Saturday, June 30, 2018

Neil Rathmell - 1549

This is an unusual novel that deserves to be better known. Neil Rathmell tells the story of Kett's Rebellion of 1549, a major upheaval that shook Norfolk as tens of thousands of peasants revolted against rural poverty and the attacks on their communities. Rathmell tells the story from two perspectives; the first from Robert Kett's rotting corpse who recounts the history of the rising backwards to an audience of rats. Kett has been cruelly executed and his remains hung to remind the population of the folly of rebellion, but after death he celebrates the struggle and the value of resisting inequality and oppression.

In the second interleaved story a Norfolk merchant falls in love with his brothers' wife. From this perspective the rebellion is a disturbance that reflects the upheaval in their lives, but is also distant and remote. It is chiefly noticed for the problems it causes for trade, though the family is more closely involved in the rebellion than either of the major participants initially realises.

Rathmell knows the history of 1549 well though it might not be the best place for someone new to the period to start as the novel's structure means the history is told backwards. Nonetheless, while strange in places, Neil Rathmell tells a good tale with a fascinating backdrop.

Related Reviews

Wood - The 1549 Rebellions and the Making of Early Modern England
Land - Kett's Rebellion
Flecther & MacCulloch - Tudor Rebellions

M. Jahi Chappell - Beginning to End Hunger Food and the Environment in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, and Beyond

A study of attempts to deal with poverty, hunger and malnutrition in Belo Horizonte, Brazil and what this means for food poverty, sustainable farming and wider questions of food sovereignty for the majority of the city's population.

My review of this book is published in the Climate and Capitalism web-journal here.

Related Reviews

Vergara-Camus - Land and Freedom
Sader & Silverstein - Without Fear of Being Happy
Galeano - The Open Veins of Latin America
Sader - The New Mole
Robb - A Death in Brazil

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Stephen King - The Wind Through the Keyhole

Long term readers of this my reviews will know that I have a great love for much of Stephen King's work and particularly his Dark Tower books. Nearly four years after finishing that epic series I was finally able to return to them by reading The Wind Through the Keyhole a novel set between volumes four and five of the original series. The novel adds little to the actual series, but adds a great deal to the backstory of the Gunslinger and his companions. It also builds on the wider history of the world they inhabit.

Sheltering from a stark-blast, an enormously powerful storm that drops temperatures to freezing and shatters wood with high-speed winds, the Gunslinger is reminded of a story his mother used to tell him. As his companions huddle around a fire, he tells them the story of how he first retold that tale, and thus we are treated to a story within a story. The Gunslinger tells us of his adventures that took place after those described in the forth volume Wizard and Glass. They deal with a mission he is sent on to kill a skin-man, a shape-shifting creature that has been massacring the population of a small mining village near to Roland's home.

During an over-night shelter there, Roland tells tells a nervous witness to a massacre the story that his mother had told him, of a small boys adventure that leads him to become a Gunslinger. Readers hoping to find answers to the great mysteries of the other novels will be disappointed. The book contains little of that, though it does tie up some loose ends and certainly gave this reader a sense of a deeper knowledge of Roland's world and his motivation. Telling more would ruin much for future readers, so I'll leave it there, except to recommend the Dark Tower series once again to those who haven't read them.

Related Reviews

King - The Gunslinger
King - The Drawing of the Three
King - Wizard and Glass
King - The Wastelands
King - Wolves of the Calla

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Wilhelm Hasbach - A History of the English Agricultural Labourer

This classic study of English agriculture was first published by the author in Germany in 1894 and translated into English in 1908, where it was reprinted several times. I read the 1920 edition which has an introduction by the famous Fabian socialist Sidney Webb reflecting the left leanings of the writer.

Hasbach's History of the English Agricultural Labourer is a fantastically detailed work. Some of it is, without doubt dated, and on occasion the constant repetition of facts, figures and dates makes it tiresome to read. But Hasbach manages to show how, within the broad sweep of historical development, the peasant and then the labourer in England's rural economies had their lives transformed. The first chapter looks at the feudal manor as an organisation unit for labour and rent. But Hasbach is only interested in these feudal arrangements for how they frame the later development of capitalist agriculture.

