Thursday, June 29, 2017

Philip Pullman - The Amber Spyglass

The first two books of the Dark Materials trilogy are great novels. But really they simply are setting the scene for the brilliant climax that is The Amber Spyglass. In this final book, Pullman ties together all the many plot strands into one great ending; teaches the reader a great deal about Milton's Paradise Lost (even if they don't really want to learn it), confuses the hell out of anyone who thinks they know about good and evil and lets the reader explore every possible emotion.

The scope of Pullman's novel is nothing less than the final battle for heaven; though Pullman is candid enough to ensure that heaven in this context isn't what everyone thinks it is. That he does this in a book aimed at young adults, without patronising them is brilliant. That he simultaneously is able to describe the sheer embarrassing, awfulness of puberty, the agonising pain of first love and the appalling reality of betrayal is genius. The characters are wonderful to. Let's hear it for Mary Malone, the former nun turned particle physicist. How's that for a progressive role model?

Our two, flawed heroes are joined by almost all the characters from the first two books as nearly everyone in Pullman's universe takes sides as they prepare for the final conflict. At the same time, Will and Lyra are growing closer and learning precisely how important they both are to the war's outcome. We meet some new characters and are rejoined by some old ones, which helps to give this book, a much longer one that the first two, the feeling of an epic tale. But most readers I suspect will remember not the great set pieces but the intimate moments between the two main characters. The scene where Will and Lyra share a tent and each pretends to sleep as they think about each other and share their company is a beautifully, tender moment of literature. The book has many more.

The ending hits the reader like a hammer. Its impact was in no way lessened by the fact I'd read it before. In fact, it's probably even more emotional the second or third time. Rightly the trilogy has been lauded a great deal. Anticipation is high for the sequels. But read, or re-read these books before the follow ups arrive. They're books with great depth that have much to say about the eternal themes of war, love and betrayal.

Related Reviews

Pullman - The Subtle Knife
Pullman - Northern Lights
Pullman - The Ruby in the Smoke

Ragnar Jónasson - Snow Blind

There is no polite way to say this, but Ragnar Jónasson's novel is terrible. It is badly written, has a contrived plot and a jumble of identikit characters. Set in a small former Icelandic fishing port, the novel is supposed to evoke intense claustrophobia. Instead it left me feeling that the author had come up with a list of cliches about remote northern locations and was ticking them off one by one.

But the real problem is not the writing, editing or language. The problem is that the story is too weak and the mystery is completely unbelievable. The hero Ari Thór Arason is a rookie policeman at his first job. Like almost every other rookie policeman his relationship is on the rocks which the reader knows because Ari agonises over it a great deal. He ends up in one of civilisation's backwaters just in time for a sudden death and a near death.

These are the first such events in years, so Ari's timing is extraordinary. Not surprisingly Ari is the only one who is suspicious that the town's most famous, and wealthy, son is the person who dies, in the midst of preparing for a play that has caused quite a bit of friction among contemporaries. It wouldn't be fair to go into what is wrong with the other victim, suffice to say that modern police forces can usually work this out even when they don't have access to fancy forensic laboratories.

I suspect that the reason that Jónasson's book got published was that bleak Icelandic detective fiction is the in thing at the moment and the publishers saw a chance to grab a share of the cash. Judging by the reviews and the number of readers they're probably pleased with the outcome. I am just happy I did not give them any more money.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Dave Sherry - Russia 1917: Workers' Revolution and the Festival of the Oppressed

I've already reviewed Dave Sherry's new book on the Russian Revolution for Socialist Worker, and I hope you'll read that in conjunction with these additional comments. Having read Sherry's book for a second time I wanted to add a few more thoughts.

