Sunday, July 29, 2012

Stephen King - Wolves of the Calla

As Stephen King's Dark Tower series progresses, the books seem to take on more of a set piece nature. Rather than feeling like part of an ongoing quest, they appear more like a series of episodes, rather like a soap opera. This is disappointing, because one of the attractive things about the Dark Tower series was the feeling that discovering the true nature of Roland's quest was part of the quest itself. This book, Wolves of the Calla and the previous one Wizard and Glass feel more like self contained adventures that King has squeezed into the wider story-arc.

Nonetheless the book itself works well, as King's writing is tight and enjoyable. In Wolves he is explicitly paying homage to a host of Westerns, fitting in with the wider themes of the series itself. Here, Roland and his ka'tet are protecting a small township, which similarly to that in the Magnificant Seven, is underthreat from a repeated raids by outsiders who steal their children. The children are returned some time later, genetically altered, but having lost their minds. The tragedy is repeated over decades and this time, several of the villagers decide to make a stand.

The best parts of the novel are those that deal with the inter-personal dynamics of the villagers. Those that want to fight, those that see fighting as doomed and those that see any resistance as bringing further tragedy on the village. Indeed one of the most satisfying themes centres on the villager that betrays his friends. The way that King deals with the conclusion to this minor sub-plot is pure storytelling genius. On the other hand King tries to shoe in too much in places and it all gets a little self-referential towards the end. This is epitomised by a very strange Harry Potter reference.

While not the best of the Dark Tower series, Wolves is a must read for those following Roland's exploits. With only two of the novels left I hope that the novels return to the excellence of the earlier books.

Related Reviews

King - Under the Dome
King - The Gunslinger
King - The Drawing of the Three
King - Wizard and Glass
King - The Wastelands
King - Song of Susannah

Friday, July 27, 2012

Francis Pryor - Farmers in Prehistoric Britain

Much of what is known about early, or ancient farming is the subject of informed conjecture. Because anthropologists have been able to study contemporary communities, the lives of pre-agricultural hunter-gatherer societies is fairly well understood, at least in generalities. But because agricultural communities have, over time, developed or adopted improved techniques and technologies, we don't necessarily understand much about how the earliest farmers lived and worked the land. Indeed as Francis Pryor points out farming may have been through various historical stages, it is also very much dependent on the landscape and area in which it is practised. Farming on the British Isles, off the coast of Western Europe in 3500 BCE was very different to farming life in the fertile crescent when wheat was first domesticated.

Farmers in Prehistoric Britain is a short, but important work that tries to understand a small part of ancient farming history. Pryor concentrates on the areas of his expertise, in particular the Flag Fen site near Peterbourgh which Pryor has been the principle excavator and publicist for over the years. Perhaps uniquely for archaeologists, Pryor is also a practising farmer. Since his early work at Flag Fen he has refined his understanding of ancient agriculture, because he has learnt how to breed sheep and cattle. His life in a farming community has produced insights into the way that agriculture could have been.

This doesn't always follow. For instance, being an astronomer in the 21st century does not necessarily give an insight into the life of Galileo contemplating the heavens under a regime that was noted for disliking heresy. Farming is different in many ways, as despite technological advances, insights into the behaviour of (say) sheep when confronted by a sheepdog for the first time, are likely to be similar to those for ancient shepherds. In a couple of cases here, Pryor describes how he only recognised certain features of Bronze Age farms as a result of his own use of drove-ways to separate sheep as part of the annual cycle of the farm.

Much of what Pryor argues about the practise and life of ancient farmers is linked with his wider themes, that appear in most of his other books, of ancient ritual landscapes. These he argues mean that ancient people considered themselves part of a much wider use of land and Pryor extends this analogy to some of the buildings and sites he discusses – a separation existed between (say) locations devoted to life and burial, but they were intimately linked.

The nascent nature of agricultural remains is a significant problem for those studying ancient agriculture. Pryor spends sometime explaining why hedges don't leave traces for instance, and so much of this book is devoted to some detailed discussion of the practice of archaeology in this context. I found some of this a little complicated, but readers who work in the field will no doubt find it useful and illuminating.

I want to finish this review by quoting a couple of the conclusions of the book, because they are quite amazing. Firstly, Pryor argues that livestock farming was the “dominant form of farming in Britain between, say, 4500 and 600 BC”. This is important because most people when discussing agriculture probably imagine fields of wheat. Pryor is at pains to point out that this was unlikely, despite “intensive” farming, the production of foods (at least in the British Isles until the Iron Age) such as wheat was likely to have been done on small plots. Cattle and sheep rearing was the large scale agriculture of this era of British farming. For instance, he argues that the agricultural visible parts of Flag Fen supported a population of 2000-3000 sheep. This is large scale farming, that needed (and could support) a big human population, as well as a wider infrastructure to use and distribute the wool, hides and meat.

The “millennium or so of intensive livestock farming in large parts of lowland Britain” described by Pryor lead to a “Bronze Age bonanza”. Overtime, population increases and the gradual improvement of farm techniques meant that eventually, the “population of animals suddenly passed a critical threshold and it became necessary to parcel-up the landscape more formally”. This began a very different era of farming and society for Bronze Age people. Over the millennia described here, the countryside of England was transformed. From a wooded landscape to a artificial one, hunter-gatherer, neolithic and Bronze Age men and women fundamentally altered and started to create the world we live in today. Pryor's book is a good introduction to these changes and the mechanics of how ancient farmers albeit in a small part of the world, may well have practiced their daily lives.

Note that this book is out of print, but can be found in various second hand sources. Parts of it are explored in more detail in several of Pryor's other works. I'd particularly recommend Britain BC and Seahenge for this and other material.