Hasbach repeatedly emphasises that the rural masses were very much the victims of agricultural development in England. They were pushed from their land, had their wages constantly driven down, and faced all sorts of legal restrictions on their ability to improve their lot. Enclosure, for instance, didn't simply remove people from the land, destroying their homes and communities, but those that remained found their lots immeasurably reduced.
As for the great mass of the cottagers and squatters, it is obvious that to them division meant simply that the very backbone of their economy was broken. They had few friends, and many bitter enemies, and were unable to get their case represented in Parliament. They could do nothing, and went empty away....The wastes being divided, shelter and firing were no longer to be had for nothing. Men must either pay or go without. And in very few places was any compensation paid for this loss.
Hasbach sees enclosure not as a simple change to the organisation of the countryside which brought about mass depopulation, but also a transformation in the economic relations. New forms of labour are developed (which he explores in horrific detail) such as the gang systems. This is agriculture designed to maximise profit.

Hasbach looks at how many reformers tried to understand what these changes had done to the population and how things might be improved. A whole variety of strategies were looked at - from the creation of allotments, to the recreation of rural communities. One 18th century commentator, Richard Price who regarded "the agricultural changes mainly from an ethical, social and political standpoint" and had a rather romantic view of the "earlier stages of civilisation" based on small holding farming, argued that there was a need to "drive back the inhabitants of the towns into the country. Establish some regulations for preserving the lives of infants. Discourage luxury and celibacy, and the engrossing of farms".

This is an extreme approach, but it does highlight one problem of the time when discussing the conditions of the poor, one that Hasbach himself repeats, which is the lack of any believe in the poor themselves playing any role in the improvement of their situation. They are passive recipiants of government plans, or reforming strategies. As a result Hasbach also fails to highlight in detail any of the great acts of resistance by the rural communities. In fact, when he does comment on these events, it tends to be in a negative way.
The constant war which the pauper has to wage with all who em,ploy or pay him i destructive to his honest and his temper; as his subsistence does not depend on his exertions, he loses all that sweetens labour.
Later he continues
The demoralisation reached its height when labourers revenged themselves on obnoxious farmers by rick-burning. It was was not uncommon for several fires in one night to proclaim grimly and plainly to the propertied classes the destruction o the ancient concord of the village community.
But at times rick-burning etc became a genuine mass movement in the countryside that went far beyond simple revenge on obnoxious farmers, taking up questions of wages, village organisation and made attempts to democratically control aspects of peoples' lives such as by the removal of particular over-seers. This brief paragraph neglects the strikes, protests and other mass actions of the rural class struggle.


On occasion modern readers will smile at Hasbech's 19th century prejudices. Several times he suggests that part of the problem was that rural labourers were too ignorant to understand their position, particularly in regard to the employment of children. In others his language is very dated, as when he writes that "the prettier and livelier country girls sough situations in the towns and returned no more". But despite this, the book echoes with Hasbech's deep sympathy for the poverty and problems of the rural masses throughout history. This means that his discussions on the family wage, children employment, gang labour and the levels of wages don't ignore that behind all these things are real sufferings that he hopes can be alleviated. Thus he can write in the conclusion:
Up to the present time the two most important stages in the history of the agricultural labourer have been, first, his acquisition of personal freedom and second his severance from land and capital. The first was an historical process, desired by many but... intended by no one. The second was, on the contrary, definitely intended, end as well as means, by many people. They desired to place proletarian labouring class as the disposal of the farmer, believing that such as step was in the interest both of employers and the public.
Hasbach however, can only see the solution as being a return to some sort of closer relation between land and labourer. This means the redistribution of land and a vast increase in the numbers of small holdings. This Hasbach believes, will also bring the added benefit of strengthening protectionism against free-trade, which Hasbach saw as being a driver of the impoverishment of the rural masses.

These are conclusions that are tied up in 19th century economic debates and few will read this book to rediscover them. But Hasbach's book is a treasure trove of detail of the economic lives of the rural population of England, it never romanticises that life, even if it sometimes neglects the role of ordinary people in resisting the changes that took place.

