Friday, July 30, 2021

Richard Woodman - The Real Cruel Sea: The Merchant Navy in the Battle of the Atlantic 1939-1943

Over 30,000 members of the Merchant Navy lost their lives during World War Two. Most of their names are inscribed on the Tower Hill memorial near the Tower of London. It's a beautiful memorial, near a smaller memorial to those Merchant sailors who died in the First World War. Both memorials are seldom visited, despite their location. 

The sacrifice of these sailors almost all of whom were men, is mostly forgotten. During the war, appalling conditions, the dangerous work and the low wages meant that crew often didn't go back to see. To counter this the British government produced a badge with the label MN to create a esprit de corps. Many men wore it upside-down, joking - or perhaps not joking - that the letters now stood for Not Wanted.

Richard Woodman's book is a detailed account of the primary battleground of Britain's Merchant Navy during World War Two - the Battle of the Atlantic. He mentions only in passing convoys to Russia and events in the Pacific and Indian oceans. It was in the Atlantic that most of those 30,000 sailors lost their lives and where their most important work was done. 

This is a massive book. Nearly 800 pages of small type, detailing in almost complete detail the events of the Battle. Open the book at random and there will almost certainly be a story of a ship that sank, a crew that abandoned ship or a heroic voyage in a lifeboat. The backdrop to this is a British Admiralty that, for most of the War, simply could not provide the escorts that were required to stop German U-Boats sinking ships. The Convoy system that was rapidly introduced after heavily initial loses went some way to saving ships. But there just wasn't the military protection that was needed - Britain was too short of destroyers and other escort vessels, and these had duties elsewhere.

As a result, the carnage dominates Woodman's history. The book opens with the loss of the passenger liner Athena. A ship sunk by a torpedo a few hours after war was declared. Over 1,400 people were on board, including 500 Jewish refugees. A model evacuation meant that the loss of life was relatively low - 117 passengers and crew. It was a propaganda disaster for Germany, and a success for the British, helping encourage a more anti-Nazi position in the US. Later ships would not be as lucky, and German submarines became adept in a total war against shipping. Some U-boat captains showed compassion to survivors, others committed war crimes, or demonstrated indifference.

In his desire to document so much, large parts of Woodman's book become almost lists of ships sunk, their cargos, and captains. But Woodman does manage to excite the material by focusing on specific tales. The best parts, and there aren't enough of them, are the oral histories of sailors. I also felt that more could have been made of the economic role of the ships. How was the war effort hampered by loss of material? Why was Britain exporting goods to the rest of the World at the time? What was being imported and why - who prioritised and decided what materials were needed. 

Woodman explains well the tactics of both sides. I was surprised to find that one great tactical mistake of the British military was to not deploy aircraft to the theatre in significant numbers. It's clear from later in the war that this made a significant improvement to the ability to combat submarines, yet the focus was always on bombing German civilian targets. A strategy that was, even at the time, known to be limited. Only one raid was made against German submarine bases, which seems incredible to me.

I was also shocked to learn that the US failed to learn the lessons. When the US entered the war, they did not take up the convoy system until hundreds of lives and ships had been lost. German submarine officers describe seeing ships silhouetted as easy targets against the backdrop of the brightly light US cities that were not blacked out.

Two other things stand out. For most of the first part of the war, British seamen were considered to have broken their articles, their contractual bond with the captain of the ship, when they were sunk. Thus survivors, who lost everything in the sinking and their dependents also lost any pay the moment they entered the lifeboats. It was an indignity and insult, and often the first their family knew was when the money stopped coming. The second thing is the multinational character of ships crews. Many of the men who died originated from British colonies and China. They lost their lives or fought for survival alongside their crewmates, fighting for a country that cared little for them, and even less for the Merchant Navy sailors. While there are occasional stories of resistance and mutiny by sailors, they are very much a handful of accounts. 

Its a neglected story, told in great detail by Richard Woodman's massive book. Sadly it finishes in 1943 when the U-boat threat was almost over. I would have liked more detail on events afterward - the troopships and return of troops after the war would have been fascinating. Had Woodman sacrificed some detail more justice could have been done to the wider story. Nonetheless for those who've read or watched The Cruel Sea, this is excellent background material.

Related Reviews

Monsarrat - Three Corvettes
Monsarrat - The Cruel Sea
Lund & Ludlam - PQ17: Convoy to Hell
Lund & Ludlam - The Fate of the Lady Emma

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Patrick Bond (ed) - Durban's Climate Gamble

At the end of 2011, the annual United Nations climate conference took place in Durban, South Africa. COP17 was another showcase event for the post-Apartheid regime. Yet, the context of Durban was much more contested. As this interesting book, edited by South African academic and activist Patrick Bond, shows - Durban was a city suffering from major environmental issues, the legacy of Apartheid, and ongoing racism - as well as enormous political and economic problems. The new South Africa, being shown off to the UN delegates, was far from the polished success story that the government was trying to show. But nor was the COP process itself.

This collection of essays explains some of that reality. The first section on Durban's Political Ecology looks at the political context for COP17's host city. From the battles over space, environment and wealth to wider discussions on the history of apartheid. There's a fascinating chapter by Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed on Durban's "Indian Quarter" - the historic class struggles that have shaped the area, but also the ongoing development that continues to threaten its inhabitants. Patrick Bond's excellent chapter on Water Wars looks at how the city is shaped by struggles over access to water, sewage, toilets as well as the beach front and fishing rights. At times inspiring - such as the movements that have reconnected shackdwellers to their water supplies, but also depressing as we see how the neoliberal city rides roughshod over its inhabitants health, labour and environment. An earlier chapter on political ecology by Bond and Aswin Desai highlights the biggest problem about Durban in the time of COP17 - the fact that the UNFCCC process will not solve the biggest challenge of climate change. In summary:

far greater emission cuts are required than the present balance of forces in negotiations will permit; secondly the UNFCCC;s failure to take climate crimes and the climate debt owed to victims of climate change seriously; thirdly the UNFCCC';s commodification of everything, from intellectual property to forests... and lastly the UNFCCC's failure to consider decommissioning the dangerous carbon markets. 

It's a depressingly litany, that those of us preparing to protest COP26 in Glasgow, ten years later, must also fight. The fact that the issues remain the same tells us that much about the fundamental flaws of the COP process itself.

Several chapters explore this further. Larry Lohmann has been a longstanding critic of market solutions to climate change. His contribution to this book is an excellent demolition of carbon markets. Lohmann's demolition of such trading schemes is well worth seeking out (he has written extensively on the subject) but as Del Weston writes in their chapter on the Politics of Climate Change in South Africa, these trading schemes in and of themselves are not the problem:

Rather it is the fundamental social relations of production, the ensuing construction of the state and the financialised global political economy - which are determining South Africa's and the world's future. 

All the authors explore this reality. The way that the capitalist system and its priorities (eg in market solutions to climate change) drive wider disparity in African society. For instance, the fact that the South African government can make huge amounts of money by selling carbon credits from the Bisasar Road Landfill meant that, despite promises to the contrary, they kept the site open. For the local Black and Indian population this meant ongoing exposure to poisons and continued health problems. 

That the South African government is part of the problem is highlighted in the book's exposure of their negative role in undermining the Copenhagen negotiations, breaking the radical united front of the African negotiators at that COP.

There is much of interest in this short book, and together with a slightly earlier work solely authored by Patrick Bond Politics of Climate Justice: Paralysis Above, Movement Below (reviewed here) it offers a valuable insight into the question of climate justice, capitalist environmental strategies and the African continent. A great strength of both books are their recognition of social movements as the force to transform the situation. Of course, as with any book written at a specific political juncture some of the material is out of date. But nevertheless this is worth digging out in order to understand exactly why, as we approach COP26, the situation is worse than it has ever been.

