Thursday, December 01, 2022

Peter Blickle - The Revolution of 1525: The German Peasants' War from a new perspective

Accounts of the 1525 "German Peasant War" have always been ideologically charged. In 1848 studies of the period were used by Friedrich Engels, and others, to understand contemporary revolutions and the role of different classes. Interpretations of 1525 and the Reformation shaped debates about religion, social change and much else in almost every century since the 16th. By the 1950s, the Peasant War was at the centre of a ideological row between historians representing different sides of the Cold War. East German, and Soviet historians held Engels' analysis to be crucial, while those on the West attempted to challenge their understanding of 1525 as arising out of the development of capitalist relations and the bourgeois class.

Peter Blickle's book was published after the 450th anniversary of events which saw a "ocean of published work". In many ways Blickle was revisionist, unafraid to take on established ideas and challenge them, whether they were from West or East. He deliberately attempted to emphasise the "interdependence" of social and ideological factors in driving the peasant rebellions, challenging those who saw events as simply being down to the Reformation. For Blickle what was important was the "complexity of rural society and the peasantry" and key for him was the importance of understanding events as a Revolution, even if his concept of this was far from the classical Marxist tradition.

He begins by emphasising the dramatic and far reaching importance of these events, which must have exploded on German society like a bomb:

The Peasants' War of 1525 was one of the most extraordinary and spectacular events in German history in the age of the Reformation. The Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation lay helpless as castles, palaces, princely residences and monasteries were put to the torch... Noble and ecclesiastical lords were forced to flee before their peasants and the imperial ruling powers had to struggle for survival.

Blickle highlights how these struggles from below were understood in religious terms by the peasants and their goals were determined by their reading of religious texts, something that comes clearly through in the demands and articles they produced.

Since the main purpose of the gospel as they [the peasantry] understood it was the promotion of peace, love, unity and tolerance, the new teaching [Luther's Reformation] could not be the cause of rebellion. The cause of rebellion was, rather, the destruction and suppression of love, peace and unity - in short, the suppression of the gospel and of God's will.... Liberation of the peasants was God's will and God's judgment.

It is this that was behind the startlingly successful "Twelve articles" produced by the peasantry and drove them to try to create a "godly" society our of the rebellion. But such religious belief is the outward manifestation of wider crises. Blickle quotes approvingly from the 20th century history David Sabean whose research concluded that "the PW simply cannot be grasped if socioeconomic factors are omitted".

Blickle then provides some fascinating examples of the crisis of agriculture in the Middle Ages in Germany. In this context the "Twelve Articles" stood against the "whole feudal social and political order". They were not simply "negative criticism" of the contemporary system, but "fully revolutionary in two respects: in practice, in the articles on serfdom, tithes and the election of pastors; and in principle, in adopting the gospel as the norm of society and politics".

Germany at the start of the 16th century was a cauldron of political, economic and social tension. "The opposition between peasant and lordship was superimposed upon the tensions among peasants" among whom "social stratification" was growing. Blickle develops an extremely nuanced understanding of how this played out during the revolutionary movement:

Although the villages of the nobility had more to complain of concerning services... nonetheless their complaints as a whole weighed less heavily than the huge mass of complaints levelled at monasteries.... The clergy became the main target of the revolutionary movement, not because peasants resented the mixture of spiritual claims and secular office, but because the burdens of monastic subjects were actually heavier. The first blow was also aimed at the nobility because relations between nobles and their peasants were only slightly less tense.

This nuance shouldn't hide the clarity of Blicke's arguments around the aims of the peasants. He insists, that "the urgency, determined spirit and passionate language leave no doubt that, at least during the early phase of the revolt, the abolition of serfdom was the peasants' main desire". It was a revolt that transcended traditional boundaries, "whole villages rose, not just the subjects of a single lord... never before had peasant revolts broken through the narrow political boundaries". Later he argues, "the enforcement of the godly law - whatever the peasants might have understood in detail by this phrase - became the goal of the revolution". But the revolutionaries were not able to drive through change.