Related Reviews

Monday, July 23, 2012

Nick Davies - Flat Earth News

In 2001 I was in Genoa, Italy for anti-capitalist protests against the G8. These were marked by extremely violent attacks by the Italian police on protesters. In one of these, a young anarchist activist called Carlo Giuliani was shot dead by an Italian policeman. As a result of this,, the next day saw Genoa swamped by enormous protests. I was one of the press contacts for a British anti-capitalist group in Genoa and I did a number of interviews with the British press. During the course of the day, as it looked that there might be further clashes between police and protesters, I was asked to do regular interviews for a 24 hour news channel. The problem was, I was told by a journalist on the phone from London, that the news organisation had no journalists in Italy. They had been cut to save money.

Similar stories about the changes to the international, but particularly the British media, are a running theme through Nick Davies' book. He charts the decline of journalism and locates the problems not with individual journalists, most of whom he points out are hard-working, underpaid and over-worked. Rather, Nick Davies argues that the systemic changes to the media since the Second World War, and specifically since the 1980s are the root causes. These lie with what Davies describes as a “grocer” mentality, the notion that the sole purpose of the media is to make the maximum possible profits. In order to do this, media workers are increasingly pressured to produce the maximum number of stories, in the shortest possible time with decreasing numbers of staff and resources.

This would be bad enough and Davies demonstrates particularly by looking at local British newspapers, the way that staff are unable to do more than regurgitate press-releases and rehash stories from other media sources. Often this is done by staff without proper training, payment or experienced colleagues. However the problem is exacerbated Davies argues, by new industries that systematically distort stories and shape the news agenda.

The old model, where news editors and reporters selected stories and angles, is in a state of collapse. We have seen how the structure of corporate news has converted journalists from active news-gatherers to passive processors of material – only 12% of which could be shown to be free of the mark of wire agencies and PR consultants.”

These arguments are backed up by some impressive studies, where Davies' researchers systematically analysed newspapers stories and matched them up with press-releases and other coverage. A truly depressing picture of the state of British media is painted. The limitations are further shown, by a shocking figure that Davies highlights, the amount of news reported by Google News. Google News it should be remembered, is not a news agency, it aggregates, or reports the sources of other news outlets – from the BBC and The Guardian, to Socialist Worker. In one day in 2006, Google News offered “access” to some 14,000 stories, “yet on this day they were actually accounts of the same 24 news events”.

While large sections of this book are devoted to exposing the practises of PR agencies and so on, large sections are devoted to a couple of major news events. One of these, the build up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was, as part of the “War on Terror” and the events of September 11th 2001, probably one of the biggest news stories of the last twenty years. It was also an enormously manipulated story. Everyone from governments to intelligence agencies was involved in creating a story that justified and encouraged the attack on Iraq. In Britain, Tony Blair's government played a particularly shady role in first supporting the US government but then attempting to manipulate public opinion though a series of lies, half-truths and cover-ups. 

They were aided in this, by a number of over-friendly senior figures in the news industry. Davies studies in particular the career during this period of Kamal Ahmed, the political editor of The Observer a newspaper with a previous reputation as left-wing, which had in the past been happy to critique government policy and challenge the status-quo. Instead, despite the reservations (and anti-war position) of many of the journalists, the paper took a pro-war position. This meant that stories against the war, or in one case a serious work of investigative journalism that showed through interviews with senior US intelligence officers that the “Weapons of Mass Destruction” did not exist, were spiked. Links between senior news figures and Downing Street meant that such criticism was hidden at the first hurdle.

Davies shows how changes at newspapers such as reduced numbers of staff and resources mean that journalists are less able or less willing to check facts and stories. In an era of 24 hour news reporting this reduces the ability of the news rooms to find information, simply regurgitating existing stories, or stories that appear to come from reliable sources (such as the Press Association). But it also encourages the journalists themselves to fit a particular political agenda. In this sense news stories are less about explaining a particular situation and more about pushing a “line”. This can mean that work from journalists is distorted or re-written to reflect a certain existing viewpoint. As Davies comments about the Sunday Telegraph (in particular its Insight Team):

When the Insight Team were tasked to look at immigration and asylum, they found that it was true as right-wingers had alleged, that the asylum process was in chaos; but they also found impressive evidence that immigration was good for the country. They were allowed to only write the first part of the story.”

Nick Davies argues convincingly that a key problem is what he calls Flat Earth News. These are the stories that “everyone” knows to be true – immigration is bad, policemen are mostly good, the Iraq War was about ending the terrorist threat and so on. Pressure to conform to these existing ideas limits media investigation and critique.

The structural changes to the media that Nick Davies highlights are part of wider social transformations. The beginnings of the break up of the media, reductions in staffing levels and the switch to stories that would maximise sales of newspapers coincide with the era of neo-liberalism. Many of the stories told in this book have their roots in Margaret Thatchers first government, with its attacks on the power of the unions and the beginnings of the destruction of the welfare state. The same forces were at work in the media industry and the friendship of individuals like Rupert Murdoch with governments since then have accelerated this. This is not a process that is limited to the low-end mass market tabloids either, as Davies comments while discussing the activities of newspapers like The News of the World whose journalists routinely broke the law in pursuit of a story;

Ever so often, one of these stunts would break out into the public domain. The tabloids would deny everything and the post papers would look straight down their noses and write slightly smug, slightly amused pieces about those wild and whacky red-top chaps and their dodgy ways, as if this sort of activity was something entirely alien to them. The truth is, that by the mid-1990s the posh papers were bang at it too – because they were suffering from exactly the same commercial pressures which had corrupted their tabloid colleagues.”

Nick Davies finishes this book on a less than optimistic note. He clearly believes that the era of proper journalism and genuine media is at an end. In part he hopes (with some justification) that the internet can undermine this, but he clearly thinks that the forces of the market have finally destroyed the golden age of the journalist. While the picture painted of the media in Flat Earth News is very depressing, I think that part of the solution lies in ordinary people taking control of their own lives. This might seem far-fetched, but in Greece in the midst of the struggles against austerity, some journalists have taken over their newspaper and written what might be called proper news. On a smaller scale part of an answer must surly lie in the rebuilding of workers organisations at the newspapers, in order to give journalists an opportunity through collective action to stand up to the bullies and editorial lines forced upon them.

