Saturday, December 31, 2022

Andy Wood - The Memory of the People: Custom & Popular Senses of the Past in Early Modern England

Early modern England was a society in transformation. On the one hand capitalist social relations were beginning to shape almost every aspect of life. On the other, older forms of social organisation were still important in terms of how people related to each other, as well as their expectations of what they should be able to get from society. In particular old communal relations - the use of common land, the right to get resources from woods, land and water - were crucial to life in the countryside. These relations were a fetter on the development of capitalism, and wealthier classes wanted to see them ended. But the poorer sorts wanted to defend them.

Andy Wood's book The Memory of the People is a study of how these relations, and in particular the struggles to end or defend them, shaped how people understood their place in society and their own history. In particular he looks at how what was understood as "custom" was shaped by that history and those struggles. The wider "culture" that is created out of these interacting ideas, relations and customs, should be, Wood argues following Clifford Geertz, "socially and politically". 

Karl Marx said once, in a quote that I don't think appears in Wood's book, that "Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past." This sense of humans trying to shape their own futures, but in contexts not determined by, or even favourable to, them runs through his book. For instance, Wood notes that "Peasant rights in forests and woodland... grew out of persistent, everyday friction with their lords". 

The book then can be read on two interlinked levels. Firstly, and perhaps most enjoyably, it is filled with anecdotes and accounts that Wood has dug out of historical archives and primary sources, of how ordinary people understood and defended their customs in order to protect or improve their way of life. This review could be filled with some of these quotes and stories and they are by turns inspirational, amusing and fascinating. Some of these customs are clearly about protecting scarce resources:

The 'ancient customs' of Stillington (Yorkshire) specified that the inhabitants of each ancient messuage or cottage could take three wagonloads of turves from the common every year and as much bracken as they could gather between the rising and setting of the sun on 14 September. 

As Wood points out, "such rules generated a sense of place that was grounded in common practice, regulated by collective interest". Usually customs like these were considered to have existed in "time out of memory", i.e. before any living person could remember. Frequently they were not written down, and in many fascinating passages Wood shows how the elderly were often called on to give witness and say how things had been in the past. This sometimes meant that older people from communities would tell what they had been told by parents, grandparents and older people in their youth - a social memory that could stretch back hundreds of years. Such historic and custom practice was important - it was also malleable - one a few occasions Wood cites examples were contemporary memory was clearly invented to benefit people today at the expense of the rich and the authorities.

Critically, custom was mixed up with social relations. Lords had to be careful to ensure that their interest were not overwhelmed by this dynamic. They had to remain watchful over the daily processes by which land was exchanged, common rights exercised, fuel collected and so on, because subtle shifts in those daily transactions might gradually see customary regulations shift away from the lord's control.

As Marx and Engels pointed out, class struggle is sometimes hidden and sometimes in the open. The constant push and pull that resulted in custom becoming entrenched was always there. But Wood also highlights that this struggle was not just between rich and poor, but also within communities, one which "pitted the settled poor against the rootless and utterly destitute". One group was out to protect its existing interests and the other to win rights and custom for the future. Wood engages with a number of other historians, sometimes critically, about what the significance was for this. 

We have seen how material interests underpinned a wide variety of social conflicts. But we have also observed the ways in which those conflicts over material resources were enmeshed with opposing conceptions of the world: struggles over custom entailed more than conflict over pasture, or minerals, or fuel. They involved contests over memory, identity, entitlement and notions of belonging, legitimacy and community.

It is this sense of communities struggling for their place in the world which makes Wood's book so fascinating. Economics is not enough to understand early modern social relations, what is required is an understanding of how people understood themselves. But economics did matter, and as Wood concludes, the "gentry and nobility" were concerned about custom and developed "growing contempt" for customary claims precisely because they helped the lower classes to defend their rights against the rich. 

Ultimately early modern England saw the defeat of the old order, though the process took many hundreds of years. The enclosure of land, the destruction of the commons and the creation of new capital friendly social relations were resisted by the masses. In doing so, ordinary people deployed their historic knowledge, their memories and even written archives to protect their interests. They also fought the authorities, burnt hedges and knocked over walls. This story is the backdrop to the development of capitalism and Andy Wood's brilliant book gives us further insights into a complex process. In doing so he reminds us that ordinary people's resistance drew on a rich culture that was usually ignored by the powerful.

Related Reviews

Wood - The 1549 Rebellions and the making of Early Modern England
Wood - Riot, Rebellion and Popular Politics in Early Modern England
Griffin & McDonagh - Remembering Protest in Britain since 1500: Memory, Materiality & the Landscape

Friday, December 30, 2022

John Dickson Carr - Hag's Nook

Hag's Nook is a novel by the prolific John Dickson Carr and the first of twenty-three such books featuring his famous detective Dr. Fell. The novel opens with the young American Tad Rampole who is visiting England and has an introduction to Dr. Fell. At a station on route to Fell's  he meets the attractive young woman Dorothy Starberth who lives in the same village as Fell, and immediately falls for her. The Starberth's are an extremely wealthy family whose ancestors have been governors of the horrific Chatterham Prison, whose inmates were regularly hung from the gallows.

A strange condition of the Starberth's inherited wealth is that at 25 the male heirs must spend the night in a locked room. Their they have to follow some secret instructions in order to qualify for their inheritance. But the night after Tad's arrival, the elder brother of Dorothy dies while trying to follow these instructions. Fell, together with the local chief constable, Tad and others must work out what has happened. In doing so, they find a dangerous well, a disgusting swamp, a lot of rats and some dark secrets.

As with other Fell novels this is a locked room story told in great detail. Fell refuses to give any hints until he has worked out the whole solution to the puzzle, and we follow events through the supporting characters, in this case Tad. The book begins, and Tad experiences his arrival in the village, as a sort of gothic horror. Nameless evil seems to lurk inside Chatterham, defying the sleepy romance of the village. Tad's romancing of Dorothy can be contrasted with the frightening reality of her families bizarre traditions, and sudden death.

Carr was an American and his descriptions of rural England betray a lack of familiarity with the countryside. The nights are full of croaking frogs, a difference that cannot be down simply to the collapse in biodiversity in Britain's rural areas. Descriptions can, at times, be a little over the top. Though there is a satisfyingly pompous butler, who loves melodrama at the movies, and so nice misdirection.

But as with all locked room mysteries, the delight is in the reveal (something Carr made a big point of in Fell's most famous mystery, The Hollow Man). This one is done brilliantly and even though it seems impossible Carr's genius is in making it feel believable.    

Related Reviews

Carr - The Hollow Man

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Florian Huber - Promise Me You'll Shoot Yourself: The Downfall of Ordinary Germans in 1945

The first half of Florian Huber's book documents horrors that took place towards the end of the Second World War. As the Red Army advanced from the East, in countless towns and villages, ordinary Germans killed themselves. Huber initially focuses on perhaps the largest of these mass suicides, in the town of Demmin, where of 15,000 or so inhabitants, 1,000 killed themselves. The scale is almost unimaginable:
All through the summer and far on into the autumn, Sorge the registrar [in Demmin] listened to the grim stories of death... On 25 May, Elfriede Schultz, whose son-in-law had already been missing for some time, came to report the suicide of her daughter and grandchild. The death of three-year-old Gerd Wedhorn in a canal was registered by his mother, whose own suicide attempt had evidently failed. A musician reported that his wife and drowned herself and their child in Swan Pond. On 12 June, Marie Buchner told Herr Sorge of the deaths of her son, daughter-in-law, grandchild and three other members of her family, who had all been found together, hanged.
Germans shot, hung, took poison and hung themselves. Perhaps the hardest thing to read are the stories of  parents who killed their children, often, in Demmin, by drowning. An eyewitness is quoted:
Dr. P told us that about 600 people, many of them children, had walked in to the [River] Peene. He'd had to help fish them from the water and lay them out in long rows. All day long, bodies had kept washing ashore.
Huber says that this aspect to the Second World War has rarely been acknowledged. East German and Soviet authorities wanted to avoid any accounts that would have undermined the image of the Red Army as a liberating force, so the stories of mass suicides in the face of the Russian advance, like the history of mass rape by the Soviet Army, were hidden or ignored. Huber's book is an attempt to both tell these stories and understand events.