The godly law, which sustained the Christian Association [a mass body of peasants covering almost all rural and urban communities in Upper Swabia] had had a liberating but not a revolutionary effect." Blickle argues, the law "lost its authority because it did not solve the crisis and it lost its explosive power because the military and political leaders... did not know how to exploit it to produce a new political order". Despite the mass revolutionary movement burning castles and driving the nobility and clergy off, they could not drive through change that created a new social order to satisfy the peasants. As the movement stalled the counter-revolution was able to strike back.

Blickle details the way that the peasants articulated their revolution, how they understood their rights and how they should be extended and the patterns of rebellion. There are fascinating sections on the interplay between rural and urban communities, the role of miners and other wage labourers etc. He depicts a rebellion that arises out of a deep crisis in medieval Germany, but as it develops goes deep into the lower classes of society. This he terms as a revolt of the "common man", who demanded "rights which had been reserved for nobles". 

In many senses Blickle's book is much clearer on the revolutionary nature of the revolt than books produced by an earlier generation of revolutionary socialists. But Blickle's work is limited by his definition of the revolution itself. He sees, rightly, the Peasant War as a "revolution of the common man" and "an effort to overcome the crisis of feudalism through a revolutionary transformation of socio-political relations". But he rejects the analysis developed by the likes of Friedrich Engels, which placed the Peasants' War and the Reformation within the early development of new, capitalist, relations in the countryside. This weakens his explanation of the revolution itself and the conclusions he draws from it. Indeed his final pages struggle to define revolution, and he finishes by emphasising the "evolutionary process of European history" rejecting analogies or connections to 1848. 

Students of 1525 will find a great deal of interest in Blickle's book. In fact I would go so far to suggest that it is required reading. His clarity on the interplaying factors that drove the rebellion and the importance of socioeconomic factors in addition to religious ideas means he sees the revolution as a truly shattering event, which even in defeat, radically transformed Germany: "the godly law, formerly rejected by the ruling classes as illegal, became a new legality."

But by arguing that European history was essentially evolutionary, and saying that 1525 highlights this, Blicke's misses the importance of later revolutionary change, driven by the bourgeois class, in making the modern capitalist world. Essentially Blickle's history of 1525 ignores capitalist development that had only just begun in that era. By 1848 the bourgeois class was demanding power, and that transformed the situation. Engels puts it well when he said that "the two revolutions... are , in spite of all analogies, essentially different.. .The Revolution of 1525 was a domestic German affair... the Revolution of 1848, on the other hand, was not a domestic German affair, and was an episode in a great European events".

Blickle's book, in many ways, demonstrates that his own conclusions are incorrect. 1525 was the beginning of a revolutionary process of European history. The contradictions that were core to the crisis of the Middle Ages that drove 1525 would only get worse.

Related Reviews

Bax - German Society at the Close of the Middle Ages
Bax - The Peasants War in Germany
Engels - The Peasant War in Germany
Roper - Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet

Friday, November 25, 2022

Matthias Schmelzer, Andrea Vetter & Aaron Vansintjan - The Future is Degrowth: A Guide to a World beyond Capitalism

The Future of Degrowth is an engaging work that deserves study by socialists and Marxists. I wasn't convinced by some of the authors' core arguments - not around degrowth itself - but over their shared strategy for change. My extended review of this book was commissioned for another publication and I'll share a link to that review here when it has been published.

Sunday, November 20, 2022

Ernest Belfort Bax - The Peasants War in Germany

This is the second volume of E. Belfort Bax's three volume history of the social side of the German Reformation. I've already reviewed the first volume on German Society at the Close of the Middle Ages, and in that review I noted Bax's misogynist views that stood him outside the socialist movement on many questions of his time. Volume two suffers from some of the problems of the first book - it is dated in information and style, Bax writes long, occasionally pompous, sentences and meanders about his subject. That said, the book is actually a straight forward account based on German sources of the Peasant War and remains a good general introduction to the subject.

