Monday, November 05, 2018

Paolo Bacigalupi - Ship Breaker

There seem to be no shortage these days of novels set in a future dystopian world ruined by environmental disaster. Paolo Bacigalupi's Ship Breaker stands out for me because it captures the lives of those who are at the bottom of the pile in a ruined world. Evoking the men and women who are ship-breakers in India today, dismantling vessels for scrap and materials, this book begins among the impoverished communities of the United States, similarly breaking up old ships (usually oil tankers) so the raw materials can be sold at vast profits by corporations.

Nailer is one of these workers, a young boy about to grow to large for his job of crawling through the dark passages of the wrecks and removing cable. His future is uncertain, and in addition, his father is a violent drug addict who abuses Nailer. Bacigalupi sets up his world well. Nailer stands on the shore gazing at the beautiful, wealthy clippers that move on the horizon, traders and pleasure craft that he cannot imagine. His world is poor, violent and frightening. Exposed to the brutal "city killer" storms that are one legacy of the warmed world.

Everyone Nailer knows is hoping for their lucky break - the chance to escape poverty. But for most that doesn't happen. Nailer's chance comes when a clipper and its wealthy passenger are wrecked nearby and Nailer has to return her to her family.

I didn't realise, when I picked this up from the library, that it was a young adult novel. It is still enjoyable but clearly aimed at a youthful audience, who will appreciate the pace and tension, as well as the brilliantly drawn relationships between the young characters. I also appreciated that many of the main characters are female and black, something that's unusual in novels, but also reflects the reality of those who currently live and will live on the fringes of an economy destroyed by climate change. There are some odd moments - for instance this future world appears to have lost all its radio and telephone communications ability - but this is a clever and thoughtful book that depicts a future far different from the shiny technological utopia climate denying politicians often promise.

Related Reviews

Robinson - New York 2140

Sunday, November 04, 2018

Joseph Arch - From Ploughtail to Parliament: An Autobiography

Autobiographies are strange texts. As an account of the author's own life they are supposed to be an accurate description of what took place, but they are really the account that the author would like to pass on to posterity. Joseph Arch's account of his life as an agricultural labourer, then trade unionist and finally MP is fascinating for its detail. But it is also of interest for what has been left out, or downplayed. As such I highly recommend it is read in conjunction with Pamela Horn's biography and commentary by Alun Howkins. While self-serving in places it is an very interesting insight into the ideas and activities that dominated rural trade unionism in the 1870s by someone who was at the heart of that struggle.

As we approach the centenary of Arch's death it is worth reflecting on the sweep of his life. He was born in 1826 in the village of Barford, and the early chapters of his autobiography are fascinating for their detail of the lives of agricultural labourers. Life for the Arch family, as for almost every labourer, was marked by dire poverty. Arch's family were slightly better off as they owned the freehold to their cottage as a result of his Grandfather saving £30 over many years in an old sock. Most labourers did not have this security and risked losing their homes if they challenged the farmer or landowner. This was to give Arch enormous security in later life as he became a thorn in the local establishment's side and then a leading trade unionist.

Arch's early memories contain a great deal of class difference and struggle. He remembers peering through a crack in the Church door to see his father waiting for Communion in a separate queue to the local gentry and farmers who get seen first. At school his poor clothes are a source of conflict, “sons of the wheelwrights, the master tailor and the tradesmen… peacocky youngsters would cheek the lads in smock-frocks and many a stand-up fight we used to have – regular pitched battles of smock-frock against cloth-coat they were, in which smock-frock held his own right well.”

His mother challenges the parson's wife who wants to impose a particular haircut on Arch's sisters - and they never receive charity again from the vicarage. More seriously Arch's father refuses to sign a pro-Corn Law petition got up by the farmers and is out of work for 18 weeks.

