Thursday, April 28, 2011

Oliver Rackham - The History of the Countryside

Oliver Rackham's history of the countryside is a remarkable book. It is also an unusual and slightly odd book. It's oddity stems not from its content, but its style. In essence it boils down to a very detailed and systematic exploration of every feature of the British landscape - from the woodlands, ancient and modern, to the roads, fields and waterways we see around us. It is odd because what we end up with is really a very complicated and detailed list. Don't let this criticism mean you ignore this. Rackham's book is a great scholarly work, it is by turns fascinating, amusing and enlightening and should instruct the keenest historian of the interaction between humans and the natural world.

What we learn, is that very little of the British landscape is natural. At the end of the last ice age, most of the British Isles were rapidly covered with wild wood - trees that spread from what was then the continent. With the arrival of humans, this was almost immediately under attack as our ancestors reduced the trees for agriculture or cultural reasons. The other changes they made - consciously or unconsciously on the flora and fauna are faithfully recorded - the disappearance of larger mammals like the auroch, the wild boar and so on. The introduction of species from outside, in both ancient and modern times have changed the world we look at from our train windows, and the place would be unrecognisable to an ancient Briton, transported in time to the 21st Century.

In particular, Rackham shows how agriculture and industry have changed the countryside - the fields, with ancient walls and hedges, to the strip fields of the medieval age, and then the heavily enclosed farms of modern times. The hedges are fascinating. They're sometimes natural, sometimes not, they can grow spontaneously along a human-made ditch or line and they can help spread plant species.

Even some of the most impressive areas of the landscape we might take for granted - the Norfolk Broads, or some of the large woodlands are very rarely natural. The Broads are the remains of systematic medieval peat extraction. Many age old forests are the remnants of parks and gardens made a few centuries ago.

The style of the book is lovely. Oliver Rackham comes across as a slightly eccentric expert, passionate about his subject, prepared to delve deep into ancient forestry records and dusty books to prove that a local feature is actually only a few years old. "Much as been written on the history of Irish woodland, but in a vague and general way; except in Killarney there is not one wood whose history over the last 400 years is known" he complains at one point.

My disappointment peaked at the end of the book, which finished abruptly with a brief mention of a fish weir on the River Calder. I had hoped for some interesting concluding remarks on perhaps the conservation of "nature" and what that meant. Nevertheless, there is much here to learn from. Rackham's book is often mentioned and referenced. I've followed it up with a reading of Francis Pryor's latest book on "The Making of the British Landscape". Pryor has referenced Rackham's work in the past and I'll be interested to compare the two. Watch this space, as they say.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

John Newsinger - The Dredd Phenomenon: Comics and Contemporary Society

There is a large part of me that never really got into comics. Partly this was due to a slightly snobbish, middle class attitude that my have existed during my early youth. They were not proper books, so they can't have been anything more than simplistic entertainment. Radio 1 to literature's Radio 3.

Later on, I discovered 2000AD. It's cynical social commentary made it clear that there was something more to comics and graphic novels than those who assumed it was all the Beano might think.

John Newsinger's brief survey of comics is locates them in the the periods when they are being penned. Written in the immediate aftermath of Tony Blair's election in 1997, he firmly roots the popularity of Judge Dredd and 2000AD in the writers' ability to extrapolate from the authoritarian social policies of Thatcher, Major and then Blair.

You can see this most obviously, and perhaps slightly crudely, with the B.L.A.I.R.1 strip which I found immensely enjoyable in 1998. Here Blair is a robotic monster, driving through his plans and wrecking people's lives to make Britain safe for big business. It is only with tongue slightly in cheek that the writers introduced Judge Straw into the mix.

Newsinger argues that the popularity of comics like 2000AD is their ability to hold a lens up to the world. Whether this provokes the readers into further confrontation with the priorities of the politicians and policies that are so elegantly subverted in the stories is another question. Certainly their popularity can only be because most readers spot a little part of the world around them in the panels. I'd forgotten how detailed some of the stories are. In one, Newsinger points out, the Judges, lawmakers, enforcers, judge, jury and executioners, recognise they need to liberalise their policies or risk loosing complete control. They decide to remove the prescription on keeping Goldfish from the list of crimes that can be committed. Though breeding Goldfish still requires a permit, least it gets out of the control of the state.

