Sunday, November 27, 2005

Dashiell Hammett - The Maltese Falcon

It’s rare that I buy a book on the strength of a film. Maybe this is a unique example of that particular method of choosing literature. But last week in a bookstore, Dashiell Hammett’s famous title leapt out at me – and because I think that Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade is about as good as it gets, it slipped into the proverbial shopping basket.

The cover blurb (again, never a good reason to choose a book) tells me that it is “Possibly the best American detective novel ever written”. Well at least Otto Penzler is quoted as saying so. Given the competition there is for American detective novels, I was ready to be thrilled.

But this isn’t a novel that does it through thrills. This, like I suppose the film and like one of Sam Spade’s roll-ups, is a slow smouldering fire. Hammett doesn’t have the descriptive skill of Chandler, but he makes up for it by building a complex interaction of characters and places. And of course double-crosses follow double-crosses building the sort of story line that draws you into someone elses' life.

As I read this book I was disappointed. I’d hoped for another Chandler, but it was only in the final chapter, as it all falls together and Sam Spade wins by sheer grit, determination and his complete inability to be awed by anyone, that I realised what a truly great novel this is.

I’m glad I didn’t remember the ending of the film in detail. Because this is a book that lives by it’s ending. And the sad, poignant final paragraph sums up that these are real men and women, not the cardboard cutouts you normally associated with pulp fiction.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Mike Davis – The Monster at Our Door; The global threat of Avian flu


While reading this book, I wondered how the world will end. Will we drown as the rising tides caused by Climate Change engulf the major cities of the world, or will we die in our millions as an unprepared world is struck by a major flu pandemic.

This is a remarkably timely book – Avian “Bird” flu has been in the headlines frequently, yet few people probably understand either the nature of the disease, or the threat it brings to humanity. A threat it must be said, which is immense. The 1918 flu outbreak killed between 40 and 100 million people (a figure that grows to a horrifying 325 million if extrapolated to the world’s population today). Davis quotes a Sunday Herald article that predicts that 1% of the UK population could die as a result of a serious outbreak.

Davis’ documents recent outbreaks in South-East Asia, showing how governments there were often wholly unprepared (often seeming to stand with fingers in ears singing “la la la” rather than face reality). Luckily, either for natural reasons, or due to prompt action by health officials, these outbreaks have been stemmed, yet the potential remains – 15 million chickens died in Thailand in early 2004.

While governments and politicians around the world ignore this major threat, Davis’ points to the changes in human society that mean that the flu is more likely to “species jump” and to evolve newer and deadlier strains. The massive concentration of food production to larger and larger factories, often with appalling conditions, give the flu virus an evolutionary playground never before seen in history. Increased international travel and the huge concentration of people in gigantic slums around the world mean that when it does break out, the flu could travel around the globe in hours, spreading faster than any government could deliver vaccinations to it’s population.


This last point is Davis’ final concern. Modern pharmaceutical companies aren’t interested in producing vaccinations for diseases like influenza – it’s just not profitable enough in the short term. At the same time as millions of dollars are being injected into finding ways of combating “bio terrorism”, cash is vanishing from health projects that could develop better vaccines for diseases like TB or avian flu. Interestingly, the Pentagon’s plans for dealing with a pandemic involve inoculating the armed forces as a priority.

The US has stockpiled only enough vaccine for 1% of it’s population. Japan, by contrast has covered about a fifth of its citizens. Of course, the countries that will be really ravaged are those in the developing world. Places like Vietnam, Thailand could be devastated, as could sub-Saharan Africa, its population already weakened by HIV.

This book should really be recommended reading for two groups of people – the first is politicians – if only to hope that some of them might get their fingers out of their ears long enough to hear the warnings of the medical profession. But the other group is those of activists and campaigners because huge pressure must be put on governments and drug companies to force them to increase production of the vaccines, invest in more and more studies of diseases and extend this to the rest of the world.

The terrifying reality of the threat of avian-flu is almost too much to think about. But this book is a brilliant introduction too the problems and the solutions. If only we have time to read it.

Related Reviews

Davis - Late Victorian Holocausts
Davis - Planet of Slums
Quammen - Ebola: The Natural and Human History
Zinsser - Rats, Lice and History
Ziegler - The Black Death

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Paul Foot - Red Shelley

When campaigning journalist Paul Foot died last year died, many people remarked how much he would be missed. A tireless campaigner for social justice, for freedom, for democracy and for socialism, he had devoted his life to struggling for a better world.

Amongst many Foot’s many qualities, was his ability to popularise odd periods of history or forgotten revolutionaries. At the annual Marxism conference in London, his meetings on the English Revolution, or the Levellers or Democracy were always amongst the most popular.

But many socialists in the UK have a special place in their hearts for his speeches on the poet Shelley.

This book, written in the early 1980s was clearly a result of Foot himself discovering Shelley. The poet he discovered, wasn’t the slightly unusual, lyrical romantic that was often taught in English schools. Rather he was a radical. A revolutionary. A man who believed that the world could and should be better, and that his poetry could be one of the weapons against that injustice.

Shelley had been distorted and ignored after his death. His best and most radical poems, works like “Queen Mab” and “The Mask of Anarchy” weren’t even officially published till long after his death. They existed often only in illegal and underground publications, repeated word for word by groups of workers, oppressed and under the thumb of the reactionary state.

For decades, the rich would gather around dinner tables and recite Shelley’s poetry. But they would ignore the revolutionary, challenging poetry, living almost entirely on the romantic poetry and even then stripping it of its context and his beliefs.

Foot argues that Shelley was one of the first socialists. Immature and isolated he might have been, but he was also a thinker and philosophiser who came up with some new and radical ideas. Ideas that would only become mainstream within the emerging left movement decades later.

Of course, Shelley was also driven by a militant atheism that meant he was ostracised by the rest of the establishment he was from, during his lifetime. But it’s an atheism at the heart of some of his best poetry. This atheism meant that he clashed with all those who believed that the poor deserved to be poor, or were poor because of their own making. So Shelley was driven by a desire to both illuminate the world and change it.

The book ends with Foot arguing that a new generation needs to grow up with Shelley in one hand as they struggle for peace and justice. He would have liked nothing better than to see Tony Blair humiliated in the House of Commons today, and so it’s really only fitting that I finishs with one of Shelley’s most famous poems. One that dictators and politicians everywhere could do well to learn:

I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed,
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Tacitus - The Histories


Anyone who has looked at one of those lists of Roman Emperors and the dates they ruled will have noticed a strange thing. Over the years AD68 to AD 69 no less than five emperors (Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius and Vespasian) began, ended or enjoyed their entire reigns.

This period of civil war, marked the change from the Augustan dynasty to that of the Flavians. It’s a crucial period of Roman rule, and one that the historian Tacitus, writing in about AD 100, documents using I am told, excellent authorities.


Tacitus’ was a Roman historian, thus much of what he wrote assumes a lot of knowledge about Roman custom. Though he does describe a lot of interesting details. If you don’t know much about Roman history (and I’m no expert) some parts of this can be hard work. But if makes up for it in other ways (such as the description of the battles of Cremonia). There are a myriad of details you can learn – Roman soilders were fully armed only when the enemy was almost upon them for instance.)

This is a good book to follow up Suetonius’ Twelve Ceasers, covering similar ground and illuminating the details of some of the events described there. This shouldn’t be the first book on Roman History you read. Certainly not if you have just seen HBO-BBC’s “Rome” and want to know more. But by no means make it the last, as it’s full of details, interest and blood.