Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Louise Erdrich - The Sentence

On May 25 2020, George Floyd, a forty-six year old black man was killed by Minneapolis police. His death sparked a resurgence in the Black Lives Matter movement, provoking huge demonstrations around the world and likely seeing the largest wave of protest in US history. Floyd's murder was a pivotal moment and Louise Erdrich's novel The Sentence revolves around the killing, and events that followed in the context of the Covid pandemic.

Her central character, Tookie, is a indigenous woman released from a disproportionality long incarceration. In prison Tookie found solace in books sent to her by a former teacher. Outside she finds solace working in a bookshop and the characters she meets there. One of them, Flora, dies on All Souls' Day 2019, and begins to haunt the shop. Tookie struggles to understand why Flora's spirit has done this - she was the shops "most annoying" customer, someone who desperately wanted to associate herself with being Native American, but was also fiercely loyal.

As the pandemic grows and bookshops become essential places of work, Tookie's shop becomes the focus of a narrowing world - a lifeline to other times and places for its customers. Their stock of books about indigenous culture is highly in demand, reflecting the transformation in political ideas that Black Lives Matter sparks. Through Tookie's search to understand Flora's death and haunting, Erdrich explores the meaning of literature, bookshops and books. Readers are perhaps meant to ask themselves what these things mean to us, in a world buffeted by violence and chaos.

The problem is that it doesn't work. One can only assume that Tookie's constant referencing of books and authors, and the associated reading list at the end is designed to blur the lives between fiction and reality. But to me it came across as smug and preachy. Black Lives Matter feels like a backdrop for a plot point, not a transformative social experience that shifted politics in the US - though the descriptions of the chaos of anger of the demonstrations feels accurate. 

The book left me unsatisfied. Perhaps I was trying to hard to work out what it all meant rather than going along for the ride. But it felt like an opportunity to discuss the deep seated racism at the heart of US society - racism that rose on the back of the genocide against Native Americans and slavery - was lost in a story that didn't quite work for this reader.

Friday, June 24, 2022

Jack Shenker - The Egyptians: A Radical Story

In early 2011 millions of people around the world were captivated by the Egyptian Revolution. I remember rushing out of meetings to the pub so we could watch the latest news from Cairo - had Mubarak gone or not? For the first time, mainstream and social media gave millions a ring side seat in a revolution. The Egyptian Revolution was part of the wider rebellions often labelled as the "Arab Spring". Rightly, Jack Shenker argues that the term is part of sanitising the revolutions of their radical content, remoulding them as pro-Western struggles whose participants were more interested in creating the sort of neoliberal society favourable to the Whitehouse and the European Union.

Shenker's book shows that the reality was very different. The Egyptian Revolution was the most thoroughgoing of the Middle Eastern risings and it was characterised very much by a desire to build a radically different sort of society. The moment when the Egyptian military finally decided that Mubarak had to go coincided with a massive explosion of workers' strikes. Once the working class began to move, the situation threatened far deeper changes than simply toppling a few politicians and military leaders.

Search for images of the Egyptian Revolution today and you will almost certainly find pictures of the massive crowds that occupied Tahrir Square. This occupation became symbolic of the revolution itself and inspired countless attempts to mimic it around the world. The idea that a free space where alternative ideas and organisation could flourish with existing society was incredibly attractive and dovetailed with the ideas of a fair few radical thinkers. It was if by sheer weight of the imagination, politicians and states could be overthrown. The scale of the occupation, the regime's attack on Tahrir, the fight by its participants to defend the space nonetheless did give the space an important place in the revolution. But we must be wary of placing to much utopian hope on such occupations. As Shenker cautions:

there is a danger in projecting too much of the revolution on to this single square, and thus confining the revolution in space and time… Focusing too closely on Tahrir ignores a panoply of revolutionary  struggles, and it leaves the factories and farms and schools and alleyways and minds in which revolution is raging dangling far off the edge of the page, alongside the dozens of other city squares across Egypt where battles were won and occupations mounted.

More recent commentators on the Sudanese revolution have, in my opinion, fallen into a similar trap to those who abstracted Tahrir from wider revolutionary context. But Shenker does celebrate what happened in that crowded square and how Tahrir symbolised wider aspirations: 

it embodied something more fundamental about the revolution—an action of creation, one that has coloured Egypt’s politics irrevocably ever since. In Tahrir, Egyptians built something different from Mubarak Country: a different set of borders, a different set of social relations, a different narrative about  who they were and what they could do.

