Thursday, September 30, 2021

First on the Moon - A Voyage with Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, Edwin Aldrin

Rushed out in the aftermath of the Apollo 11 landing on the moon, this book is a detailed account of the flight and its background mostly written by Life journalists who were close to the astronauts and, in some cases, living with the astronaut families before and during the mission. For a book that clearly was intended to benefit from the intense interest in the mission its actually a surprisingly in-depth account. The book centres on the personalities of the astronauts, in turn telling their stories and those of their families. There's a strong emphasis on the themes that might be associated with America - the white-picket fence lives of the families, their faith and their part in recent US history - from the Korean War to the test pilots.

I was surprised to find myself rather interested in these aspects to the astronauts. It helped illuminate their post-Nasa careers, for instance. In the past I'd been surprised that none of the three Apollo 11 astronauts wanted to return to space after their return from the moon. It turns out that this was in no small part because they did not want to commit themselves to such an intense period of training again. But it was also because they wanted a normal family life. In fact the "normality" of family life shines through with several of the young children being utterly unimpressed with Daddy being on, or near, the moon. Instead they were more excited by pets, visiting friends or new toys. The astronauts themselves come across as highly trained and excelling at their jobs. I had not realised that Aldrin had been involved in pathbreaking university research in orbital mechanics.

But the book excels at the description of the mission itself. Large chunks are devoted to "quotes" from radio transmissions between the Apollo CSM and Houston. These are cleverly interspersed with the background information, which gives the sense of a count-down to the epic moment of the first moonwalk.  Further background to the colossal effort is given by shorter accounts about technical and engineering staff. While there is little acknowledgement of wider political and economic issues, there is a brief reference to one black employee, Herman Clark, of Grumman who was a quality control inspect for the Apollo 11 lunar module, who makes reference to the lack of racist attitudes among his staff, which he attributed to his willingness to stand up for his colleagues: "The people who work on that project, on the LM, take pride in it. The guys there are not there to fight a racial problem. If you've got a problem, take it out of here." This chimes with other material I've read from NASA in the 1960s - racism wasn't necessarily challenged - it was supposed to be taken outside. There's also a tantalising reference to a strike by maids at the accommodation provided for the astronauts.

The book makes clear the sheer scale of the Apollo enterprise. Kennedy and Nixon both fretted about the costs, though the authors argue that there was a much greater benefit to the US economy from the huge amount of money being used in development, research etc. There's also fairly standard material arguing that there would be enormous benefits to the world from further space exploration. It's hard now to imagine the impact landing on the moon had. In First on the Moon you get a real sense of the whole world watching enthralled, though there was at least some cynicism out there. After all the US government could spend billions on Armstrong's first step but housing and healthcare was lacking for the poorest in the world.

Nonetheless the book does demonstrate very well the achievements that humanity could rise to if the worlds' resources and labour was used in a positive way, unrestricted by the limits of capitalism. Which is why the epilogue by Arthur C. Clarke reads some hollow 50 years after Apollo 11. Clarke argues for an "outward urge" that sees a technological continuity from Apollo's first mission to bases on the moon, Mars and elsewhere. He imagines no budget cuts, no lack of political interest and no shortage of cash. In fact, the future for Clarke is very rosy. Few of his predictions turn out to be accurate - though he gives an interesting description of the internet, long before it became true. Most of the missions he talks about were chopped - including latter Apollo missions, which would have seemed shocking at the time of writing. Nixon wanted to squash Apollo 17 fearing it might go wrong during his election campaign, after budgets had already gone for Apollo 18 and onward. Clarke's essay is remarkable for his enthusiastic belief in abstract progress separated out from wider economic and political questions.

First on the Moon gives a real sense of the euphoria of early space exploration and the technological and scientific marvels of Apollo. I was also left with a sense of sadness. Apollo was a remarkable achievement - a monument to what humans can do. But the fact that fifty years later its not happened is not a failure of vision or science - its because capitalism had no need of these sorts of missions after the Space Race had been won. Imagine what we could do if we had a society that wasn't motivated by such interests? First on the Moon gives a glimpse of the wonder of space travel - future generations, likely in a much more rational society - will have to take us further. 

