Saturday, December 31, 2005

George MacDonald Fraser - Flashman on the March

The arrival of the latest Flashman novel has always been a source of some rejoicing in this reader’s heart. Flashman, as most of you will be aware, is the coward and bully from Tom Brown’s Schooldays who proceeds to become an unwitting hero of Victorian colonialism.

Flashman takes part in most of the glorious failures and momentous victories of that era, both for the British and various other governments. He rides with the Light Brigade, is the only survivor to escape the massacre of Custer’s troops at the Little Big Horn and serves in the Indian Mutiny, at Rorke’s Drift and just about every other engagement you can think of.

The last couple of novels that George McDonald Fraser has written have dealt with some of the smaller and less obscure campaigns of that period. Somewhat frustrating for those of us who are desperate to read about Flashman’s involvement in the US civil war (he fought on both sides) or the first Sikh War. This one deals with the little remembered expedition that Britain sent to Abyssinia in 1867, to release the British captives of King Theodore.

King Theodore was mostly described by people who came into contact with him as “mad”. But this, as Fraser points out in the short appendix is probably an unfair description. The monarch was a brutal, murderous individual, who was given to flights of fancy, split personalities, drunkenness and massacring people. But whether this is enough to get him certified is a different question.

The expedition that Britain sent out, was a classic example of the mighty forces of Britian (colonial troops did most of the fighting though) crushing an upstart ruler.

Flashman’s role is peripheral to the main fighting (just as he would prefer!), though he has a significant background part.

It’s an enjoyable read, but I fear that the obscure nature of the event itself means that the work isn’t comparable to earlier stories. On the other hand, it is the sort of novel that will inspire others to read more about this particular period, which in an era of armies being sent abroad to quell rulers who get out of line, is not necessarily a bad thing.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Steven Mithen - After the Ice – A Global Human History 20,000 – 5,000 BC

There are many “M” words to describe this work. Here are a few that I find particularly appropriate; Magnificent, Marvellous, Monumental.

Steven Mithen has created a masterpiece, to use a fourth. His history has a huge scope (and consequently it’s a big work, but it never reads like a cumbersome book, though it often feels like it while commuting around London). Covering the period from 20,000 BC a “time of global economic equality where everyone lived as hunter-gathers in a world of extensive ice-sheets, tundra and desert” to a period where many people lived as farmers, growing sometimes wheat and barley, but just as often rice or other foodstuffs. At the end of the period, not only had farming arrived, but the domestication of animals, trade and permanent towns and villages. What had also arrived of course, was the beginnings of inequality - the next thousands of years of human society would be dominated by class divisions.

But this is beyond the scope of the work. What Mithen does, is to take the reader on an odyssey through different parts of the world – the Middle East, Europe, the Americas, Asia and Africa to show the similarities and the differences of the people who first lived there. His method for doing this, I have seen described in other reviews as “Sci-Fi” like. But this isn’t fair. He transplants a modern traveller into the past, a traveller who can interact with the physical world, yet remains unseen by the people he is sharing time and geography with. This traveller visits the different campsites, caves and villages that have since been found, picks up their tools, helps gather berries and hunt with Polar Bear or Antelope and describes what archaeologists can best imagine life was like.

At times this is tremendously fascinating. Time and again I found myself thinking – “we can’t possibly know that” about some ancient activity, only to find on the next page, Mithen explaining how we do actually know quite a bit about 10,000 year old sandals from a cave in Arizona, or how much archaeologists have found out about the precise methods for making an spear head.

Occasionally though the approach annoyed me – not least because Mithen is unwilling to let his imagination run riot too much, so we often get descriptions of our traveller leaving before finding out exactly how something happens. It seems a strange thing to do – put a traveller back in time to describe the surroundings that we know about, but remove him when we get close to describing something we don’t know about. Such are the perils of the use of time-travel in a serious work of archaeology I suppose!

Nevertheless, I recommend this book unreservedly to anyone with an interest in the far past. You will be surprised to find out exactly how much we do know, and certainly the next time you see a collection of flint knives or spearheads in a dusty cabinet in some musty museum, you’ll be able to imagine a little bit more about the complex people who made them.

Related Reviews

Mithen - The Singing Neanderthals
Mithen - To the Islands

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Ian Shaw – Ancient Egypt: A Very Short introduction

The Very Short Introduction series perform exactly what it says on the tin – they are short (this comes to 192 pages including glossary, index and other goodies) but very comprehensive. Shaw’s work has managed to cram a complex subject into a tiny book, but retain both his enthusiasm for the subject together with plenty of fascinating facts and discussions.

Shaw’s avoided trying to tell the story of ancient Egypt and spend endless pages describing pyramids, temples and mummies. Instead he concentrates almost entirely on Egyptology as a subject for Archaeologists and discusses what we know (and how what we know has changed or developed).

So for instance, in his all too brief discussion of the life of the female Pharaoh Hatshepsut he takes on the commonly held belief that she was a “pacifist” queen, pointing out that this has more to do with the perceptions of later-day historians, particularly their sexist attitudes. Similarly Shaw discusses the most famous female monarchs, Cleopatra and Nefertiti, in the context of how their images have been appropriated by everyone from Hollywood filmmakers to Black Nationalists.

So in taking the long view of ancient Egyptian history, Shaw avoids one of the major problems that archaeologists have when studying this period. This is the problem of getting “into” the Egyptian mind. There is no doubt, for instance, that the ancient Egyptians did not have the same separation between “reality” and the “supernatural”. Their world was one where humans and Gods could interact. To understand their religious writings, practices and worship means entering that mindset.

Surprisingly then, by showing how everyone from Roman historians to the Victorians and modern-day archaeologists have viewed the Egyptians, Shaw has illuminated both their world, and ours.
I can best illustrate this by quoting Shaw’s description of the work of the Victorian “enthusiast”, Piazza Smyth, who described the Pyramids using the “pyramid inch” as a unit. Smyth went on to explain that this was also the unit of measurement used by those building Noah’s ark and Moses’ tabernacle.

Shaw concludes: 
Since the pyramid inch was conveniently virtually the same as the British inch, it was only a small step further to suggest that all this identifies the British as the lost tribe of Israel, which neatly adds rampant Victorian imperialism to Piazzi Smyth’s bundle of influences in his ruminations on pyramids.

Related Reviews

Marshall - The Reformation: A Very Short Introduction
Hendrix - Martin Luther: A Very Short Introduction

Sunday, December 04, 2005

T E Lawrence - Seven Pillars of Wisdom

This famous title “ranks with the greatest books ever written in the English language”, or it is according to the quote from no less a reviewer than Sir Winston Churchill, on the back cover.

I picked it up in one of those rambling second hand bookshops, somewhere near Charing Cross road. Picked it up really, because it’s one of those titles that everyone mentions and few had read. Picked it up, because current events in the Middle East are in part determined by the region’s history and the role of colonial powers like Britain (and in this case Turkey).

So I thought this would be an illuminating read, and give an insight into an important period for the Arabic people and the culture of the tribes that Lawrence worked with. Unfortunately, far from being the book that Churchill promises us, it is little more than a boys’ own adventure story. With Lawrence (carefully using his self-deprecating style) placing himself at the centre of an epic story of pitched battles, camel treks, food shortages, gallant Arabs and a ruthless, but comically inept enemy.

There are many problems with this (not least that it goes on for 600 pages), but Lawrence lies a lot. He lies to his Arab allays about Britain’s future plans after they have kicked out the Turkish invaders. He lies to his superior officers to get his own way and I suspect he stretches the truth to his readers.

