Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Dashiell Hammett - Red Harvest

I was drawn to Dashiell Hammett's classic hard-boiled detective novel on learning that it had served as the inspiration for Akira Kurosawa's film Yojimbo which in turn provided the inspiration for Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars. First published in 1929 it is a classic of its genre, with the central anonymous detective playing fast and lose with his gun in the midst of a deeply divided, corrupt town called Personville. Personville is so awful it's known to those who live there as Poisonville and upon arrival our hero quickly finds out that there are no innocent characters here. In fact the town is riven in two, with rival forces fighting for control of the liquor trade and other underground activities. The police aren't separate from this - they make up one of the violent and corrupt sides.

Red Harvest is incredibly violent. In contrast to Raymond Chandler's works and others by Hammett such as The Maltese Falcon there is a lot of killing. But what distinguishes Harvest is that the hero partakes in the slaughter. This isn't just self-defence either, there are several points when he sets up characters to be killed. The ambiguous moral position of the "Continential Op" is a key part of Red Harvest. He lies, break laws and murders his way around Personville trying to fix the larger problem - is a crime committed to prevent far worse things actually a crime?

Most of those the Continent Op encounters turn out not to think so - but then they are criminals themselves. Oddly for such a detective book there is only one major female character who is a pivot for much of the action - she is a sort of female version of the Op, playing off sides against each other, though in her case she's doing it for her own interests.

Interestingly Personville also optimises something else about 1920s America - the greed, violence and pollution of industry. Several representatives of law enforcement have been party to the murderous suppression of trade unionists from the Industrial Workers of the World. Hammett is supposed to have based this on his time in the Pinkerton agency, the model for the Continental Detective Agency that our hero represents.

This is the set up. Does it work as a novel? Its certainly not what I was expecting havnig read The Maltese Falcon. This is more action packed and more violent and less about the actual process of working out a mystery. In fact the reader, like the Continental Op's fellow detectives, spends most of the time in the dark following the hero around different scenes. The book probably betrays its origin in magazine serials far more  than other stories. Reading it as a book works as an adventure story, though I was left unsatisfied by the conclusion.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

John Bellamy Foster & Brett Clark - The Robbery of Nature

Over the last few decades John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark have been at the forefront of showing how classical Marxism is the foremost tool in explaining capitalism's rift with the ecological systems that support our society. They have shown how Karl Marx's idea of the "metabolic rift" explains how capitalism is a break with other historical modes of production, a break that has transformed our relationship to the natural world and then broken the ongoing metabolism between humans and the planet. Reading this book while trapped at home during the Covid-19 pandemic it is very easy to see the practical application of Marx's metabolic rift theory. Other authors will no doubt build upon this, just as other scholars have followed Foster in particular and applied metabolic rift analysis to human systems like agriculture and the oceans.

This book brings together a series of essays by Clark and Foster, as well as a few other authors like Paul Burkett, that summarise this work. Many readers might have engaged with these articles in earlier forms when they have appeared in journals like Monthly Review. But to see them simply as a collection of previous articles is to miss their wider coherence.

Karl Marx developed metabolic rift theory based on his close reading of vast quantity of scientific material, in particular that of the German soil scientist Justus von Liebig. Liebig himself developed a number of ideas, in particular the idea of capitalist agriculture being a "robbery system". For Liebig, England in particular had developed a "high-input, high-output, capital-intensive form of large-scale industrial agriculture". This had yet to develop elsewhere in the world, but at the time of Marx and Liebig it had become entrenched so deeply in the English economy that it was having lasting effects upon England's soil fertility (decreasing at a rate that would today warrant the label of environmental crisis). As the English capitalists sought to solve the problem they were already spreading the problem globally as they robbed far-flung countries in search of raw materials to heal the "rift" caused by industrialised agriculture.

Marx developed this theory further into a general one of ecological degradation. More recently, John Bellamy Foster in particular has shown how it is a way of viewing capitalism's destructive action upon the world's ecology. This process is inseparable from the system itself. As the author's, quoting Marx, write:
The capitalist valorization process could thus never free itself from the conditions of "metabolic interaction between man and nature." All attempt to do so, as in industrial agriculture or the exploitation of labour power, generated a metabolic rift, a crisis of social metabolic reproduction. 
They continue, again quoting Marx:
At the heart of the contradiction was the reality that the social metabolism with nature under capitalism was mediated by value. Thus 'the cultivation of particular crops depends on fluctuations in market prices and the constant changes in cultivation with these price fluctuations.' This reflects the fact that 'the entire spirit of capitalist production, which is oriented towards the most immediate monetary profit - stands in contradiction to agriculture, which as to concern itself with the whole gamut of permanent conditions of life required by the chain of human generations.'
Much of the book explores different aspects of what this means for capitalism today as we face global environmental crisis. There are other important arguments though. One of which is the way that capitalist economics sees certain aspects (such as natural resources) as "free gifts" to production. In an important chapter Foster and Clark extend these discussions to the realm of social reproduction - in particular the way that the bourgeois family is used to create the next generation of labour. For instance, they write:
By the late nineteenth century... capital had at least formally created separate, alienated spheres of housewife and breadwinner... This transformed the family itself under monopoly capitalism, resulting in the relative rather than absolute expropriation of time within the household... Likewise, capital dealt with it first ecological crises (the degradation of the soil and rapacious deforestation) by means of new alienated mediations (synthetic fertilisers), which in the long run were to reappear as crucial aspects of a global metabolic rift that degrades nature even further.
While looking inward to how capitalism transformed social relations within its key economies, the authors also show how colonialism and imperialism allowed the British metabolic rift to be "transferred abroad". As Marx says, the "view of nature which has grown up under the regime of private property and of money is an actual contempt for and practical degradation of nature". A new chapter on colonial rule in Ireland demonstrates this in particular, but this is a theme that runs through the book. I also want to highlight the excellent chapter Marx as Food Theorist which defend Marx from accusations he didn't think through what capitalism did for the food systems we rely on. But the book expands that analysis to cover the contemporary agriculture/food/industry complex in ways that are particular pertinent to discussions around Covid-19 and farming today.

Two other chapters are worth highlighting for the author's defence of classical Marxism. The first is a chapter about work under capitalism and socialism. Here the authors tackle an older debate about the nature of work. Under capitalism workers are alienated from their labour. This means there is a tendency to see the future sustainable socialism as meaning that work forms a minority of peoples lives - and authors have tended to highlight the way that socialism would allow vast quantities of leisure time. This must, in part, have been a way of appealing to workers who were exhausted by their labour. But Foster and Clark highlight how this is also a misunderstanding of the nature of labour within human society. Capitalism alienates our labour, takes it from us. But it is also what makes us human. Thus
the real potential for any future sustainable society rests not so much on its expansion of lisure time, but rather on its capacity to generate a new world of creative and collective work, controlled by the associated producers.
In particular Foster and Clarke draw on the work of William Morris including his seminal novel News from Nowhere to support their arguments. I think this is an important argument, though its worth pointing out that Morris did not neglect the aforementioned leisure time either - News from Nowhere has as a subtitle "An Epoch of Rest". But this is very much in the context of his understanding that labour should not have to mean exhaustion.

The second of these key arguments is from an article that first appeared in International Socialism and is a defence of the Labour Theory of Value from critics in what might loosely be described as "left ecology". Here the authors of that article (Burkett and Foster) also tackle important debates that defend both Marx's ideas (such as metabolic rift) and his method.

These debates are important, and left ecologists and socialists must understand them. But this is not an academic argument. The importance of the politics in The Robbery of Nature lies in informing readers for the most important struggle of our times - the defeat of capitalism before it destroys the ecological basis to human life. Foster and Clarke explain that we face "ruin or revolution". Winning that revolution will require clarity of ideas and of political method. This book is part of arming us with both.

