Thursday, August 29, 2019

Brett Christophers - The New Enclosure: The Appropriation of Public Land in Neoliberal Britain

One of the things that has made Jeremy Corbyn a popular Labour politician over the last few years has been his commitment to renationalise those industries that were privatised by previous Tory and Labour governments.

But what was the biggest of these privatisations? Brett Christophers shows that it is the one that no-one has ever heard of - the privatisation of public land. He goes on to argue that this has had far reaching consequences that have big implications for society. Let's note the scale of this privatisation.
Since Margaret Thatcher entered Downing Street in 1979, and continuing all the way to the present day, the state has been selling public land to the private sector. It has sold vast quantities - some 2 million hectares, or about 10 per cent of the entire British land mass.... my best estimate... is that, at today's prices, the land that has been sold is likely to be worth something in the order of £400 billion, or the equivalent of more than twelve RBSs [the bank privatised following it's government bailout in 2008].
This staggering sell-off has gone almost unnoticed, even by those academics and activists who write and campaign about privatisation. This is surprising not simply because of the scale of the privatisation, but because, as Christophers points out, "one cannot grasp actually existing patterns of socioeconomic inequality without factoring in landownership." Owning land, grants a number of things onto the owner - income, usually in the form of rent is the most obvious, but Christophers argues, more importantly land ownership,
also confers a set of powers of much more far-reaching scope: namely, to play a meaningful part in shaping the economic, social and ecological development of communities, regions and even nations. This is not just a question of power, but also of privilege.
It is not surprising then that even before the neo-liberal era began with Thatcher's election, the question of public land was already being discussed. Nor is it surprising that Thatcher and those who followed in her footsteps were keen to facilitate the selling off of land in order to grant that power and privilege to their wealthy friends in big-business.

The first section of Christophers book is a study of various attempts to understand land ownership in the context of capitalism. He draws heavily on the ideas of Karl Marx, Adam Smith and more recent authors like Karl Polanyi and David Harvey to explore this. One of his interesting conclusions is that public land is good for capitalism. He quotes Allen Scott who says, [public ownership of urban land is]... a collectively rational and necessary response within capitalism to the prevailing patter of fragmented, dispersed and privatised landownership... to ensure the achievement of he overriding capitalistic goal of unhindered expansion of the bases of commodity production". But neo-liberalism is anything but rational when looked at in wider context of society.

At the start of the Thatcher era, public landownership was at an all time high. The public sector, with organisations such as the Ministry of Defence or the Forestry Commission, owned "as much as a fifth of all British land." Sections of the civil service and the Tory Party had been sowing the ground for this moment. The concept of "surplus land" had been created, the idea that the public sector, particularly local government, had lots of land that was unused, and being hoarded. The very existence of this "surplus land" was holding society back and it should be freed up. The concept continues up until today. In 2014, the Tory MP Mark Prisk moaned that "the public sector is continuing to hoard surplus land and buildings".

But the consequence of the massive sell off of land is actually that the private sector has ended up being the real hoarders. To sweeten the sell-off of land (often done as part of wider privatisations such as railway or NHS sell offs) various governments have promised that the land will be used for house-building. The reality is that little has actually been used for this and much land remains held by private companies who are speculating in land, or getting improvements (like planning permission) so they can make a profitable sale even though nothing has been built.

The story of land privatisation is closely tied up with the story of the sell-off of council homes. Space precludes a detailed discussion of this here. But the sell-off of these homes to private business has ended up reducing the availability of housing for the poorest in society. One quoted report from December 2015 shows that "Britain's biggest house-builders owned enough land to build more than 600,000 new homes." Few of these are actually likely to be built as these companies build slowly to maximise profits by keeping demand, and hence prices, up.

Post 2008 austerity politics has made the situation worse. Governments have encouraged local authorities to sell off land to help pay for front-line services starved of cash (though they've only been able to do this explicitly since 2016). At the same time it is extremely difficult for LAs to buy land and use it for social needs because they are not on a level playing field with private sector, which as Christophers points out, is why golf courses cover ten times more land than local authorities. 

Christophers concludes that the consequence of the self off of public land has been to help transform British society into a rentier economy, as well as increase "social dislocation" and business "land hoarding". A small number of multinationals and individuals have made vast amounts of money from this process. This is no surprise. If you turn public land into a commodity than the capitalists will treat it like one, and that never benefits the majority of society.

I didn't expect to be cheered by Brett Christophers book. It is yet another insight into how successive governments have destroyed wider society through prioritising the economic interests of big business. But I did find it a really insightful book that demonstrated exactly how thought through the strategy of privatisation was and how the selling off of assets like land has helped to create the disenfranchised, economically depressed and atomised societies of today. The solutions are less obvious, but surely will begin with a future government quickly reversing privatisations and clawing back the land and other resources that were sold off. That will not be an easy process as those corporations will want to hold on to the wealth they've taken from us. Brett Christophers book tells us exactly why reversing the "new enclosure" is an urgent and necessary task.