Related Reviews

Wolfe - The Right Stuff
Brzezinski - Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Rivalries that Ignited the Space Race
Scott & Leonov - Two Sides of the Moon
Shetterly - Hidden Figures

Alexandra Kollontai - Writings from the Struggle: Selected & Translated by Cathy Porter

Alexandra Kollontai was a fascinating revolutionary. Born into a wealthy Russian liberal family, she came to embrace revolutionary Marxism and was active in both the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks. During the Russian Revolution she was a leading Bolshevik agitator, active on their Central Committee, and became a trusted figure in the immediate post 1917 Soviet government. Never afraid to raise her differences of opinion and go her own way she did, on occasion, disagree fundamentally with Lenin and this led to a rift between them. A distinguished old Bolshevik, she survived Stalin's purges and murders of former comrades and served the Soviet Union as a diplomat - which perhaps explains her survival.

Cathy Porter's biography of Kollontai, recently updated and reissued - remains the single best account of her life. Now Porter has released this collection of articles and extracts by Kollontai, and they are a breathtaking insight into her ideas and the early socialist movement. Kollontai wrote leaflets, pamphlets and articles that agitated for socialist ideas - in Russia and in German exile. There are many different examples here, which showcase Kollontai's talents. But she also wrote on subjects that were rarely discussed within the socialist movement - sexuality, love and interpersonal relations. 

I enjoyed Porter's editing here, because she weaves Kollontai's work into the story of her life. Each piece is part of the wider narrative and I found it made them more accessible. All of the chosen pieces by Kollontai are fascinating, though several stand out. As someone with an interest in the German left, I was fascinated to read Kollontai's diary-like account of the outbreak of World War One and the capitulation of the German revolutionary left to its nationalist government. 

I rush to the party headquarters to ask how soon the International can be convened. Haase, the leader of the socialist group in the Reichstag, is there on his own. "Are you joking?" he says. "War is inevitable. People have gone mad, there's nothing we can do!" At the Women's Bureau, I ask Luise Zietz of the party Executive what instructions they have received... She looks at me coldly. "We've protested and demonstrated, but we must do our duty when our country is in danger," she says, and I look her in the eye and realise I am not longer a comrade but a Russian...  

With the help of Karl Leibneckt, she and her son and other Russian socialists are able to leave Germany. In Leibneckt and Rosa Luxembourg, and soon Lenin, her despair quickly turns to anger and agitation. Meeting Luxemburg a month after war broke out Kollontai describes Luxemburg's outlook: "She hasn't lost touch with the workers, and says most are against the war. Her clearsightedness is heartening, and her merciless sarcasm puts much in its proper place."

During the war Kollontai writes some of her most powerful and influential articles. A 1916 pamphlet "Who Needs the War" is read by an estimated 7 million German and Russian soldiers. Reading it in this collection its lost none of its anger and power. In fact its the enduring nature of her writing that makes much of it so exciting to read today. Kollontai's 1906 pamphlet "Who are the Social Democrats and What do they Stand For" is a brilliant introduction to revolutionary politics. It was reprinted in the midst of the Russian Revolution and used internationally to explain the politics of the Bolsheviks. Some of it could be reused today in many parts of the world to put the case for socialism, with little or no changes:

Under the capitalist system, factories produce ever greater quantities of goods in the fight for profits. Then as industries gain new world markets, nations are drawn into wars with each other to steal more colonies from which to extract unimaginable wealth. Each major capitalist power seeks a world monopoly for its goods. Imperialist wars for markets and colonies will continue so long as the capitalist system exists. And the deadlier these wars are, the more clearly workers will see that they must take the economy into their hands if humanity is to survive. The day is fast approaching when these capitalist crises and imperialist wars will force us to choose whether we perish, or we overthrow the bourgeoisie to step over the threshold into socialism.

Later she continues on the power of the working class:

As the proletariat grows larger, industry is run by ever fewer capitalists. Most workers have never so much as glimpsed their employers. Modern production methods are making the gentlemen entrepreneurs' role in the factories increasingly irrelevant, and most are run now by foremen, managers and engineers. The less spiders there are, the easier to destroy their webs. If the bosses should all drop dead one fine day, the world would barely notice. Whereas when workers decide to strike, life comes to a stop, as happened in 1905, when strikers brought the autocracy to its knees.

