Thursday, August 13, 2020

Iain Banks - Stonemouth

*** Spoiler Alert ***

Stewart Gilmour returns to Stonemouth, a small town in Aberdeenshire. Its almost seven years since he's been there. The last time he saw the place he was hiding in the back of a freight train fleeing the town's main gangsters. Now he has returned for the funeral of Joe Murston, an old man who he befriended there, the patriach of the Murston gangster dynasty. Gilmour isn't a gangster himself, his first mistake was to fall in love with Ellie Murston, the beautiful eldest daughter of the dynasty. His second mistake was getting caught having sex with someone who was not Ellie a few week's before Gilmour was to be wedded to Ellie and, by default, the rest of the Murston clan.

Gilmour's first act on arrival back in Stonemouth is to make a very deferential visit to the man who would have been his father in law, and one of the most violent people in the town. But visiting Stonemouth takes Gilmour back into his memories. The story flits between the present and his own recollections of growing up in a place where hard-drinking, unemployment, drugs and violence were common. Eventually Gilmour expects to meet Ellie, and perhaps give her and apology. But there are Murston's who will do everything to stop that and protect their honour, even if that's not what Ellie herself wants.

Taking place over a long weekend the book packs a lot into a short space. It's remarkably tense. Not knowing what it was that led to Gilmour heading south as fast as the railway could take it, meant that there is an air of doom over the whole first half of the book. It wasn't easy reading, not helped by the hint of violence that also hangs over the book. An enjoyable read, the problem was that Gilmour behaves utterly stupidly throughout the whole thing. To me it seems utterly ridiculous that he would go to the town, parade himself around (even with the Murston seal of approval on the whole event) and get out of his head of drugs and drink. He invites retaliation and seems surprised when it appears. 

The ending too seemed a little fantastical - a little bit too much wish fulfilment as Gilmour gets his true love back. Ellie is the most one-dimensional of the characters, though she is the one who I sympathised most with. She's the one most trapped by the gangsters that she was born among. As a entertaining story it was certainly readable. As an exploration of how we look back on our youthful mistakes and wish things different it felt too unreal, contrived and its main character particularly stupid.

This was, sadly, Iain Bank's last novel. It's stronger than many of his others, but not his best. But his talent shines through in his writing, if the plot is a little bit messy.

Related Reviews

Banks - Whit
Banks - Raw Spirit
Banks - Matter
Banks - Look to Windward
Banks - Dead Air
Banks - The Hydrogen Sonata
Banks - Surface Detail
Banks - Against A Dark Background
Banks - The Steep Approach to Garbadale
Banks - Look To Windward
Banks - The Algebraist

Saturday, August 08, 2020

Ashley Dawson - People's Power: Reclaiming the Energy Commons

In the aftermath of the Russian Revolution Lenin said in a November 1920 speech that Communism would be "Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country". Lenin outlined how industrial development wasn't possible without electrification, but the primary emphasis on Soviet power arose from his view of Communism as being a society were Soviets, workers' councils based on mass participatory democracy, would control and run the means of production.

I was reminded of Lenin's quote on several occasions while reading Ashley Dawson's latest book People's Power. Dawson argues that, given the great environmental crises we face, in particular climate change, the "great task" of our time is to end the fossil fuel infrastructure at the heart of capitalist society. But, he shows, it is not enough to do this simply through a transition to renewable energy. This will be insufficient "to avert climate chaos":
Unless we dismantle and replace a capitalist system based on extreme extraction, inexorable growth, mounting inequalities, militarism and colonialism, our headlong rush toward extinction will continue. We need not just decarbonization, but global system change.
A little later he continues:
The struggle for energy transition is thus a fight for public and collective control of energy resources, and for democratic control of the state power that shapes the development of such resources. It is, in sum, a struggle for energy democracy.
No wonder I found myself reaching for that Lenin quote.

Based in the US, Dawson takes a highly critical look at the existing US energy system. It is a chaotic mix of power companies and suppliers, a highly unsuitable electrical grid and a system trapped by the logic of capitalist accumulation around fossil fuels. It is also a energy system that has been at the heart of both transformation vision and class struggle. Dawson shows how different visions of energy supply were present at the birth of the US electrical era. One were the system was organised for public good, the other for corporate greed. Dawson explains how in 1926 Gifford Pinchot argued for the transformation of the Pennsylvanian electrical grid. Pinchot said about the transition to electricity from stream power:
It behooves us not to let it break upon us unawares, not to permit generations of needless bitter conflict to follow it, but to think out the problems it will create, and to take measures in advance to avoid the long train of struggle and disturbance which followed the last great change in industrial power.
It would be easy to chastise someone like Pinchot for naivety in the face of capitalist industrial power, but his vision remains important to us, not least as around 1.1 billion people do not have access to electricity today. With the need to offer everyone in the world equitable access to energy, at the same time as making sure that we aren't tipped into runaway climate change, this remains the central question for Dawson. How can we supply energy safely, cheaply and sustainably for all? Dawson asks,

How might the coming energy transition contribute to new relations of production and exchange that are based on solidarity rather than exploitation? If past energy transition have tended to intensify the power of elites, can the current energy transition help spark a broader shift toward more egalitarian and democratic social relations?

Much of the book points out the barriers. The power and immense wealth of the energy corporations. The centrality of fossil fuel to capitalism. The way that politicians and capitalist states have used their close links to coal, oil and gas companies to prevent the introduction of renewables or energy reduction measures. Many of the these examples are from the United States, but their are parallels for all of us living in the Global North. Even "liberal" politicians like Obama have used their positions to encourage the development of new sources of fossil fuels like shale gas.

In contrast Dawson highlights the mass, collective struggles that have fought to provide energy to those that lacked it, and to move towards renewable energy over fossil fuels. I was, I'll admit, initially disappointed by Dawson's focus on German movements that have (successfully) collectively fought to setup local renewable cooperatives and the like, by-passing big national corporations. I was worried that Dawson was heading down a path of arguing that we could build sustainable spaces within the existing capitalist system. But actually Dawson's approach is more nuanced. He shows how these sort of community campaigns can make real change, transforming the national political agenda, and putting the corporations on the back foot, even though the capitalists do fight back and seek to regain their position by supply Green energy. At root, what is needed, Dawson explains is real democracy, control and management from below.
Do legal paradigms already exist to help community-based organisations... escape from the clutches of fossil capital and adopt solar power on a mass basis? What are the limits... and what juridical innovations might address these limits? These questions all relate to much broader struggles to establish new, revolutionary forms of popular sovereignty to defend and extend the commons, but they have a particular import for the fight for energy democracy. The struggle for a rapid and just energy transition is at the core of broader struggles... The question of the energy commons is therefore fundamental to the fight for a collective future.
Of course such arguments fly completely in the face of capitalist logic. Ultimately this means that winning such gains on the scale required means a challenge to the capitalist system, and in particular the state. Unfortunately I think that Dawson's argument around this is undermined by his reliance on the analysis of the state provided by the Greek-French Marxist Search Results Nicos Poulantzas. Poulantzas concluded that the analysis of the state developed by Lenin meant a "permanent scepticism about the state [which] precluded the possibility of mass intervention in existing politics". In contrast Dawson quotes James Angel arguing that the state "was not to be discounted as a 'mere instrument of capital'." Personally I think this is inadequate. After watching the crushing of the Paris Commune in 1871, Marx concluded that workers cannot simply take over the machinery of the state but find new ways of organising. Engels wrote that the state was "armed men but also of material adjuncts, prisons, and institutions of coercion of all kinds". I think this analysis fits more closely with how governments behave in supporting fossil fuel corporations. But more importantly I think this approach to the state helps answer that important question that Dawson raises. How will we make the urgent change we need? 

