Friday, April 27, 2018

Marek Edelman - The Ghetto Fights

This month saw the 75th anniversary of the Jewish Warsaw Ghetto uprising against the Nazis. This prompted me to re-read this extraordinary account of the rising by Marek Edelman. Edelman was a socialist, a member of the Bund, an organisation of Jewish socialists, who, along with other groups, including radical left-wing Zionist organisations decided to resist Nazi attempts to deport Jews from the Ghetto to the concentration camps.

Hindsight makes it very difficult to read. We know what was to happen to those who were sent to Treblinka and other camps, but those in the Ghettos did not. Edelman's organisations began to get news from brave individuals about what was taking place, and they produced news sheets to explain to the thousands in the Ghettos what was happening. But it seemed to fantastic - as Edelman writes, "people who clung to their lives with superhuman determination were unable to believe that they could be killed in such a manner". When the decision to "liquidate" the Ghetto was made, the Nazis made the Jewish Council announce that all "non productive" Jews were to be deported, and ensured that the "Jewish police was designated as the agency to execute the deportation order". As Edelman explains this mean that the Germans "made the Jewish Council itself condemn over 300,000 Ghetto inhabitants to death".

It is hard to comprehend the callousness of the Nazis. But this deportation order came on the back of their systematic violence against Jews in the Ghetto - arbitrary killing and torture. The sections of the book that describe life in the Ghetto, with the constant threat from the Nazis, as well as the desperation of hunger and poverty of the inhabitants, are terrible to read. As are the accounts of the conditions in the areas were the Jews were gathered to face deportation:
The sick, adults as well as children, previously brought here from the hospital lie deserted in the cold halls. They relieve themselves right where they lie, and remain in the stinking slime of excrement and urine. Nurses search the crowd for their fathers and mothers and, having found them, inject longed for deathly morphine into their veins, their own eyes gleaming wildly. One doctor compassionately pours a cyanide solution into the feverish mouths of strange, sick children. To offer one's cyanide to somebody else is now the most precious, the most irreplaceable thing. It brings a quiet, peaceful death, it saves from the horror of the cars.
When the decision to liquidate all the Jews in the Ghetto is finally made, the groups of organisations that have come together to form fighting units eventually resist. With a handful of weapons, including a single semi-automatic machine gun, and homemade grenades they stop the Germans dead, killing dozens. Edelman rights that once the Nazis plan is clear, every house "becomes a fortress". In the midst of the horror, the resistance is inspirational, despite the fact that most of those fighting back are doomed by the German's overwhelming firepower.

At the same time heavy fighting raged at Muranowski Square. Here the Germans attacked from all directions. The cornered partisans defended themselves bitterly and succeeded, by truly superhuman efforts, in repulsing the attacks. Two German machine guns as well as a quantity of other weapons were captured. A German tank was burned, the second tank of the day. At 2pm, not a single live German remained int he Ghetto area.

Some of the fighters did eventually escape, some joining Polish resistance fighters, and their story did reach the world. After the war Marek Edelman wrote this book and it was published in Warsaw in 1945, then in English in 1946. It is an inspiration story, and demonstrates that contrary to many myths, Jewish people did not walk passively into the Concentration camps, but many fought back. Today we see the growth of the far-right across Europe, with a rise in racism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. In Eastern Europe we see fascists and the far-right beginning to gain real traction. The Ghetto Fights is an inspirational story to help us build resistance today.

Related Reviews

Browning - The Origins of the Final Solution
Mazower - Hitler's Empire
Gluckstein - Fighting on all Fronts: Popular Resistance in the Second World War
Gluckstein - A People's History of the Second World War

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Frederick Engels - The Peasant War in Germany

This short work by Frederick Engels is rarely read, but it forms an important part of his contribution to Marxist historical works and theory. Dealing with the German Peasant War of 1525-1526, part of the enormous upheavals that shook Europe during the Reformation, Engels argues that this has it roots in the economic changes taking place in German society, combined with the class struggle between those at the bottom of society and the ruling classes. Engels explains that in contrast to Britain and France which were seeing the rise of "commerce and industry" a consequent political centralisation,

Germany had not got any further than grouping interests by provinces... which led to poltiical division...Uncertain of its own position, the imperial government vacillated between the various elements comprising the Empire, and thereby lost more and more authority... In these circumstances, the position of the classes inherited from the Middle Ages had changed considerably, and new classes had emerged beside the old.

These new classes were beginning to struggle for their own interests. It would be wrong to argue that these new classes were capitalists, or represented capitalism trying to break through. But they were traders, merchants and urban ruling class who were getting wealthy from the "growth of commerce and the handicrafts". They wanted more control over their ability to make wealth, and end to taxes and tithes that stole their wealth and while these "did not overstep purely constitutional limits" they wanted a larger share of power. At the same time there was a growing "plebeian opposition" which "brought together... parts of the old feudal and guild society with the undeveloped, budding proletarian elements of the germinating modern bourgeois society". At the same time, the peasant mass of Germany were struggling under the oppression and exploitation of society, desperate for more land, more wealth and an end to their poverty.