Arch's family was not unusual, and it is no wonder that in the late 1860s and early 1870s trade unionism begins to take off in a serious way in the English countryside. Arch by that point is a skilled worker and preacher for the Primitive Methodists, he is also a strong supporter of the Liberal Party and he is called upon to help set up a local trade union by workers in the nearby village of Wellsbourne in Warwickshire. Once convinced that this is a real attempt, Arch takes to this with enormous enthusiasm and the union rapidly grows in strength.

Reading the autobiography you get the impression that Arch was the only driver of the union. Other biographies and histories show that actually there were numbers of unions being setup at the same time, and many of these merged to form a national union (though significant sections did not). Arch speaks in hundreds of villages building the union and driving it forward, but so do many others. A great weakness of the book is that neglects what is taking place in the world beyond Arch's immediate influence. A second weakness is that Arch is utterly unable to acknowledge mistakes or defeats. The union strike wave that takes place in the 1870s after the union is founded is defeated by a lock-out in the Eastern Counties. The union, and Arch, take a pretty miserable attitude to the final outcome but this is omitted from Arch's account.

In his introduction to my edition, Alun Howkins points out that Arch is also selective about who appears in his book and also doesn't go into the detail of the major rows that took place. Nor does he acknowledge that the union he put so much energy into declines and collapses in the 1880s. The book was published before Arch's parliamentary career was over, but it is selective about his time in Parliament - in fact it was a tremendously difficult time for him. Arch rarely spoke in Parliament and didn't speak at all for the last 6 years! But Arch still portrays himself as a major fighter for the labourers cause.

From other sources one gets the impression that Arch the MP was completely out of his depth. The first agricultural labourer in Parliament was cut off from his base and support and surrounded by wealth and privileged. In fact Arch clearly loved the company of the famous - he was enormously enamoured of Gladstone, and because his constituency covered the Norfolk estates of Sandringham he vowed to be an MP for labourers and the Prince of Wales.

Arch was a contradictory figure in many ways. A brilliant trade unionist but at times he was also remarkably conservative, but then could be very radical - supporting Home Rule and opposing British colonialism in South Africa and Afghanistan. He hated the ideas of socialism, preferring to imagine a countryside free of class conflict where everyone had their place, but the labourers had a decent wage and a small amount of land. But nonetheless for thousands of agricultural labourers and their families Arch helped them have a sense of a better world. The victories won by the union were significant, if not long lasting, but they proved that agricultural workers could organise and could win. And for all his faults Joseph Arch never gave up his belief in the power of organised workers - and nor should we.

Related Reviews

Horn - Joseph Arch
Groves - Sharpen the Sickle!
Marlow - The Tolpuddle Martyrs
Jeffery - The Village in Revolt
Howkins - The Death of Rural England

Friday, November 02, 2018

Michael D. Yates - Can the Working Class Change the World?

I started reading this book the day that news arrived from Brazil that the extreme right-wing Jair Bolsonaro had been elected President. It made me reflect how the failure of left-projects that fail to challenge the capitalist state can open the door to right-wing and fascist politicians that will decimate the working classes and their institutions.

To start at the end, in his conclusion, Michael D. Yates notes that the "working class must change the world. There really no choice." This short book is thus dedicated to not only explaining why the working class has the power to change the world, but showing that there are no other forces in society that can bring about fundamental change. In a world where the far-right is on the ascendancy and we are threatened by economic crisis and environmental catastrophe the lessons are obvious to all.