But Cathy Porter shows that Kollontai was more than a polemicist. In fact she is a deeply thoughtful and original thinker. Her writings on sex and relationships were often too much even for the revolutionaries, as they saw them as a distraction. Though Kollontai saw them more in the context of winning women to the revolutionary movement by talking about the sort of future that they might have under a socialist society. This is a future where women have been liberated from the drudgery of life through the socialisation of child care and food preparation. Kollontai was attacked by some who thought that the "Bolsheviks would take away their children", but this is crude and far from Kollontai's real ideas. Two pieces in this collection illustrate this well, one an essay from 1913 "The New Woman". Porter explains the significance, "people's longing for more fulfilling sexual relationships could only be realised when they were free from the alienation born of capitalist property relations." The New Woman piece explores this by examining in detail the changing way that women were depicted in Russian literature and then contrasting this with the reality of working class life.

A second example is a short story Three Generations published in the aftermath of 1917. In it she depicts the contrasting experiences of two women from the revolution, a woman and her daughter, the latter of whom is enjoying multiple sexual encounters with different partners. Her mother is perplexed. Innovatively Kollontai places herself in the story, and the reader can see this both as a description of life after 1917 in a rapidly changing world and one were Kollontai is also working through the meaning of 1917 for working class women. It's a fascinating and thoughtful conclusion to a collection of essays that everyone interested in revolutionary thought should read. Cathy Porter's work in putting this together should be celebrated and I highly recommend the book.

Related Reviews 

Porter - Alexandra Kollontai: A Biography
Davis - A Rebel's Guide to Alexandra Kollontai
Allen - Alexander Shlyapnikov 1885-1937: Life of an Old Bolshevik


Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Dirk Reinhardt - The Edelweiss Pirates: Teenage Rebels in Nazi Germany

Picking up The Edelweiss Pirates in the bookshop I was fooled by the subtitle into thinking it was a work of non-fiction. I had always wanted to know more about this resistance movement, having heard their exciting name many years ago. Had I realised in the shop that this was a Young Adult novel I probably would not have purchased it - in which case I would have missed out on an exciting and evocative book.

Edelweiss Pirates was the name chosen by a diverse group of youngsters in western Germany during World War Two. As the author explains in a informative historical note at the end of the book, the Pirates did not necessarily begin as anti-Nazi resistors, but just young people who rejected authority and wanted, as young people do, to have freedom to be themselves. History hasn't been kind to the Pirates. Historians and politicians dismissed their anti-fascist credentials until recently, when the discovery of more records and research has shown how the youngsters organised as they found themselves increasingly in confrontation with the Nazi state.

The novel follows the discovery of an old man's diary by a youngster who befriends him. The diary tells the story of a group of Pirates in Ehrenfeld, near Cologne. Today these Edelweiss Pirates have been recognised officially as the brave resistance fighters that they were, and Reinhardt tells their story by conflating events into his account of a small group.

Josef Gerlach leaves the Hitler Youth and falls in with a group of rebellious youngsters he meets hanging around in he blacked out streets of wartime Germany. Quickly the Pirates are challenged by the Hitler Youth, whom they beat off in violent street fights. As the Pirates become increasingly involved in anti-fascist activity, the Nazi machine tries to curtail them. Josef and his friends have a few lucky escapes, but are eventually caught and badly tortured by the Gestapo. As the war continues, they refuse to join the army and conceal themselves in the ruins of their town. Now their resistance is tied up with the day to day struggle to stay alive.

Writing for a YA audience Reinhardt does well to include the wider story of Nazi Germany in the book. Depicting events through the eyes of a somewhat naive youngster means that we share Josef's shock at learning about the Holocaust and the reality of Nazi rule. However for younger readers that might not know the context there is an excellent introduction by Michael Rosen who explains events, and a glossary of terms at the back (alongside Reinhardt's historical note). It's also important to acknowledge Rachel Ward's brilliant translation as well.

