Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Eugene Linden - The Winds of Change: Climate, Weather, and the Destruction of Civilizations


Just how civilizations have been altered by the climate is something that scientists, historians and archaeologists are happy to debate to a great extent. There is no doubt however, that climate (or rather changes in climate) has had a tremendous effect on the development (or retardation) of various historical societies.

Eugene Linden has summarized these discussions remarkably well. In particular, Linden has produced a useful account of just how the earth’s climate works – how air circulates in the atmosphere above us, how the great oceanic currents bring warmer water to parts of the North Atlantic, and cold water elsewhere, altering local temperatures. He paints a complex picture of an intricate system, where minor changes in on area can have dramatic consequences elsewhere.

Linden also tells us the story of the study of climate – in particular how modern scientists determine how the climate was in past ages. We meet the men and women who study ice cores from the Arctic, looking at the makeup of bubbles trapped in the ice from centuries ago.

This then would be a fairly useful introduction to the study of historic effects of climate. However it suffers very much from bad editing and overbearing writing. While this is minor, it’s really annoying in places – often for instance, Linden uses acronyms that aren’t immediately explained. Sometimes he makes the same point twice (as when he mentions the launching of an underwater measuring robot, shaped like a torpedo – he jokes twice on the same page that it was done on September 11th).

Additionally, I occasionally felt that the writer was trying to hard – for instance “milquetoast” is a word that is rare even in its native America. It certainly makes the writer sound pompous, when he really wants to be accessible and readable.

There are a couple of little errors in the science too, which are annoying in the context of a popular science book. The Maunder Minimum was not the “coldest period” of the Little Ice Age, a time of “dramatically reduced sunspot activity”. Rather it is the name given to the period when sunspots almost disappeared from the face of the sun. This isn’t hair splitting – it’s a silly error given that this is one subject that climate deniers go on about.

Climate Change did bring down ancient Pharaohs, Vikings and probably played a major role in the end of Mayan civilization. Eugene Linden brings the evidence together well, and is at his best when describing how the impact of climate events are hampered by the priorities of modern society. In an excellent chapter “El Nino meets empire”, Linden shows how the free-market priorities of the British Empire meant that climate related famines had a destructive result far greater than they should have. Linden dwells on Mike Davis’ well known book on El Nino, Late Victorian Holocausts to emphasize this and to lead into a discussion on the impact climate change could have on our modern society.

As I said, Linden is at his best at this point. How major and abrupt climate change would impact a planet of 6 billion people is horrific to imagine. The book is very much I think a polemic at a US audience blinded by corporate funded climate deniers and uncaring government, as such it’s an interesting read, but probably not the best starting place for someone interested in the topic who has already read some stuff on the subject.

Related Reviews

Foster - The Vulnerable Planet; A Short Economic History of the Environment
Lynas - Six Degrees
Pearce - The Last Generation

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Norman Collins - London Belongs To Me

London 1938 - war hangs like a shadow over the heads of every inhabitant of the town. But London doesn't stop. In his beautiful preface to this, Norman Collin's most famous novel, the author introduces the "Real Londoners" who star in his novel.

These Real Londoners "sleep the night in London as well as work the day there", and of these, some are "in love, some in debt, some committing murders, some adultery, some trying to get on in the world, some looking forward to a pension, some getting drunk, some losing their jobs, some dying, and some holding up the new baby."

Each of the characters in Collin's book are perfectly crafted. None of them are perfect, they are ordinary working-class folk (though some pretend otherwise), often struggling to survive living ordinary lives. As with all people, ordinary lives are full of drama and excitement, love and hate, passion and fear. And London on the eve of war, is a city that forms the back drop to their stories.

First we meet Mr. Josser, fiercly proud of his job, at the moment of his retirement,struggling with a bag of memories and an ornate clock as he tries to get home to Dulcimer Street to spend Christmas with his family. As he arrives, we met both his family and the other characters who live in the house they share with their landlady, Mrs. Vizzard who seems to be waiting for the end of her life.

To tell more about the story would ruin the book. But beware, if you base your knowledge of this story on the famous film, the novel is more complex with a longer ending.

But what struck me as fascinating, as someone who lived in London for almost 7 years, is how contemporary the novel reads. The streets are crowded and the tube over-full. People work different hours, but still laugh and joke as any officer worker does in the run up to Christmas. The pubs are full and people watch their pennies, calculating how much they can afford to drink, and everyone dreams of getting out. I was surprised at how often extra-marital sex is mentioned (or hinted at!), so that's accurate too!

It's a great novel, funny and exciting and a window on a strange moment of history, when war was on the horizon and London was on the target list.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Barry Lopez – Arctic Dreams


Subtitled “Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape”, this is a strange tome indeed. The first chapters read very much like a somewhat florid natural history book. The arctic is often described and imagined as a desolate landscape of snow, ice and few living things. Barry Lopez explains why this isn’t the case.

Lopez explains how the peculiar nature of the arctic makes the things that live there very special. Take for instance his explanation of soil. Soil is, he says “a living system”, a combination of dirt and decaying organic matter. “It draws in oxygen like an animal through myriad tunnel built by ants, rodents ad worms”. However the further north you go, the less living this is. Because of the cold, there are less animals and plants to help the material decay and aerate the ground. Eventually you get to a situation where dead material will take years, perhaps decades to decay.

It’s this understanding of the arctic places as being a continuation of other areas and a break that makes Lopez’s writing so interesting. It’s not simply that the Eskimo people are human’s adapted to the cold regions, it’s that there has been a gradual transition as people moved into the arctic and changed their lifestyles to suit the conditions. Lopez describes how Eskimo’s can survive with almost no possessions rebuilding their lives if everything they own is destroyed, but he doesn’t pretend that they are somehow super humans, capable of doing the impossible.

For this author, the arctic is a perfect example of how nature is interlocking. The Polar Bears depend on the seals, the seals are dependent on other animals to eat, other animals depend upon the tides and weather freezing the water in particular ways, to encourage or discourage the formation of microscopic plants and animals. All of this is subject to change (sudden and gradual) and all of it is affected by the presence and actions of man.

In fact it is when it comes to man that Barry’s writing really comes into its own. The last few chapters dealing with the history of man’s conquest of the arctic – in search of financial gain in the most part, is a breathtaking story of voyage, exploration, accident and bravery. Imagine being trapped in the ice with several hundred sailors for over a year, but it’s precisely this that happened to many who braved the icy lands.

This is not to say that the natural writing isn’t as interesting – the chapters on the Narwhal and Polar Bears are particularly fascinating….. I liked the explanation of why the Narwhal’s tusk is covered in a spiral pattern for instance.

Ultimately, even if Barry Lopez’s florid writing gets on the readers nerves occasionally, this is nothing less than a wonderful explanation of how natural systems, depend upon each other in such a delicate way. It’s also a terrifying portrayal of just what we have to loose if any part of those systems are destroyed or displaced.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Christina Hardyment - Arthur Ransome and Captain Flint's Trunk


One of the hardest things about loving the novels by Arthur Ransome as a child, was not being able to sail, or even having access to a boat, apart from the occasional rowing trip on the pond in the local park. Novels like Swallows and Amazons, Peter Duck and We Didn't mean to Go to Sea were books to stimulate the imagination and let a young reader dream about sailing across the oceans.

There is no doubt that Ransome would have wanted that - it's clear from the biographical details in this book that he loved children as well as boats and fishing. His novels, we discover are populated with friends and family either as exact duplicates or amalgamations. The fascination of discovering that there really was someone who inspired the Swallows and the Amazons is only tempered by the excitement at the knowledge that Wild Cat island and similar places are real places.

Ransome of course would have enjoyed the fact that the boats and ships that inspired, Swallow, Amazon and Captain Flint's houseboat still exist and in the case of the later, still ply Lake Coniston.

Christina Hardyment has written a book that is nothing less than her Odyssey to find the places that inspired Arthur Ransome. He comes across as a larger than life character, a journalist prepared to suffer for his craft, but one to whom the good things in life are very important. While in Russia during the revolution, he found time to fall in love (and eventually marry) Trotsky's secretary and play chess with Lenin. He got a boat built and sailed it back to England, with adventures along the way. While expressing sympathies with the Russian Revolution, his friends and family clearly came from the well-off members of those that England sent abroad to manage her Empire, and the letters sent to him are full of fascinating details written by those who missed mucking about on boats in the Lake District.