So the only real insights from this book are those given to the mindset of your average British Colonial officer. His attitude– neatly summed up near the start of the book – when he says “the lousy rags and festering skins which we knew as Arabs”. His cod philosophising – which is little more than embarrassing, and (perhaps most interesting), his (unusual for the time) acceptance of the homosexuality of many Arabs.

But I don’t want to knock this book any further. I shall leave the last word on the whole matter to Lawrence himself:

“..the falsity of the Arab position had cured me of crude ambition: while it left me my craving for good repute among men….. Here were the Arabs believing me, Allenby and Clayton [his officers] trusting me, my bodyguard dying for me: and I began to wonder if all established reputations were founded, like mine, on fraud”

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Dashiell Hammett - The Maltese Falcon

It’s rare that I buy a book on the strength of a film. Maybe this is a unique example of that particular method of choosing literature. But last week in a bookstore, Dashiell Hammett’s famous title leapt out at me – and because I think that Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade is about as good as it gets, it slipped into the proverbial shopping basket.

The cover blurb (again, never a good reason to choose a book) tells me that it is “Possibly the best American detective novel ever written”. Well at least Otto Penzler is quoted as saying so. Given the competition there is for American detective novels, I was ready to be thrilled.

But this isn’t a novel that does it through thrills. This, like I suppose the film and like one of Sam Spade’s roll-ups, is a slow smouldering fire. Hammett doesn’t have the descriptive skill of Chandler, but he makes up for it by building a complex interaction of characters and places. And of course double-crosses follow double-crosses building the sort of story line that draws you into someone else's life.

As I read this book I was disappointed. I’d hoped for another Chandler, but it was only in the final chapter, as it all falls together and Sam Spade wins by sheer grit, determination and his complete inability to be awed by anyone, that I realised what a truly great novel this is.

I’m glad I didn’t remember the ending of the film in detail. Because this is a book that lives by it’s ending. And the sad, poignant final paragraph sums up that these are real men and women, not the cardboard cutouts you normally associated with pulp fiction.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Mike Davis – The Monster at Our Door; The global threat of Avian flu

While reading this book, I wondered how the world will end. Will we drown as the rising tides caused by Climate Change engulf the major cities of the world, or will we die in our millions as an unprepared world is struck by a major flu pandemic.

This is a remarkably timely book – Avian “Bird” flu has been in the headlines frequently, yet few people probably understand either the nature of the disease, or the threat it brings to humanity. A threat it must be said, which is immense. The 1918 flu outbreak killed between 40 and 100 million people (a figure that grows to a horrifying 325 million if extrapolated to the world’s population today). Davis quotes a Sunday Herald article that predicts that 1% of the UK population could die as a result of a serious outbreak.

Davis’ documents recent outbreaks in South-East Asia, showing how governments there were often wholly unprepared (often seeming to stand with fingers in ears singing “la la la” rather than face reality). Luckily, either for natural reasons, or due to prompt action by health officials, these outbreaks have been stemmed, yet the potential remains – 15 million chickens died in Thailand in early 2004.

While governments and politicians around the world ignore this major threat, Davis’ points to the changes in human society that mean that the flu is more likely to “species jump” and to evolve newer and deadlier strains. The massive concentration of food production to larger and larger factories, often with appalling conditions, give the flu virus an evolutionary playground never before seen in history. Increased international travel and the huge concentration of people in gigantic slums around the world mean that when it does break out, the flu could travel around the globe in hours, spreading faster than any government could deliver vaccinations to it’s population.

This last point is Davis’ final concern. Modern pharmaceutical companies aren’t interested in producing vaccinations for diseases like influenza – it’s just not profitable enough in the short term. At the same time as millions of dollars are being injected into finding ways of combating “bio terrorism”, cash is vanishing from health projects that could develop better vaccines for diseases like TB or avian flu. Interestingly, the Pentagon’s plans for dealing with a pandemic involve inoculating the armed forces as a priority.

The US has stockpiled only enough vaccine for 1% of it’s population. Japan, by contrast has covered about a fifth of its citizens. Of course, the countries that will be really ravaged are those in the developing world. Places like Vietnam, Thailand could be devastated, as could sub-Saharan Africa, its population already weakened by HIV.

This book should really be recommended reading for two groups of people – the first is politicians – if only to hope that some of them might get their fingers out of their ears long enough to hear the warnings of the medical profession. But the other group is those of activists and campaigners because huge pressure must be put on governments and drug companies to force them to increase production of the vaccines, invest in more and more studies of diseases and extend this to the rest of the world.

The terrifying reality of the threat of avian-flu is almost too much to think about. But this book is a brilliant introduction too the problems and the solutions. If only we have time to read it.

Related Reviews

Davis - Late Victorian Holocausts
Davis - Planet of Slums
Quammen - Ebola: The Natural and Human History
Zinsser - Rats, Lice and History
Ziegler - The Black Death

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Paul Foot - Red Shelley

When campaigning journalist Paul Foot died last year died, many people remarked how much he would be missed. A tireless campaigner for social justice, for freedom, for democracy and for socialism, he had devoted his life to struggling for a better world.

Amongst many Foot’s many qualities, was his ability to popularise odd periods of history or forgotten revolutionaries. At the annual Marxism conference in London, his meetings on the English Revolution, or the Levellers or Democracy were always amongst the most popular.

But many socialists in the UK have a special place in their hearts for his speeches on the poet Shelley.

This book, written in the early 1980s was clearly a result of Foot himself discovering Shelley. The poet he discovered, wasn’t the slightly unusual, lyrical romantic that was often taught in English schools. Rather he was a radical. A revolutionary. A man who believed that the world could and should be better, and that his poetry could be one of the weapons against that injustice.

Shelley had been distorted and ignored after his death. His best and most radical poems, works like “Queen Mab” and “The Mask of Anarchy” weren’t even officially published till long after his death. They existed often only in illegal and underground publications, repeated word for word by groups of workers, oppressed and under the thumb of the reactionary state.

For decades, the rich would gather around dinner tables and recite Shelley’s poetry. But they would ignore the revolutionary, challenging poetry, living almost entirely on the romantic poetry and even then stripping it of its context and his beliefs.

Foot argues that Shelley was one of the first socialists. Immature and isolated he might have been, but he was also a thinker and philosophiser who came up with some new and radical ideas. Ideas that would only become mainstream within the emerging left movement decades later.

Of course, Shelley was also driven by a militant atheism that meant he was ostracised by the rest of the establishment he was from, during his lifetime. But it’s an atheism at the heart of some of his best poetry. This atheism meant that he clashed with all those who believed that the poor deserved to be poor, or were poor because of their own making. So Shelley was driven by a desire to both illuminate the world and change it.

The book ends with Foot arguing that a new generation needs to grow up with Shelley in one hand as they struggle for peace and justice. He would have liked nothing better than to see Tony Blair humiliated in the House of Commons today, and so it’s really only fitting that I finish with one of Shelley’s most famous poems. One that dictators and politicians everywhere could do well to learn:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed,
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Related Reviews

Foot - The Vote

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Tacitus - The Histories

Anyone who has looked at one of those lists of Roman Emperors and the dates they ruled will have noticed a strange thing. Over the years AD68 to AD 69 no less than five emperors (Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius and Vespasian) began, ended or enjoyed their entire reigns.

This period of civil war, marked the change from the Augustan dynasty to that of the Flavians. It’s a crucial period of Roman rule, and one that the historian Tacitus, writing in about AD 100, documents using I am told, excellent authorities.

Tacitus’ was a Roman historian, thus much of what he wrote assumes a lot of knowledge about Roman custom. Though he does describe a lot of interesting details. If you don’t know much about Roman history (and I’m no expert) some parts of this can be hard work. But if makes up for it in other ways (such as the description of the battles of Cremonia). There are a myriad of details you can learn – Roman soldiers were fully armed only when the enemy was almost upon them for instance.)

