Friday, October 29, 2021

CJ Sansom - Tombland

Soon after my book Kill all the Gentlemen about rural class struggle was first published, I was suddenly inundated by readers telling me that I had to read the latest CJ Sansom novel, Tombland. Kett's Rebellion, one of the largest and most well known struggles of the "Commotion Year" of 1549 featured as a key part of Sansom's book. Well I was intrigued, but I was also ignorant of CJ Sansom's book and when I looked up Tombland I discovered it was no less than the seventh book in a series featuring his hero Shardlake, the crime solving lawyer of Early Modern England. 

Three years later and I've finally finished Tombland and the previous six books. Many are large tomes, but this one is the biggest yet and concludes with a lengthy historical essay. As with the earlier books Sansom has Shardlake involve a complex crime while being buffeted by wider social events. By this book readers will have learnt a great deal about Shardlake, his life and friends. Tired, more cynical and more angry now than in earlier works, Shardlake has weathered the years of Henry VIII and finds himself now in the tumultuous years of the minority of Edward VI.

For the English ruling class, 1549 was one of the worst years since the Peasant Uprising of 1381. Economic crisis, disastrous wars, religious changes and some of the worst weather in decades combined to create enormous discontent. In many parts of the kingdom rebellion broke out with large scale protest camps being established. In the south-west and Norfolk, two major rebellions exploded. The one in Norfolk being known to history by the surname of its leaders Robert and William Kett.

Kett's rebellion was triggered by rural discontent and enclosure and the poverty it caused. However its context was much wider discontent with society, and one of the great strengths of Tombland is how Sansom shows this discontent emerging almost unnoticed from the seats of power. Shardlake, arriving in Norfolk to investigate an awful crime, gradually becomes aware of simmering discontent towards "gentlemen" like himself. He is surprised by this, in his charmingly naïve way. When rebellion does break out, his natural sympathy with the underdog makes him useful to the rebels, who need a lawyer to run Kett's state within the state. Others are not so lucky and are imprisoned and treated badly.

By placing Shardlake at the heart of the rebellion Sansom is exploring a conundrum at the heart of many Early Modern Revolts - the active participation of the gentry in those revolts, sometimes in leading roles. He is also only slightly rewriting real history, as a gentleman lawyer did help Robert Kett at his tree of Reformation on Mousehold Heath during the rebellion. Why the gentry helped is not easy to explain, and I devote some pages in Kill all the Gentlemen to exploring this aspect of events like the Pilgrimage of Grace. Sansom shows how it arose in part because of the importance of personal oaths in the era. Having made a commitment to help, people could not simply break their promises. This is Shardlake's initial motivation, though the is drawn much deeper in than he expects.

Sansom describes the mass nature of the rebellion and the scale of the protest camps. He also explains how they are well run and managed by the protesters themselves. Some of this is conjecture, but Sansom does draw on all the studies and sources for 1549. At the time, and for centuries after, establishment figures in Norfolk liked to portray the rebels as anarchic and violent. The truth was different and Sansom explores this carefully. 

By placing Shardlake at the heart of the rebellion, he is able to witness key events that we know about. Students of Kett's Rebellion may find themselves able to anticipate certain plot points, though few liberties are taken with the real history. 

As such this is an excellent work of historical fiction set during a major event of the 16th century. However it didn't quite work as a Shardlake story for me. The problem was that the crime that Shardlake is trying to solve doesn't really work in the context of wider events. It felt like an excuse to have Shardlake in Norfolk, rather than an integral part of the plot. In part I suspect this is why the book is so long - it is some 250 pages before we get mention of Kett himself. 

Ultimately I was left a little unsatisfied by Tombland. I began reading all of the series because I wanted to read this novel about Kett's Rebellion. By the time I got to number seven, I wanted to read a Shardlake story and I didn't feel that I got that. Nonetheless this is a great read and an excellent evocation of Early Modern Rebellion. Few novels of the period have got that right, and even if its not as tight as the early books, Shardlake fans must read it.