Related Reviews

Foster - Marx's Ecology: Materialism and Nature
Foster - The Ecological Revolution: Making Peace with the Planet
Foster - The Vulnerable Planet
Foster - Ecology Against Capitalism
Foster, Clark & York - Critique of Intelligent Design: Materialism versus Creationism, From Antiquity to the Present
Foster & Burkett - Marx and the Earth: An Anti-Critique
Burkett - Marxism and Ecological Economics: Toward a Red and Green Political Economy
Burkett - Marx and Nature: A Red and Green Perspective

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Richard Borshay Lee - The !Kung San: Men, Women & Work in a Foraging Society

Why should we plant, when there are so many mongongos in the world? - /Xashe, a !Kung man from Mahopa

Richard B Lee's classic book on the hunter-gatherer people known as the !Kung San, who call themselves the Juǀʼhoansi, was the product of several expeditions and years of field work by Lee and his associates. But it is also the product of a uniquely radical period for anthropology. Lee first visited the !Kung in the mid-1960s and left to become part of the anti-Vietnam movement. His later return and further studies mixed with his experiences of US Imperialism and knowledge of the Vietnamese resistance movements, as well as his radical Marxist politics, to produce one of the most insightful and important books ever written about foraging societies.

Lee is careful not to speculate too much about what his studies of the !Kung tell us about other, prehistoric communities. Though he does acknowledge that we can have some insights into how those societies behaved. However Lee visited the !Kung in a period of transition. For tens of thousands of years people had lived in the Kalahari desert, likely in societies similar to the !Kung's contemporary life. But from the 19th century onward the !Kung had encountered new groups of people, in particular those from European colonial communities. More recently the !Kung's foraging life-style was being transformed by their relations with the capitalist market - through wage labour in particular.

In contrast to the tradition view of hunter-gatherers as living a life that was "nasty, brutish and short", Lee shows how the !Kung actually had a life that was marked by low levels of work (compared to Western capitalist society), with a usually (outside of droughts) varied and excellent diet and, perhaps most importantly, a "fiercely egalitarian" self organisation. Lee describes differences with other societies, noting for instance that young people and children did not have to labour to provide food (unlike peasant societies). Describing one group of !Kung he explains:
Their camps... do not consist of a core of males related through the male line [as previous anthropologists had argued]. But neither is the camp a random assortment of unrelated individuals whom adverse circumstances have thrown together. In essence, !Kung camp consists of kinspeople and affines who have found that they can live and work well together. under this flexible principle of organisation, brothers may be united or divided and fathers and sins may live together or apart. Furthermore, through the visiting network an individual may, during the course of his life, live for varying times at many water holes, as establishing residence and one camp does not require one to relinquish a claim to any other.
Lee's book works on a number of levels. Firstly it is a detailed account of the life and labour of the !Kung. Lee demonstrates how the !Kung's mode of production works - their tools, social organisation and relations. But it is also a wonderful example of the use of Marxism to understand how people (and communities) relate to the natural world. But Lee's work is far from the crude understanding of hunter-gatherers that we sometimes hear:
[An] inaccuracy is the view of hunters as having no private property. Land and its resources are collectively owned and utilised, but tools and other belongings are the property of the owner. Nonperishable goods are dealt with differently from foods. Meat many be distributed throughout the camp, but the bow and arrow that killed the animal belongs to the hunter. Material goods are important items of trade, and dyadic trade networks are a key means of cementing social relations; but the 'worker' owns the means of production.
Finally the book is a deeply personal account. Lee describes the dialectical relationship between observer and observed. He knows that his presence changes things, and uses this (to sometimes comic effect) to better understand the people that he is with. A case in point is when Lee provides a cow for a feast when he is leaving, failing to understand why the !Kung mock his gift as being small and inadequate despite it providing a hearty feast for all. Only later does he realise that this is part of how !Kung organise - their mocking of his largesse is an example of how they tackle arrogance, self-importance and any tendency to inequality or hierarchy.

The egalitarian, sharing, non-hierarchical society tells us a great deal about how human societies change. But perhaps of most interest in this book, and high relevance to contemporary discussions, is the emphasis that Lee puts on understanding the role of men and women in !Kung society. Food is always shared beyond the immediate family group. But the food that is shared is provided mostly by the women. There is a division of labour - women tend to forage and gather, and men hunt. Though it is clear that this is not strict. Men do often forage and collect food alongside the women, and women "very occasionally hunt". Lee writes that "the actual productive process may be individual or cooperative. Men may hunt singly or in groups; women may gather alone or with others".

Hunting is tremendously important to the group. Boys are taught from a young age to track and identify animals. Women's input on hunting is sought and is important because "they cover much ground on their gathering trips and because they are as keen observers of the environment as are the men, their observations are sought and taken seriously".  Men actually have a higher work effort than women (even when taking into account the rearing of children), but it is the women who provide most calories for the group. Work is key to Lee's study. He writes:
The beauty of the study of work is that work can be precisely quantified and can be tied into a whole gamut of social and economic variables. underlying the network of social relations anthropologists are so fond of studying is a network of energy relations to which we pay little or no attention. Yet the basic units of social behaviour and interaction have never been satisfactorily defined and isolated, although the basic units of energy relations are relatively easy to define and measure. The advantage of the study of work for anthropology is that it anchors the ephemera of social life on the foundations of the natural sciences.
This is not to say that Lee neglects the "ephemera" of !Kung life. In fact he spends a great deal on their tools, their camp life, their marital relations and how women and men work, play and rest (and they have a lot of rest - far more than those of us who work a 9-5 job have).

Time an again we are reminded of the inter-relations between men and women. Both men and women make tools, that might be used by the other sex. How does the labour break down?
Men clearly have the heavier share of work in subsistence and tool making and repair. Women do more housework than men, but overall the men appear to have a longer work week. The shorter subsistence workday of the women does not result in a lower return in foodstuffs... women provide more food per day of gathering than men provide per day of hunting. Women return to the camp earlier in the day than men. They use the time to ensure that the ostrich eggshell canteens are filled and that some food is prepared.
He continues:
A major category of work... is child care, and to the child's own mother falls 60 to 80 percent of the work with young children, a proportion that more than redresses the apparent disparity between men's and women;'s work... Neither do these figures support the notion that women are the exploited members of !Kung society. Their weekly work effort, including housework, is less than that of the men, and even adding the work of child rearing does not raise the women's total work load significantly above the range of the men's.
As the last quote indicates Lee's arguments are backed up with tremendous amounts of observational data. But this doesn't make the book dry. On the contrary it is readable and engaging. In fact there is so much here that I cannot hope to cover it all in the review. Whether it is the detailed description of how a !Kung hunter makes his most important tool - the arrow quiver, or how they poison their arrows or the spacing that !Kung women have of children and how this relates to hunter-gatherer life the book covers it all. There is also a detailed but extremely important discussion of violence within !Kung communities.

The final part of the book shows how the interaction between the hunter-gatherer communities and capitalist market networks had, at the time of study, begun to break down social relations. Lee shows how other groups' agriculture had encouraged sedentary life for some !Kung. Social relations are transformed with contact with a market economy - the production of commodities to be sold to tourist markets, or !Kung working in the mines. As Lee concludes:
The informal leadership, vague boundaries, and reciprocal access to resources worked well for the !Kung when the land was vast and the people were few. But with the transition to village life the old mechanisms have proved quite inadequate. The process of moving to a new mode of production involved the !Kung not only in changes in the economic base, but also has necessitated the emergence of new kinds of political relations, new forms of leadership and new methods of resolving disputes.
Lee's book is one of the best works of anthropology I have ever read. But that's not simply because his style is accessible, it is because his approach to the !Kung is one that begins from an attempt to study their life as part of a wider understanding of human society in all its forms. Lee's Marxist approach aids this but doesn't obscure it in jargon. His own humanity is written on every page, but the most important story is that of the !Kung whose story is captured at a particularly moment in their history. Richard B Lee's book tells their story but also part of own our history too.