This is an emotional book. The reality of the war, and Nazi Germany, mean that Reinhardt has to tell an unpleasant story. But that makes the book feel even more real, especially as we learn that much of it is based on historical events. The framing story - Josef as an old man, and the young narrator reading his diary - helps us think through how history and stories are told and remembered. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and found it deeply moving and wish that when had been a youngster I'd had a chance to read it, as it helps dispel the "all Germans were Nazis" slur that was often thrown at me.

Related Reviews

Kershaw - The End
Boll - And Where Were You, Adam?

Saturday, September 25, 2021

V.I. Lenin - The Agrarian Programme of Social-Democracy in the First Russian Revolution 1905-1907

In the aftermath of the 1905 Russian Revolution revolutionary socialists engaged in major debates about the nature of the Revolution and its politics. A significant discussion took place around the nature of agrarian change. Lenin, the leader of the Bolsheviks, argued that because Social Democrats had the wrong position on the agrarian question they were unable to lead the peasant masses during the 1905 Revolution, and significantly undermined the whole movement. This short book is Lenin's exploration of the debates within Social Democracy (by which he means the broad revolutionary movement) and his polemical response. Unfortunately for the movement, all but one copy of the book was destroyed by the Tsarist censor and the text available today was only published in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution of 1917, because of the continued significance of agrarian discussions.

He is very clear on the importance of discussions about agrarian change. Arguing that there are two "streams" of agrarian evolution - that of Peasant and Landlord farming - Lenin says

The conflict of interests between the peasants and the landlords which runs like a scarlet thread through the whole history of Post-Reform Russia and constitutes the most important economic basis of our revolution, is a struggle for one or the other type of bourgeois agrarian evolution. Only by clearly understanding the difference between these two types and the bourgeois character of both, can we correctly explain the agrarian question in the Russian revolution and grasp the class significance of the various agrarian programmes put forward by the different parties.

The "pivot" Lenin argues is the "feudal latifundia", these will either eliminated in a revolutionary manner by peasant farmers or they will be gradually transformed into Junker estates".

In making his argument Lenin deploys an incredible array of arguments. He begins with a historical overview of the agrarian question, then summarises Marx's discussions on surplus value, rent and agriculture and, following this, critiques the multiple positions within the Russian political system, including his own comrades. In particularly he challenges leading Marxist intellectuals like Kautsky and Plekhanov, as well as a number of others whom he has less time for. 

Given the urgency of the issue it might seem strange that Lenin (and indeed other Marxists) devoted such time and space to complex discussions around Marxist concepts like differential and absolute rent from land. The importance however lies in the implications of theoretical conclusions for revolutionary practice. Lenin chastises other social democrats for ignoring the Marxist concept of absolute rent (crudely the rent accrued as a result of monopoly ownership of land). Lenin points out that 

The repudiation of absolute rent is the repudiation of the economic significance of private land ownership under capitalism. Whoever claims that only differential rent exists, inevitably arrives at the conclusion that it makes not the slightest different to the conditions of capitalist farming and of capitalist development whether the land belongs to the state or to private persons.

The significance of these debates lies in the wider discussions within the Marxist movement about the nature of revolution at the time in Russia. Almost everyone, Lenin included, believed that the coming Russian Revolution would be Bourgeois, and usher in capitalism. This, following a crude stagiest argument, would then lead to a future socialist revolution. Unlike most others though, Lenin though that the working class and peasantry needed to play a much more central and dynamic role in the revolution, pushing forward their own independent demands to strengthen the fight for socialism in the future.

For Lenin then, nationalisation of the land was not an abstract demand, but one that would both allow the peasantry and workers' movements to develop and to give them independence from the capitalist class.

The proletariat can and must support the militant bourgeoisie when the latter wages a really revolutionary struggle against feudalism. But it is not for the proletariat to support the bourgeoisie when the latter is becoming quiescent. If it is certain that a victorious bourgeois revolution in Russia is impossible without the nationalisation of the land, then it is still more certain that a subsequent turn towards the division of the land is impossible without a certain amount of “restoration”, without the peasantry (or rather, from the point of view of the presumed relations: farmers) turning towards counter revolution. The proletariat will uphold the revolutionary tradition against all such strivings and will not assist them.

