Thursday, February 25, 2021

Richard Gough Thomas - William Godwin: A Political Life

This was a remarkable accidental discovery. Ironically I came across Richard Gough Thomas' new biography of William Godwin because I was working on a critique of Thomas Robert Malthus. Malthus directed the first edition of his 1798 book An Essay on the Principle of Population at the radical ideas of Godwin. In looking to read more, in particular about Godwin's own refutation of Malthus' work, I stumbled upon this new study of his life.

Thomas begins by making it clear that he is writing a political study of Godwin. But neither he, nor the reader, can ignore Godwin's fascinating and complex life. He was married (all to briefly) to Mary Wollstonecraft and father to Mary Shelley. Wollstonecraft's ideas on women's equality and freedom were enormously influential on Godwin and he remained devoted to her memory and ideas long after her death. Godwin devotes a fascinating section to a discussion of how his Godwin's biography of her was a powerful defence of he life, ideas and their relationship, rather than the crude, salacious work that it was portrayed as at the time.

Thomas sees Godwin as an early philosophical anarchist. However he points out that Godwin was not really an activist despite the widespread political activity taking place at the time. Instead Godwin was celebrated for his ideas which became enormously influential. His first book Political Justice was a major work of 800 pages. This "serious philosophical treatise" was aimed at a relatively wealthy audience. But despite it's high price (£1 16s) it sold widely as it was bought by many of the political societies that had sprung up in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Thus his ideas were taken up widely within English radical movements. Godwin's arguments were, as Thomas explains "optimistic and forward-looking". They are individualistic, but fit into a wider social framing. Thomas explains Godwin's central philosophy:

Everybody wants to be happy; evil actions are simply mistakes caused by incomplete information or insufficient consideration on the part of the individual. The philosopher's position seems naïve, but it allows him to frame moral error as something that can be corrected through greater critical reasoning - in short, that we can learn to be better people. In order to do this... we need to recognise that our understanding of the world is shaped by the society we live in. Ignorance, inequality and privation may seem normal to us but as sources of unhappiness, they are wrongs that can ne put right if we critically evaluate (and correct) the things that cause them. We have not yet done so, the philosopher suggests, because too few people have been willing to look beyond the current system for answers.

For Godwin striving to become as knowledgeable as possible about the world, would help us to become a better person, so long as "we are willing to think for ourselves and act according to our own reasoned judgement". In fact this is our duty, as individuals to work towards the best possible society.

Those of us who've sat through seemingly endless meetings that are trying to make a decision through consensus may have heard similar arguments against "leadership" that Godwin articulated. Thomas explains that Godwin was "sceptical that any large group of people can really be of one mind". Individual leaders hold power and influence that means that the collective will be siding with them out of personal loyalty rather than being convinced through argument. This becomes radical when Godwin, as Thomas explains, argues that 

if a leader derives their authority from the people under them, that authority evaporates if those people choose to withdraw their consent. Furthermore, Godwin says, if we have a duty to act according to our own reasoned judgement - and authority cannot actually prevent us from doing so - then a leader that claims to derive their authority from consent has not right to exert authority over those who withdraw their consent.

In an era when only a minority had a vote, and when even the idea of universal suffrage was accepted by barely anyone, these were radical ideas. They also dovetailed with the radicalism of the French Revolution. However the second edition of Political Justice developed these themes in more revolutionary ways. For Godwin the accumulation of wealth was morally wrong and he called for "the abolition of almost all forms of property". Instead possession should be about need. As Godwin says, in a rational society:

The word property would probably remain; its signification only would be modified. The mistake does not so properly lie in the idea itself, as in the source from which it is traced. What I have, if it be necessary for my use, is truly mine; what I have, though the fruit of my own industry, if unnecessary, it is an usurpation for me to retain.
These arguments linked with Godwin's thoughts on population. People procreated because they had to do so to survive. But if there was no economic imperative then "population would settle at a manageable level". Godwin's ideas on population developed though his works. Initially agreeing with much of Malthus he became increasingly critical and his final major work On Population was a systematic critique of Malthus based on the best available information on population. Nonetheless even his early position was far better than Malthus' cynical belief in the inevitability of over-population. In fact, towards the end of his life, Godwin hoped he would demolish Malthus' work: "if I am right the system of Malthus can never rise again, and the world is delivered for ever from this accursed apology in favour of vice and misery, or hard-heartedness and oppression."

Despite focusing his book on Godwin's ideas, Thomas does talk about how Godwin's life and ideas were shaped by circumstance. Living perpetually in debt and fearful of debtor's prison, Godwin would have thought constantly about poverty and inequality. Thomas also does justice to Godwin's other works, including lesser known novels, and his children's books. The latter responsible for keeping the wolf from the door. The figures of Mary Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft don't dominate the narrative, but Thomas eloquently shows how Godwin's life revolved around them and was shaped, in part, by their own ideas and actions. I was once again reminded of the repeated and great tragedies at the heart of this extended family.

Thomas's book gave me a new appreciation for Godwin's ideas. These, Thomas concludes, boil down to the idea that "the betterment of humanity was in [Godwin's] view contingent on our ability to foster critical reason and empathy in future generations." While the utopionism at the heart of Godwin's thought might be inadequate for changing the system, it did come from a fundamental desire to make the world a better, more equal, place for all its inhabitants. That is in no small part why his ideas inspired radicals in new and exciting ways and why William Godwin remains important today. As such Richard Gough Thomas' book is a fascinating and exciting look at Godwin's life which I highly recommend.

Kim Stanley Robinson - The Ministry for the Future

Kim Stanley Robinson's latest novel, The Ministry for the Future, is a detailed future history about humans and the environment. But you'll have to wait to find out my thoughts on it as I've promised to review it for another website. In the meantime have a look at some of my other reviews of KSR's books.

Related Reviews

KSR -Shaman
KSR - Years of Rice and Salt
KSR - Icehenge
KSR - 2312
KSR - New York 2140
KSR - Aurora
KSR - Red Moon

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Georges Simenon - Maigret at the Crossroads

*** Spoilers ***

Somehow Maigret at the Crossroads is the only Maigret that I've read. Georges Simenon's French police detective featured in 75 novels and a couple of dozen more short stories. But even just reading this one novel you can see why the stories were so popular. Published in 1931 this is an insight into a very different France. In fact, the otherworldliness of the book is one of its charms and this is extenuated by the book's is rural setting. At the crossroads of the title is a petrol station and garage and nearby a large country house. The owner of this house, is under questioning at the start of the book as a Jewish diamond trader has been found dead in his house.

Pausing only to have his wife pack him a bag, Maigret travels to the scene of the crime. The Three Widows' Crossroad, as its is known, seems eerie and lonely. Through the night cars and lorries pass on the long road to Paris, and the house itself is strange. Carl Andersen and Else Andersen, the owners, behave strangely. Else keeping herself locked in the bedroom when her husband is away. But Maigret's keen eye quickly notices things aren't right.