As the centenary progresses, more and more books are being published. But Sherry's book is by far the best I've read. In part this is because he puts great emphasis on the role of ordinary people in the Revolution. But it is also because he gets across the grand sweep of events - the way in which the Revolution was a process, where things happened and peoples ideas changed. Political organisations that failed to grasp this, were unable to adapt to new circumstances lost their ability to shape things as their support vanished. Take this summary of the February events:
For the Mensheviks, years of mechanical adherence to the orthodox formula, that Russian socialism would have to wait until capitalism was fully developed and assumed complete political power, blinded them to the developing situation. Their attempt to half the revolution... left the Mensheviks into supporting the new capitalist government... The paradoxical character of the February Revolution, a bourgeois' revolution undertaken by workers and soldiers, brutally exposed the social weakness of the bourgeoisie, once the crutch of the Tsarist state had been knocked out from under it.
In a sense the Revolution fed itself. As workers and peasants collectively began to understand their immense power. The "act of ridding Russia of its monarchy gave people a sense of how society can be changed, and when the Provisional government refused to stop the war, it failed to stop the momentum for revolutionary change."

Sherry explains this process well, and shows how the Bolshevik party led by Lenin, were able to both shape and learn from the movement. This wasn't inevitable and the party almost made the same mistake as the Mensheviks in the post-February period. Sherry shows that Lenin's arrival in Russia in April led to a row that redirected the Bolshevik organisation towards workers' revolution. But crucially this could only happen because the Party was so rooted in working class organisations and struggles. It was the reality of revolution as experienced by the working class, principally in Petrograd, that meant Lenin's instincts were accepted by the bulk of the Bolshevik Party.

Towards the end of the book, after summarising the numerous revolutions and mass working class actions that have taken place world wide since 1917, Sherry reminds us that only the Russian Revolution in 1917 led on to a workers' state, albeit briefly. As he writes:
Without Lenin and the Bolsheviks it is inconceivable that a coalition of workers, soldiers and peasants would have taken power in 1917. The absence of revolutionary leadership and such a bold socialist workers' party in all the other revolutionary upheavals that have challenged capitalism through the last 100 years, explains why 1917 is unique. Times change but we can still learn from the past. That is why it is such a tragedy that Lenin's real legacy has been hidden or distorted by what passes for bourgeois scholarship.
And there has never been such a need for such revolutionary organisation. The Russian Revolution matters not because of historical curiosity, but because "it provides an alternative view of what is possible when society polarises and socialists organise to offer hope and unity in place of fear and division". If you only read one book on 1917 it should be this one, because these lessons are crucial today for a new generation of socialists. As Dave Sherry concludes:
Across the world there is a revolt against the people at the top of society - the one percent. It can go left or right and it is the job of all of us who want a better, safer world to shape it and pull it in a socialist direction.
Related Reviews on 1917

Smith - Russia in Revolution
Lenin - Will the Bolsheviks Maintain Power?
Serge - Year One of the Russian Revolution
Cliff - Lenin: All Power to the Soviets
Smith - Red Petrograd
Trotsky - Lessons of October

Related Reviews of books by Dave Sherry

Sherry - Empire and Revolution: A Socialist History of the First World War
Sherry - John Maclean
Sherry - Occupy!

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Ian Angus - A Redder Shade of Green: Intersections of Science and Socialism

This new collection of essays from one of the world's leading Marxist environmentalists is an important contribution to discussions about how we can fight for a sustainable world, one where, as Ian Angus says quoting Marx, we live as "a society of good ancestors". More than this however the book is an important reassertion of how to approach questions of science and politics that strengthen our ability to understand the world and change it.

In the first two chapters on Marx and Engels, Angus shows the importance of the approach that they developed. He writes, "If our political analysis and program doesn't have a firm basis in the natural sciences, our efforts to change the world will be in vain". Both Marx and Engels had a keen interest in the natural sciences, and they used this scientific knowledge to develop their own understanding of the world and their "historical materialist" approach. Angus points out that understanding this is important in part because some political authors argue that Engels was the one interested in science and Marx had a less concrete approach.