This is a good book to follow up Suetonius’ Twelve Caesars, covering similar ground and illuminating the details of some of the events described there. This shouldn’t be the first book on Roman History you read. Certainly not if you have just seen HBO-BBC’s “Rome” and want to know more. But by no means make it the last, as it’s full of details, interest and blood.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Eric Hobsbawm & Terence Ranger(eds) - The Invention of Tradition

How do the rich and powerful justify their position in society to the people who they rule? That question is at the heart of this book. Ruling classes have, since ancient times tried to justify their wealth and privilege by variously proving their links to some great previous ruler, or showing that they play an important role, without which society would be plunged into disarray.

Some of humanity’s oldest written records are “King Lists” – attempts to prove a monarch’s linage back to ancient times (and often the Gods). Julius Caesar for instance claimed the goddess Venus as an ancestor.

This book documents modern attempts by the establishment to both justify the position of the rulers over the ruled (the modern monarchy in England for instance, or colonial rule of India and Africa). It also shows how the same establishment (or individuals with an interest in doing so) create an invented tradition, both to glorify some mythical past, or to create an artificial image of a people or nation.

This last bit, includes for instance, the conscious creation of the myth of the Scottish Highlands (tartan in particular). The chapters dealing with this are very interesting, but where the book really excels is the description of the establishments attempts to turn the monarchy into something both relevant to modern times and to help reinvent the idea of national interest.

Some of this stuff is brilliant. From Victoria’s complete lack of interest in pageantry and her role in state ritual, to the description of Disraeli “obliged to sit on his wife’s lap” at the Prince of Wales’ wedding as the event was so ill prepared.

The chapter continues with a description about how future royal weddings (and funerals) became deeply organised and choreographed to show the monarchy in the best light – the increased involvement of the media was part of this process.

The book finishes with several chapters which look at how other traditions have been invented (including for instance, the less conscious invention of the May Day celebration of the left, and various sports traditions). On the whole, these chapters aren’t as interesting as the chapters on the lengths that the establishment will go to, to try and make us feel part of their family. But it’s all well worth a read.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Peter Biskind - Seeing is Believing (*)

The basic premise of Biskind's trawl through the strange world of 1950s Hollywood films is that at the heart of American society there was a consensus between the liberal and the conservatives - against the extremists (both right and left). There must be some truth in this - the years after World War two were ones of unprecedented boom for the US economy, as Biskind writes early on
the decade [1950s] in which it seemed that the United States had solved most of the basic problems of modern industrial society. The miracle of the economy, the seemingly endless flow of consumer goods, the constant technological innovation, ironically promised to realise Marx's dream of a harmonious classless society.
In this context any threat to the status-quo was something that had to be resisted, and Biskind's book describes in detail how this battle took place in the realm of Hollywood.

If, like me you haven't seen all the films here, much of it will have to be taken on trust. The films I have seen and know well, such as 12 Angry Men, are examined with a particular shrewdness and with an eye for detail that seems unexpected. For instance, I'd often thought of 12 Angry Men as a left-wing film (albeit a flawed one that promotes the idea of justice at the heart of the jury system). Biskind shows how it actually has much more right-wing elements, where the centre, represented by Henry Fonda's character, does everything it can to cancel out the effect of the extremists in the ranks. Criticism of the system is acceptable, but only in limited ways that don't damage the consensus at the heart of things.

If you like films and politics, know a bit about fifties America and perhaps marvelled at Robbie the Robot in Forbidden Planet or rode with The Searchers, thrilled at the Day the Earth Stood Still or laughed at I was a Teenage Werewolf - or even know of these films, you'll probably get something out of this book. But like me, you might not agree with everything he says, particularly if one of the movies is a favourite!

Related Reviews

Biskind - Easy Riders, Raging Bulls
Frankel - High Noon

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Suetonius - The Twelve Caesars

It will perhaps be gratifying for many people to know that a book written almost 2000 years ago still contains within it the themes that make a more modern book rise to the top of a best seller list. Suetonius’ famous work has within it all the elements that would make an author of today very very rich. We have palace gossip, mixed with murder, sex and incest combined with politics and history to make a juicy read.

What of course makes this work very interesting, is that it isn’t a novel. Rather it’s a work of biography by a man who lived not many decades after the first of the Roman emperors described and who remembers the later ones from his childhood (his father served in the legions of Emperor Otho.

Suetonius describes the twelve emperors who followed the collapse of the Roman Republic towards the end, of what we would call the first millennium. His writing doesn’t criticise too much, he’s “deadpan” (borrowing a word from the introduction by Michael Grant) and lets his description of the events and activities colour your perception of the particular emperor. In fact it’s easy to fall into a sort of “1066 and all that” attitude – Good Emperor, Bad Emperor etc.

The first thing that strikes you – apart from the readability (a mark of an excellent translation) and the similarities to modern writing – is that Roman life was brutal and brutality was part of life. You may be surprised by the readiness with which life was sacrificed, or with which rape, assault and incest became part of ruling class life, but this surely is the reality of a society based on the economy of slavery. When humans are the base commodity of your social system, life becomes very meaningless.

The second thing that I noticed, was the way that religion and “mysticism” where part of every day life.

Note this turn of phrase here:

“At last, after nearly fourteen years of Nero’s misrule, the earth rid herself of him”

or note how, with every emperor described, Suetonius describes the signs and portents that marked their career. Here is his description of the omens predicting Claudius’ death, they

“included the rise of a long-haired star, known as a comet, lightning that struck his father’s tomb and an unusual mortality among magistrates of all ranks.”

Suetonius is never mocking or critical of these omens. He describes them in as much detail, and with as much importance as the description he gives of the physical characteristics of the emperors or the outcome of their battles. For him, such prophecies are part of reality, and not myth. Reports of an eagle landing when a particular child was born may be for us a myth after years of retelling. For Suetonius it was reality.

If you are looking for the day to day realities of Roman life, you won’t find it here. This is history from above. But Suetonius had access, at least for a while, to some of the most important archives of Imperial Rome. He describes powerful leaders, with unlimited powers of life and death, with followers who hung an their every word, who believed that they had a special connection to the Gods. In this context alone, his writings describe a world that has now disappeared, but which bears an uncanny resemblance to our own.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Peter Carey - True History of the Kelly Gang

Peter Carey's True History of the Kelly GangI like reading books that “everyone” says you must read years after the craze has died away, but I have to say that I missed out on Peter Carey’s book, which deservedly won the 2001 Booker Prize.

In writing about the outlaw Ned Kelly, Carey has the unenviable task for a writer of historical fiction – the only thing that everyone knows about Ned Kelly is that he was finally captured wearing a home made suit of armour. So Carey deals with this by making it the start of the book and uses the medium of letters from Kelly to his daughter to tell the story of his life.

I was surprised when I looked up Ned Kelly that most of what Carey uses in his story is based on some sort of historical fact, though the daughter didn’t exist, Kelly’s life is certainly well documented. The novel is mostly written in dialect and you can almost believe it’s Ned Kelly’s voice. Of course the other thing that stands out are the injustices suffered by the Kelly family and the careful treatment by the author of the controversial topic – “what makes someone a criminal”. In this case Carey sides very much with the poverty, injustice and brutality answer.