Like many detective novels of its era the book is short, but Simenon packs a lot in. There's a surprising amount of gun action, and some interesting backstory for the Andersens. One thing that I didn't appreciate early on is that those found guilty of murder face the death penalty, and in France at the time that meant the guillotine. It makes a the ending denouncement particularly spine-chilling. Highly recommended.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Christopher Dyer - Standards of Living in the Later Middle Ages

Despite being intended as a university text book this is a interesting and readable study of the living conditions of people in the English Middle Ages circa 1200 to 1520. What shines through first and foremost are the differences due to what Dyer calls the "enormous disparities between rich and poor". These, he emphasises, "were not an incidental by-product of economic activity but an inherent feature of society". Considering the ruling class, he writes:

The important characteristic of the aristocracy in any case was not the size of the income but the means by which it was obtained, that is by lordship. The bulk of their regular revenues came from land, most often rents and other payments enforced through rights of jurisdiction that were exercised in manorial courts.

At the other end of the economic (and exploitative) scale were the peasantry. Dyer takes the reader through the plethora of different types of peasants - from the free to the serfs - and the various types of holding and labour they had to do. While acknowledging that the period covered saw vast changes in types of landowning, Dyer notes that their communities were complex, but the peasantry did form a class. He writes:

We usually envisage the peasantry in three layers, of rich, middling and poor, by reference to the amount of land held... All of them, however, were involved in agricultural production, and had a stake in the common fields of their village. All belonged to village communities which in limited ways governed themselves. All paid rents or worked services, and were subject to the jurisdiction of a lord. Their involvement in acts of rebellion and resistance suggests a recognition of a common interest in the removal of restrictions and irksome dues. For these reasons the peasantry can be regarded as a social class.

As I said, class plays a key role in the book. One interesting nugget among many in Dyer's work is the relatively small numerical size of the upper class in the Middle Ages. He suggests that in England it amounted to a total of 50,000 people, about two percent of the population. This includes "20,000 monks, nuns and beneficed clergy" who lived of land revenues. No wonder they were so terrified of revolt from below. But the aristocracy in particular did not have it easy. We get a real sense of them struggling to manage their livestyles in the face of economic crisis and change - including events like the Black Death and plague. Dyer describes them as a "remarkably resilient and flexible class" prepared to change and adapt to maintain their position. They were also in constant change as different families lost personal or lands.

The aristocracy were judged by different standards today. Dyer holds an interesting discussion about a 14th century poem, Winner and Waster which shows the different aristocratic behaviours with wealth as having different roles - demonstrating wealth and power through spending, as well as holding society together through their ability to display restraint.

Returning to the other end of the scale, Dyer shows the difficulties in estimating the standard of living of the peasantry as their wealth was not recorded in estate accounts. In addition, he highlights how the changing roles of the peasantry within their own lives, makes it difficult to pin down exactly how people lived.

"There was no medieval proletariat" he explains, but "a high proportion of the population worked for others at some stage of their lives, and employers were numerous, including not just the wealthy gentry, clergy and yeomen, but also a wide range of craftsmen and peasants... As the unit of production was the peasant holding or the craftsman's workshop, few employees worked in a group large than two or three."

It was the slow changes in the later part of the period that began to upset the old order. Contrary to common belief (repeated frequently through the Covid-19 pandemic) the Black Death didn't simply lead to a quick rise in wages. "In fact the rise in wages was a first modest, and the striking improvement often came in the last quarter of the 14th century". Whatever the reasons, the employers felt a "deep sense of shock at the 'unnatural; demands of their servants". The "new deal for wage-earners" arose from a complex combination of different factors, but it did open up a new era of social exploitation. Nonetheless, Dyer emphasises that most people were underemployed through the period. This helps explain the peasant rebellions that took place after the Black Death, but also aspects of more personalised resistance, such as a constant changing of jobs for those who were able to. Perhaps its this, in the aftermath of the Black Death, that made the biggest contribution to ending serfdom and feudalism. 

Dyer concludes his book by noting that in the Middle Ages wealth did not mean happiness. A well off peasant with ample food and work, might be unhappy at their legal position, while a monk who had taken a vow of poverty and begged for his living might be very spiritually happy. Nonetheless the life of the majority of the population was not one of ease - but of restriction, exploitation and oppression - something that highlights once again that the Middle Ages were not a time of stagnation - but one of dynamic economic and political change. 

Christopher Dyer's book is an excellent introduction to the period - which combines well an academic study with a real feeling for the lives of people from different classes. Highly recommended as an introduction to the period.

Related Reviews

Dyer - Making a Living in the Middle Ages: The People of Britain 850-1520
Bolton - The Medieval English Economy 1150 - 1500

Friday, February 12, 2021

Diane Cook - The New Wilderness

*** Warning Spoilers ***

In some not so distant future, urban areas are over-crowded, polluted, violent and poor. The countryside has all but disappeared, rural areas being subsumed by ever expanding concrete. With one exception - the New Wilderness. Guarded by rangers, carefully monitored by drone and home to a small ragged band of randomly selected humans who are encouraged - forced even - to lead a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. The band wanders around gradually losing the equipment they brought with them, from station to station where they receive the occasional piece of post from the outside world and meet rangers who give them instructions, and fines for transgressing the rules of the Wilderness.

Its a compelling, if unbelievable scenario. Diane Cook's cast of misfits have to cope with a variety of problems - some environmental, but most social - and not all of them survive. Cook is clearly influenced by William Golding's Lord of the Flies, and this book combines elements of that story with more contemporary environmental disaster novels.

The problem is that the setup is interesting. But it falls apart because it is riddled with inconsistency and plot holes. For instance, there's no rational reason behind the "experiment". In fact the elements of behaviour by the group that would be of interest to any scientists studying them are actively discouraged by the rangers, under threat of violence. The author hopes to create an air of mystery but not explaining anything, but in reality it leaves the reader befuddled. Why would a state go to such lengths to create an elaborate version of hunter-gatherers, but do so little to make it work? In addition, the exceptions make no sense at all. Why would those under the experimental microscope continue to receive mail, and mail that includes baked goods, pieces of equipment and (in one case) a university's departmental minutes. It doesn't even appear to be an elaborate Survivor reality TV show.

But it's the inconsistencies that get the reader. Getting to the New Wilderness is so difficult that others make their way there, seemingly using underground networks to avoid the authorities. Yet one main character leaves the group, returns to her home (which despite references to resource shortages seems to be still available) and then comes back a few months later. The characters lose all track of time (one of the heroines doesn't know her age) but the band seems to have a good understanding of the seasons, moon and stars. The rules don't make sense. The nomads have to hide sweets, yet they get post that includes cake (how does it survive?). They are given illogical and inconsistent instructions by the rangers, who always hate them, but there's no explanation why. They are joined by a new group of ill-equipped, naïve volunteers who everyone expects to die, but none of them do. This new group of people have apparently been following news about the original nomads but haven't learnt any lessons - turning up in sandals and summer dresses with no equipment. 