For those who loved the novels Ransome wrote, there is much here to supplement them. Including, for instance, the missing chapter of Peter Duck that explains why the adventure doesn't really fit with the "reality" of the children's lives. The pictures illuminate Ransome's creative process - photos of people mimicking the poses needed to illustrate the books, and I liked the detail that Ransome went to, to ensure that the stories were accurate.

Finally back in print after many years, this is well worth grabbing, particularly if you hope to visit Swallows and Amazon country.


Related Reviews

Chambers - The Last Englishman: The Double Life of Arthur RansomeRansome - We Didn't Mean to go to Sea
Ransome - Missee Lee
Ransome - Peter Duck

Monday, October 29, 2007

John Romer - Ancient Lives; The Story of the Pharaohs' Tombmakers


Whenever you wander around an ancient place, be it Roman, Egyptian or Greek. Or visit some long ruined castle or cave, it is impossible not to gaze around and imagine what it must have been like for the people who lived there.

This is doubly problematic for those who have been lucky enough to visit the Pyramids. After all, no-one lived there. These were the tombs of the richest of Egyptian society. The people who made these places died, in the most, forgotten. The ordinary people of Egypt who created the wealth of the Egyptian Pharaohs leave few if any markers.

However for those who created the beautifully engraved and decorated tombs of the Valley of the Kings in southern Egypt. This is not true. For hundreds of years, men and women of the village that is now known as Deir El Medina lived and worked on the tombs and we are lucky enough to have a wealth of detailed accounts of their lives, as well as much more circumstantial evidence to back up the documents that have been discovered.

In the last hundred years or so, Archaeologists have discovered dozens of papyrus scrolls, which detail in minutiae the lives of these tomb builders. It seems that the foremen of the working gangs were meticulous in the day to day detail they recorded.

"Year one, on the twelfth day of the first month of summer, the boulder of flint was found on the right" wrote Scribe Kenhirkhopeshef, who was in charge of keeping the work journal of the tomb of the Great Ramses (who died in 1212BC). Each day he recorded the depth of digging, the number of wicks used by the quarrymen lamps and other details of the dig. Writing mostly on flakes of stone, the scribe recorded the 13 years work on the tomb of Rameses' successor. We know he sat and watched the workers from a niche cut into the rock above the tomb because he scratched "Sitting Place of the Scribe Kenhirkhopeshef" on the rock beside his seat.

While hard, the work was rewarding for the villagers. They held a priority place in Egyptian society - the important job of creating the resting place for the Pharaoh's corpse as the king travelled into the here-after. As such they got better food rations and more beer than most ordinary people. Though this didn't always mean the villagers lived in perfect harmony. Court records record the arguments and legal wrangling that must always occur in tight-knit communities where food might be short and possessions few. We hear about the rows and the fights, and the occasional murder.

Romer has brought together the most compelling stories of these people. To use a cliche, he brings them to life. For me though, the most lifelike the workers become is when they are forced, perhaps for the first time in history, to struggle together.

During the reign of King Ramesses III (around 1160BC to 1170BC) rations went short. Probably through robbery by bureaucrats in Thebes. The tombmakers did what their brothers and sisters of generations to come have done, they used the only weapon available to them - they downed tools.

"Tempers finally broke on 14 November 1152BC, in the 29th year of the King, when the two gangs stopped their work and marched together out of the Great Place. The senior men, the two foremen, their deputies and the Scribe Amennakht had no idea where they had gone."

They went and found the local elders to demand rations and the next day headed for the temple of Ramses II, where the Mayor promised food. However, this wasn't forthcoming (not the last time a bureaucrat's promises came to nothing) and the strike continued. The next day, we learn that the missing rations were given to the men, and they returned to work. This victory seems to have given them confidence as further strikes are recorded necessitating the Pharaohs' Vizier to visit the village later in the year to examine what was causing the problems.

I could go on in great detail about similar events. The rise and fall of the village, matching the rise and fall of the power of the Pharaohs is here in detail and the final chapter brings the story up to date - detailing the discovery of the village and it's records, as well as information on how the story was decoded.

This is a fascinating bit of history - my only minor quibble, is that there is little on how the works were decoded.... the scratch markings reproduced here, carrying so much information are impossible to understand... I'd love more information on how they related to hieroglyphics, and how we know what they say. This is a minor criticism though of a fascinating book - perfect for anyone who believes that history should not be about kings and queens, but those that created their wealth, and in the words of Brecht built "Thebes of the Seven Gates".

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Chris Harman - Revolution in the 21st Century


Chris Harman has been writing about the revolutionary transformation of society for over 40 years. Whether writing about the broad sweep of human history, the "Lost" German Revolution of 1919-1923 or in more detailed work on Marxism and History, he has, in my opinion been one of the best Marxist writers for decades.

This little book is a fantastic re-assertion of the Marxist theory of revolution. In only 126 pages Harman puts across both the necessity for revolution and takes up all the counter arguments you ever hear when you raise the transformation of society at work, or in the bus queue. In doing so though, his writing never sounds tired or cliche ridden, and he continually surprises with new examples and ideas.

For instance in an early chapter called "the actuality of revolution" Harman takes up the idea that Revolution is unusual. He writes that "In fact, revolution is so characteristic a feature of the modern capitalist world that the 20th century can be described as a century of revolution.... Britain is virtually alone among European states in not having fairly recent memories of revolutionary change and most of the non-western governments represented at the United Nations would not have a seat without the revolutionary movements that ended colonial domination."

There, in one paragraph, Harman brings alive both the scale of revolutionary history, its internationalism and its importance.

Socialist's are perhaps used to hearing discussion about revolution in the context of the Russian Revolution of 1917. Harman of course goes into detail about this most important moment in history. But he doesn't limit himself to the "classic" European revolutions. The events of this century in South America are used to illustrate arguments such as the inevitability of working class resistance and the necessity of independent revolutionary organisation. But he also shows, particularly in the case of Bolivia, how the working class is constantly changing.

Common to those on the right in Europe who claim that the working class is no more, Harman points out that commentators in South America argued that Bolivia was undergoing "de-industrialisation" and its working class disappearing. The reality is different, the numbers engaged in manufacturing has reason tremendously, and it was these workers who formed the core of those on the streets of La Paz who drove Mesa from office.

The final chapter "Knocking on History's Door" reasserts the choice facing humanity - the creation of a society based on need, not profit or the ongoing destruction wrought by the nature of capitalism itself. Harman wouldn't be a revolutionary Marxist if he didn't conclude by urging the reader to become part of building revolutionary organisations. It is a argument I am happy to reiterate.

Related Reviews

Harman - Marxism and History
Choonara & Kimber - Arguments for Revolution

Monday, October 15, 2007

Harry Harrison - The Stainless Steel Rat Goes to Hell


When I was about ten, I was given a copy of a collection of Science Fiction stories, that I still have today. The book can be credited with a lifelong love of that particular genre. Amongst the many stories in it, was one that wasn't a complete story, but actually turned out to be the first chapter of Harry Harrison's novel, The Stainless Steel Rat.

From the moment I read it, I was hooked on the idea of the underground criminal, the last of his kind, living beneath the surface of the dull utopian future society. I loved his warped justification for his actions, his quirky sense of humour, the funny little sayings, and the amusing philosophy:

"At a certain stage the realisation striked through that one must either live outside of society's bonds or die of absolute boredom... There is no longer room fro the soldier of fortune or the gentleman adventurer who can live both within and outside of society. Today it is all or nothing. To save my own sanity I chose the nothing."

So when I discovered that not only was the story I had just a first chapter, but part of a series of novels, my ten year old heart nearly popped in excitement. Since then, I have followed the Rat's adventures on both sides of the law. Read and re-read his fixing of elections and his travels in time. I've often smiled to myself at the gratuitous use of invention to save the day, and the fact that no matter how many bullets are sprayed around in an armed robbery, nobody ever seems to get hit.