Related Reviews

Shrubsole - Who Owns England?
Linklater - Owning the Earth
Klein - The Shock Doctrine
Jones - Chavs
Minton - Ground Control: Fear and Happiness in the Twenty-First-Century City
Hanley - Estates: An Intimate History

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Thomas Firbank - I Bought a Star

I Bought a Star is the follow up to Thomas Firbank's much better known book I bought a Mountain. In that book Firbank told the story of how he bought a sheep farm in mid-Wales in the early 1930s and turned it into a thriving concern just in time for the start of World War Two. This book begins with Firbank hiding in France after his marriage fell apart and he'd left the farm. There are few mentions as to this sudden turnaround - readers of the first book will be left surprised at the sudden end to what seemed a successful marriage and joint-management of the farm. His former wife, Esme Cummin's remained at the farm and became a significant conservationist figure for Wales.

The German invasion of France leads to Firbank leaving his self imposed exile with a nearly unbelievable drive back to the channel ports, along with the young daughter of an acquaintance who wants her to reach England. Firbanks seems to revel in proving his chilvarous qualities, and safely escorts the woman to England where he travels around London trying to join the army. Eventually he joins the Guards regiment (though knowing an acquaintance and being the author of that book) which ends up with him guarding Buckingham Palace on a night it was bombed. Eventually because of his experiences mountaineering, Firbanks ends up in the 1st Airborne and sees action in Italy, followed by a slightly more sedate service on the fringes of Arnhem. The book ends with Firbank leaving the parachute training school that he ends up running.

Sadly despite all this action, it's a much less interesting book than I Bought a Mountain. Part of the problem is that this is just the story of someone's experience during the War which isn't that exceptional. The action scenes are limited and Firbank's general musings are less interesting than when applied to the landscape and labour of a Welsh hill-farm. More importantly Firbank's somewhat pompous attitude to those he disagrees really begins to grate.

I was annoyed, for instance, at the section when he encounters a group of "socialists" whom he disagrees with greatly. While I'd disagree with the version of socialism these individuals espouse, the dismissal of them (and socialism in general) by Firbank is patronising to the extreme - and mirrors his attitude to those he disagrees with elsewhere.

All in all this is a disappointing book, probably only of interest to those who enjoyed the first part of his autobiography and want some continuity and closure.

Related Review

Firbank - I Bought a Mountain

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Robert Poole - Peterloo: The English Uprising

During the massacre of peaceful protesters by cavalry and yeomanry at St. Peter's fields in Manchester on August 16 1819, several cavalrymen answered cries for mercy with the chilling response:

"If we let you go, you will come again some other time."

It's a telling comment that neatly sums up the reasons behind what became known as the Peterloo massacre. Peterloo was, in the words of EP Thompson, "class war", and it was the culmination of an extended period of class conflict that raged across England, but was particularly focused in the north-west. Some people have been sceptical about the title of Robert Poole's new book because "Uprising" implies for them a insurrectionist revolutionary moment. But what Poole shows very clearly is that this was a period of mass working class discontent and the ruling class responded in the most brutal fashion.

Poole puts Peterloo (and the preceding discontent) into a historical context. One of the most important factors is the war with France, and following Linda Colley's book Britons he argues that "arming the people for national defence" against Revolutionary France was a "revolutionary departure, with profound consequences". The government had won the war through mass mobilisation and heavy taxation. The end of the war brought hopes for respite, but it also left a huge number with experience of military mobilisation. But instead of relief came years of austerity. The government "had not fought off revolution abroad in order to concede democracy at home".

Ironically, the hatred of revolutionary abroad exacerbated the response of the government to demands for Reform. Few in London appear to have an sense of a nuanced response to mass petitioning for relief and reform. Today politicians are adept at dangling the hope of future change, but in the post-Napoleonic war period the response was almost always to use force and the law to stop or undermine social movements. Poole argues that this was particularly an issue in Manchester where the Collegiate church ("autocratic, secretive, enterprising and mired in corruption") ran the "greatest village". It was here that "the conflict between property and democracy was played out". There was, suffice to say, little democracy. Manchester's deputy constable, Joseph Nadin "the real ruler of Manchester" according to a contemporary newspaperman, corruptly ran the city with an iron fist. The Manchester oligarchy had "tight control" over local institutions and used them to try and undermine potential discontent where-ever it reared its head. It was this group who made sure the massacre took place, but they did it in the context of national government policy.