The central mother-daughter (Bea/Agnes) story barely works - not least because Bea behaves so irrationally. At one point I thought I understood the reason Bea randomly threw herself at the unpleasant and idiotic Carl was because she had concocted a clever power game with her beloved husband. In truth it seems the author wanted to, Lord of the Flies style, suggest that a powerful man is sexually attractive simply because of his power. The central message seems to be that people reduced to nothing will get on with each other only because they have to, but really would prefer to be alone. 

This is a bad novel. It is illogical, irrational, unwieldy and unpleasant. Its characters behave irrationally and stupidly. How it got nominated for the Booker Prize I don't know. I'd recommend you avoid it.

Related Reviews

St. John Mandel - Station Eleven
Montag - After the Flood
Jameson - The Last
Aldiss - Greybeard
Solomon - An Unkindness of Ghosts
Robinson - Aurora

Tuesday, February 09, 2021

Robert Seethaler - The Tobacconist

The first novel I read by Robert Seethaler was the whimsical and beautiful A Whole Life. In some ways The Tobacconist is a very different book, but like the previous work it deals with those complete experiences that serve to make a up a life. 

It's 1937. Franz lives an idyllic, lazy life on the shores of a beautiful Austria lake. Insulated from the outside world by his home town's isolation and his youth, Franz suddenly finds himself thrown into a very different world as his mother's partner dies and they are short of money. Franz is sent to a friend of his mothers, the eponymous tobacconist who owns a booth in central Vienna. The elderly, one-legged, gruff Otto turns Franz into an experienced cigar salesman. At the same time, the naïve Franz begins to learn about the reality of the wider world as Hitler enters Austria. 

The theme of the innocent, bewildered outsider entering the dark and gloom of the real world is not new. Seethaler handles it well, probably more so for his Austrian readers who might know more about the reality of Nazi rule in Vienna. For Franz though the graffiti, Gestapo and anti-Jewish boycott's are confusing - especially as he is himself distracted through falling in love for the first time. In a not to subtle nod to Freudianism itself, Seethaler links Franz's growing awareness of love and sex, with his developing understanding of the wider political world, through the character of Sigmund Freud himself. Franz repeatedly pigeon holes Freud as he struggles to understand his emotions of love and betrayal at the hands of a young woman. There's even a phallic cigar or two to ram the point home. 

Otto's gruff exterior belays a deeper kindness - having lost his leg in the trenches of World War One, he's not prepared to forgo his own ideals. Serving Jews at the Tobacconist however draws the attention of local fascists and eventually the Gestapo arrive. As Freud is also forced from Vienna, Franz grows up remarkably fast and, inevitably, draws attention to himself. Franz's letters home to his mother, who he imagines remains in the bucolic countryside, actually show him that that world is also becoming corrupted. There seems to be no escape anymore.

It's a fine novel - compelling, intense and painful - and well worth reading, even if it didn't quite live up to Seethaler's earlier classic in this reader's mind.

Related Reviews

Seethaler - A Whole Life

Saturday, February 06, 2021

John Hultgren - Border Walls Gone Green: Nature & Anti-Immigrant Politics in America

The growing climate crisis places a new importance on discussions around migration, refugees and immigration. The environmental movement has come late to these questions. But in recent years as the movement has begun developing an appreciation of the role of colonialism, imperialism and racism in the the environmental crisis, there has been growing awareness around issues about racism, refugees and migration. But as John Hultgren's important book shows, there are right-wing and racist approaches to these issues that link them to a different approach to nature. He also argues that particularly in the United States (though not limited to it) the dominant approach to nature opens up activists to a racist agendas. He writes:

This shortcoming is reflective of a broader theoretical lacuna in environmental thought: greens lack an adequate understand of the political terrain on which struggles over nature intersect with the norms, practices and institutions of sovereignty. As nature is increasingly being deployed in projects of boundary drawing.. a failure to grapple with this emerging form of territorialisation disables effective responses to 'environmental restrictionism' and opens up space for anti-immigrant logics to subtly influence well-intentioned greens.

To emphasise Hultgren's point:

Nature is not merely captured to advance exclusionary social agendas; it is commitments to certain conceptions of nature that give rise to such agendas. [Hultgren's emphasis].

Hultgren explores three successive approaches that have coloured understanding of nature - Malthusianism, romanticism and Darwinism. He concludes:

From the late 1800s to the late 1930s an articulation between romantic and Darwinian natures intersected with a hegemonic, racial nationalism [in the US]  through a shared commitment to natural and national purity. By contrast, from the early 1940s to the early 2000s, the overt racial essentialisations present in the earlier wave of restrictionism were subsumed by a dominant neo-Malthusian nature that cut across an increasingly complex social terrain, enabling restrictionists to reinforce American sovereignty through the exclusion of immigrants, but provoking strong opposition in the process.

In contemporary discourse around climate change it is the question of the nation-state that dominates. The UN's COP process begins and ends with the idea that nations are responsible for certain amounts of emissions, and per-capita or national figures are quoted with abandon. The problem with this is, as Hultgren points out, is that this turns "socially constructed borders into natural facts" and excludes "ecosystemic or transnational" approaches. These approaches then inform wider understandings. Nature is associated with social conceptions like carrying capacity, or purity.

This can lead into an approach that blames immigrants for destruction of natural systems - because of racist beliefs about their behaviour or culture; or sees immigrants as only wanting to adapt to particular social norms which carry an associated environmental "foot print". Hence US anti-immigrant rhetoric sometimes takes the alleged per-capita emissions of an American and contrasts it with that of (say) an average Mexican. The implicit argument being that more immigrants mean more destruction. Finally immigrants are often portrayed by the right as being uncaring about the environment, in supposed contrast to white people. 

We should not fall into the trap of believing these are just modern arguments though. Hultgren emphasises how historical approaches to nature coloured particular arguments around immigration. Eg the idea that humans are inherently destructive, or fears of unrestricted population growth leading to automatic resource shortages.

These historical sections are fascinating and lay the ground for the later chapters that look at contemporary right-wing ideas around nature/immigration in the US. But it is the contemporary sections that are likely to be the most useful to left-wing and environmental activists today. Hultgren explains that

social nativists depend on a variety of epistemological strategies that deploy nature as a marker of order supporting white political supremacy; however they are quite ambivalent in their dealings with nature as an intrinsically valuable entity.

He continues by pointing out that there is no reason that "social nativists" could not be green (in fact he goes on to show some anti-migration activists that definitely are). But because environmentalism is associated with "progressive, Democratic politics" there isn't likely to be a major shift towards this sort of politics from the right of the political spectrum. However he continues that there are sections of the right in the US that consciously have attempted to use debates around environmentalists to further their agenda. Writing about one activist, Hultgren says "he is an environmentalist wedded to a specific construction of nature that is itself embedded in exclusionary notions of nationalism, race and culture. These commitments to an nationalised and racialised nature have led him into activism aimed at securing American sovereignty from the supposed threat posed by immigration".