Related Reviews

Sansom - Lamentation
Sansom - Heartstone
Sansom - Dissolution
Sansom - Dark Fire
Sansom - Sovereign
Sansom - Revelation

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Saul David - Crucible of Hell

By chance, while reading the final part of Ian W. Toll's excellent trilogy on the Pacific War, Twilight of the Gods, I came across Saul David's latest book Crucible of Hell, which tells the story of the Battle for Okinawa. Okinawa was one of the bloodiest battles of World War Two, and because it is relatively less well known in Europe I was keen to find out more.

David tells the story from a multitude of viewpoints, relying heavily on eyewitness accounts of survivors on both sides. Given the focus on Okinawa there is, of course, far more detail than in Toll's book though the authors often use the same sources and on occasion the same quotes. David does well to get across the appalling cost of the war, and there is some more detail about specific events such as the death of General Buckner - the highest ranking US serviceman to lose their life in the war.

However the story felt superficial and David's treatment of the political and social context to the Japanese's stubborn refusal to surrender didn't do the subject justice. The final part of the book looks at the use of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and here David is firmly in the camp of those who argue that Japan needed to experience these attacks in order to end the war without further US loss of life. David doesn't explore the more complex political dynamics taking place in the Japanese high command, which meant that surrender was much more likely than many believed.

While the book has much material of interest, it felt superficial and lacking in nuance. A big disappointment, particular reading immediately after Toll's work.

Related Reviews

David - Victoria's Wars
Toll - Twilight of the Gods: War in the Western Pacific, 1944-1945
Hornfischer - The Fleet at Flood Tide: America at Total War in the Pacific, 1944-1945

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Ian W. Toll - Twilight of the Gods: War in the Western Pacific, 1944-1945

In the his author's note to this, the third volume of his trilogy on the Pacific War, Ian W. Toll apologies for the delay in delivering the book. He explains that "the war got very large in late 1944 and 1945, in every dimension" and he needed much extra time and space to complete the story. Those of us who have been waiting on Toll to finish the work should congratulate him for not rushing to an end. The result is an exceptional work of history about a complex, and very large, subject.

The great strength of all three of Toll's volumes is that they place the battle in the Pacific in a wider social, political and economic context. The first volume especially showed how the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour came out of a combination of economic need, history and the nature of the Japanese regime. The second volume focusing as it does on the middle part of the war, following the US victory at Midway focuses to a much greater extent on the nature of that conflict. The start of the island hoping war, as the US gradually moved towards Japan, and the arguments among the US military leadership about the best way to prosecute the attack.

Volume three has a great deal of military history. At the heart of the book are the two enormous battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, as overwhelming US military superiority was brought to bear on well entrenched, committed and tactically astute Japanese forces. Toll is adept at describing these conflicts, alternating between a birds-eye overview of the battles, to reports from the ground. These two campaigns, perhaps some of the most bloody fighting of World War Two outside of the Eastern Front, are described without succumbing to glorification of either side, or warfare itself.

Despite Toll's fair coverage of the war on both sides, he does not avoid taking sides or pointing out mistakes. His account of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the largest naval engagement in human history, makes it very clear that the US commander Admiral William Halsey made a series of tactical errors in the pursuit of his own personal agenda to lead a fleet in a crushing defeat of the enemy. It is hard not to read Toll's account without seeing Halsey as a glory seeker who should have been sacked, rather than celebrated. But, despite the space given to these important discussions, and the nail-biting account of the battle that took place which came close to being disastrous for the US, Toll never forgets the human cost. In typical style he sums up the experience for the reader by painting an emotional picture:

The seas around Leyte were littered with debris, the remnants of US and Japanese ships sunk in the great naval battle. Oil slicks polluted the beaches along Surigao Strait. Bodies, mostly Japanese, drifted with the tides and washed ashore. A Seventh Fleet officer noted that the entire area was choked with the 'odor of decaying flesh'. According to an American intelligence officer embedded with anti-Japanese guerrillas on Samar, much 'treasure' was found on the beaches in the days after the battle... Crates of rations floated ashore, containing crackers, cheese, jam, dehydrated potatoes, spam, cigarettes and coffee. Clothing and mattresses were salvaged by civilian Filipinos. A waterlogged paperback copy of Gone with the Wind was laid out... Drums of gasoline were carried away and stored... A headless body washed ashore, probably Japanese: it was cremated atop a pile of driftwood.