Tahrir did not come from nowhere. In fact the site was the location of numerous smaller protests, many of which had been brutally suppressed by the Egyptian state. Shenker describes the deep roots of discontent in Egypt; struggles by local communities over their environment, their housing and their agriculture; small, brave and important democracy protest movements which fed the atmosphere that would eventually explode in 2011 and the economic struggles of workers and peasants. Shenker emphasises that "the first strand, and arguably the most critical, was the fight-back by workers against the structural violence and redistribution from poor to rich that accompanied neoliberalism." He explains:

By the twenty-first century, economic liberalisation under the tutelage of the international financial institutions had eroded that alliance, and workers increasingly saw the state itself as a the facilitator of colonialism of a different order. In the final years of Mubarak's reign, workers'; embroiled virtually every category of workplace you can think of in confrontation. By 2011, they would play a critical role in toppling the president altogether.

The role of workers in the Egyptian revolution is a neglected part of many accounts of 2011. Thankfully this is rectified in Shenker's book, where some of the most inspiring passages describe workplaces were workers are in control and have kicked out corrupt managers, or have won massive concessions. Likewise some of the most tragic are the way that the post-Mubarak regime and the Muslim Brotherhood quickly moved to demobilise the strikes and workers' action.

Shenker himself was close to much of the action, reporting from Egypt over many years and being at the heart of events during key moments before and after the revolution. His breathless excitement comes through as the January 25th protests are suddenly so much more than the small democracy protests he's witnessed over the years. At the other extreme we feel his terror as he is trapped in a police van, possibly heading for a beating or worse and his desperation as the people's gains are crushed by Sisi's counter-revolution. It is brilliant writing, exhilarating, personal but most of all giving ordinary Egyptians - from farmers and labourers to revolutionary socialists and feminist activists - their voice. There are also some joyous (and fascinating) accounts of talks with bosses and politicians who've been shrunk by the revolution.

It is also a remarkable work of historical research. Shenker shows how Egypt's history has been shaped by colonial and imperialist forces right till the present day. The neoliberalism that Mubarak and his predecessors imposed arising out of the position that Egypt has as a regional power and international state, especially during and immediately after the Cold War. 

Because Shenker takes the long view, which sees the Egyptian Revolution not as a sudden outburst of anger, but as a working class reaction to deep seated inequalities and oppression, it is hard not to conclude that the Egyptian Revolution will rise again in the future. While we must be wary of historical parallels, perhaps 2011 was Egypt's 1905? At the moment though, the counter-revolution has triumphed and tens of thousands of activists remain in jail. 

But at some point the contradictions of Egyptian society will bring people out onto the streets again. A renewal of the revolution will mean overcoming many real obstacles, but the objective circumstances will force people into conflict with the Egyptian state. As Shenker concludes:

Ultimately, Mubarak Country is built on an assumption of fear and dependency; pre-revolution and now, it relies not on a stable system of governance, but on the perpetuation of mental shackles, on a belief that nothing more is possible. The problem with mental shackles is that poverty and exclusion tend to rust them, and they are hard to maintain when new generations, new minds, keep bursting on to the scene. Perhaps this is why Sisi... has been particularly determined to oppress the very youngest... These are not the actions of a state that is confident in its own survival; they are the actions of a state which knows its authority has been irreparably damaged, and that Revolution Country clings on amid the fissures.

Jack Shenker's book is a masterful account of a particular revolution, an insight into the revolutionary process itself. It reminds us that workers' revolution is not something of the past, but a reality for capitalism today. Reading this book I was reminded of the excitement of 2011, the sense that the world was changing and how we all got a brief glimpse of a different social order. In that sense The Egyptians is far more than a historical account, its a lesson for radicals everywhere.