But the book is very much one of two halves. The first half recounts horrific stories of suicide, based on diaries and eyewitness accounts. This material is shocking and likely to be new even to those who are well versed in the history of the Second World War.

In the second half of the book Huber tries to explain why the suicides happened. Here the book is much weaker. He begins by telling the story of Hitler's rise to power and the early "happy" years for the German people and economy under Hitler. He argues that Hitler's rise was accepted as it gave meaning and confidence to the German people following the disaster of the First World War and helped fix a national malaise. He shows how many, including opponents of the regime, found the new fascist government successful - often despite misgivings. In particular he shows that millions of ordinary Germans hero worshipped Hitler. Huber builds up an argument that millions of Germans bought into the Hitler myth, and the collapse of the regime took this away - leaving a void that for tens of thousands could not be filled. Huber writes:
The future they [Germans] had been promised was evaporating before their eyes, The Fuhrer had left them, and the Reich was collapsing, leaving behind it a gaping void. After twelve years imbibing Nazi ideology, those who had believed in it, identifying as part of the national community and subscribing to its moral and social norms, faced not just a collective loss of meaning but the threat of personal disintegration. The emptiness they felt was palpable. Many genuinely believed that the victorious Allied forces would wipe out the German nation and the best they could hope for was a life of oppression. Unwilling to face this reality, they chose suicide as a final act of resistance, of renunciation.
But if this is true, it doesn't explain the events described in Huber's book. Almost all the mass suicides took place in the East, in the face of the advance of the Red Army. There were suicides in the West, but they were tiny in comparison to the East. In addition, hundreds of thousands of people fled West towards the Americans and British. Were they fearful of all forces they would not have done this, expecting the same wherever they were and suicide numbers would have been similar on both fronts.

The war waged by the Germans in the East was a total war that saw the mass extermination of civilian populations, terror on an unbelievable scale and the systematic destruction of whole populations of Jews, Polish and Ukrainian people. It was a war that enabled the Holocaust. As Huber himself shows, Germans were increasingly aware of this, even if there was no official acknowledgement or reports. Several anecdotes from the book illustrate how the knowledge of events "in the East" shocked people. On one occasion a young Hitler Youth member tells of his horror at seeing some Nazis beating Polish forced labourers. Another telling story is of a German couple who kill themselves after learning of the atrocities.

Ordinary Germans in the East did not commit suicide just because their world was falling apart - they were terrified because they knew that the Russian army would bring violent revenge to their own homes - something played up by the Nazi regime. Huber's explanation is inadequate.

But there are other problems with the book. This is very much an account of "ordinary Germans". But which Germans matters. There are two aspects to this. Firstly the question of German Jews. As Richard Evans points out in his own insightful review in the Guardian, Huber doesn't refer to the German Jews who killed themselves after Hitler's rise to power. As Evans says "After all, they were Germans too." While Huber doesn't ignore the Holocaust - quite the contrary - there are some other strange omissions. As far as I could see Jewish people are not mentioned until page 159 - a strange thing in a book devoted to understanding the mindset of German people under Hitler. Huber's account of Hitler's rise initially focuses on his polemic around the Versailles Treaty, not his antisemitism. The account of the period of 1933 to 1939 barely touches on his shutting down of opposition and the first, systematic, state repression of Jewish people. This alleged "era of happiness" was marked by real improvements for Germans. But it was also the period when disabled people were killed, concentration camps set up and a mass state network of repression created. It is extraordinary that this is barely touched on.

The "ordinary Germans" narrative also hides another piece of analysis that Huber could have explored. This concerns who committed suicide. The accounts that Huber uses (and his use of archival material seems extensive) mostly seem to be middle class - shopkeepers, small business people, professionals. There are an absence of accounts from factory workers, labourers etc. This might just be selection bias that results from who kept diaries. Where working class people more or less prone to suicide? Did they buy in to the regime in the same way? The social base of fascism tends to be the petty bourgeois that are regularly quoted by Huber. But the author makes no attempt to explore this in a way that could illuminate our understanding of German society under Hitler, and who/why committed suicide.

As I read further into the book I became increasingly uncomfortable. It felt very much like Huber was arguing that Germans, collectively suffered as much as anyone, and that most Germans, despite being enamoured of Hitler and pulled into the myth, were ignorant of wider events. Huber appears to be saying that Germans were essentially innocent of the crimes of the Nazi regime. This is inadequate as even some of the anecdotes he uses makes clear.

There is something else missing from Huber's book - the discontent and opposition to the Nazi regime. Reading his account of Hitler's rise you get a sense of inevitability. But the Nazi victory was not inevitable, it was challenged and it almost didn't happen. Had the left organised differently, in particularly creating a United Front against fascism involving mass unity between Social Democrats and Communists then the Nazi movement might have been stopped. So there were literally millions of Germans who did not buy into the Hitler myth, and as the war went on, a growing number of Germans who understood that the war was lost and did not "subscribe to its moral and social norms". To say otherwise is to see the German population as an undifferentiated mass that all supported Hitler.

Huber's book is of some interest. The material on suicides will be new to most people, though its worth noting Richard Evans' caveat that it is "very much wide of the mark" to say this is an "untold story". But does the book explain what took place, and why? I don't think so and in fact I think the narrative it lays out is dangerous - both in terms of understanding Nazi society and offering us insights into fighting fascism today.

Related Reviews

Tuesday, December 27, 2022

S.A.Chakraborty - The City of Brass

I was looking forward to reading The City of Brass. The cover grabbed me and the outline describing a young woman in eighteenth century Cairo living by swindling and stealing seemed fun. The added bonus, that our hero Nahri, can also magically heal people added to my interest. I do love a good bit of escapism.

Sadly while enjoyable, the book did not live up to my expectations. I enjoyed the idea that Egypt, fought over between European colonialists was also the site for a hidden struggle between spirits and fantastical djinn, whose own cities were torn between struggles between pure blood and others. But the story itself is too complex. The novel follows two threads, that of Nahri who accidentally summons a dead Djinn back to life, and who takes her to the hidden city and Ali, a younger prince of the ruling family in that city, torn between loyalty to his family and concern for the oppressed in the city.

But the overlapping stories, while fun to read, have too much overlapping back story. Understanding the complex rivalries requires getting to grips with some detailed lore that wasn't described well enough for me to remember the nuances. That said there are some great aspects to this book. Nahri is a brilliant hero - we rarely get female, Muslim, main characters in fantasy novels - and I suspect that Chakraborty's depiction of Nahri is one reason for the book's success. I also thought the depiction of oppressed minorities (and the racism directed against them by the elite) and poverty among the masses was well done. And it was good to see the resistance to this also portrayed, even if the rebels came close to caricature. 

I'm unlikely to read the rest of the trilogy. But I appreciate that others will devour them. 

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Mark Stoyle - A Murderous Midsummer: The Western Rising of 1549

Mark Stoyle's book is the first new study of the Western Rising for many years, and he has found much new archival material to freshen a story that has been told many times. Stoyle argues that the Rising was essentially just a religious rebellion, designed to challenge the furthering of the evangelical cause. In this sense he says there was little or no "social" aspect to the rebellion.

Personally I think this only holds up if you crudely separate religious belief in the 16th century from wider social context, but despite my disagreements with Stoyle's central argument - this is an excellent history, detailed, interesting and very readable. Sadly lack of archival material means we don't know enough about what motivated the common people to rebel, but Stoyle does his best to tell us.