Because the dominant ideology in 16th century Germany was religion, the arguments and struggles played out through religious language, but were about much more than interpretations of the Bible or arguments about religious practice. As Engels explains:
It is clear that under the circumstances all the generally voiced attacks against feudalism, above all the attacks against the church, and all revolutionary social and political doctrines were necessarily also mostly theological heresies. The existing social relations had to be stripped of their halo of sanctity before they could be attacked.
The two key figures in this struggle were Martin Luther and Thomas Müntzer. Engels argues that both of these were shaped by the political and economic milieus that they operated within. Luther, he argues, rebelled within a safe set of boundaries:
When in 1517 Luther first opposed the dogmas and statutes of the Catholic Church his opposition was by no means of a definite character. Though it did not overstep the demands of the earlier burgher heresy, it did not and could not rule out any trend which went further... But this initial revolutionary zeal was short-lived. Luther's lightning struck home. The entire German people was set in motion. 
But Luther had to chose his position. And so
He dropped the popular elements of the movement and took the side of the burghers, the nobility and the princes. His appeals for a war of extermination against Rome resounded no more.
Engels writes about Luther becoming more and more the "vassal" of the princes who had the most to gain from the struggle against the nobility. Müntzer on the other hand was the voice of those at the bottom of society. Engels portrays him as anticipating much later political movements; "his political programme approached communism" writes Engels. Certainly Müntzer did have a Communist approach, along the lines of the ideas of Gerrard Winstanley a century or so later.
By the kingdom of God Müntzer meant a society with no class differences, no private property and no state authority independent of, and foreign to the members of society. All the existing authorities, insofar as they refused to submit and join the revolution, were to be overthrown,m all work and all property shared in common and complete equality introduced.
Müntzer set out to organise this. He preached, wrote tracts and travelled to the areas of greatest unrest organising and mobilising the masses. Engels claims Müntzer not just as an early Communist thinker, but an early vanguard revolutionary organiser, who "organised a party of the elite of the then existing revolutionary elements, which, inasmuch as it shared his ideas and energy, always remained only a small minority of the insurgent masses".

Unfortunately the mass peasant armies could not prevail against the organisation of the ruling class, though they has some impressive victories. Tens of thousands were killed, or executed or lost their lands for their rebellion. Müntzer himself is executed for his leading role.

Engels is writing in the context of the defeat of the 1848 revolution in Germany. He's trying to explain why during that Revolution the bourgeoisie was unwilling to carry through its revolution. In essence it is the same reason as why the discontent princes of Germany would not support the Peasants risings in 1525 - they were not willing to lose their own wealth and privilege and preferred to join the suppression of the masses.

The Reformation can be a confusing mass of shifting alliances and religious currents. In this short book, Engels cuts through all of this and highlights the real economic and political changes. He doesn't ignore the story of the war either, but puts it in the context of wider events. There are also fascinating parallels between this and other peasant risings, and looking at the 12 "articles" produced by the German Peasantry I was struck by the close similarities with contemporary risings in places like England - in particular Kett's Rebellion of 1549. This short book is a brilliant example of the Marxist method and is a classic of historical materialism. Few other authors have come close to Engels in their accounts of the period and this book should be required reading for students of the period.

Related Reviews

MacCulloch - Reformation: Europe's House Divided
Engels - Origin of the Family, Private Property & the State
Engels - Socialism: Utopian & Scientific
Engels - Condition of the Working Class in England
Marx & Engels - The German Ideology

Friday, April 20, 2018

Colin Dexter - The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn

One of the great things about the Inspector Morse novels is that they are relatively timeless. Morse and Lewis don't have mobile phones and communication suffers as a result, but by and large the books could be set in contemporary times. Reading The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn I didn't realise that it was first published as long ago as 1977 until I checked the front of the book. Amusingly the thing that made me look up the date was a part in the plot where a character travels back from London to Oxford first class instead of of the second class his ticket allowed. On admitting this at Oxford the staff member tells him it doesn't matter. Try doing that on Virgin Trains today!

As with all Morse novels, little details like this matter even though while you read them they seem somewhat inconsequential. The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn is finely crafted in this regard. It is set in the dusty atmosphere of the Foreign Examinations Syndicate. A rather fuddy-duddy organisation that allows foreign students to sit British exams and then potentially get into English universities. Unsurprisingly, given that some of their biggest clients appear to be royalty in oil-rich Gulf states, there is a sniff of corruption, and when Nicholas Quinn is murdered, the reader is won't be surprised in the slightest.