One thing that I took from Hultgren's book is that left activists need to constantly be aware of how debates around the environment and population can be used, and articulated by the right. But, more importantly, what Hultgren concludes is that environmentalism cannot succeed in defeating right-wing anti-immigrant (and I would extend this to over-population arguments) unless it adopts a critical approach that sees nature as intimately connected to social questions like racism, class, gender, colonialism and capitalism.

John Hultgren's book is an illuminating read for all activists today. His conclusion is worth quoting by way of encouraging others to read this excellent book:

The "wes" of an environmentalism of migration "are an evolving," but the immediate challenge is to confront the power of a dominant mode of sovereignty that operates through militarised neoliberalism, a form of power that depends on the continued construction of border walls. Resistance, then, requires a global alliance geared toward tearing down border walls of all sorts - including the green variety.

It isn't enough for environmentalists to be anti-racist, pro-migrant or pro-refugee, we must also be against the dominant approaches to the environment that see the nation state, neo-liberal concepts like natural capital and blaming individuals as the answer. We need an anti-capitalist, anti-racist, pro-migrant environmentalism. John Hultgren's book offers much to those trying to get there.

Readers interested in the question of climate change and refugees/migrants should read this article by Camilla Royle on Migration in an era of Climate Catastrophe.

Related Reviews

Angus & Butler - Too Many People? Population, Immigration & the Environmental Crisis
Pearce - PeopleQuake, Mass Migration, Ageing Nations and the Coming Population Crash

Monday, February 01, 2021

Seb Falk - The Light Ages: A Medieval Journey of Discovery

When I learnt history at school we understood the "Dark Ages" as a period when little happened. The Romans had left England and there was an essential collapse into chaos and barbarism. Everything, from the towns and the economy, to education and agriculture stagnated at best or even went backwards. Today these views are a lot less common, but you still find it expressed in TV series, news reports or popular history books.

So it is wonderful that Seb Falk has written this new history of the science of the "Dark Ages" and quite rightly, relabelled them the Light Ages. Falk tells the story by telling the story of the monk John Westwyk who spent much of his life at a monastery in St Albans. Little is known about Westwyk's life, but Falk draws out the little we know. However the key material centres on the writing that Westwyk did, particularly his work in describing and transcribing texts that discuss how to use key astronomical instruments of the time - particularly the astrolabe. Westwyk also designed, though never built, a complex instrument called an equatorie.

In telling this story Falk draws out the deep scientific knowledge of the times. One important aspect to this is Falk's discussions of astrology. Today there is a tendency to dismiss astrology as being unscientific - that is absolutely correct. But in the Middle Ages astrology was a key part of much wider knowledge. The positions of stars, planets and the sun and moon, were considered a key part of medicine, agricultural knowledge, navigation and weather prediction. So Falk explores the contemporary knowledge of the how the planets, sun, moon and stars moved and how to predict and time events. It is remarkable how detailed this knowledge was and time and again I was surprised by the expertise of the monks who wrote and taught this material. As Falk jokes about his own book - if the reader finds some of the trigonometry difficult in the book, then they'll realise that medieval people were not stupid.

Another aspect to this is the exchange of ideas. Firstly monks like Westwyk drew heavily on the work of scientists from across the world - in particular figures like Aristotle and Ptolemy - as well as writers from Asia and the Middle East. Readers might be surprised at the extent to which Christian monks respected the work of Muslim and Jewish scholars. There's a popular idea that monks in the Middle Ages simply copied verbatim, knowledge from the past. But as Falk shows these copies were updated, annotated and corrected by those who copied. 

When Westwyk copied one scientific document the Albion treatise,

he added two pages of his own commentary about the relationship between Richard's [original author] compendious invention and some of the older instruments it incorporated. The first of the was the saphea of Arzachel... [who] worked in Muslim Al-Andalus in the late eleventh century, first in Toledeo and later... in Cordoba. He was a prolific astronomer, compiling user-friendly tables and developing new theories to account for long term changes in the motions of the Sun and stars.

Copies of books were circulated, borrowed and shared - though the work required skill, time and money. There was also extensive travel. John Westwyk began at St Albans, he travelled to Northumberland for several years, joined the Bishops crusade and likely also attended university. The idea that "science" or "knowledge" in these times was stagnant or limited to a small number of people is simply false.

That said, Falk makes clear that medieval science was not science as we know it. In fact the role of science and knowledge, as well as instruments like the astrolabe, was also about illuminating society and the positions of people within it. As he explains:

The astrolabe was a key to understanding - understanding both God and yourself. If Nature was a book which, like Scripture, contained clues to the divine plan, and if the world sphere, as Sacrobosco said, was a machine, then in the intricate movements of a man-made celestial machine you could find clues to the craftsmanship in Creation - a windows in to the mind of God. Moreover, studying the astrolabe could help to find your place in the world, not merely geographically, but existentially too... Medieval science... was artificially separated from Subjects that dealt with moral questions. Degrees of altitude and social status shaded subtly into one another.

Chaucer's treatise on the astrolabe was "not even just a general astronomy textbook. It was part of an all-round education". In this vein, the design of the Albion instrument was intended to "direct the minds of many people to higher things".

In trying to summarise the key points of Falk's book here I have neglected much fascinating detail. There is an amazing section on the design and manufacture of medieval instruments, as well as a step by step guide to using an astrolabe - though this is a little difficult to follow. Falk spends a great deal of time explaining precisely what the monks were trying to understand about the universe, and how this information was passed on - including the spectacular mechanical clock that was built at St Albans. 

Seb Falk's book is fascinating and illuminating. It is also a beautiful work. Lavishly illustrated with colour plates and many diagrams that clarify the text and the mathematics, this book should be on the shelf of anyone who is interested in the history of science and the middle ages. I highly recommend it.

Related Reviews

Wickham - Medieval Europe
Gimpel - The Medieval Machine
Bolton - The Medieval English Economy: 1150-1500
Bloch - Feudal Society
Miller - Empire of the Stars
Panek - Seeing and Believing
Holmes - The Age of Wonder
Hewitt - Map of a Nation: A Biography of the Ordnance Survey

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Dan Simmons - The Rise of Endymion

The fourth and final volume of Simmon's Hyperion Cantos brings together multiple narrative threads from the previous book and the two earlier ones. If volume three was mostly a chase, as Aenea and Raoul fled the galactic Catholic Church, this volume tells the story of Aenea's life as she spreads a message of religious radicalism. Travelling from planet to planet she begins to convert people to a new way of thinking that challenges the power of the Church and offers new ways of understanding the universe and humanities place within it. Raoul takes a different route and, through a time debt incurred by long distance space travel, meets up with Aenea when she has grown up. They become lovers.

