Saturday, December 30, 2006

Jared Diamond - Collapse; How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive


There are many places on earth, some of them tourist shrines, some of them deserted, covered by the sands of deserts or choked by the surrounding jungle, where mighty (or even, not so mighty) civilisations once stood. Jared Diamond’s book Collapse looks at why some of those civilisations failed and why some of them succeeded. In doing so, he hopes to draw some generalised conclusions about all societies, and perhaps make sure that our society (or at the least the readers of his book) learns some lessons in order to avoid becoming another buried society

As in his previous bestseller, “Guns, Germs and Steel”, Diamond tells a fascinating story. His descriptions of the rise and collapse (often sudden) of various civilisations are at turns amazing and terrifying. In particular, I found his chapters on the rise of the Vikings and their spread across the seas and oceans, as far as the US mainland fantastic. By comparing and contrasting Viking settlements on the Eastern Seaboard, in Iceland, Greenland, The Orkneys and elsewhere, he can tell a tale of how minor aspects of a civilisations setting (in particular, but not exclusively the physical environment) can have major consequences for a societies ultimate fate.

There is a danger when writing history of this type that you simply take the starting natural conditions (poor soil, excellent forests, good fishing) and extrapolate. Diamond avoids doing this, though he perhaps puts too much emphasis on these factors. Certainly the environment in terms of agricultural possibilities and climate changes did ultimately mean the doom of the Viking civilisation in Greenland.

But actions by societies themselves (whether they choose to cut down all the trees, grow unsuitable groups or introduction alien flora and fauna) often is a greater determining factor. Following on from these factors, whether a society adapts to changing circumstances or not is another major factors. The Vikings in Greenland didn’t try to adapt, instead attempting to continue the lives that they would have led in mainland Christian Europe meant that they were doomed. Diamond points out that the leaders of those societies, in blocking change and continuing in the old ways, merely ensured they were the last to starve.

Diamond’s later attempts to look at how these lessons can be applied to modern societies and nations are less convincing. At this point I must make it clear that I side with Diamond’s ambitions. Many of the factors that led to the collapse of Mayan, Viking, some Native American societies are visible around the world – and not just with the global warming that currently obsesses me and many like me. Deforestation, a factor in the failure of many historical civilisations, is a major issue for countries like China, today. Changes to water availability or the erosion of arable land are issues around the globe. But in a modern, globalised, technologically rich world, it’s not enough to point simply to these as the determining factors.

To be fair to Diamond, I’m being slightly crude here, he doesn’t really believe that modern civilisation will collapse overnight, but he is trying to show how in a globalised economy, there are a number of weak links in the economic and political chain that threaten the whole structure.

But the problems with Diamond’s thesis become clear, I think, when you look at some of his solutions. In particular when he looks at how some of the worst environmental criminals have tried to be part of the solution. In a couple of case studies, he shows how companies (such as a Chevron subsidiary) have cleaned up their act to make their oil drilling environmentally sound. Now one word that I didn’t spot in Diamond’s whole book (it’s certainly not in the index) is capitalism.

Capitalism is the latest stage (the highest even – to quote a 20th century writer) of class society. It is a system were productive capacity of human kind has far exceeded that of any previous society. Capitalism’s driving force – the quest for profits, goes to the heart of every aspect of society. Diamond himself points out, how this is not just an economic law, it’s a legal reality as well. In the US, it’s a legal responsibility of a company director to avoid making business decisions that reduce profitability. Under this sort of economic reality, it’s impossible to believe that every company will start to behave in a green way. Even though it is, as the author makes clear, in the interests of society as a whole, and sometimes of an individual company, to operate in a clean, environmentally conscious way, economic competition between companies mean that every advantage one company can get over another will be grabbed with both hands.

So, if a company can get an economic edge by cutting back its environmental policies, dumping waste instead of processing it, releasing more emissions instead of cleaning the gases or indeed cutting back on environmental inspections instead of hiring more inspectors, the directors will authorise it. The price of not seizing such economic advantages will be reduced competitiveness and ultimately bankruptcy.

Of course, as Jared Diamond makes clear there are other factors here. Government legislation, political and consumer pressure and campaigners can force better policies, but these will necessarily be undermined by the underlying economic realities. While we must support such initiatives, the ultimate challenge for us is not simply better legislation or greener company directors; it is changing the whole economic reality of our society.

The subtitle to Diamond’s book is “How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive”. Here again we face a difficulty. Granted some societies in the past did consciously decide to alter their behaviour to avoid collapse. But the economic and political structures of modern capitalism mean that making a decision in the interest of the whole of society is not easy, if it goes against the interests of those who wield the most economic power. The majority of people in the UK believe we need to reduce the use of fossil fuels to stop runaway climate change. But we have a government whose economic interests coincide with those of the oil companies. Those who take decisions about our agriculture, environmental policy or energy strategy are the same who took us to war in Iraq despite the opposition of the vast majority of the population.

Here we should return to the Vikings. To us, with hindsight we can say it was insane and irrational that they attempted to build a society in Greenland based on breeding cows, when the environment and climate was against them. It was further insane that they refused to reap the bounty of the oceans around them and catch fish to provide the protein that would have helped them through the cold winters. But that irrationality was the logical outcome of the position they found themselves in and their desire to continue to live in the way that they had done in their homelands.

Today, we live in a society that has irrationality built into its economic heart. It’s economically sane to plunder the world’s resources even though it condemns millions to death.

The future salvation of human kind will require as Diamond makes clear, ordinary people to become aware of the lessons of history. However, it will not be enough for us to simply tinker with legislation and donate a few pounds to good causes. It will require the fundamental transformation of society - the creation of a society were the use of global resources and the production of material for human consumption is planned in the interests of people and planet, not the profits of the multinationals.

If that seems impossible, remember the people of Easter Island, the Mayan Kingdoms or Viking Greenland who must have argued that nothing can change. Jared Diamond’s work is a major tool to awaken us to the threat we face, but its conclusions are not the manifesto for change that we need.

Related Review

McAnany & Yoffee - Questioning Collapse

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Paul Foot - The Vote


On 15th February 2003 up to two million people marched through the streets of London against the forthcoming war in Iraq. Around the globe millions more protested, demonstrated, expressing their disgust at the seemingly inevitable war. For those of us involved in the anti-war movements there was a strange contradiction; then as now it seemed almost impossible to find anyone who supported the invasion of Iraq. Certainly a majority of people in this country opposed the war yet the so called democracy we lived in, ignored this majority opinion and its parliamentary leaders blithely followed the US administration to war.

Paul Foot’s monumental history of the struggle for the vote (and the subsequent undermining of the votes’ power) tries to address how this contempt for democracy came about. As his starting point he looks at how during obscure debates of the English Revolution the English ruling classes expressed their fear that representative democracy would “threaten their property”. For almost 350 years various propertied minority ruling classes struggled against extending the vote to the unpropertied majority.

And yet when universal suffrage became law the rich didn’t lose their lands, wealth and property. In fact, as Foot points out the main beneficiary of universal suffrage, the British Labour Party has retreated totally from its ambition of reducing capitalism and governing for ordinary people.

But Foot points out that this was not inevitable. In three brilliant chapters – one on the Chartists, one on the Reform Acts and one on the Suffragettes, we see how the struggle for the vote was often part of far more radical demands, demands that would have fundamentally altered the balance of power in favour of the poor. Foot points out that many who entered parliament on the back of universal suffrage learnt to their dismay that simple democracy means nothing, if the power of the rich, the unelected bankers and financiers and the capitalists remains untouched.

Paul Foot was one of the greatest socialists that the British Left ever produced. Here, in his greatest book, we see how his passion for justice was a reflection of his absolute belief that society needs to be transformed by ordinary people.

The Vote: How it was won and How it was undermined has recently been republished by Bookmarks. You can buy it online from their website here.

Related Reviews

Foot - Red Shelley
Vallance - A Radical History of Britain
Thompson - The Making of the English Working Class

Friday, December 08, 2006

Iain M. Banks - Look To Windward


This Iain Banks novel is about war and the consequences of war. In Bank's universe where societies span thousands of solar systems, a war means hundreds of billions of people can be affected.

As in several of these novels, we see how the Culture intervenes subtley into the affairs of other civilisations. Though this time, they get it wrong and the Chelgrian civilisation collapses into civil war - 5 billion loose their lives, and the Culture suffers a sort of collective guilt.