Related Reviews

Ayeb & Bush - Food Insecurity & Revolution in the Middle East & North Africa
El-Mahdi & Marfleet - Egypt: The Moment of Change
Alexander & Bassiouny - Bread, Freedom, Social Justice: Workers & the Egyptian Revolution
Gonzalez & Barekat - Arms and the People: Popular Movements and the Military from the Paris Commune to the Arab Spring
Berridge, Lynch, Makawi & De Waal - Sudan's Unfinished Democracy: The Promise & Betrayal of a People's Revolution

Monday, June 20, 2022

Darcus Howe - From Bobby to Babylon: Blacks & the British Police

Darcus Howe was one of the most important radical anti-racist activists in post-war Britain. As part of the collective that produced Race Today which he edited, he was a significant figure in developing and organising radical, anti-racist black movements. He was part of the "Mangrove Nine" a group of activists who were arrested for protesting against the repeated police raids and harassment of the Mangrove Caribbean restaurant in West London. To my generation he was perhaps best known as a broadcaster who regularly put the establishment, the police and the media in the spotlight for racism. 

Many of the issues that Howe campaigned over have returned to the spotlight in recent years as a result of Black Lives Matter. This short book is a classic work produced by Race Today in 1988 in the aftermath of the uprisings that shook Britain in 1981. Those "inner city" rebellions against Thatcher's policies and police racism shook the country and were almost universally condemned. Howe shows how they arose out of systematic racism, poverty, unemployment and rage against the police. 

Howe argues that the British government had managed to create an apparent consensus of policing, the British bobby that was fair and solved crime - but this was not the case, the police were systematically racist and used their power and violence to oppress working class people in general and black people in particular. In the 1970s and 1980s a new generation of young black people grew up who were not migrants and were not thinking of returning home, but rather saw Britain as home - and they were not prepared to stand for this treatment. As Howe says, "the development of young blacks inside British capitalism rendered them incompatible with the social arrangements they had inherited". 

The rebellions of 1981 saw "a section of the British working class, distinguishable by the colour of our skins, had declared open rebellion against the British state. And the British state reacted in the same manner as it had done to generations of Irish, Scottish, Welsh and English workers".

The great strength of Howe's work is that he places state (and police) racism and violence in the context of class rule and class struggle. This means he sees, and argues for, unity between black and white workers. Powerful statistics and examples show how the police powers were used systematically against black people, and in a way that encouraged division between workers through racism.

Howe also puts a personal twist on these stories. There's an account of the racism he experienced from a police officer who followed him and his friend as they shopped for shoes in central London, an experience that leads to Howe's arrest and then release. There's also an account of how the Notting Hill Carnival sees the police ramp up tension and hostility until they are able to attack the carnival and blame black people for the violence. The way that the media and police colluded in portraying black immigrants as criminals, drunks and prostitutes is quite shocking, and there are so many parallels with the way that racist myths are used today against Muslims.

This short book has been recently republished by Bookmarks, and includes a couple of extra essays by Howe and two excellent framing articles by socialist Brian Richardson and the campaigning lawyer Gareth Pierce. As new generations fight police violence and racism, and challenge a racism state, this short book is a brilliant call to arms that pays reading. Sadly Darcus Howe died in 2017 but he his words continue to resonant. I highly recommend this book.

Related Reviews

Richardson (ed) - Say It Loud! Marxism and the Fight Against Racism
Fryer - Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain
Aspden - The Hounding of David Oluwale
Hirsch - In the Shadow of Enoch Powell

Thursday, June 16, 2022

Holly Black - Book of Night

Back in the 1990s we were told that the internet would allow us to communicate with people around the world, sharing ideas, learning from each other and making friends. New communities of like-minded internet users would construct virtual spaces in an atmosphere sharing and friendship. To be honest it sounded like bollocks back then, and it has turned out like that today. However the internet did allow certain groups of people to find each other - conspiracy theorists for one. In Holly Black's universe though, magical users learnt that they were not unique and they could share ideas and information and suddenly, the world had magic.

That's the fantastic premise to Black's first adult novel. Her YA work has been well received and certainly this story demonstrates her talents. I was immediately drawn into a world were much is the same, except that the magical users are greedy and jealous and people like protagonist Charlie Hall are hired to steal secrets.

In this world, even your shadow can be stolen and then magically grafted onto another. But some people have much more dangerous skills and will do everything to protect them and extend them. Others dream of the powers they could have if only someone like Charlie can steal the right thing.