Here Toll gives us a sense of the mass economic superiority of the US forces that were able to defeat the Japanese and the human cost in individual lives.

But volume three is far more than military history, however personalised. The end of the war meant that questions of geo-politics became important once again. This obviously matters in two specific issues - the use of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the post-war relations between Japan and the US. Even more interesting is that Toll is able to explain specifics of the end of the war, such as the use of suicide weapons and attacks by the Japanese, in the framework of his earlier discussions of Japanese society. Toll does not deploy any of the crude stereotypes (or racist language) that has been used by some historians to explain these attacks. But tries to show how they arose out of the ideology of the Japanese state - a highly hierarchical society whose population had been filled with racialised propaganda against Americans.

For instance Toll notes the differences between the airforce and navy when asked to launch suicide attacks. The somewhat strange behaviour of Japanese naval commanders at Leyte Gulf is thus explained by this difference:

The incubus of defeatism was spreading through their ranks. And how could it have been otherwise, when the ludicrously named 'Plan Victory' was itself a token of the regime's defeatism?

Not every soldier, sailor or commander was willing to commit suicide in desperate attacks to defend the homeland. Many were. But their decisions were the consequence of concrete circumstances. Toll's nuanced discussion of this puts many other historians to shame.

Toll doesn't fail to turn his eye on the US either. He describes the cynicism of troops towards official reporting of the war, and sometimes their cynicism towards much else - the groans and jeers that accompanied images of "Old Glory" unfurling on the movie screens. He notes the impact on the war boom at home, which "completed what the New Dealers had started - it lifted the fortunes of the poorest Americans, including blacks, Latinos and poor rural whites". Though Toll doesn't fail to record the racism and the inequality that also existed.

There are some omissions. I was surprised not to see mention of the Port Chicago explosion and mutiny by black servicemen, and I'd have liked to read more about the experience of black troops in the latter part of the campaign. 

Finally though it is worth acknowledging Toll's discussion of the use of the atomic bomb. His account certainly does not ignore the human impact of the use of the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (nor for that matter the US firebombing of civilian targets). He draws, like many historians, on John Hersey's moving account for powerful accounts of civilians in Hiroshima. Toll avoids taking a position on whether the bomb should have been dropped - though he makes if clear that the decisions behind its use were not simply about how many US troops might be saved, as crude defenders of the decision like to make. He points out how the weapon fitted into longer term US strategies for a post-war world and the start of the Cold War. Of more interest is the detail with which Toll explores the Japanese government's politics in the last weeks of the war. The vying between dove and hawk factions, the ineffectual leadership of the Emperor, and the pro-war coup that very nearly transformed the situation in the aftermath of peace. 

Ultimately though, this is the story of the most brutal of human conflicts. Toll places the combat, on land, in the air and on and under the sea, in the context of the economic, political and social forces that lead the Japanese and US government's into war. But he never forgets the human experience of that war, on both sides, in all its bloody detail. Ian W. Toll's book is a magnificent achievement and the whole trilogy comes highly recommended.

Related Reviews

Toll - The Conquering Tide: War in the Pacific Islands 1942-1944
Toll - Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific 1941-1942
Turkel - The Good War
Leckie - Helmet for my Pillow
Hornfischer - The Fleet at Flood Tide: America at Total War in the Pacific, 1944-1945
Campbell - The Color of War

Thursday, October 14, 2021

Susanna Clarke - Piranesi

This is a short, unusual and compelling work by the author of the very successful Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Piranesi opens with her titular character in the maze like House. Piranesi worships the House, a network of rooms, decorated with different statues and sometimes open to the elements. The maze-like structure is periodically flooded and contains numerous statues which Piranesi has woven into a mythical like explanation for the house and his role. He fills his time fishing for food, exploring and respectively looking after the skeletal remains of other individuals. He knows that the House experiences periodic floods from different times and can predict the height of tides accurately. Piranesi was an 18th Century Italian architect who drew multiple designs for imaginary, fantastical prisons - they give a sense of the purpose of the House - simultaneously a trap and an alternate, escapist reality. Though in my imagination the House is more like one of those old text adventures, each room discrete and decorated uniquely, with a few exits - N,S,E and Up or Down.