So the contradiction - that one of Britain's most popular comics has as a hero a semi-fascistic policeman is squared because it is clearly about tackling the excesses of other aspects of 20th and 21st Century capitalism. Other stories, writers and comics mentioned here-in The Preacher, The Invisibles, From Hell and the ABC Warriors also take up other contemporary issues - crime, drugs, religion and violence. They are part, Newsinger argues, of a reaction to those comics that are pure escapism.

Newsinger has a convincing case. Hopefully this book, which has not dated at all since the heady days of 1997, will continue to encourage a critical reading of comics and more of a enjoyment of a wider range of slightly less mainstream graphic novels than your parents might expect.

Related Reviews

Newsinger - The Blood Never Dried: A People's History of the British Empire
Newsinger - Fighting Back: The American Working Class in the 1930s
Newsinger - Them and Us: Fighting the Class War 1910-1939

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Leon Trotsky - Lessons of October

This short volume by Leon Trotsky is an undisguised polemic. Written in 1924, in the aftermath of a series of failed revolutions across Europe, it was clear that the revolutionary movement that had developed following the First World War was at a turning point. Trotsky's volume is in itself a hard restatement of the need for revolutionary organisation to successfully lead a working class revolution.

Trotsky understood that there was a danger that having led a successful revolution in Russia in 1917, the Bolsheviks Party was seen as having a sort of God like status. The idea that revolutionaries elsewhere needed to simply emulate the actions and organisations of the Lenin and the Bolsheviks and that would be enough to seize power. So in part he wrote a "warts and all" history of the Bolsheviks. He documents the way in which following the first revolution of 1917, in February, when the Tsar was deposed, the position of the Bolsheviks was to their right of the position that they took in October. From afar Lenin wrote, begged and urged them to turn further towards the idea of proletarian revolution, instead many, like Stalin tailed the right-wing of the socialist movement.

"Russia is too backward for the workers to take power" they argued, yet a few months later they did just that. At the end of the book, Trotsky explores the idea of insurrection as art. Taking power is not a science. There are a myriad of factors that must be taken into consideration before a successful seizure of power can be made. He documents and explores what happened in Russia - but argues that this shouldn't form a blueprint for anywhere else. He looks at those organs of democratic power in Russia - the Soviets - but explains that there is a danger that other revolutionaries fetishise these as instruments of revolution, rather than noticing other social structures - workers councils, factory committees or even the Trade Unions that might take on this role. I should add though, that I think Trotsky's understanding of the role of the unions here is flawed and based on a peculiarly Russian naivety towards these bodies, as explored in this excellent book here.

Finally Trotsky is launching a weapon in a developing argument in Russia at the time. As the effect of international isolation, civil war and Russian backwardness took their toil on the revolution, Trotsky was fighting against marginalisation from the new bureaucratic cliques developing around Stalin. The Lessons of October are then also a polemical fight in this battle.

The edition I have read comes with very useful notes and an introductory essay by Duncan Hallas. This frames the book very helpfully and can be read online here. I'd recommend it, before dipping into the Trotsky.

Related Reviews

Hallas - Trotsky's Marxism
Choonara - A Rebel's Guide to Trotsky
Trotsky - An Appeal to the Toiling, Oppressed and Exhausted Peoples of Europe

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

J.G. Farrell - Troubles

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Farrell's book The Siege of Krishnapur and this earlier book of his does not disappoint either. Apparently this is really the first in a trilogy of which Krishnapur is the second, but there are limited links between the stories, so the order doesn't matter.

Together with the third in the series, the theme is the end of Empire. Krishnapur appeared to deal with the highpoint of British rule in India, but was centred on the mutiny that marked the beginning of the end. Troubles is set in Ireland, in the immediate aftermath of the First World War and the Easter Uprising of 1916.

Arriving in Ireland, Major Archer thinks he is going to be married to his fiancee. A young woman with whom he has engaged in a love-affair by letter, following a short meeting. That doesn't happen and instead he gets drawn in to the daily life of the Majestic Hotel that is owned by her family. The Hotel was once a splendid and famous resort. Now, it is a shade of its former glory. Decay permeates every corner - the masonry is crumbling, the gardens getting overrun. This decay is also infecting the people there. The servants don't care - The Major is not met on his arrival, and the first comic chapters of the novel are when he tries to adjust to the idea that no-one will make his bed and no one will run his bath.