Related Reviews

Bond - Politics of Climate Justice: Paralysis Above, Movement Below
Böhm and Dabhi (eds) - Upsetting the Offset, The Political Economy of Carbon Markets
CTW - The Carbon Neutral Myth, Offset Indulgences for your Climate Sins
Alexander, Sinwell & others - Marikana: A View from the Mountain and a Case to Answer

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Fotheringham, Sherry & Bryce - Breaking Up the British State: Scotland, Independence & Socialism

This is an important and timely book. Published in the aftermath of a historic success for the Scottish National Party (SNP) in the May 2021 election it seeks to discuss the question of Scottish Independence in a Marxist framework and historical context. All the authors and editors are members of the Socialist Workers Party in Scotland, and it is one of the clearest arguments for a socialist strategy around Independence published so far. 

Breaking Up the British State argues that socialists must both support and actively campaign for Independence - but they must do this with clear strategic goals. The key ambition is to further the struggle for socialism through breaking up the British state and weakening capital's ability to defend itself. Thus the book critically examines the ideas of several Independence campaigners on the left, it also pushes a clear independent argument, rooted in opposition to racism, support for democracy, internationalism (particularly in terms of opposition to war and the basing of nuclear weapons at Faslane) and workers' emancipation. As Donny Gluckstein and Bob Fotheringham say in their chapter on Scotland, the National Question and Marxism, when compared to the idea of an independent capitalist Scotland,

the other side of the reformist equation suggests the movement for Scottish independence can mean more than that. Firstly, independence is an articulation of working class aspirations at a time when Labour, under Starmer, has more or less abandoned the effort... Secondly the capitalist state structure which is to be rearranged s the British state. This has an imperial history and worldwide reach and its break up would be significant.

The repeated success of the SNP is often crudely associated with left positions on many questions. There is a detailed critique of this by Iain Ferguson and Gerry Mooney who argue that in reality the SNP's reputation for left positions is superficial at best. Titled Neoliberalism with a Heart, it's a devastating critique of the role of the SNP in office - in terms of housing, education, anti-racism and environmental policies. Despite appearing better than Boris Johnson during Covid, in reality the situation in Scotland is little better - not least because of previous failings of health care policy by the Scottish government.

But understanding the current position of the SNP requires understanding three other aspects of politics in the whole UK. The first is the historic development of Scotland, second the role of the Labour Party and finally the rise and fall of workers' struggle in Scotland. The last two aspects of these are discussed in three excellent chapters. Dave Sherry's account of Red Clydeside is a brilliant summary of the struggles in the first two decades of the twentieth century on the Clyde. This includes the incredible workers' strikes during the First World War and the role of the Clyde Workers' Committee, as well as fascinating struggles over rents and housing. This culminated in the 1919 revolt when Britain was "on the brink of revolution" within which Scottish workers' played a central role. 

Charlie McKinnon's chapter on the Making of the Scottish Working Class looks at earlier periods of struggle, arguing that while these are often portrayed as nationalistic struggles this isn't strictly true. He concludes: 

working class agitation and struggle in Scotland during this period should not be seen in isolation from that of the working class in the rest of Britain. Workers north and south of the border were often engaged in common struggles, such as during the great Chartist Revolt.

That is not to say that movements north of the border did not have specific demands or contexts, but that those took place in the wider framework of the British wide class struggle. This analysis is important when looking at the issue of the Highland Clearances, which have their parallels with the enclosures movements that drove the English peasantry off the land and transformed them into wage labourers, predominantly in the cities. McKinnon explains:

The Crofters' Revolt effectively signalled the end of the Highland Clearances. Overall, they were undoubtedly a political defeat but there was clearly significant resistance to the capitalist class. [Marxist historian] Neil Davidson argues that they were unquestionably a 'historical crime' carried out by a rapacious and 'triumphant capitalist class' with a 'disregard for human life', They were not, he points out, 'inevitable' in the sense that the Highlands were peripheral to the profitability and success of capitalism across Britain. Therefore, they were not a consequence of the transition to capitalism but rather of its 'established laws of motion'.

This argument is important because, as several authors explain, Scotland is not oppressed by Britain in the way that (say) Ireland was. The Scottish ruling class merged with the English in order to develop capitalism together. 

The third part of the equation is the Labour Party. Labour in Scotland has gone from being almost the only show in town, to one that is in "steep decline and shows little chance of recovering". This decline is documented in Dave Sherry and Julie Sherry's chapter, which shows how repeated and systematic betrayals of their core voter by Labour nationally and locally created the conditions for sudden collapse. When this happened,

it happened very quickly, but in truth it was the culmination of forces that were in play since Labour's election in 1997, like Blair's Iraq war, Ed Miliband's advocating of 'austerity lite', and decades of Scottish Labour's dismal record in running major councils.

Even under Corybn Labour's position of supporting the capitalist Union, alienated even further those who saw Independence as being about a fight for a better society. The nature of Labour's betrayals, and the social movements that have taken place, means the mood for Scottish Independence is dominated by left ideals. That's not to say, as several authors in the collection emphasise, that the country is immune to the far-right or racist populists. But that one of the reasons that socialists can be positive about developments is that there is a real desire for progressive change - and very often this is manifesting itself on the streets through mass movements. 

This however poses a problem for the neo-liberal SNP, who want a capitalist Scotland able to compete on the global scale. As Gluckstein and Fotheringham note, once you understand this contradiction,

a number of perplexing questions can be answered. For example, why is the SNP, which clearly craves an independent Scotland, so hesitant in going about winning it? Why, when All Under One Banner mobilises hundreds of thousands in marches for independence, does the SNP keep them at arms length, or grudgingly send the odd speaker but little more?

The authors highlight a parallel with Marx's comments on the passivity of the German bourgeoise during the 1848 revolution when they were wary of over-throwing the old feudal order. The reason was that if they "confronted feudalism and absolutism, it saw [also] pitted against itself the proletariat". Engels continued elsewhere, that the German bourgeoisie "attempted an impossible arrangement aimed at postponing the decisive struggle." While the Scottish working class is in no way in a revolutionary mood at the moment, the fear of radical ideas and action clearly haunts the SNP leadership.

Basing itself on the ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, the authors in this volume put a powerful case for a Marxist position on Scottish Independence. It should be added though that this is not a crude regurgitation of what Marx and Engels said. Rather these are nuanced attempts to learn and apply lessons from the past to the current situation. It is worth finishing this review with Gluckstein and Fotheringham's conclusion. They argue that the Scottish capitalist class wants independence, not because they are nationally oppressed by the British state, but because 

the social system is one in which individual units... of capital compete with each other... For the Scottish bourgeoisie, full sovereignty at Holyrood is a path to greater competitiveness. On its own this would not garner any widespread support. So independence is framed in terms of expanding democracy.

Thus the demand for Independence sees the coming together of two different class interests, but both sides have different desired outcomes. So Gluckstein and Fotheringham continue:

The fight for [independence] has the potential to 'grow over' into something even more ambitious. For the true essence of permanent revolution is about how a socialist challenge to the existing order cannot be achieved in just one country. It needs internationalism rather than nationalism.

This nuanced approach characterises all the essays in this book. Debates around Scottish Independence are going to be a key political issue north and south of the border in the coming years. Socialists of all stripes will stand to learn a lot from this excellent book, that places the question of Independence in a wider context - the struggle for socialism.

Related Reviews

Devine - The Scottish Clearances: A History of the Dispossessed
Hunter - Set Adrift Upon the World: The Sutherland Clearances
Hutchinson - Martyrs: Glendale and the Revolution in Skye
Sherry - John Maclean
Berresford Ellis & Mac A'Ghobhainn - The Radical Rising of 1820

Saturday, July 10, 2021

Philip Kerr - A German Requiem

After finding the first two volumes of Philip Kerr's Berlin Noir trilogy unsatisfactory and unpleasant, I was intent on reading the third volume A German Requiem merely for the sake of completion. It is, in my mind, better - perhaps because it doesn't deal with the claustrophobic atmosphere of Berlin during the Nazi era. The war is now over, Bernie Gunther has finished his stint on the Eastern Front (after a brief period in the SS where he witnessed many atrocities) and time in a Soviet POW camp. He is now eking out a living in the ruins of Berlin, where he and his wife survive mostly because she is receiving presents from a US Army Officer that she is having an affair with.