Lenin's position then is not to ignore the two possible evolutionary routes for agrarian society under Russian capitalism. Instead he argues that the workers' movement cannot be "indifferent" to "one or other" outcomes:  

In fighting for a favourable outcome of the revolution we must spread among the masses a very clear understanding of what keeping to the landlord path of agrarian evolution means, what incalculable hardships (arising not from capitalism, but from the inadequate development of capitalism) it has in store for all the toiling masses. On the other hand, we must also explain the petty-bourgeois nature of the peasant revolution, and the fallacy of placing any “socialist” hopes in it.

As with much of Lenin's writing, his work on the Agrarian Programme, must be understood in the context of the moment when it was written and the debates he was having inside the revolutionary socialist movement. But reading this book today is far more than a history lesson. Russia in 1907 was a tremendously unequal society, as Lenin himself showed, "ten and a half million peasant households in European Russia own 75,000,000 dessiatins (1.09 hectares) of land. Thirty thousand... landlords each own over 500 dessiatins - altogether 70,000,000 dessiatins."

Such rural inequalities remain in many parts of the world today, and Lenin's arguments about the relationship of the workers' movements and socialists to the "peasant revolution" remain crucially important for building revolutionary Marxist organisation in the 21st century. This book thus repays reading, especially given contemporary debates about agriculture and the environment.

Related Reviews

Lenin - The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky
Lenin - Will the Bolsheviks Maintain Power?
Krausz - Reconstructing Lenin: An Intellectual Biography
Kautsky - The Agrarian Question - Volume 1

Friday, September 24, 2021

Philip Kerr - The One from the Other

This is the first of the "later" Bernie Gunther novels, detective "noir" set in Germany from the 1930s onward. This one opens with Gunther running his wife's hotel on the outskirts of Dachau after the war. After his wife's death he sells up and returns to being a detective, this time in Munich. His cases are mostly finding missing persons - there are plenty of those in Germany after 1945. A beautiful woman hires Gunther to find her former husband, now a wanted Nazi war criminal, so that she can prove him dead in order to remarry. Gunther is drawn into a the circles protecting former Nazis trying to escape to South America, and finds himself in the midst of a complicated scheme involving a lot of money, murder and the CIA.

By the time of this novel Gunther is tired and broken. The death of his wife and his entrapment by nefarious characters seem to wear him down dramatically. By the end of the book there's precious little wisecracking, though there's still a lot of cynicism.

But the story is too convoluted and too unlikely. From the prologue, where Gunther finds himself in Palestine with Adolf Eichmann, onward, I found myself rolling my eyes at how unlikely it all seemed. Philip Marlowe's cases may have been moved forward on occasion by unlikely coincidences, but Gunther's life seems to be determined by some of the most unlikely of events ever. Kerr's attempts to link Gunther to just about every person in Nazi Germany are increasingly annoying, but this plot is simply too over the top to be able to suspend belief.

Related Reviews

Kerr - March Violets
Kerr - The Pale Criminal
Kerr - A German Requiem

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Ursula K. LeGuin - The Left Hand of Darkness

It has been many years since I read this classic by Ursula K. LeGuin. Many comrades recommended her work to me, usually The Dispossessed, with its juxtaposition of two worlds - one Communist, one Capitalist. However at the time I enjoyed The Left Hand of Darkness more, and rereading it today I am struck by how LeGuin's combination of story and world-building creates a wonderful experience.

First published in 1969 at the height of the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s, LeGuin's book plays around with concepts of gender, sex and family. The very different lives that she depicts here are placed in the context of a story of first contact, with the hero visiting the planet of Winter (known to its inhabitants as Gethen) as an envoy for a confederation of dozens of planets. Winter is, as the name suggests, almost permanently ice-bound. It's inhabitants have never discovered flight or many other technological marvels, and the Envoy describes it as being in a process of very gradual and slow change. Winter is dominated by two rival powers, both of whom are almost feudal in organistation. The envoy rapidly finds himself as a pawn in a planetary power struggle.

But it is the gender aspects to Winter that make the story refreshingly interesting. On Winter inhabitants are all of one gender - male. They enter a brief "female" period when they can have children. In addition to the envoy's trials in understanding the culture, he has also to navigate sexual and gender differences. Tellingly Winter's inhabitants often see "females" as the envoy describes them, as "perverts", because they are permanently in a state when sexual reproduction is possible. A good example LeGuin's ability to invert points of view to expose underlying hypocrisies.