Related Reviews

Leacock - Myths of Male Dominance
Scott - Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States

Bellwood - The First Farmers
Martin - The Death of Big Men and the Rise of the Big Shots
Flannery and Marcus - The Creation of Inequality
McAnany and Yoffee - Questioning Collapse
Engels - Origin of Private Property, the Family and the State
Evans-Pritchard - The Nuer
Evans-Pritchard - Kinship and Marriage Among the Nuer
Gilligan - Climate, Clothing & Agriculture in Prehistory

Monday, March 23, 2020

Iain Banks - Whit

Outside of Iain Bank's science fiction Whit is his novel that I've repeatedly enjoyed over the years (which explains why it's the first book to be reviewed twice on this blog). It displays Bank's abilities at his best - occasional slapstick humour mixed with the bizarre and unusual, while happily pointing to the hypocrisy of "normal" society. The latter is important in Whit because the story centres of Isis, the elect of God, who leaves the seclusion of her religious community and enters the normal world of 1990s England for find her "lost" sister.

Much of the entertainment comes from Isis' bizarre beliefs contrasted with the outside world. Eschewing comfort she must always sit on a wooden board on transport or sleep in a hammock, she shouldn't use a telephone or other electronic equipment and there are a myriad of other rules and beliefs that make her trip to London (initially) a bemusing experience for Isis and hilarious for the reader. There are some other poignant moments - Isis' encounter with some BNP paper sellers exposes their hypocrisy and her response is deeply satisfying for the reader.

But re-reading this in 2020 I was more intrigued by the nature of the religious group she is part of. Bank's weaves the story of its development into Isis' contemporary trip. But reading it now, rather than in the 2000s I was more aware of the cult-like behaviour of the founder, and Isis' horrible experience with him late in the book takes on new relevance and meaning in the #metoo era, as does the nature of the "festival" the group celebrates every leap year.

Whit is one of Bank's more satisfying endings even though it is ambiguous. I'd forgotten the extent to which Isis' journey opens up her understanding of the world and her own community. The last page leaves the reader open to the suggestion that Isis has realised that what is important is the community, not the religious belief - truth is what matters. But will she tell her followers the whole truth?

Related Reviews

Banks - Raw Spirit
Banks - Matter
Banks - Look to Windward
Banks - Dead Air
Banks - Whit (first review from 2005)
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

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Laura Miles - Transgender Resistance: Socialism and the fight for trans liberation

In Britain today trans people have a greater visibility than perhaps at any other time in the country's history. As a result trans people and trans politics has become a subject for fierce debate on the right and the left. Tragically, especially in Britain, many on the left have ended up taking positions that are transphobic or transcritical. This is despite the horrible oppression and discrimination faced by transpeople in Britain and around the world.

So it is excellent that socialist and trade union activist Laura Miles has written this new book. Miles begins with the strides forward that trans people have made, "through the hard work and efforts of countless activists there are now many support organisation for trans and non-binary people, something that could only have been dreamed of forty or fifty years ago". There are now many (though not nearly enough) positive articles, books, role-models and representations in the media of or about trans people. Yet there is also tragedy. Miles explains that the Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDoR) has been marked on 20 November every year since 1999.
The 2018 TDoR report revealed a total of 369 reported killings of trans and gender-diverse people between 1 October 2017 and 30 September 2018, an increase on the 2017 figure of 325... Most of the murders occurred in Brazil (167), Mexico (71), the United States (28) and Colombia (21).
It is important to highlight this oppression and violence against trans people. One of the arguments that trans-critical people often use is that transgender people are a threat to non-trans women in particular. Yet they rarely acknowledge the routine violence and discrimination that trans and non-binary people experience. I was glad that Miles doesn't just focus on the trans experience in Britain, or the developed world. One chapter looks at what it is like for trans people in countries and regions as diverse as Africa, South Korea, Russia, Latin America and the Indian sub-continent. These are difficult chapters to read as the violence is horrible and often routine. Miles concludes:
These snapshots of life for transgender people around world demonstrate that transphobia is endemic in modern capitalism although it varies in form and intensity from society to society and over time. A range of factors contribute to this - cultural and religious issues, economic factors such as crises and levels of wealth and poverty. A very common factor is how prejudice, discrimination and violence against trans people and others is whipped up as part of a general repression of opposition to growing inequality and disparities of wealth.
Despite this repression, trans and non-binary people have a long history. Miles looks at the way different historical societies have understood gender. Studies of Native American societies have shown Miles says, how "rather than being ostracised or forced into obscurity, gender-variant people were embraced by some 150 tribes, serving as artists, medicine people, religious experts and tribal leaders". She continues that "many societies considered that there were not two buy three, four, or more genders". I won't dwell here on the historic material, even though it is fascinating and demonstrates that humans have frequently taken very different views about sex and gender to that which is usually considered normal in modern capitalism. I will note though that I was pleased to see that Miles records the way that historic rebellion, such as that of the Rebecca Riots in Wales, often involved cross-dressing by rebels. There is a long tradition of this stretching particularly through British rural rebellion that I have noticed in my own studies of the subject.

The tour of the historical experience demonstrates the way that ideas of gender and sex become fixed with the development of the capitalism family. Here Miles draws on the classical Marxist analysis of the role of the family within capitalist production shaping wider social relations. It is this, she argues, which shapes the way that trans people are seen and related to within capitalism. While Miles shows exactly why science doesn't confirm the simple "two genders" model, it is the political analysis that is most important. It's worth quoting Miles at length on this:
The source of sexism, misogyny, women's oppression and trans oppression lies in the exploitative class relations that derive from capitalism's drive to appropriate and control labour power in order to accumulate surplus value, and in the dominant ideology of the nuclear family and its role in the socialisation, reproduction and provision of care for workers.
Everyone's gender identity is part of the deeply held sense of self which develops neither as an exclusive derivative of our biological sex nor merely as a response to the social norms and gender expectation that we encounter by virtue of being social beings. If it were simply one or the other, arguable there would not be transgender or non-binary people, either because our chromosomes would be all-powerful in forming our gender identity or because society's strong and pervasive gender binary oppression would lock us all irrevocably into one of the two hegemonic gender binary categories.
These conclusions don't seem particularly radical. So it is alarming that many on the left have adopted positions that would seem closer to those of the right in seeking to deny trans people rights and protections. Often these arguments take the form of arguing that such rights undermine women's rights won through decades of struggle. But Miles demonstrates how this is not the case. In particular fear-mongering over the right to self-identify risks setting back trans-rights many years. As Miles concludes, "such measures... would sweep away trans women's rights in particular and would in effect erase them as well as intersex people and those identifying as non-binary".

Miles concludes the book by looking beyond simply winning the rights that we might get under capitalism. She shows how a socialist society, by breaking free of the capitalist model of the family, and ending poverty and inequality can, through the process of revolutionary change be one in which people would have "many different gender expressions". She finishes with an inspiring quote from Leslie Feinberg who wrote in hir book Transgender Warriors:
None of us will be free until we have forged an economic system that meets the needs of every working person. As trans people, we  will not be free until we fight for and win a society in which no class stands to benefit from fomenting hatred and prejudice, where laws restricting sex and gender and human love will be unthinkable.
The important statement here, is that "none of us will be free" which includes those who don't identify as trans, as well as those who are non-binary or transgender. We will not be free, until everyone is free. Laura Miles' is book is a timely and important contribution to that struggle that ought to be read by every political activist fighting oppression and exploitation.