The answer lies in workers power - the new organs of working class democracy that revolutionary movements throw up. That's not to say we should shun any attempts to build alternatives to the fossil fuel corporations today- though as Dawson highlights we need to be honest about the limitations of these within capitalism. In fact Dawson's final chapter is a brilliant challenge to those who think we can build space within capitalism that can save the planet on its own. 
Unlike leaves... solar panels do not grow on trees: they must be manufactured, using chemicals that are often highly toxic and in conditions that do not escape the conditions of labour exploitation and degradation that characterise the era of fossil capitalism... Eventually, the question of controlling the means of production returns... and energy transition that maintains existing forms of capitalist production and infrastructure will be nothing short of devastating for the planet and vulnerable frontline communities.
Ashley Dawson's book is a devastating critique of fossil fuel capitalism. Its a call to arms for a transformative approach to energy that places collective ownership, democracy and the rights and needs of everyone at the heart of the struggle for a sustainable planet. My minor criticisms aside, this is a really excellent read.

Related Reviews

Sunday, August 02, 2020

Priyamvada Gopal - Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent

One of the consequences of the reemergence of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 was a renewed discussion about the nature and legacy of the British Empire. The toppling and then symbolic drowning of a statue of the slave trader Edward Coulson in Bristol became emblematic of this when anti-racist protesters quite literately pushed a critique of empire into public discourse.

Priyamvada Gopal's book is a wonderful contribution to this process and ought to be widely read among those seeking to understand the British Empire and what it meant for the modern world. Among right-wing commentators (and many of those who were upset by the destruction of Coulson's statue, there is a a belief that empire was essentially a benevolent institution that developed the infrastructure and institutions of the colonised countries, lifting them to up nearer to that of the "civilised", "democratic" European west.

Gopal's book shows how many people who saw empire through a similar lens to this latter position had their views transformed by the active resistance of people in colonised nations to the empire. So this is not a book that gives a people's history of empire. Rather its one that takes specific moments of revolt in Imperial history and shows how they transformed the political terrain in Britain. Often this led to far-reaching transformations in how people conceived of the world they lived in. The Morant Bay rebellion in Jamaica in October 1865 for instance, arose not simply out of colonial brutality, but the reality of colonial rule itself, where the plantation owners, believed "the main problem affecting Jamaica was the lack of steady black plantation labour". But this
refused to acknowledge the widespread desire among freed slaves and their descendants to control their own economic destiny through farming smallholdings rather than be shackled to low-wage labour on terms laid out by the planters. What emerged, therefore, was a stark ideological clash about what freedom meant. One view, touted by the planters and endorsed by the colonial government, insisted that freedom consisted of the 'option' of selling labour to a capitalist entity for prices determined by the latter. The other refused anything resembling the contractual and compulsory extraction of labour in favour of controlling the output of a smallholding. 
Resistance and rebellion raised wider issues than simply oppressive social and political relations. They opened up debates about the very nature of society and for some of those watching from Britain, they raised questions about the type of society they wanted too. Some of these figures are fascinating in themselves. The British diplomat, writer and poet Wilfrid Blunt was in Cairo in the run up to the British suppression of the Urabi Rebellion. Blunt was close to Urabi himself and became a go-between, albeit one whose sympathies lay increasingly with the Egyptian people. Blunt's engagement with Arabic people, their culture and religion opened him up to a very different world-view, which meant that when "the occupation of Egypt inaugurated the modern phase of British high imperialism - the infamous 'scramble for Africa'" he became a key figure in a "chorus of dissent from within Britain". Blunt, alongside other British liberals "found their assumptions and ideals challenged, complicated and reshaped by witnessing anti colonial rebellion and engaging with Egyptians involved in it".

All of these examples used by Gopal bear out this process. From Morant Bay and Egypt to the Indian Rebellion of 1857 and so on, we see how the voices and actions of rebellion led to the transformation of ideas for activists in Britain. In turn this helped fuel anti-colonial movements in the heart of the empire itself.

It would be wrong (and dangerous) however to interpret this as examples of white radicals becoming aware of social reality and then becoming the sole agents of change. Indeed Gopal shows that there was often a dialectical process between the social movements in the colonies and British thinkers and activists. But she also emphasises the role of black activists, thinkers and academics in being the agents of new ways of thinking about empire and colonial rule. For example, the London Manifesto that came out of the second Pan-African Congress in 1921, led by W.E.B du Bois, raised complex questions that still resonate today. Gopal explains:
The London Manifesto made visible a fault-line that would haunt metropolitan anti-colonialism and debates on the left over the next decades. In the execution of capitalist crime, where the project of empire was inextricable from the project of capital, could it be that white labour is 'particeps criminis with white capital'? The authors and endorsers of the manifesto were not claiming that white labour was not exploited... They also refuse to claim 'perfectness of our own', assigning black people responsibility for what the text calls 'failure to advance'. Instead, it places a more challenging question on the table: how could and show white labour assess its role in the project of imperialism given the extent to which, both consciously and unconsciously... it had been 'cajoled and flattered into imperialistic schemes.
The Manifesto, Gopal says, "put forward a difficult proposition. The problem of labour versus capital would not be solved in England... as long as a parallel dynamic 'marked the relations of the whiter and darker peoples'."

Black radical thinkers and wider events such as the Russian Revolution would shape new ideas in anti-colonial thought and practice. The London based International African Service Bureau, founded by figures including George Padmore, CLR James in 1937 would take existing anti-imperialist ideas and radically develop them. Gopal explains:
Rather than just 'translating' communist categories into 'the idiom of Pan-Africanism', the task at hand was one of creating a new language that did not repudiate other vocabularies of critique, but sought to bring them in more strenuous engagement with each other. Out of this would emerge a revitalised collaborative anticolonialism. The collective work of the IASB pointed towards Africa as n the West Indies as 'co-producers' of modernity, black intellectuals not just being influenced by European thought, but producing knowledge of the world.
Reading this in 2020 as Black Lives Matter has exploded onto the streets and forced politicians and institutions globally to address questions of historical legacy, racism and Imperialism today, I was struck by how relevant these debates felt. Gopal's book is much more than a catalogue of imperial crimes, it is an insight into the way that anti-colonial rebellion has thrown up individuals and ideas that challenge existing worldviews and forces new ways of looking at society on even distant observers. Today that process continues with debates around the politics, language and practice of the anti-racist movement. But, as Gopal concludes, studying this history, "enables Britons to lay claim to a different, more challenging history, and yet one that is more suited to a heterogeneous society which can draw on multiple historical and cultural resources."

Priyamvada Gopal's Insurgent Empire is a key text for those activists trying to understand the nature of the racist capitalist society we live in, and develop strategies and ideas to transform it. I highly recommend it.

Related Reviews

Anderson - Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity & Non-Western Societies
Høgsbjerg - Chris Braithwaite: Mariner, Renegade & Castaway
Gott - Britain's Empire: Resistance, Repression and Revolt
Newsinger - The Blood Never Dried: A People's History of the British Empire
Wagner - Amritsar 1919: An Empire of Fear & the Making of a Massacre
Ward - Our Bones Are Scattered: The Cawnpore Massacres & the Indian Mutiny of 1857

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Charlie Jane Anders - All the Birds in the Sky

One of my best reads over the Covid period was Charlie Jane Anders' The City in the Middle of the Night so I was really pleased that the first book I was able to buy in an actual bookshop was her earlier book All the Birds in the Sky. I am pleased to say that this was as good a read as City and matched it for innovative thinking, entertainment and radical politics.

The novel begins with a girl and boy in a typical American school. Both are outsiders and, as a result are ostracised and bullied. Patricia is a witch, she discovers that she can speak to birds and Laurence, who becomes her friend is a technology geek, scientist and inventor of the two second time machine. The two second time machine is useless, unless you want to escape bullies, but it is enough to show the outside world that he's got extremely important skills.