He also has at least one other companion, a friendly character who appears at regular intervals in different clothing. Piranesi holds this Other in high esteem - he is trying to understand the House but is unwilling to spend much time there, or travel far. On occasion the Other brings him gifts - new shoes for instance. 

To the reader there is some clear overlap with our own world. The Other's gifts and outfits for instance. Piranesi also seems to have some knowledge of a time and place before the House, which helps him invent an explanation for what the House is. But the reader learns at the same time as Piranesi what is happening and what the House is.

The story is very compelling - I finished it almost in a single setting, as I rushed to the end to work out what was going on. The ending is remarkable and quite shocking, though Clarke gradually allows the real world to break through into the House (and Piranesi's) reality. Highly enjoyable, I think this will repay repeated readings.

Thursday, October 07, 2021

Nicola Chester - On Gallows Down: Enclosure, Defiance & the Cuckoo's Return

Browsing the nature sections in bookshops often find brings me to despair. On the one hand it is lovely to see so many books about the natural world. They celebrate ecology and landscapes. But simultaneously they feel inauthentic. Too many writers, perhaps hunting for that unique selling point, break down the natural world into its component parts. We find books about species, geographical features and particular places - yet these are disconnected from a wider ecological web. In particular they frequently ignore a key element - people. Human labour  has shaped the landscape - ploughed, cut, planted, dug and burnt. We have also struggled, fought, trespassed on the land - to defend jobs and pay, to protect landscapes and woods. But all to often where people do appear in contemporary nature writing they tend to be middle class - interlopers in the countryside, visitors or more often landowners. Nature for them is an add on - seen on a walk, a break or through glass.

Which is why Nicola Chester's book On Gallows Down is quite simply one of the best works of nature writing I have ever read. An account of her life in the landscape that she grew up in near Newbury it tells how as a youngster she develops an affinity for the outside, exploring paths, streams, woods and fields. Finding, listening, touching and enjoying everything. But this childhood is disturbed by external forces. Her teenage years are spent watching the Women's Peace Camps at Greenham Common, a public landscape that is very publicly taken from the community. Later she joins the activists trying to stop the Newbury Bypass, a road extension that eats up the land she loves so much. After the defeat of the protesters she writes: 

I walk footpaths that, in my mind, still cross hayfields; bridlepaths that skirt, uninterrupted, the heathland search for the piece of the water meadows; and cannot process, for an unsettling heartbeat, the chain-link fence, the concrete bridge, the motorway embankment. It is a like a shard of glass gone from a mirror.

It reminded me of a passage written by the great historian of the English Landscape William Hoskins, who described how the development of capitalism rapidly transformed the English countryside:

A villager who had played in the open fields as a boy, or watched the sheep in the common pastures, would have lived to see the modern landscape of his parish completed and matured, the roads all made, the hedgerow trees full grown, and new farmhouses built out in the fields where none had ever been before. Everything was different: hardly a landmark of the old parish would have remained.

Chester understands that the countryside she loves and enjoys is being constantly changed, and the forces that transform it are rarely acting in the interest of those who work, or walk, the fields. But this is no abstract activist tract. The book is full of her love for the countryside and all its inhabitants. Her breath-taking night-time encounters with badgers, foxes and owls made me yearn to be there to share in these delights. The book is full of elegant descriptions of bird calls (who knew that fieldfares sound like the "chack" of a washing machine dial), insect behaviour (don't look up videos of Sexton beetles if you are squeamish) or how to propagate mistletoe. 

But Chester's talent isn't just her ability to write evocatively about the countryside. It also stems from a viewpoint likely unique in contemporary nature writing - that of a working class family labouring on the land. Some of the most moving chapters are those that talk about the poverty of rural life, the tied cottages that mean eviction can come a few weeks after angering a landowner, the lack of privacy or the lack of amenities and shops. But they also show community - the other families that will stand alongside one another to protect a wood, or form a reading group or discuss lawnmower prices in a pub.