This latest escapade is very much written with tongue firmly in cheek. When his beautiful wife disappears after visiting a strange religous temple on a utopian pleasure planet, the Rat travels through time, space and alternate universes to get her back. The evil (and multiple personalitied) rogue physicist Slakey will stop at nothing to prevent someone getting in the way of his evil plans, and the Rat has to use all his resources to save the universe again.

Well, it made me laugh a few times, though I did not like this Rat, as much as I liked the younger Rat who had to rely on his own resources and invention far more. Maybe it's the revolutionist in me, but I prefer the tales of the underground bank robber, hiding in society's cracks much more than those of the rich, experienced Rat working for the planetary police force. Or maybe it's just some nostalga for the days when reading The Boys Big Book of SF wouldn't look strange on the bus.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Hans Zinsser – Rats, Lice and History


Throughout history, on hundreds of occasions, various epidemics decimated the human populations. On many of these occasions the dead have remained uncounted, entire villages and towns have been emptied and very occasionally, the course of history has been changed.

We have become used to the type of history book that focuses on one particular commodity, material or scientific discovery and declaims how it has “changed the world”. In contemporary times, perhaps the first to do this was “Longitude”, Dava Sobel’s work that examined how the ability to measure distance at sea fundamentally transformed man’s ability to trade and wage war, and thus altered history. Since then, we have seen books claiming that their subject matter is singularly responsible for changing the world. Mark Kurlansky’s books “Salt” and “Cod” spring to mind, but there are others, and sooner or later some enterprising author will no doubt write 200 pages on the historical importance of “Dust”. But I digress.

However, many years ago, Hans Zinsser had a similar idea. In 1934, this scientist decided to write a long book which, amongst other things, touched on the shaping of history by Rats and Lice (in particular through their ability to carry and pass on diseases such as Typhus). Zinsser describes his work as a biography of Typhus. But Zinsser is far from a scientist who is limited by his scientific subject. The book starts with a gentle discussion of the ability of scientists to discuss subjects not related to science. It’s an important discussion – should scientists touch the realms of history for instance. Zinsser concludes that they both should and must and energetically goes about doing so, quoting such literary greats as Joyce, Shelley and Eliot along the way.

Zinsser’s style is a wonderful blend of poetic writing and simple science. But he is also very funny. At one point a footnote to the word “saprophyte” tells us that “if the reader does not understand this word, it is too bad” [1].

To understand the history of Typhus we need to learn a little about the spread of disease, how certain diseases love the dirty cramped conditions of human existence and how the medicines that fight them work. We learn also how humans can get disease from animals, and how animals (or insects) can carry these diseases, but not succumb. We also learn how terrible an epidemic really is. This book was written shortly after millions died in the First World War. Millions more died in the great influenza epidemics that followed that conflict.

More interestingly the non-biologist like myself learns that diseases like Typhus have a history of themselves and Zinsser, in those pre-DNA testing times shows us how scientists can show that the disease had evolved down different paths. The different variants having different effects, and different victims. Part of this discussion looks at epidemics in history and Zinsser examines the evidence for whether certain mass deaths described by Pliny or other ancient historians can be attributed to various “modern” diseases.

This is a fabulous work. Science as it should be written, by an author who clearly didn’t think that one should never stray from one’s area of special understanding. But one who also believed that knowledge was important to combat disease. I’ll leave the last words to Zinsser himself;

“About the only genuine sporting proposition that remains unimpaired by the relentless domestication of a once free living human species is the war against those ferocious little fellow creatures, which lurk in the dark corners and stalk us in the bodies of rats, mice, and all kinds of domestic animals; which fly and crawl with the insects, and waylay us in our food and drink and even in our love”.

[1] The Chambers Scientific and technological Dictionary actually defines it as “an organism living heterotrophically [2] and osmotrophically on dead organic matter”

[2] if the reader does not understand this word, it is too bad

Related Reviews

Davis - The Monster at Our Door - The Global Threat of Avian Flu

Monday, October 01, 2007

John Bellamy Foster – The Vulnerable Planet; A Short Economic History of the Environment


Most famous perhaps for his examination of Karl Marx's understanding of nature and capitalism, in his book “Marx’s Ecology”, this older book was John Bellamy Foster’s first venture into the world of environmentalism. It is short – barely 150 pages in length, but contains a succinct analysis of both the history of the human race’s relationship with the environment and the Marxist understanding of the relationship between nature and society.

Foster’s basic thesis is that humans have always exploited their surrounding nature. In some cases, in the past, this has led to human societies undermining the very basis of their existence. This is important for Foster, because he argues that while there is a difference between the exploitation of nature under capitalism, it is important not to fall for the “mainstream conception….. which traces all environmental problems, other than those linked to demographic influences, to the technologhy of production that emerged with the Industrial Revolution, inventing a gloried past characterized by ecological harmony”.

For Foster, drawing on the work of Marx and Engels, humans exploit the nature around them as the basis of their existence. Different historical socities have of course done this in many different ways. But this process becomes accelerated with the development of industrial capitalism.

The industrial revolution, the development of capitalism and the expansion of capitalism to every corner of the world, as well as the imperialistic wars that have been fought by various national powers have all associated environmental and ecological consequences. The destruction of the flora and fauna of the America’s by the settlers that arrived there. The oil spills and fires associated with the First Gulf War, the terrible pollution associated with the creation and rapid expansion of industrial cities are all good examples. Foster spends some time looking at the terrible health problems in the world’s first industrial city Manchester – he quotes Tocqueville

“From this foul drain the greatest stream of human industry flows out to fertilise the whole world. From this filthy sewer pure gold flows. Here humanity attains its most complete development and its most brutish, here civilisation works its miracles and civilised man is turned almost into savage.”

This can of course be compared to the environmental destruction caused by the rapid expansion of modern Chinese cities, or as Foster points out, that caused by the industrialisation of East Europe and Soviet Russia during the cold war – he describes one city in the Urals, which was so polluted that the only cause of death was cancer.

For Foster, environmental destruction is part and parcel of capitalism. Capitalism’s drive for profit, it’s short termism and its externalisation of nature from its calculations of profit and lose are the basis of the environmental catastrophe we face. Attempts to change this are always subverted or undermined by those whose interests are linked to maximising profits. Foster points out how historically there have also been countervailing strategies – those that campaigned for national parks (or local ones) in the USA in the later decades of the 19th Century for instance. But the author concludes that these are only really short term victories. In his 1999 afterword he writes

“environmental history is not simply a product of technological or demographic change; rather it is inseparable from, even subordinate to, the way we organize out social relations. The environmental crisis is a crisis of society in the fullest sense. It signals the fact that a one-sided development of human productive powers without a commensurate change in the social relations by which we govern society spells social and ecological disaster.”

His conclusion is very stark, without social revolution, capitalism will continue to rape and pillage the world’s natural resources. This isn’t a process that can continue indefinitely and there is a matter of urgency about the need to hasten the end of an economic system that threatens the very planet we live on.

Related Reviews

Bellamy Foster - Ecology Against Capitalism

Friday, September 14, 2007

Charles Stross – The Atrocity Archives


This is a remarkably strange SF&F novel. I should clarify that I mean this in a good way. The world of the Atrocity Archives is one where magic is real. Demons can be summoned, the paraphernalia of which-craft is real and secret government organisations battle to save the world from monsters from other dimensions.

What makes the novel clever is that this is all part of our normal world. The secret government institutions battle for cash from a stingy treasury and their agents fight bureaucracy. Our hero is a normal IT techy, promoted to active duty instead of his normal work fixing file servers and lost data.

There are also terrorists (as there always must be these days) who in an attempt to commit some terrible crime, come close to summoning a “Lovecraftian” horror from another dimension. To complete Charles Stross’ checking of every available cliché, there are also fugitive Nazis, living on an alternate Earth in a different universe (accessed through a gate opened in a dodgy hotel in Amsterdam).

Now, if this was a plot by Robert Heinlein, you would, loyal readers, expect me to scoff and mock his immature storylines. Instead I must praise Stross for making all this nonsense extremely readable, funny and firmly tongue in cheek. Fantasy writers have to be able to take a few mocking words from readers who don’t care about dragons. Stross shows here that he is prepared to be laughed at by a few reviewers because he knows that many other people will laugh with him. There are dozens of in-jokes about mathematics, physics and computer science – more than enough to entertain the extreme geeks out there.