Related Reviews

Orr - Marxism and Women's Liberation
Leacock - Myths of Male Dominance
Engels - Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Victor Serge - Unforgiving Years

To understand Victor Serge's Unforgiving Years means understanding Serge's own life. As a young anarchist he was imprisoned for his rebellious activity. In the aftermath of the Russian Revolution he arrives in Petrograd inspired by the Bolshevik revolution and determined to be part and parcel of spreading it internationally. His writings, speeches and activity become geared to that end. Sadly Serge wasn't in Petrograd for the Revolutionary height of the movement. But he was there to document it, and to write on the Civil War and its aftermath - the rise of Stalin's bureacratic state that stifled and destroyed both the Russian Revolution and the international movement that had developed from it. Serge's Memoirs of a Revolutionary, detail much of this experience and are essential for socialists today. His account of the Russian Revolution and Civil War in Year One of the Russian Revolution is similarly indispensable.

These experiences imbibe Serge's novel Unforgiving Years. This was his final novel. It's filled with the darkness at the heart of the twentieth century - the Second World War and the defeat of the Russian Revolution (though not, specifically the Holocaust). In four closely connected episodes Serge sums up the Revolution as an event that drew colossal inspiration and dedication from millions of people, who were then spat out by the regime that took over. It's a complex and difficult work. Serge has a small group of inter-connected characters, two of whom Daria and D might be easily confused. D is a Russian secret agent who wants out, and Daria is a close comrade he has known since she was a young fighter in the Russian Civil War. D escapes, Daria stays and, while disgraced, is recalled to duty in the Siege of Leningrad where she experiences the horrors of that most brutal of conflicts. Characters, lovers, friends, comrades come and go - some die, some vanish, written out of history, and others move on.

Daria ends up underground in Germany as the war ends. She meets up with the Resistance and brutally dispatches the Russian enemies. This is the section that reads most like a novel, as she and others struggle to survive the collapse of Hitler's Reich. It's the final part though, when reunited in Mexico, the two D's face the end.

The novel is dark and full of despair. The hope, the love, the inspiration is fleeting but rather than simply being due to war and destruction it is also because of the tragedy that has befallen people's hopes of a better world: crushed by fascism and Stalinism. In this sense the novel follows Serge's own tragedy. He once told Trotsky's widow that only the two of them really remembered how it was. It was an exaggeration, but not by much. Serge wasn't murdered, but his life's work was broken. Perhaps he saw a future when the movement would grow again, but that's not here in this novel - this is the defeat of a class, individualised down to the experiences of a handful of characters.

The book isn't an easy read. It benefits the contextualisation that translator Richard Greeman gives in his introduction. But it's subject matter, it's disjointed story-line and its wide range of characters make it difficult to follow in places. Nonetheless it's an amazing work.

Related Reviews

Serge - Conquered City
Serge - Revolution in Danger
Serge - Year One of the Russian Revolution
Serge - Memoirs of a Revolutionary 1901 - 1941

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Nevil Shute - A Town Like Alice

A Town Like Alice was an enormously popular book when first published in the 1950s, spawning films, TV-series and a radio adaption and remains in print. But reading A Town Like Alice in 2020 is a odd experience. Firstly there are some outdated concepts and language. Nevil Shute's language and descriptions of the aboriginal people in Australia would hopefully be deemed unacceptable by publishers today. Secondly the book feels old fashioned in terms of pacing and material. Yet there was something more to Alice that kept me going to the end.

The book is in three parts. It's told in overview by an ageing solicitor Noel Strachan who meets the books heroine Jean Paget and informs her that she has inherited a small fortune. As he gets to know Jean, Noel learns of her experiences in Malaya during World War Two, and helps her return to the country to build a well for the people who looked after her and other women who were separated from their families during the Japanese Occupation. Jean briefly meets a young Australian soldier who Joe Harman who she believes killed, but many years later she learns survived the war and has returned to his old life as a stockman on an Australian cattle farm. She visits the desolate Australian desert and, with her inheritance, turns the former gold rush town into a thriving hub of industry.

There is no doubt that Nevil Shute was a talented writer what is odd to 21st century eyes is his choice of material. For instance, much of the book is set around Jean's rebuilding of a local economy. On occasion readers might be forgiven for seeing this as a celebration of the Tory ideal of free enterprise, thrift and investment. Shute himself was certainly not from the left of the political spectrum, though his politics and writing seem far away from the neo-liberal ideals of the current Tory incumbents. Shute always seems to celebrate the hard labour and skills of ordinary people, and is Alice is anything to go buy he was ahead of his time in celebrating the role of women (though he is painfully keen to highlight the chasteness of his unmarried heroine).

In his other books Shute was vocal about his disdaine for left politics and the state of Britain. Alice has a sense of that (almost everyone in Australia, on meeting the very English Jean, asks her if everyone is still hungry because of rationing). Here he is very much celebrating the freedom he seems to see steming from relocating to Australia with limitless, empty land to be worked and plenty of aboriginal people to labour in the homes and on the farms.

His treatment of the aborigines is, of course, a reflection of the times. But it is also tremendously problematic. There's not attempt to flesh their characters out other than a racist trope of them being very happy (apparently like other black people are). Nor is there anything about them, other than the difficulties their habit of going "walkabout" brings for industrious whites on the farms. Jean sets up a ice cream parlour and doesn't hesitate to make sure that there is a separate room for the aborigines, run by a "coloured girl". This said, Shute is sensitive to how he writes about other non-white people. The Malay villagers he talks about very differently and there are several touching scenes as Jean talks to the Muslim village headmen about their time there.

A Town Like Alice is a product of its time. It's also probably a semi-historical document in its own right. Though dated, and to modern readers somewhat crude and in places reflecting racist attitudes common in the 1950s, I found myself quite enjoying it - though I doubt it will ever reach the levels of success it had in these more enlightened times.

Monday, March 09, 2020

Tacitus - The Agricola and the Germania

These two short works by Tacitus, both written about 98CE, are two of the most accessible works by ancient authors and will be of particularly interest to European readers because they deal with Britain and Germany at the time of Imperial Rome. The first book, Agricola, is a biography of Tacitus' father in law. Written after Agricola's death it tells mostly of the five years when he governed Britain and was the general in charge of suppressing resistance to Roman rule. Sadly there's little detail about Britain and indeed the book is not particularly clear on details even of the Roman occupation. It is remarkably insightful into strategies of occupational forces though, noting that pure violence is seldom enough to maintain power:
And so the population was gradually led into the demoralising temptations of arcades, baths and sumptuous banquets. The unsuspecting Britons spoke of such novelties as 'civilisation', when in fact they were only a feature of their enslavement.
The Agricola is also the source of a famous quote that has oft been used by the anti-war movement to describe the consequences of contemporary imperialism.
They are the only people on earth to whose covetousness both riches and poverty are equally tempting. To robbery, butchery, and rapine, they give the lying name of 'government'; they create a desolation and call it peace.
Interestingly the quote originates in a speech that Tacitus puts into the mouth of a leader of the Briton's Calgacus. Victims of British colonialism over the following centuries would know what he meant.

The Agricola is a deliberate attempt to make sure that the life and successes of Agricola are passed on to history. The general's success meant he was ostracised at court because the Emperor Domitian felt threatened by others' popularity. Tacitus hints that Domitian had Agricola poisoned, having an unusually close interest in the progress of his health, but scholars suggest that this was unlikely.

