Sunday, November 12, 2017

Paul Lund & Harry Ludlam - PQ17: Convoy to Hell

The bravery of merchant seamen is often overlooked, and despite the horrific realities of the Arctic convoys during World War Two the experiences of those sailors was often discussed only through accounts of the naval escorts.

In 1942 PQ17 sailed from Iceland to the Soviet Union carrying vital supplies intended to alleviate the Russian military crisis during the siege of Stalingrad. What took place afterwards was a disaster of the highest magnitude but was the subject of silence and cover-up by the British government and military.

It was only after the war, and partly because German accounts of the convoy turned out to be more truthful than allied ones, that questions were asked. In the late 1940s and 1950s it became a major issue for the British media who demanded to know why the convoy had been decimated.

Paul Lund and Harry Ludlam's account from the 1970s draws heavily on the accounts of those involved. Paul Lund himself was on board the ASW trawler Lord Austin a small escort ship that was part of the convoy. The book is fascinating in part because it is more than a military history.

PQ17 was a heavily escorted convoy, though it lacked an aircraft carrier. At that time, the greatest naval threat was the Tirpitz and her associated naval ships. Much of PQ17's route was within reach of German air attack, but the Tirpitz was seen as a particular threat because it could easily outgun the escorting warships. Misinformation at the admiralty led to the convoy being ordered the scatter hundreds of miles south-east of Spitzbergen. The escorts were ordered to break off eastwards to engage the surface threat, though this was non-existent. For days afterwards the merchant craft came under sustained air and u-boat attack. Thousands of tonnes of shipping were destroyed and hundreds of men and women lost their lives. Despite the bravery of the armed merchant craft, little could be done to protect the individual ships or small groups and they were easy pickings.

Later analysis would lay the blame squarely at the desk of the First Sea Lord. That would be little comfort to those that were killed or frozen in the cold waters. And while this book finishes with the story of how the truth came out, most of it is an account of those harrowing experiences. I was struck by a number of things reading this. One was the way that the u-boats often surfaced and assisted (sometimes in a minimal way) survivors of life boats and rafts. The other was how many people did survive, picked up by other ships or making extraordinary journeys to land. But perhaps most fascinating are the little bits of social history that come through the personal accounts. Take this description of conditions on Austin after she had picked up dozens of survivors.
On Austin we turned to looking after out guests... They were men of mixed nationalities, Americans from both north and south, and Argentines, Poles, English and Chinese... All were given a double tot of run and then began the problem of feeding and finding sleeping room for eighty-nine extra bodies. The Chinese were very helpful, offering to give a hand in the mess and the galley, and refusing to sleep anywhere but under the whaleback on deck. The survivors as a whole were quite cool. cheerful and fatalistic... We had to improvise nine sittings for meals.. and there was a desperate shortage of cutlery. The white Americans did not like eating or even mixing with the coloured seamen and in the confined space quarrels sprang up between them.
PQ17 forming up off Iceland
Once again we are reminded that World War Two was won by the sacrifices by men of many different backgrounds and nationalities, but that racism was a real experience too.

The other fascinating aspect to this book is the experiences of the survivors when arriving in the Soviet Union - both in terms of the different way of life, but also the social structures. Without pretending that the USSR in the 1940s was a socialist paradise it is interesting to see how the allied men found it surprising to see women playing a leading role in production. All the Russian ships on the convoy had female sailors for instance.

PQ17 remains shorthand for an immense naval disaster. Future convoys certainly learnt from events, but one can't help but feel that this should never have happened. Certainly that is the conclusion of many of those who took part. Lund and Ludlam's book is likely dated and more information is available, but in its accounts from survivors of life on a merchant ship in World War Two and their visit to the Soviet Union it remains extremely fascinating.