At the same time as reading Bax's book I was also reading Peter Blickle's much more recent account The Revolution of 1525, which I will review shortly. Bax, like Blickle, identifies the origins of the Peasant War in the great crises of the early 16th century, and the ongoing oppression of the peasantry. Bax reproduces the famous Twelve Articles produced by the peasantry, an extraordinary series of demands which were in several cases accepted either in whole or in part by the lords and town councils whom the revolutionary masses presented them too. 

The Articles essentially turned the world of 16th century Germany upside-down, abolishing serfdom, demanding the ending of various oppressive acts by lords and calling for a much more communal social and economic life. Bax however sees them as "moderate" and "exclusively agrarian in character" dealing with the "grievances of the peasant against his lord, lay or ecclesiastic, but had nothing to say on the social problems and the ideas of political reconstruction agitating the mind of the landless proletarian or the impoverished handicraftsman within the walls of the towns."

In contrast we might look at Blicke's argument. Blicke is no socialist, but he understands the revolutionary nature of the Twelve Articles in contrast to Bax's crude dismissal. Blick writes: 
the Twelve Articles collected and focused the grievances of individual Upper Swabian villages, and multiple reprintings made the crisis of the agrarian order clear top peasants of the whole empire. To understand the articles in terms of the local economic, social and political background is actually to lay bare the basic causes of the revolution of the common man.... By basing their demands on the Bible, the Twelve Articles constructed an alternate framework and thus pointed a way out of the late medieval crisis, which had become a social and political crisis as well as an agrarian one.
For Blicke, the "common man's revolution" was against the old order and for a "godly order" based on mutual solidarity and common ownership. By contrast Bax sees the movement as being (following Lasalle) "in the main reactionary, harking back as it did to the old village community with its primitive communistic basis, an institution which was destined to pass away in the natural course of economic development... necessarily doomed to be gradually superseded by those individualistic rights of property that form the essential condition of the modern capitalist world." 

Bax's position seems to me to be a crude application of the Marxist understanding of history. Bax believes that the feudal society would inevitably be replaced by a capitalist society, a process which would see the "old village community" disappear. Anyone appearing to defend this, was inevitably reactionary. But this is to misunderstand what was happening in 1525 and the Marxist method itself. Engels himself, writing on the Peasant War emphasised how for the Peasants to win "the movement could have been brought to a successful conclusion only by an alliance of all the opposition parties, mainly the nobility and the peasants." 

In this context we cannot simply see the peasant's movement in terms of the peasants alone, but Bax judges the peasants' demands in isolation. This said, Bax also makes the mistake in assuming that the peasant demands are reactionary, and look backward. Blicke, in contrast, emphasises the transformative society that they encapsulated, but it is a society that cannot be realised because it is in direct contradiction to the interests of the existing ruling class. 

Some Marxist writers have noted how Marx and Engels speculated that communal Russian peasant society in the 19th century might form the basis for a transition to socialism. No doubt had the German peasantry been able to win, such ideas might have been discussed by Marxists about them. Instead Bax views the peasants' radical demands in a wholly negative light, dismissing their utopia as reactionary. 

Bax is on much stronger ground when he describes the battles of the peasantry, looking in turn at how these played out during the Peasant War in different parts of Germany. His sympathies are with the struggles of the peasantry and is horrified by the counter-revolutionary slaughter, writing that the violence of the peasantry should not "blind us in any way to the intrinsic righteousness of the popular demands". 

Blicke has noted that the struggles did lead in a number of cases, to some radical success, with  German serfdom nopt surviving the uprising. Bax however argues that the war "with some exceptions" saw a "riveting of the peasant's chains and an increase of his burdens". He returns at the end to his earlier them to argue that "the peasant programme was out of the line of natural social progress and that the war itself was carried on from the beginning in a manner that rendered success well-nigh impossible". As such Bax misses the wider social and economic implications of the revolutionary movement.