The Germania is an early form of anthropological writing - a close description of the communities and customs of the people of what we now call Germany. Tacitus is keen to demonstrate how, despite these peoples' backwardness compared to Rome - their moral attitudes are an improvement. There's no adultery in Germany for instance he claims, somewhat unbelievably. Despite sometimes lacking evidence (he asks the reader to believe what they feel they can) there's quite a lot of interesting material hinting at social organisation of the local tribes. Complete support for the chief for instance, with traditions that mean it is considered cowardly to survive if your leader died, or to throw away your shield. We also get a sense of communities relying heavily on networks of obligation and present giving. The final part is a round up of the differences of each tribe - here Tacitus seems on much less firm ground, but it's an entertaining read - not least because it helps give us a sense of how the Romans saw the rest of the world.

In fact this is a key point. Tacitus is to a certain extent bemoaning the state of contemporary Imperial Rome and celebrating the simplicity, and moral heights of those tribes opposed to Rome itself. Writing of the Chauci, he notes that their "reputation stands as high in peace as in war". It's clear Tacitius thinks that Rome ought to be seen like that, but no longer is.

Related Reviews

Tacitus – The Annals of Imperial Rome
Tacitus - The Histories
Suetonius - The Twelve Caesars
Caesar - The Conquest of Gaul

Friday, March 06, 2020

Tom Lawson - The Last Man: A British Genocide in Tasmania

The story of the British arrival in Tasmania (known then as Van Diemen's Land) and the subsequent genocide of the aboriginal people who lived there is rarely discussed. It has parallels with events in other colonial nations, particularly in mainland Australia. But, as Tom Lawson's convincing but  tragic book shows, this was a genocide that was made in London and needs to be understood in the wider context of British colonial policy.

Lawson is a Holocaust scholar and he explains that he came to write about this subject after looking at the depiction and understanding of the Holocaust and genocide in society. As such this book is not a detailed history of what took place in Tasmania, though there is enough to make those who do not know the general history understand that this was a period of horrific events against the aboriginal population. An early massacre of aboriginal people at the first settlement at Risdon Cove was horrific enough, but the British turned this into an explanation for the aboriginal resistance that they experienced, which required a response in turn. In other words, the British argued that the victims were the cause of their genocide - which combined with racist prejudices formed the backdrop to subsequent events. As Lawson explains:
The idea that the island's [Tasmania] people had been prompted to an indiscriminate vengeance by the massacre, a passion which sustained them and their descendants over the next 30 years, tells us much about the assumption that the British brought with them to Van Diemen's Land. Tasmanians were not, they supposed, capable of rational thought or action. Indeed the belief that indigenous peoples across the Empire were essentially childlike, incapable of meaningful communal or political action, underpinned the very basis of the British occupation of the land. It was widely believed that an imagined failure of such peoples to exploit the resources of the land provided the moral and legal basis of colonisation.
The British considered that a "state of war" existed, which basically legitimised their actions. But their prejudices about the indigenous peoples also affected what they wanted done. "No longer would the communities be able to pursue their nomadic, migratory culture. Instead they would be reliant for sustenance on a colonial authority that wished to enclose them permanently."

The contradictory interests of the British and the aboriginal people "could only be resolved by force", and the power was in the hands of the colonists. Lawson explains about the colonial authority in Tasmania that it was
trapped within a mindset that they could not recognise made little sense even on its own terms. They were committed to a path that continually sanctioned a greater and greater degree of force, while arguing that force should be avoided. With every approval they opened up new possibilities for violence even while they continued to condemn violence itself. The British government preached protection [of the aboriginal people], while contrarily approving of measure after measure that would escalate violence. It was, at the very least, a form of self-deception.
This last point is important. Some historians have argued that the destruction of Tasmanian culture was the consequence of the British on the ground. Lawson, in contrast, argues that it was British policy that encouraged genocide. Since violence was considered a legitimate response to resistance from the aboriginal people, then massacres became acceptable. In passing its worth noting that much of this violence was committed by convicts sent to Tasmania. As Lawson points out "their violence was directed at the only people in their world less powerful than themselves." The role of convicts, undesirables, in the eyes of the British government would become an excuse for many for what took place in Tasmania.

Lawson points out that the British government select committee that was setup to examine the aboriginal people's condition reflected a "class-based discourse" that saw the violence as arising out of sending "Britain's own savages" abroad. But we should not lose sight of the fact that genocide came from colonial policies that saw indigenous peoples as occupying land that they could not and would not use, and that colonialism could both use those resources and transform the aborigines into model British citizen Christian farmers. In the eyes of the British, when they refused to conform, the aboriginal people were doomed to an inevitable decline.

Liberal and progressives in Britain also saw this inevitable decline arising out of a similar process. If Britain was the height of technical and intellectual achievement than "lesser" peoples were doomed in the face of British arrival. Perhaps most fascinatingly and distressingly, Lawson shows how this approach pervades attitudes to indigenous remains and relics that were in British museums until recently. Efforts to get human remains and important cultural objects back to Tasmania were, on several occasions, met with responses from authorities which assumed that either the Tasmanian people must be extinct or that they could not look after the objects themselves.

This is a remarkable book that deserves a wider readership than it appears to have had. Lawson argues clearly that the destruction of Tasmanian culture was the consequence of  of the British Colonial Office's "commitment to the relentless pursuit of colonial development". But he goes further and argues that the horrific, forgotten events of this time, mean that "when we think about the British Empire we should remember the violence on which it was based, and when we think about genocide we should remember that it is part of our world too".

Tom Lawson's book is an important contribution to post-colonial studies of British Empire and a must read for anyone trying to understand Australian politics as well as contemporary debates around genocide.

Related Reviews

Gammage - The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia
Pascoe - Dark Emu: Aboriginal Australia and the Birth of Agriculture
Moorehead - The Fatal Impact

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Bill Gammage - The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia

In The German Ideology Marx and Engels write "nature, the nature that preceded human history...is nature which today no longer exists anywhere (except perhaps on a few Australian coral-islands of recent origin)". They were arguing that the natural world is transformed by humans, constantly recreated and rebuilt. It is an insight that kept returning to me as I read Bill Gammage's excellent book The Biggest Estate on Earth. Gammage's contention is that the Australian landscape as seen by European colonial explorers, settlers and convicts post-1788 (the date of first arrival of the British first fleet) was not natural, pristine or untouched and certainly not terra nullius. Rather as the author says, "there was no wilderness". The Australian landscape was shaped by thousands of years of careful, planned human labour.

But this is not what those arriving from Europe saw. Instead they tended to interpret the landscape as a natural collection of park-like spaces. As Gammage explains "Almost all thought no land in Australia private, and parks natural. To think otherwise required them to see Aborigines as gentry, not shiftless wanderers. That seemed preposterous."

The reference here to gentry relates to the fact that hundreds of European accounts (Gammage quotes dozens and dozens of examples) describe the landscape as often being "park like". Park, at this time, referred to the type of landscapes created by wealthy British landowners. They were rich enough to leave landscapes laid out for pleasure - not to produce food, or generate wealth. It is, as Gammage suggests, peculiarly myopic to see these perceived landscapes and equate them with parkland in Europe, and conclude that they cannot have been artificial. It is also a view imbued with racism and class.

Much of the book looks at exactly how and why the aboriginal people shaped the land. There is a brilliantly illustrated section (in full colour) that uses paintings and old photographs as well as contemporary images to show how the landscape changed after 1788 when the land wasn't burnt back. Burning was the key way that land was cleared and the clearance allowed food to be grown or helped with the hunting of animals like kangaroo. The changes also meant that the destruction of aboriginal communities was also written into the landscape. Take this picture Mills' Plains by John Glover (circa 1832-1834).