Gunther is earning a few coins after returning to his old line of work. But Berlin in 1948 is a tense place as the Russians and Western Allies begin to square off. After being approached by a Russian officer apparently on behalf of an old acquaintance, Gunther travels to Vienna to try and solve a crime and get an innocent man off Death Row. In Vienna, Gunther escapes his wife's infidelity, and gets sucked into a vortex of crime linked to the black market and former Nazis.

A German Requiem doesn't quite fit with the Berlin Noir title - being almost entirely set in Austria. That said, Kerr does show the vast difference between the two capitals, though both are being pulled apart by the conflicts of the various occupying powers. Vienna is back on its feet much quicker, there's less damage and, as Gunther quickly learns, despite the involvement of many of its citizens in the Nazi era's crimes - the Western Allies are happy to imply that Austria was an unwilling participant in Hitler's Reich.

Much of the novel is focused on Gunther's attempts to find out what happened when his acquaintance was linked to the murder of a US army officer. But the real story centres on former senior Nazis who are being used by the Americans. Here Kerr is on firm historical ground, and he (and Gunther) are suitably cynical about the way that some Nazis are found guilty and executed and others are given new identities and jobs. 

Vienna forms the backdrop, and as a neat joke, Gunther finds himself present at a couple of events linked to the filming of The Third Man, the classic film noir set after World War Two in similar circumstances. The novel is less misogynist than the previous one - women are less likely to throw themselves at Gunther as soon as they see him. Though there is at least one such scene. There is also a rather gruesome killing of a female character. 

Finishing the last of the trilogy I was left conflicted. I enjoyed them for their evocation of the Nazi era. Something Kerr excels at. He also writes a good Noir mystery. But I was left unhappy with his depiction and use of female characters. In his regard, the final novel is at least better than the first two. I remain unsure as to whether I'll return to Gunther's adventures as a result.

Related Reviews

Kerr - March Violets
Kerr - The Pale Criminal

Philip Kerr - The Pale Criminal

Volume two of the Berlin Noir trilogy featuring Philip Kerr's detective Bernie Gunther is similar to the first. While women still, improbably and repeatedly, throw themselves at Gunther, the plot is refreshingly different. Gunther is hired to find out who is blackmailing the gay son of a rich publishing house owner. Seemingly unrelated to this, Gunther is pulled into investigating a serial killer who appears to be targeting young, blond school girls. The Gestapo have found an innocent Jew to pin the blame on, as the method of murder is similar to an anti-Semitic trope being regularly used by a Nazi newspaper - Der Stürmer. 

Gunther is reluctantly brought back into the German police force by no less a figure than Reinhard Heydrich. With the powers that he has from this he tries to find the serial killer before the general public learn of the killings. As with the first novel Kerr tells us a great deal about Berlin in 1938 - the racism, paranoia, violence and increasingly militarised society through Gunther's experiences. The backdrop to the novel is the Sudeten Crisis and the Munich Agreement. Gunther's convinced there will be war, most others are not. The tension filters through all the characters.

The plot is complex, and gruesome. Kerr has depicted police procedural methods from the 1930s with seeming accuracy. However irrational the Nazi regime was, the solution to the murders and the ending of the novel are somewhat unbelievable. As is the way that Kerr ties up a lose end from the first book in a very unsatisfying way. The book is readable, enjoyable even, for the atmosphere if not the plot. Except...

In my review of the March Violets I expressed my concern at a deeply unpleasant and unnecessary described rape scene. The Pale Criminal doesn't have this, but there is a extremely unnecessary scene involving a young sixteen year old girl who arrives at Gunther's apartment to collect money for Winter Relief. There's an uncomfortable scene between her, and Gunther - who while he rejects her advances, there is too much salacious detail. This left me wondering quite how Kerr thought women behaved and why he felt he needed to include these scenes. 

Related Reviews

Kerr - March Violets
Kerr - A German Requiem

Philip Kerr - March Violets

Many people have recommended Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther detective novels to me. Most of them are set in Berlin during, or after, the Third Reich and they are acclaimed for historical accuracy and the transportation of Detective Noir from the United States to a completely different setting.

March Violets is the first of the trilogy that make up the Berlin Noir series. The Gunther novels proved popular enough that Kerr produced more of them. But the first three are the classics. March Violets is set in 1936, as Hitler is consolidating his power and the Nazi Reich has deposed of its opponents. Attacks on the Jews are yet to reach their height, as Hitler is still concerned about the watching world. Gunther tackles his case as the Berlin Olympics take place, and the regime hides its most outward examples of antisemitism.

Kerr's detective is investigating the loss of some diamonds - owned by the daughter of one of Germany's most wealthy, and least Nazi supporting, steal magnates. The daughter and her husband have been murdered, and Gunther is asked to find the diamonds. Quickly he finds that the case is much more complicated and there are links to senior Nazis, as well as organised crime.

Its a complicated plot worthy of a classic Noir novel. Gunther is wise-cracking, tough, alcoholic and cynical. He's also not a fan of the Nazis - though to be fair he doesn't really like anyone. Readers who enjoy the likes of Philip Marlowe will appreciate the work that the author has put into recreating the atmosphere and characters.

But. And it's a big but. Gunther is not Marlowe. For a start he's to misogynist and homophobic. Marlowe was a cynic, but he wasn't openly offensive. More problematically is how the book treats women. Women throw themselves at Gunther and the sex scenes are crude. The only female character of any depth, one that Gunther falls for, disappears at the end of the book. There is also, it must be said, a particularly unpleasant rape scene which is described in far too much detail. It's unnecessary, crude and soured the book for me. 

At its best the book is a clever exploration of the way that the Nazis transformed the whole of German culture. I am not sure that it was quite as common as Gunther seems to imply that people spoke critically of Hitler and the Nazis, but by placing Gunther at the heart of the Nazi beast (and even in a Concentration Camp at one point) Kerr does manage to evoke an impression of Berlin in the late 1930s. But in this book at least, I found the negatives far outweighed the positives.

Related Reviews

Kerr - The Pale Criminal
Kerr - A German Requiem

Wednesday, July 07, 2021

Paul Lund & Harry Ludlam - The Fate of the Lady Emma

Authors Paul Lund and Harry Ludlam are best known for their oral history works about the British Navy in World War Two. Lund served on a converted trawler during the war, and was on the infamous convoy PQ17 to the Soviet Union. The authors' account of that disaster was told, through the recollections of many participants in their excellent book PQ17 Convoy to Hell

Lund and Ludlam also told the history of the Royal Navy Patrol Service in their book Trawlers Go to War, which detailed the sterling work of converted fishing craft from Dunkirk to D-Day. The oral testimony in these books, plus personal experience however is put to a slightly different use in The Fate of the Lady Emma

Lady Emma is a work of fiction, but is clearly heavily influenced by Lund's experiences on HMS Lord Austin. The novel follows tells the experiences of a fresh recruit to the Patrol Service Peter Price as he finds his sea legs on the Lady Emma. We're introduced to a mixed crew, and Price goes through the formative experiences of being mocked and gently ribbed until he finds his niche. He learns the ropes, begins to understand the various factions and personal loyalties and hides the fact he's trying to get commissioned from his crew mates. All this is fairly standard fair for a WW2 naval novel from the 1970s.

What stands the book above others in a crowded genre is how it is clearly based on real experiences. The nerves, the stress and the sea-sickness, the detailed descriptions of the dirty jobs. These read, not as a dull series of recollections, but as part of Prices' journey to a fully fledged sailor. I also enjoyed Price's wonder at the places he visits. Take this description of a brief stop at Akureyri in Iceland:

By evening they were steaming up a placid fjord. The weather had made one of its lightning changes and the sun was shining, the air still and the atmosphere crustal clear. It was nearly 8pm when they approached a small island on which there appeared to be a collection of military huts... the 'hut's' were the houses of the most picturesque village anyone had ever see. Nestling beneath a background of towering white-clad hills, the houses were painted all the colours of the rainbow. In the centre, standing alone in its quaint beauty, was a miniature church, looking straight out of Grimm's fairy tales.... The crew stood at the ship's rail and gazed spellbound on the loveliness of this unexpected jewel shining among the rugged desolation.

I'm told that Akureyri remains as beautiful.