I've been asked to write a longer review of this book for another publication. I'll post a link to that here when it is published. In the meantime I wrote about the Western Rising in the book reviews below, and in my book Kill all the Gentlemen.

Related Reviews

Caraman - The Western Rising of 1549
Cornwall - Revolt of the Peasantry 1549
Wood - Riot, Rebellion & Popular Politics in Early Modern England
Mudd - Cornwall In Uproar
Duffy - Voices of Morebath

Samuel R. Delany - Babel-17

Following several highly disruptive alien attacks on human military infrastructure, poet, spaceship captain, code-breaker and linguist Rydra Wong is asked by the government to crack a code that has been identified simultaneously with the attacks. Wong quickly realises that this is no code, but a language. She identifies the next site of an attack and hurries there after recruiting a crew at least one of whom proves themselves through a wrestling match and others are, well, dead.

As Rydra learns how to speak Babel-17 she begins to understand that the language has power. Failing to prevent an attack, she and her crew are captured by privateers who prey on alien (and sometimes Earth) vessels one of whom is known as the Butcher. The Butcher already speaks Babel-17 and Rydra notices he never uses the word "I". Teaching the Butcher this is part of Wong's strategy to identify a spy in their midst, but doing so allows the language to full break through. It turns out that Babel-17 is a language that shapes the speakers own mind, transforming their perception of events, time and themselves. Wong herself has been the spy, and was ever since she began to learn the language.

Babel-17 is an intriguing book. Delany uses the novel to explore various concepts of language, in particular the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis - the idea that a language shapes the users perception and thought. The problem is that the book is quite complex, the story sparse and large chunks given over the exploring the linguistic aspects of the story. Those more knowledgeable than me about language might find some of this interesting, and the concept shaped several other writers' work. But I found it a drag at times and found myself pausing to wonder "what was going on"! 

At times the book veers toward the surreal, as with the dead crew. In other places it felt almost like Star Trek, with an episodic feel. I was left feeling that the book was very much of its time, when the author and readers were more willing to experiment with form over content. In the final section, Rydra leaves a note "the war will end in six months", hoping it will encourage pacifist tendencies among the military authorities. I wondered if this was a reaction to the Vietnam War, and perhaps Delany himself was hoping that this use of language might influence readers. Whatever the truth of that, Babel-17 is part of classic SF literature, but it may not appeal to the modern readers' taste.

Sunday, December 18, 2022

Andrew Pettegree - Brand Luther

We are used to thinking of Martin Luther's impact in terms of religion - the beginning of the Reformation in Germany that led to the fundamental fissure of the Christian church into two wings. But in this interesting biography Andrew Pettegree argues that Luther also had a secondary legacy, which was the creation of the modern printing and publishing industry. Luther, Pettegree argues, shrewdly set about creating "Brand Luther" with a mass produced, standardised, instantly recognisable set of publications that were devoured almost everywhere in Germany - stimulating the printing industry and driving the ideological arguments that popularised Luther's positions. The Luther "brand" was a key part of the Reformation, and without it Luther may not have broken free of his initial isolation.

It is hard to argue against Pettegree's basic position here. As he shows, Luther was a consummate propagandist. In many ways an early example of a radical politician he was able to create a network of likeminded thinkers who used their positions to articulate a set of common arguments. The publishing industry that grew up around Luther was based not on a need for him to individually profit (he received no money from the sales of books and pamphlets) but on the need to get the word out. Luther rapidly became a bestselling author, outstripping any other writer. Five years after he produced the Ninety-Five Thesis that began the Reformation, Luther was Europe's "most published author ever".

Part of the reason for this was that Luther himself was prolific, and his arguments clearly met a ready audience. But Luther's notoriety was also part of the appeal. Readers wanted to know more about this monk that was challenging the Pope. But a really big reason for his popularity was that Luther wrote in German, appealing directly to the masses over the heads of the Latin read establishment. His work could be read, and understood much more easily than the opaque defensive arguments of the Catholic church.

But Luther also carefully constructed the basis for the new industry. He brought to Wittenberg a printer and set him up as a business. He helped create and construct the town's university shaping it into a centre of evangelical thought, and he created a readily recognisable brand that pushed his ideas. 

All this Pettegree explains in detail, and ties it into the story of Luther's life and times. He shows how Luther's engagement with argument and events (such as the Peasant War) meant a constant stream of new material and, how other events, such as high profile debates and even Luther's death, were managed by Luther and his admirers to fit the brand image.

While Pettegree's general argument is unchallengeable, I did feel that there was one aspect to the story that was missed. This is the way that Luther's ideas arose out of a time of transformation in the German economy, and the beginnings of the rise of a new economic class who had an interest in production for the sake of profit. Pettegree hints at this. He notes, for instance, that the "achievement" in creating "brand Luther" was a "very personal one" for Luther whose youth working for his father in the "copper-mining industry" was an experience he put to "very good use". It is hard not to see Luther as having a unique understanding of the print industry not simply because of his understanding of language and design, but also because of his knowledge of bourgeois industry. Thus there was a dialectical interaction between developments in German society that were encouraging capitalist interests and the rise of the new religious ideas. Luther's genius was to bring the two together and to create the first mass propaganda machine. But Luther's ideas feel on fertile ground - and that in itself, as Pettegree shows, was in part down to Germany's changing political dynamics. Without these factors coming together Luther may well have been little more than another radical chanting his discontent at the church before being condemned to death.

Andrew Pettegree's biography of Luther puts an interesting, if not entirely new, framework on the Reformation. It is an interesting, engaging and refreshing look at a personal story that has been told many times before. Perhaps most importantly though it shows that while Luther began the Reformation he had to also create the networks that would sustain it. Most of that was the men (and a few women) that argued his position, but there was also a whole new industry behind it as well, that Luther personally shaped.

Related Reviews

Roper - Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet
MacCulloch - Reformation: Europe's House Divided 1490-1700
Tawney - Religion and the Rise of Capitalism
Wilson - The People and the Book: The Revolutionary Impact of the English Bible 1380-1611

Saturday, December 17, 2022

Hiroko Oyamada - Weasels in the Attic

This is a fascinating and unnerving short novel that examines gender roles, masculinity and parenthood through three short stories. Food, hospitality and friendship play a central role in all the stories with two friends meeting at three separate locations - a bankrupt fish shop, a expensive new home in the remote countryside and trapped as unexpected overnight guests in a third home by a blizzard following a dinner party.

The narrator, in all of them, is happily married yet he and his wife have yet to have a child, and in the the stories he is constantly reminded of this as his friends and other guests are beginning families. This draws out questions of parenthood and children and the authors highlights misogyny and inequality with female constantly having to take responsibility to childcare and cooking. This is cleverly weaved into wider portrayals of Japanese culture, cusine and apparent social norms - though I wondered how many of these came from my own perception of Japan rather than reality.

But what makes these stories and the novel they form stand out is the sense of unease and strangeness that lies everywhere in the book. I kept expecting catastrophe. This is heightened by two things - the unreality of the conversations the friends have - a key one centring on a weasel infestation and the strange locations - a disused aquarium shop where the friends eat shrimp that is clearly fish food and a locked down home in a blizzard. But there is also the unease driven by the subordinate role of the women and, in a couple of cases (though not the narrator) the readers sense that there is something slightly inappropriate about the age differences within several of the couples.

This is a strange novel, but it is interesting and a very short read. I wasn't quite sure what to make of it. One to be shared and reread.

