Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Monisha Rajesh - Around the World in 80 Trains

Monisha Rajesh's Around the World in 80 Trains promises the reader an account of a 45,000 mile "adventure". Her journey certainly must have been a personal adventure, crossing Canada and the United States and Russia, travelling through South East Asia, exploring China and even taking the train in North Korea and to Tibet. But sadly there's no thrill of a journey for the reader, and unfortunately Rajesh seems to spend most of the time sneering at the trains she and her partner travel on, and the people they meet.

It is hard to put into words exactly why I disliked this book so much. In part it is the framing of the book. Refreshingly Rajesh doesn't pretend to be something she isn't - she criticises those who claim not to be tourists by donning the "traveller" mantel.  She rightly points out that once you travel you are a tourist. She also celebrates the randomness of travelling by train, where "no matter how many journeys I took, or how awful the train, each one brought an element of surprise or wonder". But she has strange ideas about why other people travel, "driven by the weather, the prospect of sex or dwindling funds". 

Despite being aware of her "privilege" as a relatively well off traveller in some of the poorest parts of the world, she also displays a strange failure to understand the people around here. Writing about a fellow traveller arrested in Bangkok, she comments "the idea of wilfully committing any kind of crime in Southeast Asia never failed to baffle me". The choices made by people who commit crimes are rarely the ones they'd like to make, being closely tied to wealth and poverty. Rajesh just doesn't seem to get it and comes across as tone deaf.

At times Rajesh has interesting insights, at others she comes across as the sort of traveller that she claims she isn't - "Leaving my job, my home and my possessions had quietened the noise in my head. My immediate concerns were were to eat and where to sleep. The less I carried, the less I worried". Must be nice.

At the end I was frustrated and disappointed by this book. I didn't enjoy the authors' attitudes to most of the people she met and her commentary on the places, trains and cultures she saw seemed superficial. Unusually this travel book didn't make me want to travel. Not recommended.

Related Reviews

Theroux – The Old Patagonian Express
Theroux - Riding the Iron Rooster - By Train through China
Theroux - Dark Star Safari

Theroux - The Great Railway Bazaar

Monday, September 26, 2022

Terry Pratchett - Snuff

I had the pleasure of reading Snuff for the second time while recuperating from Covid-19. Reading my first review I felt I couldn't really add much to it. But I was surprised by how political it was. The struggle of the goblins for their freedom was a key theme, but I was also impressed by how he treated class relations. Both those of the countryside, with surly "peasants" bowing down to Vimes, while maintaining a strong sense of community and dislike of their rulers, and at the same time the mutual hatred between Vimes and the actual aristocracy. There are plenty of satisfying class based comeuppances, revenge and retribution. Snuff is I think one of the best Discworld novels and a perfect read for those trying to recover from a nasty disease.

Saturday, September 24, 2022

Ulrich Mohr - Atlantis

This is an interesting, and unusual account of the war against shipping in World War Two, for two reasons. Firstly it is, unusually, from the German point of view and secondly because the voyage described was in itself unusual. The ship at the heart of the tale is the Atlantis, a surface raider along the lines of many similar craft from the First War, that distinguished itself by disguise and manipulation to sink Allied merchant vessels.

There are some great oddities - not least the ship itself. The captain brought about a load of prams so crew could dress as women pushing children about and lull the enemy into a false sense of security. But suddenly the flags would rise, the hidden batteries open and if the enemy used their wireless to warn the admiralty then gunfire would silence them. Atlantis was very successful in what she did. and at least according to the contributions from enemy captains and prisoners, she was almost unique in that she looked after captured merchant sailors.

Ulrich Mohr, his captain Admiral Bernhard Rogge and others are keen to distance themselves from any link to the Nazi regime. Quite the contrary. Mohr argues that they were sailors first and foremost with little allegiance to the fascists. Me thinks the writers protest too much - they would like to portray their adventure as a purely military event, but there's no doubt they were pleased with their successes and their rewards. At the end Mohr points to the reality of Nazi Germany - with industrialists raking in profits and "party member" getting the wives of the sailors. Yet even the condemnation of industrialists smacks of Nazi propaganda rather than genuine, left, class anger.