If I have one criticism about this book, it’s that bundled with it, is a short story set in the same world, with the same heroes. It’s great fun too, but I wasn’t expecting it and you don’t get the impression from the cover of the book that it’s there. It meant that the main story finished about 80 pages before I expected it to.

This is of course not a real moan about what is fabulously entertaining fantasy. A Resolute Reader Recommended Read!

Related Reviews

Stross - Iron Sunrise
Stross - Singularity Sky

Friday, September 07, 2007

Gareth Dale – The East German Revolution of 1989


The closest I have ever been to revolution was to be one of the “Mauer-Spechte” who helped, from the western side, chip away at the Berlin wall in December 1989. Of course, by then, the wall was no longer the barrier it once was. As a symbol of oppression and dictatorship, it had been rendered totally impotent by the struggles of millions of ordinary East German’s over the preceding months.

In the summer of 1989 I’d visited East Berlin with an Uncle. Standing on the Eastern side of the Brandenburg gate he’d told me how he believed that the wall would always be there. Unconsciously he was echoing the thoughts of the then president of East Germany Honecker who argued that the wall would remain for a hundred more years.

Yet a few months later the wall was breached in many places, Eastern Germany was on the brink of collapse in the face of mass demonstrations and a new unified Germany was on the horizon.

Academic, Marxist and Eye-witness, Gareth Dale has documented the exact process that lead to this remarkable turnaround. Through a myriad of human stories, we hear of the millions of ordinary Germans who took to the streets in ever increasing numbers until their voices could no longer be ignored.

Some of this has been documented elsewhere. In particular, the role of the Leipzig protests that grew out of the “peace prayers” in the Nikolai Church. What Dale does very convincingly is to show how the role of the “masses” was the central driving force of the revolution. Arguing against those who believe that the fall of East Germany was simply the result of the growth of internal opposition groups, or the machinations of the west, Dale shows that 1989 saw a grass-roots revolution that showed “the potential that arises when established order breaks down in the face of collective protest”. How this potential was derailed down the path of German unity (which Dale shows was rarely a demand of those who took to the streets in 1989) and rampant neo-liberalism forms the bulk of the latter part of this work. There are many factors, but not least amongst them was the fear of many of those at the head of opposition organisations like New Forum, of the organised workers whose strikes (both real and threatened) shook the German state in early 1990.

At a time when Germans were storming the headquarters of the secret police, demonstrating in their hundreds of thousands, the threat of mass strikes in huge workplaces opened the opportunity for the very “grass roots” democracy that oppositionists had called for. Instead, New Forum condemned the strikes and turned their backs on the organised workers, help to open the way for the destruction of industry and economic collapse that followed reunification.

This is not to condemn those who had for so many years bravely opposed the East German dictatorship. They were not revolutionists and indeed where often swimmingly at the head of the flood, rather than leading it. The German state was easily able to co-opt them into harmless “round table” discussions rather than allow them to lead the struggle for real change.

Gareth Dales’ book is more than a fascinating examination of one of Europe’s most recent revolutions. It’s a reaffirmation of the role of the masses in revolutionary moments. Drawing upon recent works in Social Movement theory, it shows how ordinary men and women do extraordinary things, how revolution changes people’s lives and how even the most apparently powerful of states are often very weak indeed.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Neal Asher – Hilldiggers


Neal Asher is not a new writer on the SF&F scene - “Hilldiggers” his latest [2007] novel, is clearly the continuation of earlier works and themes.

Initially this seems to be a classic story of first contact between a solar system of humans “cut off” in some way from Earth and left to develop in isolation, and the more advanced human societies, left behind. However as we delve deeper we find it’s not quite so simple. The isolated solar system contains two planets whose inhabitants, descendents of Earth’s original colonists have only recently concluded a long, bitter and almost genocidal interplanetary conflict. They have also to a changed substantially from the human form.

Back on Earth, a civilisation now ruled by Artificial Intelligences, sends a human ambassador (himself with various flaws and secrets) to the solar system. The more powerful, victorious, civilisation he encounters seems sick to the heart – militaristic, and superficially democratic – understanding its many secrets, including the initial provocation for war itself and the consequences of a strange “alien” artefact discovered during the war are key to solving the ongoing interplanetary hostilities. This is the precondition for welcoming the worlds back into the warm embrace of humanity (or at least it’s governing AIs).

The alien artefact has imbued four individuals with superhuman powers of intelligence and analysis. But as the different forces these people represent in our alien solar system jockey for power, war becomes once more inevitable and it is left to our human envoy (alongside an invisible, faster than light travelling, cat shaped AI, nicknamed Tigger!) to save the day.

If all this seems a bit like the proverbial literary whirlwind, don’t worry, it reads like that to – probably intentionally on the part of the author. So readers might like the myriad of plot twists and technological innovations that are thrown out on every page. Personally I find it a bit tiresome, though I was, I admit hooked till the last page.

However if this story of a flawed human envoy, travelling to a lost outpost of human civilisation, as an ambassador of a near utopian civilisation ruled by Artificially Intelligent machines, aided by a companion who has more technology in one robotic arm than the entire solar system being visited rings any SF bells, this is because it’s been done before in one of the best contemporary SF novels. Neal Asher’s book is enjoyable, but it’s not first class SF.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Peter Linebaugh - The London Hanged: Crime and Civil Society in the Eighteenth Century


Loath as I am to quote favourably anything from the odious Daily Mail, when reviewing Peter Linebaugh’s monumental work, they got it absolutely spot on - describing it as “A remarkable book… this is history as it should be written”.

Linebaugh’s starting point is to argue that you cannot understand the history of London without understanding property relations within that society. And you cannot understand property relations and the development of capitalism without understanding the struggles that took place between those who had property, and those who had little or none. In this he consciously echoes the famous lines of the Communist Manifesto, whose authors wrote that “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”

Following on from this argument, the author examines how punishment and indeed crime changed to reflect the changes taking place in society itself. The ultimate in punishment is death and Linebaugh’s work examines society through the often detailed records that accompany the judicial murder of London’s criminals by hanging at Tyburn Hill.

Those with even a cursory knowledge of crime and punishment will recollect that capital punishment in the early eighteenth century was often for what we would consider the most minor of crimes – the stealing of a handkerchief for instance. What this book argues is that the public spectacle of capital punishment had a more complex purpose – to shock and cow the public into the acceptance of new forms of property relations and the destruction of old forms.

Perhaps the genius of Linebaugh’s book is to combine this understanding of the rise of capitalist society with the voices of those who where hung. Their explanations of why they committed the crimes, their contempt for a society whose only interest in their lives was the brief life history before their condemnation, and their belief in a more just way of living.

The way our modern world is shaped by the struggles of the past is brought out in fascinating detail. The network of national banks arose as a response by rich farmers unable to return home from the markets in London and Bristol because of the overwhelming numbers of highwaymen. But those highwaymen themselves were often those whose traditional livelihoods in the countryside had been destroyed by new practises that centralised farming and destroyed the small butchers and traders, replacing them with larger businesses.

Time and again, through Linebaugh’s detailed examinations of the lives of butchers and highwaymen, prostitutes, Irish immigrants, former slaves and shipbuilders we discover a willingness to hold onto the few “rights” they had, the customs and practices of decades, in the face of a brutal and rapidly changing world. Sometimes this exploded into anger as with the burning of Newgate prison. For too long this event was described as an anti-Catholic plot by a drunken mob, yet in relating was a huge mass movement that targeted and destroyed symbols of oppression, such as the prison, as well as the houses and homes of those establishment figures who had condemned so many to it.

We learn of the first “general” dock strikes in Shadwell where the strikers raised the Red Flag for the first time in history and on a smaller, but no less important scale, we read time and again how the crowds gathering to watch a hanging often tried to intervene, sometimes with great success.

Towards the end of the book, Peter Linebaugh describes a world where capitalism is almost triumphant. Through his examinations of day-to-day custom and practice in the Deptford shipbuilding yards, we see how establishment figures are grappling with the very nature of exploitation through work. How they measure, quantify and calculate surplus value. We see the first attempts to deskill a workforce, to introduce piece work and to “rationalise” industry through the introduction of technology.