Quinn is almost completely deaf, and until I read up about the book, I didn't realise that the sections that deal with his hearing difficulties (and which form a crucial plot point) were based on Colin Dexter's own experiences. In fact its this aspect of the mystery which actually means that Morse makes a unusual mistake and accuses the wrong person.

This is only the third volume of the series, and Morse's character isn't quite as well rounded as he is in later books. I was surprised by Morse's sexism in this book. In fact, at one point, Dexter has the detective's side-kick Lewis describe Morse (internally of course) as "crude" following a comment made about a female suspect. While I've noted before that Morse isn't actually that likeable, I don't recall Morse being quite so aggressively sexist in other books (though he frequently thinks and comments on women's looks and bodies) and this volume does also involve a pornographic movie as part of the story which seemed slightly odd. One of the problems with the TV series of Morse is that it made him much more loveable, and a lot less sexist and rude, and viewers can be surprised at the Morse of the books.

Despite the sexism, the plot is entertaining, though I always feel you're reading Morse as much for the atmosphere as the whodunit. The ending is, as I said, unusual, in that Morse get's it wrong initially - but that helps round out his character a little more - he certainly isn't the infallible Holmes type. More interestingly, Dexter uses a sort of Agatha Christie Poirot denunciation at this, perhaps to increase the embarrassment that follows Morse's mistake - for the character and the reader.

Like all of Colin Dexter's novels, this is a tight read. It's not the best Morse book, but it fills in some blanks and has some memorable clever moments.

Related Reviews

Dexter - The Way Through the Woods
Dexter - The Dead of Jericho

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Ian Mortimer - Outcasts of Time

Outcasts of Time is a beautiful book. It tells the story of two Devon men caught up in 1348 in the horror of the plaque. John Wrayment is a skilled stonemason who has carved many of the statues in Exeter cathedral, including the faces of his beloved wife Catherine and his brother William Beard. William is more boisterous, interested in wine, women and song. John's attempts to do a good dead for a baby whose mother has died of the plague. His brother chastises him, arguing that it will bring them no good and only delay their perilous journey home. The good dead turns into its opposite, and in horror and anger, John question's God's purpose.

A disembodied voice offers the two brothers a choice. Return home, and die from the plague, or live six more days each day spaced at intervals of 99 years. The brothers take the second option and their journey through Devon's history begins.

It's a wonderful pretext for a novel. It's made better by Ian Mortimer's historical knowledge and eye for detail. There's plenty here on how the villages change, on how the improving fabric of the buildings themselves allow John and William to see that the country is growing wealthier, though neither brother is naive enough to miss the poverty in the backstreets. There are poignant moments, particularly when the brothers return to their home village and see places they know well, but ruined by age and decay.

John in particular, to William's annoyance believes he has a quest to full-fill. His attempts to do good, improve things take various forms - including simply doing a hard days work. But nothing seems to come of it. But the over-arching change, one that John finds particularly difficult, is the way his religion is taken from him and destroyed by the rise of Protestantism. He visits Exeter cathedral after the Reformation and is shocked to have to pay to enter, but even more shocked to see the destruction of the beautiful statues he has made. Later he comes to blame Henry VIII but he keeps his own faith close, despite it putting him and his brother in danger.

Mortimer does this transformation brilliantly. The brothers can understand technology - there's a touching scene in the 19th century when a clergyman explains steam engines - but they are more upset and shocked by the way that their religious framework has been dismantled. John is particularly troubled by this - if he is on a religious journey or quest, then why is his religion destroyed?

A friend of mine who read this said that they'd enjoyed it, but found it too religious. But for most of the last 800 years most people in England would have only understood the world through their religion. Mortimer's description of the transformation of England works so well precisely because he understands that the changes aren't simply technological, or political, but they are about how the whole ideological fabric of the country was remade. And he let's us understand what that might have meant to an ordinary person experiencing part of the changes. It is, after all, why many people took up arms to defend their communities and their faith during the Reformation.

It's a lovely original story, well told and deeply moving. I highly recommend it.

Related Reviews

Mortimer - The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Georg Bücher - In the Line 1914-1918

A recent visit to the World War One battlefields of Flanders has awakened an interest in that horrific conflict, but having read a number of books written by British authors that contained eyewitness accounts from Allied troops, I was pleased to find this book by a German soldier. Georg Bücher's In the Line was a well known book when it was first published, but has been out of print for many years and this new edition seems timed for the 100th anniversary of the end of the war.

German accounts of World War One are always tainted by the Second one. This is in part because of the way that Hitler used Germany's defeat as a corner-stone of his propaganda. In particular the punitive Treaty of Versailles and the idea that Germany's army was "stabbed in the back". So Bücher's account is interesting on two levels.