Raoul struggles to understand his role, Aenea and her life. Jealous, confused and, on occasion stupid, he serves once again as a substitute for the reader. We learn about Aenea and her life as Raoul does, though on occasion I wanted to slap him and tell him to grow up! As Raoul searches his soul for his feelings for Aenea, galactic wide forces search for her and the Catholic Church launches a Crusade against the Ousters, whom they blame for humanity's condition. Behind the scenes (or perhaps under the fabric of the universe) other intelligent forces try to guide and shape events in their own interests. Rebellion explodes on planet after planet, in part inspired by Aenea's teachings but also because of the oppressive reality of Church rule. 

Father de Soya breaks from the Church after having had to kill too many children in the name of the Church and begins to learn the reality of what the Church is doing and why. His alliance with Aenea moves them into final confrontation with the Church - and finally (finally!) Raoul begins to comprehend what is taking place - though it remains unclear why he is kept in the dark so much. The ending of the book, brings together strands from all four volumes in a brilliant way - forgotten events that weren't explained in the first couple of books suddenly take on importance, or at least are tied off and explained. But there are also some brilliant examples of Simmon's talent for description - the Dyson sphere of trees that suffers a massive attack from the Church's space-armada being one example.

The final volume is huge - over 800 pages - even for a series that has already had thousands of pages. But this isn't just because Simmons is tying up lose ends and bringing the story to a satisfying climax. Unfortunately it is also because he is prone to extra long descriptions and philosophical musings and gets a little carried away here - some of these feel much more clunky than the previous books and in my opinion weakened this book. Nonetheless its a satisfying finale that brings the whole sequence to a excellent close. And we finally understand what the Shrike is.

Related Reads

Simmons - Hyperion
Simmons - The Fall of Hyperion
Simmons - Endymion

Dan Simmons - Endymion

Endymion is the third part of Dan Simmons Hyperion Cantos. While the second two books form an independent story, readers would be well advised to read the first two books which set the scene for the final half of the story. But readers should also check them out first because they are a brilliant and very well told story. 

Endymion itself is set several hundred years after the events of The Fall of Hyperion. It begins with Raoul Endymion in prison facing a death sentence "for the second time". Trapped in a Schrodinger's box execution, awaiting the emission of a random radioactive particle that will trigger poison gas, he tells his story and how it is tied up with the daughter of two of the first books' main characters Aenea.

Nearly three hundred years before the start of this story Aenea entered the time-tombs on Hyperion and is set to leave them. Raoul, escaping from his first death sentence through the intervention of the aged poet Martin Silenus (one of the few characters to make it into the second half of the Cantos), learns that he has to rescue Aenea from the clutches of a now galactic wide, resurrected, Catholic Church. 

The rescue leads to a novel length chase, as Raoul and the child Aenea travel along the River Thethys, visiting world after world, hunted by Father de Soya for the Church. Alongside Soya are several powerful bionic AIs that are also hunting Aenea and various other forces that are vying for Galactic position.

In the first book of the Cantos, Hyperion, part of the brilliance was the different stories told by the participants in a pilgrimage to the Time Tombs. Brilliantly Simmons eschewed this format for the second book, taking the story and the style to new places. In volume three the chase from planet to planet allows Simmons to elaborate about the universe he has created, exploring the role of the Church, as well as the people who live under (or resist) its rule. Simmons is at his best when he tells these background stories - sometimes they serve to tell us about the universe of the books, or develop the key characters. At other times they are whimsical explorations of alien life and culture. The frozen world of Sol Draconi is one example - here the hunter-gatherer natives scratch a bare living, threatened by monstrous local animals that kills them regularly. Trying to find a route off the planet Raoul and Aenea encounter a philosophical, blind priest. It's a touching break in a seemingly endless chase.

Much of the background detail on these planets turns out to be highly relevant, as it seems that the Church isn't the only galactic force trying to shape the future of humanity. The novel ends with Aenea settling down on Old Earth (albeit an Earth transported to the Large Magellanic Cloud and managed by AIs) to develop her own understanding. Raoul explores old Earth, with adventures he refers to only tantalizing, realising he needs to finish writing before radioactive decay forces his wave-function into a particular collapsed state. Raoul, it should be said, spends much of both books confused about his role and purpose, simultaneously a hero of the story and a substitute for the reader who will have to read right to the end of volume four to finally understand what's happening.

Related Reviews 

Simmons - Hyperion
Simmons - The Fall of Hyperion
Simmons - The Rise of Endymion

Monday, January 25, 2021

John Lewis-Stempel - Still Water: The Deep Life of the Pond

There has been an enormous boom in nature writing in the last few years. Visits to mainstream bookshops are now often dominated by shelves groaning under the weight of books on nature, or aspects of nature. No doubt this is in part to do with the environmental crisis which has raised nature back into our gaze again. But it is also a response to the growing alienation of late capitalism. The longer trends of a crisis ridden society fuelling a need for escapism - and what better place to escape to than the natural world. John Lewis-Stempel is one author who has been a key part of this. A farmer as well as a popular historian, he has written several books that have taken key aspects of the (mainly) English landscape and explored them in various ways. 

Still Water is his latest and looks at the life and history of the pond. Ponds play an important role in the landscape. Today they are celebrated less for watering of animals or cart wheels and more for their role in preserving wildlife. Ponds require maintenance - human intervention. Those duck ponds on village commons, or in farmers' field need dredging, clearing and protection. They are also complex eco-systems of mammals, birds, amphibians, fish, insects and plants. A dialectical system of life that is, tragically, diminishing as ponds are lost to development or no longer fit agricultural requirements.

Lewis-Stempel tells us this, but unfortunately he does so in a way that practically removes the pond from wider historical and natural dynamics. We never really get a sense of the ecological systems and their links to wider processes. Instead we see the pond, and its teeming life, merely through the eyes of the observer. It feels inadequate, as though there are chunks of story missing. Lewis-Stempel tells us about individual creatures and plants, but it feels remarkably superficial. They are isolated from wider networks. The author celebrates their lives, their uniqueness but it isn't ecology - its a ramble through the things that Lewis-Stempel wants to tell us about. Nature by anecdote.

The problem is compounded by the writing. The author thrives on the obscure and the knowing reference. It feels a little like a middle-class dinner party where everyone makes asides to the latest Guardian commentary or a particular popular poet. Instead of drawing us in like evocative nature writings of authors like Barry Lopez or Gavin Maxwell I found myself jarred by the scatter-gun approach. At times the author is either taking the piss - or being deliberately obscure. I was bemused by his description of a sky as being "the weird white of boiled fish eye" but repelled by his comment about frogs that "squat on stones, like turd splats". Perhaps this was a clever reference to someone's poetry I thought, but a quick google tells me that Lewis-Stempel is the only writer that seems to have used these similes.