Related Reviews

Monsarrat - Three Corvettes
Monsarrat - The Cruel Sea
Turkel - The Good War: An Oral History of World War Two

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Alun Howkins - The Death of Rural England

Alun Howkin's book The Death of Rural England is a sweeping history of the transformation of the English (and occasionally Welsh) countryside in the 20th century. It is a fascinating read, that never loses sight of the fact that the landscape is, and was, shaped by the labours of thousands of men and women and those people today, and their ancestors, remain an integral part of what makes up "the countryside".

The century that Howkin's covers saw enormous change, he points out that "since at least the eighteenth century rural society had been divided into landowners, farmers and labourers. By the 1990s the farm labourer had all but disappeared.... By the 1980s... the majority of country dwellers who lived in the rural areas... had nothing to do with farming as an industry". Why this happens has many factors - not least the full development of capitalist farming and the integration of farms into a wider, national, agricultural system. This was a process that begun in the 19th century and continued to develop, encouraged and accelerated by both world wars. But it was a system that retained many old traditions, often related to employment rights or relations. These often were eroded (or smashed) as part of the transformation of agriculture.

The later part of the 19th century had seen the growth of the first agricultural trade unions. These revived in the early 20th century, encouraged, as Howkin's writes, by a "new kind of rural worker - the railway men". In Lancashire rail workers were central to victories of agricultural workers, because they were "unionised, free from the threat of parson and squire, yet often the sons of farm workers... [they] brought the first signs of a new culture into the countryside of England and Wales".

Agricultural workers' organisations would prove central to ensuring that working people in the countryside could resist the impact of the sweeping changes that were taking place. In particular, the years between the wars, called the "Locust Years" saw enormous poverty in the countryside as workers suffered with the sudden withdrawal of government subsidies for farming. The unions were unable to stop the destruction and "between 1921 and 1931 about 60,000 workers left agriculture and between 1931 and 1939 a further 100,000". As Howkin's points out, for the farmers it was "reducing costs" but to the workers it was "the loss of livelihood and often a way of life".

Additionally we see the rise of mechanised farming. Tractors did not truly supplement animal labour until after the Second World War. Though that war was a key moment in transforming agriculture and I would argue, shifting it towards fossil fuel farming. But we shouldn't simply see the impoverisation of the agricultural labourer as arising out of mechanisation - it was primarily to do with the interests of capitalist farming.

Howkins points out the centrality of women to agricultural labour in this period. His writing is supplemented by many fascinating accounts by women of their own work. The "combined income" of the family was often what kept things going as wages were so low. Here's a description from the "daughter of a jobbing gardener, farm worker and (very) small holder" in Sussex in the 1920s:
With the money that he earned and the garden produce from our own plot of land, we were much better off than before. To supplement fathers income mother made jellies, jams, pickles and wines. They were much in demand... We children had the task of picking the wild fruits in season... We also had to take our turn stirring the great pans.... Some of the ladies in the village would buy a jar but most of it was packed into wooden crates and these would be collected by Carter Paterson the carrier and taken to the various universities that were attended by the young gentlemen of the village.
Howkins points out how the perception of rural England changes too. Increasingly it is seen (and portrayed) as a place of leisure and relaxation - the opposite of the towns and cities. He traces here the development of tourism and how this affected the countryside and argues that today, modern politicians fail to understand the countryside as a place of work and farming. The environmental movement too began to take an interest, especially post 1960s. By the end of the 20th century Howkin's argues, the countryside was in crisis and politicians had lost any view of how to solve things. He argues that the appalling failures of government during the BSE and Foot and Mouth crises reflect this, and that 2002 policy documents showed that Tony Blair's Labour also had not real idea about how to move forward:
The familiar countryside environment - originally a product of farming and damaged by years of intensive production and the social fabric of the countryside (which depends heavily on farming) is being put at risk.
Howkins' argues that in the "battle" between town and country, the town has been "victorious". Now the countryside is the plaything of the urban dweller and everyone else will become subsumed into that. I wasn't entirely convinced - I think it is entirely possible to imagine a re-emergence of "British" agriculture, but it will have to be based on an entirely different system to the highly subsidised, highly capital intensive and highly chemically based agriculture that currently dominates. It will take radical policies from future governments to achieve this, as well as a new approach to the countryside which sees it as more than simply the place that is not the town. Alun Howkin's book has shows us about how the modern countryside has arisen and gives a few pointers to how it could be different.