Gammage writes:
Glover shows Tasmanians. They were not there in 1832, for in 1828-30 they were shot or rounded up by bounty hunters like Glover's neighbour John Batman. Glover knew this. He captioned his [painting] Batman's Lookout, Ben Lomond (1835) 'on account of Mr Batman frequenting this spot to entrap the Natives'. Yet he depicts not only their presence, but their absence. His Mills' Plains foreground shows young gums, wattles and casuarinas which all regenerate quickly after fire. They are young because Tasmanians burnt the old; they are there because Tasmanian burning was stopped. They are the first generation for decades not to get burnt, so their height measures the end of Tasmanian dominion.
Ironically the lack of burning also meant that some flora and fauna went extinct. The burning encouraged particular growth, or created ecological niches that were needed by certain animals. The end of burning led, for instance, "to the extinction or decline of over a third of small desert animals species."

The recent extreme bushfires in Australia have reawakened debate about how a return to regular backburning could help prevent future catastrophic fires. Gammage certainly provides ample evidence that this is true. But he also makes it clear that it wouldn't be easy. The Aboriginal people had thousands of years of experience and even sympathetic attempts to recreate this have failed: "They knew which fire regime worked" he writes. That said, the effects could be dramatic. As Gammage explains, Aboriginal people rarely had to deal with enormous fires because they rarely happened - because "people had to prevent it, or die". Gammage recounts a story from the 1870s:
When a fire menaced the station while its men were away, an [Aboriginal] elder studied the flames, then organised women and children to light spot fires in five staggered rows across the advancing front. This broke up the fire and it was put out."
But these skills with fire arose from long experience and a particular understanding of the natural ecology. I don't have space to cover Gammage's explanation of Aboriginal understanding of their relationship to history and space. But the "Law" he describes is an obligation on everyone to manage and protect the land as it was and is.
All must care for the and and its creatures, all must be regenerated by care and ceremony, no soul must be extinguished, no totem put at risk, no habitat too much reduced. That mandate, not the theology, made land care purposeful, universal and predictable. This is true of very part, even what might seem untouched wilderness, and even where ecologists today can't see why. The parks and puzzles Europeans saw in 1788 were no accident.
Thus the shaping of landscape was not technological, it was something that arose out of the very understanding that Aboriginal people had of the land and their place in it. There's a tragic story that demonstrates this, told by Gammage, of a small band of Tasmanian people, decimated by the colonial powers, who continued to fire the landscape, doing the work of ten times their number, to try and maintain the land - even though the smoke would betray their existence.

This approach can be contrasted with the settlers who saw the land with very different eyes. It is summed by a quote from 1864 by a surveyor WCB Wilson who wrote:
heavy showers fell which had a wonderful effect upon the hitherto parched up ground innumerable bulbous roots shooting up their long green stems in every direction and clothing the earth with a profusion of flowers.... It is very delightful to contemplate Nature in her holiday garbs, but unfortunately both the flowers and the coarse green grass are intrinsically worthless.
Gammage comments that Wilson "didn't value anything much". But here, summarised, is the new capitalist approach to land as a source of value. The landscapes that the Aboriginal people created where particularly prized by settlers, not simply for the clear areas, but also for the management of water courses, or the holding back of particular plants. But once they had control the Settlers couldn't maintain these landscapes and massive bush-fires are just one ecological consequence. Before 1788 Australia was very different, but so were the societies that lived there. Gammage concludes:
'Man' made such country home for at least 20,000 years. People civilised all the land, without fences, making farm and wilderness one. In the Great Sandy Desert women replanted yam tops and scattered millet on soft sand, then watched the seasons: millet crops a year after its first rain. This is farming, but not being a farmer. Doing more would have driven them out of the desert. Mobility let them stay. It imposed a strict and rigid society, but it was an immense gain. It gave people abundant food and leisure, and it made Australia a single estate. Instead of dividing Aborigines into gentry and peasantry, it made them a free people.
Marx and Engels pointed out that examining the economic basis to a society enabled you to understand its structures and social relations. Aboriginal society was based on a different relationship to the land and that enabled a much more equitable and sustainable world. Capitalism is the negation of that. Replacing capitalism with a sustainable world will not mean a return to the aboriginal communities from before 1788. But it will mean learning from their relationship with the land to ensure that future generations can enjoy it.

Bill Gammage's excellent and book is a powerful exploration of how we can understand non-capitalist social relations. He shows how modern Australia arose out of the destruction of a way of life, and consequently a landscape. He challenges racist myths about Australia's indigenous people and reminds us that things do not have to be like they are.

Related Reviews

Pascoe - Dark Emu: Aboriginal Australia and the Birth of Agriculture

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

C.J.Sansom - Heartstone

*** Spoilers ***

By the time you've reached the fifth volume of CJ Sansom's books about the Tudor lawyer Matthew Shardlake you really do know what you are going to get. Near on 1000 pages of well written, convoluted plot about a mystery set around key moments in the reign of Henry VIII. Heartstone is set in the Summer of 1545 as a powerful French fleet is preparing to invade England in the aftermath of Henry's failed invasion of France. Shardlake is asked by Queen Catherine Parr to investigate a mystery brought to her by an old servant who claims that her son died in mysterious circumstances. Her son had been tutoring two young children who were wards of a wealth landowner Sir Nicholas Hobbey.

Shardlake makes the trip to Hobbey's manor house, which conveniently for the story teller is near Portsmouth where Henry is gathering his forces to attempt to repel invasion. Conveniently for Sansom's main character, this is relatively near to the possible home of Ellen, a woman that Shardlake has been looking after who lives in Bedlam. Desperate to solve the puzzle and keen to learn more about Ellen, Shardlake manages to immerse himself in a variety of dangerous escapades which ultimately lead him to be trapped aboard the Mary Rose as she sales on her ill-fated voyage.

A former lawyer himself, Sansom's own legal knowledge often imbibes the books with a sense of realism. In this novel he is able to explore the Court of Wards, a Tudor institution ostensiasly set up to look after those who are too young to manage their estates. For Henry VIII it's also a way to drum up much needed wealth. Sansom gives a real sense of a population tired out by Henry's reign. There's a drunken clergyman Reverend Seckford who complains that his vicar is a radical reform, while he finds "the new ways difficult". There's a palpable sense of weariness to the soldiers, villagers and workers that Shardlake meets and as with the other novels much of the enjoyment comes from exploring the Tudor world that Sansom evokes.

Shardlake's own weaknesses betray him. He jumps to conclusions, gets things wrong and misses the thing in front of him, as one character warns him. The ending is not particularly positive, as Shardlake realises that he has gone too far in delving into Ellen's background. He makes the classic assumption that the outcome he seeks is also desired by the other person.

Volume five is up there with the other books in the series, though I felt it a little too contrived in places - especially the shenanigans getting Shardlake on the Mary Rose in time for its sailing. That said it's one for the fans of the earlier books.

Related Reviews

Sansom - Dissolution
Sansom - Dark Fire
Sansom - Sovereign
Sansom - Revelation

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Matthew Cobb - Life's Greatest Secret: The Race to Crack the Genetic Code

There are some iconic "races" in scientific history. US President Kennedy's 1962 challenge to put a "man" on the moon by the end of the decade is perhaps the most famous. More infamous is the US drive to get the atom bomb before the Germans and Russians. Others are less famous, and of these, the story of the rather more elongated race to "crack the genetic code" is probably the most important.

The same year that Kennedy made is speech, James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins won the noble prize for their work in understanding the shape of the DNA molecule. The event is well known, particularly in Britain where it's celebrated as a British success story. Ignored at the time, though increasingly better known today, was the work of Rosalind Franklin whose leg work laid the foundations for the discovery which was announced in April 1953.

But this was just one moment in a long, convoluted exploration of the biological structures and processes that allow leaving things to pass on information to their offspring. Matthew Cobb's book is a detailed and entertaining account of that story, which begins long before the discovery of DNA and has a cast of fascinating and sometimes eccentric scientists.