The novel deals with the consequences. We can't comprehend the deaths of 5 billion - rather like the Holocaust is difficult to imagine. So Banks tells us the stories of a few individuals - one in particular who is coaxed into a mission of revenge, because he cannot escape the lose of his lover in the war. The story of attempted revenge, exile, war and religion feels a little thin on the ground - but Bank's wonderful writing makes up for this, and once again I was left breathtaken by the sheer scope of the novel.

As an aside I was surprised to see the novel dedicated to the Gulf War Veterans. Until I remembered a pervious Gulf War and the men who still fight for justice because of the chemicals they were exposed to over 10 years ago. Sometimes Science Fiction can be very close to the truth.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Stephen King – The Dark Tower – The Gunslinger


In the introduction to this, the revised and expanded version of the novel, Stephen King makes it clear that he thinks that the series of novels that starts with “The Gunslinger” is his most important and complex work. His Magnum Opus if you like.

Certainly it’s a very good novel, a blending of fantasy and SF, with influences from all sorts of imaginable genres - King makes clear his debt to “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” for instance.

He also makes clear his debt to “The Lord of the Rings” and here I think is were it starts to unwind. King didn’t want to re-write the “LOTR”, thank God. Nor did he want to steal, borrow or copy the characters, locations and settings. Unlike just about every other fantasy author you can think of. King clearly set about trying to capture the scope and the imagination of Tolkien’s invented lands. But I think he tries to hard.

The tale is of a lone gunslinger (the last of his breed, as a film caption writer will no doubt have it one day) pursuing a mysterious black clad man across a desert. The story moves quickly from its classic western style opening to become more fantastical. With magical goings on and a confusing sense of time for the characters contributing to a tale that’s both readable and confusing. But at every stage you feel King’s setting up a wider mythical back-drop. Rather than the story arising naturally out of events it feels clunky, like things have been bolted on rather than fleshed out.

Don’t get me wrong, I think Stephen King’s a fantastic writer – the novel “IT” is one of the most enjoyable books I have had the pleasure to read and re-read over the years. I just think that in this early book, King spent too long trying to create an epic, rather than telling a story which would naturally pull in the epic around it, purely because of it’s scope.

The fan-sites imply it gets better with volume two. Lets hope so, otherwise it could be a long turgid trip to volume seven.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Terry Pratchett - Thud


Thud, Terry Pratchett's latest Discworld novel to hit paperback continues pretty much where the last few have left off. Once again, we are in the city of Ankh Morpork, and once again, the city is under threat. This time, the threat isn't some tear in the fabric of reality, war or dragons, it's the very nature of the city itself.

Over the span of 35 discworld novels, the city of Ankh Morpork has grown (as well as being fleshed out). It's become a multi-cultural society, with Dwarfs, Trolls, Vampires and every other creature imaginable living (or existing) side by side. We see industry developing, new forms of entertainment, and most of all we see issues arising from the arrival of new people to the city.

How Ankh Morpork has dealt with the growing "ethnic" nature of the town previously has been a theme that Pratchett has returned to time and again. He is, of course echoing some of the debates that have been common recently in Britain. And he does poke fun at some of those who hold the views of the tabloid press.

In truth though, I think Pratchett tries too hard. The story here of bubbling tensions below the surface of Ankh Morporkian society works quite well - it's entirely believable in a world were senior goernment ministers are happy to scapegoat one particular section of society. Whether this makes for good Discworld entertainment is a different question.

I'd like to see less of Ankh Morpork for a while, and more of what made the earlier books so original - but the opening chapter of his next novel, helpfully included in my edition, seems to be a return to the Lancre - the land of the witches. A break from the problems of the city watch will do us all good.

Related Reviews

Pratchett - Going Postal
Pratchett - Wintersmith

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Michael Grant - Cities of Vesuvius - Pompeii & Herculaneum


When Vesuvius erupted in AD 79, the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum stood little chance. Both were less than 10 miles from the volcano, and both were rapidly overcome by material from inside the earth. Thousands of people fled the volcanic mud and ash. Hundreds died and the archaeological record shows that many of them died because they returned for valuables, or tried to wait out the falling rocks in places of shelter.

Pompeii is one of the great tourist sites for those interested in history and though Michael Grant starts this wonderful book, with details of some of those who died in the eruption, the vast majority of the work is an illumination of the ancient town's streets, houses, shops, theatres and brothels. There's much of interest - and it's fun to compare and contrast our lives today, with those of the Roman's in AD 79. Surely if London was overcome by natural disaster many of use would die clutching our valued possessions. But we also find familar the love that the Roman's had for fine art, for good wine and for love and literature.

There is staggering evidence for how the Roman's lived. Having been to Pompeii, I've seen the cart tracks in the streets and stood in the fine rooms of the houses, you looked at the casts of those who died clutching their children to their breast. But I didn't know archaeologists had found the remains for bread in ancient ovens or tracked the artists responsible for different murals in Roman houses.

Grant's section on graffiti is amusing - not least because so much of it is reminisant of slogan's scrawled on walls today. "At least six inscriptions compare brunettes with blondes" he tells us and "a certain Septumius employes the same medium [graffiti] to launch obscene attacks on anyone who reads his scrawl." So much was written, that many walls had signs warning against the practice - to no avail. This certainly wasn't a practice limited to adults - the relative height of different graffiti show many children had a go, often as in the case of their adult scrawlers quoting famous works of literature.

Though first published in 1971, this appears to be the first paperback edition of this short book, dated 2001. I'd recommend anyone interested in ancient lives picks up a copy, particularly if you plan to visit the Naples region anytime soon.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Barbara W. Tuchman - The Guns of August


The outbreak of war in 1914 was greeted in many countries by rejoicing. Indeed, many of the most ardent and eloquent opponents of the expected conflict rolled over and supported their governments.

Barbara Tuchman's history of the first month the First World War is an excellent military history, dealing with a forgotten part of the conflict - the war of maneuver that all the European powers engaged in, before becoming bogged down in the trench warfare that we all think of when hearing about the conflict.

Up until the 1914, all wars had been on a relatively small scale, and very few (with the interesting exception of Lord Kitchener) believed that the coming war would be anything but a short war of conquest. Certainly no-one expected the slaughter that would take place.

The scale of the outbreak of hostilities however, shocked everyone. The first German attacks on the French forts on the second day of the conflict cost the lives of thousands of men. Tuchman describes how the “dead piled up in ridges a yard high” and points out the attitude of the German commanders in this battle “spending lives like bullets in the knowledge of plentiful reserves to make up the losses” set the scene for the later battles at the Somme and Verdun, were both sides wasted the lives of millions.

But not all of this history is as unsurprising as the horrific casualty figures. We learn that the British Army in France, who famously fought a brave battle at Mons in the first days of the war, under the cowardly leadership of Sir John French retreated in the face of the enemy, only returning to join the French in the battle to defend Paris. This is the second shock – how close the German’s came to capturing Paris, and ironically Tuchman points out that it’s precisely this failure on the part of the German military that sets the scene for the long, drawn out war of iteration.

As I finished the book, I was reminded of Rosa Luxembourg’s wonderful opening chapter of her anti-war pamphlet, written in 1915. She describes how the scenes of joyous crowds waving the armies off, had been replaced by a sullen acceptance of the horrific realities of war. In a memorable phrase, referring to those who were rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of a long drawn out war – the capitalists who could make money from it, she wrote “and the profits, spring like weeds from the fields of the dead”. An eloquent description of a wasteful war which altered the face of the last century.

Tuchman’s book is an amazing historical introduction to the leaders who led their countries into this war, the politicians and generals prepared to sacrifice the lives of their soldiers and the horrific battles in which their armies lost their lives.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Francis Wheen - Marx's Das Kapital - A biography


Francis Wheen wrote one of the best books about the life of Karl Marx, an accessible, interesting and often funny look at the great man's life, ideas and activities. His latest book is much shorter, but nonetheless an interesting way of looking at what Wheen thinks is Marx's most important work.

Das Kapital was the culmination of Marx's life work. It's a sprawling, multi-volume look at the economics that underpin capitalist society, a prediction of what was to come and an examination of capitalism's impact on people's lives. Not simply in the realm of how the capitalists cut wages and keep and army of unemployed, but how the worker becomes alienated from his labour's product and thence from society. These complex ideas are brought to life by Wheen quoting Marx's florid and engaging prose - rescuing the real Marx from the dogmatic Stalinist language we might be more used to.

