Sunday, June 18, 2017

Philip Pullman - The Subtle Knife

The Subtle Knife is where Philip Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy moves from a slightly foreboding children's fantasy to a truly dark, frightening story. The story moves rapidly between worlds; initially we encounter Will in our own Earth, then we move to the world Lyra has escaped too, but this is haunted by phantoms that prey on adults and children on the cusp of puberty.

Despite its familiarity, Will's world is a dark one too. His mother has some form of delusional illness, and as it becomes clear that the family is being targeted because his absent father had found some secret information, Will's life suddenly becomes terribly uncertain. Putting his mother in a place of safety Will accidentally finds his way to Lyra's world and receives a powerful tool that allows him to travel between worlds.

Back in Will's Oxford, scientist Mary Malone is on the verge of discovering that her Earth is actually linked to all the others, and that the object of her studies - dark matter, Dust, is a clue to how everything hangs together. This in turn makes her the target of unknown forces and she too escapes into an alternative space.

The rest of the novel which further illuminates the relationship of these key individuals too each other and the wider battle that is taking place, a battle in a war that transcends the different universes.

As in most trilogies, book two is a bridge between the beginning of a novel and the climax. But Pullman expertly uses this to flesh out the universe. While setting it in a dark fantasy universe, the novel is particularly effective because it plays on the fears of every child - the lose of ones parents, fear of the unknown and, in particular, the unfathomable conspiracies of adults. There's a particularly clever approach by creating monsters that only attack adults, and children growing into adulthood. A memorable scene has these otherwise invisible creatures clustering around a unknowing boy who is on the verge of becoming a man. In a few weeks they'll destroy him, but in the meantime he runs and plays with the others.

It is no wonder that Pullman's Dark Materials have become classics. They turn the ordinary into the extraordinary, and leave every reader yearning for more. The Subtle Knife lays the basis for the most powerful of the trilogy and its impossible not to immediately reach for The Amber Spyglass as soon as this is finished.

Related Reviews

Pullman - The Northern Lights

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Pamela Horn - Joseph Arch

The life of Joseph Arch, agricultural labourer, Methodist preacher, trade union leader and liberal MP, is a fascinating one that Pamela Horn tells with her usual readable and engaging style. Horn notes that Arch was prone to over emphasise his own importance, particularly in terms of the founding and development of the National Agricultural Labourers Union that he helped found. So it is useful that Horn provides a good account of the pre-history of rural trade unionism, and the struggles of agricultural labourers.

The NALU and rural trade unionism in general was a central part of Arch's life. These arose out of necessity - the appalling poverty of rural life, in particular the low wages of agricultural workers. Horn had two strategies for dealing with this. The first was trade unionism, so that workers could come together to struggle for higher wages, particularly through strikes. Secondly, the extension of the voting franchise to male agricultural workers. There were some secondary strategies, one of which was emigration, particularly the United States and Canada. The other was migration within the United Kingdom, usually to urban industry.

Arch was sceptical of socialism as outlined by the Webbs in the late 19th century, but his politics were generally on the left. Like his hero, Gladstone, he was a champion of Irish Home Rule, even when this put him at odds with his core supporters. He was, like most at the time, however more backward about issues such as the women workers, believing they should remain in the family home. He never abandoned the trade union cause, though late in his life he became extremely cynical about workers, feeling they had abandoned him. When Arch was elected an MP he was frequently extremely poor, as MPs were not paid and he had no independent income save a small, irregular wage from the union.

But the main story here is that of the NALU. This rose rapidly, growing on the major outbreak of class struggle - the Revolt of the Fields, that is forever associated with Joseph Arch's leadership. The union grew rapidly and quickly took on a national importance. It's newspaper was read by tens of thousands, even being sold by WH Smiths in the train stations. The NALU won some initial wage rises, though it was part of some bitter strikes. Arch however was prone to personal feuds and sectarianism, both of which helped undermine his position. He was frequently accussed of living a high-life at the expense of his poverty stricken union members. There was some truth to this, particularly as Arch clearly loved being in the lime-light - he was also, in later years, very pleased with the friendship of the Prince of Wales.