While I enjoyed the world Black has made, I did at times find it overly complicated and I'm not quite sure I really got to the bottom of what she intended readers to understand about how magic functioned. I was much more enamoured by Charlie's exploits, her somewhat dysfunctional life and the confidence tricks the criminal underworld got up to. That said I was gripped hard by the story, and barely let up until I'd got to the end. I imagine there'll be a sequel and I look forward to seeing how Holly Black builds on this solid foundation.

Sunday, June 12, 2022

Imbolo Mbue - How Beautiful We Were

*** Spoiler Alert ***

This is a brilliant, but painful book. But I must warn you. As an environmental and socialist activist I do not think that I can review it, or even discuss it, without talking about the ending. If you don't want to have that spoiled I suggest that you go away and read it, without continuing.

Still here? Let's talk about Imbolo Mbue's amazing book. I came across this after learning that it was being banned by some school boards in the United States and I was puzzled, because it didn't seem to fit the normal pattern of banned books. It is set in the (fictional) African village of Kosawa. Rather like a theatre play Kosawa forms the backdrop to everything which happens, even though events might take place thousands of miles away. It is Kosawa that feels the impact of global changes and it is the village from where the characters experience and judge events. Kosawa is threatened by Pexton a US oil multinational which has discovered oil beneath the village land. At first the villagers are keen to embrace the small amount of wealth that comes their way, though Pexton's representatives lie and trick the villagers about what they will receive. 

But the relationship quickly sours as Kosawa's children begin to die. The pollution from the oil refinery and the leaks from the pipes poison the land and water, and the villagers are powerless to stop the leaks. Appeals to government make no difference, Kosawa is a dictatorship and the ruling class is closely linked to Pexton's oil revenue. The country's dictator has made Pexton's actions legal. Repeated meetings with Pexton's representatives bring no change, boring the villagers, until one day the villagers kidnap Pexton's men and demand action.

Imbolo Mbue skilfully weaves events through the eyes of Kosawa's inhabitants, in particular the children and women, something that emphasises who the victims of the pollution are. In doing so she shows how the villagers frame their experiences through their own understanding of the world - spiritual and ecological. The villagers cannot help but believe they've done something wrong, and are being punished by their Spirit. They cannot, at least initially, comprehend the ruthless nature of a oil company compelled to maximise profits at the expense of people and the land they live in. They can, however, comprehend the viciousness of a state that will do everything to protect the interests of the wealthy and powerful, and Kosawa quickly feels that violence.

The people of Kosawa attempt to appeal to the government. Their delegates go missing. Those who go to find them, in turn, face violence and suppression but catch the ear of an investigative journalist who kicks up a stink in the US press. Here, in my opinion, is where Mbue's novel becomes an extremely powerful and clever work. The US press reports galvanise a solidarity movement that puts pressure on Pexton, and in turn brings NGO assistance to Kosawa. I feared the novel would peter out in a story of Western NGO salvation. Instead, Mbue shows how the NGO sector desperately tries to hold back the villagers, promising them salvation through the US legal system and discouraging "rocking the boat". The villagers wait, and some die, and the urge to action grows stronger.

Some of the younger generation launch an armed struggle. Burning Pexton's property, assassinating its workers' and harassing the government. Its powerful, but invites retribution. At the same time, one of their number, Thula, makes it to a US university on a Pexton funded NGO organised scholarship. Their Thula reads Franz Fanon, Marx and Engels and Paulo Freire and becomes an activist. Shocked to see that in the US there is poverty, inequality and injustice, she is arrested and inspired to learn more about social movements. Her return to Africa sees her try to launch a revolution, and there's a powerful tension between her and those who remained behind - a tension between those that see the armed struggle as the way forward, those who see mass pacifist movements as the only moral way forward and those that would rather not struggle at all.

I have my own views on what sort of movement might bring social and climate justice. This review is not the place for them. The point that Mbue makes powerfully, is that the none of the movements that Kosawa inspires succeeds. The village is defeated, its people dispersed and its struggle forgotten except by a few survivors. I think this is the genius of the novel - we expect fairy tail endings. We're seduced to believe that a peaceful revolution will win at Thula become President, or the NGOs win justice or the right person is assassinated. Instead there is no victory, and we are left to dwell on what might have been. Ultimately this is a novel that is about the importance of struggle. Because without struggle there can be no hope, but struggle itself doesn't always win. 