It is only in the second half of the novel that the "action" starts. The convoy is scattered in fog, they encounter enemy aircraft and a submarine, and rescue a shipwrecked sailor. But the point of the novel is not the action - again unusual for the genre, but rather the authors are telling the story of a voyage and the sailors' experience. For that reason the book sits comfortably alongside their non-fiction. Readers interested in World War Two, the Arctic convoys and the Naval war will enjoy this novel. But it is much more than another navy tale. It is also a moving account of the individual in a larger conflict, and the ending is remarkably touching.

Related Reviews

Lund & Ludlam - PQ17: Convoy to Hell
Lund and Harry Ludlam – Trawlers Go to War
Monsarrat - Three Corvettes
Monsarrat - The Cruel Sea

Sunday, July 04, 2021

Lisa See - The Island of Sea Women

The Island of Sea Women is likely going to be the best work of fiction I read this year. Set on the tiny island of Jeju, the home of the famous female haenyeo divers, it ties a lovely story of friendship found and lost, together with the wider history of the island. 

The haenyeo are specialist divers. The women dive deep to capture molluscs, octopus and other sea life, harvesting the sea bottom as though it was a farmers' orchard. Theirs is a matrilocal society - they are the main providers for their families with the men providing some childcare, and frequently being criticised for drinking and philosophising all day. 

Young-sook tells the story, moving back and forth between the present and the past, telling the story of her life and her friendship with Mi-ja. The book opens when the two are very young, living on Jeju during the Japanese occupation of Korea. The girls become close friends, and learn the ropes of diving from Young-sook's mother who is an expert diver. We learn how the community organises, as the two girls grow up - eventually becoming talented divers themselves.

As the war ends, the Japanese occupiers leave, and those who have collaborated are first reviled, then adopted by the new US occupiers. The Korean government, allied with the US, becomes a powerful anti-communist counter to the USSR, which is occupying the North. Anti-communism isn't just about the enemy to the North, it is also about destroying the left and democratic movements at home. The centre piece of the story is the April 3rd incident on Jeju, when a mass democracy protest demanding Korean unity, saw police open fire with many protesters killed. This sparked a guerrilla uprising, which sees the South Korean government use increasingly repressive collective punishment against anyone seen as supporting the uprising.

Young-sook is one step removed from these struggles, though the government's war doesn't leave her and her village alone. The central incident, which I won't describe here for fear of spoiling other's reads, shatters her friendship with Mi-ja, and leads to a lifetime of recrimination. 

In the present, as Young-sook is a grandmother and meets visitors who knew Mi-ja, she reflects on what happened, retelling the story for the reader and a shocking revelation. 

In many ways this is a novel with three stories - the relationship between our two main characters, distorted and shaped by wider forces and conflicts, the story of the haenyeo and a culture threatened by the arrival of modern technology, industrialisation and tourism and the story of the South and North Korea. The skill of the author is two-fold, the way she links these three strands together and the deep research that is the basis for the book.

Deeply moving, highly readable and an insight into a history and culture I knew little about, I highly recommend this wonderful novel.

Thursday, July 01, 2021

Patrick Bond - Politics of Climate Justice: Paralysis Above, Movement Below

The COP26 conference takes place in Glasgow this November, postponed by Covid-19 from 2020. Already British politicians are hyping the event, keen to cover themselves in a reflected green glow. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said back in March 2021:

The COP26 summit is one of the single biggest priorities that any government could have domestically and internationally and it’s a massive job and we’re throwing everything at it.

COP26, as the name suggests, places us a quarter of a century into the United Nations' process that was supposed to have delivered a solution to climate change. That I write this while unprecedented heating hits regions of the Pacific coast of North America, killing hundreds of people and forcing workers to labour in appalling conditions, demonstrates that the COP process itself has failed to deliver any solutions. 

But what is COP? In order to gain greater insights I turned to this book by South African socialist, academic and activist Patrick Bond. Bond has been involved, and written about, many key social movements in South Africa, as well as the wider climate justice movement. His book Politics of Climate Justice is simultaneously a examination of COP and a study of the climate movement itself as it stood immediately before the Durban COP of November 2011. While this necessarily dates the book, the core arguments remain illuminating and are of great interest to activists confronting COP in Glasgow this year.

Bond argues that the COP process is both a battle ground between different national forces on the world stage, and a way of driving through a free market solution to environmental problems. Let's explore this a little. In 2009 President Obama destroyed the climate talks at Copenhagen, forcing through along with allies in Brazil, India and China, an Accord that made emissions reductions voluntary, based on pledges made by individual nations. It was a blow to those who argued that there had to be legally binding emissions reduction commitments, but it was also a blow to those who saw environmental issues as being solved by free-market mechanisms.

Bond explains that the following year, at the COP in Cancun, the UNFCC head Christiana Figures and Mexican leaders, 

made skilled manoeuvres in a context of diplomatic desperation. But they allowed financiers, industrial capitalists, fossil fuel corporations and states to cement in the kinds of capitalist-crisis climate strategies that will make real solutions that much harder to achieve.

Bond continues:

In Copenhagen in 2009, the misnamed 'bottom-up' strategy of emissions-cut 'pledge and review' was introduced by Washington. The Durban COP17 is a showdown for those who would try to retain at least some of the Kyoto residue, for example the varieties of carbon trading and offset mechanisms that are threatened if the entire treaty is simply ditched in favour of the Copenhagen Accord.

Here we see the central problem for COP. Its solutions are based on either "voluntary" emissions reductions (Copenhagen) or carbon trading schemes (Kyoto etc) that have made little or no difference to emissions reductions. In fact, Bond argues here, that there is significant evidence that emissions trading schemes have had the opposite effect.

COP is thus limited because it is a plaything of international politics, and is at the mercy of the more powerful economies and their allies. As Bond points out

Nothing that occurred in Cancun reflected a diversion from the Franco-American agenda of Kyoto sabotage. Even better for Washington and Paris, Japan also signed on. Political choices of this sort, made by Obama, Clinton and their allies and underlings have a great deal to do with why Washington's domestic gridlock was repeated at global scale, via the Copenhagen Accord, and why at the same time, the paralysed elites must continue to have faith in carbon trading, not matter how many incidents of market failure and apparently ingrained emissions-trade corruption are uncovered.

Bond concludes, "any global negotiations aimed at a fair, ambitious and binding deal are obviously destined to fail under these circumstances". 

While we are here, we should take a moment to emphasise something. Bond is not arguing that the choice we activists need to make is between Copenhagen or Kyoto. When it comes to carbon-trading Bond is devastating: 

Instead of decisively displacing the crises by moving them around, the carbon markets have arisen to attack hundreds of billions of dollars in speculative trades; have been corrupted as vehicles to genuinely solve economic and climate crises; and have now sprung leaks so intimidating that even the US capitalist class has not found a way to patch up the idea of a market solution to a market problem.

Bond argues, following Rosa Luxemburg and David Harvey, that carbon trading is an extension of capitalisms continual need to expand into new regions to find new sources to fuel primitive accumulation. I wasn't particularly convinced of this theoretical framing. But it doesn't detract from his argument and it is certainly true that carbon markets are part of tying climate solutions to the ongoing accumulation of capital itself.

Counter to this dynamic are the social movements. Bond traces how the climate justice movement in South Africa as evolved linked and parallel to wider social movements - the anti-apartheid movement, the movement for access to AIDS drugs, protests against electricity price rises, water cut offs and land questions. He shows how sometimes the NGOs have actually been on the wrong side - because they side with "elite" solutions, and the importance of bottom up, mass movements to help shape the outcomes of COP and win wider social and environmental change. Bond argues that without movements that challenge "establishment strategies" the movement will not be able to win climate justice - in particular  getting the North to "repay the climate debt". He goes further though and says the movement needs to drive society "from a fossil fuel dependent capitalism to eco-socialism".

I've focused this review on the aspect of Patrick Bond's book that analyses the COP dynamics. I should acknowledge that there is also a wealth of detail here for those interested in the history and practice of movements in the Global South, particularly South Africa, around environmental issues and specific demands from those campaigns about historic climate debt. There are some fascinating and inspiring case studies about movements against polluting industries - demonstrating how the environmental crisis is very much experienced through class and racial lines. Patrick Bond finishes with an appeal that the movement develops international links and solidarity if we are to defeat fossil fuel capitalism - something that was as true in 2011 as it is in the run up to COP26 in 2021.