But these turns of phrase aren't the main problem. Rather its the approach to nature which extracts individuals species out of the wider context and sees them only through the eye of the beholder. John Lewis-Stempel understands that landscape (and ponds particularly) are the result of human interaction with the land - but he only talks about it in the present. This history only exists to allow him to talk about what he sees today. It's a decidedly flat nature that left me very disappointed.

Related Reviews

Maxwell - Ring of Bright Water
Slaght - Owls of the Eastern Ice
Tudge - The Secret Life of Birds
Carson - Silent Spring
Carson - Under the Sea Wind

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Chris Harman - Selected Writings

Regular readers might know that British socialist Chris Harman was a key influence on my (and many others) development as a Marxist activist. After Harman's untimely death in 2009 Colin Barker edited this collection of writings which has brought together many important works. Most of these are available on the internet, however bringing them together allows the reader to see connections between different areas of Harman's work as well as his central stress on the need to build revolutionary organisation in order to overthrow capitalism. 

Some of the essays here are well known. One of Harman's most important works The Prophet and the Proletariat (1994) is a detailed study of the rise of Islamic movements and the approach revolutionary socialists should take towards them. Harman argues that incorrect to see these movements as backward or fascistic, but that it is also incorrect to only celebrate their anti-imperialist character. Socialists that do these either cut themselves off from the mass movements that the forces within them, or find themselves unable to understand the potential reactionary turns. It's a masterful analysis that demonstrates how Harman's deep knowledge of the history of the Middle East combines with his Marxist analysis and brings the reader to a clear understanding of the tasks for socialists. Harman never looks for short-cuts, or hides reality - so there are no easy answers here. But the pieces' importance was demonstrated a few years after his death with the outbreak of the Arab Spring and the work of revolutionaries with in it.

Another key work for the IS tradition was Harman's 1984 piece Women’s Liberation and Revolutionary Socialism. Here again Harman demonstrates the importance of historical research as he shows how women's oppression arises with class society but takes on a central role for the ruling class under capitalism. It is a brilliant essay that stands the test of time. While some of it is focused on internal debates within the Marxist movement readers today will find it offers much food for thought as debates on the origins of women's oppression continue in the aftermath of Me Too and other movements. It is also the source of the longest foot note I think I have ever found, as Harman devotes almost 1800 words in the first reference to countering the critique "that anthropology had, in fact, shown that male supremacy and women’s oppression exists in all societies". This footnote alone deserves a read!

Another collected article that was influential for me when I read it as a young socialist and remains crucial today is his Party and Class (1968).As the International Socialists to which Harman belonged saw a huge burst of growth in the middle of that year of international radicalism, this polemic is part of a debate about what sort of socialist organisation was needed. It is simultaneously a critique of Labour Party style broad church organisation and Marxist propaganda groups. Today it feels like a breath of fresh air in the aftermath of left excitement over Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders. 

Harman's economic writings were always important, and several of them are included here. In his The Crisis of Bourgeois Economics (1996) he takes apart mainstream understandings of capitalism, in particular a critique of Keynes' ideas. Personally I found this hard to follow as it demonstrated Harman's familiarity with debates in mainstream economics and authors I hadn't read. I've know doubt to those better read in economics than me it will be superb. I was however refreshed by his article on The Rate of Profit and the World Today (2007) which provided a superb explanation (and prediction) of the economic crisis that would hit global capital one year later. It's a brilliant use of Marx's key concept of the falling rate of profit to demonstrate the problems inherent to 21st century capitalism. 

Another impressive key work that is collected here is Harman's essential The Summer of 1981: a post-Riot Analysis (1981). Written to explain the wave of riots that swept the UK in the context of Thatcherism, unemployment and police racism it feels like it could be written today during the Black Lives Matter movement. Harman skilfully studies the riots to draw out issues of race and class, at the same time as exploring the differences between UK riots and similar ones in the US. He places the riots in the context of a long tradition of riots by the British working class - arguing that in part these take place when more traditional struggles (such as the trade unions) have proved ineffective. If readers of this review only read one piece this year by Harman, I'd suggest it's this one. Though why only read one? Another interesting thing about this article is that it's based in part of reports sent in by SWP branches about the riots - allowing Harman to look beyond mainstream media headlines to examine who took part, and why. 

Finally its worth mentioning that several essays here deal with Harman's analysis of the Eastern Bloc and State Capitalism in Russia. One of these How the Revolution Was Lost (1967) is a detailed exploration of how the inspirational revolution of 1917 became the Stalinist Monolith of the 1930s. It's a powerful piece that I highly recommend.

The pieces I've highlighted above are some of Harman's key works and are often of significant length. However Harman also wrote regular popular columns in the SWP's newspaper and magazine. These are, disappointingly, under-represented in this collection and I think the book would have been much better if it had dropped at least one major length work and included some shorter pieces by Harman. A hint of the material missed is an article by Harman on the author B. Traven who wrote radical novels from South America. There is also a surprising bit of repetition, particular in the selection on Eastern Europe. Finally the essays feel very weighted towards Harman's earlier revolutionary life. Perhaps this reflects slightly the editor who was also an early student activist in the organisation. One excellent exception to this is Harman's Climate Change and Class Conflict (2007) a piece that is remarkably prescient in its analysis of capitalism, the environment and the social movements that will result. 

My criticisms of the collection aside, there is not a single article in here that isn't worth reading. In fact many of them feel they are written for events today. His 1977 article The Workers' Government written with Tim Potter is an intervention into debates on the revolutionary left about what sort of governments can bring about socialism. It feels like a contemporary critique of SYRIZA or Podemos.

But I would recommend getting the book, as reading the essays in order you get a real sense of how Harman placed the key dynamic of capitalist accumulation at the centre of his analysis. Time and again he makes the point that the subject he is studying results from the nature of the system that we live in and thus there must be revolutionary conclusions. But Chris Harman also knew there were practical conclusions too, in the need for organisation. As he wrote in Party and Class:

The need is still to build an organisation of revolutionary Marxists that will subject their situation and that of the class as a whole to scientific scrutiny, will ruthlessly criticise their own mistakes, and will, while engaging in the everyday struggles of the mass of workers, attempt to increase their independent self-activity by unremittingly opposing their ideological and practical subservience to the old society. 

Related Reviews

Harman - Zombie Capitalism: Global Crisis & The Relevance of Marx
Harman - The Fire Last Time: 1968 and After
Harman - Revolution in the 21st Century
Harman - Marxism and History
Harman - Class Struggles in Eastern Europe 1945-83

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Henry Heller - A Marxist History of Capitalism

I have previously reviewed and enthused about Henry Heller's writing on the transition from feudalism to capitalism, so I was excited to read this short book in which Heller explains the history of capitalist from a Marxist viewpoint. The opening chapters focus on the transition from feudalism to Merchant capitalism. These are an extremely accessible short guide to the debates and summarise Heller's longer work elsewhere. He makes some interesting points which are worth noting. For instance, he insists that capitalism was a global system from the start. It didn't simply start in north-western Europe and spread, but was highly dependent on trade and resources with the rest of the globe. He also understands the role of the state and class struggle in pushing forward the development of the capitalist means of production:

It was upper-class demand for more surplus and peasant resistance that created conflict and drove history forward. With the appearance of the capitalist class in the sixteenth century the goal of the upper class changed. The primary goal of this now profit-seeking class was no longer consumption but the accumulation of capital... The revolutionary character of this development has to be underscored. Consumption of wealth became entirely subordinate to its accumulation, the necessity of which was intrinsic to the new mode of production. That is why the debut of the capitalist mode of production in the sixteenth century represented a qualitative historical breakthrough.