One small note: My edition of this book was purchased in 2015 and has a number of missing pages due to printing errors. I'm using this platform to record how disappointed I am that I was unable to get the publishers (Routledge's Taylor and Francis Group) to offer a PDF of the four missing pages, never mind a new copy.

Related Reviews

Mazoyer & Roudart - A History of World Agriculture
Paarlberg - Food Politics
Magdoff & Tokar - Agriculture & Food in Crisis
Groves - Sharpen the Sickle

Thursday, November 02, 2017

Lavie Tidhar - Central Station

Somewhere about a third of the way through Lavie Tidhar's Central Station I realised that I had been missing a crucial aspect to the novel. The story was not slow in starting, it wasn't actually going to arrive. There isn't really a plot to speak of. Once I'd got my head out of my somewhat traditionalist approach I was able to open up to a fantastic depiction of a rather more hopeful future than we might currently predict.

The titular Central Station is the massive gateway to the world that dominates a future Tel Aviv. This is a Tel Aviv were the Israeli-Arab conflict has been solved in some unexplained way - Arabs, Jews and a plethora of others live side by side, in relative harmony. In fact, the city has become both point of intersection between Earth and space, and a place were people come from across the world in search of wealth, work... or any one of many other options. In one sense Central Station is a liberal fantasy of a multicultural future city, where people live happily together and technology has solved so many woes:
Central Station in spring, when the smell in the air truly is intoxicating. It is a smell of the sea, and of the sweat of so many bodies, their heat and their warmth, and it is the smell of humanity's spices and the cool scent of its many machines; and it is the scent of the resin or sap that sometimes drops from a cut in the eternally renewing adaptoplant neighbourhoods, and of ancient asphalt heating in the sun, and of vanished oranges, and of freshly cut lemongrass: it is the smell of Humanity Prime, that richest and most concentrated of smells; there is nothing like it in the outer worlds.
Ironically, given the setting, it seems that there are no longer any structural problems other than those of personal antagonism and history. Even the "question of Who Is a Jew had been asked not just about the Chong family, but of the robots too, and was settled long ago."

But things aren't perfect. Old robots, their technology and usefulness outdated, beg for spare parts from passers-by, and things feel frayed and dusty. Technology seems magnificent, yet collectors search desperately for old books to add to their collections. Workers fly through virtual reality in a fantastic cyber version of the Elite game, earning real money and fame to take back to the outside world. And a vampire comes. Not a blood sucking Dracula figure, but someone hungry for data, infected on board an interplanetary ship who makes it through quarantine onto Earth.

The chapters are like this, a semi-linked network of individual stories that weave in and out of each other, making a tapestry of a world, a future, but not really going anywhere. Take the bar that Boris Chong drinks in, run by a former lover. It isn't any different to a thousand bars that we might visit today in the 2010s. But that's not the point, this is the future. Things are different, yet they are the same. But for Tidhar, the type of future is important, it is where we might go if we only solve the problems we have today. Take the author's beautifully evoked dream of a day at the beach:
They had gone to the beach that day, it was a summer's day and in Menashiya, Jews and Arabs and Filipinos all mingled together, the Muslim women in their long dark clothes and the children running shrieking in their underwear; Tel Aviv girls in tiny bikinis, sunbathing placidly; someone smoking a joint, and the strong smell of it wafting in the sea air... the life guard in his tower calling out trilingual instructions - 'Keep to the marked areas! Did anyone lose a child? Please come to the lifeguards now! You with the boat, head towards the Tel Aviv harbour and away from the swimming area!' - the words getting lost in the chatter, someone had parked their car and was blaring out beats from the stereo, Somali refugees were cooking a barbecue on the promenade;s grassy part...
Its a beautiful future precisely because it seems so impossible if we look at the reality of Zionism today, the oppression of the Palestinians and racism in Israel. Yet it is a future, and Lavie Tidhar wants it to be real. Something as mundane as a multicultural day at the beach seems impossibly Utopian in today's context, and thus becomes a futuristic fantasy.