It is a poignant, and powerful novel - a book that fits with the Black Lives Matter and the Climate Justice movements. It's a book that places agency into the hands of ordinary people in Africa, and shows that the enemy is a capitalist system and its representatives - whether they are US oil companies or ruthless African states. It is a wonderful work that offers the reader no easy answers.

Thursday, June 09, 2022

Hal Draper & E. Haberkern - Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution Volume 5: War & Revolution

This last volume of Hal Draper's monumental study of Karl Marx's thought is a very different work to the earlier ones. In part this is because it was mostly completed by Draper's collaborator Ernie Haberkern,  and thus has a difference in style to the earlier volumes. Haberkern worked from extensive notes but these were of course incomplete on Draper's death. Nonetheless the book provides a useful continuation of the earlier volumes and while it is clearly not the book that Draper would have produced on his own, it is very much a work of Marxist scholarship that should be read with the earlier volumes.

The title is on War and Revolution and the authors explain that earlier in their political careers, Marx and Engels saw a close link between the two - arguing, essentially, that war provoked revolution. The later drew back from such an explicit linkage, but they always looked at the way that war exacerbated tensions and created conditions for radical politics to push through. In the years after the death of Engels, Marxists built on their ideas to develop a theory of Imperialism which linked war directly to the accumulation of capital and the nation state. Engels, towards the end of his life, came close to such arguments, but it was later socialists who solidified them. But the positions that Marx and Engels took were often used to justify both pro and anti-war positions by later socialists. The transference of Marx and Engels arguments to the situation in the 20th century was, essentially, a bastardisation of their revolutionary work but it is sometimes based on real political positions that they took. 

Nonetheless, in the introduction Haberkern argues that contrary to the debates during the First World War, "neither Kautsky, nor Potresov, nor Lenin, nor, as far as I have been able to determine, any other socialists during World War I, cited the two wars after 1848 in which Marx and Engels unambiguously took a prowar stand in support of a bourgeois government." The authors unpick the reasons for Marx and Engels' position and implicitly explain why these weren't applicable to the global situation in 1914 (and one might add, still aren't applicable today).

One key question for Engels was the linkage between war and national liberation. Writing of the 1848 revolution, the authors say that Engels stressed that "in Hungary too social revolution and national liberation are inextriably linked." Here they point out that confusion for many about Marx and Engels' attitude to national liberation stems from a misreading of there arguments. The authors point out that in the Communist Manifesto the words "The workers have no country" are a mistranslation, and it should say "Vaterland" meaning that "the answer of the Manifesto is that the workers' have no Vaterland because they do not have political power anywhere". Draper and Haberkern continue:

The internationalism of the Manifesto lies in its assertion that he success of the coming revolution requires the victory of the working class in at least several of the leading European nations. A national victory was the first step in a European revolution. That first step could not be taken without taking into account the  immediate issues facing specific national movements. It was just as obvious to Marx and Engels that a national movement that restricted itself to the first step was doomed to fail.

Exploring these ideas takes Draper and Haberkern onto an extended discussion of Marx's and, particularly, Engels' positions on a number of specific cases of national liberation. One key discussion here, and one that I will no doubt return to, is the authors' exploration of the meaning behind Engels' infamous phrase "non-historic peoples" to describe "peoples who are incapable of forming viable national states." The authors point out that neither Marx nor Engels ever supported "the suppression of the national rights of any national group on the ground that it was 'non-historic' or 'non-viable' when said nation actually proved its viability, its 'historicity' by asserting its rights." Draper and Haberkern explain the position taken by Engels:

The problem is Engels was just beginning to sort through his own ideas... it is enough to note that Engels' thinking at this time was dominated by two propositions. The first was that the triumph of the bourgeoisie over the remnants of pre-bourgeois society was progressive, desirable, and represented the victory of civilisation over barbarism. It was also the necessary prelude to the rise of a workers' movement. The second proposition was that this process required the creation of large, culturally unified states and the consequent destruction of the patchwork of small, backward remnants of medieval politics that covered central and Eastern Europe.