The NALU declined with membership falling from a peak of around 86,000 in 1874 to 1,100 in 1894. The decline hurt Arch enormously, though he clearly had no strategy for turning this around other than exorting labourers to join. The decline of the union is clearly related to the decline in class struggle, alongside slight improvements in the economic situation.

Arch's career in parliament was relatively lacklustre. During his first period in office he made an excellent maiden speech (reproduced by Horn) on the condition of the agricultural labourer. Yet in his latter years following his second election, he was remarkably quiet, speaking on only a few occasions. Despite his earlier temperance, Arch became known for heavy drinking in London, and though he clearly loved the limelight and the acquaintance of famous figures, he remained relatively tied to his roots. Only ever appearing in his famous brown suit. Following retirement, Arch lived on a small income from a fund setup by his liberal friends. He was able, probably unlike most of those who had been his union members, to survive to a ripe old age, and his death was in 1919, by which time the English countryside had been transformed once again.

Arch's story is of interest because he, almost by accident, found himself at the head of a mass movement. To his credit he threw his enormous energy and talents into building and strengthening the union movement in difficult conditions. Horn celebrates this, while acknowledging the weaknesses of Arch's personality and politics. We should remember him as a pioneer from whose life we can learn much.

Related Reviews

Horn - Life and Labour in Rural England 1760 - 1850
Horn - The Rural World - Social Change in the English Countryside 1780 - 1850

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Francis Parkman, Jr. - The Oregon Trail

This fascinating account of North America in the mid 19th century is a description of Francis Parkman's expedition into lands remote from the eastern "settlements". Parkman initially accompanies the settlers' heading west towards Oregon, and his accounts are fascinating insights into how the settlers viewed the world, and how they themselves were seen. It's notable, in this description how Parkman sees the settlers as only being interested in personal gain:
Yankee curiosity was nothing to theirs. They demanded our names, where we came from, where we were going and what was our business. The last query was particularly embarrassing; since travelling in that country, or indeed any where, from any other motive than gain, was an idea of which they took no cognisance. Yet they were fine-looking fellows, with an air of frankness, generosity and even courtesy, having come from one of the least barbarous of the frontier counties.
That said, he is scornful of them at times:
On visiting the encampment we were at once struck with the extraordinary perplexity and indecision that prevailed among the emigrants. They seemed like men totally out of their element; bewildered and amazed, like a troop of schoolboys lost in the woods.
Parkman's trek did actually have a purpose. It was, in part, simply about a young man with money wanted to see the wilderness. At the same time, it was the opportunity to hunt as many animals as possible, particularly buffalo.  Ironically, he, like many of his contemporaries shared a belief that these animals were so numerous that they could be killed without consequence - "Thousands of them might be slaughtered without causing any detriment to the species".

But it for Parkman's commentary on the Native Americans which this book shall likely be chiefly remembered. Parkman went to live with one of the tribes he encountered for a number of months. He rode with them, ate with them, hunted with them and watched their preparations for war. His accounts are frequently sympathetic, though he essentially sees them as a backward, savage race with childlike simplicity. The Native Americans, are, in Parkman's eyes untrustworthy, bloodthirsty, and prone to robbery. He also understood that things were changing:
These men were thorough savages. Neither their manners nor their ideas were in the slightest degree modified by contact with civilisation. They knew nothing of the power and real character of the white men, and their children would scream in terror at the sight of me. Their religion, their superstitions and their prejudices were the same that had been handed down to them from immemorial time. They fought with the same weapons that their fathers fought with, and wore the same rude garments of skins.
Great changes are at hand... With the stream of emigration to Oregon and California, the buffalo will dwindle away, and the large wandering communities who depend on them for support must also be broken and scattered.The Indians will soon be corrupted by the example of the whites, abased by whisky and overawed by military posts.
There's no doubt that Parkman sees this as a good thing. White civilisation was to be emulated and aspired too - its reality was to be contrasted with the barbarism of Native American life. Sadly, while Parkman's book is full of interesting observation about Native American life in this period and with the tribes he encounters, its tempered by his racism and white supremacy. So read this book for the descriptions and the account of a country in the process of huge transformation, but do so knowing that opinions like Parkman's would help destroy the lives of tens of thousands of people, and the environment they depended on.