Lavie Tidhar's brilliance is partly to do with his ability to describe this future. Both the mundane and the weird. There are some amazing scenes (the part with the suicide clinc is genius for instance). But he also depicts a future so real and possible, yet unreal and impossible too. It certainly is a world worth fighting for, and that's the importance of the book; not the story or what happens to the characters, but the world they live in and what it says about the one we inhabit.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Connie Willis - To Say Nothing of the Dog

In Connie Willis' future world, time travel is possible, but it isn't profitable so corporations have abandoned it, and instead time travel becomes the realm of the historian. But there are catches. Nothing important can be brought back from the past and time travellers are simply not able to visit events of historical importance. The universe seems to have a way of protecting history - changes to the past invariably get fixed, and travellers that might interfere in critical events find themselves unable to visit them. So you couldn't go back in time to assassinate Hitler - you'd find yourself in Berlin at the wrong time, or hundreds of miles away at the right time.

This is the background to what initially seems to be two parallel stories. Ned Henry, a historian of the 20th century, is actually sent back to Victorian times to try and fix a problem caused by another historian. Simultaneously a rich philanthropist who is trying to rebuild Coventry cathedral as it was immediately before its was destroyed by Nazi bombs in World War Two. The two stories turn out to be closely linked as Ned's journey back inadvertently messes up the time lines, potentially changing the future.

It would be foolish to try and summarise the plot here - what I think that readers should do is to dig out the novel themselves and read it. In places it is hilariously funny, particularly in its depictions of the rigid class structured lives of the Victorians and their strange habits. But what really struck me is how clever Willis' plot is. Everything is tied together very satisfyingly at the end with the author never losing track of the multiple timelines and consequences of change. The detail is excellent - almost everything is significant and Willis brilliantly evokes the Victorian era, the Blitz and a university time-travel department run by a cash starved bureaucracy. I also liked the fact that Willis clearly has thought through time travel - our hero (and the reader incidentally) is unable understand the old English spoken when he travels briefly back to the building of Coventry cathedral.

This is a cracking read and I look forward to Willis' other works.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Judith Orr - Abortion Wars: The Fight for Reproductive Rights

Judith Orr's book could not be better timed. With abortion rights in Ireland the subject of an upcoming referendum and Trump's desire to roll back key abortion legislation, the issue is once again part of the political mainstream. Orr's new book charts the history of this fight and the context for today's renewed struggles with a focus on Britain and the US, but also surveying the situation across the world.

She begins the book by pointing out that despite abortion being a common part of women's lives, (about one third of women will have an abortion) it remains a subject very much surrounded by taboos demonstrated recently when a radical left MP in Dublin became on of the first sitting politicians to admit to having an abortion.

Throughout history women have tried to control their fertility. Abortion is one example of this, and in a fascinating chapter, Orr shows numerous examples stretching back to ancient Egypt, Rome and Greece of how women have tried to do this, often through the consumption of plants or drinks that had an abortive affect. She quotes a 2nd century writer on gynaecology describing a prescription that "expels a foetus of three months without any difficulty" and also a study from the 1960s of three hundred "pre-industrial" societies that showed how women worldwide often took drastic steps to end a pregnancy, including "climbing a rope then jumping, or being buried up to their waists, or having hot stones or event hot ashes placed on their bellies".

Such practises were extremely dangerous and no woman would do these on a whim, so no wonder then that historic writings show a "common theme of advice, shared knowledge and skills being reproduced about how to avoid or end unwanted pregnancies". In more modern times this has led to what Orr calls a "web of solidarity" as women (and men) have organised to assist women making the choice to have an abortion. When abortion is restricted or illegal women turn to more dangerous options and Orr has uncovered some horrific stories of the modern consequences of this. In a series of fascinating interviews Orr shows how the fear of backstreet abortions led women to organise to provide advice and assistance.