Cobb begins not with the practical science, but the theoretical studies by physicists and mathematicians who hoped to develop understanding of heredity science through understanding flows of information. Surprisingly then we're treated to such diverse, but important, subjects such as the development of automated anti-aircraft guns. Such early attempts to model behaviour formed the theoretical backdrop to latter attempts to understand biological information in genes.
But these approaches ultimately failed. Cobb explains:
None of the hypothetical codes dreamt up by the theoreticians were correct, because they made assumptions that were logical, rigorous and hopelessly wrong. The physicists' appetite for elegance and the biochemists' naive assumptions about natural selection led them to assume that the code had to be extremely economical, that it would look as though it had been designed along logical principles. But that is not how biology works. The genetic code is a product of biology and is messy, illogical and inelegant. It is highly redundant, but to bewilderingly varied degrees...Explaining this patter on the basis of chemical, physical or mathematical principles has so far proved difficult. Whatever logical there may have been has been overlain by billions of years of evolution and chance events. As Jacob put it in 1977, natural selection does not design, it tinkers with what is available.
Cobb points out though, that "at first glance the genetic code does indeed look like an artificial code", which lead many up the wrong path. In the 1950s many scientists tried and failed to crack the genetic code through theoretical approaches because they didn't (or couldn't) understand a key point:
Interpreting the genetic code in terms of precise analogies, strict definitions and exact parallels to artificial systems will almost certainly fail, because the genetic code, like every other aspect of biology, has bot been designed. It is part of life and has evolved. It can be properly understood only in its historical, biological context. That was the lesson of the doomed attempts to break the code in the 1950s and it should guide us today in trying to understand what is in our genes.
Watson and Crick's key moment is recounted quite early on in Life's Greatest Secret. Large chunks of the book are devoted to what happened afterwards as working out the shape of DNA was only one break-through. There are a succession of other noble prize winners in these pages, many of whom were doing science that I found quite difficult to follow. Indeed, one of the problems with this book is that despite Cobb's accessible writing style, if you lack knowledge of biology, much of the science is inaccessible. Personally I'd have found a extra chapter on the basics of genetics and cellular biology, invaluable but to be fair to author and publisher, I doubt that I was the target audience.

That said, this is still a book that contains a great deal of well presented, excellent information (as well as not a few entertaining anecdotes) and insightful comment. The final discussions on contemporary debates around genetics is also very useful. Readers with a better grasp of basic biology than me will find it very stimulating, but even those like me who took other GCSE and A-levels will enjoy the work.

Related Reviews

Cobb - The Resistance: The French Fight Against the Nazis
Saini - Superior: The Return of Race Science
Reich - Who We Are and How We Got Here

Monday, February 17, 2020

Carys Davies - West

What happens when a passing fancy becomes an obsession? It's something that many novels have dealt with but few perhaps do it with such style as Carys Davies' West. Rightly it has won multiple awards and much praise, and its taken an age old subject and cast it anew.

Cy Bellman is a mule breeder some where in the American east. He has a few dreams, mostly about breeding more mules and moving west to find somewhere to do that better. But one day he reads a report of enormous ancient bones found in a swamp, and comes to believe that giant animals are still living in the unexplored far west of America. Unable to stop thinking about them, he abandons everything, including his beloved daughter Bess whom he leaves with his straitlaced God fearing sister, and buying a new hat, heads west.

If the book simply followed Cy's travels it would be a classic. Davies' prose is brief but descriptive - she evokes the lands brilliantly as weeks become months and years on Cy's fruitless search. The country he travels through are wilderness to him, but are of course inhabited by Native Americans from whom Cy buys supplies and assistance from with shiny trinkets.

In Cy's absence, Bess becomes a young woman, and she too is obsessed with her absent father. Long dismissed by the rest of their village as insane, Bess holds out hope that Cy will return - at the same time with dealing with all her own changes.

Of course, to us Cy's quest is insane. We know there are no dinosaurs or mammoths out there. But to his generation it wouldn't have been impossible and some well read people certainly thought it possible. But really Cy's quest isn't about the giant animals he draws in the dirt for Native Americans when he asks them if they've seen a mammoth. It's also a quest to understand (or even find) is dead wife. Bess comes to realise this and at the finale she is, rather suddenly confronted, by the metaphorical return of both her parents. The strange, and somewhat unpleasant, climax to the book required several re-readings. My initial dismay being replaced with satisfaction as I realised that Cy and his daughter had reached a redemption with themselves that no one else could really understand.

At slightly less than 150 pages the book packs a lot in and reminded me as a devoured it, that many authors today could learn a lot from the sparsity of words which paint a very detailed picture. Highly recommended.

Related Reviews

Doctorow - The March
Vuillard - The Order of the Day
Harrison - All Among the Barley
Carr - A Month in the Country
McCarthy - Blood Meridian
Crace - Harvest

Thursday, February 13, 2020

David Miles - The Tale of the Axe: How the Neolithic Revolution Transformed Britain

I've been looking forward to reading The Tale of the Axe for some time as there is a lack of popular studies of the stone age tools that our ancestors used for much of human history. As the subtitle of David Miles' book suggests, these tools were fundamental to the transformation of human society from nomadic hunter-gathering to sedentary farming communities.

Disappointingly, however, stone age technology is not really the subject of the book. In fact the title is a bit of a misnomer, as there is no real tale of the axe here. Instead this is a decent over-view of how our understanding of ancient human history has developed and a summary of contemporary understanding, which particularly focuses on the British Isles.

Unfortunately the book suffers from trying to do too much, and becomes a bit of a mish-mash of ideas and subjects. There is quite a bit of skipping back and forth, and at times I was frustrated because I didn't really get what the author was arguing. It is refreshing to see someone engaging critically with the work of Gordon Childe and the ideas of Engels in the context of archaeology, but I didn't really find out whether he found them useful or not. Instead Miles appears to take bits and pieces of what he finds useful and apply them to particular situations without really giving me a sense of his actual framework.

While there is actually much of interest here (and some absolutely stunning photos and illustrations) I was quite frustrated by the book and the author's style. His tendency to throw in random facts and contemporary quotations was deeply distracting and left me annoyed rather than illuminated.

These criticisms aside, David Miles' book does have some interesting details and he draws on his long career as an archaeologist to illuminate specific sites and periods. But ultimately I was disappointed.

Related Reviews

Pryor - Britain BC
Bellwood - First Farmers: The Origins of Agricultural Societies
Mazoyer & Roudart - A History of World Agriculture from the Neolithic Age to the Current Crisis
Lewis-Williams - The Mind in the Cave
Mithen - To the Islands
Green - A Landscape Revealed: 10,000 Years on a Chalkland Farm
Reynolds - Ancient Farming
Flannery & Marcus - The Creation of Inequality

Monday, February 10, 2020

John Wyndham - Jizzle

As a big fan of John Wyndham I was very pleased to discover this collection of short-stories that I was previously unaware of. First published in 1954 the stories appear mostly to date from the early 1950s. Reading these today I'm struck by how familiar they seem. Perhaps this is because their subjects and structures have been much emulated over the years. As such the tales lack the punch from their twist endings that readers probably enjoyed when the book was first published. That said, I enjoyed the stories as much for their contempory social comment as their plots.

Today Wyndham is mostly remembered as a science-fiction author, but his writing was actually often closer to fantasy or horror. Several of the stories in Jizzle are actually horrific, the title story for instance, deals with the consequences of a circus monkey that can draw, and how its extremely accurate pictures of people in compromising positions with others, lead to tragedy.

Several of the stories deal with a favourite subject for Wyndham - time travel, including a rather clever one involving a love-lorn woman who has just been dumped and visits a fortune teller. Rudely dismissing the predictions, she fails to hear the warning "that was your second marriage" and the reader is left to fill in the delightful gaps.