That said, this is a startling voyage. Atlantis and her crew were ruthlessly efficient and good at what they did, and there are some fascinating insights. Their over-Winter on the remote, Antarctic, Kerguelen Islands is fascinating. As is their "German" viewpoints on war news. I was struck by a couple of references to discipline, including the punishment of sailors for "homosexual" activity. Of great interest were the German's own fascinating with the colonial sailors on the British ships - Indian and Chinese men - who were swiftly brought into working in the kitchens for the Germans. There's some fascinating commentary on British colonialism here for those that would like to look for it. There certainly is far more mention of the reliance of the British naval effort in World War Two and crews from the colonies in this by the "enemy" than you might find in most similar accounts by British authors.

Overall though this book offers insights into a particularly vicious sea battle whose tactics will not be seen again - though take the authors' political claims with scepticism.

Related Reviews

Rayner - Escort
Woodman - The Real Cruel Sea: The Merchant Navy in the Battle of the Atlantic 1939-1943
Lund & Ludlam - PQ17: Convoy to Hell

Friday, September 16, 2022

Justine Firnhaber-Baker & Dirk Schoenaers - The Routledge History Handbook of Medieval Revolt

The Routledge History Handbook of Medieval Revolt is an important tool for everyone interested in "revolt" in the Middle Ages and more generally. I deliberately put revolt in quotes here because what the word means is quite different to how contemporaries might have understood it. Conditioned as we are by modern capitalism we tend to see revolt as being "from below", a challenge to the political status quo, or the state through diverse mechanisms. 

This doesn't quite fit in the Medieval era, as revolt took on different meanings. In her introduction editor Justine Firnhaber-Baker points out that revolts "might not have been construed as such by contemporaries" and taking up a theme that several of the contributions discuss, she points out that "violence is key, for it served not only strategic goals but also as a means of communication in this highly gestural society". In the Medieval era revolts had a number of different aspects that this volume draws out through a study of numerous different periods, events and places. 

Revolts, however they were construed, terrified the Medieval ruling classes. That's one reason why they feature in numerous contemporary accounts - as dire warnings to potential rebellious group and to the lords and kings who might provoke uprisings through misgovernance. But as Firnhaber-Baker explains  studies of revolts only really began systematically with the "Age of Revolution" drawing parallels between historic events and contemporary revolutions. Similarly more recent studies have tended to follow contemporary radical events and she says that more recent "popular movements" from the anti-capitalist movements to the Arab Spring have galvanised renewed interest. As such she argues that the book "embodies a particular historiographical moment" which should provoke interest far beyond the academic authors and audiences of the book.

Consisting as it does of eighteen essays, excluding the opening and closing chapters, it would be difficult to review this book in any detail. Some of the articles cover topics with which I am familiar such as the English Rising of 1381, others cover more general topics such as Samuel Cohn's fascinating study of Women in revolt in medieval and early modern Europe. Still others cover subjects which were entirely new too me such as Hipólito Rafael Oliva Herrer's article on the War of the Communities of Castile. All of them are however readable to the non expert, even if we are likely to miss nuance.

Many of the essays grapple with problems of language, historical distance and how to use sources. Myles Lavan's article on revolt in the early Roman Empire explores how to understand the very meaning of rebellion, as well as its scale, when often all historians have about events are "10 to 20 words in one or two texts". He does so by taking apart the meanings of Latin vocabulary, and how the contemporary texts wrote about revolts. It is fascinating even for those of us who have no Latin at all! He makes a point that those of us studying revolution today will find all to familiar. Writings about rebellions are always shaped by a political framework that wants to demonise events and participants. As Lavan says, "the distortions of elitist discourse on peasant revolt... include not just the obvious rhetoric of barbarism, criminality, and immorality, which deny legitimacy to the rebels, but also more subtle tropes, such as spontaneity or hysteria, which deny them agency and rationality". Reading contemporary accounts of the 2011 London Riots would easily find you similar examples, and at least one nameless recent book on the Russian Revolution I read invariably describes the Bolsheviks as "incendiary", "brutal" or "fanatical".

