Friday, June 15, 2018

Mike Davis - Old Gods, New Enigmas: Marx's Lost Theory

Mike Davis is the author of many excellent socialist books, two of which have been highly influential on me - Late Victorian Holocausts and Planet of Slums. I was also highly impressed with his book on Avian Flu, The Monster at the Door. Old Gods is a reassertion of Marxism in several collected essays. I've been asked to do a full review of it for a separate magazine and I'll update this post when that is published.

Related Reviews

Davis - Planet of Slums
Davis - The Monster at Our Door

Davis - Late Victorian Holocausts

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

John le Carré - The Looking Glass War

By all accounts John le Carré wrote The Looking Glass War disappointed that readers of his best selling The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was taken far to seriously, and not understood as the satire it was intended as. Looking Glass focuses on The Department, a section of British Intelligence that has left its wartime glamour far behind. Now, instead of an essential section of Britain's military machine, it is a poor second cousin to Smiley's Circus. Lacking funding, infrastructure and staff the Department is a spy network without any spies.

Beginning with a botched intelligence job, over some dubious intelligence, the Department is dragged into a dangerous mission in East Germany which senior figures clearly see as a last ditched attempt to regain wartime levels of funding, glory and acceptance in the Intelligence Community. The botched job is followed up by amateurish attempts to retrieve a roll of tape that nearly blows the whole thing open. Despite this, the Department's head Leclerc, a boorish former pilot uses his knowledge of Whitehall's bureaucracy to secure under the table funding to send a spy into East Germany.

The mission is, inevitably, a cock up. But what makes the book is the meticulous way that le Carré depicts the build up. Here are bureaucrats scheming against each other for funding and ministerial approval. Leclerc himself oversees much of the hiring of the Departments new spy, but is keen to keep from him the reality of his organisations eclipse. The former spy, now gone to grass in a second hand car salesroom is repeatedly told that the Department has "got boxes of files" of other operatives. Reality is, of course, exactly the opposite, and readers cannot help but feel that someone is being hung out to dry.

Much of this is presumably based on le Carré's own experiences. Infighting, competition and lies are the staple of government departments and spies. The grim, competing world of the Department and the Circus is a complete contrast to the glamour of James Bond. By the time that The Looking Glass War was finished Ian Fleming had published all of his Bond books. There's no doubt that le Carré was writing to stab that particular image of the intelligence services in the back. When people try to understand how Tony Blair's government could come up with something as crude as the 45 minute dodgy Iraq dossier, it's not hard to imagine some of these self-serving bureaucrats behind the scenes.

As with all the other le Carré novels that I've read, this is tightly written. It's grim and the characters are unlikable. Unusually, the plot matters little. What's really interesting is the tension between individuals and the nasty backstabbing world of the intelligence services.

Related Reviews

le Carré - The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
le Carré - A Small Town in Germany
le Carré - A Murder of Quality

Thursday, June 07, 2018

Emily Winterburn - The Quiet Revolution of Caroline Herschel: The Lost Heroine of Astronomy

When Caroline Herschel was born in 1750 no one would have imagined that she would have become lauded throughout Europe as one of the most important astronomers of the 18th century. Women simply did not do that sort of thing.

As Emily Winterburn says "nothing about Caroline's early life suggested she would grow up to become a pioneering female astronomer". In fact quite the opposite. She grew up in Hanover in a male dominated household. Her father was an accomplished professional musician and her brothers were expected to follow in his footsteps. Caroline was "taught to cook, clean, spin and make clothes, and was required to look after younger children... Caroline and her older sister Sophia were trained to run a household and to be useful and agreeable to her family".