As you'll already tell, this means that the book is set in a world that is not quite ours. Magic is real, though controlled by a secret network of witches. Science technology is different to our universe, but only slightly. But, similar to our own time, Patricia and Laurence's world is on the brink of disaster. As adults both Patricia and Laurence take different approaches. Patricia's magical network tries to heal unhappiness. Laurence ends up with a network innovators, headed by the billionaire Milton (modelled on Elon Musk?) who are looking for a technical way to escape Earth.

Telling you more about the story would ruin things. What's important to note though is how Anders handles the relationship between Patricia and Laurence. From their estrangement at school, based on misunderstandings and outside interference to their reunion years later, Anders explores what its is like to be an outsider, to be confused about friends and lovers and trying to understand who you are. Unfortunately Patricia and Laurence are doing all this in the context of the Unravelling of system.

In essence this is a story about friendship, but its also a warning about the dangers of trying to solve the world's crises with simple solutions - both technological and natural. But the world building is wonderful, the characters are brilliantly drawn and the growing environmental and capitalist crisis feels frighteningly real. There's a lot here: engaging entertaining reading, plenty of in-jokes and a clever plot. Great fun.

Related Reviews

Anders - The City in the Middle of the Night

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Nick Martell - The Kingdom of Liars

I was looking forward to reading Nick Martell's debut novel because it seemed to offer an intriguing basis for the magic of this fantasy land - those who specialise in various magical powers - lose memories as they use them. Its in interesting idea, implying that the magic requires something from those who seek to master it. Unfortunately this is about the only innovative idea behind the novel and I found the rest of the story overlong, meandering and, in places, confusing.

It is set in the city state of Hollow, where former noble Micheal Kingman, struggles to find his place in society. As a boy his father, a devoted follower of the king whose hereditary social position was intended to act as a balance to the ruler, is found guilty of killing the king. Branded a traitor, and exiled from the Court, Micheal remains convinced of his father's innocence.

Hollow is beset by outside threats and its rulers respond with repression and violence. But the state teeters on the brink of collapse. Michael finds himself in the midst of confusion and shifting intrigues by various court figures and mercenaries as he tries to work out what really happened on the day is father allegedly became a traitor and find a safe niche for him and his family.

It all sounds very interesting. But the story is cumbersome and overly complicated. In older fantasy there was usually an attempt to build the world early in the book so the reader can understand the actions of the characters in their context. Nick Martell has chosen however to reveal important aspects of the world and its magic through the book, so there are lots of confusing references that only make sense when something is explained later, often much later. These include key information that explains how Hollow is ruled. At other times I was left bemused - Martell emphasises the strangeness and magical nature of Hollow, but ensures that our characters breakfast heartily on bacon and tea. The combination of fantasy and normal made little sense to me.

While Martell manages to create a real atmosphere of disintegrating social chaos around the rulers of Hollow, he fails to follow this up with fleshed out characters. Michael Kingman's behaviour seemed unreal to me. He constantly makes decisions that seem utterly, well, stupid. I ended up finding him really annoying rather than identifying with his flawed heroism as the author clearly wanted me to. This, combined with confusing world-building, left me unsatisfied and unlikely to read the sequels.

Monday, July 27, 2020

The Vinland Sagas - The Norse Discovery of America

Conventional wisdom has it that in 1492 Christopher Columbus "discovered" America. Of course he didn't discover it - that was the privilege of those people who crossed the Bering Straits some tens of thousands of years before and created complex societies from North to South of the Americas. But Columbus' discovery however is a useful narrative that seeks to place Europeans as the most important people in the Americas. It also conveniently wipes from history the experience of other explorers, raiders and colonisers who got there 500 years before 1492 from Greenland. The Vikings.

The two Viking sagas that make up this book, with a supporting introduction from Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Pálsson, tell the story of these expeditions. The Grælendinga and Eirik's sagas detail the way that Vikings from Greenland discovered, by chance, the lands and tried to initially colonise them.

The actual sagas are short - in fact the introduction is longer than either tale, the authors of which caution against reading the sagas as either historical accounts or stories. They are, in fact, cultural artefacts which combine history with important genealogical information as well as exciting tales. Much ink has been spilt trying to match up landscape details with real life geology in the Americas, and this has been only partially successful. Its worth noting that the introduction here is written only shortly after the Norse site at L'Anse aux Meadow was discovered, so archaeological evidence is limited.

Readers attempting to see these sagas as simply historic accounts and those transposing information directly will quickly come unstuck. What to make of the Viking account of a Uniped that kills one of the colonisers? Perhaps that bit was invented during one of the retelling of the sagas, or a story that returned with the first visitors to North America. Either way, like other accounts of the ancient past, there is a tendency to seamlessly blend fantasy into the narrative.

But there is some interesting, if very limited, information here about the region the Vikings arrived in. Similar accounts in both the sagas show the Vikings traded red cloth for local goods, especially food. The region had both vines (hence the name) and grains, as well as much wildlife. In an interesting account the Vikings send two slaves off to explore who return with reports of excellent land suitable for cultivation.

Backing up the main narrative is information on Viking voyages from European mainland to Iceland and on to Greenland. The Greenland Viking colony (given that name to make it more attractive to settlers as both sagas attest) is often imagined to have been unsuccessful and shortlived - conditions were even harder than Iceland. But it is clear that multiple voyages to North America provided resources, particularly wood, for the colony. Nonetheless the Viking community survived in Greenland for 500 years, making it more successful than some more modern states.

Both sagas, and the introduction, are readable and entertaining, as well as provoking many other questions for the reader. They give a sense of a much more dynamic society 1000 years ago than we usually believe. And, they also remind us, that had Native Americans driven Columbus back into the sea in 1492, as their ancestors eventually drove the Vikings off, then history might have been a little different.

Related Reviews

Parker - The Northmen's Fury
Gaiman - Norse Mythology
Lindsay - The Normans and their World

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Mark Roseman - The Villa, The Lake, The Meeting: Wannsee and the Final Solution

When I was young we had several trips to Berlin to visit family. There we would always look forward to visiting the Wannsee resort, playing on the artificial beach and exploring the woods. Many years later I was horrified to learn that Wannsee was synonymous with the Holocaust.

On the 20 of January 1942 senior figures in the Nazi bureaucracy assembled at a villa in Wannsee. The subject of the conference was the "Final Solution" of the "Jewish Question". The conference itself was relatively small, with 15 delegates representing different sections of the government. Convened by Reinhard Heydrich who reported to Himmler, the conference had the stamp of authority from the highest levels in the Nazi government though, ironically, author Mark Roseman argues we don't clearly know why it was called.