Several of the articles explore deeper themes about Medieval life and the origins of social revolt. In his  piece on the 1381 English Rising Andrew Prescott makes a point that the rebellion was both broader in geographical scope and much more "multi layered" in content than is often credited. He argues that a focus on London has distorted how people understand 1381. I myself had understood the "rising" as much more widespread than London, but Prescott's article shows that it was even more geographically broad than I appreciated. He describes rebel bands criss-crossing the country, and "a concerted attempt to spread the rebellion as far as possible". All of this points to a much more complex understanding of revolt in 1381 than we might expect, as Prescott says, "Just as the structures of political power were more complex and dispersed in the Middle Ages than in modern societies, so likewise the dynamics of conflict and protest were different... and do not accord with modern assumptions." He chastises those historians who see 1381 too simply in terms of events around the capital, neglecting events in the regions. He argues that only by seeing the complexity and scale of events outside of the capital can we really understand the uprising itself. This is undoubtedly true - if we only focus on the capital, we can miss how literarily thousands of groups of rebels tried to redress injustice, challenge their local rulers and take part in mass politics. But we also have to be wary of throwing away the baby alongside the bathwater. London as the centre of state power and wealth was attractive to the rebels in the south-east because it was there they could win fundamental change. Events in London mattered for how the rebellion would play out, even if a narrow focus on London means we can miss learning much more about how the rebels saw the society they lived in. 

Justine Firnhaber-Baker draws out some further details from the economic base when writing on similar issues in her article on the Jacquerie. She discusses the meaning of the nobility and their position in society:
The reason nobles lived in fortresses was because they could physically coerce the peasants into handing over their surplus.. and the reason they could do that was because they were a warrior aristocracy who lived in fortress. This is an oversimplification of the complex and changing situation of the late medieval French nobility, but this nexus of economic, political and military privilege inherent in noblesse seems nonetheless to have been at the heart of the Jacquerie for its rank and file participants.
It was impossible for both classes to escape the reality of their situation. So when revolt did break out, whether it was the "peasants from below", groups of disaffected nobles and lords, or some combination of the two, there invariably was violence. 

This violence was considered part of the political framework of society and thus more accepted as a tool of rebellion. Several writers explore this. In particular Vincent Challet in his piece on Violence as a Political Language in French and English rebellions. Here we see examples of popular violence on many levels, "legal violence" in court, or mass protest involving "shouting and screaming" against officials. I was particularly taken by an example from Lavaur in 1357, where the populares protested by taking up arms and patrolling the streets at night and then "stood in front of the houses of the wealthiest townsmen shouting: 'Where are those damn traitors and wreckers of this place?'" The threat of violence, in this case, leading to victory for the people. That's not to say that actual violence didn't take place - many essays refer to murders, lynching, and even pitched battle - but Challet makes the point that the boundaries between the two were often blurred. 
Physical violence of the sort that might seem more objectionable to us - like murder, arson or even post-mortem mutilation - was perceived as a regular way of speaking, not only for rebels, but also for the elites and government. This may be because these violent actions were, in fact, imitations of judicial procedures: cutting royal officers' bodies into pieces was nothing more than the execution of 'traitors'... burning castles was not so far from the legal abattis demaison which is attested in the urban statues...
In other words, violent action must be understood in a social context not just in terms of the violence itself.

Before I finish I want to highlight a few other essays in passing. Some of the essays take up subjects often ignored or downplayed in histories of the period. I have already mentioned one essay specifically on the role of women, and several essays touch on this further. It is worth noting a fine essay comparing revolt in late medieval European and Islamic societies. Such societies aren't discussed often enough when we consider the period. A couple of essays bridge the period before and after the Medieval era, Phillip Haberkern looking forward to urban revolt in the Reformation, and several of the essays also discuss the complex question of elite participation in revolts from below. Interestingly, one of the great strengths of this collection is how many of the authors try to break out of the very narrow confines of particular specialities and draw links between regions, places and times.