Scattered through the novel are chapters that tell stories from the mythological past of Winter, and reports from earlier explorers and anthropologists. They serve to world-build but also make wider points, as one "scientific" report about the inhabitants of Winter explains,

When you meet a Gethenian you cannot and must not do what a bisexual naturally does, which is to cast him in the role of Man or Woman, while adopting towards him a corresponding role dependent on your expectations of the pattered or possible interactions between persons of the same or the opposite sex. Our entire patter of socio-sexual interaction is nonexistent here. They cannot play the game. They do not see one another as men or women. This is almost impossible for our imagination to accept. What is the first question we ask about a newborn baby?

These, and other, questions are thrown up into the air by LeGuin's story. That said the novel is framed around the envoy's story, which includes a gripping survival journey across the frozen lands of Winter. This is more than just a fictional exploration of gender or a fine science fiction tale, it's a great combination of both.

That said the book felt a little dated.In the 1960s and 1970s it provoked great debates about gender politics, and vestiges of that remain, as well as a cracking story. Today as the transgender liberation movement has exploded, SF&F often (though not frequently enough) explores gender and sexuality, and compared to some recent examples TLHOD felt a little old-fashioned. I was struck that despite depicting a future society, the worlds that LeGuin's hero visits from have made little break with the gender roles. Indeed when the envoy speaks about women to the male inhabitants of Winter he does so in misogynistic terms. As the "scientific report" quoted above suggests the envoy comes from a culture that is as shaped by sexual politics as Winter, and not in a positive way. In fact, to be honest, he comes from our society. Given LeGuin's radical politics I was surprised that she didn't use the opportunity to depict a more positive world. 

Nonetheless this is a famous and clever take on the debates about gender and society. Reading it today I could see how it must have been enormously influential, and I suspect continues to do so today. I hope contemporary LGBT+ liberation movements continue to explore these themes in equally exciting ways.

Related Reviews

Arkady & Boris Strugatsky - Hard to be a God

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Nicholas Orme - Going to Church in Medieval England

Despite my avowed atheism, I find churches fascinating. Travelling in the countryside I find myself drawn to the churches that usually form the centrepiece of villages. They are historical records, and while today they rarely have the congregations that they had in the past, they remain links to the distant past. Their memorials, burial stones, records and, frequently, their very structures are testament to the lives of people who lived nearby and worshipped there. When I wrote about the history of rebellion in the countryside in my book Kill all the Gentlemen I frequently noted how churches formed the basis of rebellion - as places to meet, to debate and sometimes as sparks of rebellion. The history of the Reformation in particular was, I argued, a process of change that sometimes drew people into direct conflict with their rulers.

So I was tremendously excited to receive Nicholas Orme's new book Going to Church in Medieval England. It is nothing less than a deep exploration of the custom and practice of religious worship in the period leading up to the Reformation. Orme begins with the parish, the geographical structure that forms the basis for the local Church's influence and the component part of the wider Church's structure. The basis for its taxes and its congregation. He emphasises that a church and its parish "were more than a religious unit... being also a social one", the social unit "might precede the church, if the church was built to serve an existing estate and community". The parish had a wider social impact though "Congregations understood themselves as different from those in parishes next door, and sought to equal or surpass in their own buildings what others had in theirs". 

From the parish, Orme moves on to the staff of the church, their roles, their backgrounds and training and their knowledge. Then we explore the buildings themselves. What did they look like? Why are they usually certain shapes? How and why did those shapes change? Why were certain things in special places. We learn some surprising things - originally there were no seats and the seating that was eventually introduced were an example of the congregation shaping the church, not the other way around. People needed somewhere to sit, though the seats themselves frequently became cause for confrontation and disorder. Who should sit where?