Wannsee would have remained forgotten had it not been that a single copy of the thirty minutes printed after the event would turn up in the post-war investigations into Nazi crimes. These minutes (known as Protocols in German) summarised the event and its conclusions. Some investigators hoped this would be the smoking gun that showed the Nazi machine deciding to embark up on programme of mass murder. But as Roseman explains, that programme had already begun. Instead, the event appears to have been an occasion to discuss the problems that arose from the planned destruction of the Jews in terms of resources, but also - chillingly - to thrash out who in the bureaucracy had ultimate responsibility. It also, as Roseman concludes, was a place where the high-command was informing lower levels of existing decisions:
The Wannsee conference is thus a king of keyhole, through which we can glimpse the emerging Final Solution. It took place at a time when the idea of a reservation had been abandoned, labour scarcities were pressing and when the Nazis may or may not have decided exactly how to eliminate all the Jews. But it is evident that Wannsee is not the place at which the murder decisions themselves es were taken. For the most part, Heydrich was disseminating conclusions drawn elsewhere. On some issues the participants had something to say; for the most part their role was to listen and to nod.
The Wannsee Protocols are published in the book's appendix, though they are easy to find online. It is a awful document to read - their structure is similar to the minutes produced from normal conferences and meetings, but their subject is mass murder. Roseman points out that the language is made up of euphemisms that disguise the real subjects - talk of Jewish "reservations" and "emigration" when the Nazis had already ruled out these strategies. Roseman writes:
The euphemisms were its normal mode of communicating about murder, and will have served here to remind recipients of the language codes they should use. At the same time it was so vital to establish the participants' shared knowledge in the killing programme that this overrode the need for caution. This is why Lammers, Stuckart and others were at such pains after the war to deny having seen the Protocol, to escape from the trap that Heydrich had set them.
But reading the Wannsee Protocol myself I was stunned by how open the language is. It is impossible to read these sentences without seeing a group of men around a conference table discussing mass murder.
Jews fit to work will work their way eastwards constructing roads. Doubtless the large majority will be eliminated by natural causes. Any final remnant that survives will doubtless consist of the most resistant elements. They will have to be dealt with appropriately.
The men having these discussions, and enjoying a brandy afterwards, were just bureaucrats. These were "educated" men, most of whom had doctorates. But almost all of whom had long years in Nazi organisations. These were dedicated fascists, who had spent years advocating the destruction of Jewish people and other undesirables. In addition, Roseman points out that "what is striking is how many people round the table had given direct killing orders or themselves had experience of killing". As a result, "no one arrived at Wannsee with even the faintest intention of speaking up for the Jews".

As mentioned Wannsee was not the moment the Holocaust was agreed. The Holocaust was a process that evolved over time, having its origins in the Nazi genocidal ideology, with its specifics arising from the realities of total war on the Eastern Front, the horrors of Nazi treatment of Jews and the violence of the fascist state. But the Wannsee conference, in Roseman's words, "cleared the way for genocide" by pulling in the fascist bureaucracy behind the plans. Mark Roseman's short book is an important insight into how, once Nazis take power, the machinery exists to turn genocidal fantasy into reality.

Related Reviews

Browning - The Origins of the Final Solution
Kershaw - Hitler, 1936-1945: Hubris
Kershaw - Hitler, 1936-1945: Nemesis
Lipstadt - Denying the Holocaust
Lipstadt - The Eichmann Trail
Evans - Telling Lies About Hitler
Black - IBM and the Holocaust

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Richard Benson - The Farm

Picking up The Farm I will admit that I thought it would be a rather annoying romanticised description of life in the countryside. But Richard Benson's book turned out to be an insightful and entertaining  history of recent changes in rural England. Benson is not a farmer, though he comes from a family of farmers. While working in London at a job on a fashion magazine he gets a phone call from his parents back on the Yorkshire farm he grew up on. They're selling up. The initial shock to the system leads to the first of many returns home that culminate with the family farm being sold to a property developer. While telling this story Benson simultaneously tells the story of growing up on the farm and the changes to the English countryside.

Benson has no head for farming. He can't drive a tractor in a straight line, never has the right tool ready for his dad and constantly struggles with the animals. But he is intimately tied to land that generations of his family had worked. But the industry and the farm is changing. While a boy his parents had already sold off the land used for growing crops to focus on pigs. Then they found, alongside most of their neighbours, that they couldn't compete with cheap meat from the continent. Today the middle classes love some locally reared, organic pork. In the 1990s it was all about the cheapest possible cuts - or rather the massive profits that supermarkets and big agriculture could make.

The economic downturn as British agriculture is neglected by successive governments, means unemployment, drinking and drugs become a feature of life in rural communities. So are suicides. Benson deals sensitively on the question of mental health, including that of his father. A childhood friend commits suicide and you get a sense of the anger and frustration in the community at the inability to fight the destruction of a way of life. Interestingly, and contrary to much perceived wisdom, these farmers aren't right wing Thatcherites - there's a charming bit when Benson's mother defends the striking miners.

Benson survives by running away to study literature and become a writer. His brother remains to look after the pigs and work on other peoples land; land that was once owned by the family. When the farm goes his brother can continue with labouring, but you do wonder what the long term future holds. Its a question that many more British farmers must be asking in 2020 as economic uncertainty rises.

Benson's writing is fluid and entertaining. Among the tragedy there is real humour and warmth such as can only come out of a close knit community. There's no way that the middle-class urbanites who buy up the former farm buildings which have been converted into luxury homes will ever know that feeling.

Related Reviews

Clutterbuck - Bittersweet Brexit
Rebanks - The Shepherd's Life: A Tale of the Lake District

Monday, July 20, 2020

Mary Shelley - Frankenstein

One of the things that becomes quickly very clear when reading Frankenstein for the first time, is that you aren't reading the book you thought you were going to be. Frankenstein has become such a cliche that you expect the monster to be a lumbering giant that is animated by a fancy electric apparatus, powered by lightening with a switch thrown by a maniac scientist. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein however is a much more subtle work that deals with big philosophical questions as well as shocking its reader with cruelty and violence.

Famously Shelley wrote the book after a late night discussion with her partner Percy Shelley, Lord Byron and his companion Polidori who came up with the idea of them all writing a ghost story. Although only Mary Shelley's story reached a book length publication, the Penguin edition I have also includes the few pages that Byron wrote and the longer (and quite effective) vampire story that Polidori produced. This latter in itself is fascinating for its insights into Byron, but need not detain us here.

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is a remarkable work that poses a very big question. What is it to be human? Dr. Frankenstein who animates the "monster" (which is very distinctly not called Frankenstein - take that Hollywood) is a troubled genius. Arriving at university Frankenstein is inspired to break from his abstract philosophical thought and pursue a career in the natural sciences. Shelley starkly poses the rational sciences as being separate from the more abstract romantic ideas that her anti-hero has been dabbling with. Its not clear how Frankenstein makes his creation, but once life is breathed into the creature, its inventor runs away, terrified by what he has done. Devoid of friendship and lost in a strange world the creature gradually learns to speak and locate his creator. Shunned because of his looks, the creature begins a terrible revenge - not to simply destroy Frankenstein, but to break him by destroying everything that is dear to him.

The other thing that strikes me reading Frankenstein is how horrible Victor Frankenstein is. This scientist is not "mad" as the film suggests, rather obsessed with triumphing over natures laws to create life. To literally become God. When this backfires his remorse and fear overcome his own rationality and he retreats - his emotions taking over from logic. But on every occasion when he might have fixed things he backs down, interested in only himself. Its a theme that the creature also takes up. His eavesdropping leads him to an understanding of the real horror of society. Overhearing the conversations of a poor family the creature learns:
Every conversation of the cottagers now opened new wonders to me. While I listened to the instructions which Felix bestowed upon the Arabian, the strange system of human society was explained to me.  I heard of the division of property, of immense wealth and squalid poverty, of rank, descent, and noble blood.
Poverty is a great theme of Frankenstein. If the creation of Frankenstein's monster is an easy metaphor for the industrial revolution, it is a revolution that eats its own children through poverty and destruction. The creature, shunned by humanity and his creator, wants to run away to his own idyll, with a second female creature created by Frankenstein. When Frankenstein refuses the scene is set for mutual destruction. Mary Shelley's background in radical politics and the left-wing, radical, milleui that she wrote the book in is apparent on every page. If this is a ghost story, the real horror is the real world.