Related Reviews

Böhm and Dabhi (eds) - Upsetting the Offset, The Political Economy of Carbon Markets
CTW - The Carbon Neutral Myth, Offset Indulgences for your Climate Sins
Berners-Lee & Clark - The Burning Question
Dawson - People's Power: Reclaiming the Energy Commons
Malm - Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Graham Farmelo - It Must Be Beautiful: Great Equations of Modern Science

At first glace this seems like a rather strange collection. How can one judge scientific equations on the basis of beauty? Surely their importance should be based on how they allow us insights into the universe? In his introduction Graham Farmelo argues that the authors have "looked at whichever aspects of their equations... [giving] unique personal meditations on some of the seminal equations of modern science, equations that through their concision, power and fundamental simplicity can be regarded as some of the most beautiful poetry of the twentieth century".

Having read the book I remain unconvinced. But let's look at some of the equations themselves. Many of these are equations from the world of physics, and despite Farmelo promising us that most of the authors eschew the "eye-watering mathematical details", there is plenty of maths for the reader to grapple with. Roger Penrose's chapter on Einstein's equation of General Relativity, for instance, will be a major challenge for readers who don't have recent engagement with mathematics or physics. 

One strength of the book is that all the chapters show how almost all of these great equations were arrived at out of the interaction between scientists, thinkers and the wider academic community. In fact, as Christine Sutton points out in her challenging chapter on The Yang-Mills equation, the fact that some scientists weren't aware of similar work hampered their own insights. But she explains:

No scientist, in recent history more than any time before, works in complete isolation. Moreover, there is often a sense in which scientific progress and discovers are of their time. Yang and Mills may have been ahead of their time in that it took nearly two decades for their belief in a basic principle to bear fruit, but they were also of their time.

Unfortunately neither Sutton nor her fellow authors in this collection develop this insight further. For most of the authors scientific advance is really the interaction of individual thinkers, not wider society. The only real exception to this is the work covered in the chapters on quantum physics and general relativity, where the race for the atom bomb hangs heavy over the scene. But even here I felt the discussion was abstracted to far from the wider social developments fuelling research. 

That said, we cannot neglect the debates and scientific interactions. Farmelo's own chapter on The Planck-Einstein Equation for the Energy of a Quantum brilliantly describes the transformation in physics that took place in the early decades of the twentieth century. He calls it a "revolution with no revolutionaries" but there still is precious little on the wider social context. 

A second strength of the book is that it doesn't focus just on the obvious equations of maths and physics. In fact, as a maths and physics graduate, I was most stimulated by chapters that dealt with wider subjects. Oliver Morton's chapter on the Drake equation is an excellent discussion of how scientists have grappled with the number of potential civilisations in the universe. Aislin Irwin's chapter on the equations behind CFC destruction of the Ozone layer is really good, and has much to tell us about science and environmental issues. But here to it failed to get to grips with how this ecological crisis was solved - readers could be left thinking it was all about scientists. The chapter neglects the battles with companies like Dupont to switch manufacturing to non-CFC products. However my favourite chapter was that by Robert May on the Logistic Map, a fascinating discussion about maths, Chaos Theory and animal population growth.

Ultimately I don't think the book managed to justify its title. All these chapters are interesting (though some are hard work) and the insights they give to the relevant science and the scientists make the read well worthwhile. But I am not sure any of them can be described as poetry or beautiful. As groupings of numbers and symbols, what they represent - the evolution of species, the rise and fall of populations, the way that gravity is distortions of space-time - may well be beautiful, inspiring or exciting. But the equations themselves aren't and I think the various authors who try and convince the reader of this, fail to do so. 

Perhaps the problem is best summed up by Steven Weinberg's very disappointing afterword. We are promised an essay on "How Great Equations Survive", which spends most of its time looking at how science has used Dirac's equation. At the end he concludes, "When an equation is as successful as Dirac's it is never imply a mistake.... We must continually be open to reinterpretations of these equations. But the great equations of modern physics are a permanent part of scientific knowledge, which may outlast even the beautiful cathedrals of earlier ages." But this abstracts equations from the society that produces them, and the understandings we gain from them. It turns equations into things that can be written in books, not tools to investigate our universe - and renders the science meaningless. 

Related Reviews

Angus - A Redder Shade of Green: Intersections of Science and Socialism
Saini - Superior: The Return of Race Science
Levins & Lewontin - The Dialectical Biologist
Engels - Dialectics of Nature
Miller - Empire of the Stars

Sunday, June 27, 2021

Tom Wilber & Jerry Lembcke - Dissenting POWs: From Vietnam's Hoa Lo Prison to America Today

In 2016, during a spat between Donald Trump and Republican Senator John McCain, Trump caused an outcry when he said McCain was not a war hero "because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured." Outside of the US the furore about this was hard to grasp, because its difficult to understand the myths that have been created around the story of US POWs in Vietnamese prisons during the Vietnam War.

Dissenting POWs explores the way that the story of the POWs was created during and after Vietnam. It argues that there is a much more complex history than the one told by the media, politicians and the US military. Rather than all those POWs continuing the war from captivity as the dominant narrative has it, many openly dissented, some sided with their captors and many openly sided with an anti-war position. Fascinatingly the divisions over this reflected class divisions in the US military, in particular the differences between servicemen in the Navy, Army and Airforce, which reflected wider class differences.

The story of the POWs begins much earlier than Vietnam. After the Korean War there was a persistent belief that captives had been subject to psychological torture to make them unknowing agents for Korea. This was fuelled by the 1962 film The Manchurian Candidate which had a former Korean captive brainwashed into becoming a Communist and an unwitting agent in an assassination attempt against a prominent US politician. The story was so central to Cold War propaganda that during McCain's attempt to get the Republican nomination for President in 2000, right wing critics described him as the Manchurian Candidate.

Tom Wilber and Jerry Lemcke explore the creation of the myth of the pro-war POW, and how this became the dominant story - alongside other prowar, anti-peace myths like the idea there were forgotten POWs ignored by a callous Washington leadership. Interestingly they also show how this myth - that deliberately ignored the way many POWs were critical of the war, or sided with the enemy - began in the POW camps themselves, as more senior ranking captives worked hard, and often violently, to isolate anti-war POWs. Despite their being little or no evidence of torture, systematic violence or abuse of POWs by the Vietnamese, the threat or fear of it, was enough to draw many captives into line. Those POWs who did dissent, especially if they allowed their voices to be used by their captors as propaganda, faced Court Martial and trial on their return - though these cases were rapidly dropped. Nonetheless many former POWs who didn't follow the party line, found themselves ostracised or even attacked at home.

The best parts of the book deal with the experience of the POWs themselves and how many troops developed an anti-war position. For those of us who know little about the American War in Vietnam and the experience of the POWs I felt that the book could have done with more detail on that experience. Indeed, I felt the book was a little too short to really draw out some of the arguments. However there are some fascinating personal accounts based on testimonies and autobiographies. These are particularly interesting when they show the way that the soldiers learnt - from their experiences in Vietnam meeting and fighting Vietnamese people as well as from the anti-war movement.

The authors conclude by arguing that what happened continues to shape politics today, and draw some interesting conclusions about the US military under Trump and Covid today. As they explain:

Fifty years after the war in Vietnam, the acts of conscience displayed there, and the reaction they provoked, continue to drive American political culture. The struggle over the heritage of that experience, waged between those who tell, interpret and decided the uses to which it is put, looms as large as ever in the meaning of the war in the nation's present.

Related Reviews

Hastings - Vietnam: An Epic History of a Tragic War
Marlantes - Matterhorn
O'Brien - If I Die In A Combat Zone

Friday, June 18, 2021

S.M.Stirling - The Peshawar Lancers

The best thing about this overlong alternative history novel is its premise. In the 1870s a swarm of comets hits the Earth bringing in its wake "nuclear winter" for much of the northern hemisphere. The European powers lose their national homelands, but cling on and relocate to their colonies. England's royal family, government and much of its wealthier classes move to India where they survive a Second Mutiny and establish a new powerbase. The novel extends, in sort of a steampunk atmosphere, the "Great Game" into the 20th century that is created through these events.