While Kelly probably wasn’t the Robin Hood figure some make him out to be, his name deserves to be remembered, if only because the early history of “white Australia” was one of violence, injustice and brutality. Modern Australia was built on the back of the destruction of Aboriginal life and the sweat and blood of people like Ned Kelly’s family. Carey’s real success with this book is to bring them all alive.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Charles Darwin - The Voyage of the Beagle

I started reading this book because of my own personal disgust at the rise of "intelligent design" in the US education system and I felt that my background in the physical sciences needed supplementing in those of the biological arena. Where better to start arming myself I thought than the work of the grand-father of evolution - Charles Darwin.

Most people know, that Darwin came up with the theory of evolution after years of studying. In particular, he studied the material, notes and theories he had got after an immense five year long round the world trip in the Beagle.

This book is a (presumably transcribed later) set of his notes from that voyage, what he saw in terms of flora, fauna, geology and what he experienced along the way - in particular the peoples and cultures of South America and Australasia.

This isn't an easy book to read - its the journal of a Victorian scientist just about to hit the peak of his career, as such it's peppered with references to other scientists, studies, ideas and contemporary references. I didn't recognise half the place-names in South America, presumably because they have changed as the European powers dominated that place less and less.

It's also more than a scientific narrative. Insights into many aspects of the Victorian world can seen - from the nature of life at sea, to attitudes to animals and people. It's also annoying the continuous lauding of "Englishness" as a way out of poverty, for "uncivilised peoples". Though he can be touching in his innocence for instance he writes of the Tahitians.
They are very tall, broad-shouldered , athletic and well-proportioned. It has been remarked that it requires little habit to make a dark skin more pleasing and natural to eye of a European than his own colour.
But even though he is angered by slavery and the treatment of indigenous peoples, he hasn't shaken off all the racism inherent in the society he lives in. For instance he writes that the Tahitians display "extreme good sense" at one point. Yet a few pages earlier he says that savage man has "reasoning powers only partly developed".

But what strikes the casual reader will be Darwin's immense love for nature and the world around him. Even though this is then tempered by some of his methods for taking samples.
A fox....was sitting on the rocks. He was so intently absorbed in watching the work of the officers that I was able, by quietly walking up behind, to knock him on the head with my geological hammer.
It's difficult to imagine any modern naturalist hunting and killing like this. But that's a reflection on the Victorian desire to fill museums as a method for advancing knowledge I suppose. The book is littered with accounts of shootings of birds and other animals as Darwin gets samples for his research.

Throughout the work and the trip Darwin is clearly grappling with a world and an understanding at odds with established ideas. Time and again he notes how geological formations must have taken aeons to develop. His famous description of the finches in the Galapagos Islands is clearly that of a man on the brink of a new idea. His discussion of the spread of disease towards the end of the book carries both the naive views of the science of that period and the germ of something else.

If you read this, I would recommend having some sort of reference to Darwin's voyage at hand, because it is useful to known what else happens on the voyage - in particular his relationship with the captain, and the sharp arguments they had over slavery.

The understanding of evolution that Darwin was able to unleash on the world was to change the world of science totally. But it would almost certainly have happened without him, though perhaps the explanation would have taken a little longer. Evolutionary thought works precisely because, as this work shows, it is the product of scientific exploration and observation. It is for this reason that it far outstrips any other, baseless idea that some on the religious right would force upon our school children.

Related Reviews

Desmond & Moore - Darwin's Sacred Cause
Jones - Darwin's Island: The Galapagos in the Garden of England
Simons - Darwin Slept Here
Weiner - The Beak of the Finch: Evolution in Real Time
Angus - A Redder Shade of Green: Intersections of Science and Socialism
Foster, Clark & York - Critique of Intelligent Design: Materialism versus Creationism, From Antiquity to the Present

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Charles Stross - Singularity Sky

This is a brilliant debut Science Fiction novel. Stross has done something quite special here, as you can see from the tributes on the back of the book. He's come up with a whole new idea, and done it brilliantly.

His concept - that a large area of space is populated by humans (the mechanism of which I won't go into) - where much of that area has achieved a sort of classless, technological society, where concepts of profits etc have been eradicated in the interest of a mutually assisting, forward looking society, is used to challenge preconceptions in the most surprising of ways.

One area of this human space, which behaves in a way more recognisable as our society - a sort of capitalistic region within the larger, better area, is terribly fearful of change and technology.

Now what Stross does that is so brilliant, is that he throws into this contradictory universe, a mechanism so alien, so inhuman, that both types of human society can't quite understand it. But one of the societies is less able to cope than the other.

To the backward, class-ridden, rigid, anti-technological society, comes a fantastic, all powerful, alien system - "The Festival". In exchange for stories and ideas the "the festival" donates unimaginable technological wonders and the machinary to create more such marvels. A goose that lays golden eggs for a poor peasant, exotic weapons for a bank robbers, palatial homes and so on. Within hours society is on its knees.

If you like Science Fiction, I can't recommend this enough. If you're a radical leftie there are enough in-jokes to keep you smiling, but the book is political enough to make you realise that Stross isn't simply taking the piss. He's also making a lot of interesting points.

EDIT: Stross has made his latest novel, Accelerando, available for free download in a variety of formats.

Related Reviews

Iron Sunrise - Charles Stross

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

H. Rider Haggard - King Solomon's Mines

I read this pretty much concurrent with Charles Darwin's account of his voyages with the Beagle and there are some amazing differences and similarities between the two Victorian tales of travel and adventure. Rider Haggard's novel has been a staple of the boys own adventure genre for many decades now. Its mixture of fighting, exploration and hunting capturing the hearts of many who went on to rule the empire and those that would have liked too.

What is interesting about the book (and its replicated slightly in Darwin's writings, but I'll write more on that when I come to review it) is the casual racism towards the indigenous black people of Africa and South America. Time and again the narrator talks about the inadequacies of black people, their inability to understand civilisation and he despairs at their lifestyles and "simple" ways. Of course this attitude stems from the the ideologies utilised by the Empire builders keen to control the rest of the world. Haggard takes it even further in the sequel when his heroes discover a powerful civilisation in the heart of Africa. The relatively advanced nature of this civilisation has everything to do with the fact that it is a lost tribe of white people.

Furthermore, an amusing side to the explorations is the way everything is hunted and killed. The heroes take time out from their rescue mission to shoot numbers of elephants for ivory, but mostly for sport. Throughout, the characters display a casual indifference to the people, animals and wealth of the country that they are travelling through.

So this book is interesting not in its adventure (though it has all the precursors of an Indiana Jones film) but it the mirror it holds up to a thankfully bygone era when men traveled the world and tried to remake it in the image created by their odd, jaundiced Victorian views.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Elmore Leonard - Glitz

In some ways this is a fairly bog standard detective thriller, but because it reads so easily, and seems to have avoided some of the cliches, it's better than you might think. According to Wikipedia, Leonard's "two major influences" are Gangsters and the Detroit Tigers baseball team. But the latter is absent totally from the novel, and the former is only there in passing.

In common with many writers in this genre, Leonard seems to avoid complicated character portrayal, except with his hero. Everyone else is either a bad, corrupt flawed person or an innocent waiting to be hurt. Needless to say the good guy prevails.

Unusually for this type of book, there are some memorable scenes. For instance, the moment when the hero, Vincent, takes the ashes of the murdered woman he loved, home to her family...

"Vincent presented the stainless steel urn to the grandmother. She hesitated before taking it and passed it on quickly as she saw her reflection in the polished metal. Each woman in turn looked away to avoid seeing herself in the urn, passing it on and making the sign of the cross"

Sometimes, detective fiction can try to hard to emulate the observational writing style of an author like Raymond Chandler, but at least in this case it doesn't feel too forced.