Women play a central role in many of these stories, though often as individuals looking for love. I'd like to suggest that Wyndham was breaking the mould in how women were portrayed but his characters tend to fall into various stereotypes. Because the books very much reflect the period they were written in they share some other stereotypes. One of the stories has a child playing with her dolls in a tea party. The gollywog in her game is the "naughty" character. I doubt that Wyndham was making a deliberate racist comment, but it certainly jarred when I read it 66 years after publication.

Chinese Puzzle is a comic story dealing with the arrival of a Chinese dragon in Wales. Ignoring the crude attempts to portray a Welsh accent in print, the story follows a rather predictable path, with the exception that a central role is played by the local Welsh Communist activist who sees the creatures' arrival in terms of the successful Chinese Revolution. Unfortunately the arrival of a red Welsh "peoples' dragon" turns the conflict into nationalism versus communism. The slightly predictable ending disappoints, but the premise is clever and there are some amusing digs at over-inflated egos in the Communist movement and the Nationalists. I loved Confidence Trick a story in which the London Underground plays a key role, proving that over-crowding on the tube is not a recent development at all!

Some of the stories felt very dated. Does anyone know what a flea circus is these days? But others have stood the test of time. Contemporary concerns about the impact of technology are dealt with neatly in The Wheel, which looks at a future where the wheel has been banned and the Church deals with heretics who try and make one.

Despite these being more fantasy, questions of science and technology run through many of the stories, including the consequences of misusing science (or indeed magical situations) to achieve personal profit. There's a definite sense of karma to most of the tales, protagonists get what is due to them.

All in all this is an entertaining collection that will probably be of most interest to those who are existing fans of John Wyndham. The stories didn't quite have the sense of relevance as The Kraken Wakes did when I re-read it a few years ago. But they are neat and tightly written, reminding me it is possible to tell a story in a few pages, just as well as several hundred.

Related Reviews

Wyndham - The Kraken Wakes
Wyndham - Web
Christopher - The Death of Grass

Tuesday, February 04, 2020

Angela Saini - Superior: The Return of Race Science

The election, and re-election, of right-wing governments around the world has encouraged the growth and confidence of racists and fascists. Racism is not a rational world-view, but racists, and those who want to encourage them often need to justify and explain their ideologies. Pseudo-scientific racist ideas have been around for some time - arising in particular out of attempts to justify the African slave trade. But, as Angela Saini's important new book explains, there has been a revitalisation of scientific racism and this is helping give confidence to right-wing ideologists today.

That these ideas should return is itself a shock. For most people the scientific justification of racism was closely linked to the Holocaust, and in the aftermath of the defeat of the Nazis, these ideas were banished. In fact, as Saini says, it seems impossible that rational minds could conceive of such ideas. Writing about the Max Planck institute, a prestigious scientific organisation in Germany which, in 2001, had to "accept responsibility for historic crimes committed by its scientists" under the Nazis:
The truth - that it is perfectly possible for prominent scientists to be racist, to murder, to abuse both people and knowledge - doesn't sit easily with the way we like to think about scientific research. We imagine that it's above politics, that it's a noble, rational and objective endeavour, untainted by feelings or prejudice.
She continues, "the answer is simple: science is always shaped by the time and the place in which it is carried out. It ultimately sits at the mercy of the personal political beliefs of those carrying it out." But there is a problem says Saini. The unique horrors of World War Two have made race science abhorrent. But, "were scientists in the rest of the world so blameless?" In fact, as my reference to the slave trade above indicates, "the well of scientific ideas from which Hitler and others... drew their plans for 'racial hygiene', leading ultimately to genocide, didn't originate in Germany alone. They had been steadily supplied for more than a century by race scientists from all over the world, supported by well-respected intellectuals, aristocrats, political leaders and women and men of wealth".

So the book is in two parts. The first deals with the history of race science. The second part looks at how those ideas are used today. But really there isn't a separation between these two halves. As one researcher from the 1970s who studied the far-right commented many years later, "I didn't really understand that there were these structures and networks and associations of people that were attempting to keep alive a body of ideas that I had associated with at the very least the pre-civil rights movement... going back to the eugenics movement... These ideas were still being developed and promulgated and promoted." Saini unpicks these networks, the shadowy sources of funds and the journals that allow those with similar beliefs to publish. Publication in particular gives a sheen of academic veneer to right-wing ideologists who want to push race science.

Today race science isn't solely pushed by those who want to see genocide. It can, as Saini points out, be used for all sorts of ideological arguments, for instance that equal opportunity programmes are "doomed to fail". In fact, one of the problems with contemporary race science, is that it often builds on the work of anti-racist scientists who thought their research (into eg genetics) was undermining the very basis for racism. Writing about the Human Genome Diversity Project, a 1990s programme that tried to understand human evolution and migration through genetics, Saini comments that the well intentioned scientists "failed to connect what they were doing with people's rel-life experience of race, with the history and politics of this deadly idea. They thought they were above it all, when in fact they were always central to it." Discussing one of the scientists who was central to the project, the esteemed scientist Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza who at the end of his long life maintained "there are simply no races in humankind", Saini points out that "it is also difficult to read his work and come away convinced that his generation of scientists had fully abandoned race science after the Second World War. Although they had ditched race in name, it wasn't clear that they had necessarily shed it in practice". So some scientists argue that there is so much variation in human genetics that the idea that there are only a few races is incorrect, instead there could be thousands of "social groups" having some biological uniqueness. But, as Saini says:
Canadian philosopher Lisa Gannett has similarly warned about the ethical limits of thinking about race in this new way. To some, it may not seem racist to think about average 'populations' rather than distinct 'types' of people. Certainly, early population geneticists such as Dobzhansky believed that racism was rooted in the assumption that within ethnic groups, people are all the same, whereas those like him believed that, within these groups, people are actually very different. But in the racist mind... it doesn't necessarily matter how differences are distributed, so long as they are there in some form or another. This conceptual loophole in population genetics - the fact that we're all different as individuals but that there is also some apparent order to his diversity - is what has since been seized upon by people with racist agendas. Gannett calls it 'statistical racism.
Modern science doesn't back up race science. But, as Saini points out, that doesn't matter, "racists will find validation wherever they can". The problem is exacerbated she argues, because we are increasingly locked into generalisations and categories that have little basis in reality.
We can't help it. We keep looking back to race because of its familiarity. For so long, it has been the backdrop to our lives, the running narrative. We automatically translate the information our eyes and ears receive into the language of race, forgetting where that language came from.
Even well meaning scientists fall into this trap, as do some anti-racists. In her chapter on "Black Pills" Saini shows how pharmaceutical companies are targeting "black" people for specific medical conditions, even though the causes of those diseases and illnesses are entirely social. Such an approach "lets society off the hook. It places the blame for inequality at the foot of biology. If poor health today is intrinsic to black bodies and nothing to do with racism, it's no one's fault."

In other words, it's not society at fault, for treating people differently, but genetics - and that cannot be helped. But as this book demonstrates, the truth is the opposite. Society both causes poverty and inequality, and the racism that is used to justify it. At best race science provides a cover for this, at worst it opens up the door to those who would like to encourage genocide.

Angela Saini's book is an urgent and important read for every anti-racist. But it should also be read by scientists, and not just those in biology departments. It makes it clear that tackling racism and bigotry needs more than just facts, but also requires an approach that understands the origins of these divisive ideas and can challenge them.

Perhaps we need a revival of left wing science - both in practice and organisation. There's a long tradition, particularly in the 1930s, of scientists collectively challenging dominant right-wing narratives. In an era when we see the revival of far-right politics and fascism and growing concern about climate change such networks of radical scientists could come together with anti-racist and environmental movements to push back the right-wing agenda. That would be a powerful weapon in fighting bigotry and the system that causes it. Angela Saini's book is crucial ammunition for that struggle

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