Sunday, December 31, 2023

Seishi Yokomizo - The Inugami Curse

Seishi Yokomizo published seventy-seven detective novels featuring his Japanese detective Kosuke Kindaichi. This is the second to be translated into English, though it is the fourth in the original order, Kindaichi is disheveled and slouching - more Colombo than Poirot. But like all great literaru detectives he saves up all the information in his head until one final piece clicks into place.

The Inugami Curse deals with rivals for the inheritence of the Ingumai corporation, a massively wealthy institution who accured enormous profits in the run up to WOrld War Two. The head of the clan, Sahei Inugami, dies just after the war ends, and his complex web of misterisses and children find themselves competeing for the vast ammount of money to be inherited. Sahei creates an incredibly complex Will, in order to ensure that his favoured person, Tamayo, the daughter of the couple who adopted and looked after him, gets all. To do this, and to protect her from assassination, Sahei insists that to receive the cash she must marry one of his other three children.

Realistically the only reason this Will exists is to create the sort of complex antagonism that can lead to various family members being picked off. The murderer must be one who stands to gain from the crimes. And the killer or killers realise that they can also use the murders to wipe out Tamayo's claims.

Its convoluted, and readers will be pleased with the family tree for reference. The ending is satisfactory, even if you are able to work out some of it, the denouncement fits it together incredibly satisfactorily. This is the second of Yokomizo's books I've read. They've both been unique and of a high standard. How did he keep it up for the other seventy-five!

Related Reviews

Yokomizo - The Honjin Murders

Friday, December 29, 2023

Reg Groves - The Strange Case of Victor Grayson

Victor Grayson was a radical socialist who was elected in a stunning victory as an Independent Labour candidate for the Colne Valley in West Yorkshire in 1907. Today Grayson is barely remembered. If he is known it is more likely for his unexplained disappearance in 1920, rather than his politics. Over the years there have been several biographies of Grayson, which have tried to explain his life. Reg Groves' book was one of the first (though it was actually Groves' second) and it is a sympathetic exploration of Grayson's radical politics by someone who as a one-time Trotskyist was hardly sympathetic to the Labour Party, or the concept of socialism through Parliament.

Grayson was first and foremost a socialist, but his socialism went far beyond the politics of the official Labour movement. As a result he met with rebuff from the official movement, and hence his 1907 election victory was a massive surprise to them, based as it was on an enormous groundswell of participation and activity by working class women and men in the Colne Valley. Grayson had to do this as he lacked any sort of political organisation, beyond the most reduimentary. In fact, as Groves repeatedly points out, this was a limitation for Grayson personally and for the movement. During a national tour, under attack from the right of the Labour movement, Grayson one remarked, "I don't want to lead. I only want a group of men that will place first things first and stake their reputation on the issue." He was stung by those "timid socialists who share their parliamentary seats with captialists".

The occasion of this tour was the aftermath of Grayson's most famous parliamentary experience when he was expelled from Parliament for refusing to follow the business of the day. Grayson wanted to highlight the appalling conditions of the unemployed. More particuarly he could not comprehend that Parliament would not prioritise this, and that Labour went along with it. He was shunned by the official politicians, but his rebelliousness made him even more attractive to working people, who attended his meetings in their thousands everywhere. As Groves explains:
That was the first thing that went wrong. The way he was shut out from the Labour ranks, and the way they met his honest attack and open criticism with lies, slanders, evasions and trickeries; with the evil weapons that men would shrink horrified from using in their private lives but that seem to be an integral part of political struggle. He never quite believed that fellow socialists would behave in that way and, like a tiny pinprick, it jabbed at his idealism more and more pointedly as the fight grew in intensity. He had set out to fight the capitalists - he found himself fighting socialists; worse still he found socialist leaders joining with the enemy to destroy him.
Grayson's lack of political organisation meant that he threw himself into an enormous round of meetings, speeches and activity. It nearly broke him, and increasingly he turned to drink to cope. Here reality began to match the slander, and increasingly he found himself struggling. Every longstanding socialist knows the pressure of ongoing activity. Even Grayson's supporters understood it. The socialist journalist Robert Blatchford remarked that "We have a socialist MP but no socialist party". With such a party Grayson would have had support and political direction, as well as a body to discipline him and provide guidance. In its absence he was a one man band dedicated to overthrowing capitalism but not really understanding why.

Grayson did eventually help found the British Socialist Party, but this was hamstrung at birth by the sectarianism of large chunks of its membership. It is notable that the speeches reported by Groves by Grayson rarely seem to refer to actual struggle or give guidance to the movement. They are focused on electing other socialists and abstract propaganda. Neither of these is necessarily a band thing, but it really meant that Grayson offered nothing to workers who wanted to fight, other than inspiring speeches. As Groves says:
A one-man party cannot recruit. Propaganda without practical implementation is like faith without works - sterile. As the deep-rooted discontent became more and more expressed, as strife gew in the country, the workers requied from the socialists not just affirmation of faith but leadership in directing action to right the social wrongs.
Grayson could "win the crowds to a fighting socialist faith, but could show them no party likely to lead a way to socialism". Grayson's lack of politics was firmly exposed by World War One. Despite his radicalism, like most other parliamentary socialists across Europe he supported the war, being wounded on the Western Front and then touring to encourage others to fight. In this he followed the path of many better supported radicals in socialist parties, but nonetheless it was a tragedy. Grayson ended up recruiting workers to fight for a machine that was slaughtering other workers in the interests of British capital.

In 1920 Grayson disappeared. It wasn't immediately noticed that he was gone, as he was estranged from many and led a nomadic life. Groves avoids too much speculation, limiting himself to reporting on the most likely events. It is possible that he was killed because he was about to expose the corruption around a cash for peerages scandal. Later authors' have other ideas. In fact, in this regard Groves' book is somewhat wanting. In preparing his own biography of Victor Grayson more recently, Harry Taylor has written this article on Reg Groves giving an expert opinion and noting some strange absences and ommissions from Groves' work. 