Despite this minor disagreement I heartedly encourage people to read this book. Its expose of the realities of the modern media will be eye-opening to everyone, even those who are already deeply cynical about the press. For those of us who have campaigned over the last few decades against war and racism, many of the stories from the news-rooms inside will explain why what we rarely made the headlines. And, for all those who despise the Daily Mail Nick Davies explains the real reasons for its relentless right-wing, scapegoating politics and the lies in its stories (as well as some accounts of its shocking internal racism). Ultimately, the problem with the media lies in a political and economic system that is filled with fear of ordinary people, that needs to divide and rule and which is driven by a hunt for profits at the expense of all else. Nick Davies' book is an extraordinarily fascinating insight into a small, but very very influential part of that world.

Related Reviews

Friday, July 20, 2012

Aubrey Burl - Stonehenge

Aubrey Burl is one of the world's experts on stone circles, and that he has a encyclopedic knowledge of the sites, locations, history and documents of these ancient monuments is clear throughout this book. While aimed at the layman, or the person interested in Britain's most recognisable monument, the book is teeming with detail that will allow the reader to develop their interests further, and probably forms a useful starting point for the professional wanting to get to grips with the subject. This should make for a very interesting book, but unfortunately it turns out that Stonehenge is actually rather difficult to read and in places could put the less enthused reader off. But lets start with some of the history covered by Burl's work.

Stone circles are a very important part of ancient history. Our ancestors built rather a lot of these circles, around 1300 Burl says. They stretch from the enormous Stonehenge to smaller circles the length and breadth of the British Isles. These cannot be separated, either in time, or in design from sites in Northern France and Burl draws out the links, arguing convincingly that there was a clear interchange of ideas and experiences amongst the peoples of the time. As an aside, I was also particularly interested read about the miniature "rectangles and triangles" that pop up in the south-west of England, on a rather different scale to the massive central stones of Salisbury plain; Burl tells us that triangles of stones on Exmoor (he names at least four sites) have "midget stones camouflaged like winter-white stoats peeping from long grass".

One of the central themes of Burl's book is the longevity of Stonehenge. By this I mean not just that it has stood (and gradually fallen into disrepair) for thousands of years, but that the history of the site is many hundreds of years old. Burl shows how the site became first sacred in Mesolithic times, with four wooden pillars (sited where today's visitor's car park is) this, over many generations seems to have attracted generations of builders who erected a variety of cursuses, barrows, banked ditches and stone circles of various types. Burl is overly contemptuous of visitors who only gaze at the enormous stones and ignore the smaller markings that record the location of these far older, and perhaps more significant bits of Stonehenges' history. On my last visit to Stonehenge I was impressed though to find that the visitors guides did point out many of these features, and I fear the author is a little more churlish than he should be.

Burl examines many of the "theories" and "myths" of Stonehenge. He looks at the arguments about whether it was an observatory to predict eclipses (and debunks them well in my opinion) he argues that the circle (and others around the country) would have lined up stones with important events, like the midsummer sun, but were based on careful measurement, rather than an attempt to predict the future. He also argues, again very convincingly, that the Sarsen stones must have arrived at Salisbury plain by glacial action, rather than the long distance work that would have been required to get the stones there from the mountains of Wales. Here he is at his most polemic, arguing that it would have been illogical to take the stones such great distances without first reducing them to appropriate sizes. Whether we can see into the ancient person's mind as accurately as this, and knowing that religious activity is often not rational, I am less convinced by this aspect of Burl's argument as by him pointing out precisely how difficult and dangerous the journey would be.

But there are problems with this book. It feels disjointed and a little repetitive in places. While Burl has used described the story of Stonehenge in chronological order (though he does begin with attempts to understand it from early on) the story skips back and forth a little, and I found it difficult to understand at times which bits of the site were being described. Burl's writing is a strange mix of scientific argument and literary quotations. At times he includes long lists of archaeological writings. For example, on page 284, Burl writes; "Many Stonehenge students favoured a standing Altar stone - Charleton (1663), pp32, 52, and much later Hawkins (1966), p56; Atkinson (1979), p57; Richards (1991), p61...." he continues to list a further nine page references. This is just academic posturing and while no-doubt interesting to the expert, will only put off the casual reader. It would have been better put in a foot note (perhaps Burl needs a different editor) and given that on the same page, there is a further list of those who supported a "supine" Altar student, it doesn't leave me really wanting to recommend a book that has many interesting parts to it.

Finally, a note on language. Burl favours a flowery prose but at times it is inaccessible; "the feasting had been prolonged and epicurean". Why not say "they feasted extensively on their best food"? No wonder people think that historical experts can be lofty, or live in ivory towers unable to talk to the masses.

If you are a serious student of archaeology and stone circles, Aubrey Burl's book is probably a must read. If you want a introduction to the subject that doesn't talk down to the reader and makes it easier to understand the monument in its landscape I would start with Francis Pryor's book Britain BC.

Related Reviews

Pryor - Britain BC
Hill - Stonehenge (Wonders of the World series) 
Burrow - Shadowland

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Mick Farren - Vickers

Also known as Cor*pse this Mick Farren science fiction novel is fairly standard fare. There is little new unfortunately, which is disappointing because Farren can be an extremely talented writer (I think his novel Phiad the Gambler is superb for instance). The titular character, Vickers is a hired murderer. Through some confused mechanism he is allowed to assassinate for money on behalf of enormously powerful multinationals. Early on in the text we read that he also enjoys prostitutes and watching sex videos.

I mention this for two reasons. The first is that there is a large proportion of science fiction publishing which thinks that people will only read such novels if all the heroes have large guns and have lots of sex. The sex doesn't even need to be described, merely alluded too. The fact that Vickers spends much of the novel in an enormous underground bunker, with a ratio of 5 to one in favour of the female sex (all of whom have been selected for their attractiveness) doesn't help this.