Yates returns to the core of Marx's ideas to show the central role of the working class under capitalism. Capitalism requires workers to make profits - they create the surplus value that the bosses need to make their profits and to keep the system growing. But Yates also shows how the bosses need to continually attack workers in order to maximise their profits in a competitive system. This means a continual fight over working conditions, wages and our societies. The system, Yates points out systematically destroys those who labour for it:
[This] takes the form of an assault on the body and mind of the labourer, relentless and unending. Throughout the history of capitalism and in every country, most workers have been and are rendered at least partially incapacitated after a lifetime of toil.
Capitalism doesn't simply destroy the worker, or the peasant, but also ravages the planet in its quest for profits:
Land, water, even air, are made into commodities that can be bought and sold, again creating new arenas for accumulation. The social costs of capital's abuse of nature is typically borne by workers and peasants. They live where air pollution is worst, where the soil has been most degraded. They drink contaminated water... When floods, hurricanes and droughts, caused and exacerbated by capitalist-induced global warming, descend upon humanity the least of us suffer the most.
The question remains then, why does the mass of the population accept this state of affairs? A tiny minority live on the backs of the masses - so why does capitalism survive? Yates shows how capitalism has a number of ways of protecting its interests. Firstly the use of brute force - the police and army - to undermine protest, strikes and revolution. Secondly Yates puts great emphasis on the role of education in creating a pliable workforce that accepts the status quo and is ready to work for capital. Thirdly there are all sorts of in built aspects to capitalism that turn worker against worker, undermining the unity that is required to beat the bosses. Yates writes:
A racial and patriarchal capitalism generated fundamental splits in the working class, and these have been among the most critical impediments to class unity. Objectively , a working class exist, but this does not mean that its members are conscious of their capacity to disrupt production and the system itself.
While I agree with Yates' argument here, I thought it could have been developed further. One Marxist who isn't mentioned is the Italian Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci showed how workers have contradictory consciousness - they can hold both backward and progressive ideas at the same time. Because capitalism brings workers together and forces them into a class struggle, the backward ideas are constantly challenged and progressive ideas can develop further. In a recent strike by 8000 Glasgow care workers, almost all of whom are women, 400 male rubbish collectors refused to cross their picket lines. Many, if not most, of those men would have held sexist ideas, but they did not break the strike because they understood the need for class unity - in doing so they would also have found their own ideas about women challenged.

Yates points out how capitalism stokes racism and misogyny etc to divide workers, but it also creates the conditions when they can be over-come, particularly if workers are organised in trade unions and political parties that challenge these ideas systematically.

In this framework I also slightly disagree with Yates' comments on migration which he seemed to suggest (in the context of the collapse of the Eastern European regimes) weakens the working class. Yates writes:
The exodus [from the former Eastern Bloc] of people seeking employment wherever they might find it provided cheap labour in the Global North. Thus, the working classes everywhere were weakened.

The danger here is to blame migrants for driving down wages, when it is precisely the capitalists, through the mechanisms that Yates' highlights that use division to undermine working class unity. But recent years in the UK have also shown that despite very high levels of racism towards refugees and migrants from the press and politicians, large numbers of people have shown solidarity - either joining protests or, in far greater numbers, giving to refugee charities.

Yates is writing mainly from a US perspectives so readers in Europe and elsewhere will find that some of his discussions are specific to the US situation, though there are many parallels. I cannot but agree with his calls to improve democracy within the trade union movement, or to increase the amount of education the unions have for their members against homophobia, sexism and racism; as well as the history of the movement.

But sometimes I think there are too many generalisations. For instance, Yates says that "unions have proven unable to reverse the impact of neo-liberalism". But I would phrase this differently, and argue that in most countries (I'm especially thinking of here in the UK) the union movement hasn't fought the type of battle that could have ended neo-liberalism or even austerity. I'm thinking of the swift calling off of the 2011 public sector strikes that could easily have put the British government on the back foot over austerity, but were undermined by a section of the union leadership.

And while I agree that social democracy (reformism) has been severely weakened, I don't think Yates is right to say that "Social Democracy has been thoroughly defeated in Great Britain". In fact quite the opposite. Corbyn's election and the massive growth of the Labour Party has seen a huge resurgence in reformist ideas and the rebirth of Labour as a vehicle for social democracy - something that provides big challenges for those of us in the Marxist left outside the Party.

I do think that there is a missing section though which is crucially linked to the question of working class power - which is the need for independent, Marxist, revolution organisation based in the working class. Yates ably shows that workers simply fighting will not lead to the defeat of capitalism - in fact capital can cope with even significant resistance (not the large number of general strikes in Greece for instance). The working class needs clear, principled political leadership - not in a vanguard sense, but in the sense of the best militants being grouped together to try and shape a struggle against the system. I still think that the lessons of the Bolshevik party in Russia in the early 20th century are key to understanding this role.