At his best Victor Grayson demonstrated that British workers' are not immune to the idea of radical socialist ideas. But his life is more a lesson in how not to fight for socialism. Nonetheless, while Reg Groves' book gives us some tactical lessons, it also offers activists an excellent overview of the early Labour Party at the turn of the 20th century. There's much here to learn from.

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Thursday, December 28, 2023

Walter Klaassen - Michael Gaismair: Revolutionary and Reformer

Michael Gaismair was one of the most significant radical thinkers and revolutionaries of the era of the Peasant War. In 1525, when the peasants rose up in South Tyrol, Gaismair was chosen as the movement’s leader. From then on, he fought to transform Tyrol into a radical Utopian society, based on equality framed by the “Word of God”. 

Despite his importance, Gaismair is not as well known as other leading figures of the Peasant War. Numerous books have studied Thomas Muntzer, for instance, and other figures of the radical reformation are much better known. Part of the problem, as Walter Klaassen argues in this important biography, is that the material left behind by Gaismair is minimal. A handful of letters, and contemporary references and, most importantly, his outline for the radical constitution of Tyrol.

Gaismair thus has become a figure upon whom many different ideas can be imposed. Despite his radicalism, the Nazis named an SS Regiment after him in 1944 (though Klaassen wrongly describes this as a Wehrmacht Division). Authors of the left, following Engels, have occasionally described Klaassen as a precursor of Communist ideas - mostly based on his draft Constitution.

So what of the real Gaismair? Klaassen’s biography is almost unique in the English language, and he locates Gaismair’s radicalism in the reality of Tyrolean society - a society where the bottom strata suffered under the enormous “weight of oppression”. Klaassen argues that the economic squeezing of the nobility, the rotten corruption of the Church and the demands of growing capitalist institutions such as the Fugger banks, all conspired to squeeze the peasantry and urban workers. While Reformation ideas had some influence, Klaassen argues this was not as important as other areas affected by the Peasant War, as they had not yet penetrated deep into the relatively isolated Tyrolean society. Given these conditions, Klaassen justifiably says that revolt was “inevitable”. 

When the rebellion exploded Gaismair was already reaching radical ideas, influenced in part by Reformation, more by radical Catholic voices but mostly by the evidence of everyday oppression. Gaismair was not a poor man - in fact he had a relatively privileged life. But he was able to identify, and articulate the grievances of the poor.

But Klaassen argues that the final push that Gaismair needed to move into a revolutionary struggle, was the way that Gaismair’s illusions in the ruler, Archduke Ferdinand, were cruelly dashed. In this, Gaismair followed many other medieval and early modern rebels by believing that the king, or monarch, would rule benevolently and according to ancient rights, were it not for cruel and corrupt hangers on. For Gaismair these were principally the clergy, but when Ferdinand moved to cheat and suppress the peasant movement, he was plunged into radical action.

Klaassen shows that Gaismair was a careful and tactical thinker. Despite lacking many texts, we see that Gaismair was able to apply discipline to the movement, at the same time as never breaking the democratic connection he had. He refused, for instance, to attend court, arguing that his “comrades” had to be consulted:

I therefore protest herewith that I am not obligated to appear before this court at this time in the absence of my comrades to reply to the charges… since they have given me no right or direction to reply and have themselves not been invited to appear. 

The movement in Tyrol was not as radical as Gaismair was to become. In the famous Merano Articles, says Klaassen, “nowhere is the basic feudal arrangement challenged”. Eventually, in exile, Gaismair would do just that. His Constitution was a “completely new and different social order” and a “cry for justice”.

The twenty-three points of the Constitution, argue for a radical economic and political restructuring of society that saw power firmly in the hands of the masses. It was an order shaped by the Bible, the highest authority that Graismair knew. It was one that saw the power of the rich and the nobility destroyed - city walls would be knocked down so only villages existed. There were no special privileges and for those that lived in Graismair’s society, the Godless, those that opposed the common good and oppressors were to be exterminated. Democracy in terms of elections of officials and clergy was the rule, but so it was in collective decisions about taxation etc. Crucifixes and adornments in churches were to be scrapped (reflecting the influence of Zwingli on Graismair) and wealth was to be used to help the poor.

Klaassmen argues that this was no precursor to Communism as it was essentially a Biblical Theocracy. But this is inaccurate in the sense that Graismair was simply framing his Constitution with a radical interpretation of the dominant ideology – Christianity. It was explicitly anticapitalist in the sense that Graismair’s interpretation of the Bible saw the operation of capitalist interests like the Fugger banks as unchristian. This is most clear in the section on the Mines, added almost as a postscript which calls for their appropriation in cases where they are owned by “nobility and foreign merchants and companies such as the Fuggers, Hochstetters, Baumgartners, Pimels and their like”. These companies have:

Forfeited their right to them for they bought them with money acquired by unjust usury in order to shed human blood. Thus also they deceived the common man and worker by paying his wages in defective goods… They have made the poor pay for it, their wages have been lowered in order that the smelters can make some profit after buying the ore. They have raised the prices of all consumer goods after they gained a monopoly, and thus burdened the whole world with their unchristian usury… They are now justly punished and their activities prohibited.

Instead the people were to elect a manager to oversee the mining enterprise, and who is accountable for it. “No private person will be permitted to smelt ore”.

It is easy to see how some claim Graismair as a precursor, and despite Klassmen’s demonstration that he drew heavily on biblical references for his Constitution, it is right to celebrate this as an early example of revolutionary thinking.

Despite this mistake of interpretation, Klaassen’s book is an extremely important and insightful biography of Michael Gaismair. He demonstrates how Gaismair’s path to revolution was shaped by his sympathy with ordinary people and sensitivity to the oppressive nature of the world. There’s no doubt that Michael Gaismair could have had a peaceful and affluent life. That the nobility tried repeatedly to assassinate him, and eventually succeeded in Padua in 1532, five or six years after the peasant risings had ended, is testament to the fear that his radical ideas instilled in them. Walter Klaassen’s excellent book is a brilliant introduction to this revolutionary life.