While Bax's book has its interesting points and, in particular, his account of the peasant struggles remains valid, his analysis is too crude and undialectical to offer a real understanding of the social and economic process of the Peasant War. Future readers should take this in account and combine a reading of Bax's book with other engagements with the subject.

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Friday, November 18, 2022

James M. Cain - Double Indemnity


There is, in many ways, very little that can be said about James M. Cain's Double Indemnity that I didn't already say about his The Postman Always Rings Twice. Both are tight novels, language and description parred back to the raw basics, leaving the reader feeling like they've been dragged through the story. It is no surprise that both novels made for famous films, they feel ready made for the scripts.

But both books also have a similar story, seeing a relatively straight male figure brought to their knees by a femme fatale. In Postman Frank Chambers brings it on himself, his desire for Cora, a married woman, meaning he is willing to commit the ultimate crime. In Double Indemnity Walter Huff throws his settled life and successful career away after being seduced by the beautiful Phyllis Nirdlinger. Unlike Cora, Phyllis is a serial schemer, confident that she can manipulate Walter to commit a crime that she can benefit. Walter puts together the perfect crime and is only foiled because his friend smells a rat immediately.

Like Postman, Double Indemnity's title has a dual meaning. In this case it refers to both the insurance scam that Walter and Phyllis are hoping to pull off, and the double cross that Walter experiences. Unlike Postman though the characters in Double Indemnity experience a kind of redemption, as they realise that their plans have come undone and they cannot escape. The ending is, however, different to the film but, after reading it twice, I found it more satisfactory. 

Most people will know Double Indemnity for Barbara Stanwyck's famous depiction of Phyllis. I'd encourage fans of the film to pick up this tight little thriller. It is well worth the read.

Related Reviews

Cain - The Postman Always Rings Twice

Sunday, November 13, 2022

Robert Jordan - The Great Hunt (Wheel of Time 2)

In reviewing the first Wheel of Time book I dismissed it as a warmed up version of Lord of the Rings. Book two, The Great Hunt, demonstrates Robert Jordan's attempt to break free of the genre. Here he fleshes out many of the characters and gives two groups of heroes - women and men - separate story arcs. It is refreshing because it means that the women are not simply cyphers and have their own struggles, and the men aren't the only heroes. Unfortunately both groups constantly moan the fact the others are missing and constantly fail to understand the bigger picture (tm).

The bigger picture is a big theme in The Great Hunt. The reader has it, and so do some of the Aes Sedai, the powerful magical women whose organisation is one of the great powers in Jordon's fantasy world. In book one our band of plucky heroes (tm) were guided from their backwater village to the heart of the world by one of the Aes Sedai - Moiraine Damodred. By book two we can begin to understand that Moiraine is a good magical person. She is one of the few with the bigger picture and uses this to manipulate characters towards various goals. Unfortunately she is loathe to explain the bigger picture to any of those who might be on her side if she told them what the hell was going on.

As such, the reader knows that Rand al'Thor is likely the Dragon Reborn (don't ask) but Rand al'Thor doesn't really know what that means, even when he is given a massive banner with The Dragon Reborn written on it. Rand blunders through things, not understanding his magical powers and trying to spend quiet time with his lover from the small village, who is being trained to be a magical person.

Despairing of it all Moiraine sends Rand on a quest to find a horn. If the horn is blown it will make volume three happen, and Rand sets out with excitement and quickly finds the horn, but then leaves it in his bedroom while pinning after a beautiful woman. Rand's ability to have his face turned by a pretty face is one of the most infuriating things about his character, though it is decidedly unusual for the fantasy genre. Normally heroes are really loyal. But as in volume one Rand, and his companions, repeatedly fail to ask anyone what the hell is going on. So they make mistakes, blunder into traps and loose magical horns.