In the chapters on the development of capitalism Heller does an excellent job of summarising the problems with political Marxist arguments like those of Robert Brenner. Again these are useful summaries, but Heller's detailed arguments elsewhere repay reading.

However it is in the second half of the book where I felt Heller comes unstuck and his book becomes problematic. While his analysis of the development of capitalism, and in particular the shape of neo-liberalism remains strong, it is hampered by his insistence on actually existing socialism in the Soviet Union and countries like China. For instance he characterises the second half of the twentieth century as seeing a Cold War between "the forces of capitalist imperialism on the one hand and revolutionary socialism and national liberation on the other".

The problem is that the USSR certainly was no longer a socialist society from the late 1920s onward. Neither it, nor countries like China, can claim that mantle given the complete lack of workers' democratic control over the means of production, and the fact that their economies were driven by accumulation in competition with the West, primarily through the arms race. To characterise China  today as "half socialist and half capitalist" is to remove the essence of what Marxists mean by socialism - workers' power - and insist that it simply means nationalised industry.

Heller also argues that Marx said in Capital III that "that capitalism is likely to implode by virtue of its own contradictions". At times Heller's writing implies we are very close to such a transition. He argues, for instance, that the ruling class should have nationalised the banks in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis. They didn't, but he says that the fact this was a "real alternative" demonstrates "how close we are to a sudden end of capitalism and the dawn of socialism". But this is only true if we see socialism as just about the nationalisation of sections of the economy. If we see socialism as being based on the power of workers councils etc then we are a lot further from the dawn than Heller contends. 

Given how much I enjoyed Heller's early book I was very disappointed by this short work. At slightly less than 150 pages it is a quick read, but its academic price tag means that it hardly represents value for money or is accessible to working people. Readers should get it from the library, but read it primarily for its excellent historical analysis and less for its problematic discussions about the transition to socialism.

Related Reviews

Heller - The Birth of Capitalism: A Twenty-First-Century Perspective
Harman - Zombie Capitalism: Global Crisis & The Relevance of Marx
Allen - Marx and the Alternative to Capitalism
Choonara - Unravelling Capitalism: A Guide to Marxist Political Economy
Kimber & Choonara - Arguments for Revolution
Roberts - The Long Depression

Tuesday, January 05, 2021

Mike Berners-Lee & Duncan Clark - The Burning Question

The The Burning Question begins by asking a really important question. Why is it that given awareness of climate change and nearly twenty-five United Nations annual conferences, carbon emissions continue to rise? The authors aim to "get a proper understanding of the core barriers that are holding us back" and to "show how the money bound up in oil, coal and gas reserves has blocked political progress and clouded the analysis". These are excellent questions and in the first section of the book the authors show, in graphic and sometimes alarming detail, why no progress has been made on climate change.

Part of the problem is, of course, the wealth and power of the fossil fuel corporations and the politicians who are linked to them. More worryingly however the authors show how, because of the centrality of fossil fuel to the economy, "efficiency and voluntary carbon cuts do have an essential role to play in bringing about a low-carbon world, it turns out that on closer inspection, they don't in themselves do much, if anything at all, to cut global emissions."

In fact, the figures are quite stark. It's worth quoting Berners-Lee and Clark at length:
A team of academics crunched a huge amount of trade data to work out the total carbon footprint of consumption in each major country, including imports and excluding exports... Between 1990 and 2008, developed countries as a whole cut their carbon emissions by 2 per cent, but their total carbon footprint in the same period actually grew by around 7 per cent. As expected, the rise was higher than average in the US, where climate policies have consistently met with strong political opposition, but even in climate-progressive Europe, the apparent 6 per cent cut in carbons emissions was slashed to become just 1 per cent.
The problem, as the authors hint at, is the nature of capitalism. Here the above quote is empirically useful, but political unhelpful, because it refers to "consumption". The problem is the nature of production. The authors acknowledge this when they write:
To be clear, we are not saying alternative energy sources aren't important. It's obvious that phasing out fossil fuels will only be practically and politically possible in parallel with a monumental effort to scale-up low-carbon energy sources. But  in the absence of a major global effort to constrain fossil fuel use, it's not clear that low-carbon energy in itself is helpful.
Part of the problem is the age old Jevons paradox. In his 1865 book The Coal Question, William Stanley Jevons showed that energy efficiency in steam boilers led to increased coal use. Similarly energy efficiencies or cheaper sources of energy lead to increased usage of energy. Reducing the cost of car travel can lead to more miles driven. Another problem, highlighted by Berners-Lee and Clark, is the fact that capitalism is a system based on growth. Thus the problem lies within the system of production itself, not consumption.

The authors are excellent at highlighting the various reasons for this, and the limitations that there are in, for instance, environmental strategies that are simply about deploying efficiency savings or renewable capacity. These simply get gobbled up by the fossil fuel system. They also appreciate the limitations of international agreements like Kyoto which countries can simply pull out of if they are likely to miss their targets, or ignore if they want. They also know that solving climate change is such a massive threat to fossil fuel multinationals that they are prepared to "lobby against carbon laws and buy political support for their agenda."

Our authors also demolish the myth of technological solutions. We've seen the failure of efficiency savings to reduce carbon emissions. They also point out that (say) Carbon Capture Systems aren't working and, more importantly, won't be used because they hit profits:
Even if it cost nothing to install, no power station operating purely for profit would ever use CCS voluntarily as the carbon capture processes take huge amounts of energy, undermining the commercial viability of the planet.
And that's without discussing where we put all the sequestered carbon.

So what's the solution? Here is where my criticisms of the book come to the fore. The authors understand that the system doesn't work. But end up suggesting more of the same to solve the issue. So to make CCS viable we need laws to "create a market" for the systems. Another option looked at positively are emissions trading schemes: 
A sensibly designed carbon-trade policy could incentivise foreign companies and governments to increase carbon regulation in their target markets and ensure that any carbon tax revenues are collected locally rather than overseas.
But existing schemes like these don't work, and its not because they aren't "sensibly designed" but because we live in a fossil fuel system that runs on the logic of profit. 