Followers of Tom Paine had left a radical tradition across Lancashire, but growing discontent across the region, particularly in the weaving districts, lead to the eruption of new radical groups, publications and, in particular, meetings. Activists like John Cartwright brought the practice of mass petitioning to the manufacturing areas and he and his comrades became adept at finding ways around the limitations imposed by the law. Demands at the time for reform of parliament are often understood as the start of the movement for democracy - this is of course true, and Poole details at length exactly how rotten and corrupt Parliament in the early 19th century was. But he also points out that Reform was also about economic justice. As he points out, the failure of petitioning by Stockport weavers in August 1816 meant that for them reform came to be seen "as the only option for survival". It would also have driven a strong cynicism towards those at the top of society who ignored their impoverishment.

The precise nature of the demands for reform were well thought out. As Poole says, twenty years before the Chartists five of their six demands were being raised at meetings up and down the country. Through the period from 1816 to 1819 there was a groundswell of radical activity, centered on the working class areas of the north-west, demanding change. These meetings were interpreted as revolutionary threats by the government. Poole details the way that the organisers consciously built these up into a mass movement. The August meeting at St Peter's Field in 1819 would be a climatic event that Henry Hunt in particular saw as the point when the government would have to give way.

The problem was that the government had no intention of giving way. Poole shows how the Peterloo massacre became an almost inevitable reaction to a growing mass working class movement.

This was not a challenge for political power. There were revolutionaries who wanted fundamental change and the symbols of the movement, in particularly the red caps of liberty, were understood as representing radical change. As a result pitched battles were fought between government forces and workers at mass meetings over who got the "colours" and Poole quotes many sources from Peterloo about how the yeomanry took revenge for previous failures to get these symbols. But this was not a conscious revolutionary movement.

Hunt's strategy, the "mass platform movement of 1819" had a problem. As Poole explains:
The post-war radical movement made its appeals in the name of 'the people of England' rather than the working class, to the past rather than the future, and to existing constitutional rights rather than new-found revolutionary principles. There was no master plan in 1819. The natural strategy was improvised... Hunt tried to steer a middle way, using sheer force of numbers to persuade the government to back down without getting himself or his followers arrested and with no real idea of how it would all end... Hunt hoped that the threat of insurrection would make military intervention less likely, but from the governments's point of view it made it all the more necessary.
And in August 1819 they did just that. Events at St Peter's Fields were nothing short of premeditated mass murder. The state was teaching the movement a lesson. Hunt's faith "in legal methods" undermined the movement, but that's not to put too much of a blame on him. Hindsight is wonderful, and the government was guilty very much of seeing revolutionary conspiracy where "reformers displayed community".

Two hundred years later, what is the judgement? At the time Peterloo was a massive shock to the movement. But I don't think it was the defeat it is often seen as. The peaceful march to St Peters Fields that was followed by massacre saw an explosion of rioting in the city and there were accounts afterwards of those going home preparing to "return" again but this time with arms. It reminds me of the reaction of the black-working class areas of the United States to the assassination of the pacifist Martin Luther King Jnr. His killing led to an explosion of violence and riot. At the time, the government and its cronies thought they had won. Certainly the media believed it was a famous defeat for reform. But Reform did come and today, with all its limitations, we do have at least limited democracy - thought not yet economic and social justice. In that sense the protesters at Peterloo lost a battle, but the war was won. It is an open question about what might have happened had the movement not had Peterloo. Certainly it would have grown, and might have approached the revolutionary levels that France had experienced. I tend to think that the most likely event would have been a massacre on a different day, in a different place. After all, as Poole shows, Peterloo was in no sense unique.

The 200th anniversary of Peterloo has been much discussed and there have been some wonderful events and exhibitions across Greater Manchester to mark it. Robert Poole's book is, perhaps the best book ever written on the subject. It's well written, exhaustive and covers every aspect of the movement - from the central (though neglected) role of women in the movements, to the forgotten individuals who shouted the slogan "liberty or death" and meant it. It is a masterpiece of historical writing and should be read, not just by those that want to understand Peterloo but by those who want to see how mass struggle was at the heart of the movements that won the rights we have today.

Related Reviews

Riding - Peterloo: The Story of the Manchester Massacre
Navickas - Protest & the Politics of Space & Place 1789-1848
Hobson - Dark Days of Georgian Britain
Thompson - The Making of the English Working Class
Hammond & Hammond - The Skilled Labourer

John Williams - Stoner

I often devour novels, rushing to find out the ending as quickly as possible. John Williams' Stoner defies this because it gives you the ending on the very first page. The protagonist, William Stoner, dies and this is the story of his undistinguished life. Little noticed at his death, and un-lamented among his family, his name is quickly forgotten. But what Williams shows is that every life, however undistinguished, is one of high-drama - the sort of drama that every human being has as a result of their social networks - their partners, children, colleagues and friends - which is unimportant to most of the rest of humanity, yet is part and parcel of the network of our lives.