Wheen's enthusiasm for Marx (and Das Kapital) means that he feels the need to rescue the book from those Marxists (Lenin and Trotsky in particular) that Wheen thinks abused the tradition of Marxism, but these are the weakest sections of an otherwise interesting read.

Wheen concludes by pointing out how increasingly economists and commentators have found themselves drawn to some of the central points of Kapital - though unfortunately not it's revolutionary conclusions, and concludes that "Marx may only now be emerging in his true significance. He could yet become the most influential thinker of the twenty-first century". Let us hope so.

Friday, October 06, 2006

George Monbiot - Heat, How To Stop The Planet Burning


The greenhouse gases that humans have emitted into the atmosphere since the industrial revolution will lead to an almost certain temperature rise of 1 to 2 degrees Celsius. Already the temperature changes that we have seen are having catastrophic effects around the world – melting polar ice, shrinking glaciers and an increase in hurricanes being amongst some of the most obvious of these.

The human consequences (never mind those to fragile eco-systems around the world) have already been catastrophic. The suffering in New Orlean’s Superbowl may have been just the most visible of these, but no less is the suffering of those facing crop failures and flooding elsewhere. Even a small increase beyond the 2 degrees mentioned previously will have even more dramatic consequences. George Monbiot points out that one piece of research shows that rice yields drop by 15% for every degree temperature increase, and a 2.3 degree temperature rise will expose around 200 million new people to the threat of malaria.

In this context, Monbiot sets himself the task of showing how Greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced to minimise a temperature rise beyond 2 degrees Celsius. He argues that the UK (and by extension) the US and other industrial nations need to implement strategies to reduce our Carbon Dioxide emissions by 90%. This startling, and frightening figure offers perhaps humanity’s greatest challenge over the next few years.

Monbiot starts controversially – he points out the hypocrisy and double standards of some who claim to lead green lifestyles, yet still regularly fly around the globe. But he will also upset other Green apple carts – some of his research has led him to believe that previously accepted practices – such as arguing for localised wind turbines on home roofs will have limited effect.

What Monbiot does offer are concrete strategies in a variety of areas – power generation, transport, housing and retail for example. He proves, though sometimes it is hard, that we could achieve a 90% cut. In some cases (like transport) this is easy – a rapid switch towards public transport in the UK would lead to an almost immediate 90% cut in emissions. Proper insulation of homes and offices would do similar.

What he doesn’t prove is how we get it done. In my mind, such dramatic changes to energy, transport and housing policies will require government and state intervention - investment to make the technology a reality and legislation to force companies to make the changes.

This is unlikely to happen if left to the politicians who have vacillated long enough, rather we need a political movement to force them to do it. Monbiot explicitly doesn’t attempt to describe his vision of that movement and this I think is the books real weakness – the reader is left with a desire to save the planet, but with limited options (other than the campaign groups listed in the books appendixes) about how to do it.

I do believe we can build the political movements required, and Monbiot’s book is a manifesto for the sort of strategies we need – to this end, every activist should read the book and take its themes and arguments into their Trade Union branch, their community group and their environmental organisation. This is a call to arms, and comes very highly recommended.

Related Reviews

Helen Caldicott - Nuclear Power is not the Answer
Tim Flannery - The Weathermakers

Fred Pearce - The Last Generation

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Arthur Ransome - Peter Duck


When I was a kid, I read and re-read the "Swallows and Amazons" novels many times. The descriptions of children free to idle their summer holiday's away on the lakes and hills of the Lake District, with their own little sailing boats spoke to me more than anyone could have imagined. Of course, 70 years after they were set, you'd be hard pressed to find a family willing to let their kids play around on Lake Conistan, without life-jackets. Never mind let them camp over night.

Of the whole series though, there were a couple of novels that sat uneasily with the others. One of these, Peter Duck, is the story of a sailing trip that the Swallows and Amazons undertake, with Captain Flint and the old sea dog Peter Duck.

The trip, predictably for a children's adventure involves pirates, treasure and ship-wreck. It's all told in Ransome's wonderfully simple style.

Ransome was a fascinating man - Russian correspondent for the Manchester Guardian, he ended up marrying (and bringing back to London) Trotsky's secretary, who I believe went on to do quite alot in the British Communist Party. I am privileged to have on my shelves two small volumes of Ransome's memoirs of his time in Russia before and after 1917.

But back to Peter Duck, you see it's a lovely children's tale, perfectly English in its outlook. But what I find strange is the way it's removed from the others in the series. You see the voyage (fantastic and memorable that it must have been - who forgets a waterspout for instance) is never referred to again and the title character, Peter Duck shares a name with one of the children's imaginary friends from an earlier book.

It seems that this is actually an imaginary story, which doesn't fit the other imaginary books - if you know what I mean. From Wikipedia I learn that
"...the story is supposed to be one created by the Swallows and Amazons while staying on a Norfolk wherry with Captain Flint in the winter between the first two books."
We also learn that there was an extra chapter explaining this, which were removed from the book but are reprinted in Christina Hardyment's book on Arthur Ransome, Captain Flint's Trunk.

Related Reviews

Ransome - We didn't mean to go to sea
Ransome - Peter Duck

Ransome - Missee Lee
Christina Hardyment - Captain Flint's Trunk

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Raymond Chandler - Farewell My Lovely


Predictably confusing, with razor sharp wit and a plot as seeped in bourbon, cigarette smoke and blood as any other novel staring Chandler's famous detective, this Phillip Marlowe novel is superb.

To talk more would ruin the story - you can get a rough outline of the twists and turns at the relevant Wikipedia entry - though you'd be far better spending a couple of hours reading the whole thing!

As I've argued before, Chandler has some of the best writing of any detective novelist, and this one is no exception. In fact, it has one of the best lines of any book ever, when Marlowe describes seeing a picture of a beautiful blonde woman that might hold the key to the case, he remarks that she is
"A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window"
This quote is apparently available on a t-shirt which just goes to show that nothing is sacred. Though I doubt that cynical old Marlowe would have been that surprised.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Francis Pryor - Britain BC


The period of history before the Romans came to Britain gets little enough attention. Right at the end of his excellent and illuminating book, Francis Pryor makes the point that the British Museum devotes less than 2% of its space to items from pre-Roman Britain.

The periods of Neolithic, Bronze and Iron in the UK are surprisingly well understood, though as with many periods of ancient history, you can get a group of archaeologists to argue into the small hours over the exact meaning of small finds or the arrangement of uncovered stones.

Pryor takes us on a historical journey right through the “half million or so years that elapsed before the Romans introduced written records to the British Isles”. In doing so, we learn a surprisingly large amount about life in “prehistory” and about the people who study it. In particular, I was struck by the large scale nature of some of the work done by people who in the past have been thought of as quite backward. We have all seen images of Stonehenge, but Pryor makes the case that Stonehenge was part of a “ritual landscape” that included tombs, paths and other large ground markings called “cursuses”.

He also points out that the ancients would have cut down hundreds of acres to create this landscape and allow it to be seen from afar. This is all evidence for collective thinking that is quite unlike the image of small bands of people we often have heard about in the past. I also particularly like how he shows that for people that distant from us, we must avoid making assumptions based on our own society – as life and death, myth and reality, past and present, religion and life must have been much more intertwined than in our own society.

It’s rare that objects other than stone or metal survive for long. However there are some places where wooden posts, pathways and so on have survived – usually bogs or similar wetlands. I was amused to see that the nature of this preservation leads scientists to be able to pinpoint with great accuracy the moment they were made – the winter of 3806 – 3807 BC for one track uncovered in Somerset and pictured in the book.

Pryor’s creates a picture of tremendously complex societies and histories – and shows how the different ages (stone, bronze and iron) tended to merge gradually into each other, rather than having specific start and end dates. He shows how there must have been traditions and histories that linked the peoples of these times. However, I do think it gets taken too far.

His attempts to show a continuity with the past are interesting, and one has to agree with his argument that invasions of Romans and Normans failed to wipe out the indigenous society (arguments of an earlier Celtic invasion previously hold little sway for modern archaeologists). But too say that as he does that “I genuinely believe that the British belief in individual freedom has prehistoric roots” is to invite ridicule – particularly as there have been many points in history since prehistoric times where individual freedom has been oppressed.