Related Reviews

Scribner & Benecke - The German Peasant War 1525: New Viewpoints Bak (ed) - The German Peasant War of 1525 Blickle - The Revolution of 1525: The German Peasants' War from a new perspective Stayer - The German Peasants' War and the Anabaptist Community of Goods Bax - The Peasants War in Germany Engels - The Peasant War in Germany Baylor - The German Reformation & the Peasants' War: A Brief History with Documents

Wednesday, December 27, 2023

Terry Pratchett - A Stroke of the Pen

This collection of early stories by Terry Pratchett as been tracked down by fans from his early, anonymised stories, published in local newspapers in the 1970s. Reviewers, and Neil Gaiman in his introduction, have enthused about the detective tale about how they were tracked down, and emphasised how they demonstrate the younger Pratchett's developing talent for comedy fantasy.

This is indeed true, but fans of Discworld and Pratchett's later writing will have to look hard for anything but hints to his later works. There are occasional references, but they are few and far between. Indeed, most of the stories are not that good at all. By anyone but Pratchett they would have sunk into obscurity. In fact, they actually did, as the pseudonyms hid the stories well.

There are, of course, nuggets. But most of the stories were very crude. One of the most entertaining was a time travel story set on the Jurassic Coast, where a couple find a loophole into the distant past and learn that this past is a destination of future time travelling tourists. Mr Brown's Holiday Accident is an amusing precursor of The Truman Show. Talking of such parallels, The Gnomes from Home, about a couple whose garden becomes infested with Gnomes, shares a resolution with John Wyndam's classic 1950s story Pawleys Peepholes.

Unfortunately most of these stories fell flat, and only the most dedicated and completest of Pratchett fans should bother. It's hard not to think that the publisher was keen to issue these stories simply because they knew the fans would buy it.

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Tuesday, December 26, 2023

Seishi Yokomizo - The Honjin Murders

Seishi Yokomizo was one of the most prolific of Japanese mystery writers, yet is almost unknown outside of his country. Thankfully the first English translations of the novels featuring his detective Kosuke Kindaichi are now available, of which this, The Honjin Murders, is the first. 

Set in the winter of 1937, but told by its narrator in the last year of the Second World War, the story is consequently framed by what we know happened in that conflict. So it depicts a pre-war rural order that was to be broken apart. The novel actually uses the story of a murder, and its resolution, as a way to frame this change - the old order literally disappears and decays.

The wealthy and upper-class Ichiyanagi family are celebrating the marriage of one of their sons, but after the celebrations, deep in the night, horrible screams are heard - and the music of a Koto playing. On investigation the bride and groom are found murdered, but there are no footsteps too and from the locked room and their seems to be no explanation as to why the murders took place. Suspicion immediately falls on a three-fingered man (a Koto is played with three fingers) seen in the area, until the dishevelled Kosuke arrives.

Yokomizo constructs a very clever plot, and soaks it in the ideas and atmosphere of the some detective writers - Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr and Gaston Leroux. In fact characters refer to these repeatedly as they reference the "locked room" nature of the killings.

But perhaps of greater interest than the detective mystery itself is the cultural background. The cause of the murder is in fact the misogynist nature of upper-class Japanese society, and while this is skipped over somewhat in the conclusion, the modern reader should perhaps dwell on this a little. 

An excellent read and I look forward to the further adventures of Yokomizo's Kosuke Kindaichi. Louise Heal Kawai's great translation also deserves acknowledgement and praise.

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Saturday, December 23, 2023

Craig Taylor - Return to Akenfield

Forty years after Ronald Blythe published his seminal account of a Suffolk village, Akenfield, Craig Taylor returned to the villages that Blythe disguised as the fictional eponymous location, to look again at the lives of villagers. Four decades later the people that Blythe interviewed have mostly gone, as have the specialised trades that were on the cusp of vanishing in the first book. The village however, retains much of its identity, though there are more incomers, far fewer agricultural labourers and very different attitiudes. Work now is done by a handful of workers, and farmers tend to employ seasonal labour in ways that were inconceivable decades before.

In fact its to Taylor's credit that three of his interviews are with immigrant farm workers, two from Eastern Europe and one from Portugal. They recount the difficulties, the hard work and the costs of working in England for a few years, but all retain a belief they will return home with money to get their own farm. 

There are also deep connections to the past. The first three interviews are with former orchard workers, a staple of the local economy, and now a shadow of its former self. These retired workers are wistful about the old economy, but mostly about the old varieties of fruits. The endnotes include copies of the handwritten lists of pear and apple varieties that one worker could remember. Dozens and dozens of varieties, some perhaps no longer in existence. These former workers recount the impact of technology and the way it changed production and labour. 

In the original Akenfield we got a sense of agriculture in transition to a new intensified industry. In Return to Akenfield we see what that is. Chris Green, a dairy farmer explains

the likes of Wla-Mart and Tesco are not worried at all about us. They want the supply and that's all they care about. We see to a Footsie 250 company, quite large, and even they can't go to Tesco and Wal-Mart and drive a bargain. They still have to take the price and as as conseqyence the guy at the bottom of the chain, which is us, eventually takes the hit. And because we take the hit we have to take the subsidy, which comes off the taxpayer.

Return to Akenfield has little about class struggle. In Blythe's original the question of trade unionism ran through the book. Here there is little open struggle, though class difference remains. There is also much less poverty, though the lack of a mass agricultural workplace means that the poorest workers have moved away. Indeed the only real open differences are those between the retirees and commuters who've bought up expensive housing and feel excluded. The migrant workers refer to racism, but not in as great amounts as you might expect. One Polish worker says:

The work is difficult and the money is not so good. People here would rather get others to do the work. I think it is more easy for a person in this country to find the work he wants to do. And the work they wants to do is in an office or in a bank.