Tuesday, December 13, 2022

Luther Blissett - Q

Despite being set in an area and period that will be obscure for many English readers this remarkably ambitious novel was extremely successful. Set during the turmoil of the German Reformation, the Peasant War and the growing radicalism and counter-revolution of the 1520s and 1530s, the novel sweeps across history and geography. At times the book betrays its authorship in a collective, who have clearly taken on the task and written various chapters and sections separately. But despite this, and rather admirably, the book is a cohesive whole - the grand narrative not disrupted by the multiple authors.

The story follows to nameless individuals - both known only by the pseudynyms and aliases, who are battling for the future of the Reformation. One, Q, is a spy for a Catholic nobleman, whose letters to his lord are obsequious but detailed insights into the radical Reformation movement. He is deployed to cause havoc, spy and undermine the radicals and the authors are able to use this to explore different aspects of the Reformation. Q is there to encourage the Peasant leaders into the trap at Frankenhausen, there to lead the troops into Munster to overthrow the radical anabaptist commune and there to send rebels, radicals and others to their doom.

Our other hero is there on the opposite side at all of these events, organising the defences and Munster, helping Thomas Munzter escape the slaughter at Frankenhausen and helping organise a confidence scheme to steal millions from the Fugger banks. Our two characters weave and interweave past each other, never meeting until the end and neither quite succeeding in their ultimate aims.

And its the aims that make this book so interesting. This is a novel that wears its politics on its sleeve. I first encountered it among the activists who were organising around the anti-capitalist movement in Genoa. The collective that forms "Luther Blissett" were activists and intellectuals around the important Italian movement. Their reading of the Reformation and the Peasant War in particular owes a great deal to radical interpretations of those events, including works by figures such as Friedrich Engels, Karl Kautsky and Ernst Bloch. In his detailed discussion of the novel and its themes the Marxist Roland Boer argues that Q is "deeply consonant" with Kautsky's work. But even a cursory reading of Q reveals that it owes much to the histories that emphasise the radical, bottom up nature of the German Reformation and Peasant War.

This is most obvious when the authors quote from the radicals of the time, or describe life in Munster and the speeches of Muntzer. But also in the sections set in Antwerp, where radical Christians are living in a Commune where "all things are in common" and sexual freedom, as well as communal politics are practised. This is particular interesting because it is here that our hero, as opposed to Q himself, encounters the reality of capitalism. The docks at Antwerp allow the authors to play with colonialism, and the use of tobacco by several of the characters is a constant reference to the new economic order that is developing. 

The world of Q is brilliantly painted, dirty, violent and in turmoil - but so is the sense of a world in transition, a capitalist world evolving in the belly of the old, and the old order no longer fitting the needs, interests and ideas of the people who live in it. The rebellions are shaped by different people striving to shape a new world, their class interests determining what they want. The religious radicals want a world of equality, freedom and justice. The rich want to stay rich, and have the freedom to make money.

Interestingly the final section of the book, set in a brothel in Venice allows the authors to draw out more of this. Our hero's joint role as manager and bouncer is a neat metaphor for the threat of violence that hides behind every capitalist system. The brothel itself is run in a communal way, giving the women protection, but still geared towards separating the rich from their cash. 

All in all Q is a book of many parts. Part historical, part spy novel it is also a polemical work that puts the case for radical ideas and communal living. It is also audacious, sexy and violent and a more thrilling novel set during the German Reformation it is hard to imagine.

Related Review

Saturday, December 10, 2022

Francis French & Colin Burgess - In the Shadow of the Moon: A Challenging Journey to Tranquillity 1965-1969

The recent launch of the Artemis rocket to the moon has put humanities' exploration of space back in the media spotlight. Artemis brings to mind the Apollo moon landings that took place fifty years ago. But Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin's first steps on the moon could only take place because of the technological and scientific achievements of dozens of earlier spaceflights. 

In the Shadow of the Moon is a broad history of the human spaceflights that took place between the earliest missions and the moon landings. Covering both the Soviet and US missions, it focuses particularly on the development of the skills and technologies that allowed humans to leave spacecraft and "walk" in space and the skills needed to rendezvous two vehicles together in orbit. Most of the book is focused on the US missions as these are the ones that the authors have most access to archive material and interviews, though there are some interesting sections on Soviet achievements.

At the heart of the book are the Gemini missions which were the point when the US outstripped the Soviet Union in the "space race". Here the Americans learnt rapidly, though not always smoothly, the technologies needed to achieve a landing. What is obvious is that this was very much a race - these missions and the training of the astronauts were all geared toward hitting the target of a 1969 moon landing as declared by President Kennedy. All sorts of other things were sacrificed to make this possible, and indeed this included human lives on both sides as space agencies and governments pushed quickly forward. Two tragedies are at the heart of this. The launch pad fire of Apollo 1 which transformed NASA's internal organisation and forced a re-evaluation of much of how they approached human spaceflight and the death of Vladimir Komarov in Soyuz One.

It would have been remarkable had no lives been lost on the way to the moon landings. These were incredible achievements in terms of skills. The authors tell the story of how the space agencies learnt how to do things that are common place today - docking ships with each other, meeting in space and manoeuvring around other vehicles. The material on Gemini is particularly interesting as its often neglected in the stories of the moon landings, though I felt at times that the authors obsessed a little too much on the oft-told stories of the US astronauts themselves. The information on the Soviet cosmonauts was much less familiar and thus more interesting. But I did want more technical information - for instance I would have liked to know more about how the US developed the computing technology that is often referred too, yet barely described. This continues to be the basis for so much modern technology and it would have been fascinating to know more.

The authors tell the story of the first moon landing, but in many ways it is overshadowed by the earlier missions, in particular the two Apollo missions that went to the moon first. We also get a real sense of how those missions captured public interest and held it, before the waning of interest toward the end of the programme.

One thing I found fascinating. The authors emphasise how the astronauts were almost all from test pilot, or high ranking naval pilot backgrounds. This helps explain how many of them seemed uninterested in continuing their space careers. For them it had been a mission to be done, and once checked off, they were happy to do something else. I'm often fascinated by how astronauts might not want to return to space, yet this book helps explain why that happened. But the emphasis on high profile figures - astronauts and mission control - once again neglects and ignores the contributions of thousands of scientists, electricians, engineers, mathematicians and admin workers. I would have liked more on these "hidden figures" of the space programme - and it would have been nice to hear about the contributions of women other than the astronauts wives and mistresses. That said there is some amazing social history here - including how NASA essentially blocked its crews from getting divorces because they risked their flight status.

This is an accessible and interesting book that fills the gap between Mercury and Apollo and does not neglect the sacrifices and achievements of the Soviet Union in space. It is probably one for those with a deeper interest in the period and technology, rather than the casual reader. Though such a reader will also find it lacking in detail in places.

Related Reviews

Stern & Grinspoon - Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto
First on the Moon - A Voyage with Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, Edwin Aldrin
Shetterly - Hidden Figures
Scott & Leonov - Two Sides of the Moon
Burgess - The Greatest Adventure: A History of Human Space Exploration
Bell - The Interstellar Age

Tuesday, December 06, 2022

Leigh Bardugo - Ninth House

While the basic premise of Ninth House is not substantially different to many recent fantasy novels, this has a refreshing and contemporary take and is written with anger and passion. Alex "Galaxy" Stern arrives at Yale but doesn't really fit in. Not surprising, because she is rubbing shoulders with the children of the elite, but she herself is a misfit. The survivor of a multiple murder related to drugs, a school drop out she is quite angry with the world. But she has something that no one else has at Yale - she can see ghosts. Specifically "grays" the dead who haven't fully stayed... well dead. She has seen them since childhood, and not just that, she's been flashed and sexually abused by them.

Alex isn't a normal undergraduate at Yale. But this is also no normal fantasy novel. In fact it is very much a novel born out of recent years that have seen sexual abuse and "rape culture" in colleges exposed and protested. It is, to a certain extent, a novel that has come out of the "me too" generation. As such this is adult fantasy, in the sense that its themes and events are unpleasant and, sadly, all too real. Magic abounds, but it isn't pure, selfless and kind - it is used and abused by the power structures that exist in our world. In Leigh Bardugo's world however, the criminals can hide their traces much more easily.