The second reason is that rather oddly, this novel is one of those were the author failed to predict much in the way of future technologies. The novels set in the not too distant future (first published in 1986) but failed to predict the digital era - sex videos for Christ's sake, even in the 1980s people imagined holograms.

Anyway this book is crap. Don't read it. I only include it here for the sake of the completeness of the record.

Related Reviews (other crap SF)

Wilson - Darwinia 
Stross - Saturn's Children

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Bob Dent - Hungary 1930 and the forgotten history of a mass protest

The history of working class struggles are rarely recorded and frequently are written out of mainstream history altogether. It rarely suits the needs of the ruling class to record in detail the trials of working people fighting to improve their conditions and win rights.

Bob Dent's new book is an attempt to rectify one of these omissions. Unusually, he concentrates on the events of a single day in Hungarian history, a mass protest that took place on 1st September 1930. The demonstration itself is the core of the book and Dent has raided the archives of contemporary newspapers, police reports and memoires to build up a picture of what happened. However the author has also put the demonstration into the wider context of Hungarian history and most interestingly he then demonstrates the way that the events themselves become the tools of Hungarian rulers over the next decades.

By 1930 Hungary, like most of the world, was in the grip of economic crisis. Rising unemployment and falling wages were the norm. The demonstration on 1st September was not the only event to protest this. Dent documents a number of large strikes and smaller protests. Indeed, Dent describes the period from January to September 1930 as "eight hot months". But the Hungarian government was ruthlessly opposed to giving working class organisations more opportunities to protest, and they certainly weren't giving to generous aid for the unemployed and poor.

The demonstration that is the centrepiece of this book was called by the Social Democratic Party (SDP). The SDP was a significant organisation with a number of daily newspapers and several MPs, though it was thoroughly reformist and while prepared to urge action by workers this was mostly to strengthen its own hand in parliament. In February 1930 for instance the organisations newspaper Népszava urged "Rise up comrades for the struggle! Long live social democracy", but as Dent points out "all that was being proposed was that in the next few days SDP members of parliament would make a concerted effort to raise questions in parliament concerning the unemployment situation".

Nonetheless, the SDP did call the demonstration on 1st September. Under the slogan "Work and Bread" everyone was amazed at a turnout that may have been 100,000 people. The authorities were concerned about the potential for trouble and tried to ban the march which meant that the SDP urged supporters to walk on the pavements so as to avoid provoking the police.

The Hungarian police were not afraid to use extreme violence against workers and the unemployed. The 1st September was no exception and it seems likely that senior officers were waiting for the right opportunity. Veteran protesters reading this will not be surprised that the accounts in the mainstream press of the protest that Dent has unearthed, differ widely from the experience of those taking part and of the left newspapers. Népszava described the protest as "The great battle between bread and the police sword" but argued that the trouble was caused by "a few Bolsheviks" provoking the police. This seems unlikely as according to Dent membership of the Hungarian Communist Party despite the revolutionary period in the immediate aftermath of World War I, had fallen to a small rump. Repression and disillusionment with the Soviet Union meant that only a few hundred people were members. The CP were in no position to influence the demonstration as the police, the SDP and later official Communist historians were to claim.

The repression was brutal. Swords and revolvers wounded many and one young man, János Darnyik, was killed by a bullet. Dent examines the little we know about Darnyik, showing again how his death and his family were exploited by later Communist governments to bolster their own positions and re-write history.

The concluding chapter puts the demonstration into the context of Hungary's history since 1930. In particular it discusses the re-writing of history that took place. Later Communist governments were keen to link their organisation to the demonstration, at various times claiming Darnyik as one of their own members and arguing that without Communist Party members the protests would never have taken on the militancy that they did. Because Dent puts events in the context of the times; it is clear that the size of the demonstration and any workers militancy arose, not from the small CP, but rather from the reality of poverty, hunger and unemployment. While the SDP wanted to use the protest to strengthen their hand in parliament, from their point of view there was always the risk that things would get out of hand.

Sadly it doesn't seem that the protest led to a further strengthening of workers' confidence to fight the economic conditions. Dent shows how the CP too failed to grow, despite excellent objective circumstances, due to their sectarian politics that claimed that the social democrats were as bad as fascists. This is very similar to problems experienced in the 1930s by the American CP (see my review of Fightback here). Sadly within a few years far-right and fascist organisations grew in Hungary and eventually a deal was reached with Hitler that drew the country into war. It is notable though that workers did fight, even into the 1940s when Hungary was still neutral but no movement developed strong enough to stop Hungary entering the war.

Bob Dent's short book is a good introduction to a forgotten period of working class history. It is also a good primer for the history of a country that few people in Britain will know. I hope that it is read widely, particularly in Hungary where the far-right continue to make gains today to remind people of the brave history of the workers' movement.

Related Reviews

Friday, July 13, 2012

John Newsinger - Fighting Back: The American Working Class in the 1930s

"By the end of the week all the Funsten plants were closed and the strike had spread to the Liberty Nut Company and the Central Pecan Company. In the course of the strike over 100 women were arrested and there were some violent clashes on the picket lines. Carrie Smith, one of the strike leaders and a deeply religious woman, addressed a strike meeting holding a Bible in one hand and a brick in the other. She believed both were necessary to win."

The story of the American working class in the 1930s is an extraordinary tale of mass resistance in the face of violence, racism, cowardly leadership and governments prepared to overlook the murder of trade unionists, socialists and activists in the interest of protecting capitalism. John Newsinger's new book is a detailed and inspiring account of the period that should be read extensively by trade unionists across the world. In its exploration of working class struggles, the need for rank and file action, the power of the "sit in" or "workplace occupation" and his discussion of the role of trade union "leaders" and bureaucracies, there is a wealth of material here to help us today, in our struggles against austerity.