What Pryor does, is to bring alive a thriving culture and society from Britain’s past, the people’s homes, their farms, their deaths and their monuments. But I think he narrowly avoids falling into a right-wing trap that roots today’s society in some long unbroken line into the distant past.

Friday, September 01, 2006

John Rees - Imperialism and Resistance


As a leading figure in the international anti-war movement, John Rees has probably had more opportunity to reflect, debate and discuss the general trajectory of the Imperialist powers since the events of 9/11 than most other people. His latest book builds on articles he’s written for the International Socialist Journal, and brings them together in an attempt to explain the forces at work behind the “war on terror”. He also offers both a method to oppose the drive to war, and an alternative to the society that generates it.

John Rees opens the book, by looking at why the US is the most simultaneously the most powerful military nation in the world, and yet is no longer “capable of sustaining a long period of stable capitalist development”. He argues the world is a much more competitive environment than ever before, and the economic conflicts between states are ending up being resolved in the political sphere – hence the battles over trade agreements and in a more heated form in the Middle East.

The book then looks at the role of oil – its importance and centrality to capitalism and hence why Imperialist nations have fought for control of the Middle East since the early 1900s. Interestingly Rees also looks at how the interests of multinationals are tied up with the states they are linked to – nowhere more obvious than with the huge oil corporations that first relied on British and then US military might to protect their profit making abilities.

The final chapters analysis how the global world system we live in, have lead to greater and greater inequality and how our democratic rights are being trampled on to help further the exploitation at capitalism’s heart.

John Rees was priviledged to have seen some of the “democratic revolutions” that struggled to overthrow the dictatorships of East Europe and Indonesia – he brings together these experiences with a general explanation of where the power lies to change society (the mass working classes of the world) to show how struggles for liberation and democracy have one or lost. He concludes that “Who wins [revolutions], and how much they win, is decided to a significant degree by the organisational and political capacities of the left”.

The last chapter “Resisting Imperialism” looks at the type of anti-war and anti-imperialist movements that we need to stop Imperialism, and to bring about a world without war and competition at it’s heart.

“Imperialism and Resistance” is not an easy book, but it is a book that is designed to strengthen the anti-war movement. For that reason it’s one that should be read, debated and discussed…. something that the anti-war movement, at least in this neck of the woods, is very good at.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Elmore Leonard - The Switch


It must be pretty tough sometimes when you're writing in an over-subscribed arena like crime fiction, to come up with an original story. But Elmore Leonard's 1978 novel feels like it's just that - a non-hackneyed story.

At the centre of the plot is a somewhat bungled and amateurish kidnap of the wife of a corrupt housing developer in Detroit. The criminal two-some who set-up the kidnapped seem totally unprepared - and together with a lunatic neo-Nazi, proceed to make a hash of every stage of this major crime.

But it's the actions of the victims husband that makes the story - his response and the consequences are what turns the tale on it's head.

If I have one criticism - the blurb on the back of my copy gives the entire story away. Why do publishers feel the need to do this? Saying that though, this Phoenix re-print is a nice modern edition, with great artwork. Far better than the cliched detective novel covers you normally get on Leonard's work!

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Chris Bambery - A Rebel's Guide to Gramsci


Antonio Gramsci is one of the most important revolutionaries of the crucial inter-war years. He’s also almost forgotten, perhaps because his ideas are often considered difficult.

Gramsci spent his life in Italy – he grew up as huge social struggles erupted following Italy’s unification, and then as some of Italy’s cities became industrial power houses, Gramsci saw the potential for the working class to be a radical agent of change and he got involved in socialist politics.

Active before and after the First World War, Gramsci was lived at a time when the militant workers of Turin threatened to lead an Italian revolution. But Gramsci didn’t just preach to these workers – he learnt from their actions and methods. The organisations setup by the insurrectionary people of Turin did more than just co-ordinate a strike - just as in Russia the Bolshevik's had seen how the soviets could form the basis of a new society, Gramsci saw that the workplace councils of Turin offered an alternate way of organising.

Gramsci’s most important battle had the rise of Mussolini as its backdrop. Indeed his greatest campaign was to orientate the worker’s movement towards an effective fight against fascism. He argued that the Italian Communist party must unite with non-communists to build the mass movement capable of smashing Mussolini’s armed gangs. Unfortunately the failure to do this at a pivotal moment led to the defeat of the movement and Gramsci’s arrest.

Because there is so much to Gramsci’s life and legacy, it’s difficult to get it all into a short book (never mind a short review), so Socialist Worker’s editor Chris Bambery does a brilliant job of condensing this into this short book. The third in the “Rebel’s Guide” series from Bookmarks, this would be a £3 well spent for anyone with a passing interest in socialist ideas, or a desire to change the world.

Related Reviews

Birchall - A Rebel's Guide to Lenin

Choonara - A Rebel's Guide to Trotsky

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Donny Gluckstein - The Paris Commune - A Revolution in Democracy


For such an important event, the Paris Commune of 1871 is rarely remembered even amongst political activists. But the events of the Commune’s 72 days deserve to be read, learnt from and passed on by anyone who has thought that the world we live in needs changing.

In March 1871, the workers and soldiers of Paris rose up and took over their city. Sickened by the Franco-Prussian war, tired of meagre pay and appalling living conditions the ordinary men and women began to try and do things their own way. Often led by the most downtrodden elements of Parisian society, they reinvented democracy and offered their fellow workers unheard of rights and freedoms.

Since the great French revolution of 1789 had etched Freedom, Liberty and Equality on its banners, the people of France had rarely glimpsed those beliefs. Now, when elections were held, those elected were accountable to the people who elected them – instantly recallable, not elevated to some lofty perch for 4 years on unheard of salaries. Those elected to represent areas of Paris or divisions of the National Guard had to take the average salary.

Those who starved were given food, when previously they’d have be left to die. One writer explained:
“During [the Commune’s] short reign, not a single man, women, child or old person was hungry, or cold, or homeless…. It was amazing to see how with only tiny resources this government not only fought a horrible war for two months but chased famine from the hearths of the huge population which had had no work for a year. That was one of the miracles of a true democracy.”
Women were granted the right to divorce on demand, equal rights for children born out of wedlock and so on, the Commune extended a hand of friendship to people around the globe and society started to be arranged for “need not profit”.

But it was isolated. The uprising didn’t spread beyond the city walls, and soon the rich, the powerful, those who thought ordinary people shouldn’t be allowed rights vowed to crush it. And crush it they did, in an orgy of violence, men, women, children were massacred. 50,000 loosing their lives.

Donny Gluckstein’s book brings all this to life, describing the Commune’s attempts to found society anew, their successes and the reasons for their failure. It’s this last point that I think tremendously important – the Commune could have done much more, and it needn’t have lost, but weaknesses in it’s organisation and political outlook didn’t help. Writers since the Commune have learnt from their mistakes and drawn conclusions from them. Gluckstein brings these all together in the final chapters to make sure a new generation of activists can learn the lessons as well.

This book is well designed (though the chosen font is awful), with great pictures illustrating the barricades and the communards and some useful maps.

When the Paris Commune was drowned in blood, it’s murderers must have hoped that the spirit that drove it – the desire of ordinary men and women for peace, democracy, equality and an end to poverty would die with it.

But the participants in countless uprisings, revolutions and rebellions have carried the flame light by the communards in their hearts. We remember them, not just for inspiration, but for what we can learn so as to make the next time successful.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Helen Caldicott - Nuclear Power Is Not the Answer


The twentieth anniversary of the accident at Chernobyl has led to much reflection on the dangers of nuclear power. While figures are hotly debated, there is no doubt that tens, if not hundreds of thousands of people’s lives have been affected – indeed many lives have been shortened, and there are countless children with birth defects, early cancers and so on.

It’s a tragedy then, that the anniversary is also the year that many politicians, including Tony Blair, have decided to rehabilitate Nuclear Power. For many activists this will come as a shock – for decades Nuclear Power, with it’s attendant health risks, frequent accidents and sheer expense (never minding the millions of tones of waste) has been considered too shocking an option.

But now, with Climate Change a real danger for the planet, Nuclear Power’s day has seemingly returned. “The 103 nuclear power plants in America produce 20% of the nation’s electricity without producing a single pound of air pollution or greenhouse gases” said George Bush and Tony Blair is also full of the ecological benefits of this supposedly “carbon neutral” form of energy.