Which brings Orme to the congregation. Most people went to church, but not all went all the time and for many their attendance fit around their wider lives. Orme shows how different aspects of the Church's calendar were designed in part of try and encourage attendance, though there was official recognition that some people might not be able to attend services that were otherwise compulsory - shepherds or fishermen couldn't miss their work, even on a Sabbath. Orme is adept at drawing out real experiences from a wide variety of sources. Take his description of children in church. Once they reached adolescence (12 for girls, 14 for boys) attendance in church became required but,
Notwithstanding this exemption, some children certainly came to church or were brought there... Parents took small children with them because they could not be left at home. The author of Piers Plowman used the simile 'as chaste as a child that in church weepeth'. Noisy or restless young children in church sometimes caused annoyance, as they do today. A visitation of Lincoln diocese in 1519 heard complaints... that 'children there make a noise indecently, so it is hard to hear divine service', while at Kimpton, Hertfordshire, infants 'laugh, cry and clamour'. Some adults might event condone the noise like Thomas Leyk of Gosberton, Lincolnshire who 'impeded the service with an infant'. Other parents left their toddlers at home, either from embarrassment or in order to escape for an hour, a practice which came to light when it led to fatal accidents.
This a good example of Orme's style and attention to detail, and in fact the best part of the book is when it explores the real people who worshiped in the churches and how their religious lives interacted with their actual lives. Orme approaches this in two specific ways. Firstly he shows the relations between the church and the seasons, the way services change in different times of the year - most obviously Easter and Christmas, though these were very different festivals. Secondly he links the church to the lives of its congregations - its presence at their births, marriages and death.

Orme doesn't pretend that everyone went to church all the time and some people never did. He also doesn't portray the church as perfect or its clergy as unfailing. People are punished, or behave badly - people gossip in church or show off hunting birds or flirt with the opposite sex. But this is very much a church "for life and death".

I loved reading this book. But I did feel it had somethings missing. I don't think the book got to the heart of what its congregation thought. Orme meticulously documents how the church functioned - what the priest did, and when. He takes us through how services changed and how their meaning changed. But I wanted to know a little more about what people actually thought. Did they really believe that God was present? How did they feel when the priest spoke words of Latin they didn't understand? What did they really think about the religion they were said to believe in? Of course this is difficult even when discussing practice, as Orme acknowledges :
The services that accompanied the life cycle may be well understood, thanks to late-medieval copies of the manual with their detailed prescriptions for baptism, churching, marriage and burial. Yet here too there is a disparity between what the Uses prescribe and what probably happened. More, sometimes less, took place than they describe on days such as Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday, Easter Day and St Nicholas Day. The services of the life cycle must also be envisage in a context of popular observances that have left much less in the record, such as church decoration, procession...and feasting and gift-giving afterwards. 
We don't even really know how long services took, as clocks only came into use after 1400.

I was particularly disappointed that Orme didn't discuss some significant events like the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536 or the Prayerbook Rebellion of 1549. This is not solely because these are subjects of great interest to myself, but because they are events closely linked to religious, economic and social changes. These movements give great insights into how people viewed their church and religion. Sadly Orme only mentions 1549 in passing and wider peasant revolts are dismissed in a few words. 

Orme's book certainly draws out how religion played a dual role in peoples lives. As part of the structure of rule by the upper-classes and as support and solace for people through their lives. For instance, Orme shows how class divisions played a role within the church space, as well as in the wider social context of the church. I was frequently left wondering whether the book could have explored this further though. At times I felt Orme portrayed the medieval church as essentially benevolent, with congregations happily following their local priest. I'd have liked more on dissent - and not just religious dissent. What happened when people refused to pay their tithes? Did people disagree with sermons? Did the congregation round on a few badly behaved attendees?

On the other hand this is a remarkably detailed book, and, it must be added - a beautifully produced one. There are lavish full colour pictures, plans of buildings and a lovely cover reproduction of a painting by Simon Bening from ~1550 showing peasants (and their dogs) trooping to a church (though readers ought to note it depicts a Flemish scene). Those wanting to understand what happened in a English church and how people worshipped will get a great deal out of this enjoyable work. Perhaps there's more to say about what they thought too - but that may well be another book.