The decay of the hotel is a metaphor for the decay of British rule in Ireland, or indeed the beginning of the end of Empire. As the Civil War gathers pace, the guests at the hotel remain blissfully above it all. Sure that the Empire will continue, and unbelieving of the growing tidal wave of change they face. As in Krishnapur the natives are distinct, indistinct figures. Starving on the periphery of the story. This is how they must have appeared to the British, enclosed in their ivory towers.

As events hot up, the Major becomes unable or unwilling to leave. He falls in love again, and his heart is broken once more. Here, in addition to the dark gloom of the crumbling hotel, Farrell adds the  claustrophobic life of a Englishman unable to cope with his sexuality, desperate for relief as he sweats at night thinking of the woman he loves. But there is a counter-point. Two young girls who mature into woman as the novel progresses, taunt, flirt and tease the visiting British soldiers and the Major himself. They surely represent a more confident sexuality of the coming twenties.

The end of the novel, is, like the end of Empire, brutal. There is little happiness here, and I was left feeling that there should have been something more. But this is the end of Empire from the occupiers point of view - they deserved no happy ending. It is up to those who freed themselves to write the next chapter of the story.

Related Reviews
J.G. Farrell - The Siege of Krishnapur

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Rosemary Hill - Stonehenge

It is rare that I express disappointment with a book. Usually I am aware enough of the contents to feel that I know what I am about to read, so it is unusual to find myself criticising one.

However, it may be that my own criticisms of this book are misplaced. The Wonders of the World series has been extremely enjoyable and I would encourage others to read these short books. There are links to previous reviews below.

Rosemary Hill's book though suffers from not really being about it's subject matter. Now this is true of all the series to a lesser extent. You can't really discuss the Temple of Jerusalem or the Colosseum without mentioning their impact on society and cultures that have come along after they were built, or destroyed.

But this book on Stonehenge suffers from seeming to barely mention any detail about Stonehenge at all. Apart from the very first chapter, and some of the later chapters which deal with modern archaeology. We learn very little about the monument itself. Hill is correct of course to point out that there are many unknowns about Stonehenge. Any book about the place could and indeed should point to the controversies that still exist. Instead we're treated to large chunks about the influence of Stonehenge on various different cultural stages of British history - the Antiquarians, The Romantics and so on. Stonehenge as an idea, has had a big impact - its influence extended to the architects who put together major bits of Bath and Covent Garden for instance.

Hill tells this story particularly well, but I for one found myself not really caring much. The various different suggestions about the origins of the monument that have been put forward by various scientists, amateurs and crackpots over the years are also interesting, but they reflect more of contemporary history, than illuminate the past.

However, I do think Hill does her story of Stonehenge well. I can't fault that, and I did enjoy her account of the more recent history of the monument - the changing social attitudes to conservation of ancient places, access rights and so on. Her final chapter has plenty of ammunition that can be used against recent governments (including I think the Coalition that is in place while I write this) for their attitudes to places like Stonehenge.

But I did feel disappointed. There should have been more about Stonehenge itself and the people who built it, as well as the epic monumental landscape that it is a central part of. Readers who might like more of that, are encouraged to search out Francis Pryor's excellent book Britain BC, which delves into some of this.

Related Reviews in the Wonders of the World series

Watkin - The Roman Forum
Fenlon - Piazza San Marco
Tillotson – Taj Mahal
Goldhill - The Temple of Jerusalem
Gere - The Tomb of Agamemnon
Ray - The Rosetta Stone
Hopkins & Beard - The Colosseum

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

E.P. Thompson - The Making of the English Working Class

E. P. Thompson's monumental work of history of the development and shaping of the English working class almost defies review. After all, in almost 1000 pages he covers so much ground, in such great detail, that it feels inappropriate to even attempt to mention an section for fear of glossing over something equally important elsewhere. Hundreds of words could also be written about Thompson's methodology. His approach is more than history from below, it is about analysing cause and effect in history, imposition and resistance, the dialectical interaction between social forces that shapes the present and the future.