The first essay here, detailing the friendship between Marx and Engels and Carl Schorlemmer the "Red Chemist" demonstrates this very clearly. Schorlemmer was a convinced Communist, and one of the leading scientific figures of his time. Marx and Engels' friendship with him was one of mutual political understanding and "intellectual exchange". Engels shared the proofs of Capital with Schorlemmer, and Marx stayed with him, quizzing him on scientific questions. This is not just of academic interest. Schorlemmer was able to aid Marx's understanding of key scientific principles that allowed Marx to develop his understanding of the relationship between capitalism and nature, and the origins of the metabolic rift. This underlines Angus' point that "An understanding of Earth System science is necessary for preventing environmental crises, but it is not sufficient". He continues:
Marx and Engels used the term “scientific socialism” not to suggest that it was comparable to chemistry or physics, but as a contrast to the utopian socialisms of the early nineteenth century, which were based on abstract moralism, not on systematic study of capitalism and its material context. For them, there was no wall between social and natural science.
The second essay, on Marx, Engels and Darwin develops this still further. In it Angus explains how the often misunderstood comment by Marx about Darwin's On the Origin of the Species, that it "contains the basis in natural history for our view" is not a crude attempt to jump on the Darwin bandwagon, nor a simplistic suggestion that there is struggle in the natural world, like the class struggle in human society. Rather, Marx was saying that because Darwin had developed a materialist explanation for how organisms changed he had, in Angus' words done "for the understanding of nature what Marx and Engels had done for human society." Darwin's book "completed" historical materialism.

In both these essays' Angus shows how Marxists must root their political analysis in scientific reality. In the rest of the book he demonstrates how to do this. One example will suffice. In an important chapter critiquing the ideas of Jason Moore, Angus points out that Moore's misunderstanding of the work of Anthropocene scientists leads him to fail to offer a strategy to change things. Angus quotes Moore saying that anthropogenic global warming is “a colossal fabrication”. Moore doesn't do this from a climate denial perspective, he is well aware that we are in an environmental crisis, but his claim is just as dangerous:
Like his [Moore's] claims that Anthropocene science is wrong, dangerous, and a tool of the bourgeoisie, such comments attempt to delegitimise Anthropocene science, to warn the left against listening to ideologically suspect scientists.
Moore does this, Angus argues because of the separation between science and humanities and an academic system that rewards controversy. What ever the reason, Angus argues that the consequences are worrying:
If we reject Anthropocene science and deny the new epoch’s world-historic importance, we will do lasting damage to both science and radical politics, and undermine our ability to carry through the radical social and geophysical transformations that are so desperately needed in our time.
What is needed is a renewed synthesis between science and the humanities, using the insights offered by both to better understand a strategy for action. Doing this properly can, as many of these essays show, offer brilliant insights into what sort of action is needed. Angus does this particularly well in his polemic here against those who misuse the idea of Environmental Catastrophism. Angus shows that those who argue that talking about the dangers of climate change undermine the ability to act on climate change are making another dangerous mistake. They can end up disarming activists, or giving them strategies that make little or no difference. Instead, what is needed is the "building mass environmental campaigns" that can relate to the majority of the population, based in scientific realities.

Here in the UK, for instance, we've tried to do this, by arguing for the trade union movement to adopt the One Million Climate Jobs campaign. This recognises the need to reduce UK emissions by 90 percent and then shows how this is possible through the creation of jobs that reduce emissions and a transition away from the fossil fuel economy.

Angus points out that socialists have to learn to relate to these movements to bring about the change we need and that this can be part of the root towards fundamental social change. As he says, if we can't stop an oil pipeline, we won't overthrow capitalism. Ultimately though, that is what is required. In Angus' words "we have to create a society based not on having more things, but living better. Not quantitative growth but qualitative change." I would have liked further discussion from Ian Angus on how this might happen, but this doesn't undermine what is an important book that deserves to be widely read and debated by people from across the left, not just those who already describe themselves as Marxists.

Ian Angus will be launching A Redder Shade of Green at the Marxism 2017 Festival in London. He will also be speaking on his earlier book Facing the Anthropocene. More information at

Related Reviews

Angus - Facing the Anthropocene
Moore - Capitalism in the Web of Life

Foster - Marx's Ecology
Burkett - Marxism and Nature
Burkett - Marxism and Ecological Economics

Friday, June 23, 2017

Jonathan Martineau - Time, Capitalism and Alienation

The way that humans have understood and related to the universe around them has varied dramatically throughout history. One aspect to this, is the question of time. One of the points that Jonathan Martineau makes in this interesting book, is that we tend to think of our modern time system as being the only way of understanding, measuring and experiencing time. Other societies, specifically non-capitalist ones, often have dramatically different ways of experiencing time. In his famous studies of the Nuer people, the anthropologist Evans-Pritchard noted, for instance, that those Nilotic cattle farmers had more time in the mornings when they were busiest with their animals.