If this review seems like a list of criticisms, that's because I've focused on sections that I have differences with. There are many other stimulating and positive aspects to this short book. For instance I was struck how it, unlike many others of its type, discusses the crucial role of the peasantry and landless workers, and does not neglect the question of the environment. I didn't always initially agree with what Yates wrote about the former Soviet bloc, China or Cuba, but I found his arguments interesting and informative. I also got a great deal out of the US perspective - particularly Yates comments on struggles against oppression such as Black Lives Matter. At a time when radical left-wing ideas are needed more than ever, a book with the title Can the Working Class Change the World? will undoubtedly get a big readership and I hope that those readers are stimulated as much as I was to think through these important questions.

Related Reviews

Miliband - Parliamentary Socialism

Harman - Revolution in the 21st Century
Choonara & Kimber - Arguments for Revolution
Haider - Mistaken Identity
Marx - Value, Price and Profit
Molyneux - The Point is to Change It

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

William A. Pelz - A People's History of the German Revolution

November 2018 marks the centenary of the start of the German Revolution. This was, as William Pelz notes in the conclusion to his book, an event of utmost significance. "Had", he writes, "the German Revolution been radical and purged the old state apparatus, there would most likely have been no Nazi seizure of power, no Third Reich, no World War II, no Holocaust." It would also, we should add, have strengthened the position of Soviet Russia and most certainly prevented that revolution's isolation and degeneracy. The world would be a very different, and likely better, place.

But the German Revolution is barely remembered. Pelz notes that few of his students had ever heard of it, and Chris Harman, famously called it the "Lost Revolution". So it is welcome that this new book has been published that can rescue the events of 1918 and 1919 for a new generation of activists. It is also good that this history has been written by someone broadly sympathetic to the Revolution and the people who made it.

Pelz locates the German Revolution as a culmination of a process that begins before World War One. This is the growth of the mass German socialist party the SPD. This, Pelz argues, was revolutionary in tone yet had developed a significant base within the system. Pelz quotes historian Lynn Abrams, "A working-class family could purchase its groceries at the socialist cooperative, borrow books from the Social Democratic library, exercise at a workers' sports club, sing in the workers' choir, if necessary call on the workers Samaritan Association in the event of an accident and draw on the workers' burial fund upon the death of a family member." But Pelz shows how the SPD had helped develop a "highly politicised working class" within which a "striking six percent put forth that there most important wish was to 'settle accounts with the capitalists.'"

It was this that led them to support German involvement in the war and then to take a counter-revolutionary attitude to the anti-war and then revolutionary movements. Pelz also shows the way that the deprivations of the war and the reality of life in the trenches helped create the spark for the events that began in late 1918. He also argues, convincingly, that anti-war sentiment was very strong in the German army quite early in the conflict.

The book is called "A People's History" and Pelz highlights the role of ordinary people in making the Revolution. In particular he celebrates the central (and often downplayed) involvement of women in the movements - first during the war when they played major roles in food riots - but then during the revolution itself. Women had been sucked into the factories as the men were sent to the front and played a crucial role in overthrowing the Kaiser and ending the war. I found these sections the most interesting and people who have read other accounts of the German Revolution will find much new material here.

I did have some problems with Pelz's account. Most important of these is that Pelz repeatedly dismisses those who argue that what was central to the defeat of the Revolution was the lack of a revolutionary "Bolshevik" type party. He particularly singles out Chris Harman for this criticism. But Pelz seems to misunderstand the role of such a party. The key problem with the German Revolution, as Pelz himself acknowledges, was that at particular points no strong enough force existed outside the SPD to hold back or drive forward the movement. Even when the German Communist Party (KPD) was formed this was too immature to play such a role. Lenin's Bolsheviks' in Russia were able to play that role and thus lead an insurrection after a year of revolutionary turmoil in which they had proved themselves to the masses. The existence of such a party in Germany, built long before World War One started, could have made sure the ups and downs of 1919 helped develop the working class movement in ways that ironed out its weaknesses.