Alex arrives at Yale on a special scholarship. She is to be a sort of magical cop, tasked with monitoring the magical societies on campus that use Yale's' strange affinity with the occult to channel power and energy. Being Yale, there are multiple captains of industry, politicians and entertainment stars that owe their ongoing wealth, power and privilege to the magical societies that they continue to fund. 

While the concept is well done, the book does stand on a few well trodden tropes. Alex is helped in her quests by Dawes, a quiet, very intelligent young woman who knows everything there is about magic and would rather spend time with her studies. Comparisons to Hermione in Harry Potter are of course obvious. Alex's mentor Darlington, an improbable figure who quotes obscure poets and is from a very different class of wealth to Alex, goes missing. Her attempts to find a murderer on campus, that may or may not be related to the magical societies are thus hampered by his absence and her general lack of clarity on what is happening. There's an intriguing metaphor here - Alex doesn't have time to do her actual studies because of the magical stuff, but nor does she study the magical stuff that would help her do her job. 

All in all this is a rather clever book. I look forward to the imminent sequel and feel refreshed by a new generation of fantasy authors that don't just have an "it will all come out alright in the end" attitude to the story. Life is gritty, scary and unpleasant at times. Addressing this in novels is a strength and it makes this book even more fascinating - though I imagine there are plenty at Yale that won't get its critique of wealth and power at all.

Related Reviews

Grossman - The Magicians
Grossman - The Magician King
Grossman - The Magician's Land

Michael G. Baylor - The German Reformation & the Peasants' War: A Brief History with Documents

This short book is intended as a introductory primer for those beginning a look at the German Reformation and the Peasant War, perhaps aimed at American high-school students or undergraduates. Divided into two brief halves, the first part is a decent overview of events by the editor Michael Baylor, placing them in their historical, social, religious and economic context. Baylor highlights the earlier risings that preceded the events of the 1520s, but notes that the risings in 1525 "were on a very different scale". The difference, he suggests, is the immediate presence of the upheaval caused by the Reformation which he says "may have been as important" as underlying class conflicts.

But it is the second half of the book that will be of most interest and use to students of the period. These are a series of reprints of documents and images from the Peasant War which give context to events and the debates raging at the time. Some of these are found easily elsewhere, but pay rereading here. There are the peasants' famous Twelve Articles, which set out their demands for social and economic justice and a new "godly order". In response there are Martin Luther's arguments and then, when the peasants' continue their rebellion, their is Luther's broadside Against the Murdering and Robbing Hordes of Peasants. Reading them together you see how Luther switches dramatically from fraternal engagement to violent denunciation. That said elsewhere in these extracts quotes from Luther makes it clear exactly how he despised insurrection. In response To the Assembly of the Common Peasantry from May 1525, likely published by Christoph Schapperler, a masterful defence of the rebellion and, most importantly, an attack on Luther's arguments that all rebellion is wrong. Its a fascinating deployment of religious argument in a social cause.

Some of the other documents are more unusual. There are reproductions of some pamphlet front pieces which the author explains - useful for those who want to understand the symbolism. I was struck by the central presence of women depicted in some of the images of rebellion. There is also a reprint of a plan by Durer for a monument to the rebellion's defeat. The striking image shows a peasant with a sword embedded on top of a plinth depicting images of rural life and produce. Does the sword show the peasants' murder? Or their betrayal by Luther?

Finally I was really struck by the articles that arose out of the rebellious camps, including the remarkable Field Ordinances of the Franconian Peasantry from April 1525. These ordinances were rules to organise the peasant army, give it discipline and ensure its elected leaders were held to account. They are fascinating revolutionary, democratic, documents and ought to be better know.

All in all this short book will prove a useful and accessible introduction to the Peasant War for most readers and I will returned regularly to it in the coming months as we approach the 500th anniversary.

Related Reviews

Blickle - The Revolution of 1525: The German Peasants' War from a new perspective
Bax - The Peasants War in Germany
Engels - The Peasant War in Germany

Thursday, December 01, 2022

Peter Blickle - The Revolution of 1525: The German Peasants' War from a new perspective

Accounts of the 1525 "German Peasant War" have always been ideologically charged. In 1848 studies of the period were used by Friedrich Engels, and others, to understand contemporary revolutions and the role of different classes. Interpretations of 1525 and the Reformation shaped debates about religion, social change and much else in almost every century since the 16th. By the 1950s, the Peasant War was at the centre of a ideological row between historians representing different sides of the Cold War. East German, and Soviet historians held Engels' analysis to be crucial, while those on the West attempted to challenge their understanding of 1525 as arising out of the development of capitalist relations and the bourgeois class.

Peter Blickle's book was published after the 450th anniversary of events which saw a "ocean of published work". In many ways Blickle was revisionist, unafraid to take on established ideas and challenge them, whether they were from West or East. He deliberately attempted to emphasise the "interdependence" of social and ideological factors in driving the peasant rebellions, challenging those who saw events as simply being down to the Reformation. For Blickle what was important was the "complexity of rural society and the peasantry" and key for him was the importance of understanding events as a Revolution, even if his concept of this was far from the classical Marxist tradition.

He begins by emphasising the dramatic and far reaching importance of these events, which must have exploded on German society like a bomb:

The Peasants' War of 1525 was one of the most extraordinary and spectacular events in German history in the age of the Reformation. The Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation lay helpless as castles, palaces, princely residences and monasteries were put to the torch... Noble and ecclesiastical lords were forced to flee before their peasants and the imperial ruling powers had to struggle for survival.

Blickle highlights how these struggles from below were understood in religious terms by the peasants and their goals were determined by their reading of religious texts, something that comes clearly through in the demands and articles they produced.

Since the main purpose of the gospel as they [the peasantry] understood it was the promotion of peace, love, unity and tolerance, the new teaching [Luther's Reformation] could not be the cause of rebellion. The cause of rebellion was, rather, the destruction and suppression of love, peace and unity - in short, the suppression of the gospel and of God's will.... Liberation of the peasants was God's will and God's judgment.

It is this that was behind the startlingly successful "Twelve articles" produced by the peasantry and drove them to try to create a "godly" society our of the rebellion. But such religious belief is the outward manifestation of wider crises. Blickle quotes approvingly from the 20th century history David Sabean whose research concluded that "the PW simply cannot be grasped if socioeconomic factors are omitted".

Blickle then provides some fascinating examples of the crisis of agriculture in the Middle Ages in Germany. In this context the "Twelve Articles" stood against the "whole feudal social and political order". They were not simply "negative criticism" of the contemporary system, but "fully revolutionary in two respects: in practice, in the articles on serfdom, tithes and the election of pastors; and in principle, in adopting the gospel as the norm of society and politics".

Germany at the start of the 16th century was a cauldron of political, economic and social tension. "The opposition between peasant and lordship was superimposed upon the tensions among peasants" among whom "social stratification" was growing. Blickle develops an extremely nuanced understanding of how this played out during the revolutionary movement:

Although the villages of the nobility had more to complain of concerning services... nonetheless their complaints as a whole weighed less heavily than the huge mass of complaints levelled at monasteries.... The clergy became the main target of the revolutionary movement, not because peasants resented the mixture of spiritual claims and secular office, but because the burdens of monastic subjects were actually heavier. The first blow was also aimed at the nobility because relations between nobles and their peasants were only slightly less tense.

