Tuesday, February 26, 2008
I suspect that few boys have read the novels of Rider Haggard through the years and not dreamed that they would one day cross deserts, fight in battles and explore strange countries. The reality of escapist adventure though, is that it is the stuff of dreams, not normal life and the closest most people get to adventure is running for the bus in the morning.
Fitzroy Maclean however was a real life adventurer. His career reads like the mad out-pourings of a Victorian thriller writer, but in the early 1930s he had travels and adventures that seem almost impossible.
Clearly born to the better end of society, Maclean joined the Diplomatic Service with a view to serving the British Empire. In his early twenties, he yearned to visit the Soviet Union, and surprised many by volunteering to work at the embassy in Moscow. It wasn’t a popular destination and he was able to get posted there.
The first pages of the book are his fascinating account of his train journey from Paris to Moscow. Once there, he interspersed his diplomatic work with barely legal trips into the Russian east. He visits Kazakstan, Samarkand, Baku and many other famous (but by then almost impossible destinations). Along the way he dodges the Soviet agents sent to track him down, meets all manner of locals and uses every dodge he can come up with the see parts of the world few westerners could visit.
While in Moscow, during a break from his adventurers, he witnesses the final show trial, at which Stalin consolidated his power. The chapter describing the “Trial of the Twenty-One” is a must for anyone interested in socialist history, describing as it does the great lengths that Stalin was prepared to go to, in order to destroy his opponents, and the manner in which friend became victim. Of the twenty one on trial, Maclean devotes some time to Nikolai Bukharin, once a leading Bolshevik intellectual who capitulated to Stalinism. Maclean describes how Bukharin repeatedly runs rings around the prosecutor's invented stories, but is unable to break out, fearing, Maclean feels, to criticise the Soviet Union even though it had by then strayed far from the orginial socialist vision.
Few were brave enough to believe that Stalin had destroyed genuine socialism, like Trotsky argued. But Maclean shows that even when they had been completely crushed, the old revolutionary spirit could still show itself.
At the outbreak of World War Two Maclean is back in London and discovers he is unable to join the military due to his important foreign office role. Discovering a loop-hole that means he cannot remain in his post if he stands for electoral office, he resigns to fight a seat for the Tories and wins. Soon after becoming an MP he is called up for service and ends up in the Western Deserts of Libya with the SAS and the Long Range Desert Group.
Further “boys own” adventures occur, until he is plucked out of this hell hole and parachuted into Yugoslavia on the personal orders of Winston Churchill to aid and abet the guerilla forces sabotaging the German war effort there.
Maclean quickly becomes indespensible to Tito the Guerilla leader as a conduit for weapons and resources and spends the rest of the war fighting with the partisans against the Germans. He is even present with a British Jeep at the Russian liberation of Belgrade.
Fitzroy Maclean, SAS soldier, Tory MP, friend of Churchill and Tito lead a life full of excitement and adventurer. His book is a fascinating insight into the nuances of an amazing period of history, even if his ideas and politics aren’t something that I can share. I recommend it as a piece of history as well as adventure.
Monday, February 18, 2008
Before he became Karl Marx's friend and closest collaborator, Frederick Engels had already achieved more in his life than most philosophers do in decades of thinking. This book, his first major work, is nothing less than a classic work of social investigation. It wasn't the first book to document the poverty and alienation of the emerging working classes, but it was the first to do so with an explicit attempt to understand the role of workers under the newley emerging capitalist system. In part, this was to explain and document this new social situation for those outside England where industrial capitalism had yet to take hold, but in part it is clearly a stage of Engels' thinking as he grasps towards the theory that would ultimately become Marxism.
The major parts of the book that deal with the conditions of people's lives in the mid-1800s are horrific. Walking the streets of Manchester today, it's impossible to comprehend the lives of those who lived in the slums that made up so much of the town. Engels mainly looks at Manchester as it was both the city where he worked (in his father's business) and the foremost industrial city of the world.
One brief passage would serve to get a taste of Engels' descriptive powers:
"In one of these courts there stands directly at the entrance, at the end of the covered passage, a privy without a dorr, so dirty that the inhabitants can pass into and out of the court only by passing through foul pools of stagnant urine and excrement...... below it on the river there are several tanneries which fill the whole neighbourhood with the stnech of animal putrefaction."
This description of the area around Ducie Bridge in central Manchester continues in this vein for many paragraphs because this was typical of working class areas of the time - left, effectively to rot.
Themes that are to become central to the Marxist thought that Marx and Engels develop later are touched on here. The atomisation of the worker that leads him or her to compete with others, turning them against those who should really be allies.