Martineau's book is an attempt to understand how the modern, capitalist understanding of time arose. He begins by reasserting the Marxist argument that humans are the "animal" that can only differentiate itself in the midst of society. In other words their life experience is a collective one and their understanding of the world around them arises out of their social organisation. Thus, for Martineau, "Time is...a socially mediated relation between humans and their world. This social mediation is shaped by the social organisation of production and labour, and shapes it in return." [19] Time cannot be separated from the interacting relationship between society and nature.
Time being both natural and social means that 'social time'; cannot be thought of without reference to the conditioning determinations brought about by natural phenomena, just as the latter cannot be properly conceptualised and addressed without a recognition of their always already socially mediated character. Natural phenomena such as celestial movements and atomic pulses are socially standardised continua of change...Humans socially mediate natural processes and cycles of change in the sense that they alter, funnel, use, coordinate, divert, channel, exploit or conserve them, in order to survive and reproduce.
Under capitalism, time, its measurement, use and experience becomes subordinated to the needs of capital. Time itself becomes a commodity in the sense that "labour time" is the method by which capitalists extract value from workers. Time is "fetishised" because [Martineau quotes Norbert Elias] "the social standardisation of individuals in terms of socially institutionalised time is anchored more firmly and deeply in their consciences the more complex and differentiated societies become". So children are taught "clock time" as their schooling, experiencing their days through time-tables and dinner breaks, before home-time.

Clock time, arises Martineau argues, before capitalism as the needs of production begin to require more coordination and management. But it is under capitalism that clock-time reaches its "hegemonic position", and then Martineau argues, this requires industrial capitalism to ensure its fully accepted. I was reminded, while reading this, of Tony Cliff's oft repeated story. He described a wealthy Arabic businessman arriving in a factory town to purchase equipment. When the factory hooter sounds and the workers stream into work, the buyer is entranced. "Never mind the machinery, how much for the hooter".

Cliff was making a joke, but its an important point. Key to Martineau's work is an understanding that capitalism could only make clock-time hegemonic through winning a class struggle. Some of the most fascinating parts of the book are the examinations of how this took place - the breaking of the historic traditions of working people, the subordination of them to the rhythms of the clock. Martineau contrasts these with the historically different and specific ways that pre-capitalist societies understood and used time to fit with their economic systems. For feudal peasants day-light hours lengthened and shortened with the changing length of day. If day break marks the beginning of the twelve hours, noon the centre and sun set the end, then these hours are of variable length. Today a variable length hour sounds absurd. To a peasant in the fields its the obvious way to mark time between starting and ending labour.

But clock-time arises before capitalism, but with the need for workers to sell their labour power. Its the way that capitalism helps to quantitise that labour, and this is the key point of Martineau's book. But just as commodities have a "dual" character in capitalism, so does time. Martineau develops the thesis of Moishe Postone that argues the "distinction between abstract and concrete time rests on their definition as independent and dependent variables. 'Abstract time', for Postone, is thus 'uniform, continuous, homogeneous, 'empty' time, [and] is independent of events', while concrete times are 'functions of events: they are referred to and understood through natural cycles and the periodicities of human life as well as particular tasks or processes'."

Theory aside, once the time becomes accepted, the struggle over it is changed. Martineau utilises a famous analysis of time and capitalism by E.P. Thompson and quotes the historian on how this takes place:
The first generation of factory workers were taught by their masters the importance of time; the second generation formed their short-term committees in the ten-hour movement; the third generation struck for overtime or time and a half. They had accepted the categories of their employers and learned to fight back within them. They had learned their lesson, that time is money, only to well.
This of course begs the question of how might a new society, one formed through the revolutionary over-throw of the old order, understand time. As Martineau concludes, this might "lead to a reclaiming of history and historical time by those who make it."

Clearly this is an interesting book, but I feel obliged  to make one strong critical point. It is a real shame that the publishers did not translate all the quotes from French to English. Not all of us are bilingual, and having key quotes in French and roughly translating them in the footnotes is bad enough. But having some quotes completely untranslated is a serious mistake.