Stoner's parents are struggling farmers and manage to send him to agricultural college in the early 20th century. At college he discovers the wonders of English literature and ends up making a career in the university he enters as a young man. He never leaves the town, instead his exploration of the world is through literature. His marriage to Edith is an almost instant failure, marked only by the briefest weeks of passion when she determines to get pregnant.

To the modern reader there is more than the hint of mental health in Edith's life - a situation that is completely unsolvable given the circumstances of 1930s America. Instead the couple muddle along, Edith isolating her and playing games against Stoner, who tries to carry on his career and bring up the daughter he dotes upon. 1930s mores impinge again when Stoner embarks on a beautiful and passionate affair with a young student. The school authorities make it clear that this is unacceptable and she's driven out of the college.

Most reviewers discuss the book in the context of two aspects - the "campus novel" that frames the whole book - Stoner's career and his battles with bureaucracy and his management and it's celebration of literature, explored through William's discovery of books and poetry and his life immersed in the subject. These are absolutely central to the book, but for me this novel was really about alienation - the way that our lives are atomised and decoupled from wider society. Stoner's life is dramatic, but it's isolated and individualised - notably he doesn't serve in either War. His own greatest achievement - the book he authors, and reaches for on his deathbed - is almost completely forgotten by everyone in academia. Yet Stoner is no failure, his personal struggles are ones that he is happy to have made and he can pass away convinced that his life was worthwhile and satisfactory. In writing Stoner's life, John Williams teaches us the importance of every individual within the context of wider society - though he reminds us that society, certainly as it is organised today, doesn't see this importance at all.

It's a beautiful book, neglected during William's own lifetime, and thankfully having had a massive rediscovery since its republication in the 2000s it deserves continued readership. It's likely one of the most poignant I've ever read and I highly recommend it.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Saul David - Victoria's Wars

The period of Queen Victoria's reign 1837 to 1901 saw the consolidation of the British Empire over it's most important possessions, specifically the Indian sub-continent. Full expansion into Asia, the Middle East and Africa was only just beginning, but it was certainly during Victoria's era that the system began to take shape. The period saw the end of the old rule by companies like the East India and the beginning of devolved state power. It also saw the British Army become a modern military - ending antiquated systems like the buying of commissions for officers, uniforms that were more fit for use in the varied climates of the Empire and the use of more modern weaponry.

So Saud David's book covers a fascinating period of social and military transformation. It is accessible, well-written and entertaining. At times the author is prone to turns of phrase that are somewhat uncouth. Were the mutinying soldiers in 1857 joined by "the rabble from the bazaar" or did ordinary people join them? Is it fair, relevant or even appropriate for David to describe Queen Victoria as "far from unattractive (if you liked your women plump and homely, more milkmaid than courtesan)"?

This is very much a military history. The various campaigns are described in detail, particularly some of the key battles. David dwells on the heroism of British (and occasionally allied) troops, particularly given the relevance of the Victoria Cross to the Queen's personal interest in the military. This isn't a particularly left wing or socialist history of the period, though David highlights how the British government's involvement around the world was driven by their desire to protect commercial interests. This is most clear perhaps, in David's chapter on the Opium Wars, he comments, for instance, that Prince Albert feared that the fall of the Chinese Emperor would "usher in the anti-capitalist Taipings, with all the dire consequences that would have for British commerce".  In the event, following the end of four years of war, vast quantities of opium were brought from the British Empire - a vastly profitable industry which proves, once again, that capitalists are quite happy to make money from appalling trades if they are able.

One of the good things about David's book is that he demonstrates just how useless the British command could be. Not a few of the chapters (Afghanistan and the Crimea are cases in point) deal with the debacles that followed British imperial arrogance. It was these that drove military reform, and Albert had a peripheral role in that.

I was less convinced by David's thesis that Victoria played the central role he attributes to her. He argues that she was "shaping, supporting and sometimes condemning her government's foreign policy - but never ignoring it. And through all this she was helped and guided by her talented and hugely underrated husband, Prince Albert". The evidence that David presents does show the Queen closely following events and putting an argument, but I didn't quite feel that he proved his point. In fact, his epilogue where he describes Victoria's Wars as "the flexing of Britain's imperial muscle" and continues to quote Robert Lowe on Imperialism: "the assertion of absolute force over others... to impose our own conditions at the bayonet's point." In other words Victoria's influence may have shaped particularly responses (her indignation during the Crimean War certainly helped transform Britain's activity in the latter half) but the wars arose out of the needs of British capitalism, and were driven by those interests first and foremost.