There are various people trying to hamper things, enemies of Moiraine who might be termed bad magical persons and a Dark Lord that torments Rand's dreams and challenges him to a duel. Luckily, by the end, Rand's band of heroes have found the horn and its is blown in time to scare off the Dark Lord and ensure volume three is published. Rand wakes, at the end of the book, denying what everyone knows is true - that he is the hero - and finds many of his companions have gone off questing. Rand is upset by this because he is the hero and no one else should have motivation or quests other than him. But the beautiful woman appears again while Rand's is asleep and makes it clear that others have to look after Rand until he gets over himself.

Look. The book is a collection of fantasy tropes that I should have read when I was fourteen and would have loved it. However it remains compelling and made for a good read while I was on an rather long return journey. I bet I read the following volumes because they are there and I now have the bigger picture

Related Reviews

Jordan - Eye of the World (volume one)

John Dickson Carr - The Hollow Man

I discovered John Dickson Carr's The Hollow Man quite by chance on a random bookshelf in a completely disorganised second hand bookshop. I am very glad I did. Carr's work is that of classic detective stories, updated for the 20th century, but with an occasional remarkably unique spin. 

The Hollow Man is known for being on the of the great locked room mysteries. The main character, an eccentric academic Professor Charles Grimaud, is approached by a stranger who warns him about his dangerous brother. Grimaud seems to shrub off the threat, but then commits a number of strange acts - buying and displaying a strange painting and waiting for the killer in his room. Grimaud is murdered in a literal locked room and there are no signs of his killers' escape. Another murder ten takes place in the middle of a street, the undisturbed snow seeming to prove that the killer cannot even have been there.

The police and Carr's hero, Dr. Fell, arrive at the scene of the first crime within minutes - yet only Fell appears not to be baffled. Fell is an intriguing character in himself. Clearly modelled on Sherlock Holmes, he is a polyglot who keeps his private life private. Yet he is also unusually described - a massively overweight character, with a gift for making witnesses talk, and an infuriating way (at least to the police) of not explaining anything he thinks as they career from place to place investigating and finding evidence.

But The Hollow Man will stand out not for this mystery - which is extremely fun and satisfyingly complex - but for its exposition of the whole theory of locked rooms mysteries. Chapter seventeen is nothing less than a lecture by Fell on the theory of locked rooms mysteries. "I will not lecture on the general mechanics and development of the situation which is known in detective fiction as the 'hermetically sealed chamber'." Fell tells his fellow investigators... and to ensure the reader knows exactly what is happening Fell tells his audience that this must be done because "we're in a detective story, and we don't fool the reader by pretending we're not". Having smashed the fourth wall, Fell continues by telling us (and his other fictional characters) all his theories of how such crimes can be committed and then solving the one that he is a character in. 

Locked room mysteries are, like magic tricks, inherently disappointing. When you understand them, they immediately lose something. Fell tells the reader exactly this, "the effect is so magical that we somehow expect the cause to be magical also. When we see that it isn't wizardry, we call it tomfoolery." But the genius of this tale is that the reader doesn't feel fooled or tricked. The solution is, of course, simultaneously obvious and fantastically complex. There are plenty of red herrings littering the landscape to through the reader off as well.

In short, this is a brilliant piece of crime fiction that turns the tropes on their head, places the reader in the story in a very unusual way, and serves up a complex locked room mystery with a rather neat solution. I must admit to being rather taken by both John Dickson Carr and his Dr. Fell. I look forward to others in this numerous series.

Thursday, November 03, 2022

Malcolm Brown & Patricia Meehan - Scapa Flow

Scapa Flow is at the heart of Orkney, an enormous natural harbour today curiously devoid of ships. Yet in both World Wars it was the base of Britain's main naval fleet - the location from where many ships set out to fight the German Navy at Jutland in 1916 and the home base for ships that fought the Bismark and escorted the Russia convoys. Most importantly it was home to tens of thousands of servicemen and women in both World Wars, troops from the navy, airforce and army who looked after the guns, fuelled the aircraft and above all crewed and maintained hundreds of ships.