That said, and leaving aside the academic style which makes some of the book rather dull, there is still much of interest here, particularly for those trying to understand how human society has transformed itself through history.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Philip Pullman - The Subtle Knife

The Subtle Knife is where Philip Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy moves from a slightly foreboding children's fantasy to a truly dark, frightening story. The story moves rapidly between worlds; initially we encounter Will in our own Earth, then we move to the world Lyra has escaped too, but this is haunted by phantoms that prey on adults and children on the cusp of puberty.

Despite its familiarity, Will's world is a dark one too. His mother has some form of delusional illness, and as it becomes clear that the family is being targeted because his absent father had found some secret information, Will's life suddenly becomes terribly uncertain. Putting his mother in a place of safety Will accidentally finds his way to Lyra's world and receives a powerful tool that allows him to travel between worlds.

Back in Will's Oxford, scientist Mary Malone is on the verge of discovering that her Earth is actually linked to all the others, and that the object of her studies - dark matter, Dust, is a clue to how everything hangs together. This in turn makes her the target of unknown forces and she too escapes into an alternative space.

The rest of the novel which further illuminates the relationship of these key individuals too each other and the wider battle that is taking place, a battle in a war that transcends the different universes.

As in most trilogies, book two is a bridge between the beginning of a novel and the climax. But Pullman expertly uses this to flesh out the universe. While setting it in a dark fantasy universe, the novel is particularly effective because it plays on the fears of every child - the lose of ones parents, fear of the unknown and, in particular, the unfathomable conspiracies of adults. There's a particularly clever approach by creating monsters that only attack adults, and children growing into adulthood. A memorable scene has these otherwise invisible creatures clustering around a unknowing boy who is on the verge of becoming a man. In a few weeks they'll destroy him, but in the meantime he runs and plays with the others.

It is no wonder that Pullman's Dark Materials have become classics. They turn the ordinary into the extraordinary, and leave every reader yearning for more. The Subtle Knife lays the basis for the most powerful of the trilogy and its impossible not to immediately reach for The Amber Spyglass as soon as this is finished.

Related Reviews

Pullman - The Northern Lights

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Pamela Horn - Joseph Arch

The life of Joseph Arch, agricultural labourer, Methodist preacher, trade union leader and liberal MP, is a fascinating one that Pamela Horn tells with her usual readable and engaging style. Horn notes that Arch was prone to over emphasise his own importance, particularly in terms of the founding and development of the National Agricultural Labourers Union that he helped found. So it is useful that Horn provides a good account of the pre-history of rural trade unionism, and the struggles of agricultural labourers.

The NALU and rural trade unionism in general was a central part of Arch's life. These arose out of necessity - the appalling poverty of rural life, in particular the low wages of agricultural workers. Horn had two strategies for dealing with this. The first was trade unionism, so that workers could come together to struggle for higher wages, particularly through strikes. Secondly, the extension of the voting franchise to male agricultural workers. There were some secondary strategies, one of which was emigration, particularly the United States and Canada. The other was migration within the United Kingdom, usually to urban industry.

Arch was sceptical of socialism as outlined by the Webbs in the late 19th century, but his politics were generally on the left. Like his hero, Gladstone, he was a champion of Irish Home Rule, even when this put him at odds with his core supporters. He was, like most at the time, however more backward about issues such as the women workers, believing they should remain in the family home. He never abandoned the trade union cause, though late in his life he became extremely cynical about workers, feeling they had abandoned him. When Arch was elected an MP he was frequently extremely poor, as MPs were not paid and he had no independent income save a small, irregular wage from the union.

But the main story here is that of the NALU. This rose rapidly, growing on the major outbreak of class struggle - the Revolt of the Fields, that is forever associated with Joseph Arch's leadership. The union grew rapidly and quickly took on a national importance. It's newspaper was read by tens of thousands, even being sold by WH Smiths in the train stations. The NALU won some initial wage rises, though it was part of some bitter strikes. Arch however was prone to personal feuds and sectarianism, both of which helped undermine his position. He was frequently accussed of living a high-life at the expense of his poverty stricken union members. There was some truth to this, particularly as Arch clearly loved being in the lime-light - he was also, in later years, very pleased with the friendship of the Prince of Wales.