The events of 1848, and the cowardly role of the bourgeoise, led Marx and Engels to change their attitudes to these revolutionary processes. But the authors also note that Engels himself did not adhere too closely to this position:

In every case where Engels is called upon in 1848 to describe a real political struggle between 'pure and simple nationalism and a socially revolutionary national movement, whether that case be Hungary, Poland or Bohemia, the 'historical nations' line disappears. For good reason. This idealist concept was of no use in analysing a real movement. It appears only after the fact in a cases where the democratic movement has been defeated or... never really got off the ground. And then it is only a simple description of fact dressed up in Hegelian phraseology.

The fact that Marx and Engels developed their politics over time has been a central theme of all of Draper's works and emphasises the limitations of an approach that plucks quotes from their private letters or out of context. It is also particularly true of their approach to different wars. Firstly though, it must be emphasised that Marx and Engels were not abstract political commentators, their statements were linked to concrete circumstance. A point that Draper and Haberkern emphasise:

Despite the confusion, in reality and in Engels' head, one major difference between his 1848 position and his post 1870 stands out. In 1848, Marx, Engels and radicals of all political shades looked forward to a war by revolutionary Germany, under the leadership of Bourgeois democratic revolutionaries against Tsarist Russia. Marx and Engels, after 1870, did not desire a war with Russia. They feared it. And they were adamant that they would not support any of the governments in such a war. They were for using the crisis of war to replace the governments in all countries be they republics or monarchies.

It was this internationalist revolutionary position that was abandoned by most of the Second International in 1914 and which Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg and a handful of revolutionaries stuck with. By the late 19th century Engels was developing an approach to imperialism that would be closer to Lenin's position in Imperialism. But he was still holding on to politics that originated in an earlier period. 

These arguments were important for Engels who was fighting a battle against the emergence of reformist politics within the German Social Democratic Party and the International. Draper and Haberkern explore the way that Engels fought this, because his hesitation and fear of splitting organisations meant that he pulled his political punches on occasion. It is this that led to Engels being accused, incorrectly, of becoming reformist towards the end of his life. Engels, the authors argue, was ahead of the curve in understanding the world had changed post 1870, but "never sat down to think through what this meant". 

Readers of this volume will find that a significant difference with earlier books is that there is much more of an engagement in with how Marx and Engels' ideas have been used since their death. In part that's because of the material and how subsequent pro-war and anti-imperialist socialists have quoted Marx. But it's also because some of this material comes from the imperialist epoch itself. As such the debates and discussions around national liberation movements and imperialism are indispensable and make this book worth reading. 

However, there are qualifications. This book is not as good as the earlier volumes for reasons already stated and the edition I have, the volume most easily obtainable at the moment, is peppered with typos, spelling mistakes and proofing errors. References are incomplete and words misspelled. It is a disappointment given the extremely exacting standards of the earlier works and perhaps a new, freshly edited volume, ought to be produced.

Related Reviews

Draper - Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution Volume 1: State & Bureaucracy
Draper - Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution Volume 2: The Politics of Social Classes
Draper - Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution Volume 3: The 'Dictatorship of the Proletariat'
Draper - Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution Volume 4: Critique of Other Socialisms 


Wednesday, June 08, 2022

Cecil Woodham-Smith - The Reason Why

This is a cracking history read. Cecil Woodham-Smith mined the archives, unpublished memoirs and long forgotten correspondence to retell the story of the Charge of the Light Brigade. What she brings to the story is context - and by this I don't mean the grand historical narrative of the clash of nation states and nineteenth century empires, but the context of the aristocratic world within which the Crimean War was fought and the Charge took place. It is a startlingly strange world. One where unbelievably wealthy aristocrats can do know wrong and bear no criticism. One where personal feuds are far more important than military success and Generals can lead their men to doom, but not fight with them. 

The Charge has often been discussed, and its principle figures are well known. All of them are odious, and all of them were terrible soldiers. Lord Cardigan, who commanded the Brigade and led the Charge is perhaps the most odious - that's certainly how Woodham-Smith portrays him. Vain, mean and prejudiced, its actually hard not to wish he had died under the Russian guns, or at least shot in a dark tent by his own men. But the latter would not have happened as Cardigan spent much of the War in luxury on his private yacht, missing important battles because of over-sleeping. 