Malcolm Brown & Patricia Meehan's brilliant oral history of Scapa Flow tells their story. It arose out of a strange set of circumstances - the BBC made a programme about Scapa Flow, introduced by Ludovic Kennedy who served there. The authors placed an ad in the Radio Times asking for reminiscences and were inundated with replies. Realising they had too much material for one programme, they used much of the remainder in writing this book.

So the history here is told mostly in the voices of the women and men who served in this lonely part of Orkney. Some of the stories are horrible - the accounts of the tragedies of HMS Vanguard in World War One and HMS Royal Oak in the second - are awful. Hundreds of lives lost in a moment. One gets a real sense of how these tragedies shocked those who witnessed them or those who cleared up afterward. One sailor remembered how a diver had seen the bodies of dead men still in their bunks after the sinking of the Royal Oak. Other tragedies such as the sinking of HMS Hampshire and the death of hundreds of sailors, plus the unlamented Lord Kitchener (architect of much slaughter) are also closely associated with Scapa Flow.

The Flow today is filled with wrecks and a favourite location for divers. Many of these are German ships, whose crews took them there for surrender after World War One. The scuttling of the ships was a memorable and shocking event, but I was struck by the accounts here that tell of how badly the German sailors were treated by the British authorities - lacking food, entertainment or much else. It was interesting to hear of a passing reference to a Sailors' Council in the German fleet at Orkney - not least because the crews had been part of the mutiny that began the German Revolution in Kiel and Wilhelmshaven. Sadly this did not spread to the British!

But actually one thing you get from these accounts is how dull and monotonous life in Scapa was. Not a few correspondents bemoan that they are not on active service, but standing guard in appalling weather waiting for action, that by and large never came. It is interesting that in both wars caution on the part of the British Naval command essentially left many warships and their crews languishing in Scapa Flow. Boredom, games, drink and loneliness characterise many accounts. Some of these are tragic, like the men who killed themselves from depression. Others are sad, such as the two guardsmen left for weeks alone who desperately tried to stretch out the weekly visits by the men who brought them supplies.

There is no doubt, with hindsight, that those in Orkney during both wars had a relatively good deal - they would probably survive. But the boredom brought with it its own difficulties and while the correspondents often remember the islands and their people fondly, they mostly remember how dull it was. Readers looking for exciting accounts of battle will not find it here. What readers will find is an insight into the war away from the frontlines, boredom and loneliness, with occasional moments of terror and tragedy. As such this excellent oral history is probably of much greater interest that you might expect.

Related Reviews

Terkel - 'The Good War': An Oral History of World War Two
Lund and Ludlam – Trawlers Go to War
Lund & Ludlam - PQ17: Convoy to Hell
Wickham-Jones - Orkney: A Historical Guide

Saturday, October 29, 2022

Jeff Sparrow - Provocations: New and Selected Writings

In the introduction to this volume of his selected writings, Australian socialist Jeff Sparrow quotes the bushranger Ned Kelly. Kelly had written an 8000 word statement justifying his actions, and as he handed it over he said "This is a little bit of my life; I will give it to you". As Sparrow points out, every writer knows what he meant. This collection certainly showcases the breadth of Sparrow's work. Sparrow is one of the foremost Australian radical writers, and I have reviewed several of his books elsewhere on his blog. But perhaps he is best know for this regular articles, published in a wide range of journals and websites, that discuss politics, history and current events with a distinctly Australian flavour.

Sparrow explains that he is one of a "handful" of socialists that gets to regularly write in the mainstream media. While some of these essays are explicitly political, others show how the best radical writers can  draw out deeper political insights whatever the subject they are dissecting. 