Talking of London he writes "The dissolution of mankind into monads of which each one has a separate principle and a separate purpose, the world of atoms, is here carried out to its utmost extreme"
The role of the family as both a haven from the horrors of working life and a source of pain, stress and suffering. The way that physical work distorts both physically and mentally, and the way that the factory owner makes profits from the exploitation of the thing that makes the worker human.
In the 1840s, Manchester was a source of immense profit for a few capitalists. Yet none of this significantly improved the lives of those who created this wealth. Engels' documents the medical and scientific reports that show how human life was stunted and deformed by the repetative, back breaking jobs. Constantly in this work, we find Engels raging at those responsible for the wretched lives of the workers.
"During my residence in England, at least twenty or thirty persons have died of simple starvation under the most revolting circumstances, and a jury has rarely been found posessed of the courage to speak the plain truth in the matter. Let testimony of the witnesses be never so clear and unequivocal, the bourgeoisie, from which the jury is selected, always finds some backdoor through which to escape the frightful verdict, death from starvation".
Engels' hatred of the consequences of capitalism and the rise of these giant industrial cities lies alongside his understanding that for a socialist society to emerge the force to create it must be created. He understands that only in these industrial towns does the concentration of economic power in the hands of thousands of men and women give the proletarian movement the hope of success. To this extent the book is also a celebration of working class revolt. However it's in this context I mention one thing that slightly surprised me - this is Engels' description of the Irish in the book.
Marx and Engels, writing years after the completion of this work, understood that the racism directed towards the Irish was a huge weakening factor in the unity of workers. It damaged their movement, distracted from the real enemies and was artificially stoked by the media and the ruling class of the times, for precisely those reasons.
However in passages in this book, the young Engels certainly echoes some of those prejudices.
"These Irishmen who migrate for fourpence to England, on the deck of a steamship on which they are often packed like cattle, insinuate themselves everywhere. The worst dwellings are good enough for them; their clothing causes them little trouble, so long as it holds together by a single thread; shoes they know not; their food consists of potatoes and potatoes only; whatever they earn beyond these needs they spend on drink. What does such a race want with high wages?"
Given that this is could be the worst racism directed at more recent immigrants to these shores, it's important to venture the opinion that this was very much Engels at a young age. His ideas were not fully rounded and perhaps he reflected the awful prejudices of the time, and his class (he was after all from the factory owners, not the factory hands). Later in his life, he explicitly rejected such ideas and indeed had a lifelong relationship with an Irish woman, Mary Burns.
The work is clearly an important one, not simply for the documentation of the life of the workers of early capitalism, but for an understanding of the development of Marxism and also to show that Frederick Engels, a man who all to often stands in the shadow of his friend and collaborator, was also a man of formidable skills.
For those who would like to know more about the life of Frederick Engels I would recommend this article by Lindsey German.
Engels - The Condition of the Working Class in England
Hunt - TheFrock-coated Communist: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels
Wednesday, February 13, 2008
This is the first Alastair Reynolds work that I have read that isn't set in his future history set in the so called "Redemption Ark" universe.
It's really a three part novel that starts moving very slowly and gathers pace, until the end, which is extremely fast moving. This is only in part due to the immense acceleration in space/time that the principle characters experience.
The title refers to the particular employment of the "Rockhopper" and her crew. Rockhopper is a fairly beaten up space-craft that really could do with a re-fit (think the space-craft in Alien for instance). It's crewed by a dedicated band of miners whose job is to manouvere comets into earth orbit.
The opening chapters describe the fairly mundane work that goes on, until Janus, an unusual moon of Saturn, starts to leave the solar system. Clearly under some form of alien propulsion, Rockhopper and her crew give chase. They're the only humans near enough to possibly get close to the rapidly disappearing Janus.
What's interesting, is that while this is a fairly normal plot device for SF (remember Rendevouz with Rama and its sequels anyone?) Reynold's adds some interesting twists. Firstly, unlike Arthur C Clarkes famous book, the people who explore Rama, sorry Janus, are very much fleshed out characters. The main storyline, other than humans travelling across the universe trying to investigate strange alien space craft, is that of the conflict between two women for control of the space craft. There aren't really any good or bad people in this - just those who have difference ideas of how best to save their own lives, but this makes for a much more human SF than normal.
There is, disappointingly little information on what the Janus spacecraft is eventually. I kept hoping for some big explanation about what was going on. When it finally comes, the story has, to be honest moved on to a different arc, and dramatically changed it's course. So I felt it was a little lacking in clear explanations to why a moon of Saturn suddenly left the solar system at great speed.
This is a good bit of writing, from a SF author who is clearly writing at his best. I look forward to more of these standalone novels, just as much as I look forward to the next Redemption Ark book.
Reynold - Galactic North
Reynolds - Redemption Ark