Thompson wrote as an avowed Marxist. Marx wrote that "being shapes consciousness" and this little quote perhaps explains the core idea of Thompson's work. The making of the English working class, is not a conscious activity by any one group, least of all the working classes themselves. Rather Thompson describes a world changing as new interests and forces come to the fore - in this case the growth and expansion of industrial capitalism. This changing circumstances changed the interests of the ruling class (indeed, to a great extent it changed the very personnel of the ruling classes as aristocrat was replaced by industrialist) as they needed to increasingly exploit workers to extract profits.

But this process didn't automatically create a working class, other than in the simplest of senses that it produced workers in factories, workplaces and elsewhere. What Thompson is trying to understand is the growth of workers and their self-conscious identity as such, compared to the other classes and interests in society. To do this Thompson documents the struggles of people to resist changes to their lives. To pick a random example, Thompson looks extensively at the Luddite movement.

The Luddites are often picked as representing some group of anti-technological, backward looking rebels. They'd rather wreck-machines than be part of a forward moving society. Yet the Luddities held the sympathies of the majority of people in the villages and towns that they came from - the organisation, Thompson tells us, was in "Nottingham and Yorkshire... so opaque that it resisted all penetration". The Luddities, rather than looking backward were resisting the imposition of machinery that would  destroy their lives. In many cases they were happy to accept new technology, so long as those who lost out were compensated and looked after, rather than being left to starve.

Thompson says "Luddism must be seen as arising at the crisis-point in the abrogation of paternalist legislation, and in the imposition of the political economy of laissez faire upon, and against the will and conscience of, the working people."

It is this sense of the imposition of new forms of capitalist organisation upon a people that dominates the book. What also repeatadly comes through is the resistance. In particular the methods of organisation used over decades by those at the bottom of society to try and fight for their own interests, or retain existing rights. Thompson shows how the ruling class was in fear of insurrection and terrified of working class organisation. Whether its the Corresponding societies or debating clubs, or nascent trade unions, the establishment tried to penetrate, destroy, murder and lock-up those who organised. Some of the most interesting parts of the book are those were Thompson describes the extent to which the government introduced spies to seek out insurrection and how those spies helped create an atmosphere of imminent revolution in order to justify their own existence.

The brutality of repression is here too. The massacre at Peterloo, the hanging of those who organised, the transportation of those who dared to speak out, or sell radical literature, or called for the vote. But a system that uses violence in this way cannot continue forever and reform did come eventually, but in a way that helped inspire further revolt.

Thompson finishes the book on the eve of great industrial revolts. By the 1830s the working class had, through the struggles, defeats, betrayals and victories become a class "for itself", increasingly understanding it's position in society and that of its rulers and beginning to grasp towards an alternative way of organising. This is the time of the Utopian socialists, men like Robert Owen  who had not yet come to a full understanding of the need to replace capitalism, but who had created the basis for a set of ideas that could do so.

The Making of the English Working Class will continue to be debated by historians. Even for those who disagree, it's scholarship and clarity should be a marker for other history writing. But with this work, perhaps more than any other in British social-history, Thompson laid the basis for an understanding of were those who struggle for freedom and justice today come from.

The men and women in these pages, from Colonel Despard and Tom Paine, to the unnamed pamphleteers and bill-posters, to those who drilled with pretend pikes high on the moors, believing that their day was coming, should never be forgotten. Their dream of a better world, is also ours.

Related Reviews

Thompson - Customs in Common

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Richard Overy - 1939 Countdown to War

The processes that led to the start of the Second World War are ones that have been examined and debated enormously. The battle lines in this debate were set out even before the war ended - Richard Overy points out that the historian Sir Llewellyn Woodward was asked to write an "official survey of British foreign policy before the outbreak of war" later on in the conflict. Woodward seems to have been keen that the British version of events won through.

But what exactly was the British version of events was has been open to question. The Prime Minister of the time, Neville Chamberlain has gone down in recent interpretation as a weak willed politician. Desperate to avoid peace and unwilling to confront Hitler.