This nuance shouldn't hide the clarity of Blicke's arguments around the aims of the peasants. He insists, that "the urgency, determined spirit and passionate language leave no doubt that, at least during the early phase of the revolt, the abolition of serfdom was the peasants' main desire". It was a revolt that transcended traditional boundaries, "whole villages rose, not just the subjects of a single lord... never before had peasant revolts broken through the narrow political boundaries". Later he argues, "the enforcement of the godly law - whatever the peasants might have understood in detail by this phrase - became the goal of the revolution". But the revolutionaries were not able to drive through change.

The godly law, which sustained the Christian Association [a mass body of peasants covering almost all rural and urban communities in Upper Swabia] had had a liberating but not a revolutionary effect." Blickle argues, the law "lost its authority because it did not solve the crisis and it lost its explosive power because the military and political leaders... did not know how to exploit it to produce a new political order". Despite the mass revolutionary movement burning castles and driving the nobility and clergy off, they could not drive through change that created a new social order to satisfy the peasants. As the movement stalled the counter-revolution was able to strike back.

Blickle details the way that the peasants articulated their revolution, how they understood their rights and how they should be extended and the patterns of rebellion. There are fascinating sections on the interplay between rural and urban communities, the role of miners and other wage labourers etc. He depicts a rebellion that arises out of a deep crisis in medieval Germany, but as it develops goes deep into the lower classes of society. This he terms as a revolt of the "common man", who demanded "rights which had been reserved for nobles". 

In many senses Blickle's book is much clearer on the revolutionary nature of the revolt than books produced by an earlier generation of revolutionary socialists. But Blickle's work is limited by his definition of the revolution itself. He sees, rightly, the Peasant War as a "revolution of the common man" and "an effort to overcome the crisis of feudalism through a revolutionary transformation of socio-political relations". But he rejects the analysis developed by the likes of Friedrich Engels, which placed the Peasants' War and the Reformation within the early development of new, capitalist, relations in the countryside. This weakens his explanation of the revolution itself and the conclusions he draws from it. Indeed his final pages struggle to define revolution, and he finishes by emphasising the "evolutionary process of European history" rejecting analogies or connections to 1848. 

Students of 1525 will find a great deal of interest in Blickle's book. In fact I would go so far to suggest that it is required reading. His clarity on the interplaying factors that drove the rebellion and the importance of socioeconomic factors in addition to religious ideas means he sees the revolution as a truly shattering event, which even in defeat, radically transformed Germany: "the godly law, formerly rejected by the ruling classes as illegal, became a new legality."

But by arguing that European history was essentially evolutionary, and saying that 1525 highlights this, Blicke's misses the importance of later revolutionary change, driven by the bourgeois class, in making the modern capitalist world. Essentially Blickle's history of 1525 ignores capitalist development that had only just begun in that era. By 1848 the bourgeois class was demanding power, and that transformed the situation. Engels puts it well when he said that "the two revolutions... are , in spite of all analogies, essentially different.. .The Revolution of 1525 was a domestic German affair... the Revolution of 1848, on the other hand, was not a domestic German affair, and was an episode in a great European events".

Blickle's book, in many ways, demonstrates that his own conclusions are incorrect. 1525 was the beginning of a revolutionary process of European history. The contradictions that were core to the crisis of the Middle Ages that drove 1525 would only get worse.

Related Reviews

Bax - German Society at the Close of the Middle Ages
Bax - The Peasants War in Germany
Engels - The Peasant War in Germany
Roper - Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet

Friday, November 25, 2022

Matthias Schmelzer, Andrea Vetter & Aaron Vansintjan - The Future is Degrowth: A Guide to a World beyond Capitalism

The Future of Degrowth is an engaging work that deserves study by socialists and Marxists. I wasn't convinced by some of the authors' core arguments - not around degrowth itself - but over their strategy for change. 

My extended review of this book was commissioned for Socialist Worker's Long Reads - you can read it here.

Sunday, November 20, 2022

Ernest Belfort Bax - The Peasants War in Germany

This is the second volume of E. Belfort Bax's three volume history of the social side of the German Reformation. I've already reviewed the first volume on German Society at the Close of the Middle Ages, and in that review I noted Bax's misogynist views that stood him outside the socialist movement on many questions of his time. Volume two suffers from some of the problems of the first book - it is dated in information and style, Bax writes long, occasionally pompous, sentences and meanders about his subject. That said, the book is actually a straight forward account based on German sources of the Peasant War and remains a good general introduction to the subject.

At the same time as reading Bax's book I was also reading Peter Blickle's much more recent account The Revolution of 1525, which I will review shortly. Bax, like Blickle, identifies the origins of the Peasant War in the great crises of the early 16th century, and the ongoing oppression of the peasantry. Bax reproduces the famous Twelve Articles produced by the peasantry, an extraordinary series of demands which were in several cases accepted either in whole or in part by the lords and town councils whom the revolutionary masses presented them too. 

The Articles essentially turned the world of 16th century Germany upside-down, abolishing serfdom, demanding the ending of various oppressive acts by lords and calling for a much more communal social and economic life. Bax however sees them as "moderate" and "exclusively agrarian in character" dealing with the "grievances of the peasant against his lord, lay or ecclesiastic, but had nothing to say on the social problems and the ideas of political reconstruction agitating the mind of the landless proletarian or the impoverished handicraftsman within the walls of the towns."

In contrast we might look at Blicke's argument. Blicke is no socialist, but he understands the revolutionary nature of the Twelve Articles in contrast to Bax's crude dismissal. Blick writes: 
the Twelve Articles collected and focused the grievances of individual Upper Swabian villages, and multiple reprintings made the crisis of the agrarian order clear top peasants of the whole empire. To understand the articles in terms of the local economic, social and political background is actually to lay bare the basic causes of the revolution of the common man.... By basing their demands on the Bible, the Twelve Articles constructed an alternate framework and thus pointed a way out of the late medieval crisis, which had become a social and political crisis as well as an agrarian one.
For Blicke, the "common man's revolution" was against the old order and for a "godly order" based on mutual solidarity and common ownership. By contrast Bax sees the movement as being (following Lasalle) "in the main reactionary, harking back as it did to the old village community with its primitive communistic basis, an institution which was destined to pass away in the natural course of economic development... necessarily doomed to be gradually superseded by those individualistic rights of property that form the essential condition of the modern capitalist world." 

Bax's position seems to me to be a crude application of the Marxist understanding of history. Bax believes that the feudal society would inevitably be replaced by a capitalist society, a process which would see the "old village community" disappear. Anyone appearing to defend this, was inevitably reactionary. But this is to misunderstand what was happening in 1525 and the Marxist method itself. Engels himself, writing on the Peasant War emphasised how for the Peasants to win "the movement could have been brought to a successful conclusion only by an alliance of all the opposition parties, mainly the nobility and the peasants." 

In this context we cannot simply see the peasant's movement in terms of the peasants alone, but Bax judges the peasants' demands in isolation. This said, Bax also makes the mistake in assuming that the peasant demands are reactionary, and look backward. Blicke, in contrast, emphasises the transformative society that they encapsulated, but it is a society that cannot be realised because it is in direct contradiction to the interests of the existing ruling class. 

Some Marxist writers have noted how Marx and Engels speculated that communal Russian peasant society in the 19th century might form the basis for a transition to socialism. No doubt had the German peasantry been able to win, such ideas might have been discussed by Marxists about them. Instead Bax views the peasants' radical demands in a wholly negative light, dismissing their utopia as reactionary. 

Bax is on much stronger ground when he describes the battles of the peasantry, looking in turn at how these played out during the Peasant War in different parts of Germany. His sympathies are with the struggles of the peasantry and is horrified by the counter-revolutionary slaughter, writing that the violence of the peasantry should not "blind us in any way to the intrinsic righteousness of the popular demands". 