Told through letters, recollections and flashback this is not an easy read. The story is filled out, in the manor of Victorian novels, with vast amounts of scene-setting information. But this is a fascinating and very enjoyable read - just not necessarily the one you were expecting.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Jonathan Crary - 24/7

Karl Marx pointed out that there are two ways that the capitalists can extract extra surplus value from workers and hence make more profits. By increasing either absolute surplus value or relative surplus value. The latter means making workers more productive, but the former requires making the worker labour more. The problem for the capitalists has always been the natural limits of the worker and the world they labour in. You can only make workers labour for a certain number of hours before they need food, relaxation and sleep. In this context Jonathan Crary's 24/7 book ought to be an important discussion of how capitalism has tried and is trying to extend the working day into 24 hours. Factories work shift systems, public transport systems operate round the clock and so on. But can capitalism fundamentally overcome naturally imposed limitations on the working day? These are important arguments for both the exploiters and the exploited. As Crary points out:
The huge portion of our lives that we spend asleep, freed from a morass of simulated needs, subsists as one of the great human affronts to the voraciousness of contemporary capitalism. Sleep is an uncompromising interruption of the theft of time from us by capitalism.
The importance of sleep, which Crary argues "stand[s] for the durability of the social", is inseparable from the way that time itself has transformed itself through history. Indeed a study creation of capitalist time illuminates the way that society has commodified every aspect of our lives in the pursuit of profit.

So it is disappointing that Crary's book fails to engage with this material, and instead focuses on an esoteric engagement with various philosophers that seems to cover everything from technology to social media, but rarely gets to grip with the real material aspects of sleep and capitalism. While there is a lot of material of interest, the brevity of the work prevents the author drawing out these insights and constructing a coherent argument around them. I was left feeling that the author was more angry about the way that social media has intruded upon our lives than (say) workers working 12 hour shifts in sweat shops:
An attention economy dissolves the separation between the personal and professional, between entertainment and information, all overridden by a compulsory functionality of communication that is inherently and inescapably 24/7. 
This is, of course, true. But I felt that Crary overly focused on this rather than the detail of why capitalism operates like it does and what that means for workers. Social media, likes, friends and shares are an example of what the system does, but they are a consequence of 21st century capitalist production not its central aspect.

I was surprised that there wasn't at least passing reference to E.P. Thompson's classic essay Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism which I think backs up some of the historic material that Crary covers. But my biggest criticism is, perhaps, the opaque academic language which would put off many potential readers, even those who had enjoyed a good nights rest. There are far too many sentances that read like this, "This particular constellation of recent events provides a prismatic vantage point onto some of the plural consequences of neoliberal globalisation and of longer processes of Western modernisation". Writing like this can only restrict engagement with books like this, which is a shame, because the topic is of great importance to every working person today.

Related Reviews

Thompson - Customs in Common
Martineau - Time, Capitalism and Alienation
Evans-Pritchard - The Nuer: A Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Political Institutions of a Nilotic People

Thursday, July 09, 2020

Kevin B. Anderson - Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity & Non-Western Societies

Karl Marx is popularly seen as an economist. His writings are often reduced down to an economic analysis and critic of capitalism. However, as this important book shows, Marx was a revolutionary thinker who, through his life, developed a sharp critique of the way that capitalism remade the world in its own image. In doing so Marx took up issues relating to racism, colonialism and non-Western communal social forms, that he considered essential for the socialist movement to understand as part of the struggle for a Communist society. Anderson writes:
In the 1840s, he [Marx] held to an implicitly uni-linear perspective, sometimes tinged with ethnocentrism, according to which non-Western societies would necessarily be absorbed into capitalism and then modernised via colonialism and the world market. But over time, his perspective evolved toward one that was more multi-linear, leaving the future development of these societies as an open question. By 1881-82 he was envisioning the possibility that Russia could modernise in a progressive non-capitalist manner, if its peasant-based revolutionary movement could link up with the working-class movements of Western Europe.
Marx and Engels' Communist Manifesto begins with a celebration of capitalism over previously existing societies - the way that it had unleashed productive forces hitherto inconceivable. Marx writes of these forces "battering down" Chinese walls, drawing "even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation". Capitalism, they continue, "compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image."

While the Communist Manifesto does then continue to highlight the barbarity of "Civilisation" it is not particularly detailed on what "creating a world after its own image means" in terms of the impact of colonial countries, indigenous peoples and so on. But one of the central points of Marx at the Margins is that Marx's thinking on these issues evolves through his lifetime. As Anderson explains,
By 1853, Marx has begun to overcome the one-sidedness of the treatment of non-Western societies in the Manifesto... people from within non-Western societies are now credited with the potential of 'throwing off the English yoke-altogether' and self-starting the 'regeneration' of their societies and cultures. This regeneration would not, however, any more than the struggle of the Western working classes, be aimed at a return to the precapitalist past. It would retain the achievements of capitalist modernity.
A great deal of Anderson's book explores how Marx (and Engels) acted upon this understanding. Firstly he draws out neglected and ignored parts of their writing to show the extent to which an anti-colonial politics was at the core of their work for much of their active careers. Some of this is based on works like Capital and the Grundrisse, but some of its is also based on Anderson's knowledge of the much less well known works of Marx, including the detailed Ethnographic Notebooks. One reason that these works are less well known is that Marx archivists didn't consider them as important as his economic work. Marx's work on historic societies, indigenous people, non-Western societies and colonialism get relegated to secondary importance or worse. One editor of Marx's works, in 1925, for the MEGA project complained "why did he [Marx] was so much time on this... inexcusable pedantry".

But as Anderson shows, Marx's pedantry was not because of distraction, but because he was increasingly aware of the importance of these wider issues to his understanding of capitalism and the strategic ambition of the socialist movement.

Secondly Anderson shows how Marx's awareness of issues of colonialism and racism, were a key part of his activism. The question of Irish independence was never far from Marx's heart and Anderson draws out the key role of Marx and Engels in placing opposition to British colonial rule in Ireland within the politics of the First International. As Anderson shows, it was directly as a result of Marx's work that the International supported a position on Ireland that broke with "decades of prejudice and hostility of the British towards the Irish".

Equally important was opposition to slavery and, reading this as I was during the Black Lives Matter movement's re-emergence in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in 2020, I was struck by the importance of Marx's work on slavery to understanding the current situation in the United States. Anderson shows how despite their rulers' support for the South, British workers sided with the North during the American Civil War, "This was not only because they were antislavery, but also because European workers saw the US as the most democratic society of the time, virtually the only country were even white male workers enjoyed full suffrage". He quotes Marx:
As long as the English cotton manufactures depended on slave-grown cotton, it could be truthfully asserted that they rested on a twofold slavery, the indirect slavery of the white man in England and the direct slavery of the black man on the other side of the Atlantic. 
Time and again Marx celebrates the workers opposing the slave states in the US Civil War, and he and Engels engage in detailed discussions of the pursuit of the war and Lincoln's failure to encourage a revolutionary strategy.

Marx drew important revolutionary conclusions from his understanding of the close link between colonial oppression, resistance to colonialism and the contemporary socialist movement. A country that oppressed another, couldn't itself be free. So the importance of the British working class movement (and the left) in supporting the struggles of oppressed peoples' was key to the success of the struggle in the imperial nations. "[Marx] was placing Ireland at the centre of British revolutionary and labour politics. In both Cromwell's time and the 1790s he now held, the collapse of revolutionary possibilities in Britain was receded by British suppression of the Irish people."

But this itself was a position that developed. As Marx wrote to Kuglemann,
I have become more and more convinced - and the thing now is to drum this conviction into the English working class - that they will never do anything decisive here in England before they separate their attitude towards Ireland quite definitely from that of the ruling classes, and not only make common cause with the Irish, but even take the initiative in dissolving the Union established in 1801... Every movement in England itself is crippled by the dissension with the Irish, who form a very important section of the working class in England itself.
Marx was also shaped by the resistance movements themselves. The Indian Rebellion of 1857 for instance, meant that Marx "attacked British colonialism far more sharply" than he did in his 1853 writings.