However when her older brother William found a musical job in Bath, England she joined him there and soon became a close partner with him in his astronomical work. William Herschel was catapulted into fame when he discovered the planet Uranus and received a (relatively low paid) job as a royal astronomer. Caroline is often portrayed as William's able assistant. Yet she was a skilled a diligent observer and scientist, and while he was away on a journey delivering a telescope he had sold, she made the first of her discoveries. Her own notes from 1786 detail it:
1st August: I have calculated 100 nebulae today, and this evening I saw an object which I believe will prove to-morrow to be a comet.
2nd August: Today I calculated 150 nebulae. I fear it will not be clear to-night; it has been raining throughout the whole day, but seems now to clear up a little. 1 o'clock; the object of last night is a Comet. I did not go to rest till I had wrote to Dr Blagden and Mr Aubert to announce the comet.
It was a brilliant discovery. Her paper announcing the comet at the Royal Society was read by her brother because women could not be members. Winterburn explains how Caroline carefully neutralised her announcement and had it backed up by others to ensure that it was taken seriously. It began, "In consequence of the Friendship I know to exist between you and my brother I venture to trouble you in his absence with the following imperfect account of a comet." At the end of the paper, her brother and a (male) friend both add their confirmation of the discovery leaving no room for excuses.

Winterburn explains that Caroline's careful wording was not the result of meekness but a calculated way of making sure she had to be taken seriously. She was using all the social skills she had been taught to make sure that she could not be sidelined. As a result of this, and her other work, Caroline became the "first high-status woman paid for her science [in England], and almost certainly the first to receive royal patronage". It was an amazing achievement and gave her unprecedented financial independence to continue doing what she loved. She continued to make discoveries and fight to ensure that she was recognised for them, including an amazing horse-ride through the night to announce a different comet discovery (though on this occasion she wasn't quite the first).

Caroline Herschel made many further discoveries and did some incredibly important other work. She became famous as the "Lady Astronomer" and while well known for the comets she found, her cataloguing work was much more mundane but perhaps more important. Winterburn explains:
Caroline's real skill, her gift to astronomy, was being able to see the importance of what she was doing, even as she meticulously sifted through observation after observation searching out the occasional error, omission or duplication. It was a job that not even William could bring himself to do. It took a very specific set of very much undervalued skills.
But Caroline's class and gender in 18th century English society meant she also had to play all the other roles demanded of her. Her brother's eventual marriage and the pressures that this put upon Caroline as she became responsible for two households, in a complicated social hierarchy with Williams wife Mary Pitt, form a core part of Winterburn's book as she explores Caroline's life.

But slowly society was changing. Not everyone believed women could not be part of the scientific establishment. Her brother in particular promoted and supported her. Incredibly, because she was his sister and working with his equipment, it would have been perfectly acceptable for him to claim her discoveries as his own; yet he did the opposite. In fact their relationship was much closer to that of a equal partnership. Winterburn writes:
In writing about women in science... we often tend to get bogged down in trying to extract work that was purely theirs from the record. We try to find something tangible that we can connect with their name so they can be returned to history. What we lose when we do that, however, are the ephemeral stories of process, unminuted discussion, teaching as a way of learning and companionship.
There were other male scientists who were keen to work with and promote women scientists. Caroline was included in an updated edition of Jerome Lalande's Astrronomie des Dames and the scientist and mathematician Nevil Maskelyne was a close friend and supporter of Caroline. He was also one of the first scientists to employ women to work as "computers" doing the complicated calculations that astronomy required.

Caroline had her own way of promoting her scientific work, which would not have met approval from all those arguing for greater equality. Winterburn quotes Mary Wollstonecraft, a pioneer of the fight for women's rights, who attacks those who used "pretty feminine phrases" to make it difficult for men to dismiss them. But Caroline was trying to find a way to fight for her position using the weapons she had, and was remarkably successful, and as Winterburn points out, if Wollstonecraft was criticising the strategy it must have been widespread.

By the end of her life Caroline Herschel had been celebrated across Europe, and won awards of scientific bodies across the world. Still unable to become a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, she, along with Scottish scientist Mary Somerville, was made an "honorary" fellow in 1835. More importantly she became an important "icon" for generations of later women scientists.

If all Emily Winterburn had done in this book was to tell the amazing biography of Caroline Herschel it would have been a great read. But she puts that story in the context of a society undergoing dramatic changes. Firstly, and most obviously, there is the scientific revolution that is opening up new views of the universe and new areas for study. Secondly society itself was changing dramatically, most obviously with the French Revolution which was raising all sorts of questions of equality, freedom and democracy. For a growing number of women (and some men) this meant a belief that women should not be subordinate to men and a small minority of women were beginning to challenge their position in society. How this played out for individuals like Caroline Herschel was complicated and nuanced. Emily Winterburn's biography explores this brilliantly, and I have no hesitation in recommending this brilliant book.