Related Reviews

Whitlock - Peasant's HeritageHowkins - The Death of Rural England
Mazoyer & Roudart - A History of World Agriculture
Groves - Sharpen the Sickle

Hammond & Hammond - The Village Labourer
Hammond & Hammond - The Skilled Labourer
Fisher - Custom, Work and Market Capitalism

Monday, June 18, 2018

John le Carré - A Legacy of Spies

I was looking forward enormously to A Legacy of Spies and re-read its prequel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold in preparation. That book is a near perfect spy thriller, the dirty, backstabbing reality of Cold War spying in the drab, grey of 1950s England and East Germany. By contrast A Legacy of Spies is set in a world that seems like New Labour - full of steel and glass, opulence and smartly dressed professionals. But its a superficial modernity. The reality for the spies is still one of betrayal and backstabbing, loneliness and violence - but now they are even more scrutinised by a 21st century bureaucracy that pretends to incomprehensibility when faced with the methods of previous decades.

The legacy of the title is the fall out from a long forgotten spy operation undertaken in the first novel, supervised by Control, Smiley and the narrator of Legacy Peter Guillam. Guillam is uncooperative in MI6's investigation into those events which has been sparked by the return of the son of the British agent who died in the operation, who is suing for wrongful death. Guillam is trying to protect both his legacy and that of his friend and mentor George Smiley. Tied up with all of this is the larger betrayal that MI6 experienced in the aftermath of the first book.

The plot is convoluted, though the reality is that little happens. Guillam twists and turns and reveals little, but spends a lot of time thinking through the rights and wrongs of his own past and the Service. Rather than being a novel in itself it felt to me more like the author was tying up some lose ends for his fans by referencing all the events that they've come to cherish. It's not a bad novel, but its not the greatest and I found the ending very flat. It's not Le Carré at his best, but if you're reading it, that wil be because you've read all the others and you'll already know this by the time you open the book.

Related Reviews

Le Carré - The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
Le Carré - A Small Town in Germany
Le Carré - The Looking Glass War
Le Carré- A Murder of Quality

Friday, June 15, 2018

Mike Davis - Old Gods, New Enigmas: Marx's Lost Theory

Mike Davis is the author of many excellent socialist books, two of which have been highly influential on me - Late Victorian Holocausts and Planet of Slums. I was also highly impressed with his book on Avian Flu, The Monster at the Door. Old Gods is a reassertion of Marxism in several collected essays. I've been asked to do a full review of it for a separate magazine and I'll update this post when that is published.

Related Reviews

Davis - Planet of Slums
Davis - The Monster at Our Door

Davis - Late Victorian Holocausts

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

John le Carré - The Looking Glass War

By all accounts John le Carré wrote The Looking Glass War disappointed that readers of his best selling The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was taken far to seriously, and not understood as the satire it was intended as. Looking Glass focuses on The Department, a section of British Intelligence that has left its wartime glamour far behind. Now, instead of an essential section of Britain's military machine, it is a poor second cousin to Smiley's Circus. Lacking funding, infrastructure and staff the Department is a spy network without any spies.

Beginning with a botched intelligence job, over some dubious intelligence, the Department is dragged into a dangerous mission in East Germany which senior figures clearly see as a last ditched attempt to regain wartime levels of funding, glory and acceptance in the Intelligence Community. The botched job is followed up by amateurish attempts to retrieve a roll of tape that nearly blows the whole thing open. Despite this, the Department's head Leclerc, a boorish former pilot uses his knowledge of Whitehall's bureaucracy to secure under the table funding to send a spy into East Germany.

The mission is, inevitably, a cock up. But what makes the book is the meticulous way that le Carré depicts the build up. Here are bureaucrats scheming against each other for funding and ministerial approval. Leclerc himself oversees much of the hiring of the Departments new spy, but is keen to keep from him the reality of his organisations eclipse. The former spy, now gone to grass in a second hand car salesroom is repeatedly told that the Department has "got boxes of files" of other operatives. Reality is, of course, exactly the opposite, and readers cannot help but feel that someone is being hung out to dry.