This book also has the perfect nasty evil bloke. Terry, the murderous rapist, some of who's crimes are a little to detailed here, is out to get his revenge on Vincent, who locked him up years before. The other characters revolve around this central theme like planets around the sun, affecting the courses of the main protagonists, but never really coming into proper sight. It makes for a enjoyable, but ultimately predictable read.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Robert Heinlein - Stranger in a Strange Land

Recently I briefly mentioned Robert Heinlein in a post, and following on from that and a comment made by Stefanie I decided to re-read "Stranger in a Strange Land" [SIASL] a book that I was very impressed with as a teenager, and certainly, from my later reading of Heinlein, probably his best.

Heinlein uses the story of Michael Valentine Smith in two ways. Firstly he produces the interesting and clever story of the "Man from Mars" visiting Earth and struggling to comprehend human ways and then uses the story to criticise many aspects of society and secondly he uses the characters as a platform to expound his own ideas.

SIASL2It should be said at this point, that many of Heinlein's criticisms of the role of church, organised religion and the state are ones I share, though I think his solutions and ideas (of rampant individualism, his sexism and his homophobia) are abhorrent to me. However, clearly as he was writing this, his own personal ideologies haven't been fully fleshed out, and this makes SIASL somewhat less heavy going then some of his later novels (Too Sail Beyond the Sunset in particular).

The book is well written, but a bit like struggling through treacle in places (did I really read all the long sermons that Jubal - Heinlein personified - gives in my teenage years?)

The basic story is good and holds up well compared to more modern Sci-Fi, when you clear the junk away in your head, and certainly there is much here that will upset and shock those high-up in the church.

Heinlein predicted the world of huge televised churches and rich super-preachers of today. As an aside, I am surprised by how badly Heinlein predicted the society of the near future. His characters still use faxes, computers receive only a single mention, and any idea of person to person communication, surely one of the easiest things to predict, is absence. Also, the idea that they send humans to Mars, before robot probes made me laugh. But in Heinlein's defence he wasn't writing THAT sort of Sci-Fi.

All in all this is still an interesting read, holding up well compared to Sci-Fi today. It's chief interest though, is as a starting point for Heinlein's political trajectory, which ended with him writing some dreadfully reactionary old tosh. Though there are glimmers of this. This quote by the character Jill shocked me as I didn't remember reading it before. It gives an idea of where Heinlein was heading.

"Nine times out of ten, if a girl gets raped, it's at least partly her own fault"

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Angus Calder - The Myth of the Blitz

What springs to mind when you you hear about the Blitz? Probably, if you have lived in Britain for any length of time, you'll imagine chirpy cockneys standing together against the might of Hitler's armies. You might well think of pictures of the contrails caused by the dogfights as Spitfires battled Messerschmitts in gloriously sunny skies over Kent.

Even if you don't think of these things, you'll have heard of them, and you will also have heard of the way that the whole of England pulled together and stood united, uncomplaining against the common foe.

Angus Calder's book "The Myth of the Blitz" would no doubt leave many retired colonels spluttering into their Daily Telegraphs, because he seeks to examine the story of the Blitz, as it is normally told, and unsurprisingly he finds that it is not without fault.

First and foremost he demolishes the idea of unity. Firstly the idea of class unity is taken apart - unsurprisingly the workers worked longer and harder, and suffered more (no deep bomb shelters for the East Enders, the tube stations had to be occupied, in a struggle often led by the Communist Party).

Calder examines how the "Myth" was created, even as the battles and bombings were being fought. From the moment Churchill made his speeches (hated by many in the Tory party) he was part of weaving a story, backed up by the media and filmmakers, of plucky little England.

It's interesting for instance, how even shortly after the Battle of Britain, observers describe the lovely summer, even though the weather was unusually bad. This is important, because it shows how quickly particular images and ideas took root in popular consciousness.

Calder uses many little examples to proves his sweeping points (how many fishermen refused to travel to Dunkirk, and how even the ones that did helped little - but that doesn't stop the myth of the small ships being created). He then discusses the idea of "Deep England" as the backbone to the myth, from both the left and the right.

This part is much harder to totally agree with. The theory is that a vision of England as a pastoral, classless country with thatched roofs and small villages is what was created to try and pull the English together. No doubt there is some truth in this, but I think he gives it too much importance. You can read more in the Wikipedia article here.

Either way this is an important book, pulling away as it does the lies and half-truths told about one of the most important periods in recent English history and pointing the way to a better understanding of the social and political forces that ended up shaping the later half of the last century.

Related Reviews

Angus Calder - The People's War: Britain 1939 - 1945
Houston - Went the Day Well?
Gluckstein - A People's History of the Second World War
Gluckstein (ed) - Fighting on all Fronts: Popular Resistance in the Second World War

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Iain Banks - Raw Spirit

There comes a time (or a book) in most author's canon, when devoted readers realise that the author they have loved for a long time isn't perfect. I well remember the moment I realised as a teenager that Robert Heinlein wasn't the amazing visionary I'd thought, but a rather bigoted dirty old man.

Iain Banks will never be described like that. Nor, I hope, will the rest of his literary output sink as low in my opinion as this one.

"Raw Spirit" is a travel book about drink and life. It's subtitled "In search of the perfect dram", and is about Banks' journey around the Scottish distilleries that produce, with centuries old practices and care, his favourite tipple.

Unfortunately, while the book has many interesting points and amusing anecdotes. That's really all it has got. It reads a bit like the conversation a sober person has with a close friend who has drank too much. So Banks' rambling anecdotes are amusing, but only as amusing as those that every group of friends has.

The interesting bits of history of the various glens, towns and distilleries are short and far between. And you have to be a real "petrol-head" to find the overlong eulogies to cars, motorbikes and roads of any real interest.

Banks rightly wears his politics on his sleeve. He's an unreconstructed socialist, and he polemicises against the Iraq war throughout the book (though there is little new here, and at times you feel that Banks was the only one who opposed the conflict).

This opposition is good, but it tends to get on your nerves as he discusses once again how much money he's spent on drink, cars, motorbikes and the like - this is hardly a book for the working-class Glaswegian who likes whiskey and wants to find the perfect dram - I suspect they'll go away feeling slightly worthless.

It's a real shame the book turned out like this, I suspect it was envisaged very different, it's a long way from Iain Banks' novels in style and substance and I can only hope that his latest offering, The Algebraist is a return to form.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Harper Lee - To Kill a Mockingbird

It is almost true to say that I was embarrassed into reading this book. I got sent one of those lists of "a hundred greatest novels" or something, and when I mentioned I hadn't read this to several people, I was mocked(!) for ignoring one of the greatest pieces of literature ever.

And indeed it is. It's an easy read, but filled with discussion points and great thoughts and ideas - a quick Google search on the title will bring you up dozens of pages discussing it, because it is so often (in Britain at least) picked for English students.

It centres on attitudes to racism, through a rape trial in a small town in the Deep South. What makes it superb, is that the racism, and the attitudes of the townsfolk - racist, liberal or black are described through the naive but hopeful eyes of Scout, an eight year old girl.

Scout's innocence helps emphasise the absurdity and awfulness of racism, and makes the outcome of the trail even more distinct.

Read this novel before you're embarrassed too. Oh, anyone know if it's ever taught in the Deep South today?

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Peter Linebaugh & Marcus Rediker - The Many Headed Hydra

As he stood on the scaffold waiting to hang for his part in trying to organise a revolutionary army to seize power in London and declare a republic, in February 1803, Col. Edward Despard made this powerful speech

“Fellow citizens, I come here…after serving my country – faithfully, honourably…for thirty years and upwards to suffer death upon a scaffold for a crime of which I protest I am not guilty. I solemnly declare that I am no more guilty of it that any of you who may be hearing me.