This is most clear when looking at Pelz's discussion of the January 1919 Spartakist Uprising. This clearly should not have taken place - it's failure to involve a majority of the working class simply allowed the right to accelerate their repression. Instead Pelz argues that the alternative would have been a "revolutionary committee" that could have "deposed" the government and formed a new one based on the "left-wing USPD, the KPD and revolutionary shop stewards in Berlin". That may or may not have been successful as Pelz points out, possible leading to a bloody Paris Commune or a second "socialist" revolution. But surely the reason this didn't happen was the lack of clear revolutionary leadership - and had that existed in a party - the question of a workers' government might have been moot.

Chris Harman quotes Rosa Luxemburg before she was murdered. The defeat's cause lay she said, on "the contradiction between the powerful, resolute and offensive appearance of the Berlin masses on the one hand, and the irresoluteness, timidity and indecision of the Berlin leadership on the other". Harman then continues, "With a powerful revolutionary party, the Berlin working class would probably not have walked into the trap laid by Ebert, Noske and the generals".

To be fair to Pelz, he has not set out to right a manual for Revolutionaries, but a pure work of history. But the problem is that he also knows that had the German Revolution been successful it would have likely prevented the horrors that followed in the "midnight of the century". That success would have relied on the involvement of the masses in history which Pelz celebrates. But it also required political leadership that was prepared to take it forward. So while Pelz's book has much of interest, I recommend that it is read alongside other accounts such as that by Pierre Broue or Chris Harman's work.

Related Reviews

Broué - The German Revolution 1917-1923
Reissner - Hamburg at the Barricades
Fernbach - In the Steps of Rosa Luxemburg: Selected Writings of Paul Levi
Hoffrogge - Working Class Politics in the German Revolution
Trotsky - Lessons of October
Hippe - And Red is the Colour of Our Flag

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Frederik Pohl & C.M. Kornbluth - Wolfbane

Many years ago, I read, and re-read, Pohl and Kornbluth's classic novel The Space Merchants. It was a remarkable novel that has stuck with me for many years. For some reason though I never moved on to other works by the pair and having finally read Wolfbane, a novel first published in 1952, I really regret that delay.

By any standards Wolfbane is a remarkable book. It is set on a vastly depopulated Earth which has been stolen from the solar system by pyramid aliens who dimly illuminate the planet with an artificial sun that gradually diminishes. The aliens live on their own planet also orbiting their miniature sun, though they are apparently ignorant of the difficult lives of those that remain on Earth. The humans that remain, descendants of those who survived the enormous crisis that followed the planet's removal from solar orbit, have succumbed to a passive existence based on tightly controlled rituals, strictly regulated social interactions and a lack of emotional engagement with others.

In this strictly controlled atmosphere many individuals appear to go insane, or rogue. Known as Wolves they are punished by execution, but they consider themselves to be far superior to the ritualised sheep. The Wolf at the centre of the novel, Glen Tropile, manages to break out of his imprisonment following his discovery. Fleeing, he in turn finds a community of wolves who are living a superior lifestyle under the alien's radar and those of the rest of humanity - here is more food, technology and a better society. But this is in turn disturbed by Glen's capture and translocation by an alien to the Pyramid's homeworld. Here Tropile leads an unusual revolution. He is reincarnated as a component part of a collective being, one of thousands that help maintain the alien planet. The rebellion that he/their lead is a remarkably written account that seems to predict future networked technologies and, perhaps, some of the cyberpunk genre.

For a novel written over 60 years ago, this is still incredibly fresh. It has interesting things to say about society, rebellion and environmental disaster, as well as an innovative plot. I'd highly recommend it.