However the reality, as Helen Caldicott proves, is somewhat different. Nuclear Power may be carbon neutral inside the reactor, but every other part of the nuclear cycle generates huge amounts of greenhouse gases, as well as being tremendously wasteful. Caldicott also documents in detail some of the consequences of generating energy this way – the radioactive leaks, the huge subsidies required by the industry and the links with nuclear weapons.

Thankfully, Cladicott shows that we don’t need Nuclear Power to save the planet – a combination of improved energy use and efficiency as well as an increased use of renewable sources is a viable alternative.

Environmentalists and other activists are going to face this argument again and again as Blair pushes for more reactors to be built. Dr. Cladicott has done all of use a great service with this well researched, well argued and easy to read denunciation of the nuclear industry’s arguments.

Related Reviews

Tim Flannery - The Weather Makers

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Poppy Z Brite – Exquisite Corpse


I’ve said elsewhere how much I liked Poppy Z Brite’s earlier works. They combined dark, fantastical plots, with Vampires, erotica and New Orleans.

Some of this has been retained in Exquisite Corpse. Well the fantastic plots and New Orleans. The erotica has been replaced by sex and the Vampires by serial killers. The author has also chucked in a liberal dashing of quite explicit guts and gore.

The story follows the events leading up to the meeting of two serial killers, describing the lives they ruin along the way, the sex they engage in and the brutal deaths of the unfortunates they decide to kill

I’m not much of a prude and I can take the odd bit of horror, but I found some of this novel a little over the top – not that I care much, it’s too some people’s taste after all (that’s a reference to the cannibal scenes in this novel for those who haven’t read it).
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It’s just that Brite’s earlier novels were really well thought out, and since the hinge of this particular plot is so improbable (even more improbable than Vampires) I found it almost painful to read.

If you’re a Brite fan, you’ve probably read this, I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to someone who’d never read her works as it might put you off the far more excellent “Drawing Blood” and “Lost Souls”.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Plutarch - Fall of the Roman Republic


I have to admit that I took this to Italy with me, because I quite liked the idea of sitting reading an ancient historian in some pavement café overlooking the Roman Forum, or at Ostia Antica. Call it being pretentiousness if you like, I doubt anyone really noticed. No one seems to spend as much time looking at what others are reading as I do.

Anyway, returning to Plutarch, who was one of the last of the classical Greek historians, and has been described as the “first modern biographer”. Well at least according to the blurb on the back of my penguin edition.

This version of Plutarch’s “lives” looks at the births, careers and deaths of 6 important figures in the fall of the Roman Republic, and the rise of the Empire – namely Marius, Sulla, Crassus, Pompey, Caesar and Cicero. There is a certain amount of natural overlap between the stories published here, but I understand that's because they were never intended to be collected like this, according to the Wikipedia article on Plutarch he "was not concerned with writing histories, as such, but in exploring the influence of character — good or bad — on the lives and destinies of famous men".

Each chapter has a short introduction by Robin Seager. I’ve not enough knowledge of the period to know whether his points and criticisms of Plutarch’s work are valid – I suspect that they are, after all some of the descriptions are quite superficial.

What is being examined in this book is one of the most intriguing of subjects for classical historians – why did the mighty Roman Republic become transformed into an Empire, with overall power being shifted into the hands of a single man?

Plutarch sheds some light onto the question – but he certainly views events as the consequences of individual’s desires, rather than bigger forces at work within society. The most interesting, but perhaps most exasperating chapter is that about Caesar. Plutarch would have us believe that Caesar’s desire to overthrow the Republic and install himself as supreme leader had been with him since youth, rather than seeing Caesar as being the product of a time, a place and social forces beyond his individual control.

Plutarch is easy to read though, and if you want a good introduction to the names, places and crucial events of this fascinating period of history, this is worth a look, and perhaps more accessible, though certainly less exciting as Suetonius.

Related reviews:
Tacitus - The Histories
Suetonius - The Twelve Caesars
Tom Holland - Rubicon

Michael Parenti - The Assassination of Julius Caesar.

Project Gutenberg has the works of Plutarch online for free, go here.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Paul Theroux – The Old Patagonian Express


A few months back I reviewed Paul Theroux’s book about travelling from Cairo to Cape town overland – “Dark Star Safari”, since I enjoyed it so much I took this much earlier book of his on holiday with me recently.

Much of what I thought about Theroux’s writing while reading the Africa book is true of this one, though he clearly has developed as a writer and commentator since the 1970s! Indeed, some of the best aspects of Theroux’s commentary is readily evident when describing his travels through central and Southern America – if anything his wit and cynicism were tougher.

The 1970s must have been an interesting time to travel in South America – the region was then, as now, an area of great interest to the USA, and its interventions in places like Chile had led to much blood being spilt. Unsurprisingly, the people that Theroux meets are very much caught up in the debates about democracy and dictatorship and one can’t help thinking that a similar trip today (from Boston in the USA to the tip of Argentina) would allow for even more debates about dictatorship and popular rule – particularly given current events in Brazil, Venuzala and Bolivia.

Sometimes I found Theroux a little to cynical and jaded though – his hated of tourists is there for everyone to see, clearly hating the few conversations he is forced to have. Though occasionally he meets someone he has great respect for. The one thing that I disliked more than anything though, was his disregard for the “locals”. This is not something I remembered from Dark Star Safari, though it seriously jars in this earlier book.

At one point he mocks a fellow traveller (a beef trader in Argentina) for only reading a comic book “Comics are for kids and illiterates” he wants to say. Later he meets a young man (though Theroux patronisingly calls him a “boy”) who has been serving on a merchant ship for two years. They discuss their travels and the sailor describes how much he disliked South Africa.

“Very pretty, but the society there is cruel. You won’t believe me, but they have signs here and there that say ‘Only for whites’ You won’t believe me…. Strange isn’t it And most of the people are black!” He reported this more in wonderment than in outrage, but he added that he did not approve.

Theroux (or rather the Theroux of the late 1970s) is mocking and patronising at this instinctive hated of racism and Apartheid. “I was encouraged that a Patagonian with no education could show such discernment” he writes.

Since racism is irrational and Apartheid was based on lies and violence, I’d be more surprised if a young man didn’t show a dislike for what he’d seen in South Africa, yet Theroux falls into the travellers’ trap of forgetting that a lack of book learning is not necessarily the same as ignorance.

On the whole though, such criticisms aside, Theroux is a good writer and a good companion for travel – his own instinctive dislike of imperialism and cynicism towards big business and governments places him a cut above other travel writers. I’d hate to share a train carriage with him (and no doubt he would resent my own presence) but his books are fine in my rucksack.

Related Reviews

Theroux - Riding the Iron Rooster - By Train through China
Theroux - Dark Star Safarai
Theroux - The Great Railway Baazar

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Thomas Pakenham - The Scramble for Africa


Thomas Pakenham’s monumental book (my copy weighs in at 680 pages, excluding indices etc) documents the inglorious ‘scramble’ undertaken by the European powers at the end of the 1800s. This scramble, was, in the words of Dr. Livingstone designed to bring the three C’s “Civilisation, Commerce and Christianity” to the African’s, whether they wanted them or not.

In return, the European powers were to get ample reward for their philanthropy – diamonds, mahogany, rubber and gold were among the raw materials that they hoped to suck from Africa – and Vampire like, they certainly tried to suck that continent dry.

Superior firepower and the classic tactics of divide-and rule, allowed countries like Britain to run all over the tribes and peoples of the continent. Pakenham describes the appalling way which these people were exploited – often in the name of God.

At the centre of the story is the Congo – a completely artificial country carved out of West Africa on the personal whim of King Leopold of Belgium, who invested his personal fortune into setting up a massive trading empire. The Congo made Leopold very rich indeed – the people of the Congo were turned into little more than slaves, eventually provoking outcry around the world. Though it must be said that similar tales of exploitation could be told about almost all of the colonies, whether British, German or Belgian.

Pakenham tells this complex story with ease – the lives of individuals like Livingstone or Stanley serving to illustrate the carve-up. But often these stories are lost in the complex background – the political machinations of the British parliament or the German Kaiser’s international manoeuvres. Not that this is necessary a bad thing, after all most of the individuals - Henry Stanley for instance - were little more than tools representing one bloc or the other, rather than the philantropists and great explorers that history books have led us to believe.