While the book is not aimed at the casual reader, and some of the academic language is challenging, I do highly recommend it. It will, naturally, appeal first and foremost to students of Medieval revolts themselves. For this it will likely remain a gold standard for many years to come. But there is also much here for those trying to understand the politics of social movements more broadly - how they change over time and how they are shaped by their social and economic context. I might not entirely agree with Andrew Prescott's conclusions from his foray into the Arab Spring while discussing the English Rising, but it is important that some scholars are taking this approach. For all these reasons, and more, I hope that many readers will be able to get a copy of this important book and explore these diverse and fascinating essays.

Related Reviews

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

George Mackay Brown - Greenvoe

* Spoilers*

George Mackay Brown (1921-1996) was Orkney's foremost poet and novelist. By the time he published Greenvoe, his first novel, he was well known for poetry and short stories. Living relatively reclusively in Stromness his novel is soaked through with a sense of Orkney. His fictional community of Greenvoe is on the fictional island of Hellya, it stands in for a myriad of island and remoter communities. 

Greenvoe is a small fishing community. It is shot through with the class differences that are usually ignored when novelists write about Scotland. This is not an idyllic village, rather its one where rich and poor live cheek by jowl, jealousies, adulteries and disagreements fester and those higher up the wealth ladder sneer down at those below. At the top of the food chain is the laird in the "big house", his beautiful daughter visits from the Scottish mainland, triggering lust and jealousies. But there are other visitors - including the Asian travelling clothing salesman, who is met with interest, custom and poverty - while offering his own sharp commentary on Greenvoe's inhabitants. 

Much of the book deals with these characters in passing, the hard-drinking Tommy who beachcombs for a living, the ferryman Ivan Westray, described as a "ladies man" in the book's blurb but who is much nastier than that, and most interestingly Skarf, a Marxist and failed fisher who is writing a history of the island and whose prose entertains the drinkers in the hotel bar. Skarf is fascinating because through him Brown links the deep history of Orkney with contemporary events. There's continuity between the too. 

Despite Skarf's politics, I was most interested by the elderly Mrs Mckee, who is only on the island because of the irresponsible behaviour of her alcoholic son Simon, the local minister. Mrs McKee is drowned in anxiety and sorrows, reliving her past life immersed in her own petty guilts. Through her we learn of the tragic backstory to her son, but her own life - restrained by the limitations of class and wealth.

But these intricately drawn lives, woven together so skilfully by Brown, are town apart in barely a week as the secret "Black Star" project arrives on the island. Like so many Scottish people before them, the community is broken apart and scattered, for the interests of a small minority. 

Greenvoe's greatness lies in the portrait of a town in tension with itself, pulled back and forth by the petty ruptures and interests of different individuals, and their own histories, lies and prejudices. Brown demonstrates a clever eye for moralistic shopkeepers and cheating publicans. But none of his characters are innocent, they're all flawed. Their tragedy is that they're victims of circumstances not of their choosing. Skarf understands that.

Tuesday, September 06, 2022

James Hawes - The Shortest History of Germany

James Hawes' The Shortest History of Germany is a bestseller. This shouldn't be a surprise. The historical trajectory of the twentieth century was fundamentally shaped by events in Germany and today the country remains a powerhouse in terms of the European economy, central to events in the wider region. German history remains of interest to the casual reader as much as the academic historian. Hawes' book promises to explain it all in short, accessible bites to the reader. Unfortunately I think the book is utterly inadequate and its conclusions leave the reader open to dangerous conclusions about what happened and why in the mid-twentieth century and beyond.

In short, Hawes argues that to understand modern German history we have to look into the distant past, and sees the fault lines of Germany society arising out of fundamental divisions that go back to the era of the Roman Empire and Charlemagne. He concludes that "Germany is the sole hope for Europe... it must now be embraced, as what it was always meant to be: a mighty land at the very heart of the West". 