Readers who are looking for an accessible account of Britain's military actions in the mid to late 19th century will find this a good start, particularly the accounts of the Crimea and the Opium Wars (I was less taken by his analysis of the 'Indian Mutiny' which David appears to see solely as the consequence of conspiracy, rather than the outcome of British rule). But having read this, I'd highly recommend Mike Davies' Late Victorian Holocausts and John Newsinger's The Blood Never Dried - two books that properly put the wars into the context of the emergence of British capital as an international force.

Related Reviews

Macrory - Signal Catastrophe: The Story of the Disastrous Retreat from Kabul 1842

Dalrymple - Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan
Ward - Our Bones Are Scattered: The Cawnpore Massacres & the Indian Mutiny of 1857
Davies - Late Victorian Holocausts

Newsinger - The Blood Never Dried

Thursday, August 15, 2019

George MacDonald Fraser - Flashman

Long standing readers of this blog (I am sure there are some) will know that I have loved the Flashman novels, a collection of outrageous historical fiction that follow the career of the "lovable rogue" Flashman through all the major military events of the 19th century. Some of these I've read and re-read over the years, though I hadn't read the original Flashman book for perhaps 25 years. I picked it up second-hand recently and reading it today I was struck by several things.

The first book which is set immediately after Flashman's fall from grace at university and his enlistment in the army. It follows his accidental and cowardly service in Afghanistan in particular he is at key points in the debacle that leads to the destruction of the entire British Army during the retreat from Kabul. I won't repeat the history here, suffice to say there are several non-fiction books I've reviewed elsewhere on the blog that I recommend listed below and Fraser sticks very close to historical events. I should note, that while reading this I also read Saul David's book Victoria's Wars where he credits the Flashman books as giving him a lifelong fascination with the historical period. I am sure this is true for many readers.

But what struck me on re-reading the first book is how awful Flashman is. In fact he seems far worse than in the later books. His racism is more explicit, his sexism is appalling and in a scene I had forgotten, he rapes a local woman who is betrothed to his arch-enemy. His violence against women isn't limited to Afghans though. In a disturbing scene in England, after he has slept with his father's mistress and been turned down by her another time, he hits her in the face.

I hadn't read the first Flashman novel in almost 20 years and I think Fraser toned things down in later novels - which possibly makes the characterisation far worse in returning to the first book. But I was struck also by Fraser's preface to the new edition. This, the publishers claimed, was found in his study following his death. Fraser gives a potted history of Flashman's origins, and some entertaining stories about those who have analysed the books or believed them to be real. But in responding those who complain that Flashman is a racist Fraser argues "of course he is; why should he be different from the rest of humanity." I was reminded of Fraser's annoying right-wing politics which ruin his memoirs of the Burma conflict.

But most of humanity isn't racist - not in the way that Flashman is or that Fraser seems to think they are.But ost of those who oversaw the British Empire or fought in its wars had appalling views of those they subjugated in this Fraser does manage to capture that about his character, but he plays it for laughs far more than any attempts to expose Flashman's character or the reality of the Empire. In my re-read, Flashman comes out of the book not as the lovable rogue ("coward, scoundrel, toady, lecher and dissembler") that Fraser and many fans imagine, but instead a thoroughly nasty character. In that, at least, he personifies the Empire.

Related Reviews

Fraser - Flashman and the Mountain of Light
Fraser - Flashman and the Tiger
Fraser - Flashman on the March
Fraser - Quartered Safe Out Here
Macrory - Signal Catastrophe; The Story of the Disastrous Retreat from Kabul 1842
Dalrymple - Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Ian Gilligan - Climate, Clothing & Agriculture in Prehistory

Precisely why humans made the transition to agriculture from their historic hunter-gatherer and forager modes of production is a discussion that is endlessly varied and fascinating, if frequently unsatisfying. So it is refreshing to read a genuinely new and incisive incursion into the debate by Ian Gilligan an academic at Sydney University whose specialism is the study of clothing in historical contexts. Gilligan's book focuses on clothing, but covers diverse ground - from the extinction of the Neanderthals, to the way pre-historic tools were used to make clothing, as well as the evolution of early agriculture.

Gilligan's argument is that the development of clothing in pre-history was a key, unrecognised, part of shaping the transition to agriculture. He also shows how the world's climate historically proved central to this. It is rather obvious that colder climates would encourage inhabitants to cover themselves to gain warmth. But the point that Gilligan makes is that the need to wear clothing is driven by a changing climate, which then has wider consequences. He shows how, through history, different groups of people have responded to the need for clothing, beginning with an overview of the science of clothing and precisely how they warm us. This might seem esoteric, but it allows us to gain deeper understandings of how people acted in particularly historical circumstances. For instance, the earliest covering (simple clothing) is simply a fur or skin draped over the body - a cloak for instance.  But this only gives a certain level of protection. Complex clothing requires more complex tools, and also, Gilligan suggests, further human development:
We also lack any indication that complex clothing was invented before our own species appeared... In the northern hemisphere, early hominins appear to have contracted south-wards during the ice ages... despite the fact that these environments were often quite well-stocked with food resources... By implication, clothing was restricted to simple clothing... and indeed we find an absence of the requisite technologies: we find plenty of scrapers, but few blades and no needles.