A farmer refers to paying gang-masters who pay the immigrant labourers. It smacks of a return to a very dodgy and poor past, when workers were highly exploited. That, however, did eventually lead to strikes and protests. Modern farming remains much more difficult to organise - though its clear that some farmers use the opportunity.

The book opens and closes with two interviews with Ronald Blythe himself. At the end he cautions about a rose-tinted view of the past and discusses how he put that into the original book deliberately:

I wasn't interested in quaintness or crafts, picturesque things necessarily. It's a slightly hard book, not sentimental. People always say 'the good old days'. People were extremely poor! Their houses were uncomfortable and damp. Children left school very early. In that village in that time it was very hard to get away, to do anything or to be yourself, and people worked and worked and worked until they died.  Between the wars they were getting twenty-seven and six a week, they could be given the sack any minute, and they worked sixty to seventy hours a week on the land and often got one days holiday a year, Christmas Day.

Things, in many respects are better. Return to Akenfield then is a snapshot of a village that has been transformed, through change and struggle. It retains a link to the past - the young workers rennovating tractors are pleased that the older retirees get so much pleasure from sitting in their old tractors. But it is a village that has fundamentally changed. If Return to Akenfield lacks some of the intensity of the book it is trying to emulate, that is because it is about a period where great changes feel very distant. Forty years ago Blythe wrote in the shadow of two World Wars and the end of Empire. Craig Taylor wrote in the aftermath of the victory of neoliberal agriculture. Let's hope that by the time a third book is written, we have transformed things in a very different, less corporate way.

Related Reviews

Blythe - Akenfield
Groves - Sharpen the Sickle
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Thursday, December 21, 2023

Mike Ashley - The End of the World: and Other Catastrophes

This collection of science fiction short stories that deal with the "end of the world" and "other catastrophes", as the title wittily puts it, does an excellent job of showing that fear of the end of civilisation did not begin with World Wars and nuclear weapons. Nor did readers' love of the genre. Mike Ashley has put together a selection of stories that are heavily skewed toward the 19th and early 20th century. Unless you are a connoisseur of early, and obscure, science fiction it is unlikely that you will have read many of these. The book is published by the British Library which helps explain the skewing of the stories towards British authors, and almost all of them are male - which probably reflects the era more than anything.

But there are some fine tales here which tells us a great deal about the times they were written in. The terrors that are inflicted tend to be of the astronomical type. Science had yet to conceive of nuclear weapons and global climate change, so the authors looked mainly to the unknown external threat. Clouds of gas, or bodies colliding with the Sun are just two examples. A trio of stories about threats to London are perhaps the most entertaining. I was very struck by Owen Oliver's 1927 story, Days of Darkness, which tells the very personal account of two people sat next to each other on an omnibus when the lights go out. As London descends into chaos and anarchy, food and water become scarce but our two heroes proceed to fall in love in a very Edwardian way. There's a distinct element of John Wyndham's cosy catastophe here.

Robert Barr’s Within an Ace of the End of the World (1900) is one of the earliest examples of climate change in a story. In his world, humanity has discovered how to make raw food from the nitrogen in the atmosphere. Rich men get even richer providing cheap food, but the changing atmosphere leads to chaos and insane levity as everyone breathes the new air. The only exception are two groups of men and women who have hidden themselves in "iron houses" with artifical atmospheres, one in the United States and the other in Britain. The story ends as the British men travel to the United States and find the eight women in their white dresses waiting. There's a strangely pacifist message at the end, as the author comments "The race which now inhabits the earth is one that includes no savages and no war lords. Armies are unknown and unthought of. There is no battle-ship on the face of the waters. It is doubtful if universal peace could have been brought to the world short of the annihilation of the jealous, cantankerous, quarrelsome peoples who inhabited it previous to 1904." Perhaps the imminent World War was focusing Barr's mind.

Perhaps the most fascinating story is the 1889 story The Last American by John Ames Mitchell. This is the account of a Persian expedition to the United States centuries after the latters collapse. In the classic tradition of such stories, the Persian explorers misunderstand and misinterpret the things they discover, and eventually find the Last Americans - plural. But they behave exactly as European explorers behaved and the tragic ending allows Mitchell to ruminate on the future of civilisation.

Just one story is of the "Mad Scientist" type, and its interesting to read. Warwick Deeping's The Madness of Professor Pye (1934) literarily has a scientist in a tower in Suffolk killing everything around him with a death-ray. It is notable for two appearances of Mussolini.

The decline of Britain is a major theme of many of these stories, and several see London destroyed, to the gloating of the rest of the world. In one story the population is replaced by people from the Empire. It's not hard to detect some Victorian fears there.

A couple of more modern stories round off the collection. Ray Bradbury's There Will Come Soft Rains is well known. John Brunner's Two by Two is less well known, though its a fairly well known trope. The ending is fairly predictable.

While the selecton of stories is excellent, the collection suffers from a weak introduction. Mike Ashley's essay is really just a survey of the genre, rather than offering any discussion of the genre itself, or the themes. I'd have welcomed his thoughts on why people love "end of the world" fiction. Nonetheless, get hold of this for the stories - they're a cracking read.

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Christopher - The Death of Grass
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Wednesday, December 20, 2023

Ronald Blythe - Akenfield

Ronald Blythe's Akenfield is perhaps the greatest work of British agricultural oral history. Akenfield however, is not a real place, it is an amalgamation of two Suffolk villages near where Blythe lived in the late 1960s. The stories are mainly those of farm workers or industries closely related to them, and their authenticity comes from the oral accounts - you cannot help but feel that you are in their living rooms listening to their talk. In a later book, Return to Akenfield, Blythe (then 83) tells the author of that work that people talk about the "good old days", but that was not the Akenfield he wrote about. Then "People ere extremely poor! Their houses were uncomfortable and damp... people worked and worked and worked until they died".