Two final points from Kevin B. Anderson's work must be highlighted. Firstly the question of the development of capitalism. Marx's writings on primitive accumulation hold that the West followed a distinct process that saw capitalism arise out of feudal relations. This was often read "as a global and unilinear process of capitalist development, with England exhibiting the 'classic form'." But Anderson shows how Marx was constantly developing this position, and by the time of the later French edition of Capital he'd reached a more nuanced position, where (in Anderson's words) Marx's "narrative of primitive accumulation was meant as a description of Western European development, nothing more, and hardly a global grand narrative". Its this that forms the basis of Marx's writings about the peasant communes in Russia and their potential to move direct to socialism, without capitalism. Such ideas no doubt influenced Russian revolutionaries like Leon Trotsky in his work on combined and uneven development.

The other point I wanted to conclude on is Marx's "racism". In place, Anderson repeatedly notes, Marx did use language that we would see as highly ethnocentric and, on occasion, racist. For instance, Marx uses in several places the "N word". Interestingly Anderson points out that in modern editions of his work this has often been replaced with the word "blacks". Does this mean Marx was racist? Anderson argues that Marx was "using racist language in an anti-racist way", in other words his language was on occasion racist but his use of the terms was always in the context of confronting racism and colonialism as part of a wider project of the emancipation of all.

As I hope I have shown in this review Kevin B. Anderson's book is a highly important work for many reasons. The first of these is to rescue Marx as a wide-ranging anti-capitalist author, not simply a revolutionary economist. The second is to show Marx as a committed anti-racist activist who put opposition to Empire and colonialism at the heart of his theoretical and activist work. Thirdly to show that Marxism has a great deal to contribute to contemporary debates about the legacy of colonialism, slavery, imperialism and Empire today - particularly an understanding of the origins of racism. Finally Anderson indicates that many of Marx's lesser known works can contribute to important discussions around issues as diverse as indigenous struggles and historic communal societies. The book is well written, engaging and detailed and it is a must read for radical activists today.

Related Reviews

Gonzalez - In the Red Corner: The Marxism of José Carlos Mariátegui
Patterson - Karl Marx, Anthropologist
Burkett - Marxism and Ecological Economics: Toward a Red and Green Political Economy
Marx - Capital Volume I
Marx - Grundrisse

Monday, July 06, 2020

Nina Lakhani - Who killed Berta Cáceres?

Between 2002 and 2017 some 1,500 activists were killed for their roles in protecting water, land, natural resources and the communities that rely on them. The death rate among environmental activists during the period was higher than for UK soldiers deployed to combat zones. One of those murdered campaigners was Berta Cáceres, a Honduran campaigner who had won the Goldman Environmental prize in 2015. A year later she was shot to death in her own home.

Journalist Nina Lakhani's work has focused on Honduras and activists like Berta Cáceres. This detailed book is the story of the murder and the struggle to for justice. At the end of it, several individuals are found guilty and are imprisoned. But what makes Lakhani's book so important is that the murder (and the role of those convicted) is put into the wider context of Honduran history and current political situation.

In Honduras there is a long tradition of violent repression of those challenging the status quo. As Lakhani explains:
anti-communist fervour was not a Cold War invention. In the first half of the twentieth century, Central America's elite landowning families - who enjoyed absolute economic and political power in their regional fiefdoms - were more that comfortable branding popular uprisings as communist threats. Any sniff of a political, social or labour movement demanding even modest reforms to tackle the stark inequalities was crushed, often brutally, to protect the interests of these elites.
By the 20th century Honduras was very much in the part of US interests, with successive US governments concerned with protecting their sphere of influence from left-wing threats (perceived or imagined). Infamous US ambassador John Negroponte, who served in Honduras from 1981-1985, oversaw military aid "rocketing" from $4m to $77m a year, in what Lakhani calls a "straightforward cash-for-turf deal" whereby the US gained "free rein" over Honduran territory. What is crucial for the story of Cáceres is that this created "a loyal force hooked on American money, equipment, training and ideology: cheaply bought loyalty which the US could count on again and again".

The late 20th century saw the arrival of neo-liberal policies that required the Honduran government, like most other central American nations, to implement all sorts of "reforms" which did nothing for the majority of the population but opened up the landscape to the multinationals. Under the Washington Consensus, Rafael Callejas, Honduran president from 1990-1994,
promoted programmes top break up collective land rights of indigenous and campesino communities in favour of multinational conglomerates. This is what ignited the modern-day land conflicts in Honduras, by putting rural communities opposed to environmentally destructive projects...against the country's elites and international financiers invested in so-called green energy projects.
Berta Cáceres
It was in these struggles that Berta Cáceres became a thorn in the side of the powerful. She came from an activist family and cut her teeth in the armed rebellion of the 1980s. In the early 1990s she helped found the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras (COPINH). By the 2000s this was a key force organising rural and indigenous communities to oppose dams such as the Agua Zarca in the Lenca territory. In 2009 a coup overthrew President Manuel Zelaya whose minor reforms had irritated sections of the Honduran ruling class. While there is no space to go into this in detail here, it is worth noting that Lakhani shows the failure of the Obama administration to seriously challenge the coup, and specifically Hilary Clinton's pathetic role. The coup"unleashed a tsunami of environmentally destructive 'development' projects as the new regime set about seizing control of resource rich territories."

It is in this context that communities began to resist plans by a Honduran company (with links to international capital) Desarrollos Energéticos, S.A. (DESA) to construct several dams on the Gualcarque River. The river was important as a historic site, a place of work and a source of food and water which irrigated local farms. The dams would destroy communities and agreement had been driven through with no consultation in breach of international law. Cáceres threw herself into organising the movement which threatened to derail the project. She knew, as a result, that her life was in danger. DESA had spies in the movement and community and Honduras had a climate of impunity where murderers were seldom brought to justice. As we have seen activists of any stripe faced violence and murder regularly.

Berta Cáceres was a remarkable woman. In these pages were see a principled fighter for social justice who understood that the struggle to defend the environment was inseparable from the fight against injustice and capitalism. She was not afraid, in a macho environment, to champion the rights of women and the LGBT+ community. As one activist told Lakhani, Cáceres was killed "because they could not allow a woman to get away with endangering their business and threatening their investments... Berta's murder was fundamentally a machista murder". Another of Cáceres friends said "they killed a woman who dared speak out against a patriarchal system, that's why I call it a political femicide".

This book is thus a celebration of Berta Cáceres' life and struggles, as well as a devastating attack on the corruption and violence at the heart of Honudran society. The book, however, makes it clear that this is not simply about Honduras, but is a result of Western Imperialism and the way it commodifies the whole world in the interest of capital. The murder of Cáceres, and thousands of other activists, is one way the interests of imperialism and capital are furthered.