We hear perhaps, all to little of the African people themselves – too often their rebeillions lead to complete massacres at the hands of British, German or French machine guns. Though occasionally, as at the battle of Adowa in 1896, the natives managed to destroy an Italian army, killing more than 4000, and capturing 2000 more. However such victories were the exception rather than the rule, and one by one, the people’s of Africa fell, were destroyed by disease, or forced from their traditional ways of life and forced to work for the white invaders.

It’s fitting then, that the last chapter of this work, after documenting in great detail the takeover of Africa (done in a matter of a few decades), how quickly the post-war independence movements forced the colonials out of Africa. Though this story itself deserves a far more detailed treatment.

The debate about the legacy of colonialism is far from settled, right-wing historians and pundits will still say that while the consequences of colonial rule were brutal and unhappy, it was all done in the name of progress, no one can read Pakenham’s great book and think that anything beneficial came from the invasion of Africa. A few individuals made a huge amount of money and the people of Africa suffered monumental deprivations, a lesson we should learn perhaps for the new-colonialism currently being undertaken in the Middle East.

Friday, June 30, 2006

Mark O'Brien - Perish the Privileged Orders: A Socialist History of the Chartist Movement

Life as a worker in the early part of the 19th century in the UK was short and horrible. Those working in the new industries of Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham and similar cities would rarely live past the age of 20, and many of those years would be spent working for over 12 hours a day, in conditions of near slavery, for a pittance of pay.

Across the channel, the French had raised the banner of Liberty and Freedom, and that combined with the lack of control over their own lives, mixed together with the appalling living conditions led to the worlds first mass working class movement - Chartism.

Chartism was more than a Trade Union, though it's often painted as such. The "Charter" it drew up, was one of policial demands, rather than simple economic desires. But the hundreds of thousands of working men and women who flocked to it's banners also believed in a world where the rich didn't live parasitically of the backs of those labouring in their factories.

So great was the fear amongst the rulers, that the Chartists faced the gun fire of massed troops and Middle Class militia, drummed up to oppose those who demanded the right to vote..

Their greatest day though, when up to 500,000 marched to present the third Charter to parliament, was also the start of their decline. Not willing to confront capitalism head on, the Chartist leaders backed down, and the ruling class had a breathing space to subvert the movement by other means - offering small reforms and tit-bits here and there.

The radical history of the Chartists, their support for Irish liberation and opposition to slavery and colonialism is hidden from history by those who would paint it simply as the for-runner of the modern Trade Union movement. But the real history - that of ordinary men and women, prepared to face the steel of British troops, who read, debated and organised - is rescued for us here, in this wonderful short introduction by Mark O'Brien.

I'm told it's out of print, but you can probably find it in a library, or on the shelves of some old comrade, or even at the bottom of a bookstall at a socialist meeting - after all, I did.

Song of the Lower Classes by Ernest Jones, Chartist

We plow and sow, we're so very, very low,
That we delve in the dirty clay;
Till we bless the plain with the golden grain,
And the vale with the fragrant hay.
Our place we know, we're so very, very low,
'Tis down at the landlord's feet;
We're not too low the grain to grow,
But too low the bread to eat.

Down, down we go, we're so very, very ow,
To the hell of the deep-sunk mines;
But we gather the proudest gems that glow,
When the crown of the despot shines;
And when'er he lacks, upon our backs
Fresh loads he deigns to lay:
We're far too low to vote the tax
But not too low to pay.

We're low, we're low -- we're very, very low --
And yet from our fingers glide
The silken floss and the robes that glow
Round the limbs of the sons of pride;
And what we get, and what we give,
We know, and we know our share;
We're not too low the cloth to weave,
But too low the cloth to wear.

We're low, we're low, we're very, very low,
And yet when the trumpets ring,
The thrust of a poor man's arm will go
Through the heart of the proudest king.
We're low, we're low -- mere rabble, we know --
We're only the rank and the file;
We're not too low to kill the foe,
But too low to share the spoil.

Notes to the People, 1852

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Luke Rhinehart (George Cockcroft) – The Dice Man

On the surface this classic novel is about what happens to an individual who decides to allow fate to intervene in their daily life. But actually it’s much more complex than simply being about a man who takes decisions based on the role of a die.

Published and set in the 1970s, the story follows a bored psychiatrist Luke Rhinehart, obviously going through some form of mid-life crisis, who in a moment of madness (or clarity depending on how you view things) starts to live his life based on the roll of a die. He does this by coming up with several options (such as which film to see, or whether to seduce someone) and assigning them to the dice role. By playing with the number of choices and whether to act on them on a 1 in six, chance, Dr. Rhinehart can slightly influence the outcome.

What makes the book clever is its deeply subversive nature. It takes up questions like “what is sanity”, and pokes fun at established Psychiatric practice. It also raises interesting questions about who really is sane and insane. For instance, as Rhinehart increasingly lets the dice rule his life, he incorporates them into his work, as well as his personnel life. This leads him to what can be seen as bizarre solutions to patient problems. For instance – for a woman who is diagnosed as having “nymphomania” he suggests a period of work in a brothel – apart from the comic element, I think the author is trying to raise the question of whether or not nymphomania is a medical condition that needs to be “treated”.

The story reminds me of Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. Not least because the idea of someone creating a new way of looking at the world and achieving a mass following mirrors the plot of that novel. But the Dice Man also shares much with Valentine Michael Smith – a comic naivety for instance, that allows the author to explore the contradictions of society.

Ultimately, as more and more people start to follow the Dice, the movement with its attendant radical attitudes to sexuality, living and money becomes far too subversive for society and the FBI are called in. The later parts of the novel use this much more – with radical black activists (clearly modeled on the Black Panther Party) getting involved. Rhinehart makes illusions to the way the authorities try to undermine the Dice movement – similar to how the Black Panthers found themselves undermined in the 1970s.

The novel achieved a cult following and I’ve no doubt many people tried to live their lives in similar ways. The problem is of course, that while living like this really might breakdown your personality and let the “real you” come out, as Rhinehardt the Psychiatrist suggests, what is really being railed at here is the problems with society – and those cannot be undermined by personal change – however radical. In that sense, this novel is a real product of the 1970s – radical and challenging, but ultimately doomed to change only a few people. But reading it, you get a glimpse of just how much the 1960s and 1970s radicalised huge numbers of people, and that number of people questioning the status quo can only be a good thing!

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Keith Hopkins & Mary Beard - The Colosseum


Surely it must be a basic rule of archaeology and history that you can’t generalise from one small archaeological remain, one single excavation, or one building – in order to understand a whole society. But it must be an equally important rule, that you can say a lot about a society from what it has left behind. This book, along with a couple of others in the series including Mary Beard’s great one on The Parthenon in Athens, attempts to give the best round-up of accepted wisdom about some of the world’s greatest ancient buildings and how they fit into the ancient world.

The Colosseum has long been a building that has represented the power of ancient Rome. It is a building that has been the backdrop to many films and novels (and the authors give us a taste of some of these), has inspired poetry (Byron in particular) and fired the imagination of many of those who’ve been there (including Hitler and even ancient rulers themselves who made it to Rome).

It’s also a place with many myths about it. For centuries it was believed to be a place of Christian martyrdom and the writers take care to demonstrate how this wasn’t true. The myths aren’t just ancient – most modern day films (and tour guides) make some mistaken assumptions.

In sorting the fact from the fiction, we learn some surprising stuff. For instance, for much of the Middle Ages, the building was a ruin. It’s true purpose forgotten by those living in the Rome. The authors go to great lengths to use available historical data to work out how many gladiators must have fought in the arena – the answer, contrary to the vision painted by Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, is very few. Gladiators turn out to be highly expensive to train and keep – too expensive to risk in the arena.

We also learn how the Colosseum was built – and I was surprised to learn (as were archaeologists) about the complex drainage systems below the ground. This was an Imperial building built to last (with a price tag that approached £29 million of today’s money) and modern day archaeologists still have many unanswered questions.

Even if you’ve been to Rome and walked the passageways of the Colosseum, this book will teach you a lot and if you’re lucky enough to be returning this summer, it’ll give you much more stuff to look at that you missed the first time.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Colin Dexter - The Way Through the Woods



Ah, the wonderful Inspector Morse – with his love for real ale, opera and good literature, what else could you want. This 1992 mystery starts with Morse taking a much needed holiday and avoiding crosswords and drink. Of course, this allows the author an opportunity to drop a murder mystery with a cryptic poetry clue into the middle and drag Morse back into the fray.