The NALU declined with membership falling from a peak of around 86,000 in 1874 to 1,100 in 1894. The decline hurt Arch enormously, though he clearly had no strategy for turning this around other than exorting labourers to join. The decline of the union is clearly related to the decline in class struggle, alongside slight improvements in the economic situation.

Arch's career in parliament was relatively lacklustre. During his first period in office he made an excellent maiden speech (reproduced by Horn) on the condition of the agricultural labourer. Yet in his latter years following his second election, he was remarkably quiet, speaking on only a few occasions. Despite his earlier temperance, Arch became known for heavy drinking in London, and though he clearly loved the limelight and the acquaintance of famous figures, he remained relatively tied to his roots. Only ever appearing in his famous brown suit. Following retirement, Arch lived on a small income from a fund setup by his liberal friends. He was able, probably unlike most of those who had been his union members, to survive to a ripe old age, and his death was in 1919, by which time the English countryside had been transformed once again.

Arch's story is of interest because he, almost by accident, found himself at the head of a mass movement. To his credit he threw his enormous energy and talents into building and strengthening the union movement in difficult conditions. Horn celebrates this, while acknowledging the weaknesses of Arch's personality and politics. We should remember him as a pioneer from whose life we can learn much.

Related Reviews

Horn - Life and Labour in Rural England 1760 - 1850
Horn - The Rural World - Social Change in the English Countryside 1780 - 1850

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Francis Parkman, Jr. - The Oregon Trail

This fascinating account of North America in the mid 19th century is a description of Francis Parkman's expedition into lands remote from the eastern "settlements". Parkman initially accompanies the settlers' heading west towards Oregon, and his accounts are fascinating insights into how the settlers viewed the world, and how they themselves were seen. It's notable, in this description how Parkman sees the settlers as only being interested in personal gain:
Yankee curiosity was nothing to theirs. They demanded our names, where we came from, where we were going and what was our business. The last query was particularly embarrassing; since travelling in that country, or indeed any where, from any other motive than gain, was an idea of which they took no cognisance. Yet they were fine-looking fellows, with an air of frankness, generosity and even courtesy, having come from one of the least barbarous of the frontier counties.
That said, he is scornful of them at times:
On visiting the encampment we were at once struck with the extraordinary perplexity and indecision that prevailed among the emigrants. They seemed like men totally out of their element; bewildered and amazed, like a troop of schoolboys lost in the woods.
Parkman's trek did actually have a purpose. It was, in part, simply about a young man with money wanted to see the wilderness. At the same time, it was the opportunity to hunt as many animals as possible, particularly buffalo.  Ironically, he, like many of his contemporaries shared a belief that these animals were so numerous that they could be killed without consequence - "Thousands of them might be slaughtered without causing any detriment to the species".

But it for Parkman's commentary on the Native Americans which this book shall likely be chiefly remembered. Parkman went to live with one of the tribes he encountered for a number of months. He rode with them, ate with them, hunted with them and watched their preparations for war. His accounts are frequently sympathetic, though he essentially sees them as a backward, savage race with childlike simplicity. The Native Americans, are, in Parkman's eyes untrustworthy, bloodthirsty, and prone to robbery. He also understood that things were changing:
These men were thorough savages. Neither their manners nor their ideas were in the slightest degree modified by contact with civilisation. They knew nothing of the power and real character of the white men, and their children would scream in terror at the sight of me. Their religion, their superstitions and their prejudices were the same that had been handed down to them from immemorial time. They fought with the same weapons that their fathers fought with, and wore the same rude garments of skins.
Great changes are at hand... With the stream of emigration to Oregon and California, the buffalo will dwindle away, and the large wandering communities who depend on them for support must also be broken and scattered.The Indians will soon be corrupted by the example of the whites, abased by whisky and overawed by military posts.
There's no doubt that Parkman sees this as a good thing. White civilisation was to be emulated and aspired too - its reality was to be contrasted with the barbarism of Native American life. Sadly, while Parkman's book is full of interesting observation about Native American life in this period and with the tribes he encounters, its tempered by his racism and white supremacy. So read this book for the descriptions and the account of a country in the process of huge transformation, but do so knowing that opinions like Parkman's would help destroy the lives of tens of thousands of people, and the environment they depended on.