In this short, accessible work, Richard Overy argues that Chamberlain and a wider layer of people around him had a much clearer and more subtle analysis of the situation. Chamberlain he argues may have wanted to avoid war, but was in the end committed to a position that meant that Germany's attack on Poland would inevitably trigger war. Chamberlain didn't enter this situation blindfold, but he and those around him clearly thought Hitler would avoid conflict in the face of Britain and France's determined support for Poland.

In turn, Hitler clearly did not believe that Britain and France would honour their commitment. Overy quotes Hitler's chief press officer noting that it was "plain to see how stunned he [Hitler] was". He supports the view that Hitler really had no idea of the scale of what was being unleashed. Certainly elements of the German high-command were surprised by the declaration of war. But they also clearly thought that it meant practically nothing, and that full scale war would be avoided after a short period.

So what was the motivating force for Hitler's decision to attack Poland. This was no whim. Plans were laid in detail and a strategy involving the destruction of the Polish leadership, it's Jewish population and those forces opposed to Fascism were organised well in advance. The basis for the Race War in Eastern Europe was begun with the first shots. Overy argues that Hitler wanted a short "local" war, that would cement his position as a military leader, and "open the way for the eventual confrontation with Stalin's Soviet Union".

Overy argues against those who portray Hitler as always having a desire for world domination. His position is more plausible. It stems from some of the central ideological tenets of Nazism - the need to eradicate the "sub-human" peoples of the East, to challenge "Bolshevism" and to create "living-space" for the German people. War with the western countries would not have been on Hitler's mind. His surprise is understandable.

But this book lacks some of this analysis. In fact Overy almost has a mechanical explanation of events. So in the opening chapter he writes;

"Above all it was Poland's intransigent refusal to make any concessions to its powerful German neighbour that made war almost certain".

What concessions could Poland have realistically made that would have contained or prevented the basis for Hitler's rise to power? Events in Czechoslovakia had already shown that giving into small demands from the Nazis had only resulted in greater ones. And would it be right for Poland to given into the Imperialistic ambitions of their more "powerful German neighbour", couched in the language of racism as they were?

The author himself argues this later when he explains that Hitler's planned war "would destroy the Polish state" and had "an agenda drawn not from diplomacy or military strategy, but from the racial priorities of the regime". Giving into this sort of bully would hardly lead to peace.

Despite the major irritation I feel at the blame being laid for war and the feet of Poland, this is a useful and interesting book that clarifies a fast moving and complicated moment of history. Neville Chamberlain comes across as having a more rounded and complex analysis of events than he is usually portrayed with, and this in itself is more useful to understanding the beginnings of the war.

Related Reviews

Overy - Russia's War

Friday, April 01, 2011

Iain M. Banks - Surface Detail

Iain M Banks' latest culture novels is somewhat of a return to form, though it still suffers somewhat from the bloated feel of his more recent SF novels.

At the heart of this novel is the concept of virtual hells. Sufficiently advanced civilisations, Banks postulates, could create virtual environments for minds to be introduced to. If you wanted to, you could introduce them to a horrific environment, that would, for the person subjected to the horrors of hell, be indistinguishable from reality. Whether or not this is an acceptable activity for civilisations to do is something that divides the galaxy. The Culture, Banks' is enormous, anarcho-communist civilisation is opposed to such hells, and is fighting a simulated war. The outcome of this war will determine whether or not virtual hells can continue.

Now Banks adds into this mix his usual complitcated (and slightly bloated) list of characters. Some of them are inside hell. Some of them are fighting wars to stop or keep hells. Some of them are bloated industrialists living from the fat of their exploitation of people, and the existing system.

There is much here for Banks to play with, and he does so well. One character escapes from a virtual hell and then uses his knowledge to identify and expose what is going on, quite literarily under the surface of society. He is hailed a hero by some but encounters bribery (and worse) from those politicians who owe a certain amount of their political and financial security to the existence of torture and suffering.

The virtual battle against Hell threatens to break out into reality and this combines with powerful interests amongst some of those civilisations who have not yet become part of the Culture, but want a piece of the economic action.

This is not the easiest book to start the culture series from - it has many references and potential links to earlier novels. While it is also long and complicated, it is much slicker than some of Banks' more recent Science Fiction. If you have enjoyed all or part of the earlier Culture novels, than this is worth reading, particularly if you like the spaceship Minds.