The basis for the novel is great. The execution is terrible. The author might be commended for having many female and non-white characters, but they are one-dimensional and cliched. The hero of the book, the gallant, handsome and strong Captain Athelstane King, speaks multiple languages, is a master of disguise and commands the love of the troops he commands. A sort of Flashman type figure (the author makes a handful of knowing references to Sir Harry) without the cowardice, King and his sister prevent a dastardly Russian plot involving airships to assassinate the British Royal Family and provoke war.

But the book is horrendously over-written and the plot drags on with needless exposition that only serves to increase the word count. The author has a tendency to try and give cultural authenticity by using Punjabi or Hindu words in the text, but these aren't explained and just create confusion. The multiple appendices at the back do round out the book's universe, but they aren't necessary. 

I was also uncomfortable with what I saw as unfortunate stereotypes of many of the characters who aren't of a European heritage. The Russians are Satan worshiping cannibals, because that's how they survived the "fall", the people from India and Afghanistan are subservient or ill-educated rogues, always ready to slit throats. These stereotypes turn into predictable plot points. I must also mention the fact that one important female character (who has a youthful ability to foretell the future, but will die when losing it) is only saved because her condition is fixed by King taking her virginity. Really people, we ought to have moved on from this sort of bollocks.

At the end of the novel everything is resolved through manly sacrifice by (white) heroes in the face of the beastly and treacherous behaviour by (non-white) bad guys. Every one lives happily ever after and all the heroines marry princes.

Sadly the book doesn't live up to its promise. The story is over-long and feels crude. The ending is laughable, and there are too many stereotypes and not a few frankly offensive plot points. Skip this entirely.

Related Reviews

Rathbone - The Mutiny
Farrell - The Siege of Krishnapur
Morgan & Palmer-Patel - Sideways in Time: Critical Essays on Alternate History Fiction

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Larissa Reisner - The Hammer and the Anvil

Larissa Reisner was a phenomenal Russian revolutionary activist, author and journalist. She is perhaps best known to English speaking socialists through her wonderful book Hamburg at the Barricades which is based on her experiences in Germany in the latter part of the Revolution there. Despite dying at a young age, Reisner's output was enormous, though little of it has been translated. This new collection of writing is based on new translations of her collected work kept in the British Library and is a must read for any socialist interested in the Russian Revolution and the aftermath.

The book focuses on a key battle in the Russian Civil War when the Red Army managed to turn the tide against the Whites. It was a gruesome conflict which saw the White counter-revolutionaries commit mass murder against anyone suspected of Communist sympathies, including non-combatants, women and children. Reisner reported on this war, but also took part. There is an incredible story of her own escape from interrogation by the Whites while spying on them. She also details the trials of being a refugee following the fall of Kazan, and refers in passing to many key Bolshevik fighters of the era. Her accounts of naval engagements are both exciting and moving, as she describes the bravery and horror of the underequipped, outnumbered Red Army forces inspired by revolutionary ideals to defend their revolution. This is revolutionary history that never forgets the role and the sacrifices of ordinary people.

In fact, her introduction, a deeply moving piece is geared precisely toward telling the story to those who weren't there and cannot comprehend what took place. She dedicates it to the "students of the Workers Faculty" who are, she speculates more mechanical in their understanding of revolutionary politics... and she urges them to "read to the end how it really was, from Kazan to Enzeli, the roar of victory,. the pain of defeat. On the Volga, on the River Kama and on the Caspian Sea during the Great Russian Revolution. That's all."

In his autobiography Leon Trotsky wrote about Reisner, that she "flashed across the revolutionary sky like a burning meteor, blinding many... Her sketches about the civil war are literature. With equal gusto she would write about the Ural industries and the rising of the workers in the Ruhr. She was anxious to know and to see all and to take part in everything."

The Hammer and the Anvil certainly demonstrates this. One thing that stands out is the way that Reisner shows the Revolution as a mass event - involving enormous numbers of people and ideas that swell in the hearts of millions. But she also knows that the individuals who make up the masses matter. 

There is no history whch reflects upon and appreciates the great and small feats performed daily by the sailors of the Volga Military Flotilla. The names of those who by their voluntary discipline , their intrepidity and modesty helped to created a new fleet are hardly even known. 

Of course, individuals do not make history. However, in Russia we had so few people and characters of his calibre by and large. It was so difficult for them to break through the undergrowth of old and new bureaucracy that they rarely found themselves in the real-life, life-and-death struggle... it's because the Revolution had men like this, men in the highest sense of the word, that Russia is able to rally and recover... At decisive movements they stood out from the general mass, and all of them displayed an authority - a full, genuine authority. They were aware of their heroic task and by their actions were able to rouse the rest of the wavering and pliable masses.

Reisner's genius is to make this sweeping statement real by then telling the reader of a few such individuals, such as "easy-going" Yeliseyez, "who hit a boat at a twelve mile distance from a long-range gun. With his blue eyes, and no eyelashes - singed every time the gun discharges - always fixed upon somewhere far in the distance."

Readers familiar with Trotsky will find in these pages more information on key figures - like the sailor Comrade Markin - who is referred to in Trotsky's account of these battles. In addition to writing by Reisner, the book includes other material, including biographical material on key figures, poetry and the relevant section of Trotsky's biography (particularly the famous section on his military train). The defence of Sviyazhsk, a last ditched fight against the Reds, which Trotsky played a key role in, forms a central part of these extracts and Reisner's account. It's interesting to read them side by side.

If I have one criticism of this collection its that I wanted to read more Reisner - though I appreciated the other material gathered here. Socialists interested in revolutionary history and the Civil War in particular will find much new material here. But in Reisner's writing they'll also find inspiration and, it must be said, a lesson in revolutionary journalism.

Related Reviews

Hear the editor and translator speak about Larissa Reisner and the book here.

Reisner – Hamburg at the Barricades
Serge - Memoirs of a Revolutionary
Serge - Revolution in Danger
Serge - Year One of the Russian Revolution

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Jonathan Sumption - Divided Houses: The Hundred Years War III

Volume three of Jonathan Sumption's epic history of the Hundred Years War deals with a neglected period of the conflict. This is the period of transition between the rule of the English kings Edward III and Richard II. It's unusual because it is not marked by epic battles but more complex interactions between states and armies. Now, the conflict between France and England spread to neighbouring areas - in particular Castile and Portugal, but also Italy and Flanders.

For the English though there was no respite. Edward III's initial military successes were never going to be sustainable, and by the second half of the 14th century he was facing repeated financial problems. The English' parliament's attempts to fix the shortages of cash, led to increased taxation. In turn, these taxes and the ongoing economic and political problems driven by the war with France, led to growing discontent that eventually exploded into open rebellion. The "Peasant's" revolt of 1381, is the centrepiece of the period for many historians. Yet Sumption demonstrates that the English Rising was very much part of a wider "Revolt of the Towns" that sure both rural and urban rebellion in Flanders and France. The causes were similar to that in England - Sumption argues that these 

occurred against a difficult economic background: disease, depopulation and a deepening recession characterised by falling agricultural prices, industrial stagnation and a severe shortage of gold and silver coin. All contributed to the growing crisis of Europe's cities. The physical destruction wrought by war in England France and Italy and later in Flanders, Spain and Portugal aggravated the effects. 

Sumption tells the stories of the various revolts well, giving a good sense of events. Perhaps more important though is the way he casts the rebellions as part of a Europe wide economic crisis. The similarities between the Rising in England and elsewhere, as well as the wider discontent across society is brought out well. As is the repression of the revolts that allowed the ruling classes of France and England to regain control. Here the similarities of violence and brutality are very clear. 