The first of these is his own experiences. Bücher was the only one of a group of friends who made it all the way through the war. Given the scale of the slaughter this in itself is incredible. He fought at Verdun, the Somme and Passchendaele among other major battles, and saw his best friends killed. For those who know their military history of the War there is a lot here in terms of the experience of soldiers in the opposite trenches. This was little different to that of the Allies, though it got worse towards the end of the war. Mud, lice, shell-shock, dirt and the constant discussion of women and the quest for alcohol. Bücher also describes some other events, including this shocking account of a counter-attack against French-Senegalese troops to, Bücher says, "avenge" dead German soldiers "brutally mutilated by the Senegalese". Bücher also uses language that is offensive to us today, perhaps reflecting his politics (more on that later):
With death before us we drove the howling Senegalese back into our old trenches, where lay the comrades, foully mutilated and still shuddering... what mutilations! Eyes gone, dirt and mud in their mouths and noses, bayonets through their wrists and cheeks. The sight was more than we could bear - it turned us into madmen. Yet we did not-murder: we only fought with the fury of the drunken bellowing, stinking black horde into the dug-outs. There was no mercy...
Bücher's racism here, becomes combined with anger at the madness of war and those who make men kill each other,
At Lorette we were avengers; but our vengeance was taken only on the black beasts. The pity was that Riedel's spade could not batter in the heads of those who were actually responsible: the white-skinned officers by whose permission and orders the blacks had been soaked in absinthe before the attack.
Either deliberately, or accidentally, Bücher frequently is guilty of double-standards. Enemies who are drunk must have been forced to drink by their officers, though he and his friends are frequently drunk. He claims his forces are not murdering, yet his best friend prefers to use a spade to kill the enemy. This is hypocrisy, but it gives a sense of the reality of total, industrial slaughter.

The account follows Bücher's war, including a period when he is hospitalised. It is a very personal war, and he and his comrades frequently set out to avenge the death of a friend. They debate the progress of the conflict, but actually care only for events in their small section. Hatred is reserved for the enemy, and cynicism for their own generals.

The second reason this book is interesting is that it is produced in the 1930s response to accusations that the German army was cowardly. Frequently Bücher denies this, but one wonders where his political sympathies lay at this point. He often notes how Social Democrat propaganda is sapping the morale of his comrades (though he conflates this sometimes with enemy propaganda) and one of his friends, who is a pacifist, redeems himself in Bücher's eyes by dying bravely in battle. Bücher condemns those behind the lines who fail to understand his experience and concludes
In the unspeakable horrors of the western front we had heard something more than the voice of life without struggle; no life without death; no security without weapons... Avalanches may roll, winds of fury rage, unchained powers hold mastery for a time. As with nature, so is it in the life of the individual, of the masses, of a nation: one hour passes, another follows and with it the sun may shine again. Therefore: Si pacem vis...
By the time he writes this, has Bücher come under the influence of the Nazis? His language seems to echo their language of destiny and the importance of war in shaping the population. If so, it seems strange that Bücher even mentioned that he was elected a "chosen member of the soldier's council" in the revolutionary wave that ended World War One.

I've not been able to find out more about Bücher's life - it would be interesting to know where he ended up. His politics are not of the left, and perhaps he was influenced while writing by the increasing right-wing atmosphere in the late 1920s. So these memoirs are interesting in that they depict the experiences of an ordinary German soldier in World War One, but they also give us an insight into how some of the veterans felt a decade after the war ended. Certainly one can imagine Hitler approving of some of the sentiments in Bücher's book.

In a review in the Spectator in 1932 Graham Greene mocked the author's writing. The book is terribly over-written in places, but to me that underlines the authenticity of the book. One wanders what Greene made of the politics...

One final thing. Potential readers should be aware that this book is full of typographical errors. Many of them seem like errors from the scanning of the text. It is a shame that the publishers didn't correct these.

Related Reviews

MacDonald - Passchendaele
Zurbrugg - Not Our War
Kershaw - To Hell and Back
Sherry - Empire and Revolution
Stone - The Eastern Front

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Josiah Bancroft - Senlin Ascends

I really liked the beginning of this unusual fantasy novel. Newly wed teacher Thomas Senlin arrives at the Tower of Babel with his wife for their honeymoon. Babel has long held Senlin's imagination back in his far off, small village were he teaches his students science, economics, history and politics using Babel as an example. Senlin is no action hero. He's clumsy, unsure and easily startled. The embodiment of what we might called the Enlightenment he clearly believes that the world would be better if only everyone understood the rules behind it all. Disappointingly for Senlin, the local workers, peasants and craftsmen are not particularly interested in his scientific explanations as they do little to help them with their lives.

Such abstract knowledge is Senlin's biggest problem at the start of the novel. Because Babel is very different to the image that he has created in his head. At ground level its markets are a seething mass of humanity, few of whom care for outsiders other than as people to be fleeced. Immediately on arrival Senlin loses his wife, his luggage and the self absurdness he has from faithfully believing guidebooks to the Tower written by authors who have never been there.

