a dentist and his mother a nurse. Stephen attended Seaholm High School in Birmingham, Michigan, before reading English Literature at Hillsdale College, also in his home state; there he became a friend and protégé of Russell Kirk, the American conservative guru. Stephen went on to St Andrews in Scotland (which Kirk had attended) to do a PhD on the South African poet Roy Campbell.
According to one account, however, he did not set foot in the English department, meet his supervisor or do one jot of “research”, preferring to spend his time in the Cross Keys Bar, smoking and treating friends to such conceits as “The History of Western Philosophy in Limericks”.
He became president of the university’s Conservative association, reviving what he said was the ancient St Andrews tradition of burning heretics in effigy; heretics in Masty’s view being anti-Thatcherite “wets” or Left-wingers. He also found himself regularly in argument with fellow student and future SNP leader Alex Salmond.
One of Steve Masty's cartoonsOne of Steve Masty's cartoons
At that time Masty met Madsen Pirie and Eamonn Butler, who would later found the Adam Smith Institute. He then went to live in Washington and wrote a weekly political column for the Washington Times. He also worked for the Republican National Committee, his duties including speech-writing for Ronald Reagan. Masty was responsible for many of Reagan’s jokes as well as for some of the president’s stronger Cold War messages and a well-regarded Lincoln Day address.
Amid all the thrusting ambition in Washington Masty struck a contrast with most of his contemporaries. “His dress and mannerisms made it look as though he had strayed by mistake out of the 1930s,” noted a friend.
He first started spending time in Afghanistan, in rebel-held territory, in the mid-1980s. After the Soviet withdrawal, he spent much of his time, from 1989, in that country helping on development projects.
He worked with a US charity called the Mercy Fund and taught people how to defuse the unexploded devices with which the Soviets had littered the country. A talented cartoonist, he used his skills in leaflets teaching Afghan children how to avoid these devices.
He went on to manage the American Club in Peshawar, nightly entertaining guests with witty satirical songs about the region’s idiosyncrasies. He invented a new genre which he called “Country and Eastern” (“like Willie Nelson in a turban,” a friend said). He was also a formidable punster.
Masty was in Kabul (where for a time he owned the Afghan bottling rights for Coca-Cola) when the city was finally captured by the Taliban in 1996. He did his best to alert the West to the dangers of Islamic extremism, but once the West did begin to respond he argued that the issue was being mishandled, and moderate Muslims were being alienated. In 2006 he published The Muslim & Microphone: Miscommunications in the War on Terror.
Stephen MastyStephen Masty
During the 1990s Masty developed a career as a communications adviser, championing economic reform to governments across the developing world. He persuaded them to implement privatisation programmes in Andhra Pradesh and Orissa in India as well as in Nepal, Tanzania, Nigeria and Guyana.
He produced a series of films that were shown to Indian politicians – including the federal cabinet – illustrating starkly the failure of state enterprises; the films played a pivotal role in persuading them to start serious privatisation efforts.
In Tanzania he used music to get the message across, producing probably the world’s first privatisation rock video, featuring Captain John Komba, a local politician, and explaining why privatising the state brewery would be good for everyone. It became an unlikely hit. Overnight the shortage of beer began to ease and thousands of jobs were created for waiters, now that they had beer to sell.
Back in Kabul early in the new century he advised the government of Hamid Karzai (whom he had known for many years) on policy issues, and promoted the idea that peace and prosperity could be achieved by encouraging tribesmen to grow melons, grapes and pomegranates rather than opium poppies.
In later years Masty settled in Kathmandu. He assisted with electrification projects, a cause he felt strongly about, and started a project to introduce the first children’s comics in the Nepalese language. But plans were disrupted by the earthquake in Nepal last year, which forced him to move out of his apartment.
He was an intensely private man. He did not like to own property, and generally lived in rented rooms of fabled squalor. He avoided all romantic commitments. Always rotund, resembling Sidney Greenstreet in Casablanca, Masty said that his tragedy was that he had the mind of Holmes yet the body of Watson.
Masty could be accident-prone. On one occasion, staying with the writer Roger Lewis and his wife, he drank too much and in the night tried to relieve himself out of the window – but he had not opened the double-glazing. The Lewises had to repaint the wall.
He was at his finest in a bar or restaurant, telling his stories, drinking Manhattan cocktails and chain smoking. He had ambitions to be a novelist or writer for films and television, but his novels did not find a publisher, and he tended to dissipate his genius in chat, an exception being the witty blogs he wrote for the Imaginative Conservative website. Ill health dogged his final years.
He did privately publish one novel, called The Test of the Magi, adopting the pseudonym Johannes Bergmann, who “makes his home in the forests of the Low Countries and the lesser Himalayas”.
Steve Masty eventually took British citizenship and when in London lived at the Savile Club, where some of his cartoons hang and where his exotic aura prompted many fellow members to wonder whether he was an intelligence agent, though he vehemently denied it.
Steve Masty, born December 12 1954, died December 26 2015