In the years after the 1381 rising England came close to facing a significant invasion from France. For two years, from 1383 to 1385 the French managed to assemble a major military force. Had that force landed in England there could well have been a significant defeat for the English. Lack of funds, political chaos and organisational blunders meant that preparation for defence was negligible. In July 1385 as the French King prepared to invade, the king had left London for Scotland and defence was in the hands of those incapable of delivering. As Sumption says, "There was no attempt to organise coast-guards, to array troops inland or to set up warning beacons on hill-tops". The country could have been taken - and that it wasn't was down to luck.

At the other end of the country, French troops in Scotland found campaigning tough. Nonetheless Richard II still made a hash of the campaign. The invasion of England was put off following events in Flanders as the towns of Damme and Ghent were under siege. One of the strengths of Sumption's book is that he is able to tell the parallel stories from multiple locations that determined historical events. Simultaneous campaigns in Scotland, France and Flanders might make for a complicated story - but Sumption manages to keep the reader following.

Despite this I found the book much harder going that the first two volumes. Here the story is spread over a much greater geographical space. The interests of individuals such as John of Gaunt become entangled with the fates of whole countries. Keeping track of it all is hard for the reader, despite Sumption's best efforts. The book ends with the Truce of Leulinghem. This was a dramatic outcome of years of peace talks between the countries, but Sumption makes clear that the peace was very much still born. It failed to solve the underlying problems, and both the French and English kings used it as a breathing space to try and solve their own internal issues. In particular Richard II attempted to consolidate his power base by challenging his internal enemies. 

Sumption finished the book with the defeat of Richard and the crowning of Henry IV in October 1399. The shock of the French at the news was "due in part to outrage at the idea of deposing an anointed king". This reflected real differences in government between the two countries. But a bigger problem was that the French firmly believed that Richard had been overthrown because he wanted peace. The scene was set, in French eyes at least, for further war.

Volume three packs a vast amount of history into almost 900 pages. It is not an easy read, while I found the sections on rebellion excellent, I was overwhelmed by detail - particularly in the chapters on Portugal. At times the sheer level of detail overwhelms the wider historical narrative. Despite this the book remains part of the single best historical account of the Hundred Years War. If you can stomach the length and detail, you'll want to read it.

Related Reviews

Sumption - Trial by Battle: The Hundred Years War I
Sumption - Trial by Fire: The Hundred Years War II

Green - The Hundred Years War: A People's History
Barker - Conquest
Barker - Agincourt

Monday, June 07, 2021

Stephen Jay Gould - Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History

Stephen Jay Gould is a colossus of science. An innovative scientist, a prolific essayist and author he inspired and educated generations about palaeontology, evolution and history. POlitically on the left, his work is suffused with a keen sense of social justice only occasionally descending into political point scoring. Nonetheless Gould's politics shape both the subject matter he is interested in, and how he writes about the material.

I mention this because Wonderful Life is a book about extremely ancient evolutionary history. As such there is little reason for Gould to discuss politics in it at all. But really this book is about an approach to science and history and as such Gould's politics matter a great deal. This is worth emphasising because some recent online reviews of this book tend to emphasise its errors, or how it has been dated by later research. Firstly, this should not be surprising. Few science books published back in 1989 remain exactly correct. No one reads Isaac Newton's writings today looking for scientific explanations that stand up to the rigours of modern science. In fact, one of the themes of Wonderful Life is Gould's argument that historic scientific work must not be ignored, even it is incorrect, as it is part of contributing to more recent developments.

There is irony in one aspect of this. Gould discusses how the Burgess Shale, a geological feature that forms the centrepiece of the book's discussion contains fossils of the tiny creature Hallucigenia. Gould explains how this was wrongly described by the great US scientist Charles Doolittle Walcott who was the key figure in early studies of the Burgess Shale. In the book Gould shows how Walcott's construction of Hallucigenia was completely wrong. In fact much of the book is a discussion of why Walcott made such mistakes. But today we know that the reconstruction by a later scientist Conway Morris celebrated in Gould's book is also incorrect. To be fair to Gould he also points out that Hallucigenia is so "peculiar" that Conway Morris' interpretation might be incorrect. Today we know that Hallucigenia is a very different creature from either description. Those of you reading Wonderful Life or even just this review, will get a sense of the debate from this fascinating short video.

Secondly to only emphasise how Wonderful Life is no longer accurate is to utterly misunderstand the point of the book. What Gould is trying to do is understand how natural history can be studied and why scientists make mistakes. What cultural, social and political conditions allow a brilliant scientist like Walcott to get the Burgess Shale completely wrong. Of course, at the same time Gould is putting across his own version of that history - explaining the history, evolution and extinction of the fossil animals found in the rock - through an examination of the process of science. It is this aspect to Wonderful Life that stands the test of time and must not be dismissed.

The problem for Walcott is that a close examination of the Burgess Shale fossils proved, beyond doubt, that his understanding of evolution was incorrect. Gould explains that the fossils demonstrate that evolution is not linear, but contingent on externalities, which mean that many species do not make the cut. Of the dozens of creatures found in the Burgess Shale fossils, many have no contemporary (or even more recent) descendants. As Gould explains, Walcott

interpreted his new fauna in the light of thrity previous years spent (largely in frustration) trying to prove the artifact theory, as an ultimate tribute to Darwin from a Cambrian geologist. He could not grant Burgess organisms the uniqueness that seems so evidence to us today because a raft of new phyla would have threatened his most cherished belief. If evolution could produce ten new Cambrian phyla and then wipe them out just as quickly, then what about the surviving Cambrian groups? Why should they have ha a long and honourable Precambrian pedigree? Why should they not have originated just before the Cambrian, as the fossil record, read literally, seems to indicate, and as the fast-transition theory proposes? This argument... is a death knell for the artifact theory.

Gould argues for a different approach:

The resolution of history must be rooted in the reconstruction of past events themselves - in their own terms - based on narrative evidence of their own unique phenomena. No law guaranteed the demise of Wiwaxia, but some complex set of events conspired to assure this result - and we may be able to recover the causes if, by good fortune, sufficient evidence lies record in our spotty geological record. 

Wonderful Life is the source of a famous quote by Gould:

Wind back the tape of life to the early days of the Burgess Shale; let it play again from an identical starting point, and the chance becomes vanishingly small that anything like human intelligence would grace the replay.

His argument is that evolution doesn't proceed by stages to an specific goal that can be predicted in advance. What the Burgess fossils show us is that chance means that many different outcomes are possible. While there is much still to learn, and some of this book is dated - there is a lot of material here to help us get our heads around how evolution has worked, and what that means for our own place in the contemporary eco-system.

Related Reviews

Fortey - Survivors: The Animals and Plants that Time has Left Behind
Fortey - The Earth: An Intimate History
Fortey - Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution
Maddox - Reading the Rocks
Cadbury - The Dinosaur Hunters
Desmond & Moore - Darwin's Sacred Cause

Sunday, June 06, 2021

John Hersey - Hiroshima

When two atomic bombs were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, few people had any clue about what they were. In the aftermath, newspapers were full of the scientific achievement - the new atomic age that had been opened up. There was little or no space for what happened to the people living in the cities themselves. In May 1946, The New Yorker magazine sent journalist and author John Hersey to Hiroshima to report on what happened. His 30,000 word article, simply titled Hiroshima, was published as the sole story in the August 1946 edition, a year after the bomb dropped.

It was an instant success. The story was syndicated globally, as millions of people wanted to read this honest, moving and shocking story of the horror of the atom bomb. In the UK, were paper rationing meant that newspapers couldn't reprint the story, a quick Penguin edition was produced in 250,000 copies. Readers devoured it.

Today, we know much more about atom bombs. Nearly 80 years later, with the threat of global nuclear war hanging over several generations heads since 1945, we are much more used to the idea of what this new technology could do. But then the reality was shocking to the public. Hersey tells the story through a handful of main characters, explaining what each of them in turn did on the day. How they were thrown across the room, or broken bones and in the initial blast. How in shock they tried to find friends, family, children, colleagues. The main characters interact with a wider group of people, whose stories of lost children, wounded soldiers, vomiting refugees and the complete break down of authority are terrifying in their authenticity.