Senlin's attempts to find his wife involving him ascending upwards. The half of the book is a fantastical mix of Kafka and Alice in Wonderland as Senlin is trapped in the weird and wonderful lower tiers. The reader has as little clue as Senlin as to what is going on. Why are people peddling beer machines? Why is one whole floor of the tower given to a series of plays that the unwitting travel has to enter into, with strange instructions to "stoke the fires"? Why are people who get things run, or run out of money treated so badly? There are few answers here, though Senlin begins to piece things together on his quest.

Much of the early part of the book I read with a sense of unease. What was going on? Why? How will Senlin, the least capable person in the world, actually survive? Later the novel is on more familiar territory as Senlin finds some stability and begins to understand things. Clearly he is getting closer to finding his wife.

And then the book ends - I'd clearly missed all the hints that this was the first of several. The reader is faced with two existing sequels and a fourth in the pipe line. There was a time when every fantasy author felt they had to have three volumes to be like Tolkien. Such epic tales have their place. But there is also room for shorter stories, that suck the reader in and satisfy them quickly. Instead, resolution for Senlin seems a long way off, and I'm not sure I wanted to climb quite such a tall tower.

Nonetheless it is a well written piece of fantasy. Should time permit, I may return. There's much to enjoy here after all, a strange and disconcerting world; Thomas Senlin is a great character, and his wife Marya clearly is a woman more able to adapt to strange and dangerous circumstances, and a cast of weird and wonderful characters involved in a complex plot.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Barry Stone - The 50 Greatest Westerns

While it may not be apparent to readers of this blog one of my secret pleasures is the Western. I'm a huge fan of Sergio Leone in particular, and when I initially picked up this book I was mostly checking to see how the author's list tallied with my own. Barry Stone's justification for being the author of this book is that he too is an enormous fan, though his knowledge of Western films is far superior to mine, and thus I got a lot out of each of the fifty short pieces.

Reading through the list, I was struck repeatedly that the Western as a film is very rarely actually about the American West. For one thing, the Native American population rarely feature, and when they do (which is predominately in films from the earlier half of the 20th century) they are there are archetypal bad guys but even then they often serve to advance other stories.

Two films that Stone lists that do focus on the Native American experience (at least through the eyes of white viewers) include Dances with Wolves and Dead Man (the latter I haven't seen so I've added it to my list). But I was surprised that the 1970 film Soldier Blue didn't make Stone's list. I always saw this as both an attempt to graphically portray the brutality against Native Americans and as a comment on US Imperialism in Vietnam and elsewhere. It might also serve as a comment on the US Western as an art form.

But as with anyone "50 greatest" list there are going to be omissions here. I was however struck by the variety of films that Stone does include. Since there is a debate about what actually is a Western, it was brave of Stone to include Yojimbo and Seven Samurai both of which were enormously influential and have similar structures to classic western films. They are also both amazing films.

The list is slightly skewed by Stone's love of Quentin Tarantino. I enjoyed 2015's Hateful Eight in the cinema. But I'm not convinced it will stand the test of time and Morricone's  film score is not his greatest. I particularly enjoyed Stone's analysis of some of the earlier Westerns. He points out how they are often dealing with big themes, but also are very different to modern films. This isn't simply about levels of sex and violence, but also how films are structured. As he writes about 1959's Rio Bavo, "Modern audiences aren't accustomed to the pace of 1950s westerns... a story with a straightforward plot that director Howard Hawks decided should take 2 hours and 21 minutes to tell... Long scenes devoid of action exist only to add complexity to the film's characters..."

He also notes how "moments when what is normally conveyed with words is achieved instead with a look". It's striking that this (and the use of the landscape) is a feature of so many westerns. Think Leone's focus on eyes. The emphasis on the individuals and the personal is crucial to so many such films and stems, in my opinion, from the way that US society focuses on the individual over society. It's part of the reason why film's like Soldier Blue can go against the type. That said, as Stone frequently points out, these films were often making critiques of that very position. High Noon being one classic example. This too can frequently be missed by modern audiences. I've never seen Broken Arrow (1959) and would feel uncomfortable watching a film where white actors are blacked up to play Native Americans. But as Stone explains, "Although the film could have been a lot more respectful of Native American culture... it was for its time a very genuine and laudable attempt to make a film that didn't;'t simply follow Hollywood norms... If you can leave any sophisticated, enlightened 21st-century thoughts on racism at the door and approach this film with a 1950s mentality, you'll discover a brave film that attempted to chart a new course for the genre... Broken Arrow is a progressive film that suggests ways forward for a divided and deeply prejudiced nation".

It's points like this that mean that Barry Stone's list is more than simply his favourite films, but also includes movies that might be forgotten or dismissed. It's added more than a few films to my own list of must sees, and I'd recommend it to the fan of the western genre.