Shipbuilders, in all their different tasks, had for centuries taken “chips” home. These were the excess cuttings from the colossal amounts of wood required to build the ships needed for Britain to further its imperialist ambitions abroad. For the capitalist, these “chips” represented waste, inefficiency and outdated methods. For the workers on the other hand “chips” were the difference between starvation and life, in an industry where payment was often 15 months behind schedule.

The attempts by the establishment to stop this tradition – first through legislation, then with violent punishment and then to the aborted attempt to use technology to make sure that the waste was minimised are countered by the struggles of the dockyard workers themselves – from the smuggling of bits of wood under clothing to strikes and machine-wrecking.

These stories are mirrored throughout this wonderful work in the stories of the men and women who struggled against the consequences of a rising capitalism, to try and ensure that their space within the new society was their own.

In his afterword to the second edition, Linebaugh makes an obvious point – we continue to live in a world where countries around the globe, and in particular the world’s major capitalist power still use capital punishment to cow and batter their oppressed peoples. The struggle for justice and freedom cannot be successful, until that is no longer the case.

Through their struggles, the men and women of eighteenth century London ensured that hanging was no longer seen as a safe option for the London establishment, and brought forth a new (if still oppressive) form of justice – it is a battle that will have to be won again and again today.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

J.K. Rowling - Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows


The final installement of the Harry Potter series really needs little extra comment online from me, but as the rules of this blog require me to record this completed novel, I will make a few brief points. Other blogs have commented on the massive marketing machine that has accompanied this book, however, such a machine can only promote a book to a certain extent. The truth is of course that millions of people want to read the adventures of Harry Potter, and this final book in the series certainly well rewards those who plodded through the previous space filler.

A final tradition of writing about Harry Potter is that you can't give away any of the plot. Certainly not who dies or who survives. I can exclusively reveal though, that the Good Guys win. This is important, because even though the whole series is about the feel good factor, Rowling doesn't avoid taking up big issues, and this writing is worlds away from the more child-friendly first books. Death and suffering are difficult issues for children to deal with, Rowling deals with it all admirably and I suspect that generations of children will enjoy the complete Harry Potter works.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Jack McDevitt - Engines of God


"Archaeologists in Space" would be a fairly accurate title for this neat little science fiction novel. In Jack McDevitt's 1996 novel we encounter an Earth wrecked by global warming and war; and a humankind struggling for a future. The universe that they hope to escape into though is surprisingly devoid of very much intelligent life. Which is surprising because the galaxy is littered with the artifacts and remains of long dead civilisations.

In an effort to understand this future archaeologists explore in much the same way that archaeologists today examine artifacts, the remains, cities and monuments of these long dead civilisations.

Principle amongst the extinct aliens are the "monument makers" who have left gigantic monuments amongst the stars, often near the remains of other civilisations. These monuments appear to serve no purpose and the future scientists scratch their heads and speculate about the meaning of the inscriptions and buildings in the same way that their fore-fathers did standing on the Giza plateau.

Of course archaeology rarely makes for exciting space based drama. We're offered some of this as the scientists race to understand a vital new clue before the planet it is on is destroyed by other scientists trying to terraform the planet for future habitation by humans fleeing the dying Earth.

Further excitement is provided as the scientists gradually start to work out that all the civilisations appear to have suffered destructive events in the past with surprising patterns and they get marooned in space in a solar system filled with planet sized radio telescopes.

McDevitt has produced a rather exciting vision of the future, interestingly grasping the nettle of climate change and environmental catastrophe before it was popular for SF writers. To combine that with space ships and archaeology makes this book almost to exciting to read for this particular reviewer.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Steven Mithen - The Singing Neanderthals; The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body


Quite early on in the reading of this book, it becomes clear that just how humans communicate, how language developed and how our minds work are matters that keep specialist scientists arguing late into the night.

Steven Mithen's excellent introduction to the debates around these matters does a good job of introducing the basic ideas to an audience of non-specialists. At almost roller-coaster speed, we learn basic brain science, how babies use language, which parts of the mind are responsible for music and language, why we might have emotions and so on.

Mithen's central theory is one that I suspect is much more controversial though. He argues that music and I mean music in all it's forms - singing, rhythm, chanting and so on, formed a much more important part of the development of the human mind. He looks at how other apes react to music, the inter-relation between music and language, and how babies develop the capacity for speech.

I must admit to finding it all a little confusing. Mithen has an easy style, but the book ends up being, in my mind, a collection of fascinating anecdotes and nuggets of information, but I felt his general argument got lost in amongst it all.

Fot instance, I was fascinated to learn about the interactions between mothers and babies, and how "baby language" actually stimulates the child's ability to pick up language later. I'm sure though, that I'll remember this much longer than Mithen's much more detailed arguments about how music and singing by mothers is part of this too. Similarly, he has very interesting stuff to say about how emotions develop and how collective living has always been central to human existence, but it all got lost in a wealth of detail and bittiness.

In the end, while thoroughly enjoying this book, I was also very disappointed by it - part of this contradiction lies in my thorough enjoyment of Mithen's earlier work, After the Ice. This was for me one of the best works about human development at the end of the last ice-age ever written for non-professionals interested in archaeology and human development. That was a superb book which will long remain with me. This is clearly a much more developed, complex work, which unfortunately didn't stimulate the right bit of my brain.

Related Reviews

Mithen - To the Islands
Mithen - After the Ice

Monday, July 16, 2007

Richard Morgan - Market Forces


A quick Google of the phrase "anti-capitalist science fiction" generates few hits. Perhaps this review will link Richard Morgan's novel "Market Forces" with this rather apt description, even if I do say so myself.

The world of Market Forces is perhaps best described as an extrapolation of our own. The multinational corporations that dominate the world's economies of today have become more power than the nation state. Independent of it even. Their ruthless struggle for profits, plays itself out down to every level. Executives duel in armour plated cars on almost empty motorways for position in the company. Serious promotion can only occur by returning to work "with blood on your wheels". Such methods of "natural selection" mean that senior partners are only those ruthless enough to stamp out competition by any means necessary.

These individual battles play out against a backdrop of poverty, violence and drug-abuse on London's derelict estates. There's no welfare state left, a job marks the ordinary person out for violence, except for a few who live in armed gated communities in terror of the rest of the population.

I was reminded while reading this of some of those films of the 1980s, company executives, drunk on power, prepared to stamp on all opposition to get the money - Morgan's dark satire and humour is an extension of this. An unlikely world perhaps, but not impossible.

We follow one of the executives through the beginnings of a rather complex business deal (a deal that will could mean the lives of thousands being sacrificed) as he $battles personally for control. The novel concentrates on Chris Faulkner (*), as the contradictions of his life open up. His wife hates his violent life, though for a woman with principle, she's strangely tied to her husband. Deep down inside he seems to have princples, though they make themselves known in strange ways (Kneecapping of Nazis for instance).

The plot drifts along, without seeming to go any place simple. There's a lot of gung-ho drinking and fighting, quite a bit of unneccessarily detailed sex scenes and a fair bit of simplistic politics which combines to make a surprisingly intense reading experience.

If you like your anti-heros and you'll like this novel, particularly if you believe in a bleak future for man-kind. Though you don't have to share the author's cynical view of the human spirit.

(*) There's a neat little joke in the novel, when a night-club owner repeatadly jokes about the main character's surname being similar to the famous american novelist. Of course, none of the company executives, supposedly cleverer than the rest of the stupid masses understand the reference.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Victor Serge - Revolution in Danger; Writings from Russia 1919-1921


Victor Serge was certainly one of most able writers of 20th Century marxism. His life spanned some of the most important and exciting moments of the last century's revolutionary history, in particular he was actively involved with the Russian Revolution.

Serge travelled to Russia an anarchist. He rapidly became a Bolshevik and his commitement to this form of radical organisation didn't waver throughout the rest of his life.

The book starts with a fantastic account of Serge's life and his basic politics by Ian Birchall, as well as an overview of the Russian Revolution and the role of Anarchist politics within it.

The essays are from his time in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. Soviet power, in its genuine sense, rather than some Stalinist distortion, was met by imperialist invasion from (amongst others, Britain, America and Japan). In turn this was met by military opposition from the newly formed Red Army.