Related Reviews

Clarke & Pohl - The Last Theorem
London - The Star Rover
Haldeman - All My Sins Remembered
Aldiss - Non Stop

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Nur Masalha - Palestine: A Four Thousand Year History

The Israeli state's war against the Palestinians is a travesty that continues to anger millions of people around the globe. Every atrocity that hits the news can be guaranteed in Britain to provoke protests that call for justice for the Palestinian people. Jeremy Corbyn's ongoing support for the Palestinians has meant that the question of Zionism - the ideology behind the founding of the Israeli state in 1948 - has become a major issue for the left and the Labour Party, as right-wing enemies of Corbyn seek to undermine him by portraying opposition to Zionism as the same as Antisemitism. I reject that equation and believe that socialists must show full solidarity with the Palestinian people, combined with an absolute rejection of antisemitism and all forms of bigotry and racism.

Nur Masalha's new book is an important contribution to our understanding of the history of the region. As Masalha argues, this history is contested and differing understandings of that history have been deployed by both the British colonial powers and the Israeli state since 1948.

Masalha writes in his introduction that:
Some Arab writers and artists promoting the political and national cause of Palestine or pan-Arabism create meta-narratives to depict Palestinian national identity or Arab nationalism as being more ancient that they actually are. Moreover, until the advent of anachronistic European political Zionism at the turn of the 20th century the people of Palestine...included Arab Muslims, Arab Christians and Arab Jews. Being a rendering of the Israeli Zionist/Palestinian conflict, historically speaking the binary of Arab versus Jew in Palestine is deeply misleading.
Masalha continues a few pages later to argue that "the Zionist liberal coloniser has often sought to combine 'settler-colonisation' with 'democracy' - two contradictory projects - and this tendency has in recent decade contributed to the emergence of the 'New Histories' of Israel." This new history, however, is a continuation of the process of hiding the real history of the region and Palestine itself.

The book begins with a detailed examination of the notion of "Palestine" from the bronze-age onwards. Masalha traces the origins of the term Palestine and shows, at different points, how it has been used by contemporaries to identify a place and a people. This contrasts, he argues, with ideological histories that base themselves in biblical texts, and have been used to undermine or subsume Palestinian history into an "invented tradition". For instance, Masalha explains that there is "no material history or archaeological or empirical evidence" for the 'Kingdom of David'. Nor, for instance, despite the systematic exploration and excavation of Egypt, is there any evidence for the Old Testament story of Moses "leading the 'Israelite tribes' from Egypt to 'Cana'an'." Indeed the name Cana'an is itself a "late literary construct". In contrast,
Palestine was the name used most commonly, consistently and continuously for over 1200 years throughout classical and Late Antiquity, from the highlight of classical Athenian civilisation in 500 BC until the end of the Byzantine period and the occupation of Palestine by the Muslim armies in 637-638 AD.
Despite the book's title, there is not a great deal of day-to-day history here. Instead Masalha studies the concept of Palestine, how it is discussed and understood by contemporaries. He cites many accounts, from different authors of many different backgrounds to show how Palestine has existed historically. All this is an important backdrop to the final third of the book which looks at the way that Palestine in the colonial period has been used and then denigrated. Masalha writes that the
English Industrial Revolution of the 18th century and rise of European capitalism impacted on the economy of Palestine directly and profoundly. These new forces also contributed to the reorientation of Palestine towards Europe and creation of a new political economy and statehood in mid-18th century Palestine.
But with British colonial rule came divide and rule. In contrast to the earlier, "fluid" boundaries in Jerusalem, for instance, "separating the lives of Palestinian Christians, Palestinian Jews and Palestinian Muslims", Masalha quotes one historian Salim Tamari writing about Jerusalem that the "quarter system signalling the division of the Old City into confessional bounded domains was introduced and imposed retroactively on the city by British colonial regulations."

Masalha shows how it was the support by the most powerful colonial power of the time for Zionist plans that made them mainstream. This was done, Masalha argues, out of a combination of colonial and domestic interests on the part of the British.