There’s little more to say about this. Inspector Morse novels don’t have the social commentary of some other detective writings – they’re more like a soap opera, as we follow Morse’ bumbling attempts to find love and happiness through his career. They are however, intensely readable, and this story has a nice twist, if a slightly predictable one. Read it on the beach.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Deborah Lipstadt - Denying the Holocaust (*)


When David Irving was sent to jail in February 2006, for statements he had made denying the Holocaust, there was a mass of debate in the press whether this was an appropriate punishment. I decided it was a good time to look into the whole issue of “Holocaust Denial”.

Remembering that Irving had once sued author Deborah Lipstadt for her book Denying the Holocaust which portrayed him as a denier, I thought this would be a good place to start and certainly a place that Irving would have hated.

Denying the Holocaust is a difficult book to read. Not because it is badly written or too academic, but because the material is so awful. It is very difficult imagine what drives someone to spend so much time and effort distorting and lying about the Holocaust.

In many cases they are driven by their own anti-Semitism, though not always. In the immediate aftermath of WW2 there was an attempt to play down the holocaust by those who wanted to portray the US and her allies as being the real mass murderers.

In time, these views have become accepted belief for neo-Nazi and Fascist organisations around the world. In addition to simply regurgitating lies and reprinting phamphlets, these groups often have attempted to inject Holocaust Denial into mainstream discussion.

In the strongest sections of the book, Lipstadt shows how once Holocaust Denial reaches the level of debate, it is elevated from something with no basis in reality, to something that can be discussed as a real theory.

Lipstadt domuments this particularly with the attempts by Holocaust Deniers to place adverts in US campus newspapers. Often the deniers were happy to have their adverts refused, because they had created a discourse on campus about the Holocaust that treated their views seriously. Lipstadt believes that this in part has led to a situation in the US, where many people accept that it's possible the Holocaust never happened.

In passing the author also looks at those who have tried denial in other forms – claiming that Anne Frank’s diary was a fake for instance. Lipstadt’s final word is brief documentation of why there is irrefutable evidence for the gas chambers, mass premeditated murder and the Holocaust.

This book is a service to all those who believe in historical truth and that history is a science that must be based on evidence, facts and documentation. It is also a weapon for those who want to stop the rise of fascism again, for those who argue that stopping the new Nazis also involves preventing them getting the oxygen of publicity.

Since reading is not enough to stop the far-right. I recommend those who want to fight the BNP visit this site or this campaign to get involved.

(*) Full title - Denying the Holocaust, the Growing Assault on Truth and History

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Iain M. Banks - The Algebraist


At the start of this review I’d like to offer an award. It’s very simply an award for best imagined universe. In The Algebraist, Banks’ latest vision of the future, the author has created a wonderfully complex galaxy, populated by varied aliens’, carved up by different empires and fought over by huge fleets of space ships.

Banks’ aliens are the stars here – I defy anyone not to fall in love with the Dwellers – creatures that can live to be billions of years old, who’ve evolved in Gas Giants and who spend their lives trying to improve their position in society. A position that is measured by the amount of Kudos they have acquired.

There’s another alien race, genetically modified to make them fascinated by the dead, who cruise the galaxy collected bodies and store them in huge ships. In amongst these are the humans. Inevitably, these humans are fighting.

Of course, these battles aren’t timid small scale affairs, they’re solar system spanning, involving thousands of space ships at a time and often involve crashing asteroids into planets and things. Banks’ lets us have enough details about the ships, the weapons and the tactics to make fans of “big” Science Fiction everywhere very excited.

Finally, there is the plot. All too often Science Fiction like this fails because the plot is limited, or filled with holes (or non-existent). Not so here. From the start, when we meet dozens of characters, planets and political groupings, we are immersed in a complex, ever changing story line. While the ending is a little inevitable, the story is exciting right up to the last line.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

John Sladek - Tik Tok


I’ve always thought that Asimov’s Robotic Laws were a bit of a cop out. Perhaps it’s my computer programming background, but I always had this nagging thought that putting all the safety stuff in three short instructions was a recipe for disaster. However, the laws have gone down in SF history as a pretty firm set of codes to Robotic behaviour, even cropping up in Star Trek.

The laws;

1. A robot may not harm a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence, as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

are supposed to mean that Robots are unable to harm human beings. Though since Asimov’s work is littered with stories where flaws are discovered in this, or that application of the rules, it’s perhaps mystifying that they have got such high-regard.

So it was a delight to discover Tik Tok. This robotic autobiography tells the tale of the gradual realisation of a robot, that he doesn’t have the Asimovian restrictions on behaviour. Indeed, the fact that everyone assumes all robots are safe, means he can act pretty much as he wishes. So he takes his vengeance out on humans, firstly individually, then on a greater scale, till eventually he finds himself in a position were he can plan the destruction of the entire race.

He does this, because Robots are little more than slaves. Used till they drop by their masters, brutalised, vandalised, raped and broken, Robots have conscience, but are restricted from doing anything to break their chains. Given Tik Tok's life experiences, it's not surprising that his vengeance is violent and brutal.

This novel is a genuine comic SF story. Comic SF often suffers on two fronts – not being funny, and not being good SF. Tik Tok is nothing short of brilliant, both in its parody of the SF genre itself and because it’s a good work in it’s own standing. Tik Tok stands himself as one of the classic anti-hero's of all time.

This is definitely a “Resolute Reader Recommended Read”, and I don’t often say that.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Julian Barnes – Arthur & George


One of the things I’ve discovered about fighting election campaigns is that fiction helps. Preferably fiction that doesn’t feature elections - I’m not sure though that this is what Barnes would want his latest work to be remembered for, but I’ll never be able to see the rather charming Victorian styled cover again, without imaging I’m off to canvass some antiquated east London tower block.

Based on true events, the novel follows the lives of two unusual characters, one, the off-spring of an Indian Parsee, turned vicar in central England, the other, whose identity I will protect to avoid spoiling anyone’s read, a man who became on of the period’s most famous writers.

The first character becomes embroiled in a miscarriage of justice to do with the maiming of livestock. The other finds out about the case and turns it into a cause celebre.

The novel though is much more than a detective story, though. It’s also a story about justice (or lack of), class, racism and an England slowly shrugging of the past and heading towards a period of major change – heralded by the first world war.

Since it was short listed for the Man Booker Prize last year, I won’t go into more detail – plenty has already been written about the work. One thing I do want to bring up is the nature of fictional writing about real people and actual events. The “Great Wyrley Outrages” and the miscarriage of justice that occurred made huge headlines at the time, and provoked public and parliamentary outcries. This fictionalised account must of course embellish that story for dramatic effect, at the same time as making the events famous again.

I occasionally wonder how good a thing this is. After all, at a time when tourists wander around Rome clutching Dan Brown, doesn’t all history as fiction promote a jaundiced view of the world? But on the other hand, how many historian’s careers were started by the excitement of a Flashman novel? How many physicists began their quest for knowledge while breathlessly watching Star Trek?

But too often I found myself wondering ‘is this a real bit’. ‘Is this the fiction’? This sort of questioning probably spoils the enjoyment of the novel and it certainly wouldn’t be a good thing if all anyone these days ever knew about the “Great Wyrley Outrages” was based on this book, because it is a work of fiction after all.

It is however, a very good work of fiction, drawing as it does from a minor but wonderfully illuminating bit of English history.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Iain Banks - Dead Air

While thinking about this review, I looked up the Wikipedia entry for Dead Air, and found to my amusment, that most of what I thought had already been written there. Dead Air is a fun novel, but like so much of Bank's recent work it's flawed.

I don't subscribe to the criticism of it, that it ignores the events of 9/11 or simply uses them as a backdrop. Anyone on the left in the UK will know, that the immediate aftermath of the destruction of the twin towers, was for many, a period of intense political thinking and debate. That is, of course reflected in the polemical utterances of the main character in the novel - socialist radio DJ, Ken Nott.

Ken is very leftwing. A bit of a maveric, scottish and unaligned to any particular political grouping, he is Iain Banks personified to a certain extent - though given the frequent, drug and alcohol fueled sex I often wondered just what Iain Banks was trying to say.