Newsinger begins with the "catastrophe" that was the Great Depression. The Depression destroyed living standards across America, forced millions into unemployment, short term and poverty wages. Many companies went to the wall, profits dropped dramatically. In Europe this lead to war and fascism, as Newsinger points out, the greatest workers movement in history, that of the German working class was defeated with Hitler's rise to power in 1933. The odds were against US workers. The 1920s had been a period of defeat, the ruling class had carefully exploited anti-red propaganda and companies spent fortunes on powerful, private armies. Murder, beatings and lynchings were not uncommon for those trying to unionise workplaces. Even those who were simply members of a union, or talked of its importance could find themselves exposed by company spies, and on the dole within minutes.

The workers' position was further weakened by the ineffectual leadership of American trade unionism. In particular, the American Federation of Labour (AFL) we more concerned with sweetheart deals and keeping a leadership mired in corruption than fighting the workers corner. Their fear of militants, socialists and communists meant that they often sided with the bosses rather than their members.

In the early 1930s, a series of major victories changed the picture. In one inspiring chapter Newsinger tells the stories of the Toledo, Minneapolis and San Francisco, whose workers fought and defeated anti-union companies. Through meticulous organisation, innovated strike methods and solidarity that meant everyone, from wives and children of strikers were involved, they broke the log-jam that was the anti-union shop in massive workplaces. This wasn't easy. In 1934, in Minneapolis, the Governor, a supposed New Deal democrat deployed 4000 National Guards. But the leadership and rank and file of the strike turned this Teamster's dispute with the management of coal yards and other workplaces into a class conflict that placed the future of the workers in the city at the heart of the dispute. Workers responded magnificently.

"The Cooks and Waiters Union sent experts in mass cooking and serving to help organise things and train the volunteer help. Working in two 12-hour shifts over 100 volunteers served 4000 to 5000 people daily".

But what won the dispute and union recognition was more than such sympathy solidarity. Pickets were militant and organised. Phone networks and roving pickets located scab lorries and, where necessary, physically confronted them to stop the strike breaking. In a time when employers would routinely use members of the KKK or provide machine-guns to company goons, no one should be shy of defending such violence. Though notably, the strikers avoided violence when they could. Nonetheless, much of the strikes of the 1930s involved weaponry on a scale that those of us who've been active in the union movement in Europe for the last decade can only imagine. Newsinger's book contains many lists of names of martyrs and victims of the repression. Those names are remembered in forgotten pamphlets and books, rarely are they officially acknowledged by the US mainstream.

Today, many official histories of this period of US history talk of President Roosevelt as being a liberal champion of the oppressed. Newsinger shows how Roosevelt was actually a clear class fighter, a man who sided with the bosses and hated the unions. His attempts to protect capitalism by making small reforms helped open the door to workers fighting for change, but he was a friend of big-business and despite his "liberalism" and apparent dislike of oppression he continued to describe them as "niggers" in private, and refused to support laws banning lynching.

Racism was and is a central feature of US society. Many of the disputes described by Newsinger brought together black and white workers in struggle for the first time. This wasn't always easy, given the levels of popular racism, but often the experience of struggle overcame the differences. As one worker said about a particularly brutal attack on a demonstration "I'd seen them beat black women, but this was the first time in my life I'd seen them beat white women with sticks." The description that opens this review is from a strike that started amongst 800 black women workers who were then joined by several hundred white women.

Towards the mid 1930s, Roosevelt knew that he had to tack left to maintain the Presidency, incurred wrath of big-business and the right, but till his last days he hoped he would be remembered as "The Last Champion of Capitalism". He firmly believed that the New Deal, by blunting militancy had helped  avert revolution and saved American capitalism.

At the heart of Newsingers' book is the story of the 1937 "sit in" strikes. These were lead by a new union movement, the CIO which was lead by John Lewis. Lewis was no socialist, but understood that if the US union movement was to avoid all out destruction it had to give a head to the rank and file. He spoke left wing, employed Communists and Socialists as organisers and give the go ahead to rank and file mass militancy. It had enormous successes, "In 1933 the United Mineworkers had only seven members in West Virginia; a year later they had 100,000". CIO activists were at the heart of the sit downs in car plants in Detroit that destroyed the automobile company's anti-union positions. These were pitched battles, one involved catapults and burning oil being deployed against machine guns and tear gas.

The success of the sit-down lead to near insurrections movements in some cities. Workers in Woolworths, hotels as well as industrial plants found that mass action could win pay rises and recognition. The CIO was happy to lead this, but when the "alternative was escalating class war" they backed down. In several cases, even the CIO was more fearful of losing control than allowing workers to win through.

One of the points that Newsinger makes is that rank and file action wins, but leadership matters too. Many of the most important leaders in the 1930s were radicals, socialists, communists, trotskyists and anarchists. Without these, individuals who had some sort of understanding of capitalism, the role of Roosevelt and the union bureaucracy and were able to win arguments with their fellow workers, many of the victories would have been defeats.

I don't have time to go into the role of the Communist Party here. But Newsinger's book is an excellent introduction to an organisation of militants that were some of the most principled fighters in US working class history, but were part of a flawed organisation that was tied hard to the line of Stalin. The shifts and turns of the Soviet Union in the 1930s undermined the confidence and ability to organise of some of the best militants. But this is not to negate the role of many individual CPers, who from their defence of black people against racism, to their opposition to lynchings were not afraid to be seen standing by the underdog. Sadly, the CP towards the end of the 1930s was determined, make even closer friends with the union leadership, rather than the rank and file. This even lead to them repudiating wild cat strikes and attacking militants.

Newsinger packs and enormous quantity into this book. The defeats and victories of ordinary workers in the 1930s, as well as the roles (positive and negative) of militants and revolutionaries remain enormously important. Despite seeming to be from a forgotten era, there isn't a trade unionist or socialist anywhere in the world that won't gain something from this important book. I urge you to buy it, read it and pass it round your work mates. It'll help build the confident, organised movement that we need.