Blicke has noted that the struggles did lead in a number of cases, to some radical success, with  German serfdom nopt surviving the uprising. Bax however argues that the war "with some exceptions" saw a "riveting of the peasant's chains and an increase of his burdens". He returns at the end to his earlier them to argue that "the peasant programme was out of the line of natural social progress and that the war itself was carried on from the beginning in a manner that rendered success well-nigh impossible". As such Bax misses the wider social and economic implications of the revolutionary movement.

While Bax's book has its interesting points and, in particular, his account of the peasant struggles remains valid, his analysis is too crude and undialectical to offer a real understanding of the social and economic process of the Peasant War. Future readers should take this in account and combine a reading of Bax's book with other engagements with the subject.

Related Reviews

Friday, November 18, 2022

James M. Cain - Double Indemnity


There is, in many ways, very little that can be said about James M. Cain's Double Indemnity that I didn't already say about his The Postman Always Rings Twice. Both are tight novels, language and description parred back to the raw basics, leaving the reader feeling like they've been dragged through the story. It is no surprise that both novels made for famous films, they feel ready made for the scripts.

But both books also have a similar story, seeing a relatively straight male figure brought to their knees by a femme fatale. In Postman Frank Chambers brings it on himself, his desire for Cora, a married woman, meaning he is willing to commit the ultimate crime. In Double Indemnity Walter Huff throws his settled life and successful career away after being seduced by the beautiful Phyllis Nirdlinger. Unlike Cora, Phyllis is a serial schemer, confident that she can manipulate Walter to commit a crime that she can benefit. Walter puts together the perfect crime and is only foiled because his friend smells a rat immediately.

Like Postman, Double Indemnity's title has a dual meaning. In this case it refers to both the insurance scam that Walter and Phyllis are hoping to pull off, and the double cross that Walter experiences. Unlike Postman though the characters in Double Indemnity experience a kind of redemption, as they realise that their plans have come undone and they cannot escape. The ending is, however, different to the film but, after reading it twice, I found it more satisfactory. 

Most people will know Double Indemnity for Barbara Stanwyck's famous depiction of Phyllis. I'd encourage fans of the film to pick up this tight little thriller. It is well worth the read.

Related Reviews

Cain - The Postman Always Rings Twice

Sunday, November 13, 2022

Robert Jordan - The Great Hunt (Wheel of Time 2)

In reviewing the first Wheel of Time book I dismissed it as a warmed up version of Lord of the Rings. Book two, The Great Hunt, demonstrates Robert Jordan's attempt to break free of the genre. Here he fleshes out many of the characters and gives two groups of heroes - women and men - separate story arcs. It is refreshing because it means that the women are not simply cyphers and have their own struggles, and the men aren't the only heroes. Unfortunately both groups constantly moan the fact the others are missing and constantly fail to understand the bigger picture (tm).

The bigger picture is a big theme in The Great Hunt. The reader has it, and so do some of the Aes Sedai, the powerful magical women whose organisation is one of the great powers in Jordon's fantasy world. In book one our band of plucky heroes (tm) were guided from their backwater village to the heart of the world by one of the Aes Sedai - Moiraine Damodred. By book two we can begin to understand that Moiraine is a good magical person. She is one of the few with the bigger picture and uses this to manipulate characters towards various goals. Unfortunately she is loathe to explain the bigger picture to any of those who might be on her side if she told them what the hell was going on.

As such, the reader knows that Rand al'Thor is likely the Dragon Reborn (don't ask) but Rand al'Thor doesn't really know what that means, even when he is given a massive banner with The Dragon Reborn written on it. Rand blunders through things, not understanding his magical powers and trying to spend quiet time with his lover from the small village, who is being trained to be a magical person.

Despairing of it all Moiraine sends Rand on a quest to find a horn. If the horn is blown it will make volume three happen, and Rand sets out with excitement and quickly finds the horn, but then leaves it in his bedroom while pinning after a beautiful woman. Rand's ability to have his face turned by a pretty face is one of the most infuriating things about his character, though it is decidedly unusual for the fantasy genre. Normally heroes are really loyal. But as in volume one Rand, and his companions, repeatedly fail to ask anyone what the hell is going on. So they make mistakes, blunder into traps and loose magical horns.

There are various people trying to hamper things, enemies of Moiraine who might be termed bad magical persons and a Dark Lord that torments Rand's dreams and challenges him to a duel. Luckily, by the end, Rand's band of heroes have found the horn and its is blown in time to scare off the Dark Lord and ensure volume three is published. Rand wakes, at the end of the book, denying what everyone knows is true - that he is the hero - and finds many of his companions have gone off questing. Rand is upset by this because he is the hero and no one else should have motivation or quests other than him. But the beautiful woman appears again while Rand's is asleep and makes it clear that others have to look after Rand until he gets over himself.

Look. The book is a collection of fantasy tropes that I should have read when I was fourteen and would have loved it. However it remains compelling and made for a good read while I was on an rather long return journey. I bet I read the following volumes because they are there and I now have the bigger picture

Related Reviews

Jordan - Eye of the World (volume one)

John Dickson Carr - The Hollow Man

I discovered John Dickson Carr's The Hollow Man quite by chance on a random bookshelf in a completely disorganised second hand bookshop. I am very glad I did. Carr's work is that of classic detective stories, updated for the 20th century, but with an occasional remarkably unique spin. 

The Hollow Man is known for being on the of the great locked room mysteries. The main character, an eccentric academic Professor Charles Grimaud, is approached by a stranger who warns him about his dangerous brother. Grimaud seems to shrub off the threat, but then commits a number of strange acts - buying and displaying a strange painting and waiting for the killer in his room. Grimaud is murdered in a literal locked room and there are no signs of his killers' escape. Another murder ten takes place in the middle of a street, the undisturbed snow seeming to prove that the killer cannot even have been there.

The police and Carr's hero, Dr. Fell, arrive at the scene of the first crime within minutes - yet only Fell appears not to be baffled. Fell is an intriguing character in himself. Clearly modelled on Sherlock Holmes, he is a polyglot who keeps his private life private. Yet he is also unusually described - a massively overweight character, with a gift for making witnesses talk, and an infuriating way (at least to the police) of not explaining anything he thinks as they career from place to place investigating and finding evidence.

But The Hollow Man will stand out not for this mystery - which is extremely fun and satisfyingly complex - but for its exposition of the whole theory of locked rooms mysteries. Chapter seventeen is nothing less than a lecture by Fell on the theory of locked rooms mysteries. "I will not lecture on the general mechanics and development of the situation which is known in detective fiction as the 'hermetically sealed chamber'." Fell tells his fellow investigators... and to ensure the reader knows exactly what is happening Fell tells his audience that this must be done because "we're in a detective story, and we don't fool the reader by pretending we're not". Having smashed the fourth wall, Fell continues by telling us (and his other fictional characters) all his theories of how such crimes can be committed and then solving the one that he is a character in. 

Locked room mysteries are, like magic tricks, inherently disappointing. When you understand them, they immediately lose something. Fell tells the reader exactly this, "the effect is so magical that we somehow expect the cause to be magical also. When we see that it isn't wizardry, we call it tomfoolery." But the genius of this tale is that the reader doesn't feel fooled or tricked. The solution is, of course, simultaneously obvious and fantastically complex. There are plenty of red herrings littering the landscape to through the reader off as well.

In short, this is a brilliant piece of crime fiction that turns the tropes on their head, places the reader in the story in a very unusual way, and serves up a complex locked room mystery with a rather neat solution. I must admit to being rather taken by both John Dickson Carr and his Dr. Fell. I look forward to others in this numerous series.

Thursday, November 03, 2022

Malcolm Brown & Patricia Meehan - Scapa Flow

Scapa Flow is at the heart of Orkney, an enormous natural harbour today curiously devoid of ships. Yet in both World Wars it was the base of Britain's main naval fleet - the location from where many ships set out to fight the German Navy at Jutland in 1916 and the home base for ships that fought the Bismark and escorted the Russia convoys. Most importantly it was home to tens of thousands of servicemen and women in both World Wars, troops from the navy, airforce and army who looked after the guns, fuelled the aircraft and above all crewed and maintained hundreds of ships.