This is no more true than of Ireland and the story of how people in England organised to assist the numerous women who needed to travel to the UK for abortion is deeply moving. From these beginnings grew a movement that in the 1960s, amid wider radicalisation and struggles for women's rights, helped win the British 1967 Abortion Act. While Orr shows that this legislation (even before amendments) was never as wide as it should have been, it was still a significant victory. The struggles to win the act are amazing, but so were the movements to defend it, culminated in a massive mobilisation of the trade union movement in 1979 which "knocked back the anti-abortionists for years".

Despite the lies and rhetoric of the right and the anti-abortionists "abortion on demand is not a reality" and the vast majority of abortions take place early in a pregnancy. But there has been real success from the right in demonising abortion and creating a stigma around it. The fact that few people talk about abortion leads many to believe it is only a few who have one. This is why abortion rights movement could arise out of a mass movement for women's liberation, in part because it allowed women to discuss these issues and get organised around them. In one of the interviews in the book a woman recalls going to a women's meeting and being approached afterwards by many of the attendees to talk about their experiences or those of a friend or family member.

The link between women's rights and abortion rights is a key theme to Orr's book. She argues that abortion rights and the right of a woman to control her own body cannot be separated from wider women's rights.  She explains,
The experiences of women several millennia ago, through to the early campaigners and those who documented the lived experiences of working-class women, are still valid to this very day. They taught us that women cannot play a full role in society while they can't control their fertility. They also showed that whatever the law and state of medical knowledge, working-class women have consistently been denied the best available birth control and abortion services that wealthy women have always been able to access.
This class question is important. Orr shows how even with supportive legislation, poorer women still cannot access care as easily as those with money. One of the strategies of the anti-abortionists has been to make it harder for women to travel to centres, to need more medical "opinions" and multiple visits for what might actually be a relatively quick procedure. This is particularly the case in the United States and the sections on the challenges faced to women looking for advice or abortion in the US, and those who want to offer support and medical assistance are shocking.

While the book was upsetting in places and emotional, I was also left with a real sense of hope. Orr shows us that struggle by women and men has won real gains in many countries, and recent examples from places like South Korea and Poland are part of this. Despite Trump wanting to undermine legislation and right-wing populists around the world attacking women's rights there is a sense in Orr's book that if we learn from the past we can defeat the bigots today and make real gains in the future. In the British parliament in 1967 Labour MP Christopher Price summed up the struggle that had led to the Abortion Act:
The Bill will pass into law because of the demands of public opinion. When I have mixed with people both inside and outside the House who want the Bill, it has often occurred to me that this is not about abortion at all; it is part of the process of emancipation of women which has been going on gradually for over a very long period.
The public opinion behind the Bill is millions of women up and down the country who are saying 'We will no longer tolerate this system whereby men lay down, as though by right, the moral laws, particularly those relating to sexual behaviour, about how women should behave.
What was true in the 1960s is as true today, and Judith Orr's book is a powerful weapon in the hands of those who want to defend and extend the rights of women to control their lives and their bodies.

Related Reviews

Orr - Marxism and Women's Liberation
Orr - Sexism and the System
Rowbotham - Hidden from History

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Jonathan Watts - When a Billion Chinese Jump

I will admit that when I fixed picked up Jonathan Watts' book I did not have much hope that I would enjoy it. Books on the environmental crisis and China often fall into crudities about the country something George Monbiot once called a manifestation of old racist tropes about the "Yellow Peril". Happily Watts' book is far better than this and as well as being thoughtful it is also very readable. China is a rapidly developing economy and since this book was first published in 2010 it is likely that some of the figures given are now dated. However the trends that Watt shows remain the same, if not worse, and it is this that makes it very useful for understanding China's environmental crisis and its role within the crisis.