Related Reviews

Newsinger - The Blood Never Dried
Newsinger - The Dredd Phenomena: Comics and Contemporary Society

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Gitta Sereny - Into That Darkness: From Mercy Killing to Mass Murder

Gitta Sereny's book on the life of Albert Speer is one of the best biographies I've read. Meticulously detailed, researched and challenging to subject and reader it deserves to be read by everyone interested in the Second World War and the causes of the Holocaust.

Into That Darkness is an earlier work of hers. Her subject in this case, Franz Stangl, was the commander at the Treblinka Death Camp, were up to 900,000 Jews and an undetermined number of Gypsies were murdered. Unlike the case of Speer though, Stangl is not as fascinating character, while clearly a deeply troubled individual, he was not the gleeful and unrepentant killer like Eichmann. Nor was he a senior figure in the regime, close to other leading Nazis, with personal acquaintances like Hitler.

As a result, this study of Stangl is an attempt to grapple with a question that has been the subject for intense debate amongst historians of the Holocaust. How did seemingly "ordinary men", become the perpetrators of such appalling acts of violence. In Stangl's case it seems that rather than him being a particularly virulent anti-semite before the rise of Hitler, or even an enthusiastic sympathiser of the Nazi Party (he did retrospectively join the organisation and give up his faith) when the Nazis invaded his Austrian homeland, he was a fairly ordinary police officer who rose to the top of his organisation precisely because he was able to administer and organise the Death Camps, while ignoring events around him.

At the same time, the book is also the story of those who went to the gas chambers in Treblinka, and those who fought back, in particular the mass uprising that eventually forced the camp to close.

The parts of the book where Sereny explains and documents the industrial slaughter that took place at the two camps organised by Stangl (he was at Sobibor before he was redeployed to Treblinka) can only be described as horrible. But  equally appalling are those were she discusses the slaughter with Stangl, who is dispassionately removed from the murder. On his arrival at Treblinka he is more concerned and appalled by the disorganisation, rather than the realisation that mass murder is taking place.

Survivors from Treblinka differ in their accounts of his involvement in murder. Most seem to think that he limited himself to organisation matters, rarely talking to those arriving in the transports. At least one eyewitness claimed that Stangl (who always met each new train, immaculately dressed in a white riding suite) carried a whip, like many of the most brutal of guards.

Stangl's inability to feel remorse is notable throughout Sereny's interview, which took place. Here for instance is his own, dispassionate account of a camp worker (Blau) who approached him trying to save a relative.

"There was one day when [Blau] knocked at the door of my office... and asked permission to speak to me. He looked very worried. I said, 'Of course Blau, come on in. What's worrying you?' He said it was his eighty-year-old father; he'd arrived on that morning's transport. Was there anything I could do. I said, 'Really, Blau, you must understand it's impossible. A man of eighty...' He said quickly that he understood of course. But could he ask me for permission to take his father to the Lazarett rather than the gas chambers. And could he take his father first to the kitchen and give him a meal. I said, 'You go and do what you think best, Blau. Officially I don't know anything, but unofficially you can tell the Kapo I said it was all right.' In the afternoon, when I came back to my office, he was waiting for me. He had tears in his eyes. He stood to attention and said, '... I want to thank you. I gave my father a meal. And I've just taken him to the Lazarett - it's all over. Thank you very much.' I said, 'Well Blau, there's no need to thank me, but of course if you want to thank me, you may.'"

Blau, it should be noted was an informer, one of a number of Jewish inmates at Treblinka who co-operated with the system. No doubt this was his special reward. Others at Treblinka worked for the Nazis, but not as collaborators, as workers who helped, on pain of death, keep the machine running. Theirs was a daily struggle for life, and it was them, who after months of threats, torture, violence and death organised the revolt that helped bring Treblinka's to a close. Their uprising is one of the other stories in this book, in fact the story of those who lived, worked and died at Treblinka is the real story. Sereny's insightful examination of Stangl paints his banality as part of a wide machine of slaughter. But he was only a cog (though a very important one) in that machine.

Sereny's book then is much more than a biography of a commander of a Death Camp. It is also an examination of the whole structure of the Nazi death camps and an insight into what happened there. Her interviews with survivors, eyewitnesses (such as the Polish resistance member who worked on the railways and counted every train into Treblinka and noted the numbers inside - coming to a higher total of 1,200,000 - a third more than the official figure) and Stangl's colleagues, illuminate the Holocaust. But centrepiece are the stories of the survivors. These people suffered appalling, yet still managed to keep the flame of resistance alive. The tale of their successful revolt and the enormous sacrifices made by them to allow others to escape, makes this book well worth reading.

In an attempt to frame events at Treblinka and Stangls own actions, Sereny examines several aspects of German and Austrian life before and during the war. Some of this, such as the stories of those who sheltered Jews and others in their homes, nunneries or monasteries are well know. Others, such as the role of the church are discussed here in detail because of the importance of those bodies to people like the Stangl. Sereny is particularly critical, though always objective in her examination of the evidence, of the role of senior figures in the Catholic Church. She argues convincingly that the failure of the Pope to explicitly condemn the murder and violence taking place, was rooted in antisemitism, but also the Pope's hostility to Soviet Russia. For the Pope, better a Nazi Germany that committed mass murder than a Soviet Europe. Sereny is careful to point out that many lower figures in the Church did not fail this test, sheltering and protecting Jews for the whole war at considerable risk to themselves.

Sereny also makes it clear the extent to which the Holocaust was known. For Frau Stangl, rumours of life in places like Treblinka made her question what her husband was doing. But governments in the US and Britain as well as elsewhere in Europe had ample evidence as early as mid-1942 about the slaughter. Sereny argues convincingly that the decisions they took increased the numbers of victims through failure to offer refuge, or support aid efforts by other countries.

At the end of the war, despite being aware of who he was, Stangl was able to easily escape from his open prison. It is perhaps a reflection of his lack of engagement with his own crimes that he lived openly under his own name in Brazil even registering with the Austrian authorities. His own wife left their home country to see him, declaring her purpose of travel as to meet her "escaped" husband.