Later hominins were able to develop clothing into much more complex arrangements - encasing limbs and so on, and using multiple layers to protect themselves, and presumably exploit resources of colder climates. History however doesn't progress in a series of steps forward. Intriguingly Gilligan points out that clothing was frequently abandoned when no longer required as people preferred being naked. But
at the end of the last ice age: some people were wearing complex cloths. Whereas simple loose clothing does not present such a problem with humidity and perspiration, the full enclosure created by complex clothing prevents moisture from escaping very easily. For those people who wanted to keep on wearing cloth, one option was to change back to simple garments. But dropping clothes altogether was no longer an option, for a couple of reasons - including modesty.
Gilligan can only provide scanty evidence for this transition "from shivering to shame". But there may be some truth in it and there certainly appears to have been a change in terms of materials at this point in pre-history. Gilligan describes the "textile revolution" as humanity moved towards woven clothing at the end of the ice-age which solved the problem of moisture. From this point onward we begin to see direct evidence of clothing in the fossil record and some of these are fascinating.

Gilligan argues that the demands of these new clothing would have been an important imperative towards the transition to agriculture. It is commonly thought that people starting farming because it produced more food. But the reality is different - agriculture can actually have the opposite effect through reducing food to a small number of crops and leaving communities reliant on farming success. It also requires a lot more hard work and many historic societies (and even relatively contemporary communities of hunter-gatherers) resisted the transition on the basis of the amount of labour.

Gilligan shows how much of what we know about early agriculture and animal/plant domestication provides evidence for at least being driven by the need to provide material as opposed to simply food. In many cases (eg rearing of animals) food might have been a happy by-product, or a secondary reason. I think Gilligan makes a compelling case. Not least because today people frequently forget or ignore the way that agriculture was (and is) integral to producing material as well as food.

I was less convinced by his argument that a further by-product of the adoption of clothing was to drive a psychological sense of "enclosure". As he writes:
In the broadest sense, agriculture is a likely development among people who are enclosed psychologically by clothes and whose worldview reflects their enclosure. In relation to ethnography this means that agriculture will have no great appeal to people who remain naked.

Since Gilligan has spent the majority of the book showing how the transition to agriculture arises in part out of a need to solve an environmental issue this feels more like shoehorning a psychological answer into a debate that is essentially about the economics (in a broad sense) of early prehistory. It also neglects some examples of how foraging communities did develop early forms of agriculture - eg the planting of seeds which they returned to later in the year. Such communities were likely, on Gilligan's evidence, to be naked.

This criticism aside, Gilligan's book is a really interesting read. It's aimed at the general reader and is very accessible. I was disappointed with some of the images which looked fascinating but where hard to interpret as they are reproduced very small. But this shouldn't detract interested parties from reading a book that covers a huge amount of ground in debating a crucial aspect of human history.

Related Reviews

Bellwood - First Farmers: The Origins of Agricultural Societies
Flannery & Marcus: The Creation of Inequality: How Our Prehistoric Ancestors Set the Stage for Monarchy, Slavery and Empire
Anthony - The Horse, The Wheel and Language
Reynolds - Ancient Farming

Pryor - Farmers in Prehistoric Britain

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

Thomas Firbank - I Bought a Mountain

Thomas Firbank's I Bought a Mountain was a runaway bestseller when it was first published in the midst of World War Two. It must have been the ideal book for those seeking escape from the shortages and danger of wartime life. The book begins with the author purchasing a 2,400 acre Snowdonian sheep farm and follows him, very roughly, through a calendar year (though the story jumps back and forth) as he writes about what takes place on the farm. The accounts of sheep gathering, dipping and selling at market are interpersed with other stories from the farm as Firbanks and his wife Esme Cummins learn how to manage the farm and develop other side projects for more income. Diversification has been a buzz word for years for farmers in the UK, but if I Bought a Mountain tells us anything it's that farmers have been looking for ways to add to their income for as long as there have been farms.

Firbank's writing is entertaining and easy to read. There's plenty of self-deprecating humour thought a little more humour aimed at some of his employees. In fact this highlights one aspect of the book that I found a little troublesome - Firbanks is very much the farmer and owner. Though he certainly works hard and learns the trade, he is also free enough from day to day chores to spend long weekends away with Esme climbing mountains and hill-walking, or driving the length and breadth of the country to buy something for their latest whim. The real workers are those that do all the work, and often get little recompense - likely because they were those who where hired to do whatever the owner needed. I noted, for instance, that when Firbanks and Cummins setup a tea shop and are overwhelmed with the response one of the farm-workers Thomas, dresses up in his best suit to help on a Sunday and was, according to Firbank "quite over-come by emotion when we presented him with a supply of cigarettes to repay his help". No extra pay for someone working on their only day off, despite the big extra earnings. Firbanks cynically comments "one cannot buy loyalty; one can only reward it".