The opening essay tells the story of the Pacific Islanders who were kidnapped ("blackbirded") into indentured slavery on Queensland's sugar plantations. While they weren't slaves in the sense of those Africans forcible moved to the Americas, they were nevertheless brutally treated. Sparrow shows that rather than this being an aberration for Australia's past, the contemporary debates around the issue highlighted some uncomfortable facts about Australia's colonial regime. When the US Civil War broke out, "many Europeans in Australia sympathised with the Confederates" and some expected war between the US and Australia. Sparrow explains, "Queenslanders dreamed of building a 'second Louisiana'. They could, they thought, capitalise on the disruption of the international cotton and sugar trades, if only the could establish a viable local crop."

Getting a viable crop meant getting a workforce and the English workers who arrived wouldn't work in the hot and unpleasant conditions. So "blackbirding" began and between 1863 and 1904 "62,000 South Sea Islanders were transported to Australia. The capitalists who drove this process did so by relying on the "techniques and personnel" of slavery. Yet, as Sparrow explains, they were simultaneously quick to declare their hostility to slavery to "legitimate a generalised racism, which they then presented as a foundation of a new state". The story of the Pacific Islanders in Queensland and their forcible relocation back to their Islands when the practice was banned, once again underlies the racist roots of the current Australian state.

The second essay in the collection explores another aspect of Australian culture - the bushranger, and again deconstructs the traditional accounts. In this case Sparrow explores how "Captain Moonlite", the bushranger Andrew George Scott may well have been in a gay relationship with James Nesbit, one of his gang. Scott hoped that after his execution his body would be buried alongside Nesbit's. This did not happen until an extended campaign by locals to get the body reinterred. We can never know if Scott and Nesbit were gay in the sense we mean today. But as Sparrow points out that is not the point - they exhibited a closeness and friendship that goes against the traditional masculinity normally associated with men of the outback, hinting at a different historical story that challenges contemporary cultural depictions of bushrangers.

Some of the essays here take up contemporary politics. For instance, the brutal treatment of refugees and asylum seekers by the Australian government and the resistance against this. Other essays explore culture and change on a much more general level. I was fascinated by Sparrow's articles exploring children's books, particular Enid Blyton and Captain W.E. Jones. I hadn't realised that I craved a socialist exploration of the Biggles stories as much as I did.

Sparrow writes regularly about environmental and ecological issues. Several essays here take up these themes, again with a distinctly Australian angle. There's a fascinating discussion on the nature of extinction where Sparrow looks at the obsession that there is with finding a "thylacine" an extinct carnivorous marsupial, which ends up being as much and exploration of the people who hope to find one alive, as it does with the tragic loss of the animal itself. 

Sparrow is particularly good at getting people to open up. In the case of the "Queer Bushranger" he discusses LGBT+ issues with one of the local women who campaigned to have Scott reinterred. It's fair to say she doesn't share much of Sparrow's left politics, but he gets her to open up a little about the reality of small town life and what that might mean for gay people. Another example is the man who takes part in war re-enactments, arguing that these are more popular as people seek meaning in "atomised and fractured" neoliberal states.

Reviewing in detail the breadth of essays here would take far to long and would spoil them for other readers. But as a taster I can tell you there are chapters on socialist cycling clubs, the immigrant experience and racism, the strange trend of rewriting classic novels as Zombie horror stories, and gun control. Some of these are deeply serious essays, but they are all shaped by Sparrow's deeply human politics - and on occasion his ready wit.

The essay I wanted to finally mention though was one that moved and shocked me a great deal. It was the story of the tragedy of the 1628 wreck of the Batavia, a horrific incident that saw hundreds of shipwrecked mariners and merchants descend into barbaric behaviour as they ran short of food and rations. I was ignorant of the affair, and Sparrow tells the story through a report of modern archaeology and places it in the context of early capitalism. Sparrow concludes by saying that the story from 400 years ago "illuminated the stories we tell about ourselves today". It is also a comment that is true of all the essays in this book - I encourage you to read it.

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