Eventually Nazi hunters like Simon Wisenthal forced the Allies to bring Stangl to justice. He was sentenced to life, but died immediately after Sereny's interviews. The failure of the Allies to deal with Stangl properly is in itself a tragic crime. Few individuals come out of this book well and Sereny has done us an amazing service by bringing all this evidence and analysis together.

I want to finish with the words of Richard Glazar of one of the survivors that Sereny interviewed. The revolt that he helped organise at Treblinka is one of the few bright moments in this horrific tale. It shows that even in the darkest times, people sometimes are able to fight back against brutality, repression and racism. Sereny's book is a monument to them, and educates us all on the importance of the struggle to prevent fascism rising again.

"No one at all could have got out of Treblinka if it hadn't been for the real heroes: those who, having lost their wives and children, elected to fight it out so as to give the others a chance. Galewski - the 'camp elder'; Kapo Kurland who had worked in one of the most tragic places in this tragic place, an extraordinary man and the senior member of the revolutionary committee, to whom we prisoners swore an oath on the eve of the uprising.

Sidowicz and Simcha from the carpentry shop; Stnda Lichtbalu one of our Cazech group... who worked in the garage and blew it up with the petrol tanks - the biggest, most important fire of the uprising, he died in it. And of course, Chelo Bloch who survived 4 hellish months to lead the revolt in the upper camp and died in it.

And finally Rudi Masarek; tall blond Rudi who of all the men in Treblinka would have had the best change of getting away; he looked more German than the most 'Aryan' of the SS... He had his mother in Czechoslovakia and could have gone back... to a life of ease and plenty. He came to Treblinka deliberately, because he loved someone else more than himself. He died, deliberately, for us."

Related Reviews

Sereny - Albert Speer: His Battle with the Truth
Kershaw - The End
Black - IBM and the Holocaust 

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Steve Jones - Darwin's Island: The Galapagos in the Garden of England

Charles Darwin's most famous book, indeed the only one that most people would be able to name, is The Origin of the Species. It is justifiably famous, a brilliant work that stunned and shook up the scientific world when it was first published. But Darwin was far more than a one book man, and many of his other books seem obscure, but when they were published they were also sensations. Darwin wrote extensively, but today is most remembered (aside from Origin) for his five year voyage. When he returned home from that trip, which took him aboard the Beagle to the Galapagos islands and South America, he never again left England. Yet for the remainder of his life his output was prodigious and varied.

Steve Jones' book is an examination of the rest of Darwin's work. Writing on everything from Barnacles, to sex, from pollination mechanisms in plants to the humble earthwork, Darwin's books broke new scientific territory with every publication. Darwin's method was far from the random, directionless work that this varied output might seem, in fact, his life can be seen as a scientific trajectory, his early work on barnacles for instance putting in place ideas and seeds that would bear fruit in later studies.

Darwin was also a careful and innovative experimenter. In his attempts to understand the importance of the earthworm in producing the fertile soil that agriculture depends upon, his experiments involved everything from the measurement of the rate at which waste materials were buried, the speed of subsidence of ancient monuments and, perhaps unbelievably, the playing of instruments at worms. Darwin and his son noted that earthworms appear to demonstrate a level of intelligence, pulling leaves into their burrows using the thinnest ends, rather than the wider parts. Jones calls this the "first real experiment on invertebrate psychology" and notes that the importance of Darwin's work on soil has laid the foundation for the science that must now deal with the worsening condition of planetary earth, degraded and depleted by centuries of agriculture.

Jones' looks at each of Darwin's works in turn, and this makes for a varied book. Darwin never seemed to go for short titles, his work on worms is called The Formation of Vegetable Mould, though the Action of Worms, with Observations of their Habits. Jones' own writing is good enough to make such a title seem an attractive prospect for the ordinary reader.

This is not a biography, though it contains much biographical information. Rather it is an exploration of Darwin's science. One of the interesting things that comes through, is the way that Victorian science was very much a multi-disciplinary subject. Earthworms were important for agriculture. Barnacles impacted on ships and their ability to conduct trade. Darwin's studies of the impact of marriage between cousin's had enormous social implications (Parliament refused to include questions about this type of marriage in their population census, despite Darwin's hopes, because Queen Victoria had married her cousin, and it was considered that it might insult her Royalness).

Jones' brings Darwin's books and science up to date. Surprisingly, Darwin's work is often considered a standard text today, but obviously science has moved on. Most importantly, genetic science and the understanding of DNA have allowed scientists to build dramatically on Darwin's early studies. This makes for a rounded book, that looks backward as well as forward. It is also full of fascinating anecdotes and information (who knew that all the apples we eat today are the descendants of just two trees in Kazakhstan?).

Science today seems a very narrow collection of disciplines. Scientists spend their lives studying a narrow portion of even their own subjects. Steve Jones' book reminds us that true science should be about understanding the inter-relation of subjects and ideas. Darwin's genius was to lay the foundations of many areas of study. His work continues to inspire today, and Jones' book is an excellent introduction to some of the more obscure and forgotten parts of that work.

Related Reviews

Simons - Darwin Slept Here
Desmond & Moore - Darwin's Sacred Cause
Darwin - The Voyage of the Beagle

Monday, July 02, 2012

Ann Abrams - Mobius

Had I been asked a month ago whether a book dominated (ha) by sadomasochistic sex scenes, whose convoluted plot involves ritual murder, the lofty realms of academic philosophy and a smattering of anthropology, London in-jokes and Neanderthals could be a runaway success I would have laugh out loud.
Given the runaway success of Fifty Shades of Grey though, I would no longer be sure of my instant dismissal. In fact, I would argue that whoever could leap aboard that particular bandwagon would be in with a good chance of making their fortune.