But though his Majesty’s ministers know as well as I do that I am not guilty yet they avail themselves of a legal pretext to destroy a man, because he has been a friend to truth, to liberty and to justice. Because he has been a friend to the poor and the oppressed. But Citizens. I hope and tryst, notwithstanding my fate and the fate of those who no doubt will soon follow me, that the princriples of freedom, of humanity and of justice will finally triumph over falsehood, tyranny and delusion, and every principle inimical to the interests of the human race."

Despard was one in a long line of people who developed and fought for freedom and justice on both sides of the Atlantic. Linebaugh and Rediker’s book documents the forgotten stories of those who, from before the English revolution to the American war of independence and beyond believed that “the poorest man hath has true a title and just right to the land as the richest man”.

One of the most powerful sections in the book is the chapter on piracy – originally encouraged as a way of undermining Spanish power in the west Indies, the sailors of the British ships often realised that piracy was away out of their rotten life – often little more than slavery itself.

The pirates of history are not the stuff of Hollywood legends – rather their revolts produced democratic ships with captains accountable to crews and collective decision making. They also shared the spoils out properly – irrespective of the rank of crewman – or his colour.

This last point is important – many of the revolts, uprising and mutinies involved black, white and Indian standing shoulder to shoulder, at the height of slavery the poor of the world understood the need to stand together long before the Wilberforces of the world had ever thought through the moral rights and wrongs (Despard for instance had a black wife, who was a fellow campaigner and comrade for many years, at a time when many in "polite society" would have considered a black person fit only for servitude).

I can’t recommend this book enough. It is difficult in places – particularly if your knowledge of the English Revolution is limited as mine is to the battles between Parliament and Crown.

This is not surprising because this is how it is taught and the authors are trying to rescue a forgotten history. This is why one thing that may strike progressives today as unusual is the role of religion – the bible is quoted, read and debated time and time again.

But often the radicals of past centuries only had their religion and the bible to interpret the world with, and they searched hard to find the real meaning behind the words.

This is why so much of those who fled to the New World, fearing persecution at home, hoped that they could build a promised land. It wasn’t to be, but their half-forgotten struggles to build a new Jerusalem are brought to life by this excellent book, if only to inspire us to try again.

Related Reviews

Rediker - The Amistad Rebellion
Rediker - The Slave Ship
Rediker - Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
Rediker & Linebaugh - The Many Headed Hydra 

Monday, August 01, 2005

J.K. Rowling - Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

A few days ago, I did a simple piece of original research - to see whether there were now more people reading the latest Harry Potter novel on the London Underground than people reading one of Dan Brown's awful bestsellers. I was pleased to note, that Harry Potter was winning.

Pleased, because I refuse to turn my nose up at Ms Rowling's creation. True, it's not great literature, true it's a children's series read avidly by adults. True, there are lots of things to be said about it's marketing, and I ain't convinced that simply getting more children to read Harry Potter improves their general consumption of books.

But there is no doubt that Harry Potter offers adults and children the thing that everyone needs once in a while - escapism.

These debates have been explored elsewhere, I don't want to repeat what others have said. does the latest book compare and is it worth it? Well, it's fun in the way that the earlier books are. As other reviewers have said it's not as refined as the earlier ones, the themes are perhaps more adult-like (though the characters have now reached 16 and 17, so that's not surprising), in places it reads like it's been written more for the adult audience than younger readers.

But the main criticism I'd have and it's been made elsewhere is that this is a filler novel. It ties up some loose ends (creates a few more) and is all about setting the scene for the final book. Given that the wizarding world (and the human one too - we meet the British Prime Minister in the first couple of chapters) is entering the final showdown between good and evil, it was always going to be unlikely that too much of the novel would be taken up with the day to day goings on at Hogwarts, the wizard school.

So the termtime pattern from the earlier novels (arrival at Hogwarts, various birthdays, Quidditch matches and Christmas) is there more as a backdrop to the main story line. But Rowling has wisely kept this in, after all it's what made the earlier books so original and fascinating to the earlier readers. Some of it though is a little bit clumsey - there are a couple of things added in earlier in the book simply to make the ending work better, whats the old Latin phrase that sounds like a spell? Ah yes. Deux ex machina.

Ultimately of course, anyone who enjoyed the earlier books will read this and it's sequel. But I hope that Ms Rowling and her publisher don't rush the next one out. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince would have benefited from a little more work.

I'm not going to say more. If you like Potter, you'll read it. If you poo-poo it you won't and little I can say will change that.

Monday, July 25, 2005

William J Fishman - East End 1888

1888 was a monumental year for East London. It was the year "Jack the Ripper" brutalised prostitutes and brought the eyes of the world on an impoverished region. It was also the year of the "match girls strike" which ushered in New Unionism and changed forever the battle between employer and employees.

But William J Fishman's excellent work doesn't simply dwell on these famous events, rather he weaves those stories into a well researched and thoughtful account of what life was like in East London. In doing so, he illuminates both the world of Jack the Ripper and his victims and helps us understand why young girls would be employed in matchmaking and why they would strike in their hundreds.

Along the way we meet many famous people. Dr. Thomas Barnardo, William Morris, William Booth, Annie Besant and many others. Some of them deserve to be remembered, but not all. Dr. Barnardo shouldn't be considered a saint for helping children, but a man who would rather rip children from their roots and ship them off to work for a pittance in Canada, rather than attempt to solve the real causes of their poverty.

But the real heros have left precious few words for Fishman to quote. Rarely could the poor of East London read or write, and for his accounts we often have to rely on police and court reports, or statements of officals from the workhouse.

Life in 1888 for someone in East London was short and difficult. Housing was over expensive, crowded and unsuitable. Work was short, badly paid and the hours were long. For those who had no other option, the last choice was often the workhouse - were officials often treated you as the underdeserving poor, rather than the victim of circumstance.

Many people tried to challenge this poverty - some motivated by religious ideals, some by simple humanity, some for political reasons. There were those who campaigned against charity - both from the right and the left - and those who tried desperately to make a difference.

Fishman has to cover a lot of ground and in places you feel that you have only had a glimpse of what he could have said, the chapter on politics feels in my opinion very short. Though in Fishman's defence I should point out that his companion book, that I blogged about elsewhere, covers at least some aspects of this in far greater details.

But Fishman's work brings that year to life. Often what shines through is that the poorest of the poor in East London often had more morals and more solidarity than their "betters". The match girls who collect money to help one who has fallen on even harder times, the bystanders who help an escapee from the workhouse.

I'd recommend anyone interested in the real history of London, not that of Kings and Queens, to read this. After all, for all that has changed in East London, overcrowding, unemployment, poverty and the need for solidarity haven't entirely disappeared.

Related Reviews

Fishman - East End Jewish Radicals

Monday, July 18, 2005

Raymond Chandler - The Long Good-Bye

There are mystery writers and there are mystery writers. As far as I am concerned, you can take your Agatha Christie’s and your Hammett’s and your Elemore Leonard’s. There is only one murder mystery man for me – Raymond Chandler.

Chandler’s work appeals to me for many reasons – not least the resolute cynicism of his heroes, particularly Phillip Marlowe. People like Marlowe don’t have an easy time of it, they live in a world where the cops are all crooked, dames are either murderesses or seducers, and often both. Where rich men kill for money and the little people get trampled in the rush, where no one is any good, except possibly the hero, and he of course, is flawed.

His characters arrive and depart in a whiff of cigarette smoke (indeed I think Chandler spends more time describing the types of cigarettes his characters suck on, than the weather), and most take any opportunity they can to down a large tumbler of spirits.

