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Cairns Media Magazine

Book Reviews – 29 June 2010



Gulf-Hotel Guy Sees, Hears, Then Writes

When powerful people in the world's most volatile region darken your doorways, no wonder ideas begin to congeal for a gripping story.

Amid events surrounding the 1990 Gulf War, much-travelled British hotelier Charles Barker watched the newsmakers come and go from his workplace. What he observed and overheard led him to write a novel, The Brown Envelope Club (2010, Inkstone Books, Hong Kong, 267 pages).

“I'd like to thank (former Iraqi dictator) Saddam Hussein whose behaviour on the world stage inspired the story,” said Charles at a recent book-launch party in a Kelly and Walsh bookshop in Hong Kong's Central District. “Saddam paid a visit to Kuwait, and we all know what happened next.”

Now Charles works in Hong Kong's hospitality industry. “My career took me around the world, including as general manager of the Intercontinental Hotel in Muscat, Oman, just in time for the First Gulf War,” he said. “Oman became pivotal, a safe place for military, diplomatic or corporate activities. It was a great place to be at the heart of things and know what was happening.

“My hotel played host to a lot of leading people. Stormin’ Norman Schwarzkopf (the American military commander) came in for R and R. So did admirals and air marshals, but also the lower ranks. We had great times and great parties.

“When the shooting stopped, I went to work at a hotel in Amman, Jordan, and saw completely different angles. In many respects, the peace war proved harder than the raging war. Although needing to play along with the Western powers, Jordan was a friend and ally to Iraq. We saw people from the Gulf Co- operation Council (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Oman), but also the Iraqis and Jordanians.

“Amman became a hub for diplomatic activities. Tariq Aziz (Iraq's foreign minister) would come to the hotel with his entourage and want to speak to (Palestinian leader) Yasser Arafat. Next Aziz would go home and the allies would come to have a mutter with Yasser. Then Arafat would leave, and the Americans would arrive. It was fascinating!

“One tricky part was that every spy on the planet also wanted to know what was happening. But with such good grist for the mill, my fingers started itching and I wanted to write about these weird and wonderful experiences.”

A tale of revenge, The Brown Envelope Club sees rulers of the oil-rich nations in the Gulf Co-operation Council, emboldened by the Iraqi army's defeat, strut arrogantly and behave harshly. Resentments grow and disgruntled military men create the Brown Envelope Club. In Baghdad, an angry dictator wants vengeance too.

The book's setting shifts across the Middle East, England and the Caribbean (notably Antigua, where the author also worked). “I didn't want to write about desert sand all the time,” Charles said. “The book's based on facts, mostly little known. But it's wrapped in fiction, so I hope not to get dragged off by the intelligence services or invited to Iraq for a tea party.”

After finishing the story, Charles returned “to a duller, tamer hotel existence” in Britain and failed to find a publisher. “A few publishers polite enough to reply said, "This is politically incorrect. Go away, old boy."  Getting nowhere, I put the manuscript in a drawer and decided to forget it. After all, I'd achieved what I wanted by getting the book in me out of me. “Only after coming to Hong Kong was I persuaded to dig out the manuscript, dust it off and try to get it printed. That’s when I met with enthusiasm and support from great people.”


What does the title mean? “Brown envelopes have different connotations in different places,” Charles said. “This isn't about stuffing dollars into envelopes to hand under tables. In the Gulf States, brown envelopes are used to present notice to people. After the Iraq war, brown envelopes were given out to contract military people and others, inviting them to leave the region.”

Charles has worked at hotels on five continents, but spent much of his career in the Middle East. “I count the Arabian Peninsula as a fabulous place,” he said. “It's enchanting with disparate countries and peoples, but mostly they're friendly, relaxed and enchanting. I say 'mostly' because some elements pose bigger challenges.”

The Brown Envelope Club, the author's first novel, follows his short-story collection, Capital Tales, and a children’s book, The Adventures of Godfrey and Oliver. Yet his writing adventures began much earlier.

“At the ripe old age of about 10, I fancied my school secretary so I persuaded her to help me to produce a school magazine,” Charles said. “I sold it for six pence worth of sweets. Needless to say, there was only one edition and I got nowhere with the secretary -- because of age disparity among other things.”

Later Charles entered hotel school, joined the Savoy Hotel Group and learned the hospitality industry’s “fiddles and irregularities”. As an assistant manager at Intercontinental Hotels in London, he started an irreverent quarterly staff magazine.


“The Intercontinental Hotel in London had a reputation as the place for any big deals you wanted to put through,” Charles said. “Maybe you wanted to buy or sell weapons, oil or Russian furs. You'd hang around in the lobby and soon a dealmaker would come up and make a pitch. We got to know these people. It made for good writing material.”

Pondering more recent events in Iraq inspires notions of a second novel. “There was a second Gulf War, and very few people know exactly what happened to all those weapons of mass destruction,” Charles said.

The Brown Envelope Club appears prominently at Kelly and Walsh and other Hong Kong bookshops.

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