In passionate on the spot reporting, Serge describes life in a Petrograd that is perhaps facing its last moments. He describes the wild rumours, the right-wing attempts at sabotage, the distant gunfire. But of more interest, is perhaps his understanding that the fight to defend Petrograd from the counter-revolutionary armies is being fought by men and women who have just overthrown a savage dictatorship and are beginning to create a world "turned upsidedown". So amongst the revolutionary barricades, we hear about the poetry clubs, the song recitals and musical performances.

In one of the later chapters, on the eve of the final battle, he describes one of his acquaintances, whose rifle butt rests on a book in his pocket. Serge asks this "obstinate rebel" what he is reading.... "Poincare..... The Value of Science".

On the eve of a great battle to save the city that was the heart of the revolution, it is entirely appropriate that the men and women who might die the next morning are reading, learning, thinking and dreaming of a different world.

The final essay in this book, is Serge writing about the attitude that Anarchists should take the the revolution, and in particular, the centralised revolutionary terror that the Red's have had to introduce to defend the revolution from the brutal$ities of the Whites.

Serge describes how many of the Russian anarchists, instinctively sided with the Revolution and the Bolsheviks, automatically understanding that to defend the gains of the revolution required organisation and military centralisation. Serge takes this further arguing that the anarchists must be engaged with the revolution, if only to temper some of the instinctive Bolshevik centralisation that he believes is natural for members of that party. Whether or not you agree with that, you cannot fail to understand Serge's basic point. Revolutions are never the perfectly formed events that many sectarian, armchair revolutionaries hope they are. Instead, they are complex, difficult events that have to be defended from the violence of their class enemies. It is a lesson that is still important.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Frank M. Snowden, Jr - Before Color Prejudice; The Ancient View of Blacks


Those who argue that racism can be overcome, or ended are often confronted with the argument that racism or prejudice has always existed. Many, particularly from the Marxist tradition have argued however that racism is a more recent invention - that there have been societies in the past (and indeed today) were racism was unheard off.

For this reason, Frank Snowden's book is a fascinating read. He examines Ancient images and portrayals of the black people's of Africa in writings, sculpture and painting. His conclusions are stark, but simple. Racism, as a systematic system of prejudice and oppression or as a set of ideas that assigned stereotypes to a group of people based on their skin colour.

Of course there may have been prejudices, but Snowden finds surprisingly few examples. Indeed, rather the opposite, he argues that for one society, that of Ancient Egypt, skin colour was rarely mentioned when describing someone from the regions to the south of Egypt. The "Nubian" peoples, where instead venerated as excellent warriors, often used in Egypt's armies as mercenaries. Similarly in Roman and Greek writings, were skin colour was mentioned, it was almost always in a descriptive, rather than derogatory way.

Neither the Greeks, Romans or Egyptians had any systematic negative views of black people. Snowden describes contemporary descriptions of the Roman children expressing initial surprise and fear upon seeing a black person for the first time, but also compares this to modern research into childhood responses to someone of a different skin colour. Research that shows that such childlike response rarely leads to racist views in adult life.

If there is a flaw in the book, it's that it doesn't really shed much light on why racism is so prevalent in modern society. One argument that Snowden gives is that the ancient people's lived side by side with black people, thus there was no shock of discovery as white and black people met for the first time.

I think this is a weak explanation. There certainly were a few black and Asian people who travelled to the western lands in more recent times, and certainly (as Snowden acknowledges) the bible refers to black men and women so Christian countries would have not been living in ignorance of non-white peoples. This knowledge and fleeting encounters did not lead to racism in the way we know it.

I think that it is important to say that modern racism as had a concrete starting point. This is the invention of racial explanations, by the white establishment to explain the slave trade. The brutalities of slavery could only be justified through some sort of racial demonisation and this needed to be invented.

This perhaps is the missing chapter of Frank Snowden's book, though in itself the book is a clear (and beautifully illustrated) explanation of the lack of racism in the ancient past. It's worth quoting the author's conclusions at length, as his work, I believe has had to small a readership:

...in the ancient world there were prolonged black-white contacts, from an early date; first encounters with blacks frequently involved soldiers or mercenaries, not slaves or so-called savages; initial favourable impressions of black were explained and amplified, generation after generation, by poets, historian and philosophers; the central societies developed a positive image in of peripheral Nubia as an independent stae of considerable military, political and cultural importance; both blacks and whites were slaves, but blacks and slaves were never synonymous; black emigres were noT excluded from opportunities available to others of alien extraction, nor were they handicapped in fundamental social relations - they were physically and culturally assimilated; in science, philosophy and religion color was not the basis of a widely accepted theory concerning the inferiority of blacks.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Carbon Trade Watch - The Carbon Neutral Myth, Offset Indulgences for your Climate Sins


Just as it seems every politician, pop star, minor celebrity and even minor royal has started "offsetting" their round the world flights, climate campaigners at the Carbon Trade Watch (CTW) have brought out this brilliant short pamphlet to explain why Carbon Offsetting is actually making things worse.

On paper the idea is as simple as it is brilliant. You pay a company to "offset" the emissions you have made driving your SUV or flying across the Atlantic. This company takes your money and invests it in some project that absorbs Carbon Dioxide from the atmosphere or reduces emissions of Greenhouse gases. Often this means planting forests in the third world, though one project mentioned by CTW involved giving poor people in South Africa low energy light bulbs (the fact that this would have happened anyway, without the input of the Offset company doesn't stop them using it as a marketing ploy).

There are numerous problems with this approach. The first is the hard science - CTW explain how Offset Companies use a form of "Future Accounting". Similar to Enron's business practises they basically claim future emissions reductions against gas output today. The best example of this is the investment by a Offset company in a new forest. It takes trees a long time to absorb Carbon Dioxide. Say 100 years. But, if you have emitted CO2 into the atmosphere today and it won't actually be removed from the atmosphere for a century, you've made the problem worse. To balance the equation faster, you need more trees, which costs more, making it unlikely many people will do it.

There are other problems. What if the forest dies from lack of water as the world heats up? Or what if the local population, displaced by the government who wants the new trees planted because they benefit from further Carbon Credits under the Kyoto Agreement, burns the forest?

This exact situation certainly did happen as evicted peoples around Mount Elgon in Uganda resisted attempts by their government and Carbon Offset companies to make them pay, so that Westerners could continue to emit greenhouse gases.

Of course, all this is big business too. CTW document the massive profits made by Offset companies and show how it's good business sense for some of the worst polluting corporations in the world to link themselves to the offset market. It makes them look green, rather than force them to change business practices.

And this is the heart of the problem. Offsetting your emissions does nothing to encourage a change of behaviour. It allows politicians and corporations to put the responsibility for stopping climate change back on the individual, while they get off scot-free. Indeed it does more than that. As CTW point out, it turns the honest desires of millions of people to do something to save the planet, into "another market transaction". What could be more dis-empowering?

Luckily as CTW point out, there are things that can be done, most of them much more empowering than giving your cash to some Internet based pseudo green company.

There is much more in this little book (including an amusing chapter on the role of celebrities in promoting Carbon Offsetting and a good analysis of the failure of Live8 to bring change). But above all, it is a fantastic antidote to those who believe the market will solve the climate crisis we face.

You can download this book from Carbon Trade Watch's website as a PDF here, though I bought a copy from Bookmarks for £5.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Heather Rogers - Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage


On average, each American produces 4.2 pounds of rubbish a day. Most of this is packaging. This staggering statistic starts Heather Rogers' fantastic book on garbage - a book that has lots of numbers, but never seems to let the reader drown in facts and figures. The figures are important, because the scale of the garbage problem is incredible. Rogers tells the historic story of rubbish, but she inevitably concentrates on the last 100 or so years. Before then, people were either so poor that their few belongings were used over and over, or (and this is the most important fact) their belongings were designed to be used, over and over again.

Heather introduces us to the odd roles that developed in a time of low garbage levels - the men and women who collected human waste to sell to farmers, the people who swept roads clear of horse manure to facilitate a easy crossing.

However the central theme of Rogers' book, is the way that modern day capitalism created the garbage problem, and how it has used and abused the solutions.