Firbanks purchased the farm for £5000 just at the point the world economy collapsed in 1930. The labour of him, Esme and the other workers make it pay - to the extent their able to install a hydro-electric plant, as well as experiment with poultry and pigs. I understand the book helped encourage a big "back to the land" movement in the post-war period, though few of those wanting to do it would have had that amount of cash.

Those interested in farming will, of course, find much of interest. There is also a lot of fascinating period detail and Firbanks describes how him and others, including Cummins, break the record for climbing all the Welsh 300 feet mountains. Historians of mountaining will also find the discussion of 1927 Great Gully disaster interesting. But readers shouldn't think they're picking up a book about rural Wales through the eyes of ordinary people - in fact, Firbank's somewhat arrogant style becomes a little grating in places. I would also encourage readers to compare it to James Rebanks' contempory book The Shepherd's Life not least because of how much of sheep-farming remains unchanged despite nearly 90 years of time passing.

Not mentioned in the book is the post-war account of what took place. Firbanks and Cummins' sepearated and Firbanks gave the farm Dyffryn Mymbyr to his former wife. Firbanks went on to have a successful business and writing career (building on an illustrious military career described in his follow up book I Bought a Star). Esme Cummins' remarried and rank the farm until her death, but also became a campaigning advocate for Snowdonia fighting for the right of people to enjoy the landscape and places. On her death Dyffryn Mymbyr was gifted to the National Trust who now run it as a luxury self-catering cottage - something that I suspect all the previous owners would find distasteful, but is sadly all-too representative of what has happened to British agriculture.

Related Reviews

Rebanks - The Shepherd's Life
Shrubsole - Who Owns England?
Hasback - A History of the English Agricultural Labourer
Whitlock - Peasant's Heritage
Cameron - The Ballad and the Plough
Bell - Men and the Fields

Thursday, August 01, 2019

T.M.Devine - The Scottish Clearances: A History of the Dispossessed

I had the pleasure of reading Tom Devine's new book The Scottish Clearances on holiday on the Isle of Mull, near where, it turns out, he wrote at least some of the book. It is a sobering experience when you look out on the landscape which he describes in the introduction like this:
The Scottish Highlands, contrary to the image projected in countless tourist brochures, are not one of the last great wildernesses in Europe but in many parts can be more accurately described as a derelict landscape from where most of the families who once lived and worked the soil are long gone.
This history is never far from view in the Highlands. The region is littered with abandoned homes, farmsteads and villages. Devine explains that contrary to much popular belief, it is wrong to see this "derelict" landscape as the product just of the infamous Highland Clearances, but rather of an extended process of change that took place across Scotland. This change has been neglected in both academic and popular history, and Devine's book aims to rectify this. Devine explains the broader context:
The Scottish experience of rural transformation was a national variant of broader developments in Europe. A primary determinant across the Continent and in Britain as a whole was a sustained revolution of increasing population which soon generated immense pressures on traditional modes of food production... different nations and regions took a wide spectrum of roots to agrarian modernisation... In Scotland, and much of mainland Britain, the pattern was different again with landed magnates deploying their power to introduce far-reaching changes from above. Some of their decisions resulted in dispossession of traditional rural communities on a large scale.
This is a detailed work of history, and space precludes a summary of much of the book. Devine's account of the evolution of the clan system in the Highlands is one of the clearest I've read, and sets the context for the behaviour of both the landowners and the mass of the population later in the book. But Devine argues that by the early to mid 1700s, at least for some of the chiefs, "the ethic of clanship was already being subordinated to the pursuit of profit." In the aftermath of the 1745 rebellion it was the "pacification" of "Gaeldom" by the British Crown which effectively led "many of the elite entirely to throw off this historic responsibility in favour of the material advantages of proprietorship, so completing the transformation to landlordism." It is this that sets the context for all the later agrarian developments in Scotland.

Scottish agrarian history can be loosely understood by breaking the country into three parts - the Borders, Lowlands and Highlands. For geographic and climatic reasons the areas differ a great deal, but also have many similarities and Devine argues that the divergence between Highland and Lowland agriculture begins through the 17th century.

The border country however was the first to suffer "improvement", something Devine describes as a "forgotten history". He writes that:

Two generations or more before clearances began north of the Highland line, the dispossession of many tenants and cottars was already under way in the hill country of the Borders...in a social revolution which has long been mainly ignored. The proximate cause was the expansion of large sheep farms, often with flocks averaging between 4,000 and 20,000, and the parallel growth in ther districts of extensive cattle ranches.