Unusually for an environmental work, Watts bases his writing on his travels and specifically his encounters with individuals, often ordinary people on the frontline of the impact and the battle against climate change. Here are Chinese workers, farmers and migrant labourers, as well as officials, bureaucrats and business leaders.

Almost every book about China, its economy, environment or people begins with the scale of the country and its population. China's enormous economic power and, crucially, its cheap labour has allowed the current regime and previous ones to literally move mountains in the pursuit of economic improvement. Needless to say that historically this has had a devastating impact upon Chinese environment, an impact that seems to be growing worse by the day. Often current practise has been shaped by what has gone before:
[China's] waterways are now blocked by almost half of the world's 45,000 biggest dams... China's president Hu Jintao is a trained hydro-engineer. His view of the world - now imprinted into the communist ideological canon as a 'Scientific Outlook on Development' - has been shaped by his knowledge of water and how it can be controlled.
Hu Jintao's Presidency ended in 2012, yet it is fair to say that this approach continues, along with an belief that technology and science can cure the threat of environmental disaster. Famously we see this with the Three Gorges Dam, designed to harness the massive waters of the Yangtze River yet it brought along with it massive environmental and social disruption, and Watts dams tend to attract heavy industry enthused by the possibility of cheap and accessible electricity.

Despite whole areas of China being famed for their beauty and ecological diversity, much is under threat from industrial, agricultural and urban expansion. The global biodiversity crisis is enormous, but "the situation is particularly grim in China, where the die-off is reckoned to be taking place a twice the speed of the global average. According to the China Species Redlist, it is accelerating."

Much of Watts book looks at the different aspects of China's environmental crisis - water shortages, air pollution, fossil fuel expansion and so on. But the reason the book is useful is that he doesn't simply focus on these and the human tragedies that flow from them. He shows how the environmental crisis is not new - there were plenty of environmental mistakes, disasters and errors made throughout the 20th century - but how the current crisis is closely linked with the rise of industrial production for consumerism. In part this is due to demands of the Chinese population, a large section of which has far more wealth than ever and wants to emulate the lifestyles of the West. There's a fascinating section where Watts interviews Kan Yue-Sai, a multi-millionaire who got rich through marketing cosmetics who prides herself in helping launch China's "consumer culture" and for whom environmental problems were simply buzzwords to spout during the interview.

But crucial to the immense destruction caused by Chinese manufacturing is the outsourcing of emissions from the developed world. Western companies, attracted by cheap wages, low costs and minimal environmental restrictions have effectively moved emissions and waste to China. Pan Yue, a minister for environmental protect told Watts, "they raise their own environmental standards and transfer resource-intensive and polluting industries to developing nations; they establish a series of green barriers  and bear as little environmental responsibility as is possible."

This is of course not to let China itself off the hook. Not every factory is manufacturing goods for the west, the coal mines being dug and the land being destroyed are assisting the development of China's economy too. But this does help locate the problem in the right place. China is attractive to the west because it has low costs and high wages, something that its own capitalists are keen to exploit.

Resistance

Thankfully there is resistance. The Chinese have to acknowledge 1000s of "mass incidents" and Watts sees the aftermath of them, as well as often coming across accounts of protests, petitions and movements that have (sometimes successfully) challenged environmental destruction. In part this, as well as the very obvious destruction, has led the Chinese government to implement various pieces of environmental legislation. Sadly these are all too often ignored, or bribes ensure that no one is ever prosecuted. But it would be wrong to say there is no awareness of the problem.

The problem is that China's headlong rush to industrialise is done, not in the interest of people, but of capital. The need to compete with the United States, and the potential for a minority of people to get extremely rich, helps to undermine environmental laws. The immense bureaucracy doesn't help, nor does the short term interests of capital. It's staggering to read, for instance, that 1/3 of China's wind turbines are not connected to the grid and simply rotate pointlessly. Without fundamental change, the situation will not improve. Take agriculture:
China is the new frontier for agriscience. With a fifth of the world's population to feed on a tenth of the planet's arable land, the temptations of biotechnology have been enormous. Urbanisation and industrialisation add to the pressures by taking land for factories, roads and housing blocks. With the population expanding and appetites growing, China faces and uphill struggle to feed itself. As Vaclav Smil noted: 'All of the world's grain exports together would fill less than two-thirds of the country's projected demand for food.
Alongside technical fixes for agricultural comes threats to the environment, and while Watts highlights a few examples of more environmentally sound farming, they are far and few between (and some of them don't work at all).