Malcolm Brown & Patricia Meehan's brilliant oral history of Scapa Flow tells their story. It arose out of a strange set of circumstances - the BBC made a programme about Scapa Flow, introduced by Ludovic Kennedy who served there. The authors placed an ad in the Radio Times asking for reminiscences and were inundated with replies. Realising they had too much material for one programme, they used much of the remainder in writing this book.

So the history here is told mostly in the voices of the women and men who served in this lonely part of Orkney. Some of the stories are horrible - the accounts of the tragedies of HMS Vanguard in World War One and HMS Royal Oak in the second - are awful. Hundreds of lives lost in a moment. One gets a real sense of how these tragedies shocked those who witnessed them or those who cleared up afterward. One sailor remembered how a diver had seen the bodies of dead men still in their bunks after the sinking of the Royal Oak. Other tragedies such as the sinking of HMS Hampshire and the death of hundreds of sailors, plus the unlamented Lord Kitchener (architect of much slaughter) are also closely associated with Scapa Flow.

The Flow today is filled with wrecks and a favourite location for divers. Many of these are German ships, whose crews took them there for surrender after World War One. The scuttling of the ships was a memorable and shocking event, but I was struck by the accounts here that tell of how badly the German sailors were treated by the British authorities - lacking food, entertainment or much else. It was interesting to hear of a passing reference to a Sailors' Council in the German fleet at Orkney - not least because the crews had been part of the mutiny that began the German Revolution in Kiel and Wilhelmshaven. Sadly this did not spread to the British!

But actually one thing you get from these accounts is how dull and monotonous life in Scapa was. Not a few correspondents bemoan that they are not on active service, but standing guard in appalling weather waiting for action, that by and large never came. It is interesting that in both wars caution on the part of the British Naval command essentially left many warships and their crews languishing in Scapa Flow. Boredom, games, drink and loneliness characterise many accounts. Some of these are tragic, like the men who killed themselves from depression. Others are sad, such as the two guardsmen left for weeks alone who desperately tried to stretch out the weekly visits by the men who brought them supplies.

There is no doubt, with hindsight, that those in Orkney during both wars had a relatively good deal - they would probably survive. But the boredom brought with it its own difficulties and while the correspondents often remember the islands and their people fondly, they mostly remember how dull it was. Readers looking for exciting accounts of battle will not find it here. What readers will find is an insight into the war away from the frontlines, boredom and loneliness, with occasional moments of terror and tragedy. As such this excellent oral history is probably of much greater interest that you might expect.

Related Reviews

Terkel - 'The Good War': An Oral History of World War Two
Lund and Ludlam – Trawlers Go to War
Lund & Ludlam - PQ17: Convoy to Hell
Wickham-Jones - Orkney: A Historical Guide

Saturday, October 29, 2022

Jeff Sparrow - Provocations: New and Selected Writings

In the introduction to this volume of his selected writings, Australian socialist Jeff Sparrow quotes the bushranger Ned Kelly. Kelly had written an 8000 word statement justifying his actions, and as he handed it over he said "This is a little bit of my life; I will give it to you". As Sparrow points out, every writer knows what he meant. This collection certainly showcases the breadth of Sparrow's work. Sparrow is one of the foremost Australian radical writers, and I have reviewed several of his books elsewhere on his blog. But perhaps he is best know for this regular articles, published in a wide range of journals and websites, that discuss politics, history and current events with a distinctly Australian flavour.

Sparrow explains that he is one of a "handful" of socialists that gets to regularly write in the mainstream media. While some of these essays are explicitly political, others show how the best radical writers can  draw out deeper political insights whatever the subject they are dissecting. 

The opening essay tells the story of the Pacific Islanders who were kidnapped ("blackbirded") into indentured slavery on Queensland's sugar plantations. While they weren't slaves in the sense of those Africans forcible moved to the Americas, they were nevertheless brutally treated. Sparrow shows that rather than this being an aberration for Australia's past, the contemporary debates around the issue highlighted some uncomfortable facts about Australia's colonial regime. When the US Civil War broke out, "many Europeans in Australia sympathised with the Confederates" and some expected war between the US and Australia. Sparrow explains, "Queenslanders dreamed of building a 'second Louisiana'. They could, they thought, capitalise on the disruption of the international cotton and sugar trades, if only the could establish a viable local crop."

Getting a viable crop meant getting a workforce and the English workers who arrived wouldn't work in the hot and unpleasant conditions. So "blackbirding" began and between 1863 and 1904 "62,000 South Sea Islanders were transported to Australia. The capitalists who drove this process did so by relying on the "techniques and personnel" of slavery. Yet, as Sparrow explains, they were simultaneously quick to declare their hostility to slavery to "legitimate a generalised racism, which they then presented as a foundation of a new state". The story of the Pacific Islanders in Queensland and their forcible relocation back to their Islands when the practice was banned, once again underlies the racist roots of the current Australian state.

The second essay in the collection explores another aspect of Australian culture - the bushranger, and again deconstructs the traditional accounts. In this case Sparrow explores how "Captain Moonlite", the bushranger Andrew George Scott may well have been in a gay relationship with James Nesbit, one of his gang. Scott hoped that after his execution his body would be buried alongside Nesbit's. This did not happen until an extended campaign by locals to get the body reinterred. We can never know if Scott and Nesbit were gay in the sense we mean today. But as Sparrow points out that is not the point - they exhibited a closeness and friendship that goes against the traditional masculinity normally associated with men of the outback, hinting at a different historical story that challenges contemporary cultural depictions of bushrangers.

Some of the essays here take up contemporary politics. For instance, the brutal treatment of refugees and asylum seekers by the Australian government and the resistance against this. Other essays explore culture and change on a much more general level. I was fascinated by Sparrow's articles exploring children's books, particular Enid Blyton and Captain W.E. Jones. I hadn't realised that I craved a socialist exploration of the Biggles stories as much as I did.

Sparrow writes regularly about environmental and ecological issues. Several essays here take up these themes, again with a distinctly Australian angle. There's a fascinating discussion on the nature of extinction where Sparrow looks at the obsession that there is with finding a "thylacine" an extinct carnivorous marsupial, which ends up being as much and exploration of the people who hope to find one alive, as it does with the tragic loss of the animal itself. 

Sparrow is particularly good at getting people to open up. In the case of the "Queer Bushranger" he discusses LGBT+ issues with one of the local women who campaigned to have Scott reinterred. It's fair to say she doesn't share much of Sparrow's left politics, but he gets her to open up a little about the reality of small town life and what that might mean for gay people. Another example is the man who takes part in war re-enactments, arguing that these are more popular as people seek meaning in "atomised and fractured" neoliberal states.

Reviewing in detail the breadth of essays here would take far to long and would spoil them for other readers. But as a taster I can tell you there are chapters on socialist cycling clubs, the immigrant experience and racism, the strange trend of rewriting classic novels as Zombie horror stories, and gun control. Some of these are deeply serious essays, but they are all shaped by Sparrow's deeply human politics - and on occasion his ready wit.

The essay I wanted to finally mention though was one that moved and shocked me a great deal. It was the story of the tragedy of the 1628 wreck of the Batavia, a horrific incident that saw hundreds of shipwrecked mariners and merchants descend into barbaric behaviour as they ran short of food and rations. I was ignorant of the affair, and Sparrow tells the story through a report of modern archaeology and places it in the context of early capitalism. Sparrow concludes by saying that the story from 400 years ago "illuminated the stories we tell about ourselves today". It is also a comment that is true of all the essays in this book - I encourage you to read it.

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