Related Reviews

Biskind - Easy Riders, Raging Bulls
Biskind - Seeing is Believing
Portis - True Grit

Sunday, April 08, 2018

Stephen Basdeo - The Life & Legend of a Rebel Leader: Wat Tyler

Stephen Basdeo's book is a fascinating study of the cultural impact of one of England's most famous rebels: Wat Tyler, who was a key figure in the Great Revolt of 1381. I've written myself about the Peasants' Revolt and I won't repeat that here. For those who do not know the history Basdeo opens his book with a good summary of events, though he also encourages people to read Juliet Barker's excellent history. He also concludes his work with fascinating reprints of poems and ballads about Tyler from the periods he covers.

It is one of the ironies of history that the detail that we know most about Wat Tyler is the manner of his death. A whole number of contemporary accounts describe Tyler's murder at the hands of William Walworth, mayor of London, during negotiations with King Richard II as rebels from around London had converged on the capital. It's probably because of this that Tyler has become an iconic figure for generations after - though not always from the progressive side.

My first encounter with Wat Tyler was in the years following the Poll Tax rebellion against Margaret Thatcher. In the early 1990s it was still common to see activists wearing t-shirts celebrating the 1381 rebellion which had begun as with resistance to Richard II's poll tax. As a result of that, and I think because of William Morris' work The Dream of John Ball, the Peasant's Revolt was seen very much as the property of the far-left. Basdeo shows however that there are far deeper roots to Tyler's association with radical politics, but more surprisingly, Tyler was not always someone held up by progressive forces.

In the turmoil of the 1640s, Basdeo explains, the only side to use Wat Tyler's story were the Royalists. Prior to the 17th century, Tyler and John Ball had been held up as examples of people wanting to "overturn the social order". "Perhaps," wonders Basdeo, Tyler was "too radical, even for regicides". Instead, Royalists argued that Tyler shows the folly of trying to challenge the King and hence the real social order. In the words of one writer, Tyler was man who wanted to "change the Monarchy into anarchy". Rather neatly the 17th century writers were slurring those contemporaries who challenged the king (very few of whom before the late 1640s had ever considered deposing the king) as being potential regicides, or at least dangerous revolutionaries.

This approach towards Tyler and the Revolt continued into the next century. One quoted example, from 1769, argues that the events of 1381 showed the
absolute necessity it is for the nation to be provided with such laws, as may prevent even the first steps and approaches towards any riotous and disorderly meetings of the people; for, when once a mob are collected together; and they have done one act of violence, they soon proceed to another, till they perpetrate the most extravagant enormities, and the most horrid cruelties.. that may shake the foundation of a government.
18th century fears of the mob are here given a historical justification. In this, and other works, the struggles of Tyler and his mob, are contrasted by those who stood firm against them, which might have "accomplished the destruction of the Kingdom, had it not been for the gallant behaviour of its citizens". So at the end of the account, it all turns out alright. In one play that Basdeo quotes, performed at the "rowdy Bartholomew Fair", "it turns out the mob never wanted to follow Tyler all along. They had been duped by their wicked captain. Thereafter, due to the good king's grace all of the rebels are pardoned."

I am slightly wary however, about simply reading these accounts as designed to "safely contain" its subversive parts. At the same time as reading Basdeo's book I was reading Christopher Hill's A Nation of Change and Novelty and in his chapter on Literature and the English Revolution Hill demonstrates how, to escape censorship, authors often used happy acceptable endings to ensure their work was published. As Hill writes, "most masques were expected to end with all problems solved by a rex ex machina, and even writers who wished to criticise royal policy had to wrap their message up in so much flattery that there is every likelihood that the king missed the point."

It is entirely possible that authors of plays about Tyler had to end on an appropriate note or risk not being performed, rather than simply being opposed to radical politics. I speculate that playwrights wanted audience approval, they had to at least contain a few passages that would go well among the rowdy attendees at Bartholomew Fair.

As the 18th and then the 19th centuries develop, growing demands for reform from sections of society meant that Tyler's story again gets appropriated, this time to create an "imagined national community" where throughout history there had always been a section of English society who had fought for democracy, freedom and equality. Tyler, in this context, is remoulded as an early freedom fighter, a precursor of Chartists and others. He was no longer the leader of a mob, instead an entirely justified rebel against oppression. In one fascinating appropriation of Tyler, James 'Bronterre' O'Brien, lays the blame for Wat Tyler's defeat, not on the aristocracy, but on the "middle classes who had abandoned their former working-class comrades". O'Brien sees Walworth as a "London shopocrat", a "base and bloody-minded middle-man".