But what makes Chandler’s work so utterly brilliant, is his writing. This is a long quote from “The Long Good-bye”, I’ve chosen it because it captures in a few paragraphs the essence of the world Chandler’s characters live in and the frantic desperation with which they live their lives.

“The bar was pretty empty. Three booths down a couple of sharpies were selling each other pieces of Twentieth Century Fox, using double arm gestures instead of money. They had a telephone on the table between them and every two or three minutes they would play the match game to see who called Zanuck with a hot idea. They were young, dark, eager, and full of vitality. They put as much muscular activity into a telephone conversation as I would put into carrying a far man up four flights of stairs.

There was a sad fellow over on a bar stool talking to the bartender, who was polishing a glass and listening with that plastic smile people wear when they are trying not to scream. The customer was middle-aged, handsomely dressed, and drunk. He wanted to talk and he couldn’t have stopped even if he hadn’t really wanted to talk. He was polite and friendly and when I heard him he didn’t seem to slur his words much, but you knew that he got up on the bottle and only let go of it when he fell asleep at night. He would be like that for the rest of his life and that was what his life was. You would never know how he got that way because even if he told you wit would not be the truth. At the very best a distorted memory of the truth as he knew it. There is a sad man like that in every quiet bar in the world.”

Anyone who has ever sat in a bar and watched the people in it will know someone like those Marlowe/Chandler is describing. Hell, you might even be one yourself, but I wonder as I re-read it, who the barman is, wearing “that plastic smile people wear when they are trying not to scream”. I don’t know anything about Chandler, but I get the impression that there is a little bit of himself in that barman - watching the world with a jaundiced, cynical eye as he tries not to scream.

"The Long Good-Bye" starts with a friendship, but betrayal follows murder, and is followed suicide. Chandler expertly weaves parallel storylines about and brings them together in a classic ending, which needless to say I won’t ruin for anyone. But ultimately “who dunnit” isn’t the point of novels like this. When you read them, you go along for the ride, not to puzzle it out. Just don’t try and sit at a bar drinking Gimlets as you do, or you’ll end up like a character in a book.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Ian Birchall - A Rebel's Guide to Lenin

I am pretty sure that there used to be a series of collected works by Lenin, called the "Little Lenin Library", though whether this was because of the physical size of the works, or the particular shortness of the articles chosen I have no idea. It certainly wasn't because they were aimed at children.

However, Ian Birchall's introduction to Lenin would certainly fit the description of "little". It's only fifty odd pages long, and a few inches in size. But in its small size, it covers a huge amount of ground and packs a hefty punch. This introduction is aimed at introducing a new layer of radicals to Lenin's thought and practice. Particularly those radicalised by the Stop the War movement and more recently the protests against the G8.

As such, Ian takes up some of the challenges thrown at Lenin within that movement - his supposed authoritarianism for instance. In this it is particularly good (well as good as you can taking up complex arguments in 50 pages). The work can only succeed in this - and at explaining Lenin's thought - by placing him in the context of the times he was active in, something particularly important with Lenin's work as he often wrote for the moment.

Birchall in no way looks at Lenin as some fountain of all knowledge. But nor is this a book full of gossip and slander at Lenin. Ian argues that there is nothing more important than building socialist organisation in the here and now and that Lenin can and must be a guide to this. This is a brilliant introduction to why and how. Don't be put off by its length.

Related Reviews

Bambery - A Rebel's Guide to Gramsci
Choonara - A Rebel's Guide to Trotsky
Orr - A Rebel's Guide to Women's Liberation
Gonzalez - A Rebel's Guide to Marx 

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Yvonne Kapp - Eleanor Marx, family Life 1855 - 1883

Yvonne Kapp's two volume biography of Eleanor Marx is probably one of the least well known biographies but it deserves to be on every readers bookshelf, both leftie and not, for the simple reason that it is a fantastic study in the art of biography writing.

Eleanor Marx was Karl's third daughter. Her life was overshadowed by the activities of her father. But she carved an independence that is remembered, celebrated and praised by socialists to this day. Ultimately she became one of the foremost activists of her time, leading strikes and struggles and becoming the head of one of the largest of the "New" unions.

The first part of her life was marked by poverty. It is also inseparable from that of her father and wider family. Yvonne Kapp doesn't shy from explaining why Marx's work and life is more important during the first decade or so of Eleanor's life - not because Eleanor is boring, but because her own life's work was founded on the principles and ideas that her father worked out and outlined.

Indeed Eleanor's early life is amazing. She was intelligent and well educated, a friend to the countless people who passed through the Marx household. At an early age she joined demonstrations and spoke passionately about causes such as Ireland and freedom.

The biography is in two parts. The second half is going to be more exciting in some senses. The period of "New Unionism", William Morris, the Match Girls strike etc. But do not underestimate what you can learn and enjoy from an early life that included sheltering refugees from the Paris Commune and helping Karl Marx work in the British Library.

Ultimately Eleanor Marx will be remembered through this wonderful work. It is to Yvonne Kapp's credit that she keeps the essence alive of what made Eleanor such an incredible woman - her politics. The gossip, fabrications and discussions are there - after all it was snobbish Victorian England. One establishment 'lady' wrote that Eleanor Marx,

"Lives alone, is much connected with the Bradlaugh set, evidently peculiar views on love etc, and should think has somewhat 'natural' relations with me! Should fear that the chances were against her remaining long within the pale of respectable society".

But these details help illuminate the woman, rather than bore us with murky details. After all Eleanor Marx was someone who believed that humans can change the world they live in, and that they must be politically active to do so.

Full title - Eleanor Marx, family Life 1855 - 1883

Related Reviews

Mehring - Karl Marx - The Story of his Life 
Hunt - The Frock Coated Communist; The Revolutionary Life of Frederich Engels 

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Daniel Guerin - Fascism and Big Business

The recent film “The Downfall” caused an interesting response from some reviewers. For so long, Hitler had been portrayed as a “monster” or the epitome of “evil”, that to see a film which portrayed the reality of his last days – with him talking, smiling and discussing the war, was unbelievable.

Surely Hitler was a foaming at the mouth madman, whose every word caused the impressionable German people to become Zombies, unable to think for themselves?

What caused this confusion was a misunderstanding amongst the reviewers about the nature of fascism, and the society it created. Daniel Guerin’s classic analysis of Fascism was first published before the war had ended. It looks at the rise of Fascism in both Germany and Italy, analysing the similarities and looking for clues to it’s real nature.

Firstly Guerin has to explain how both the Italian and German fascists conned people into supporting them, but also gathered the support of the big wheels of capitalism, themselves terrified of the consequences of economic devastation and working class revolution.

Fascism offered everything to everyone. To the peasants and small farmers it offered land and an end to the burden of taxes. To the small businessmen and shopkeepers it offered stability and better prices. To the working men it offered jobs and a stable economy. To big business it guaranteed profits and the end of the “class struggle”.

To get the support of the lower classes it had to appear to be challenging the existing status-quo, that is why the speeches of Hitler and Mussolini in the early years of their careers are peppered with promises to end the tyranny of capitalism. But at the same time they promised to make the world even better for the masters of big business.

Guerin shows how once in power, Fascism immediately turns it’s back on the workers, peasants and small business men. Destroying jobs, smashing unions, breaking agreements and giving concessions and tax breaks to large land owners and big businesses. There are some incredible statistics to show just how much wages fell. While it is true that unemployment collapsed, this is partly do to whole sections of workers becoming ineligible for work. But it is also because the regimes started huge building projects (roads, railways etc) to create work, employing people on pittance wages and because of the expansion of the arms industry in both Italy and Germany.