Germany, Hawes argues, has always faced two ways: West and East. The western looking side has had a progressive, modern outward looking world view and the East has been the source of chaos and danger. Take the question of Hitler's victory. Hawes rightly points out that Hitler failed to get a majority of votes, but he argues that the key determining factor of this was the religious background that people had, and that was shaped by the historical development of Germany. He then argues that this is rooted in the ancient past:

In many areas within the Roman limes [borders] of 100Ad, Hitler fails to break 35%... The average here overall is well under 40%. Even with the whole state apparatus behind him... Hitler has failed to take the west and south of Germany. In fact, only two constituencies within the bounds of Otto the Great's Empire of 940AD. give Hitler a majority - and they both lie right at its eastern limits, on the western banks of the Elbe.

Correlation is, of course famously not causation. The problem with this argument however, is it basically implies that everyone east of the Elbe is always going to be right-wing. Such geographical explanations are inadequate, but Hawes dishes them out with gusto. Of East Germany he writes, it "didn't become different because of the Russian occupation of 1945-1989; the Russian occupied the place because it had always been different". Surely most readers here would pause and point out that the Russian's occupied Eastern Germany because they arrived from the East.

What Hawes fails to offer the interested reader is any explanation for events. History is, to paraphrase, "just one thing after the other". For Hawes, the Nazis arose because Hitler was able to manipulate people to accept him in the chaos that followed the first World War. But Hitler was able to do this because the chaos had been caused by the left. The new German government after World War On had "no reliable forces of its own" so it had to turn to the "Free Corps" to crush the "red rioters". Yet the revolutionary period that followed World War One was one of mass mobilisations by German working people fighting for jobs, equality and freedom - not a few rioters. Time and again Hawes blames the Communists for wanting to overthrow the "new democracy" despite that new democracy being vicious towards ordinary people as it tried to save capitalism from itself.

Hawes argues that Hitler was successful because the Nazis deliberately copied "the street fighting style and the modern-seeming politicking of the new, Lenin-inspired left". In fact, at times, it seems that Hawes' real targets are the left. Completely incorrectly he writes that "Hitler's ideas were closer to Lenin's than to any traditional European conservatism", neatly ignoring the rabid antisemitism and racism at the core of Hitler's ideas and his stated counter-revolutionary agenda. Hawes doesn't mention how the first victims of the Nazis were the left, and especially the Communist left, despite them allegedly being so "close" in ideas. In fact Hawes' characterisation of the left and the far-right is shockingly incorrect:

Both Lenin and Hitler appealed to perverted versions of that great 19th-century liberal ideology (as seen in Hegel, Marx and Darwin): the idea of progress-through-struggle-to-utopia.

Hawes' argument that Marxists believe in "progress-through-struggle-to-utopia" doesn't stand up to scrutiny, whether in the work of Marx, Lenin or German socialist thinkers like Rosa Luxemburg. It is, of course a feature of Stalinism and Second International Marxism, though Hawes only sees continuity from Lenin's era to Stalin when he should see a break and seems to celebrate the entirely pro-war Second International. But Hawes' generalisations are also worrying. He presents Hegel as "the root of all evil?" but neglects to discuss some very dangerous thinkers who were real influences on the far right - figures like Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Spengler. 

This might all be of historical curiosity, but this approach mars Hawes' discussions of post-war politics. The problem is that Hawes' instinctive conservatism cannot really explain the dynamics of German history. He doesn't really offer any explanation of why the German economy tanked in the 1920s, and he seems to have no sympathy with the ordinary Germans that rebelled in vast numbers against the capitalist destruction of their jobs and livelihoods. Because he sees the Russian Revolution as a bad thing, he cannot understand its influence on a generation of radicals, even after the Stalinist counter-revolution. Indeed he can only see continuity and similarity between the right wing in German and the interests of Stalin's Soviet Union.

A book of this length is always going to take some short cuts. But Hawes fails to offer any real in-depth explanation of key events, relying on superficial generalisations. His concluding remarks about the AfD, UKIP, Brexit and Britain and Germany, feel like a crude attempt to shoehorn contemporary political prejudices into a book length framework that doesn't really work. His hope that Germany and Europe will get a "vision of a land treated as, and working  as, the very heart of the West" is misplaced precisely because it ignores the real economic and political forces that shape the terrain that German politics takes place on. The current economic crisis will place new strains and stresses on the German people, and progressives will need more nuanced historical accounts and clearer politics if they are to avoid history repeating itself.