While Chester sees the landscape shaped by human action, "Heathland is an almost accidental man-made environment", it also constantly evokes the past. That includes her own history at Greenham and Newbury, but also older history. There are Neolithic barrows that dot the landscape, a gibbet that still stands on the hill, warning contemporary transgressors and the class struggle. Those connections where drawn out by her reading, which:

connected me with who had gone before, real or imagined. From then on, every landscape became a narrative one, full of stories that could also be my stories. I cross-referenced, read between the (contour) lines and meandered down paths in sentences and paragraphs so that place became as much a figurative and imaginative landscape as a real one.

But, and it's a big but, "this was no pastoral idyll either". This recognition distinguishes Chester's book from much of the middle class lifestylism that swamps the bookstores. The landowners can send tree cutters into the backyard on a whim, they can order a community's' beloved forest chopped down, cut jobs or wages. Their friends in government can order roads built or deploy nuclear weapons on common land. Chester's anger at these big and small insults shines through:

On coming in for an inspection one day, he [the estate manager] asked me not to leave 'those clothes drying on the radiators, you'll damage my walls.' I had absolutely no rights or grounds to protest about the tree. I didn't own it. The men had the right to enter the garden of my home without asking, and chop it down.

Running through On Gallows Down is a sense that Chester struggles to find somewhere to belong. She loves the countryside, but never quite makes roots. She is moved too frequently, her landscapes are changed too often. But most importantly, the land is never hers. I don't mean that in an ownership way. Chester doesn't want to parcel up and hedge off a chunk of land for the sole use of her family. But the land has been taken away from the community, despite all those fights to keep it in common. In this sense, On Gallows Down is the story of the English countryside, the landscape that was, and ought, to be there for everyone to enjoy and work, but is now mostly the preserve of big landowners, second homers and poorly paid, badly housed workers. No wonder that Chester identifies with Captain Swing's nameless adherents or the anti-enclosure rioters.

But there are new battles. Chester fights to save biodiversity, but finds her hopes and optimism crushed by uncaring powers. She knows she has to take the fight elsewhere and writing offers her a way to do this. For one fearful paragraph I thought the author would join all those others in writing, and nothing else. But, 

To a greater or lesser extent, writing about nature had always dealt with loss. But now it had long passed the point of being imperative. It is impossible to write with integrity about nature without protesting and resisting and waving a desperate red flag.

It is a glorious sentiment. As we prepare to protest for Climate Justice during the COP26 conference, we know what we are against, but we must also remember what we are for. We need a world where nature is not something that is simply acted on in the short term interest of profit, but a constant of our lives. In this remarkable book Nicola Chester shows us the real countryside - a place of love and work, of struggle and hope, of despair and happiness. She urges us to fight for it, as an integral part of making real our dreams of a better world.

Related Reads

Howkins - The Death of Rural England
Hudson - A Shepherd's Life
Rebanks - The Shepherd's Life: A Tale of the Lake District

Horn - Labouring Life in the Victorian Countryside
Harrison - All Among the Barley
Whitlock - Peasant's Heritage
Archer - A Distant Scene
Kerr Cameron - The Ballad and the Plough
Thompson - Lark Rise to Candleford
Attack - John Clare: Voice of Freedom

Tuesday, October 05, 2021

Brian Manning - The Far Left in the English Revolution: 1640 - 1660

Brian Manning explains in the introduction to this short book that it is an attempt to remedy an omission. At the time of the Revolution, he says, it was common to "make a tripartite division of society" into the gentry, the middling sort and the poor. The roles of the first two have been amply discussed, but the poor have been "largely neglected". Manning explores the role of this section of society by looking at those who "attempted to speak for the poor", which he admits begs the question of "how far they reflected attitudes and aspiration". 

Manning is at pains to show how the Revolution was a period when different forces vied for position, but influenced and shaped wider political movements. So he says

It was from amongst the class of independent small producers that the main driving force of the revolution probably came, and amongst whom the radical certainly found their chief strength. But revolutions commonly begin with alliances between diverse social groups against an existing regime, and as the revolution develops the different and conflicting interests of these groups emerge.