But Akenfield's brilliance isn't just that it captures the voices of the people, but that it came to be produced in an era of enormous change. British agriculture had gone through enormous changes in World War Two. The war had begun an era of mechanisation, a process that contined into peacetime. By the 1960s British food production was heading well into a time of industrial and factory farming. Akenfield captures this moment, when the old traditional, local production was ending and new farming was exploding. Capital was becoming king. Roger, a thirty-one year old "factory farming" tells the reader:

The idea on these modern farms is that no breeding goes on. It is not a new idea, farming is simply splitting up into specialist groups and getting away from the concept of the old mixed farm. The old mixed farmer had a few hens, a few sows, a few bullocks, a little sugar-beet, a few greens, a little orchard... It was all so cosy. What ever you do now you've got to do it big. I mean - twelve sows! We've got sixty and we're still not nearly as large a unit as I would want.

This farming though is not without concerns. He mentions an "awful lot of petitions" about animal cruelty, and notes that "dreams of the past... have got to be abandoned. Farming is not this lackadaisical business of yesterday. Yet I think of my grandfather and his father, and I thik that although they had small profits for so much hard work, they had a carefree life".

But Akenfield also tells the opposite story. I remain haunted, and inspired, by the account by Leonard Thompson, seventy-one and a farm worker. Leonard's story opens the book and tells the grim story of a childhood effaced by poverty. But in 1896 he remembers his brother (one of ten children) dying in the Boer War. Food and money were scarse, "our food was apples, potatoes, swedes and bread, ad we drank our tea without milk or sugar. Skim milk could be bought from the farm but it was thought a luxury. Nobody could get enough to eat no matter how they tried. Two of my brothers were out to work. One was eight years old and he got 3s. a week, the other got about 7s."

After surviving the horrors of trench warfare in World War One Leonard returns, liberated by the German Revoution and concluded, "We felt there must be no slipping back to the bad old ways and about 1920 we formed a branch of the Agricultural Labourers' Union". The rest of his life, though economic slump and renewed war, he fought for better conditions. Now old he finishes "I have these deep lines on my face because I worked under fierce suns". 

It's a beautiful passage and deeply moving. Despite an atmosphere of insularity, the village is not ignorant or unaffected by outside events. I noticed that several of the younger interviewees mention the Russian Revolution, seemingly because there has been a showing of Eisenstein's film October recently, and many of them refer to books they are reading and things they would like to see. The young blacksmith, a skilled worker, has travelled to Europe to enter competitions and dreams of another big project like the cathedral lights he worked on, "I would like to work like that again" he says. You get a sense though, that the young people feel trapped. One 19 year old worker says,

One of the drawbacks to working on a farm when you are young is that yo are kept away from people and when, as I am, you spend day after day with middle-aged men who never read, who never go anywhere outside the village itself and who cannot understand what makes any modern gadget work, you being to lose touch yourself. I went to the pub to meet the young men. They never talk ideas, it is always people with them... they seem, well, hemmed-in by the village itself. 

The process of change that was taking place would transform Akenfield and was already transforming its inhabitants. The Reverand Gethyn Owen (63) who came to the area from Wales, describes it as a "revoution" and he was right. The needs of British capitalism and forced through industrial, mechanical and scientific changes which, in turn, were transforming the workers and social relations in the villages. 

It would be too easy to read Akenfield for nostalgia. The brilliance of Blythe's commentary and editing is that he makes it clear that this was no lost, green and pleasant land. But a place of customs and dreams, and class struggle. Class, and class division, runs through the book. But so does the sense of ordinary people making their own way and creating their own space. One of the lovelist chapters is that by the bell ringer who talks in detail about this singuarly British hobby, but also of the importance of the bells to community and indentify. 

Akenfield became a major sensation, spawned a feature film, and 30 years later a follow up by Craig Taylor. It captured, and continues to capture, reader's attention I think, because it is wonderful to hear ordinary people talk about themselves, their lives, their struggles and their hopes. It is a perfect response to those who think of buccolic English villages and forget the women and men who made them.

Related Reviews

Pryor - Making of the British Landscape
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Saturday, December 16, 2023

James Gleick - Chaos

I first read James Gleick's Chaos when just after first publication in 1990 or 1991 when I was at college and dreaming of a career in the sciences. Reading it again, thirty or so years later, was to be transported back to a time when science felt shiny and new, the world a problem to be cracked open and unravelled. Life, of course, is more complex and the world is more than a set of equations - which is really what Gleick's book is trying to tell the reader.

Chaos remains an excellent introduction to the subject of complex and non-linear science. One big reason for this is that when Gleick wrote it, the science had only recently broken out of its niche areas into mainstream understanding. The world's coffee tables were groaning under the weight of highly coloured photo books containing images from Mandlebrot Sets and everyone wanted to understand strange attractors. Gleick takes us through the history of the science, how a few lonesome scientists noticed irrational behaviour in their maths. Seemingly simple equations could, depending on circumstance, give widely varying results but when these results were plotted down and graphed, order would appear. 

Reading Chaos today is to get a sense of a new, emergent science, breaking through old barriers between disciplines, turning scientists labours on their heads and making everyone ask difficult questions of themselves. It is no surprise that Gleick places Thomas Kuhn's idea of Scientific Revolution at the heart of his book. It clearly felt like a revolution was taking place. 

Thirty years later I am not so sure. Gleick's emphasis on rapid change perhaps arises out of the close look he was taking at a number of scientists. But really this is a book that emphasises how modern science is so compartmentalised that new insights were difficult to accept and scientists often didn't understand each other. That remains true today. Nonetheless Chaos was a real breakthrough in terms of scientific understanding of the order, and disorder, of the universe. 

Gleick's work is accessible, but he avoids a deep dive into the science. This is fair enough, because it might quickly become incomprehensible otherwise. But it does mean that in places there are elements of handwaving, or a glossing over of detail that left me wanting more. Nonetheless there's enough here to make the reader understanding the generalities. His focus is on the personalities and the processes. Nonetheless the anecdotal material illuminates an era in scientific research when mavericks could make a real difference. It is hard to believe that any university today would tolerate the Dynamical Systems Collective operating unofficially and borrowing equipment as they did at the University of California in the 1970s.