Much of this is presumably based on le Carré's own experiences. Infighting, competition and lies are the staple of government departments and spies. The grim, competing world of the Department and the Circus is a complete contrast to the glamour of James Bond. By the time that The Looking Glass War was finished Ian Fleming had published all of his Bond books. There's no doubt that le Carré was writing to stab that particular image of the intelligence services in the back. When people try to understand how Tony Blair's government could come up with something as crude as the 45 minute dodgy Iraq dossier, it's not hard to imagine some of these self-serving bureaucrats behind the scenes.

As with all the other le Carré novels that I've read, this is tightly written. It's grim and the characters are unlikable. Unusually, the plot matters little. What's really interesting is the tension between individuals and the nasty backstabbing world of the intelligence services.

Related Reviews

le Carré - The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
le Carré - A Small Town in Germany
le Carré - A Murder of Quality

Thursday, June 07, 2018

Emily Winterburn - The Quiet Revolution of Caroline Herschel: The Lost Heroine of Astronomy

When Caroline Herschel was born in 1750 no one would have imagined that she would have become lauded throughout Europe as one of the most important astronomers of the 18th century. Women simply did not do that sort of thing.

As Emily Winterburn says "nothing about Caroline's early life suggested she would grow up to become a pioneering female astronomer". In fact quite the opposite. She grew up in Hanover in a male dominated household. Her father was an accomplished professional musician and her brothers were expected to follow in his footsteps. Caroline was "taught to cook, clean, spin and make clothes, and was required to look after younger children... Caroline and her older sister Sophia were trained to run a household and to be useful and agreeable to her family".

However when her older brother William found a musical job in Bath, England she joined him there and soon became a close partner with him in his astronomical work. William Herschel was catapulted into fame when he discovered the planet Uranus and received a (relatively low paid) job as a royal astronomer. Caroline is often portrayed as William's able assistant. Yet she was a skilled a diligent observer and scientist, and while he was away on a journey delivering a telescope he had sold, she made the first of her discoveries. Her own notes from 1786 detail it:
1st August: I have calculated 100 nebulae today, and this evening I saw an object which I believe will prove to-morrow to be a comet.
2nd August: Today I calculated 150 nebulae. I fear it will not be clear to-night; it has been raining throughout the whole day, but seems now to clear up a little. 1 o'clock; the object of last night is a Comet. I did not go to rest till I had wrote to Dr Blagden and Mr Aubert to announce the comet.
It was a brilliant discovery. Her paper announcing the comet at the Royal Society was read by her brother because women could not be members. Winterburn explains how Caroline carefully neutralised her announcement and had it backed up by others to ensure that it was taken seriously. It began, "In consequence of the Friendship I know to exist between you and my brother I venture to trouble you in his absence with the following imperfect account of a comet." At the end of the paper, her brother and a (male) friend both add their confirmation of the discovery leaving no room for excuses.

Winterburn explains that Caroline's careful wording was not the result of meekness but a calculated way of making sure she had to be taken seriously. She was using all the social skills she had been taught to make sure that she could not be sidelined. As a result of this, and her other work, Caroline became the "first high-status woman paid for her science [in England], and almost certainly the first to receive royal patronage". It was an amazing achievement and gave her unprecedented financial independence to continue doing what she loved. She continued to make discoveries and fight to ensure that she was recognised for them, including an amazing horse-ride through the night to announce a different comet discovery (though on this occasion she wasn't quite the first).

Caroline Herschel made many further discoveries and did some incredibly important other work. She became famous as the "Lady Astronomer" and while well known for the comets she found, her cataloguing work was much more mundane but perhaps more important. Winterburn explains:
Caroline's real skill, her gift to astronomy, was being able to see the importance of what she was doing, even as she meticulously sifted through observation after observation searching out the occasional error, omission or duplication. It was a job that not even William could bring himself to do. It took a very specific set of very much undervalued skills.
But Caroline's class and gender in 18th century English society meant she also had to play all the other roles demanded of her. Her brother's eventual marriage and the pressures that this put upon Caroline as she became responsible for two households, in a complicated social hierarchy with Williams wife Mary Pitt, form a core part of Winterburn's book as she explores Caroline's life.