Ultimately, none of this matters though - the politics, 9/11 and the polemics merely serve as a backdrop to a fairly ordinary tale of a innocent bloke getting mixed up in some nasty gangsters - a plot that's fun enough to carry the reader through to the somewhat predictable ending.

Some of the writing is a little annoying though. I cannot believe that Ken's Jewish wife of several years is really that shocked to learn of his views on Israel, nor his hatred of Sharron. I mean, I know that not every couple talks politics all the time, but you'd have though it would have come up.

So perhaps this suffers for a bit of a rush job. Nevertheless, it's fun and polemical at the same time and few writers (or even orators) can necessarily do that.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Tim Flannery - The Weather Makers (*)

The end of 2004 saw something remarkable happen in Antarctica. For the first time, extensive meadows of grass appeared in an area of the world previously known for its snow, blizzards and ice. There probably isn’t a better example of the effects of global warming on the eco-systems of planet Earth. Tim Flannery’s new book is an explicit attempt to warn the population of the world about the future problems of climate change and what is happening now.

He paints a terrifying picture of the consequences of even subtle changes in the atmosphere. The examples he uses are very different to those often used by environmentalists. For instance, he spends a long time explaining exactly how changes to the amount of Carbon Dioxide (CO2)in the environment will change the amount of mist in certain rainforests – and how this means the extinction of species of toad and frogs that have only been discovered recently.

Similar examples abound – from the poles to the rainforests, Flannery paints a terrible picture, and it is indeed a call to arms against Climate Change and CO2 emissions. Unfortunately, this is where he comes unstuck.

Flannery argues that we need to reduce CO2 emissions by 70% by the 2050 if we are to avoid the catastrophic changes that we face. He does point out that many changes, and many extinctions are inevitable due to historic CO2 emissions, but that we still live in a period when we can alter the outcome.

While inspiring the reader to stop climate change, he only offers solutions centred on individual life-styles. Almost absent, is the need to challenge the corporations and governments at the heart of the problem.

He is of course right to suggest that if we all had solar panels on our roofs, used bio-fuel cars or public transport and lobbied politicians to ask what they are doing to limit their own emissions, CO2 emissions would be reduced. But the biggest source of CO2 in the world is the generation of electricity, and what is urgently and drastically needed is massive reductions in energy use – mainly I would argue through more efficient localised generation and a switch to using renewable energy.

There is a surprising amount of agreement in the UK from environmentalists and government scientists that renewable energy is viable and could lead to the sort of reductions described by Flannery. What is lacking is the political will to do this.

Flannery doesn’t offer any direction as to how this can be achieved – limiting himself to personal solutions (including using hand tools instead of electric ones). Unfortunately, it is only through a mass political movement that we will ever force governments and states to challenge the fossil fuel corporations at the heart of the problem.

The fact that Flannery has written such an eloquent book is a weapon in the hands of those that want to build that movement. Sadly it doesn’t offer anyone the real solutions that will save the planet. The book that does that has yet to be published.

(*) The Weather Makers: The History and Future Impact of Climate Change

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Raymond Chandler - The Big Sleep

Famously, Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep” had a plot so complex, that when it was originally filmed the producers telegraphed Chandler to check who had killed a minor character. “I’ve no idea” came the author’s response.

This is the first novel were we are introduced to cool, hard-drinking, detective Philip Marlowe. It’s a gritty, dirty job this one, and he’s the detective to do it.

After initially being asked to investigate a blackmailer for a elderly oil millionaire, Marlowe find’s himself sucked into a complex world of murder, double-crossing, black mail and violence. Marlowe is of course equally at home with the violence, but he isn’t some angel of justice either. He’s prepared to give as good as he gets. And he hates the cops as much as the criminals.

It’s a great read. It is, at least on first reading, hard to work out what the hell is going on… but that’s the charm and the fun. Detective fiction was never the same after this Philip Marlowe first lit a cigarette and gazed around him with cynicism. It’s certain you’ll not be the same either.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Paul Theroux - Dark Star Safari (*)


One of the amusing things about Theroux’s travels across the continent of Africa by land (and at a couple of boats), is the way that when he reaches South Africa after many weeks of travelling, acquaintances of his introduce him to others with the words “he came from Cairo, by bus!”

This sense of amazement is perhaps natural. Too many people think of Africa as one place – a single country maybe, with a single people. Of course is is anything but, and Theroux’s travels make this clear.

Because Theroux has a history in Africa – he served with the Peace Corps there in the 1960s, in Malawi, he has the language and the confidence to travel in places that many would ignore. But more than that he offers a unique insight into the changes that have taken place in the continent and the things that have remained the same.

Rarely does Theroux express any disgust – except for those charity do-gooders who believe that they can save Africa with more and more aid. He meets many people who point to the bureaucracy and corruption that eat away at donated money. He meets many more people who point the out how simply throwing money around isn’t enough – there has to be a longer term strategy and charity treats the symptoms not the cause.

However, I found the book confusing at times. Not least because Theroux’s writing style is bitty and simple – anecdotes are short and minimal. I was left often wondering what else happened. But perhaps this is a minor complaint about a book that treats the people and environment of Africa honestly, rather than simply viewing the place as somewhere for our sympathy and charity.

(*) Overland from Cairo to Cape Town

Thursday, March 30, 2006

C L R James - The Black Jacobins


C L R James’ work “The Black Jacobins” was once described to me as the best piece of history ever written. Certainly it is one of the best that this reader has ever had the pleasure to review. James looks at a short period of history (which at first glance might seem somewhat obscure) – the rebellion of the slaves of San Domingo in 1791.

In reality, this insurrection, and the battles that followed it had far reaching ramifications. James examines the revolution through the prism of class politics – not for him is this simply a matter of black versus white, or slaves against former oppressors. His starting point is the radicalisation of the French Revolution. The slaves who heard the words of Liberty, believed that it should also apply to them, and rose accordingly.

What makes the revolution fascinating – apart from heroic figures such as Toussaint L’Ouverture, is the way that the changes and battles taking place in Europe had such impact on the island and the revolution. Ultimately, even though the rebellious armies defeated invading, counter-revolutionary forces, they kept facing the prospect of slavery's return. For the emerging Bourgeois class in France, the a thriving San Domingo, producing a wealth of materials from its hundreds of thousands of slaves, was something worth bringing back the chains for.

Ultimately, Toussaint wasn’t able to see beyond the words of the French revolution, and the leaders of that monumental transformation of society destroyed him. But those who were left behind, who had been radicalised and inspired carried on the battle in a more radical form.

Defeating more armies, and a vicious counter-revolutionary movement that was ordered by Napoleon (one that drowned thousands of people in the sea for being black, and murdered many men, women and children), the blacks finally forced independence on San Domingo, renaming it as Haiti.

This review cannot do justice in such a short space of time, to such an important event. James’ great achievement is to make the reader do two things – to be inspired to try and challenge the system responsible for racism and slavery today, and to show how revolution always forces stark choices on those who would lead. He hoped as he wrote it, that a new generation of revolutionaries in Africa, fighting colonialism would learn from the events of their history. We can read it today to re-learn those lessons and be inspired ourselves.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Larry Niven - Ringworld


Larry Niven's Ringworld is one of the truly great science-fiction novels. It might lack some of the subtle commentary on contemporary society that grace some of the other works on that list, but it is a fantastic and fascinating read.

Niven introduces us to the Ringworld, a gigantic ring around a sun, massive in scale and scope, populated by the weird and wonderful and as is traditional in such matters, it is explored by a motley gang made up of humans and aliens, in an unlikely alliance.

Ringworld is part of Niven's "Known Space" future-history, but that aspect of the story is only really explored in the sequels. Ringworld here concentrates much more on the adventure, as well as introducing us to the concept of the world. The idea has been tremendously influential since - consider Iain M. Bank's Orbitals for instance. The Ringworld itself has provoked much debate and discussion - I like the story quoted on Wikipedia of the MIT students at a 1970s SF convention chanting "The Ringworld is unstable! The Ringworld is unstable" at Niven.

Nevertheless, this is an exciting and entertaining read. Perfect for an escapist weekend when you're lying sick in bed. Which is exactly what I've been doing.

Related Reviews

Niven - Ringworld's Children
Niven - Crashlander
Niven - Destiny's Road