Related Reviews

Kershaw - To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949
Browning - The Origins of the Final Solution
Paxton - The Anatomy of Fascism
Mazower - Hitler's Empire

Charles Platt - Garbage World

Garbage World is very much a novel of two parts. First published in 1967 around the time when ecological awareness was beginning to become a mainstream political concept, the book deals with a solar system wide society that has a rubbish problem. The waste and rubbish of human production is dumped on an asteroid which is inhabited by humans who were originally there to manage the waste, but have evolved into an autonomous group of humans who view other "clean" humans with distaste. These villagers scavenge the rubbish as its dumped on their asteroid, eating thrown away food and collecting the best bits of the rubbish. Those who get the best collections of rubbish rise higher in the ranks of their society. Its a sort of cargo cult of humans living on garbage.

But the asteroid is becoming unstable and needs to be managed. A survey team arrives to warn the inhabitants but there are hidden motives. Gaylord, a younger, more impressionable anthropologist on the survey becomes pulled into Garbage World's society. Despite his almost pathological hatred of dirt he gradually gets pulled into life, including beginning a relationship with the daughter of the village head. Gaylord, to use more modern parlance, goes rogue and joins in with an act of rebellion against the outsiders.

The first half of the book works relatively well. Its a fairly amusing commentary on the attitudes of a throwaway society, perhaps mostly targeted at the consumer rich society in the United States of the 1950s and 1960s. Platt is rather humorous, though much of the humour is rather scatological. We are encouraged to laugh at the student people who revel in dirt and rubbish, as well as the overly clean, prim and proper Earthers. Of course this is spoof, so it shouldn't be taken too literarily, but I did wonder whether there was an element of the author trying to portray less technological advanced people as behaving like this.

The second half of the novel is less satisfying. It becomes a rather tame adventure story where Gaylord, his new partner and the villagers try to escape the destruction of their society. At the end everyone engages in an orgy of dirt and sex. So the book begins with a interesting premise but abandons it to engage in a rather putrid adventure. No doubt there are some that were titillated by this odd combination of dirt and sex but it did little for me. Garbage World is an interesting footnote of 1960s science fiction, but it's not a classic.

Thursday, September 01, 2022

Corinne Fowler - Green Unpleasant Land

In July 2021 a coincidence of time and space meant that I was able to join a Stand Up to Racism protest outside the massive estate of Richard Drax. The estate was built with a fortune made from slavery. As Corinne Fowler points out in Green Unpleasant Land, the Drax family made vast amounts of cash from sugar plantations in Barbados and used it to transform the very landscape of Dorset. They built "England's longest wall" around their estate, a wall that remains - keeping out anyone who might want to enjoy the land, or peer at the consequences of such wealth. 

For her unflinching portrayal of the reality of the English countryside, Fowler has received plenty of criticism. In a hostile article the Daily Mail quoted the former, right-wing, Tory cabinet minister Peter Lilley as saying, "Arguably, it is she who has insulted her country by her book whose very title — Green Unpleasant Land — tells us what she thinks of her fellow citizens." Typically the Daily Mail headline claims that "gardening has its roots in racial injustice". It is a click-bait title designed to trigger the sort of apoplectic rage that the Mail's core readership excel in. It is also grossly unfair for Fowler's book is nuanced and detailed about the reality of the English countryside, gardening and its portrayal in literature. In fact Green Unpleasant Land is a remarkably interesting study of the English countryside, its history and the forces that shaped (and continue to shape) the landscape many of us, including Fowler, continue to enjoy. 

The Drax wall is a useful entry point to Fowler's argument. She notes that it "provides a fitting metaphor for the link between empire overseas and enclosure at home". Far from being a idyllic place, the countryside, Fowler argues, was (is) a space of intense struggle over ownership and access. She notes the various class struggles against enclosure or for economic improvements and points out that this continues today. But despite this history, the image of a beautiful pastoral idyll continues. She says:

Industrialised farming and escalating environmental destruction ought to have made naïve visions of the countryside hard to sustain. Yet they have been sustained, and a succession of social histories, personal memoirs and political manifestos have criticised the continuing pastoral view.