In its desperate drive to sell commodities to make profits, capitalism found that objects that lasted, didn't make the corporations money. So, they invented disposability, selling it to the consumer as convenience. We get the disposable bottles, razors and nappies. Then, the capitalists take the next logical step, they build in obsolescence or failure. Either the particular model goes out of favour, or it stops working a few years later and needs to be replaced.

Finally, the author examines at great length the great recycling swindle. Recycling is of course a good thing, it's often the first step that most people take down the road towards environmental awareness or action. However, it is very much a diversion. Rogers' points out how simply putting "please recycle this product when finished" on the outside of a drinks can, gives the corporation a sheen of green colouring, even though they are producing millions of "use once" tins.

The recycling industry gives people the impression that everything is OK. That "something is being down" and stops people questioning why so much stuff is produced in the first place. Why don't we have re-usable bottles? Why do we need disposable razors?

In a fascinating chapter, Rogers examines how the packaging companies in 50s America were well aware of this. "Keep America Beautiful" is the most famous, and first anti-litter campaigns. It wasn't started by environmentalists, but by the packaging companies who wanted to shift the blame for "waste" onto the individual consumer and avoid the finger being pointed at corporations that were in the process of pushing extra packaging on to the market.

Competing companies soon found that extra-packaging, disposable containers, or every changing marketing materials gave them an edge over competitors who remained with the same old, returnable, reusable bottle or container.

The last century has seen the rise of a consumer society, fueled by manufacturers desperate for us to purchase and purchase again their products. In doing so, they have contributed to a gigantic problem of waste. Where do we put this garbage? What does it do to the environment if we burn it, or dump it?

At a time when millions of people are looking at the sustainable nature of the society we live in and asking how we can avoid ecological disaster, Heather Rogers has produced more ammunition against the very nature of the system. Capitalism is, she argues, inherently wasteful - if we are to save the planet, we have to fundamentally change how society uses, produces and treats the material goods that currently form such an important part of our lives. In doing so, we may well create a society that feels it doesn't need so many of these objects in the first place, opting instead for lives that use less and share more.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

John Newsinger – The Blood Never Dried – A People’s History of the British Empire


One of the unexpected consequences of the “War on Terror” has been an attempt to reinvent the history of the British Empire. To justify the actions of the American government around the world, it’s important to show the benovolance of previous Empires.

John Newsinger’s book has been written in response to this re-writing of history. In turn, Newsinger writes short and sharp pieces on moments and places of the British Empire. So we read how the British government decided that the free market would solve the Irish Potato famine of 1846 – resulting in a million deaths. We discover how the British murdered their way around countries from Egypt to China. How, in the interests of Free Trade they fought two brutal wars (though war is hardly the right term for such unequal conflicts) for the right to sell Opium to the Chinese, and along with this, raped, pillaged and plundered the country.

The “Jewel in the Crown” of the Empire, India, makes for several interesting chapters. Newsinger documents how the manner of British rule led directly to the uprising of 1857. Newsinger calls the events of 1857 an uprising (his authority is no-less a figure as Benjamin Disraeli who described the war as a “National revolt”) rather than the mutiny that it is normally described as.

Newsinger argues that the brutal nature of the uprising, described with glee in the media of the time, was only brutal because it was a response to the violence of British Rule up to that point. He quotes Karl Marx, writing at the time, that however violent the action of the rebels;

“it is only the reflex, in a concentrated form, of England’s own conduct in India, not only during the epoch of the foundation of her Eastern Empire, but even during the last ten years of a long-settled rule.”

The violence of the British troops in putting down the revolt, was often glorified as bravery, worthy of many medals. This violence of course was characteristic of all of Britain’s colonial rules. From the utter brutality of the British response to the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya, to the violence vested on those in countries like Malaysia, Egypt, Iraq or China who dared to question rule from London.

Newsinger’s book finishes with a reflection on the new aspect of Imperialism. How Britain has become so linked to the new American Empire. The author argues that this is not something new, and it is actually a characteristic of Labour government policy over the years. Newsingers conclusion is hopeful; he argues that historically while Empires are brutal, they are also weak. The hope he says must be that those resisting new attempts at neo-colonialism, can eject the oppressors from their lands.

You can read the full article by Karl Marx on the Indian Revolt, September 16th 1857 here.

The second edition of John Newsinger's book is now available from Bookmarks here.

Related Reviews

Newsinger - Fighting Back: The American Working Class in the 1930s
Newsinger - The Dredd Phenomenon: Comics and Contemporary Society

Sunday, May 27, 2007

John Ray - The Rosetta Stone and the rebirth of Ancient Egypt


There is no doubt that the Rosetta Stone has captured the imagination of many thousands of people. It’s intriguing combination of scripts, unreadable except to the expert seem to conceal all the excitement of ancient Egypt. John Ray makes the point at the start of this little history of the Stone, that it is probably the British Museum’s most popular object. Certainly sales of Rosetta Stone postcards, mouse mats and t-shirts must bring in tremendous funds for the museum.

This is one of the excellent series of books on the “Wonders of the World”. However, I am not sure that it works in this context, as well as some of the others – however important the Rosetta Stone is to archaeology, it is not the Roman Colosseum or The Parthenon.

That said, the story of the stone (and the “rebirth of Ancient Egypt” that took place as a result of its study) is fascinating. While the inscription on the stone isn’t as exciting as perhaps we’d hope, the combination of three written languages allowed the unlocking of the language of the Ancient Egyptians. This in turn allowed scholars to read the words of the Egyptians for the first time since antiquity and in turn, re-opened their world to study.

John Ray does a superb job of bring the story of the translation into the open. Two main characters dominate, the Englishman Thomas Young, described accurately as a “polymath”, who started the process of unlocking the mysteries of Hieroglyphics and the Frenchman Jean-Francois Champollion, who perhaps single handed created the arena of history now known as Egyptology.

John Ray takes us through how they worked out the meaning of the words – first translating the ancient Greek, then gradually associating the different Hieroglyphics with the intermediary demotic script. We also read a potted history of other attempts to translate ancient writings and get a short breakdown of the step-by-step processes that are used. We also get a fleeting history of Egypt. The Egypt of the Pharaohs (and the sort of things they wrote about, including an amusing account of Egyptian erotica) and the Egypt that was fought over by French and British colonialism. A conflict that eventually lead to the Rosetta Stone spending the last two centuries in the British Museum.

John Ray also briefly examines the thorny question of who should own the Stone, or similar artefacts. Should they be returned to their country of origin? Can anyone really “own” such items? John ducks the issue slightly I feel .Certainly I think that Egypt has a greater claim on the Rosetta Stone than some of the more complex examples he raises. The Stone was imperial plunder from the region, and certainly Egypt’s museums are more than capable of looking after it and similar items.

But this is really a digression from what is an entertaining, informative and well-written account of one of the most important archaeological pieces in museums anywhere. Uniquely, its importance, as John Ray points out, isn’t simply about the information contained within its inscriptions, but it’s also about the history that has developed around the Stone and what it enabled historians to understand about the past.

Related Reviews

Keith Hopkins & Mary Beard - The Colosseum

Monday, May 21, 2007

Mike Gonzalez - Rebel's Guide To Marx


Mike Gonzalez's contribution to the excellent "Rebel's Guide" series must have been the hardest to even consider. How do you compress the life, times and political thought of one of the world's most important and influential philosophers into a book of less than 50 pages?

I have to say that Gonzalez does well. There are many more indepth and longer biographies of Marx - and the author hasn't tried to out do them, rather he's tried to draw out the key strands of Marx's thought and put them beside a description of how Marx develops politically. Starting from Marx's early student days, Gonzalez looks at how the radicals of the time where starting to view society and life as being based on material realities, he then charts Marx's development along the route of historical materialism.

Gonzalez never pretends Marx was simply a philosopher. Quoting Marx's famous comment "The philosophers have merely interpreted the world... the point is to change it", Gonzalez shows us a Marx immersed in the radical activities of the time, helping to instigate the First International and attending meetings of the International Working Men's association. Much of Marx's writings come of out these activities - The Communist Manifesto being the best example. But Gonzalez also shows us how Marx's examination of the Paris Commune helps him develop his theories of the state and political organisation.