Gleick's approach does make it easier to see how Chaos theory arose out of a particular set of circumstances. It is interesting, for instance, that several of the earliest researchers were individuals who defied the mainstream politically and organisationally. It's hard not to see that the communal living and activity of the Dynamical Systems Collective helped them to defy certain scientific norms. Indeed, the sort of dialectical thinking that helps understand Chaos certainly was there among some scientists. It is also clear that the world of science was changing - new technologies, particularly the computer, allowed Chaos researchers to do the massive number of calculations necessary to generate the eye catching and data rich graphs and pictures that allow us to visualise the science itself. Nonetheless the book is of an age - there are no women scientists mentioned at all, and women only really make an appearance as wives of scientists. Thankfully that has changed at least a little, though we have a long way to go.

This brings me to a final comment. Chaos, the book, was written at a particular point in the science's development and it bears the hallmarks of its era. Some of the line drawings are very poor, though the colour plates stand up well (though a modern PC will now generate them in seconds, not hours). Some of Gleick's remarks are now amusing, as when he muses on computer power. But this is a book that stood up surprisingly well, and reminded me of a time when, for me, science remained this big shiny answer to all the complex questions. Then Gleick helped send me on a personal trajectory. Looking back I am not sure the revolution was quite as significant as is implied here. But science was changed and this book tells the story well.

Related Reviews

Prescod-Weinstein - The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime & Dreams Deferred
Saini - Superior: The Return of Race Science
Poskett - Horizons: A Global History of Science
Angus - A Redder Shade of Green: Intersections of Science and Socialism

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

Shlomo Sand - The Invention of the Jewish People

Shlomo Sand's The Invention of the Jewish People was a best seller when it was originally published in Hebrew in Israel. As a result it was published more widely with an English edition arriving in 2009. In his 2010 review of the book Jewish socialist John Rose argued that the book would "accelerate the disintegration of the Zionist enterprise... its ideological credibility, already severely shaken, will now shatter more quickly." Reading Invention in the midst of Israel's renewed assault on the Palestinians, which some have called a second Nakhba, it is hard to think that this happened to any extent. Nonetheless Rose makes an important point. Zionism, and the myths that it rests upon, have taken an intellectual beating from Sand's book. This makes it crucialy important.

A second point made by Rose is equally important. Because this book attempts to explore the real early Jewish history, and celebrates that with "elan and gusto", it makes Sand "immune to any accusation of anti-Semitism". This is, as recent movements have shown, the book even more important.

Sand's starting point is that nation states needs an ideological basis:

The birth of the nation is undoubtedly a real historical development, but it is not a purely spontaneous one. To reinforce an abstract group loyalty, the nation, like the preceding religious community, needed rituals, festivals, cermonies and myths. To forge itself in a single, firm entity, it had to engage in continual poublic cultural activites and to invent a unifying collective memory. Such a novel system of accessible norms and practices was also needed ofr the overarching consciousness, an amalgamating ideological consciousness: namely, nationalism.

Zionist ideas, and thus the Israeli state, rest on a number of such myths that seek to justify the existence and presence of the Zionist state in the Middle East. Much of Sand's book is a demolition of the Biblical basis for these myths, based on a close study of archaeological investigations, primary sources and other historical material. In particular Sand notes that the struggle of the Palestinians themselves helped force a recognition that the foundation myths of Israel were not based in reality:

Young archaeologists began to have misgivings and escaped to earlier eras. More resarchers encountered unresolved contradictions. But it was only after the outbreak of the First Intifada in 1987, and the advent of greater critical openness in the Israeli public arena, that the excavators began to speak up, their voices hoarse from having so long been muffled by sacred soil.

The biggest "myth" that Sand challenges based on this work is the idea of a Jewish expulsion from their historic homeland and their exile. Zionists argue that this expulsion gives the basis for the right for Jews to return to Palestine, and for the establishment of the Israeli state. In painstaking detail Sand explains why this did not happen. Instead Sand concludes, "the myth of the uprooting and exile was fostered by the Christian tradition, from which it flowed into Jewish tradition and grew to be the truth engraved in history, both the general and the national."

Another myth to be demolished was the existence of a "united national kingdom of David and Solomon". All future political models def on this paragon of the biblical past and drew from it imagery, thinking and intellectual exhilaration." But nothing was ever found, "no vetige was ever found of monumental structures, walls or grand palaces, and the pottery found... was scanty and quite simple". Later he adds, "no trace has been found of the existence of that legendary king, whose wealth is described in the Bible as almost matching that of the mighty imperial rulers of Babylonia or Persia". There is, of course, plenty of evidence for these latter two states.

In exploring the history, Sand has to also confront those thinkers of the Zionist tradition who argued for Zionism on the basis of these and other pseudo-scientific myths. These sections are charateristically detailed, and Sand's demolition of these writers and activists is very important as they undermine many of those academics and thinkers who continue to justify Zionism today. In addition we learn that many contemporary myths are also untrue. Jews and Muslims cannot live together, we are told, because they never have. Yet Sand shows the opposite is true. In fact, in the past, people amicably lived and worshipped side-by-side.

Finally Sand critiques the idea that there is a seamless thread from the original Jewish people in the Middle East historically to Jewish people today. Again, Sand shows that this is untrue, taking up the way that communities regularly did convert to Judaism, for religious and occasionally economic reasons. 

History is always written in the context of contemporary debates. The whole thrust of Sand's book is to demonstrate that the myths that form the basis for Zionism, are exactly that - myths. But the Israeli state and its apologists have, over decades, carefully constructed and managed an alternative history. This forms the basis of justification of today's violent repression of the Palestinian people. As Sand says:

Although most of the professional historians knew there had never been a forcible uprooting of the Jewish people, they permitted the Christian muth that had been taken up by the Jewish tradition to be paraded freely in the public and educational venues of the national memory making o attempt to rebut it. They even encouraged it indirectly, knowing that only this myth would provide moral legitimacy to the settlement of the 'exiled nation; in a land inhabited by others.