We certainly see this with the far left. The Levellers, for instance, whom Manning discusses in details, emerge as the radical edge of Cromwell's coalition, but eventually become opposed to his class, and are destroyed by Cromwell in turn. Manning continues:

it was with the progress of the revolution that class differences and class conflicts emerged, shaping the course and the outcome of the revolution.
But in exploring the exact nature of the classes involved in the revolution, Manning draws out real tensions. 

It is a decisive factor in the English Revolution that the 'middle sort' was divided between elements that favoured developments which we see now as facilitating the growth of capitalism and elements hostile towards those developments. The revolution was a crucial phase in crystallising a proto-bourgeoisie and a proto-proletariat.

Within these mass movements and the political ferment that arose, the ideas of small groups and radical individuals could take significant hold. Manning explores some of these, though sadly this book is short so this is necessarily done briefly. Manning looks at the Levellers and the Diggers, showing how their ideas arose in, sometimes, contradictory ways. Opposing the rise of capitalism and the same time as hating the old feudal order. In some areas where wage labour was coming to dominate production, eg large farms, "an approach t consciousness of themselves as a distinct class... created a potential for class conflict in those areas where capitalism was taking control".

Frequently drawing on the work of Marxists, Manning demonstrates the importance of Marxism for understanding these dialectical conflicts. Explaining the way that revolutionaries used religious ideas, Manning quotes Engels: "Each of the different classes uses its own appropriate religion". But then he continues by criticising Engels' chosen language, saying it "missed the close integration of class interests and class struggles with religious language and religious beliefs".

Returning to Manning's far-left and revolutionaries, he makes some interesting points about the nature of their radicalism. Talking about the Leveller William Thompson and the Digger Gerrard Winstanley he writes that they

were both typical of the revolutionaries of their time in that they thought the publishing of a manifesto and the example of action by a small group would precipitate a mass movement. But neither was backed by any widespread or nationwide organisation for promoting their ideas, attaching supporters and mobilising mass actions, and in the circumstances of the time that was probably impossible... the Levellers had no clear conception of a revolutionary seizure of power and taking control of the government.

Manning continues however by pointing out that had they taken control the Levellers would have had "to maintain a strong central government backed by armed force". Which is why the one other factor that must not be ignored is the army. Manning describes the army as having a "microcosm" of the "class conflict in society at large at the time of the English Revolution". This was why their had to be a clamping down on radical ideas for fear of losing control of the armed force that would have allowed radicals to maintain power, just as it enabled Cromwell to maintain control.

Manning nots an additional problem of the English Revolution. The development of capitalism was transforming social and economic relations in the countryside. Crucially this was seeing the beginnings of a mass process of enclosure. Manning argues that the struggles of the peasants, whom he emphasises were the majority of the English population, against enclosure were "disconnected from the revolution". The peasants would rise against anyone enclosing land - Royalist or Parliamentarian. But as a class they "lacked the political consciousness to rise in a new revolution" and "relapsed from the parliamentarian cause or rebounded into royalism". Manning concludes by arguing that while the English Revolution placed a revolution against capitalism and feudalism on the agenda, the emerging proletariat was not strong or distinct enough to take that forward. It was however powerful and radical enough to scare the bourgeoise who allowed the "return to political power of the old ruling class" within a new capitalist society, in order to keep down the masses.

While a short work of barely 130 pages, this is a remarkable read. A lucid account of the social forces at the bottom of English society and their radical wings, who were trying to understand the present and shape the future. Manning uses the tools and key concepts of Marxism to understand the social basis of the Revolution and the dynamic of the social forces within society. Its a breath-taking work of history, and those interested in the period, or radical ideas in general or those who want to see how Marxism can be used as a powerful tool to explore history, should grab this book.

Related Reviews

Manning - Aristocrats, Plebeians & Revolution in England 1640-1660
Hill - God's Englishman: Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution
Hill - The World Turned Upsidedown: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution
Carlin - The Causes of the English Civil War