I wanted to finish my review by also highlighting the importance of author Nina Lakhani's work. Her journalism before and after Berta Cáceres' murder made sure that the world knew what had happened. It is in no small part due to Lakhani's reporting that those directly responsible for the killing are in jail. This book goes a long way to exposing the wider forces that made that possible. As a result Lakhani herself has faced very real threats of violence. Consequently her book is also a tribute to the sort of investigative journalism that has always told truth to power. But the last words should belong to Berta Cáceres:
If they kill me, the struggle for justice will go on. The world is more powerful than these criminals.
Related Reviews

Galeano - The Open Veins of Latin America
Galeano - Children of the Days: A Calendar of Human History
Gonzalez - In the Red Corner: The Marxism of José Carlos Mariátegui
Gonzalez - The Ebb of the Pink Tide
Klein - The Shock Doctrine
Linebaugh - Stop, Thief! The Commons, Enclosures and Resistance
Morgan & Jukes - Untold: The Daniel Morgan Murder Exposed

Sunday, July 05, 2020

George Ewart Evans - Ask the Fellows who Cut the Hay

This classic of oral history is both fascinating and entertaining to read. In the late 1940s George Ewart Evans set about recording the memories of the oldest inhabitants of the small village of Blaxhall in Suffolk. In doing so he records both the scale of the transformation of the English countryside at the end of the 19th century and makes a detailed record of rural life and agriculture before it was dominated by machinery and remained dependent on lots of human labour. I did not expect to be enthralled by the detail of how sheep were manually sheered, ale brewed at home and bread baked, but Evans has a knack for showing, through the words of the workers themselves, precisely the forgotten skills that kept agricultural communities going. There is also much insight into the nature of work itself, beyond the labour and skills:
After watching a furrow drawing or a ploughing match one has the feeling that the most cogent reason is rarely stated. To the ploughman the straight furrow is an end in itself, calling for all a man's skill, a king of quest after the mathematically unattainable: skill and craft carried to the point where the straight furrow becomes utility's tribute to art. The ploughman aims at a straight furrow because it looks right; and because it gives him the craftsman's satisfaction of a self-set standard; of doing a job as he feels it should be done, without need of praise except his own self's approval.
But in case the author and myself are accused of romanticising this labour, Evans himself cautions against this trap. In his chapter on the harvest, he says:
If, however, all that has already been stated about threshing gives the impression that there was something colourful or romantic about using the flail, we have the testimony of an old Suffolk farm-worker, who is still living, to disprove it. He was paid at the rate of 3s. a coomb for threshing; and he had no two thoughts about it: 'Threshing was real, downright slavery.'
Similarly there are many accounts of the reality of low wages and rural poverty. One of Ewart's sources George Messenger said:
My father brought up seven children on ten shillings a week. It was four rounds of bread each in a day - no more. And often it was a pinch of salt in a kittle of hot water and that was poured on the bread, and my mother would say "C'mon, there's a sop for you!" Kittle-broth we used to call it.
One of the joys of the book is the emphasis on the local dialect, and its interesting to note how some of this manifests today. For instance, the local pub in Blaxhall today (according to Google Maps) is called the Ship and has a picture of a viking type craft on its sign. According to Ewart the Ship had a plain sign in his day, because it was ambiguous whether the name refereed to a boat or the dialect word for sheep. Google maps provides another interesting diversion for readers - the village map in the front pages of this 1956 map shows little change to boundaries or roads, or even buildings over 60 years later.

There is little detail of organised resistance against poverty and inequality, though Ewart does say that many locals were deported to the convict settlements for poaching and smuggling, and some during the same period as the Tolpuddle Martyrs for "roughly the same reasons". Suffolk would be close to centres of agricultural trade unionism during some of the 20th century so it would be interesting to know more. But most "resistance" that reaches Ewart is through passive or secondary sources - local support/participation for poaching or smuggling. Some of these accounts are as fascinating as the sections on sheep, harvesting and village life. All in all this is a classic work of rural oral history.

Related Reviews

Horn - Labouring Life in the Victorian Countryside
Mingay - Rural Life in Victorian England
Ashby - Joseph Ashby of Tysoe: 1859-1919

Saturday, July 04, 2020

Raymond E. Feist - King of Ashes

King of Ashes is the first in a new trilogy by Raymond E. Feist, an author known for his long, intricate and interrelated fantasy book series. While certainly readable, the first volume of the Firemane trilogy felt extremely generic to me. The book begins with an appropriate fantasy map (which, rather annoyingly, doesn't include most of the places mention in the text) and opens with the aftermath of a battle. Or rather a massacre. Despite centuries of peace, the various kingdoms in the lands of Garn have broken out in war. Subterfuge has led to King Firemane's forces being smashed through betrayal and all of the ruling family murdered. All except a small baby, who is spirited away and brought to live on the island of Coaltachin a kingdom of Garn-wide mafiosi. Where he is named Hatushaly or Hatu for short.

Parallel stories follow different groups of people, particularly the talented smith who was apprenticed to the smith who was bound to the baron who saved Hatu. All of this is extremely readable, but Feist takes an age to tell a story, or describe something which partly explains the length of this work. There are long detailed accounts of how smith's do various technical things or explanations of the specialist training given to the young men and women of Coaltachin to ensure that they both are skilled at fighting, travelling, survival and spying and prepared to do these things unquestioningly in the service of their kingdom.

This latter aspect is particularly difficult as Feist, presumably ignoring any contemporary attempts to challenge some of the more traditional tropes of fantasy literature, has Hatu's best friend Hava (a young woman of his age) attend a camp to teach her the arts of seduction. Rather crudely Feist dwells on some of the more lascivious aspects of this training. In fact crude sexuality is a big part of the book as Feist struggles to describe Hatu and Hava's coming of age in ways that don't feel like a teenager's diary.

These problems however are only part of the bigger issue I had with the novel. Feist is so concerned with his world building and presumably laying out plot lines for the later novels, that 500 pages effectively do nothing but build up to the point when various of Garn's powers have laid out their plans and Hatu has learnt his true heritage. We've also had various semi-magical beasts and hints and wider changes in Garn.

Readers who like long, intricate fantasy worlds and can ignore (or prefer) fantasy themes and depictions (especially of women) that feel more 1970s than 21st century, will probably devour this book and the rest of the trilogy. I am afraid I won't be reading past volume one.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Pamela Horn - Labouring Life in the Victorian Countryside

Pamela Horn is a prolific social historian whose recent work has been associated very much with the lives of the wealthy and their households. Her earlier work was much more focused on the poor and working classes, and the transformation of life in the countryside. Labouring Life in the Victorian Countryside is an excellent and accessible account of life for working people in the countryside and is highly recommended for anyone trying to get a sense of what that life was like.

This was certainly no bucolic existence. Horn demonstrates time and again that life in the countryside was dominated by poverty, hardwork, poor housing and rigid social class hierarchies. Agricultural labourers were often trapped in relationships that made it hard from them to break free of individual farmers. Take the Dorset farmer, John Butler, who in the 1860s,
normally paid his workers once a month only, but in the interim several of them bought wood, bacon, eggs and butter from him, and then had the relevant sum,s deducted from their earnings at the end of the month. A similar policy was adopted in the 1880s and 1890s by workers employed by Mr Hyatt at Snowshill House Farm in Gloucestershire.
In January 1880, "William Ireland, a labourer ostensibly earning 12s. a week, 'left £1 for pig, 4 bushels barley 14s.' and as a consequence secured only 15s. in cash."

Such economic woes were closely tied to a village hierarchy which placed the agricultural labourer and their family at the very bottom. This began in childhood were school was very much a place were education was limited to what the farmers thought the children should know. In fact there was a general sense from the higher classes that too much education was a bad thing as it led to labourers leaving the countryside. But class position was firmly part of the curriculum.

a log book entry at Holbeton, Devon, for 1867 reads: 'Spoke to the children about making obeisance to their Superiors.' Soon even the dullest or most defiant youngsters realised where their duty lay and outwardly conformed o the standard expected of them. But inwardly they may have shared the doubts of Arthur Tweedy of Kirby Fleetham in Yorkshire, who remembered asking his father why he should say 'Sir' to the squire or 'anyone else who thought himself a step above' the farm labourers. His father's reply was: '"Sir", my boy, is only the nickname for a fool.'