Devine's detailed exploration of why this takes place - best summarised as the desire for landlords in a developing capitalist economy to make more money - is brilliantly researched and reported. He never forgets that the development of the economy and the improvement of agriculture is closely associated with the brutal, forced transformation of peoples' lives. Nor does he neglect the resistance to this. One thing that marks the book (and has been noted by other authors of Scottish agrarian history) is the role of song and poetry in recording the impact of the dispossession. Here's one ballad responding to the changes:

The lords and lairds may drive us out from mailings [tenant farms] where we dwell
The poor man says: 'Where shall we go?'
The rich says: 'Go to Hell.'
These words they spoke injests and mocks
That if they have their herds and flocks,
They care not where to go


While discussing the "Leveller's Revolt" in the 1720s, Devine makes an important argument against those 18th century commentators and some historians today. He argues that resistance (such as mass protests against enclosure including the levelling of fences and hedges) was not "simply conservative" and against all innovation. Rather protesters were against "large-scale enclosing of cattle parks and the effect this had on the common grazing ground and arable lands of the small tenants". This is a point that also applies to rural protesters during similar changes in England, where protest was more about protecting existing rights rather than opposition to all change. The agricultural poor where, by and large, ignored when landowners decided to "improve". Though it's worth noting the Devine highlights a number of occasions when landowners did not do this - either through a remnant of a belief in responsibility to their tenants or because they baulked at the dispossession of whole communities. In the end this made little difference as their sons usually had few such compunctions.

By 1830 Scotland had dramatically change, but still retained vestiges of the past. In that year most Scots people still lived and worked in rural areas. But, as Devine notes "stress on continuities" hides the "unprecedented social changes" that had taken place in the previous 70 years. While most still worked the land, how they did so had been transformed.
In the Lowlands most of the rural population had already become a landless proletariat who hired their labour power in the market to employers... In the western Highlands a 'peasant' society remained but differed radically from that of the age of clanship... Indeed, social transformation in Gaeldom was more traumatic and cataclysmic than anywhere else in Scotland. The Highlands moved from tribalism to capitalism over less than two generations... Everywhere, large-scale pastoral farming was in the ascendant.
The ruling class in Scotland, Devine argues was "conservative politically" but "revolutionary in the economic sphere". This drove forward capitalist expansion, and destroyed traditional communities and social-relations on a huge scale. The destruction was sometimes explicit and in other times and places "by stealth". Most of the Lowland areas where, for instance, cleared gradually through depopulation and emigration. Thus the actually height of the population decrease is not, as commonly believed, during the Highland clearances, but afterwards as the final transformation of the countryside takes place. Though I must highlight Devine's argument that it was never emigration that depopulated Scotland, rather it was the "internal mobility within the countryside".  People where moving to find work and this they found in "the interaction of village and town development, agrarian specialisation and the spread of rural manufacturing and mining communities".

In England in 1830s there were mass outbreaks of discontent among rural populations, the most well known of which was the 'Captain Swing' movement. This had not echo north of the border. The quietness of rural Scotland at the time was well noted, including by William Cobbett. Devine argues this has much to do with the differences in employment relations. Agricultural workers in England being much more independent of their employers than in Scotland. Their contemporaries he says had more stability and crucially were "guaranteed food and shelter" but this was only provided for those in employment which gives a little incentive to risk unemployment. Contracts in Scotland were longer which Devine argues was partly due to the way that urban industry was competing for workers. Thus a surplus of unemployed agricultural workers in England led to instability. This explanation seems attractive, but I'm not entirely convinced - I think that Swing in England was driven primarily by a response to economic conditions, but also influenced by revolutionary events in France, the Reform movement and a long tradition of resistance to the employers. In other words the situation is much more complex than simply about unemployment rates.

Minor disagreements of nuance not withstanding this is an amazing piece of historical writing. Devine convincingly shows how the development of capitalism in the three differing areas of Scotland created the landscape we know today, and he shows how this led, over a period of centuries, to the transformation of the enormous rural population into wage workers, or emigrants. Devine writes clearly about quite complex changes, but never loses sight of what these changes meant in terms of ordinary people. If you want to understand Scotland beyond the picture postcard images of hills and glens then read T.M. Devine's book.

Related Reviews

Richards - The Highland Clearances
Hunter - Set Adrift Upon the World: The Sutherland Clearances
Kerr Cameron - The Ballad and the Plough

Hutchinson - The Soap Man: Lewis, Harris & Lord Leverhulme
Hutchinson - Martyrs: Glendale and the Revolution in Skye

Hobsbawm & Rudé - Captain Swing