But slowly society was changing. Not everyone believed women could not be part of the scientific establishment. Her brother in particular promoted and supported her. Incredibly, because she was his sister and working with his equipment, it would have been perfectly acceptable for him to claim her discoveries as his own; yet he did the opposite. In fact their relationship was much closer to that of a equal partnership. Winterburn writes:
In writing about women in science... we often tend to get bogged down in trying to extract work that was purely theirs from the record. We try to find something tangible that we can connect with their name so they can be returned to history. What we lose when we do that, however, are the ephemeral stories of process, unminuted discussion, teaching as a way of learning and companionship.
There were other male scientists who were keen to work with and promote women scientists. Caroline was included in an updated edition of Jerome Lalande's Astrronomie des Dames and the scientist and mathematician Nevil Maskelyne was a close friend and supporter of Caroline. He was also one of the first scientists to employ women to work as "computers" doing the complicated calculations that astronomy required.

Caroline had her own way of promoting her scientific work, which would not have met approval from all those arguing for greater equality. Winterburn quotes Mary Wollstonecraft, a pioneer of the fight for women's rights, who attacks those who used "pretty feminine phrases" to make it difficult for men to dismiss them. But Caroline was trying to find a way to fight for her position using the weapons she had, and was remarkably successful, and as Winterburn points out, if Wollstonecraft was criticising the strategy it must have been widespread.

By the end of her life Caroline Herschel had been celebrated across Europe, and won awards of scientific bodies across the world. Still unable to become a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, she, along with Scottish scientist Mary Somerville, was made an "honorary" fellow in 1835. More importantly she became an important "icon" for generations of later women scientists.

If all Emily Winterburn had done in this book was to tell the amazing biography of Caroline Herschel it would have been a great read. But she puts that story in the context of a society undergoing dramatic changes. Firstly, and most obviously, there is the scientific revolution that is opening up new views of the universe and new areas for study. Secondly society itself was changing dramatically, most obviously with the French Revolution which was raising all sorts of questions of equality, freedom and democracy. For a growing number of women (and some men) this meant a belief that women should not be subordinate to men and a small minority of women were beginning to challenge their position in society. How this played out for individuals like Caroline Herschel was complicated and nuanced. Emily Winterburn's biography explores this brilliantly, and I have no hesitation in recommending this brilliant book.

Related Reviews

Holmes - The Age of Wonder
Jardine - Ingenious Pursuits
Sobel - Galileo's Daughter

Monday, June 04, 2018

Charles Oman - The Great Revolt of 1381

Charles Oman's book is an important historical milestone. It was one of the first historical works to treat the English Peasants Rebellion of 1381 through a modern historical approach. Originally published in 1906 it builds on the historical research of poll tax records by the academic Andre Reville who died very young before he could finish his own work on 1381.

Oman's book is a fairly decent historical overview of what was then known about the rebellion. It has, of course, been surpassed since then by more contemporary work. But many more recent books have been heavily indebted to Oman's work and it is worth reading on that basis.

Oman is in no way sympathetic to the rebels, in fact when discussing events in Scarborough when "at least 500 men" led by Robert Galoun, William Marche and Robert Hunter made "a systematic attack on all against whom they had old quarrels, or wishes to pick new ones" he argues that despite escaping the death penalty, the three men "richly deserved" it. That said, the greatest strength of Oman's work is that he puts the rebellion in the context of the poverty, oppression and high exploitation of the feudal period.
All over England we may trace, in the third quarter of the fourteenth century, local disputes in which one or other of the rural grievances came to the front. The only thing that was new in 1381 was that the troubles were not confined to individual manors, but suddenly spread over half the realm. It is dangerous to conclude, as some writers have done, that this simultaneous action was due to deliberate organisation. We have no proof that there was any central committee of malcontents who chose their time and then issued orders for the rising. The leaders who emerged in each region seem to have been the creatures of the moment, selected almost at hazard for their audacity or their ready eloquence.
Oman's certainty on the lack of political organisation behind the rising ought to have been heeded by others who followed his lead on this subject. But Oman is on less sure ground when he applies a crude economistic analysis to the growth of trade and manufacturing in the 14th century. He writes,
A new industrial proletariate [sic] was in process of formation, and was striving hard against the conditions which it found existing... the growing industrial activity of England, and the multiplication of wealth, was tending to create a class of great employers of labour, and a class of artisans who could never aspire to become masters. 
Here Oman telescopes several centuries of industrial development in England and places the birth of an industrial working class far too early. Oman is right however to note the importance of the lower orders in London in supporting the rebellion, and helping drive it forward. But he is wrong to see these doing this as an industrial working class movement.