Lord Lucan and Lord Raglan, are perhaps slightly less odious, though only just. Woodham-Smith would write an excellent history of the Irish Famine, but this earlier book also gives a brief account, not least because during Lucan's role as Lord Lieutenant of Mayo he evicted thousands of people during the Famine, surly condemning most of them to death. Lucan and Raglan are only slightly less awful than Cardigan, but they were also incompetent as were many of those in their class around them during the Crimea. Woodham-Smith's focus is on the Charge and the individuals in command, I'd have liked more on the British Army leadership's collective incompetence towards the whole force during the War, though perhaps Woodham-Smith's earlier book on Florence Nightingale rectifies this.

Woodham-Smith strongly implies that the communication failures that led to the Charge lie primarily in the personal hatreds at the heart of the aristocratic leadership. With her portrayal of Lord Cardigan as an incompetent buffoon she perhaps leads the reader to overly blame him as an individual for the disaster. Had the British Army got rid of Cardigan when they should have it is likely the disastrous Charge would not have taken place and we'd have all been spared that terrible patriotic poem. But the wider failures of the Army would likely still have happened, not least the failure to follow up the successes at Alma. 

That said, this is not really a book about the Crimean War, but the personalities and events that led to the Charge. As such there's surprisingly little about the ordinary soldier here. They usually appear as a victim of Cardigan's bullying and it would be interesting to read more on the War from their angle. Woodham-Smith also makes no attempt to explore the imperialist context of the war, or its consequences. But that was not her ambition. That said, this is great read - no matter how much you dislike the aristocracy and the ruling class they represented, you'll be shocked by Woodham-Smith's expose of their lives and behaviour here. Given the sort of people who ran the British Army, its seems unbelievable that the British ever had an Empire at all. As such this is an entertaining and infuriating read. But if you're looking for a deeper analysis you will have to go elsewhere.

Related Reviews

Woodham-Smith - The Great Hunger, Ireland 1845-9

James Poskett - Horizons: A Global History of Science

This is a remarkable book which turns much of what you thought you knew about scientific history on its head. It is a classic example of how social movements such as Black Lives Matter can transform how historians, scientists and academics approach questions and how readers engage with them. I will say this is likely to be one of my reading highlights of 2022.

I reviewed Horizons for SWP Long Reads you can read it here.

Monday, June 06, 2022

Barbara Kingsolver - Prodigal Summer

I was given Barbara Kingsolver's Prodigal Summer as a present nearly twenty years ago, and for some reason it remained unread. Picking it up recently however I was reminded that books have their moments,. The backdrop to the book deals with ecology and rural America, and perhaps I got more out of it in 2022 then if I'd read it when I was first gifted it. In Prodigal Summer Kingsolver weaves three, loosely connected stories together, centred on the rural communities of southern Appalachia in the United States. Here small farms struggle to make ends meet producing tobacco alongside a few animals. The beautiful forested mountains are home to an impressive ecological system that invites study, and leisure and the communities themselves, tightknit towns of extended families invite gossip, political disagreement and loneliness in equal measure.

Up in the forests, ranger and ecologist Deanna Wolfe studies a family of newly arrived Coyotes, musing on how they're connected to wider ecological systems, yet invite hunting for their perceived threat to farm animals. Her solitary life is disturbed by a handsome young hunter who finds her and they become unlikely lovers, to Wolfe's great embarrassment. Down among the farms a pair of grouchy retired neighbours bicker about god, farms - chemicals versus organic - and different outlooks on life. On a farm that has become outsider Lusa Landowski's through widowhood, she wonders whether its possible to break free of tradition and family farming and sees the landscape through completely different eyes to those of her deceased husband's family.

The three stories weave together through the ties that bind rural communities - of debts incurred and assistance needed. They are all shaped by ecological realities, and Kingsolver gives a skilful lesson in nature and ecological webs, through the eyes of her protagonists. But all this is to the backdrop of a sweltering summer that threatens economic and ecological woes, while everyone is enticed with romance and sex. 

I enjoyed this immensely, much as I recall being enthralled by Kingsolver's Poisonwood Bible. The author's knowledge and attachment to the area comes through beautifully, as does her love of nature itself. It's tempting to see the author in all three of her main characters, though perhaps she's present in several others too. Beautifully written, deeply moving and warm throughout, these are stories that don't really end - just continue onward.