Saturday, September 11, 2021

Rachel Carson - The Sea Around Us

Rachel Carson's The Sea Around Us is nothing less than a complete history of the oceans and an study of the sea's human and non-human ecology. Part of her sea "trilogy" it was first published in 1951 and became a bestseller, cementing her place as an author and leading scientist. Today Carson is mostly remembered, rightly, for her wonderful work of ecology Silent Spring. But it was in these earlier books that she first demonstrated the talent she had for describing complex scientific concepts for the lay person, and let me emphasis the beauty and clarity of Carson's writing in The Sea Around Us.

The Sea Around Us begins with the history of the oceans, then looks at the way the sea is, from top to bottom. For an audience mostly unfamiliar with the deeps, then only just being explored by deep sea explorers, it is an insight into an unknown world. We learn about some of the creatures that live in the deepest parts of the oceans and how their habitats are shaped by the upper reaches of the oceans. Carson also explains the tides, the waves and the currents - and there's a lovely illustration of the Gulf Stream.

Interestingly for the contemporary reader Carson also includes some material on changes caused by melting ice caps and warming oceans. She doesn't ascribe them to global warming - no one did then. But she does consider what these changes might mean. She sees them as part of wider cycles of the Earth's systems. 

Unfortunately for the reader today, there are significant problems with the book. It seems incredible today that when Carson was writing significant parts of geological science were not known. So she lacks any knowledge of plate tectonics, so cannot adequately explain the history of the oceans. 

It would be churlish to dismiss the book for science that came after Carson's time, and its important to say that there is a great deal of interest here. So the book is far more than a historical curiosity. Modern editions often have an introduction updating Carson's work and the interested reader would do well to hunt these down. Most of all I enjoyed reading The Sea Around Us because it is such a wonderful example of how scientific writing need not be dull, or weighted down with figures, but can be poetic and accessible. I'm not surprised it was such a bestseller, and readers today will still get much from it.

Related Reviews

Carson - Silent Spring
Carson - Under the Sea Wind

Friday, September 10, 2021

Terry Pratchett - Moving Pictures

Moving Pictures is the tenth of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels and the first of the so called "Industrial Revolution" works. It still retains a little of chaos and uncertainty in world building that characterises Pratchett's early Discworld. The main characters don't reoccur in other works, and other - more mainstream characters like the Wizards, form the background and are mostly played for comic purposes.

But Moving Pictures is an excellent early example of what Pratchett came to do so well. To take an aspect of our world, and transport it into comic fantasy. But because it is more free than the later works which were tightly bound into the framework that evolved over 41 books, Pratchett is able to play fast and lose with the story. The puns come fast and furiously, and all are glorious. These jokes and asides betray a deep knowledge of film history and the making of movies.

The story centres on Holy Wood. A dark place were ancient species lurk, held back by powerful magic. When the protection fails, dangerous ideas enter into the heads of the Discworld locals. Suddenly they want to tell moving stories on an illuminated screen, and lead the mesmerised viewers too a horrific fate.

The lead characters, Victor Tugelbend and Theda Withel are clearly meant to be Rudolph Valentino and Ginger Rogers, though there is at least one reference to Marilyn Monroe. Victor rescues Theda, over and over again until they are "stars" before anyone knows the reference. Moving Pictures introduces at least one important Discworld character Gaspode the talking dog, and CMOT Dibbler has his biggest role in the series here. He is also the cause of the biggest running joke in the book. Though there is a bit of Pratchett genius in his reversal of the traditional telling of King Kong.

Moving Pictures is unusual in another way. The ending isn't particularly happy. We, the reader seeped in Hollywood romance, expect Victor and Theda to have a happy ending, but that's not quite so clear. In fact the ending is a little underwhelming, but fits the darker mood of the overall book. The book also does well to critique the greed and exploitation of Hollywood, not least through some rather clever references to real life figures.

It has been many years since I read this Pratchett and I actually picked it up after reading a history of more recent movie making shenanigans. I enjoyed it this time round, though it doesn't have the same returning power as some of Pratchett's more mature works. Nonetheless its clever and packed full of laughs from a period when Discworld was less industrial and more magical.

Related Reviews

Pratchett - Snuff
Pratchett - Unseen Academicals
Pratchett - Making Money
Pratchett - Wintersmith
Pratchett - Thud
Pratchett - Going Postal
Pratchett - Colour of Magic