Few British politicians cared about Jewish people or their history. Many were openly antisemitic and wanted to encourage Jews to leave Europe. Others were religious evangelicals. But all were motivated primarily by a need to strengthen Britain's imperial project. To make it work they had to create a racist myth that denied the Palestinians their history and even their existence. Lord Shaftesbury, Chairman of the Palestine Exploration Fund said, in an oft repeated phrase, that Palestine was "a country without a people" for "a people without a country". Shaftesbury was a key figure in "biblical restorationism" and politicians like him believed that a "'Jewish Palestine' would be convenient for a British protectorate there along the main route to India". The motivation by the British was not out of altruism for Jews facing pogroms and racism, but to protect their imperial interests.

The creation of the Israeli state in 1948 in the aftermath of the Holocaust and World War Two was accompanied by the systematic destruction of hundreds of Palestinian towns and villages. New settlements were created on the ruins, and Masalha describes the ways that places were renamed as part of a creation of identity. As the author writes, "this massive appropriation of Palestinian heritage provided support for the European Jewish colonisers' claim to represent an indigenous people returning to its homeland after 200 years of exile." Later Masalha argues that this creation of a historical identity is key to the contemporary ideology of the Israeli state, "the treatment of the cultural heritage of Palestine as a tool for Zionist settler purposes is central to Israeli educational policies, the Israeli biblical academy and the Israeli government's renaming projects."

Masalha clearly demonstrates the way that the history of Palestine, a history where Jews, Arabs, Christians and others lived together peacefully for long periods of time, has been ignored, erased and destroyed in the interests of the modern Israeli state. This is detailed history that restores the forgotten past in the interests of a more just future for everyone, from all backgrounds and religions, in the Middle East.

I do however want to note a couple of minor problems. Firstly the book is difficult to follow in places, primarily because there are no maps which makes it hard to understand where various places are, particularly as names change frequently. I hope the publishers amend this for the paperback. Secondly in many places Masalha has included multiple examples to prove his argument, often leading to several pages of bullet pointed comments that are tiresome to read and unnecessary.

Those criticisms aside, this is an important work of history that has great contemporary relevance. I hope it is widely read and discussed.

Related Reviews

Levi - If Not Now, When?
Rose - The Myths of Zionism

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Lillian Beckwith - The Sea for Breakfast

During three wonderful childhood holidays in Scotland in the 1980s I was introduced to the enormously popular Lillian Beckwith books by my father who was a great enthusiast for them. I don't really remember much about reading them then, but retained a memory of warmth for the semi-autobiographical works. Beckwith moved to the Scottish islands as a rest cure and lived there for many years wirting a series of books about her life there. It is difficult to know exactly what is true and what isn't.

During more recent trips to Scotland I've tried to find them again, but they didn't seem to be in print, so I was pleased to find a couple recently second hand.

Unfortunately, my warm memories of them are somewhat dampened. What in the 1980s surely felt like humorous insights into isolated communities felt today, all too like the prim and snooty commentary on people whom Beckwith liked to play for laughs. While the stories are amusing, and no doubt fictionalised to a great extent, Beckwith enjoys to highlight the stupidity, daftness and simplistic logic of her characters - playing them for laughs rather than insight.

A quick glance at online reviews shows that many people read these for what they believe are insights into traditional ways of life in the Scottish Hebridean islands. Yet nothing really bad ever happens in this book. Sure there are hints at adultery, rows and peoples "simple life" is emphasised (a code for poverty in my experience), but really this is a fantasy about life in those places.

I am not surprised by reports that the community that had welcomed Lillian Beckwith into its arms was upset an angered by the books. I also doubt that she intended to cause offense, but this very much feels like middle class anthropologist going to the working class and having a very patronising smirk at their funny ways.

That's not to say there isn't stuff of interest. But this tends to be from what is said as background rather than the individual tales the author writes. I was fascinated to hear that people regularly ate Cormorant, for instance, and I was struck that the Hebridean population did not celebrate Christmas particularly and the children seemed to have invented a form of "trick or treating" long before American culture swamped western Europe.

All in all a disappointing return to a childhood classic. There's a lesson there!

Related Reviews
Cameron - The Ballad and the Plough
Hutchinson - The Soapman

Richards - The Highland Clearences