O'Brien's piece, written in 1837, is a reaction to the great defeat of the Reform Act, when the wealthier middle classes won the vote and backed down for further agitation to gain suffrage for the poorer workers. Tyler becomes a weapon in a 19th century struggle for a democracy which he could not even have comprehended.

Basdeo documents how Tyler's story becomes a growing part of the radical tradition, though not without being shaped by each generation's customs. During Victorian times, for instance, the story (and it is a story, without any historical evidence at all) that Tyler began the revolt after a tax collector sexually abused his daughter, became a way of fixing Victorian morals onto the rebellion. Increasingly Tyler also becomes a central figure in historical novels, and Basdeo gives us an excellent summary of these, including a few that I firmly intend to read. I was also amazed to learn that in 1969 the Peasant's Revolt was the subject of a American educational film with no less an actor than Anthony Hopkins staring as Wat Tyler.

Stephen Basdeo's book should be of interest to a far wider readership than those scholars studying 1381. It is a detailed example of how historical events can be used, and abused, by contemporary times to fit the needs of those defending the status quo and those challenging it. Wat Tyler and those who rose with him were struggling against a system that was cruel in its exploitation and oppression of those at the bottom of society. Today we live in a very different world, but there remains much to rebel against and so 1381 will continue to be something from which people draw inspiration. As the author concludes, there will likely be future points when "English people hold a mass protest" and then, "we will once against see Wat Tyler's name reappear".

Related Reviews

O'Brien - When Adam Delved and Eve Span
Dunn - The Peasants' Revolt
Lindsay & Groves - The Peasants' Revolt
Hilton - Bond Men made Free

Friday, April 06, 2018

John Christopher - The Death of Grass

John Christopher's The Death of Grass is a remarkable ecological disaster novel first published in 1956. It's particularly surprising because it was published six years before Rachel Carson's classic Silent Spring kick started the modern environmental movement and at the heart of the book's disaster is a crisis caused by some of the same problems that Carson highlighted.

The book begins with the emergence of a strain of virus in Asia that decimates rice production there leading to the deaths of millions of people. It all seems very far away for the novel's main characters who, living in Southern England, are perfectly able to imagine that they will never be at risk. After all, Western Countries are producing enough food to send relief shipments to China, and surely the scientists will come up with something, they always do. As two of the protagonists discuss:
"Every government in the world is going to be comforting itself with the same reassuring thought. The scientists have never failed us yet. We shall never really believe they will until they do."
"When a thing has never failed before, it's not a bad presumption that it won't fail now."
"No," said Roger, "I suppose not." He lifted his nearly empty glass. "Look thy last on all things lovely every hour. A world without beer, Unimaginable. Drink up and let's have another."
Of course the virus defies attempts to defeat it, and jumps to wheat, rye and barley. Suddenly life is much more precarious and when the Roger and his friend John learn of the governments plans, they head north toward a secret valley farmed by John's brother David. Getting out of London proves a challenge, and requires John's group to begin their break from "civilisation". If "civilised society" hasn't broken down John comments, they'll all hang after their actions.

The failure of the scientists has been matched by the failure of the state. And civilisation descends rapidly into competing bodies of violent gangs intent on preserving themselves at the expense of everyone else. John's group have an aim - somewhere to get to - but everyone else is simply struggling to survive. This descent into animal like behaviour is actually the least convincing part of the book - I doubt doubt that some people would behave abominably as civilisation collapses and food becomes scarce. But it's also true that in disaster situations people organise collectively to try and help each other - something that just doesn't happen in The Death of Grass. The author underlines this by having the murderers and rapists often cover themselves in gold and jewels, despite their lack of value in the new world.

One great weakness in the book is the portrayal of women. By and large they are depicted as victims, following behind their menfolk who are doing the dirty and dangerous work. They are passive and unable to relate to the new situation. There is a particularly awful scene where one character murders his wife simply because of her infidelity, then takes a new, child bride.

Even within John's group there is discord and danger. The gun seller Pirrie who has come with them and brought guns and ammunition demonstrates the reality of the situation being prepared to kill in order to protect the groups, but exacting a tough price in return. Despite these limitations, the ending is very well done, though the detail need not concern us here.

In the introduction to this new edition, Robert Macfarlene contrasts the book to the "cosy catastrophe" of John Wyndham's work (The Day of the Triffids had been published a few years earlier). I felt that they shared more than he suggested, but The Death of Grass is much more brutal and lacks the comforting endings of Wyndham's books. Christopher also frames the disaster much better, locating it in an agricultural system that David points out, is more about producing goods decreed by the government, for the market; rather than worrying about the future. Faith in science proves, in Christopher's book, the Achilles' heel of modern society, whereas in Wyndham's work it is often society's salvation.