Because they understand the power of the multinationals and the damage they cause, the authors are clear that action that challenges these fossil fuel monoliths is essential. This mean laws, boycotts and international agreements to force a transition to a low carbon society. Getting this change means ordinary people must protest, lobby and pressure governments to introduce legislation to reverse things. This is great. Who can disagree with the authors' statement that "if we accept that our green efforts are as much about creating social and political ripples as they are about directly stemming the flow of carbon into the atmosphere, that suggest we may need to think more about maximising those ripples". But what does this actually mean for Berners-Lee and Clark?
If an advertising executive declines a job to promote the Canadian tar sands, although another agency will take it up, the exchange might inspire some soul searching at the oil company and raise eyebrows in the media sector. If a student demands that a university divests from fossil fuels, although someone else will buy the shares, influential academics will be forced to think harder about the moral implications of oil, coal and gas production. Conversations will be triggered".
To think that people call revolutionary socialists utopian! Even in 2013 when the book was first written these were already inadequate arguments. Unfortunately ripples don't change the fundamental dynamics of capitalism. Herein lies the problem. The authors criticism of the behaviour of the fossil fuel companies which arises out of the nature of capitalism, but this criticism does not extend into a critic of the capitalist system itself. Ultimately the alternative posed in this book is a green capitalism which will, it seems, come about because large numbers of people "stand up for the facts". The authors' conclude:
Culture change and campaigning creates political space to change laws, which can build markets, which can scale technologies, which can feed back into culture change, enabling better laws, bigger markets and so on.
Rightly the authors argue we need a cap on carbon emissions. But that can only come about through a challenge to the system itself, and that requires more than appeals for something better. It means defeating and breaking up those massive oil, gas and coal corporations. It means organising society around something other than the drive to make profit.

Unfortunately the last two hundred years of capitalism prove beyond all doubt that the capitalists aren't swayed by morals or truth. They are only interested in profit. The fact that fossil fuels are so central to the system means that the system cannot be reformed, and this book demonstrates just how true that is. The problem is the authors don't take the argument to its logical conclusions. Thankfully the environmental movement of the 2020s is far more radical in its approach: "System Change not Climate Change".

Related Reviews

Keith Roberts - Pavane

This is a remarkable work of alternate-history that is innovative both in terms of its subject and its structure. Set in an alternate future where Queen Elizabeth was assassinated in 1588 and the consequent invasion by the Spanish Armada was successful, England in 1968 remains a Catholic country. The hold of the Catholic Church is immense, holding back technological development, preventing rebellion and the country is trapped in a era powered by coal and driven by steam. The Civil War and English Revolution never happened and capitalism is very much restrained by old feudal relations. King Charles rules England and his North American colonies and local power is developed to feudal lords.

This is the promising backdrop to a series of linked short stories that show the growing discontent with the Church and the established order. The first few stories serve to give detailed backdrop. The first is the story of the driver of the Steam vehicle the Lady Margaret and his unrequited love for a woman. The driver makes a reappearance later when his business has grown massively, to the extent it can offer massive cash loans to the aristocracy. Another story follows the training of a signaller at the semaphore stations that are the only official methods of communication over great differences. The signallers guild is fiercely independent and plays a significant role in the later stories, but here we learn of its inner workings, it's trade secrets and Roberts tantalises us with a glimpse of the more fantastic denizens of this fantasy world.

For 1968 England in Pavane is not just an alternate history. There are other forces and figures, more magical that make their influence known. Perhaps this is why the country is a little more bucolic than its steam-punk mode of production might allow for. There's a clever story of a rebellion led by Brother John, a monk whose radical awakening was triggered by the work of the Church's inquisition. Readers will find plenty of names that reoccur through the different stories and times covered. It's up to them to decide who is the same and who is different.

But it is in the final couple of stories that we learn of the full rebellion as sections of the English ruling class break from Rome. Its a fast paced and exciting story, though the ending is inconclusive and Robert's coda is unsatisfying (not least in its passing reference to events outside the book's timeline). 

But I highly enjoyed the novel, for its detailed background and obsessive delight in the details of everyday life combined with a real sense of historical change and rebellion. I also found the structure of linked short stories enjoyable, giving a nice reading pace, and keeping me going back and forth to work out the links. I understand that Pavane is Keith Roberts best known novel and will look for others.

Related Reviews

Willis - Doomsday Book
Harrison - A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!
Gibson & Sterling - The Difference Engine
Reynolds - Terminal World

Sunday, January 03, 2021

Pamela Horn - Life in the Victorian Country House

The English country houses of the Victorian and Edwardian era are a source of endless fascination. From Brideshead Revisited to Downtown Abbey the potential for conflict and gossip both upstairs and downstairs attracts authors and TV executives. As this book by historian Pamela Horn shows the history of these houses is endlessly fascinating, not least because they represented extremes of wealth and class differentials in the countryside. 

Some of the houses were enormous, but even minor country houses represented wealth and power in the countryside. The wealth came, almost entirely from agriculture on the massive lands owned by the lords in the houses. Later this was sometimes supplemented, particularly during the agricultural depression of the post-Napoleonic war era, by exploitation of other resources such as coal. But in the main the money came from agriculture. The fame of these houses and the families that resided in them, often for hundreds of years, far surpassed their numerical importance. The aristocracy, Horn explains, numbered just three hundred families when they were the richest landowners, growing to 450 by 1885. By 1914 "newly ennobled financiers, industrialists and other businessmen" took the number to over 570. Many of these "were in possession of... at least 1,000 acres considered necessary to support the lifestyle of a mid-Victorian landed gentlemen".

To manage the lavish lifestyles required dozens of servants and a great strength of Horn's book is that she explores the close relations between the two. These must have been suffocating at times, as the family followed strict timetables and the numbers of servants in at least one case, meant that at least one lady was rarely able to see her own children. But what stands out is the stifling restrictions of life for the servants. They were restricted by their station - low paid, constantly at risk of dismissal and working extremely long hours at the whim of often deeply unpleasant masters. 

But the rich too were also sometimes limited by their own station. In particular the women who were often little more than bargaining chips in arranged marriages between great families. Not a few of the reminisces from society ladies in Horn's book bemoan the boredom of life - subject to a strictly regimented timetable and unable to do anything unladylike. One woman who talked of guests at a house part moving the clock forward so they could go to bed at the approved hour of 11 o'clock.

That said the pampered lives of the aristocracy meant that the lived in luxury unknown to the mass of the population. A tiny few, such as Lady Warwick, noticed this and played a small role in trying alleviate poverty and challenge the system. But these were very much the outsiders. The rest were happy to lord it over everyone else - often with such wealth that they didn't know what to do with it. Horn mentions one landowner who was known to have "eight houses but no home".

While I found the book engaging and detailed, I was disappointed to not have more about how the landowners related to the tenant farmers and the wider community. This book is very much focused on life "in" the houses, but this can't really be separated from the wider social and economic relations in the countryside. Nonetheless this is a fun and interesting book, as well as being lavishly illustrated with fascinating photos, adverts and pictures. It did leave me with one question though - why on Earth didn't we cut off the heads of the aristocracy?

Related Reviews

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

Mingay - Rural Life in Victorian England