Today the Israeli State exists as part of a wider set of imperialist relations in the Middle East. Its current assault on Gaza has everything to do with strengthen its hand and protecting its interests. But as Palestinian resistance is rocking that military confidence, and Sand's honest account of Jewish history and the uses (and misuses) it has been put to, is an extremely important expose of the nature of Zionism. In the context of contemporay events it deserves wide readership again.

Related Reviews

Rose - The Myths of Zionism
Fanon - The Wretched of the Earth
Pappe - Ten Myths About Israel

Sunday, December 10, 2023

Douglas Miller - Armies of the German Peasants' War 1524-26

Douglas Miller's short book on the Armies of the German Peasants' War is, as the title suggests, a military account of the War and the people who fought it. For those studying the revolution of 1524/5 the book offers little more than other texts, but crucially, it does give an account of the military engagements and equipment that is usually absent from other works. Miller's book is based very much on the detail from the famous history of the rebellion written by Wilhelm Zimmermann. Sadly Zimmermann's account has never been translated into English, so a short summary of some of his military history is to be welcomed.

Miller's book begins with the context, and surprisingly for a book on military history, the author opens with a extended quote from Friedrich Engels' book on the Revolution, itself heavily indebted to Zimmermann. But Miller does not dwell for long on social, religious and economic contexts, diving quickly into an account of the formation of the peasant "bands", their makeup, armaments and organisation.

Miller points out that the bands themselves were democratically organised, and operated an unusual system whereby peasants would return to the fields after a short period of service. The harvest and farmwork had to continue and military forces based on peasant producers must acknowledge this. One Band from the Alsace operated with 8 days military service and then three weeks back at the farm. This gave the peasants a major weakness, undermining collective identify in the armies. Another problem for the peasantry was any cavalry at all.

Miller then describes the battles, and frames this mostly around the march by Truchsess, the commander of the Swabian Leagues forces. This is actually a remarkable military campaign, and in it he demonstrates far-sighted tactics and strategy, as he defeats various bands, and keeps them isolated from one another. Truchsess however is only one of several counter-revolutionary commanders that destroy the peasant bands. Miller doesn't spare us the scale of the murder.

Miller's account is excellent, though it paints a broad picture. But the book is also excellent for its images, maps and illustrations. The full colour plates by artist Angus McBride are excellent and I particularly like the one of Thomas Muntzer. Unusually the authors explain their sources and reasoning behind their depiction of the people in the paintings, something that was surprisingly interesting.

There were a number of minors errors I spotted - Thomas Muntzer was not captured at Muhlhausen, but at Frankenhausen for instance. But these can really be overlooked for the excellent other material. While the detailed maps of various engagements might only excite military buffs, one gets a real sense of the scale of conflict in this important 16th century revolution. Douglas Miller's book is a useful addition to the material.

Related Reviews

Scribner & Benecke - The German Peasant War 1525: New Viewpoints
Bak (ed) - The German Peasant War of 1525

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

Friday, December 08, 2023

Samantha Shannon - The Priory of the Orange Tree

*** Spoilers ***

In a meeting on Transgender liberation the other day I made a point that one of the great successes of the LGBT+ movement in recent decades is that it has raised the visibility of LGBT+ people to heights that have never been possible before. While there are still many gains to be won, and equality is not yet a reality, this is a victory - one that the right are determined to roll back. The point I, perhaps clumsily, made in that meeting is that one of these examples is the visibility of LGBT+ characters and themes in fantasy works.

When I was a teenager, hooked on the fantasy of J.R.R. Tolkien and Terry Brooks and the like, there were no LGBT+ themes at all, in fact there were few women, despite the prominence of mythical creatures and unreal societies. Samantha Shannon's The Priory of the Orange Tree is an excellent example of this. It is, at first glance, very similar to many other 800+ paged SFF novels. It is set in a world not unlike our own, were magic is real, and there are talking dragons. It is also dominated by a number of confrontational nations, all of them feudal systems (though we don't learn much about the base of production here) but frequently led by powerful women. Most of the leading characters are women, and the men are in short supply. 

The book centers on the threat posed by the rise of an evil threat that will destroy the world. Hundreds of years ago this was stopped temporarily, and since that battle the House of Berethnet and its Queens have been the force that supposedly held back the dark. But Queen Sabran is childless, and the monster is rising, and at the same time her enemies are sending assassin after assassin to kill her.

The Priory of the Orange Tree has been described as a feminist Game of Thrones. In some senses that is true - we follow various characters representing different factions and states as they vie for power and control. But that description is to underplay the world-building that Shannon has done, and most importantly, it ignores the radical edge to the work. Because Shannon is subtely critiquing those Tolkienesque knock-offs whose heroes, always white kings, rule justly and well because of their inate kindness. Sabran instead finds herself only useful as a baby making machine, to keep the line going. Her personal choices, over partners and life, are immaterial so long as she marries, forms alliances, and has a daughter. At the end Sabran makes the choice to end this cycle - its a touch unbelievable, as rulers rarely give up on wealth and power, without revolution. But it sends a signal that Shannon doesn't see the game of thrones as any sort of fantasy utopia.

There are some other great moments that ruminate on wealth, power, the nation state and colonial rule. There are also some great characters that I wanted to know more about - not least the Pirate Queen who needs a novel of her own. There is also a truly slippery "bad guy" whose betrayals and back stabbing are worthy of the best in the tradition. All in all, this is a fine read.

To return to my opening theme though. The fact that novels like this can exist, which place LGBT+ characters in a novel that is not just about LGBT+ themes is remarkably important. I wish that I had had the opportunity to read novels like this when I first began to read SF&F back in the 1980s. It is a small step forward, but an important one, for young LGBT+ people and their friends, and we must fight to defend and extend such victories.