Hersey carefully chose who formed the basis for this account. Five are Japanese, a hospital doctor, an office worker, a Protestant clergyman and a older woman. Another was a German Catholic missionary. Their different accounts are at times upsetting, and shocking. What I was struck by was how people quickly organised - the Dr Sasaki set up emergency medical aid in his hospital, though he was utterly overwhelmed by the thousands who came for help; the man who ferried people back and forth across a river or fetched water for hundreds of thirsty wounded. At the same time there are individual moments that help clarify the horror - the doctor loses his glasses, the clergyman bumps into his wife and child by accident. 

Hersey shows through these stories the utter overwhelming nature of atomic war. A city is flattened almost instantaneously. The inhabitants how now way to understand what has happened. There are no supplies and promised help from the authorities fails to materialise for days. At the same time, after the initial shock, people organise to help and support each other, though the reality of radiation sickness doesn't become clear for months - it took half a year before the Red Cross hospital was "back to normal". Before it was fully functioning, the directors "put up a new yellow brick veneer façade" to ensure that it looked the part. 

I wonderedwhether the book's impact went much further than just explaining the reality of the bomb. The Japanese had been demonised in the most racist way since Pearl Harbour. But in Hiroshima the Japanese are ordinary men and women, exactly like ordinary Americans. The reading public might have found their ideas challenged in ways that were far greater than simply fearing they might be victims of atomic war.

When I finished Hiroshima I hoped a new generation would read it, and our anti-war and peace movements grow in strength once again. But I also agreed with Dr Sasaki, who said afterwards "I see they are holding a trial for war criminals in Tokyo... I think they ought to try the men who decided to use the bomb and they should hang them all."

Related Reviews

Hansen - Fire & Fury: The Allied Bombing of Germany 1942-1945
Taylor - Dresden
Toll - Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific 1941-1942
Toll - The Conquering Tide: War in the Pacific Islands 1942-1944
Hornfischer - The Fleet at Flood Tide: America at Total War in the Pacific, 1944-1945
Lochbaum, Lyman, Stranahan & UCS - Fukushima: The Story of a Nuclear Disaster


Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Ben Hopkins - Cathedral

Covering 50 years in the history of a small town in the middle of 13th century German Rhineland this is an epic novel in every way. As the title suggests, the book centres on the construction of the massive cathedral in Hagenburg, a project begun by an aging Bishop who wants it to be his legacy. This sets the tone for the book's great scale, but around the cathedral spins a cast of characters whose lives, loves and scheming draw the reader into the world of 13th century German fiefdoms. Reviews have drawn comparisons with Ken Follet's Pillars of the Earth, another massive book with a cathedrals' construction at its centre. But what makes the books different is that Ben Hopkins' understands wider dynamics in contemporary German society. The rivalries that set people against each other in Hopkins' novel aren't simply jealousies or hatred, they are the tensions created by a feudal system in crisis and the emergence of merchant capitalism.

The book opens with one of its central figures, a young serf coming into the town to pay his taxes. While there the serf borrows money from a Jewish money lender, to buy his freedom, and sets about learning the stonemasons craft. His brother becomes apprenticed to the Jewish lender, and develops a talent for buying low and selling high. Machinations at the top of the town - and conflict between the secular world of the merchants and the religious world of the Bishop's circles form a backdrop to tensions lower down. The cathedral itself becomes a venue for these arguments - as merchants and traders use it to organise their business.

But this is still a feudal world. Various lords scheme for wealth and power, and the rise of merchant capital both challenges them and offers them assistance. Hopkins' talent is to weave these different threads together. His writing isn't overly detailed - the chapters are short and tight - but he paints a detailed world. There are some interesting characters. Some strong women, and Hopkins' includes a gay character in a way that feels extremely realistic. I was most taken however by the way he shows the scheming, malevolence of the lords and bishops. Some of these are truly nasty people. My only gripe is that the authors' focus on the town means he neglects the main source of wealth for all these lords - peasant labour on the land.

Without spoiling too much, there are some surprising twists and deaths, and an excellently depicted medieval urban rising. But I wanted to finish by noting that Hopkins' has done excellent work in showing the way that Jewish communities were both central to urban life, and separate. The antisemitism and pogroms they face are described in brutal detail, but so is the way that the changes in medieval society also have their impact upon the Jewish community. It's a real strength of the Ben Hopkins' writing that a novel based on a Cathedral doesn't solely focus on Christians, but tries to reflect the whole of urban medieval life. 

In describing the book as epic I am also mindful of the way the author brings all the threads to a satisfying close at the end, even if a few of them seem a little too abrupt. But, for a book that is over 600 pages long, I was held gripped till the end. Highly recommended.

Related Reviews

Vuillard - The War of the Poor
Follett - World Without End
Follett - The Pillars of the Earth


Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Jean Froissart - Chronicles

Jean Froissart's Chronicles are his relatively contemporary, and sometimes eyewitness, accounts of events around the Hundred Years War. There is something remarkably special about reading about events like the Battles of Crecy or Poitiers, or the Jacquerie and the English Rising by someone writing down oral accounts or stories passed on by witnesses. 

Froissart was a historian, writer, poet and courtier who lived around 1337 to 1405. His life covered much of the key period of the Hundred Years War and we are blessed that Froissart was an able writer, with an eye for detail and scandal, as well as a compulsion to put it all down on paper. Some early parts of The Chronicles are based on earlier writings of the French chronicler Jean Le Bel, but the bulk of Froissart's work is notes made from interviews with eyewitnesses. They are entertaining, illuminating and at times very insightful. That said, they aren't always historically accurate. 

The modern reader might find Froissart somewhat of a snob. He seems obsessed with chivalry, and details of courtly events. His eyewitness account of a jousting tournament is fascinating, though the edition I read cuts it short because the detail of shields, emblems, and how each individual joust proceeded is repetitive. "Their lances were stout and did not break, but curved up, and the powerful thrusts by strong arms stopped the horses dead in their tracks. Both knights then went back to their own ends, without dropping their lances..." But reading these descriptions you realise that this information is of the greatest importance - the descriptions of chivalric behaviour, the details of who won and lost, are crucial for Froissart's audience and those who commissioned him.

While it is the big events that Froissart describes, or saw, that often draw readers attention - the Peasants Revolt, or the fall of Richard II are examples, I was also struck by other details - such as when Froissart talks about staying in an inn or a casual discussion. Whether or not Froissart is completely accurate in his description of the Papal schism (he isn't), his account of the role of the Roman population again gives a sense of what he would have thought important. 

Which brings me to the two events I was most interested in - Froissart's descriptions of two Peasants Revolts, one in France and one in England. I've previously read, and re-read, his accounts of the 1381 when the English Rising shook Richard II's kingdom to its foundations. They are similar in tone to his writings about the Jacquerie a few decades earlier. In both cases Froissart demonstrates both a hatred and a fear of the masses, whom he understands as being irrationally angry and violent. The French rebels, were

evil men, who had come together without leaders or arms, pillaged and burned everything and violated and killed all the ladies and girls without mercy, like mad dogs. Their barbarous acts were worse than anything that ever took place between Christians and Saracens. Never did men commits such vile deeds.

He goes on to say that these deeds were so awful he "could never bring myself to write down the horrible and shameful things which they did to the ladies". 

Most striking, for me, about these passages is less the violence (which Froissart exaggerates) and more the reference to the rebels rising "without leaders". Here he is upset at the disordering of the medieval world. The rebels aren't, in his view, just rebelling, they are also doing so in ways that destroy hierarchies. Ironically, as Justine Firnhaber-Baker has recently shown, the rebels did have leaders - chosen from below (as they did in 1381 in England). Though Froissart would no doubt have found this equally unpalatable.

Froissart's Chronicles have been popular through the ages precisely because his eye for detail makes them extremely entertaining. Many of the events he describes are some of the most important of the era, but readers will also be struck that the Chronicler is doing more than writing history - he is writing a version of it that fits the prejudices and class interests of his aristocratic audience. It is this that makes the book truly fascinating.

Related Reviews

Firnhaber-Baker - The Jacquerie of 1358
Sumption - Trial by Battle: The Hundred Years War I
Sumption - Trial by Fire: The Hundred Years War II
Green - The Hundred Years War: A People's History
Hilton - Bond Men Made Free
O'Brien - When Adam Delved and Eve Span