The Victorian era was one where the final transformation of the English countryside in the interest of capitalism took place. As Horn concludes:
The very structure of rural society was itself changing, with the decline in the numbers of rural craftsmen and the massive outflow of labourers from the land during the second half on the nineteenth century. By 1900 country dwellers were a minority of England an Wales... In the new century these trends were to be intensified, especially as the ravages of World War I undermined still further the traditional values of the old deferential rural society.
A decent chapter summarising the growth and decline of the agricultural trade union movement provides a good overview of the struggles of the rural working class. Horn concludes, probably correctly, that while the movement did win wage rises, the gains on the political front - such as the establishment of parish councils, and independent political organisation were limited. It was "the village tradesmen, farmers and smallholders who, like Joseph Ashby of Tysoe, felt able to take advantage of the new opportunities to exercise democratic rights, rather than the agricultural workers".

Horn focuses mostly on the lives of ordinary people and how these changed. There are plenty of anecdotes and first hand accounts, of everything from the nature of work to the fairs, education, health and crime. I don't think the book gives as much of a sense of the great transformative processes taking place as G.E.Mingay's book Rural Life in Victorian England. But together these are good summaries of the lives of rural communities as England entered the 20th century.

Related Reviews

Horn - Joseph Arch
Horn - Life and Labour in Rural England 1760 - 1850
Horn - The Rural World - Social Change in the English Countryside 1780 - 1850
Mingay - Rural Life in Victorian England
Ashby - Joseph Ashby of Tysoe: 1859-1919
Thompson - Lark Rise to Candleford
Whitlock - Peasant's Heritage

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Sharon Duggal - The Handsworth Times

I wasn't old enough to really understand the Handsworth Riots when they took place in 1981. Living in Balsall Heath in Birmingham we were a relatively long way from events, but me and my school-mates certainly took notice. Even eight and nine year olds like us understood that something big was happening.

Sharon Duggal's The Handsworth Times is a study of what the riots meant to a small section of the Handsworth community. The novel centres on the Agarwals, whose youngest son Billy is killed by an ambulance during the rioting. Billy's death leads to the family's downward spiral as father Mukesh, a factory worker immigrant from India, turns to alcohol to cop with the pain. Usha, his wife, obsessively cleans the house to try and cope, and their three daughters struggle to deal with the tragedy and the unravelling of their lives.

The backdrop to all of these is Thatcherism, economic crisis and the rise in racism. The community faces all of these, and the Nazi National Front who turn up to sow further division. As Mukesh and millions of workers like him lose their jobs, it is up to ordinary people to try and stand up for justice and equality.

This isn't an easy novel to read. The story is as painful as the backdrop. Duggal brings to life the reality of unemployment, poor, overcrowded housing, racism and family tensions. In their different ways, each daughter finds a way of dealing with the tragedy, and at least one of them gets to kick a Nazi in the bollocks. Duggal's novel is well observed, full of black comedy and understanding of what it meant to be young, Asian and working class in 1980s Birmingham. If I've one criticism its that Duggal tries a little too hard with period detail. While I enjoyed the multiple references to songs, food and locations at times it was a little overwhelming.

I'm sure that many of the followers of this blog will enjoy this story of community resistance and resilience.

Monday, June 22, 2020

G.E.Mingay - Rural Life in Victorian England

The nineteenth century saw unprecedented change in the countryside. The period of Queen Victoria's rule saw the consolidation of industry and empire, and in the countryside the completion of a process that had begun when capitalism had emerged triumphant from the old feudal order. Enclosure, engrossment and the destruction of common property saw its conclusion in this period, but these processes had really only laid the basis for what took place in these years of change. This is the period when the old traditions died out alongside the old working practices and the rural working population declined from its 1851 peak. As G.E.Mingay makes clear in the introduction to his classic account of the period:
Quiet little country places, which once were disturbed only by the blacksmith's hammerings or the rumble of wagons, now resounded with the clamour of dozens of little nailers' forges or the thud and click of cottage handlooms and stocking frames.. almost overnight, the village's character was changed, and those who knew nothing but farming found themselves outnumbered by factory hands, whose own rural origins rapidly disappeared without trace.
The book documents these changes, but does it through an examination of the different groups that made up village life - the landowning squires, the tenant farmers, the agricultural labourers and the professionals; parson, land-agent, doctor and blacksmith. The period in question saw these groups and the relationships between them fundamentally transformed. One key aspect to this was the way that the growing international economy meant that landowners and farmers had to change their practises, a process accelerated by the great depression of the 1870s. Gentlemen farmers and landowners began to die out. Mingay quotes Rider Haggard:
Today there was a new type of farmer, who, as a rule, began life as a grocer, a village smith or a shoemaker. This person lives on about 10s a week and goes to a sale to buy and old wagon for 50s... On an 800 acre holding he employs about four hands, and sometimes not so many, and is unprofitable to the landlord, the tradesman, and the labourer alike. But after a fashion, he makes farming pay.
Mingay adds
With the depression came a breakdown of the old relationship between landlord and tenant. The landlord saw old tenants... throw up leases and depart... The old tenants, for their part, saw that the landlords were powerless to halt the economic decline of farming, and were even unable to offer much in the way of new investment in buildings or help with the expense of converting arable land to grass.
This was a period when a "new kind of farmer... strictly economical and severely business-like" arose, making the depression "a true watershed in the country's farming history".

If the old landowning class and the tenant farmers were being transformed, the agricultural labourers were beginning to see a transformation in their own lives. Readers might detect a tendency for Mingay to see the squirearchy in its most benevolent clothing. But he certainly doesn't hid the poverty and terrible living conditions of the agricultural labourers. Their low incomes, appalling housing, lack of access to education, running water, interior toilets and so on, is detailed in horrible detail. So to are their struggles - the burning of hay ricks and the early trade union movements.

Many, usually those not directly connected to the countryside, saw the solution as being about land.
There was great discussion, much controversy, a few plans, but little action. What did the labourer need to tie him to is village? Clearly he needed better wages, better housing, better conditions - though ti was disputed how bad these really were. Above all he needed land. Look at the continent. There was still a stable and numerous peasantry, having a large share of the soil, and responsible for a large share of its product. Land was the key. It would give the labourer a stake in the country, something to work for, something to stay for. And so came the Smallholdings Acts.
But this wasn't enough. Allotments, smallholdings and the like gave the labourer a bit of extra food. But it couldn't stop poverty. Thus the exodus from the country continued, particularly when industrialisation sucked in more workers. The markets in the local town, and ease of travel by railways, meant that rural workers got a taste for town life. The process was accelerated by the trend towards mechanised farming, the use of technology, chemicals and steam. As a result villages themselves changed, becoming "dormitories and satellites" of the towns which exploded in size.

Traditions, skills and knowledge that had lasted for centuries disappeared too:
The decline in village trades and crafts was perhaps less remarked upon by contemporaries because it was gradual,.. and because at its height it was overshadowed by the great depression in farming itself. But it was much more than a spin-off of the farmers' decline. It was... one of the long-term consequences which flowed from the transformation of Britain into a industrialised and urbanised society. As such, it has not attracted much attention from historians. But it was, nevertheless, highly significant in the rural content, for the going of the miller and the maltster, the dying out of the packman and pedlar and the eventual disappearance of the saddler, wheelwright and blacksmith make their own conspicuous contribution to the decay of the old country life.
But Mingay is no romantic, bemoaning the decline of a traditional life. He understands that these changes are part of a process that arose, in large part, outside of any influence the rural population could have brought to bear. What passed, in large part, was an old hierarchy that was based upon the brutal exploitation of a huge class of agricultural worker. This population had seen its old social relations broken, but the changes that came with Britain's industrialisation accelerated and finalised what was a long term decline.

Drawing heavily on eyewitness accounts this is a fine book indeed. Well written, sympathetic and focusing on the lives of men and women - from squire to reforming farmer, agricultural labourer to blacksmith - its a highly readable account for anyone trying to understand what the history of the countryside really is.

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