In contrast she points to a whole number of books and studies that have demonstrated the exact opposite (including, full disclosure, one of my own books). In particular she looks at the close links between colonialism, racism and the countryside - which manifest both through economic issues such as land ownership and exclusion, to more overt racism directed to Black visitors. She argues that there has been a "collective amnesia about the role of empire", highlighting, for example W.G.Hoskins' classic work The Making of the English Landscape, which "makes no mention of empire".

Fowler dismisses "common misapprehensions about rural England: firstly, that it has nothing to do with colonialism and, secondly, that Black British and Asian British authors are disconnected from English rurality." She systematically examines the way that writers who have written about the countryside, or set novels within it, consider questions of colonialism and racism. There are some fascinating examples. In Walter Scott's 1814 novel Waverley, the Highlands are seen as populated by people compared by Scott to "natives of Africa and America, India and the Orient". Charlotte Brontë repeatedly hints at the "colonial connotations of Wuthering Heights". Descriptions of the moors frequently link the dirty, poverty stricken people to black faced "savages". 

Yet the colonial linkage to the countryside is not just in fiction. Fowler shows how the nature of Empire shaped the countryside too. Drax's wall is one example. The profits from slavery allowed a new landowning bourgeoise to transform the landscape. The enclosures of land and the destruction of common rights, leading to the forcible destruction of the peasantry are part of a process where the primitive accumulation of wealth overseas helped kick start the evolution of capitalism back home. That's the economic context, but there were other examples. Slaves were brought back to England from overseas, sometimes to be black servants, a particularly appalling fashion. There were also black workers, traders, gardeners and escaped slaves in the countryside. The history opf the English countryside is far blacker than the Daily Mail would like.

The global transportation of plants as transformed gardens and farms in Europe. Fowler points out the role of slaves themselves in helping select and transport these plants for botanists, farmers and gardeners to enjoy. The knowledge and labour of enslaved black people and indigenous communities was essential to choosing the plants as well as providing the food to continue with slavery. Gardening may not have had its original roots in racial injustice as the Daily Mail claims Fowler says, but it was fundamentally shaped by slavery, colonialism and imperialism.

Fowler's book is subtitled Creative Responses to Rural England's Colonial Connections. These creative responses include the poetry, novels and essays of black writers whom Fowler examines in depth. The breadth of her coverage of these is remarkable and I found it impossible not to add to my list of books to read as a result. But Fowler also adds her own creativity to the discussion by responding to the themes and arguments in the book with a short story and some poetry of her own. I found these particularly insightful, and it the fact the book brings together the non-fiction and fictional form was both unusual and thought-provoking. I particularly enjoyed the poem about Kings Heath park in Birmingham which I know well. Her poem Green Unpleasant Land is about the response to Danny Boyle's London 2012 Olympic opening ceremony. In the opening chapter of the book Fowler examines the knee-jerk response to Boyle's placing of black people in the countryside and in the poem she has a raging commentator declare:

If you're still listening, here's my message:
to all you pc hand-wringers out there:
Jerusalem will never get built
if you corrupt our heritage

The erroneous belief that the English countryside is untainted by corruption, violence, racism, colonialism or class struggle is a deep-seated one. As Fowler points out, "they" have to keep reinventing it. Why? I think it serves two purposes. By removing the real history of the countryside, it becomes a continuous reservoir that the ruling class can draw upon to challenge progressive ideas. But it also offers something to individuals - escapism, hope, a challenge to the alienation of work and urban areas. We're sold a dream of Jerusalem outside the city, because without that dream, the reality is overcrowded housing, lack of jobs, poverty and polluted streets. Corinne Fowler's Green Unpleasant Land is a challenge to that narrative. It is readable, entertaining and honest, and deserves a wide readership if we are to really build Jerusalem.

Related Reviews

Howkins - The Death of Rural England
Groves - Sharpen the Sickle
Rackham - The History of the Countryside
Poskett - Horizons: A Global History of Science
Horn - Joseph Arch