Related Reviews

McLynn - Wagons West
Cronon - Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West
Cronon - Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England
Tully - Crooked Deals and Broken Treaties

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Joyce Marlow - The Tolpuddle Martyrs

Joyce Marlow's history of The Tolpuddle Martyrs is a classic of its period. It tells the story of the Martyrs well, allowing for occasional bits of speculation by the author. The problem for those writing about the Martyrs is two-fold. Firstly there have been numerous books, plays and articles. Secondly the material itself is relatively thin.

The primary source for most authors are the pamphlets written by George Loveless and four of the other martyrs. Loveless was the key figure in the Martyrs' case, a principled and quietly heroic individual, he wrote a short, very readable, memoir of his role.

Unfortunately this is brief and while detailed in places, Marlow is right to point out that being written in hindsight we cannot necessarily take it always at face value. That said, she puts it to good use and frames a much more detailed account around it. Marlow's additional sources, mostly including contemporary newspapers and legal records help fill out the story.

Like other authors she sees the persecution of the Tolpuddle labourers as very much about an attempt to drive the nascent agricultural union movement underground. Unlike most other writers of the period she also understands that the union movement saw in the Tolpuddle case the opportunity for self promotion. The six men were safe for the union movements' leaders. They weren't violent, they didn't burn down threshing machines and the solidarity movement that grew up to demand their return was the very model of how to campaign within the system.

This is not to downplay the movement. In fact, one of the strengths of Marlow's book is that she has great detail of the solidarity campaign itself. This involved mass protest, systematic petitioning (at least 800,000 people signed one or other of the numerous petitions presented to parliament), hundreds of meetings and the use of public protest alongside of agitation within parliament.

Once free, the Martyrs became symbols of the need for trade unionism, though Marlow points out that in agriculture the government was successful in undermining the union movement. It was forty years before Joseph Arch's agricultural worker's union was the become the site for new battles with the landowners and the bosses.

Marlow's book is an easy read. It's very dated by today's standards, and in places the language would be considered quite inappropriate for a left wing author. But there is plenty of material here, and some useful background reading and history.

Related Reviews

Norman - George Loveless
Thompson - The Making of the English Working Class
Hammond & Hammond - The Village Labourer

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Philip Pullman - Northern Lights

Ahead of Philip Pullman releasing the companion books to the His Dark Materials trilogy I've been re-reading the original novels, ones that I last read nearly 15 years back and have held a special place in my heart since then. As Heraclitus famously said, you cannot stand in the same river twice. And the same is true of favourite novels. They might be enjoyed just as much, but the context is never the same. Reading Northern Lights in 2017 I am reminded of the power of Pullman's writing. Given he is addressing a young person's audience he never patronises his reader, assuming that they are just as capable of understanding big concepts as any adult.

As a result, the books are powerful meditations on what it is to be human. Lyra, the major character in Northern Lights comes from a wealthy, closeted community. Her understanding of the real world is filtered by a privileged ability to dip in and out of other peoples lives. But always able to return to the safety of her life in one of Oxford's colleges. Thus readers can identify with her adventures exploring the roofs and cellars of the crumbling buildings, but identify more closely with her playmates. Which makes the shock of what happens to them even more striking.

Oxford here, is not of course, our Oxford. Rather its a different world where people's personalities are extended outside their bodies into animal familiers. These daemons think and act independantly, but act very much as a part of the person. While initially these seem like an amusing fantasy element to a slightly steampunk alternative universe, daemons increasingly become central to the books.

Enveloping all of this is the wider social structure. The suffocating influence of the church across science and society is unravelled not through Pullman explaining it all in a clunky chapter giving the background to the novel, but through Lyra's eyes as her understanding of the world is gradually undermined by reality. Its possible to see the Dark Materials novels as a kind of alternative story of the Reformation and Renaissance, as the old religious ideas are confronted and challenged by new technologies and science. As this takes place the whole of society is shaken. The genius of the novel is that this is the backdrop, and Lyra's adventures are the front stage. If you haven't read these books, throw yourself in, whatever your age, before Pullman's follow ups become the publishing event of the year.

Related Reviews

Pullman - The Ruby in the Smoke