Related Reviews

McLynn - Wagons West
Cronon - Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West
Cronon - Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England
Tully - Crooked Deals and Broken Treaties

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Joyce Marlow - The Tolpuddle Martyrs

Joyce Marlow's history of The Tolpuddle Martyrs is a classic of its period. It tells the story of the Martyrs well, allowing for occasional bits of speculation by the author. The problem for those writing about the Martyrs is two-fold. Firstly there have been numerous books, plays and articles. Secondly the material itself is relatively thin.

The primary source for most authors are the pamphlets written by George Loveless and four of the other martyrs. Loveless was the key figure in the Martyrs' case, a principled and quietly heroic individual, he wrote a short, very readable, memoir of his role.

Unfortunately this is brief and while detailed in places, Marlow is right to point out that being written in hindsight we cannot necessarily take it always at face value. That said, she puts it to good use and frames a much more detailed account around it. Marlow's additional sources, mostly including contemporary newspapers and legal records help fill out the story.

Like other authors she sees the persecution of the Tolpuddle labourers as very much about an attempt to drive the nascent agricultural union movement underground. Unlike most other writers of the period she also understands that the union movement saw in the Tolpuddle case the opportunity for self promotion. The six men were safe for the union movements' leaders. They weren't violent, they didn't burn down threshing machines and the solidarity movement that grew up to demand their return was the very model of how to campaign within the system.

This is not to downplay the movement. In fact, one of the strengths of Marlow's book is that she has great detail of the solidarity campaign itself. This involved mass protest, systematic petitioning (at least 800,000 people signed one or other of the numerous petitions presented to parliament), hundreds of meetings and the use of public protest alongside of agitation within parliament.

Once free, the Martyrs became symbols of the need for trade unionism, though Marlow points out that in agriculture the government was successful in undermining the union movement. It was forty years before Joseph Arch's agricultural worker's union was the become the site for new battles with the landowners and the bosses.

Marlow's book is an easy read. It's very dated by today's standards, and in places the language would be considered quite inappropriate for a left wing author. But there is plenty of material here, and some useful background reading and history.

Related Reviews

Norman - George Loveless
Thompson - The Making of the English Working Class
Hammond & Hammond - The Village Labourer

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Philip Pullman - Northern Lights

Ahead of Philip Pullman releasing the companion books to the His Dark Materials trilogy I've been re-reading the original novels, ones that I last read nearly 15 years back and have held a special place in my heart since then. As Heraclitus famously said, you cannot stand in the same river twice. And the same is true of favourite novels. They might be enjoyed just as much, but the context is never the same. Reading Northern Lights in 2017 I am reminded of the power of Pullman's writing. Given he is addressing a young person's audience he never patronises his reader, assuming that they are just as capable of understanding big concepts as any adult.

As a result, the books are powerful meditations on what it is to be human. Lyra, the major character in Northern Lights comes from a wealthy, closeted community. Her understanding of the real world is filtered by a privileged ability to dip in and out of other peoples lives. But always able to return to the safety of her life in one of Oxford's colleges. Thus readers can identify with her adventures exploring the roofs and cellars of the crumbling buildings, but identify more closely with her playmates. Which makes the shock of what happens to them even more striking.

Oxford here, is not of course, our Oxford. Rather its a different world where people's personalities are extended outside their bodies into animal familiers. These daemons think and act independantly, but act very much as a part of the person. While initially these seem like an amusing fantasy element to a slightly steampunk alternative universe, daemons increasingly become central to the books.

Enveloping all of this is the wider social structure. The suffocating influence of the church across science and society is unravelled not through Pullman explaining it all in a clunky chapter giving the background to the novel, but through Lyra's eyes as her understanding of the world is gradually undermined by reality. Its possible to see the Dark Materials novels as a kind of alternative story of the Reformation and Renaissance, as the old religious ideas are confronted and challenged by new technologies and science. As this takes place the whole of society is shaken. The genius of the novel is that this is the backdrop, and Lyra's adventures are the front stage. If you haven't read these books, throw yourself in, whatever your age, before Pullman's follow ups become the publishing event of the year.

Related Reviews

Pullman - The Ruby in the Smoke