Related Reviews

Holmes - The Age of Wonder
Jardine - Ingenious Pursuits
Sobel - Galileo's Daughter

Monday, June 04, 2018

Charles Oman - The Great Revolt of 1381

Charles Oman's book is an important historical milestone. It was one of the first historical works to treat the English Peasants Rebellion of 1381 through a modern historical approach. Originally published in 1906 it builds on the historical research of poll tax records by the academic Andre Reville who died very young before he could finish his own work on 1381.

Oman's book is a fairly decent historical overview of what was then known about the rebellion. It has, of course, been surpassed since then by more contemporary work. But many more recent books have been heavily indebted to Oman's work and it is worth reading on that basis.

Oman is in no way sympathetic to the rebels, in fact when discussing events in Scarborough when "at least 500 men" led by Robert Galoun, William Marche and Robert Hunter made "a systematic attack on all against whom they had old quarrels, or wishes to pick new ones" he argues that despite escaping the death penalty, the three men "richly deserved" it. That said, the greatest strength of Oman's work is that he puts the rebellion in the context of the poverty, oppression and high exploitation of the feudal period.
All over England we may trace, in the third quarter of the fourteenth century, local disputes in which one or other of the rural grievances came to the front. The only thing that was new in 1381 was that the troubles were not confined to individual manors, but suddenly spread over half the realm. It is dangerous to conclude, as some writers have done, that this simultaneous action was due to deliberate organisation. We have no proof that there was any central committee of malcontents who chose their time and then issued orders for the rising. The leaders who emerged in each region seem to have been the creatures of the moment, selected almost at hazard for their audacity or their ready eloquence.
Oman's certainty on the lack of political organisation behind the rising ought to have been heeded by others who followed his lead on this subject. But Oman is on less sure ground when he applies a crude economistic analysis to the growth of trade and manufacturing in the 14th century. He writes,
A new industrial proletariate [sic] was in process of formation, and was striving hard against the conditions which it found existing... the growing industrial activity of England, and the multiplication of wealth, was tending to create a class of great employers of labour, and a class of artisans who could never aspire to become masters. 
Here Oman telescopes several centuries of industrial development in England and places the birth of an industrial working class far too early. Oman is right however to note the importance of the lower orders in London in supporting the rebellion, and helping drive it forward. But he is wrong to see these doing this as an industrial working class movement.

The book finishes by arguing that while the events of 1381 failed to transform England's rural economy:
We may well believe that many landlords were taught caution by the events of June 1391, and that they conducted the rural machine with comparative moderation for the future, lest another outburst of discontent should ensue. But there can be no doubt that the old system went on; it had received a rude sock, but had not been completely put out of gear. The best proof of this is that for the next ten years the archives of England are full of instances of conflict between landlord and tenant precisely similar;ar tp those which had been so rife in the years immediately preceding the rebellion.
But eventually, "villeinage died out from natural causes and by slow degrees". In this I think Oman neglects that the very processes that drove the peasants to rebellion were in fact making villeinage outdated. The withering away was not simply about gradual economic changes, but because it could no longer be made to work effectively.

Oman's book is an important read. It is a good supplement to other books, such as Juliet Barker's excellent England Arise! It also has Charles Oman's own translation of the Anonimal Chronicle, and a series of interesting examples of poll tax rolls. Disappointingly the "report of the sheriffs and jurors of London" on the events of June 1381 are published untranslated in their original Latin.

Related Reviews

Barker - England Arise! The People, The King and the Great Revolt of 1381
O'Brien - When Adam Delved and Eve Span
Lindsay & Groves - The Peasant's Revolt of 1381
Hilton - Bond Men Made Free
Basdeo - The Life and Legend of a Rebel Leader: Wat Tyler

Sunday, June 03, 2018

Guy Gavriel Kay - Tigana

Having recently enjoyed Guy Gavriel Kay's Children of Earth and Sky I took Tigana from the library to read on a brief holiday. Sadly I was not as enamoured by this novel whose bulk became a hindrance rather than representing a satisfyingly detailed plot.