The book finishes by arguing that while the events of 1381 failed to transform England's rural economy:
We may well believe that many landlords were taught caution by the events of June 1391, and that they conducted the rural machine with comparative moderation for the future, lest another outburst of discontent should ensue. But there can be no doubt that the old system went on; it had received a rude sock, but had not been completely put out of gear. The best proof of this is that for the next ten years the archives of England are full of instances of conflict between landlord and tenant precisely similar;ar tp those which had been so rife in the years immediately preceding the rebellion.
But eventually, "villeinage died out from natural causes and by slow degrees". In this I think Oman neglects that the very processes that drove the peasants to rebellion were in fact making villeinage outdated. The withering away was not simply about gradual economic changes, but because it could no longer be made to work effectively.

Oman's book is an important read. It is a good supplement to other books, such as Juliet Barker's excellent England Arise! It also has Charles Oman's own translation of the Anonimal Chronicle, and a series of interesting examples of poll tax rolls. Disappointingly the "report of the sheriffs and jurors of London" on the events of June 1381 are published untranslated in their original Latin.

Related Reviews

Barker - England Arise! The People, The King and the Great Revolt of 1381
O'Brien - When Adam Delved and Eve Span
Lindsay & Groves - The Peasant's Revolt of 1381
Hilton - Bond Men Made Free
Basdeo - The Life and Legend of a Rebel Leader: Wat Tyler

Sunday, June 03, 2018

Guy Gavriel Kay - Tigana

Having recently enjoyed Guy Gavriel Kay's Children of Earth and Sky I took Tigana from the library to read on a brief holiday. Sadly I was not as enamoured by this novel whose bulk became a hindrance rather than representing a satisfyingly detailed plot.

The Tigana of the title is a conquered nation. It's destruction has been so complete that the sorcery of its new dictator has ensured that no one can even hear its name. Tigana, now known a Lower Corte, is but one of a number of tiny states on the peninsula that forms the geographical backdrop for the story. Clearly based (as in Children of Earth and Sky, the map is barely disguised) on medieval Italy, the region is made up of a variety of city states and small countries vying with each other. But geo-politics are dominated by two competing magical warlords. Brandin, who destroyed Tigana and Alberico, his sworn enemy.

The story focuses on two areas. The first is the tale of a growing rebellion led by a small group of rebels to free Tigana, through killing the tyrant Brandin. The problem is that if only Brandin is killed, Alberico will simply take over. So freedom means destroying two enemy states. The second focus of the novel is events in Brandin's court where a woman from Tigana arrives as a concubine with the intention of killing Brandin, but eventually falls in love with him.

Unlike a lot of historical fantasy these characters are morally ambiguous and fairly well rounded, even if the vast number of them can be confusing. Brandin might be a fearful and violent tyrant, but he has his loving side too, causing his would be assassin enormous confusion. The rebels themselves are prepared to use any means necessary to further their cause, but their plan to free their homeland requires years of planning (and not a few nearly unbelievable coincidences).

Tigana is a complex novel. This, for me, was its major difficulty. There's simply too many characters, too much convoluted plot, and a few too many coincidences. I can't recommend it, despite enjoying Kay's book Children of Earth and Sky.

Related Reviews

Kay - Children of Earth and Sky
A&B Strugatsky - Hard to be a God
Morgan - The Dark Defiles