Those that suffer are inevitably the poorest. "The rich folk have already moved out... It has become a slum" notes one woman about their polluted town. Though few in the country except the very rich can escape the worst pollution. In one of Watts' more startling statistics, he points out that only 1 percent of China's population breath air deemed safe, for a country of over 1.3 billion, that's a lot of illness.

Jonathan Watts concludes by saying that China cannot save the world, but it forces us to "recognise we are all going in the wrong direction". He highlights that there are many in the country who are struggling for a sustainable future, but focuses on individuals to change their behaviour to solve the problem. This seems barely credible given the scale of the problem he describes, and I tend to agree more with an old man he meets on a train who, when discussing the environment points out "The problem of a corrupt bureaucracy cannot be solved by bureaucrats. We need a mass movement to clear them out. I think there will be one within five years". The old man hasn't been proved right yet, but if we're to survive the 21st century as a global society it increasingly looks like we should follow his dream.

Related Reviews

Lafitte - Saving Tibet
Shapiro - China's Environmental Challenges
Au Loong Yu - China's Rise: Strength and Fragility
Gittings - Changing Face of China

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Claire North - The End of the Day

Claire North's first two books focused on individuals with odd powers. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August was about people who returned to the beginning of their lives with their memories intact upon their death. Touch was about people who could possess other peoples bodies at will. This book however is very different, it's about Charlie, who is employed by Death as her harbinger. Charlie has no special abilities except perhaps, a faith in individuals (which is greatly tested by some of the people he visits) and being good at listening, which is particularly useful as people tend to pour out their thoughts to him.

The plot is fairly thin, but the book is extremely readable. It's as much a comment on the state of the world, as on the lives of the people Charlie meets. Chapters are interspersed by random snippets of conversation which betray both the happiness and sadness of people's lives and their rage at the world around them. War, Famine and Pestilence, as well as their respective harbingers, stalk the land and North depicts how their abilities have changed with the modern world, but how the opportunities for disaster have spread. I was struck by the contemporary relevance of this in a small aside at the end as War looks at a small island in the South China Seas and the captain of the ship comments how "they" have put their flag on it. Its never mentioned who they are, but War is suitably pleased at what this means.

As Charlie travels the world meeting people and giving gifts the reader is often left wondering what happens next. Charlie is at pains to explain that his visit doesn't mean death is imminent, and his gifts often help the recipient live longer. This is a bureaucratic process run by a expertly staffed office in Milton Keynes (having visited the place I'm not surprised that Death's office is there), and when Charlie finds himself in difficult situations, he is helped out by the bureaucracy. Though his activities attract the attention of the authorities who like many, want to bargain with Death itself.

Oddly the thing that worked least for me, is that Death, and his harbinger, are simply accepted by so many people. The news reports on him occasionally; people are often completely unsurprised by his presence, or existence and crucially, the authorities track him.

At the end of the book what I remembered most was the anger. North's characters are angry at racism and poverty (there's an interesting scene with a Black Lives Matter demo); war and climate change are constant backdrops. Imperialist destruction of South America and the Middle East are repeatedly mentioned and the way that the profits come before people is behind some of the key scenes of the book. The first time that Charlie is caught on camera, for instance, is when he visits a family being forced out of their London home by a company that wants to build luxury apartments.

The End of the Day is not as good a novel as North's earlier books - the central idea just didn't quite work for me this time. But in turns tragic and funny, it is a book that made me think, which is no bad thing at all. It also contains a highly appropriate quote from Karl Marx if you can find it.

Related Reviews

North - Touch
North - The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August