It’s might be surprising to someone whose sole knowledge of Nazi Germany is the holocaust and the massacre of some 10 million people in concentration camps, that Guerin spends little time mentioning this side to the regimes. But this is because Guerin is partly looking at one aspect of those regimes, and partly because he is trying to explain the fundamental nature of Fascism – that it is a ideology directed at stabilising capitalism, using the adherence of large sections of the middle class population to get it’s support. It wins that adherence through racism – towards Jews in the case of 1930s Germany.

This is much clearer in Italy, where the stronger working-class movement and the Capitalist fear of revolution in the early 1920s meant that Fascism was much more explicitly anti-working class, only taking up the mantel of racism much later on.

Guerin’s work is a superb introduction to these regimes. It’s difficult to read at times – there is lots of empirical evidence to plough through, but it’s worth the effort to uncover a frequently ignored aspect to Hitler and Mussolini’s regimes.

Related Reviews

Paxton - The Anatomy of Fascism
Kershaw - To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Ed McBain - Long Time No See

Ed McBain stands out as a detective writer - not because of his gigantic output, though that is impressive - he wrote literally dozens of short novels set in the fictitious 87th precinct.

In my opinion McBain stands out because he looks at the world of police work, with the jaundiced eye of someone who has seen the real world, and it's people, and knows that it hurts.

His characters are very often ordinary working class people, living their lives in shitty, dull, boring jobs on the edge of respectability, and sometimes slipping over it. The criminals victims are Vietnam vets, prostitutes, low paid workers and factory fodder.

Of course, being police procedural novels, they concentrate on murder and violent crime. But the characters - mainly the detectives who staff the precincts unresourced and outdated police stations, grow older, marry, fight and complain. This is the real world.

But McBain is at his best when he looks at how crime isn't something special, murder isn't unusual - it's inherent in a society that alienates and atomises the individuals, putting the importance of money above the needs of the individuals, and his policemen pick up the pieces and almost always get their men, but can only rail impotently at the far greater crime going on.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Richard Morgan - Woken Furies

I have to admit that I really like Richard Morgan's SF. This admission is important, because what I am about to say may sound like I hate it.

Apart from the fact that one of his central thesis' seems to me to be so implausible, that no technology of the future can ever make it happen - that a human's consiousness and memories can be stored electronically for retrieval at a latter date - I really like the gritty, dirty, realism of Morgan's futures.

Ok, so the best SF of recent years has shied away from glorious future utopian worlds where robots serve your every whim, and men are men and women beautiful. Morgon does the exact opposite. The future is filled with war, revolution, bloodshed and violence, though his men are still men and the women beautiful.

But his stories. Well, there I have a problem. I just can't seem to follow the plot. It all fairly races along, you meet characters, like them, dislike them, then they are killed and the plot twists and turns like a worm in soapy water. Christ knows what's happening, but it all seems quite fun. Anyhow there it is. I'm sure it's a great SF if you can work out what is going on. But it's riveting none the less.

Monday, May 16, 2005

H. G. Wells - The History of Mr. Polly

When Leon Trotsky described the people who made up the mass backbone of the Fascist movements of Europe in the 1930s, he wrote:

"On the scales of election statistics, one thousand Fascist votes weigh as much as a thousand Communist votes. But on the scales of the revolutionary struggle, a thousand workers in one big factory represent a force a hundred times greater than a thousand petty officials, clerks, their wives and their mothers-in-law. The great bulk of the Fascists consists of human dust."

This "human dust", these clerks and petty officials etc, by and large came from the mass of the middle classes, desenfranchised and ruined by the economic collapse of the early 1930s. The Middle Class, Trotsky went on to argue spends much of it's time economically on the edge. Small changes in the economy can ruin them easily. The very nature of their employment and livelihoods mean they have little collective means to organise - often (as shown in this novel), the small business men and shopkeepers have nothing but contempt for their fellows.

H.G. Wells' novel doesn't deal with the rise of Fascism. Nor even does it deal with economic collapse. Instead, his book about the life of Mr. Polly, is about how empty life can be. How hard you have to work to make a living, and how little satisfaction you gain from it. How difficult it is to break out of your existence, or change the it's direction. How huge and powerful the forces ranged against little you are.

Mr. Polly, eventually does find a way out. He runs away into the idylic English countryside and finds the life he craved. I don't know if Wells' really that men like Mr. Polly were the reality, or that such succesful "escapism" was a route out of alienation or poverty for the majority of people, certainly it seems a perculiarly "English" notion of redemption.

The History of Mr. Polly, was written in 1910. It predates World War One and the rise of Fascism, and World War II. But you can't help but feel that Mr. Polly was really lucky. A few years later, he might well have found himself in the midst of a far bigger malestrom.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Poppy Z. Brite - Swamp Foetus

Some things are best left in the past. When I first read Poppy Z Brite, her books captured that strange fixation of the late 80s and early 90s with vampires, ghosts and the gothic horror, mixed with the emerging internet age. Very exciting. She also wrote about gay sex and a generation of goths probably thought she should be made queen or something.

Two of her novels are absolute gems. Drawing Blood and Lost Souls are by turns erotic, scary and exciting. Swap Foetus is more of the same in short story format, with consequently less character development and less plot.

Most of the stories are readable. Some are violent. Many try to have a twist at the end, but to be honest only the most naive of readers won't see what's coming. So I have to express my disappointment - after reading the two aforementioned novels years back, I pounced on this with glee upon seeing it in a second hand book shelf. I would have preferred to have kept the pleasant memories of her previous novels intact by not reading this.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Robert Graves – Claudius the God

This, the sequel to the magnificent “I Claudius” deserves to be reviewed differently to it’s predecessor. While there is little doubt in my mind that the first is a better novel, this book deals with much bigger issues and given the limits the author found imposed by history and his sources, it does so very well.

Claudius, history tells us, became Emperor of Rome after the justifiable murder of Caligula, and this book explores the realities of that reign through the eyes of Claudius himself. Here is the first contradiction – Claudius (as many emperors before him) is a committed Republican, longing for a return to the golden age of the Roman Republic, but constrained by existing circumstances. His initial plan to refuse the throne, is quickly blocked by reality, as he realises this would result in his own death and civil war for the empire. For British readers, Claudius is also important as the emperor who finally subdued the rebellious people of Britain.

Claudius spends the next 14 years of his reign trying to solve this contradiction – that the absolute power granted in the hands of a monarch cannot be resolved with his belief in democracy and republicanism. Granted, he attempts to be a “good” emperor. He repairs and rebuilds the damage wrought by years of misrule, but he cannot escape the fact that his total power enables him to right personal wrongs and deal his own brand of justice.

Ultimately you feel that Claudius becomes what he despises. An Emperor more concerned with spectacle, rather than honest rule. In that he is nothing more than a victim of his circumstance. Indeed the last months of his rule are marked by the fact that he really doesn’t rule anymore – letting others, freedmen and his fourth wife govern in his name. At the end, you feel that the sympathy you felt for the somewhat unlikely commentator on history from the first book is overshadowed by what he has become. In trying to select his son as his heir rather than the brash individual that became Emperor Nero, Claudius says it rather well

“I knew that Nero is fated to rule as my successor, carrying on the cursed business of monarchy, fated to Plague Rome and earn everlasting hatred, to be the last of the mad Caesars. Yes we are all mad, we Emperors. We begin sanely like Augustus and Tiberius and even Caligula ..... And monarchy turns our wits.”

Claudius (and we must presume Robert Graves) is using the old argument that power corrupts. Since the Roman Republic was never restored, even though many continued to proclaim its importance and necessity, it’s hard to argue anything different. Once again a fantastic novel and a great introduction to a confusing but important period of Roman history.

Related Reviews

Graves - I Claudius