Ultimately there is much that must be left out. But this is as close to the best short introduction to Karl Marx and his ideas that you can get and Gonzalez gives plenty of other suggestions for further reading.

Releated Reviews

Choonara - A Rebel's Guide to Trotsky
Bambery - A Rebel's Guide to Gramsci
Birchall - A Rebel's Guide to Lenin

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett - Good Omens


This hilarious novel combines a clever spoof of the horror genre (in particular the Omen films) with razor sharp wit centred on the real-life horrors of the 16th Century Witch Trails.

Given the two authors probably haven't written an unfunny word in decades, you'll enjoy this if you need to escape the taxation of reading long books about philosophy, history, or, indeed if you have the 'flu.

I'm actually considering doing one of those lists - Top 100 books to read while sick in bed. This would be in there somewhere.

Of course, this classic (!) tale of good versus evil can't have a simple ending - neither good, nor evil actually wins. But that doesn't matter.

Can anyone tell yet that even though I only finished it yesterday, I am so unwell I've forgotten most of the plot? I also really liked the character of "Dog" - Hell's Hound, who for reasons that I can't go into, is a Yorkshire Terrier. Or some such small dog. Oh I'm giving up and going back to bed, read the Wikipedia entry on it, it's more comprehensive.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Harry Mount - Amo, Amas, Amat... and all that; How to Become A Latin Lover


Harry Mount might well be amused, given his impassioned plea that the end of this book for more people to learn and be taught Latin, that my partner, upon seeing his work on my bedside cabinet assumed that it wasn't about learning a new language at all.

That aside, this is an interesting book about what is commonly joked as being the "dead language". It's a basic introduction to the vocabulary and grammar of, as the author makes clear, the language used to write some of "the most heartbreaking poetry ever written". His style is amusing and accessible - he starts of by translating the tattoo on Angelina Jolie's belly "Quod me nutri me destruit" - "What nourishes me destroys me". Even if you don't know who Angelina Jolie(*) is, you can find amusement in the fact that this inscription was one her heavily pregnant belly.

Unfortunately, at least for me, Harry Mount failed completely to achieve his stated goal. I read this book as an entertaining read - enjoying the explanations of the origins of common words, or famous Latin phrases that we see on a regular basis - but I came away from reading it, not knowing Latin at all, and certainly not inspired to learn or study it further. Perhaps this is my old hatred of foreign languages coming to the fore. Though I would have thought I would have been within Mr. Mount's target group - I do enjoy reading Roman authors in translation, and perhaps I would benefit from reading heartbreaking poetry.

There is interesting stuff here - I now know why there isn't a year zero between 1BC and 1AD for instance, but very little of it is actually about speaking the language.

Finally, Mount's impassioned plea in his final chapter for more Latin teachers, harder Latin examines and more taught Latin doesn't ring true. I take his point, after-all, Latin is something that is required for many other subjects, but I'd rather see an education system that looks forward to new ways of learning and improving education wholesale, rather than harking back to the days of prep-school Latin and enforced translations of Catullus.

(*) A film actress apparently.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Primo Levi - If Not Now, When?


This is a work full of unimaginable pain and suffering. It follows a loose group of Jewish partisans behind German lines in the last few years of World War Two as they attempt to both survive and exact some military suffering on the German occupiers. Then as the war finishes, it follows their slow and difficult journey towards Italy and the hope of a ship to Palestine, where they dream of building a Jewish haven - Israel.

This isn't simply a work about the pain of war, nor the cold of the Soviet winter, though both of these are backdrops to an intense, difficult story. This is the story of people who have seen and survived horrors which we can't comprehend. The young Jew who watched the SS (boys scarcely older than himself) murder his family, the older Russian soldier who escaped a POW camp, and the man who watched all the Jews from his village forced to dig their own mass grave, before the Einsatzgruppen shot them all.

But these are people who don't give up. In contrast to those who would portray the victims of the Holocaust as men and women who meekly went to their deaths, Primo Levi celebrates those who never gave in. Those who fought back, those who took part in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and those who believed that Nazism could be stopped.

But we are also confronted with other difficult facts. The liberating Russian army was as likely to lock up Jews, the defeated German villagers would still take pot-shots at Jews and for all the Zionist talk of Israel, the British made it hard for those who had escaped persecution to try and find refugee in Palestine.

Because this novel's characters are living, breathing individuals, who debate history, politics and religion, who question everything around them, it is much more than a simple tale of war. And because this was the most brutal of wars, the characters are never simple. They love, hate and seek revenge. But they also have hope. It's this hope that keeps them fighting and the novel is brilliant enough to fuel our hope that we can stop fascism, racism and anti-Semitism wherever they raise their head.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Thomas Mann - Death in Venice and Other Stories


From the evidence of this collection of stories, Thomas Mann was not a happy chap. Or at the very least, he enjoyed discussing the inner conflicts of man, and those emotions that could tear the best of people apart.

Saying that though, Thomas Mann clearly is one of the 20th Century’s greatest writers – his text reads almost poetically, though the subject is often heartrendingly painful.

Here for instance, are the opening sentences from his 1897 short story Der Bajazzo (The Joker)

“The end of it all, the upshot of life – of my life – is the disgust with which it fills me. A worthy ending indeed! Disgust with it all, disgust with the whole thing, this disgust that chokes me, goads me to frenzy and casts me down again into despair – sooner or later, no doubt , it will give me the necessary impetus to cut short the whole ridiculous, contemptible business and clear out for good.”

Such an passionate suicide note at the start of a story, indicates that it might not have the happiest of ending. But the genius perhaps of Mann, is to use such emotions to illuminate the human condition.

The titular story, Der Tod in Venedig, (Death in Venice) written in 1912, far surpasses the other tales in this collection. The story of the aged writer, reflecting back on his life in the glorious city of Venice, while falling in love with a beautiful teenager holidaying there was itself turned by Visconti into one of the greatest films ever made. This isn’t surprising – the theme which mixes the beauty of the city, with it’s rotting core, and the impossible love for a young man with the growing pestilence around them – mixes up just about every emotion that can be thought of in a single tale.

Few can read a work like this without wondering at the inner turmoil of the writer, but whatever the authors own emotions; these are works that make the reader reflect on the very feelings that make us human.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

John Bellamy Foster – Ecology Against Capitalism


This collection of essays on a general theme of capitalism and the environment was first printed in 2002, though all the essays are from the previous decade. They predate, but predict many of the arguments that are emerging on the left (and within the wider environmental movement) as issues such as Global Warming become a serious mainstream political issue.

However the essays differ from many of the works coming out at the moment about the environment. In particular, they centre on what I believe should become a major debate within the environmental movement – whether capitalism can solve the environmental crisis we face.

Bellamy Foster is excellent on this question, which is approached from a number of different angles in the different essays. He examines for instance, how economists attempt to make the environment part of the market, so as to make a profit from it. He quotes Marx:

“For the first time nature becomes purely an object for humankind, purely a matter of utility; ceases to be recognised as a power for itself; and the theoretical discovery of its autonomous laws appears merely as a ruse so as to subject it under human needs whether as an object of consumption or as a means of production”

All the essays are fantastically written, clear, concise and informative. Several in particular deserve particular mention “Global Ecology and the Common Good” is a brilliant counter argument to the idea that “we are all in it together”. “Capitalism’s Environmental Crisis – IS Technology the Answer” looks at whether simple technological improvements or innovations can provide solutions. He examines the so-called “Jevons Paradox” which argues that the consequences of technological innovation in improving fossil fuel efficiency has led to more fuel being burnt (as it becomes cheaper and more profitable to use it), rather than reduction in it’s use.

Finally, the essay which Bellamy Foster wrote to mark the 200th anniversary of Malthus’s Essays on Population is an excellent rejoinder to those who, still today, argue that the environmental crisis we face is a consequence of over-population, rather than an economic system that destroys everything in it’s path in the drive for profit.

Bellamy Foster is absolutely convincing on this. There cannot be a good capitalism, nor can there be good capitalists. The exploitation of the earth’s natural resources, in an inefficient, unsustainable way is part and parcel of the mechanisms at the heart of society. The ultimate “saving of the planet” will only be won, through the destruction of that system and it’s replacement with one based on need, not greed.