The Tigana of the title is a conquered nation. It's destruction has been so complete that the sorcery of its new dictator has ensured that no one can even hear its name. Tigana, now known a Lower Corte, is but one of a number of tiny states on the peninsula that forms the geographical backdrop for the story. Clearly based (as in Children of Earth and Sky, the map is barely disguised) on medieval Italy, the region is made up of a variety of city states and small countries vying with each other. But geo-politics are dominated by two competing magical warlords. Brandin, who destroyed Tigana and Alberico, his sworn enemy.

The story focuses on two areas. The first is the tale of a growing rebellion led by a small group of rebels to free Tigana, through killing the tyrant Brandin. The problem is that if only Brandin is killed, Alberico will simply take over. So freedom means destroying two enemy states. The second focus of the novel is events in Brandin's court where a woman from Tigana arrives as a concubine with the intention of killing Brandin, but eventually falls in love with him.

Unlike a lot of historical fantasy these characters are morally ambiguous and fairly well rounded, even if the vast number of them can be confusing. Brandin might be a fearful and violent tyrant, but he has his loving side too, causing his would be assassin enormous confusion. The rebels themselves are prepared to use any means necessary to further their cause, but their plan to free their homeland requires years of planning (and not a few nearly unbelievable coincidences).

Tigana is a complex novel. This, for me, was its major difficulty. There's simply too many characters, too much convoluted plot, and a few too many coincidences. I can't recommend it, despite enjoying Kay's book Children of Earth and Sky.

Related Reviews

Kay - Children of Earth and Sky
A&B Strugatsky - Hard to be a God
Morgan - The Dark Defiles

Friday, May 25, 2018

John le Carré - The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

Re-reading The Spy Who Came in from the Cold ahead of its getting hold of its sequel, I am struck once again how perfectly crafted le Carré's books are. In barely 200 pages the novel takes us from its famous opening scene in the dark night near the border between East and West Berlin, to a thrilling ending after an incredibly complex story. In fact, much of the story is simply people conversing, as former spy controller Alec Leamus changes sides and begins to work for the other side. Needless to say there is a deep and shocking twist, but what really makes the novel is the increasingly scary and intense atmosphere as Leamus is pulled deeper and deeper into enemy territory.

It is, of course, nearly impossible to review this book without giving away plot details. But the atmosphere for dull, grey 1960s London is worth mentioning. Beef tea, tinned chicken and cold single rooms warmed by a weak gas's not just the interrogations that are chilly. You get a real sense of Britain at the end of it's imperial greatness... it's neighborhoods are dirty, it's airports and bars grim and utilitarian. Even the drinks are bland. Everyone is tired and fed up. Even the activists of the Communist Party groups fake their paper sales figures so they can go home early.

Its a wonderful novel. It's so perfect that when they filmed it they barely seemed to change a scene. By turns punchy and shocking, and ultimately deeply tragic. This is spycraft stripped bare of any glamour - lies and counter lies, bureacracy gone mad, cowardly murders and every sentence uttered mined for information. Its not James Bond, its something far more real.

Related Reviews

le Carré - A Small Town in Germany
le Carré - A Murder of Quality

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Michael Roberts - Marx 200: A Review of Marx’s Economics 200 years after his birth

This short, but clear and well-written book is one of the better explanations of Karl Marx's economics to come out of the publishing frenzy that marks the 200th anniversary of his birth. Michael Roberts focuses on Marx's economic work and its importance today, as well as defending Marx's approach (in particular his laws of the labour theory of value, and the tendency of the rate of profit to fall) from critics, both left and right. In doing so, Roberts demonstrates the importance of Marx's ideas to understanding capitalism in the 21st century.

I have been asked to write a fuller review for a publication and I'll post that review here when it is published. In the mean time below are links to a review of Robert's book on the Long Depression and in the same vein a highly recommended book by Chris Harman Zombie Capitalism: Global Crisis and the Relevance of Marx.

Related Reviews

Roberts - The Long Depression
Harman - Zombie Capitalism