It is just possible, just, that Ann Abrams might make it. Given that Fifty Shades was in itself a sexed up piece of Twilight fan-fiction, I am sure that there will be a plethora of authors and publishers eager to follow E. L. James success. No doubt they'll all have similar inoffensive covers, shades of blue and grey fooling no-one on the bus.

Mobius however deserves better than being seen as some publishers wet-dream of a quick trip to the fortunes of Harry Potter. Certainly Abrams herself is more than J K Rowling, not least with her in-jokes and ruminations on the ideas of Hegel, Marx and half a dozen philosophers. You get the impression that Abrams has actually read these, rather than flicking through a cartoon-guide to Rousseau. There's also humour. Dark humour, but bits that'll make you smile.

Abrams clearly lives in London. Or at least she knows it well enough to understand the frustrations of most Londoners towards the influx of middle-class attic dwelling hipsters that is spreading outwards from Shoreditch and trying to setup abode in Dalston. Abrams' turns our annoyance at their superficiality into satisfaction with the occasional (well frequent) act of violence. The satisfaction is swiftly followed by horror of course, but knowing that those we dislike meet a grisly end is possibly were some of the success of this novel may lie.

That's not to say that Mobius is without problems. The writing is good, but it needs to be tighter (you can't twist something into a mobius strip for instance). The plot twists and turns and their are almost too many characters. At one point the writer muses, jokingly that in real life people you meet can have frustratingly similar names. In a post-modern "breaking of the fourth wall" the author gives some of her characters similar names. But the reason authors don't emulate real life is it makes book   hard to follow and I felt drowned occasionally in personalities.
Our heroine, Katherine, has fallen in with a bad lot. Well bad in the sense that they are the sort of people who make vast amounts of money in the city of London, or selling real-estate in Dalston to the types who make money in the city of London. Her lover strains to prove himself to her through a ritual display of nice wines, good meals, expensive cars and sound systems. All lovingly if contemptuously described by the author. Katherine rejects these trinkets. She's made of sterner stuff, though her affection for her partner means that his disappearance encourages her to go on a search that takes her from London, to Italy and back.

The disappearance appears to be caused by the same shady group who organised a rather exotic sex-party. Katherine meets Nick at the orgy, and together they witness an unusual, and unpleasant scene that makes them question what's happening, in part because they both suffer from memory loss.

I'm not going to dwell on the plot. Frankly if you've found your interest pricked so far, you'll probably get this for your kindle anyway. What I want to finish on is the sex. Or is it porn? There is a lot of sex in this book. Quite a lot of it graphically described. Rarely have I read a novel that mentions the perineum more than once. There are quite a lot of orgasms and bodily fluids, ejaculation and scratching. That some of this crosses over into violence will not surprise those who've read some of the less well written books out there, particularly in an era when everyone seems to think vampires are essential to literature. Many readers will find this distasteful, and I wonder if others will be tempted to dismiss it as irony. Certainly it brought to mind a couple of stories I'd read by Poppy Z Brite. On the other hand, Abrams has some of the style of Iain Banks and with a good editor will no-doubt improve.

I'm not a prude, nor am I particularly squeamish. But the sexualised violence here, countered with an occasional critique of the society that produces it, felt too disjointed from the main thrust of the novel. In some ways, this is a classic coming of age novel. In others it is a horror story. On the one hand you could dismiss this as a bit of dodgy porn, but on the other hand Ann Abrams has written a first novel that is genuinely unusual.
Given the right marketing, and a good editor, Ann Abrams may break out of the grey. Certainly if she’s pushed forward as the thinking person’s alternative to Fifty Shades of Grey she may make it. What the readers will actually think when they read it is an entirely different question.

Charles Stross - Glasshouse

I haven't read any of Charles Stross' novels for a few years now. I felt really let down by the last one I read, Saturn's Children, and you can read my very criticial review of that here.

However, I do feel that Stross' earlier novels are very good. So much so that I actually did an interview with him for Socialist Review many moons ago. Somehow, I'd not read Glasshouse, a slightly earlier novel, and I picked it up yesterday hoping it was more like the older ones and less like Saturn's Children.

Glasshouse is set far in the future. A universe networked by gates that allow instantaneous travel and the duplication of matter, including people. It is a universe that's been ravaged by enormous conflicts. As information became increasingly important to civilisation, wars became more than one lot of humans trying to kill other humans. So part and parcel of future war is censorship, viruses and data deletion.

All this is a background to explain why our hero, Roger, finds himself in a bar without many memories. Clearly he's been involved in the war, but for some reason he's had his memories wiped. Roger is encouraged, as part of his therapy to enter a new experimental habitat. Here inhabitants will live as though they were in small town America, circa the late 20th century. This means a transformation of customs, ideas and technology. It means learning to wear ridiculous high-heeled shoes (as Roger becomes Reeve in this experimental world) and it means learning that peer pressure can be an enormously powerful force.

Naturally, Stross doesn't simply leave us here. Though part of the fun in the novel is seeing how people from the far future might react to a world were women and men aren't equal. A past were monogamy is a deeply engrained part of society when their own society has the opposite. Interestingly, this attitude towards adultery leads to one of the more shocking episodes in the novel, when the scientists realise that they've got it very very wrong.

Such contrasts between old and new are a staple of time-travel stories, and great fun. Stross turns the level up by introducing a sinister backdrop to this apparently innocent scientific experiment.

Certainly this is one of Stross' better books. There's enough technological wizardry to get the geeks excited and enough playing around with sexuality to excite those who like this sort of thing in their SF. Mostly I enjoyed the tongue in cheek critique of 20th century capitalism, and the way that a cleverly constructed set of "goals" and "aims" could, through psychological manipulation and peer pressure lead to a social system that controls itself, while mimicking the modern world. The fact that this is all set in a giant glasshouse prison is a wonderful joke at the expense of us all. I wonder if we can get out?

Related Reviews

Stross - Saturn's Children
Stross - The Atrocity Archives
Stross - Iron Sunrise
Stross - Singularity Sky