Ecological catastrophe aside, one other stand out of this novel is the extent to which the British state is prepared to go to ensure some people survive. They are stopped in this endeavour by a popular revolution in London, but the victors of this have little to offer except gramophone records on the BBC. Nero fiddles as London burns notes one of our heroes. Despite its bleak portrayal of human nature there is a lot in this book by John Christopher. I'm reminded how much I loved his Tripod trilogy as a youngster. His vision of ecological disaster has tragic parallels for today and I'm not surprised it has had a new renaissance after many years out of print.

Related Reviews

Wyndham - The Kraken Wakes
Wyndham - Web

Thursday, April 05, 2018

Christopher Hill - A Nation of Change and Novelty

This book is a collection of essays proving how great a historian Christopher Hill was. They demonstrate exactly how detailed Hill's knowledge of the English Revolutionary period was, and his ability to make links between subjects and contemporary politics. They are also incredibly polemical, one, for instance Abolishing the Ranters is a strident defence of the very existence of that religious grouping which had been denied at length in 1986 book by professor Colin Davis. Hill shows his mastery of the contemporary literature, the source material as well as an understanding of his opponents writing.

Ultimately this is a forceful defence of the idea that there was an English Revolution. The book is was written ten years into Thatcher's government and at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall - events that get passing mention in several essays. Hill is defending the idea of Revolution at a time when mass risings were taking place but the political framework of Communism was disappearing. Hill was too good a left-winger to believe that the regimes that were falling apart in Eastern Europe were actually socialist, but he understood that left wing politics were on the defensive. Colin Davies, for instance, "clearly regards [Gerrard Winstanley] as a pre-incarnation of Josef Stalin".

In this context, his essay The Word 'Revolution' is a wonderful piece of writing. It traces the development of the word Revolution through the Early Modern Period. At the beginning of the seventeenth century he argues, the word meant not the overturning of something, but a rotation of something. So when Gerrard Winstanley uses it, says Hill, he means that the "Diggers' object was not just to remove the Norman Yoke but to get back behind the Fall of Man, to a period outside history - the future millennium as well as Adam;s Paradise." There then follows a detailed summary of dozens of different uses of the word Revolution, each demonstrating an evolving use of the word through a period that saw Parliament challenge the King then defeat and behead him, followed by the return of the monarchy. But, in Hill's words:
1688 was a smudged compromise, and helped to prevent England ever having a revolutionary tradition in the sense that the USA, France and the USSR have revolutionary traditions. 1688 was 'glorious', bloodless, because fixed by an agreement between party leaders without involving 'the people' at all. If 1688 was a revolution, had there been a revolution in the 1640s? Voltaire in 1733 took for granted that the 1640s had seen 'une révolution en Angleterre', and this usage continued through the French Revolution to Guizot, to Karl Marx, and to European historical writing generally. But in England, although the shift in the meaning of 'revolution' had taken place well before 1688, the events of that year created new ambiguities. So we cannot think about the evolution of the word without thinking about the evolution of the society.
We also cannot think about it without the context of the times that Hill was writing in, and this is what gives his book a real edge. Hill also demonstrates a nuanced view of what Revolution was and is. In an earlier essay on Political Discourse he writes:
Historians who have failed to find long-term causes of the English Revolution, as well as those who have failed to notice that there was a revolution at all, have perhaps been looking for the wrong things in the wrong places. There were no revolutionaries who willed what happened, no Lenin: there were virtually no republicans in the Long Parliament. But there were tensions in the society, slowly building up in the decades before 1640: and there was an ideology, popularised by Fox and Beard, which in appropriate circumstances could become revolution, as it did in Cromwell.
Collections of essays are always hard to review even when, as in this book, they are discussing a common theme, albeit from many different directions. Some of the chapters here are heavily reliant on a detailed knowledge of a particular subject. I found Hill's article on Archbishop Laud nearly impenetrable mostly because I have very little knowledge of the specifics Hill writes about.

On the other hand, I thought the chapter on Gerrard Winstanley on Freedom was superb and I wish I had come across it earlier. Among many things Hill makes an important point that Winstanley writes about "mankind" rather than "man", meaning that he is including women in his vision of freedom, something that few (if any) of Winstanley's contemporaries considered. I also should highlight the chapter on radicals and Ireland in the period - which explains why they did not oppose the oppression of Ireland by Cromwell and others.

There is much in this collection for anyone studying the English Civil War and Revolutionary Period. Hill brings a freshness to these debates, even today, and his writing is full of humour as well as polemic. Surprisingly he also seems full of hope that thing will get better. He finishes his article on Winstanley with a comment and quote from The Diggers' leader which might well be written about Hill himself:
Winstanley failed; but his writings justify the words he prefixed to one of his Digger pamphlets: 'When these clay bodies are in a grave, and children stand in place, This shows we stood for truth and peace and freedom in our days.
Related Reviews

Hill - The World Turned Upside Down
Hill - God's Englishman
Hill - Liberty Against the Law
Hill - The Century of Revolution