Related Reviews

Solomon - The Deep
Wilhelm - Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang
El-Mohtar & Gladstone - This is How You Lose the Time War

Butler - Kindred

Rivers Solomon - The Deep

The Deep is an fascinating novel, that combines elements of speculative fiction, magical realism and fantasy in a deeply challenging read. It is based on the Hugo-nominated song of the same name by the music group Clipping, which tells the story of what happened to the unborn children of the women thrown from the slave ships during the slave trade.

In the book (and the song) these women become a new aquatic race of merpeople. Their mothers die, but the children who can breathe in the womb, find themselves able to breath in the sea. In the book, which Rivers Solomon develops from Clippings song, the merpeople, who call themselves wajinru, are deeply traumatized by their origin, and pass their memories onto a single historian. The historian Yetu carries the burden of memory within her, sharing it on just one single day a year with the other wajinru.

Solomon takes the basis for the story and fleshes it out, creating both a complex wajinru society and unveiling a wider context. The wajinru found themselves threatened by the search for resources and oil, the "metal fish" attacking them and their cities. They fight back, taking casualties, but ultimately defeating and destroying the world of the "two legs", the people of the land. Yetu's story takes place after this, and is itself an account of learning about other peoples memories, as Yetu encounters a handful of surface survivors.

The Deep is not an easy read, despite its short length. In the afterword Clipping point out that readers probably are regretting reading it so quickly and that certainly was how I felt. Indeed it pays re-reading, and their song repays listening. Ultimately though this is a book that is not just about the trauma inflicted on African people by colonialism and slavery - its about how that trauma cascades down through generations, inflicting pain and suffering anew. It is also about the importance of history to us as individuals and as wider society. As such it is an extremely powerful novel that demonstrates once again that there is a new wave of radical fantasy and speculative fiction out there, and Rivers Solomon is one of its foremost proponents.

Related Reads

Solomon - An Unkindness of Ghosts

Sunday, December 03, 2023

Frantz Fanon - The Wretched of the Earth

Reading Frantz Fanon at anytime is a heady experience. His writing is angry, revolutionary and liberating as well as being beautifully lyrical. His commitment to the fight against colonialism, and the liberation of ordinary people through their collective struggle shines through, but so does his care for individuals and their pain and suffering. But reading Fanon at a time when the Palestinian people are desperately fighting against their systematic destruction by the Israeli State is eye opening. 

The Wretched of the Earth is Fanon's clearest discussion of national liberation movements. It was written in haste, following his diagnosis with leukemia, his friends wrote it down as he paced back and forth dictating. The text bears the imprint of this urgency, which seeps through into his passionate demand for self-liberation.

In Wrteched it is Fanon's discussion and defence of the oppressed use of violence that is most often discussed. Violence for Fanon, is not only a requirement to overthrow the colonial powers, but it is also necessary to cleanse and shape those fighting for liberation: "For [the native] knows that he is not an animal; and it is precisely at the moment he realises his humanity that he beings to sharpen the weapons with which he will secure its victory". Later he continues:

During the struggle for freedom, a marked alienation from these practices is observed. The native's back is to the wall, the knife is at his throat (or, more precisely, the electrode at his genitals): he will no more call for his fancies. After centuries of unreality, after having wallowed in the most outlandish phantoms, at long last the native, gun in hand, stands face to face with the only forces which contend for his life - the forces of colonialism. And the youth of a colonized country, growing up in an atmosphere of shot and fire, amy well make a mock of, and does not hesitate to pour scorn upon the zombies of his ancetors, the horses with two heads, the dead who rise again, and the dijnns who rush into your body whie you yawn. The native discovers reality and transforms it into the pattern of his customs, into the practice of violence and into his plan for freedom.

Here Fanon echoes Marx's argument that the revolution will cleanse the worker of the "muck of ages", removing the old ideas of racism, oppression and subservience. Fanon however is not a Marxist, though Marx is important to him. You get the impression that Fanon has imbibed Marx's writings but not taken them to heart: "Marxist analysis should always be slightly stretched every time we have to do with the colonial problem." This is perhaps most true of Fanon's writing on class, particualrly those parts of Wretched where he discusses the role of workers in the Global North (the colonial powers) and the role of workers in the colonised countries.

In fact, Fanon goes so far as to argue that workers' in the colonial countries are bought off by the system and can play a limited role in liberation movements: 

It cannot be too strongly stressed that in the colonial territories the proletariat is the nucleus of the colonized population which has been most pampered by the colonial regime... In capitalist countries, the working class has nothing to lose; it is they who in the long run have evrything to gain. In the colonial countries the working class has everythign to lose.

But in South Africa and in India, it was working class movements that proved most crucial to overthrowing colonial rule and apartheid. Think of the strikers by black workers, or the mass movements and strikes by workers that made it impossible for the British to control India. In fact Fanon himself is ambiguous on the question of workers. Some pages after the above quote he can declare that "during the colonial phase, the nationalist trade-union organisations constitute and impressive striking power. In the towns, the trade unionist can bring to a standstill... the colonialist economy". But then go on to argue that the "unions become candidates for governmental power" after colonialism has been uprooted. What Fanon does is to identify trade unionists with their leader - obscuring the potential power for self-emancipation that is represented by the collective organisation of workers. 

Partly I think Fanon makes this mistake because he is trying to warn and understand the way that revoluitonary struggles against colonialism risk constructing new chains for ordinary people. 

The militant who faces the colonialist war machine with the bare minimum of arms realises that while he is breaking down colonial oppresion he is building up automatically yet another system of exploiation... The clear, unreal, idyllic light of the beginning is followed by a semi-darkness that bewilers the senses. The people find out that the iniquitous fact of expoitation can wear a black face, or an Arab one; and they raise the cry of 'Treason!' But the cry is mistaken; and the mistake must be corrected. The treason is not national, it is social. The people must be taught to cry 'Stop thief!'.

He points out that the "national bourgeoisie of the colonial countries identifies itself with the decadence of the bourgeoisie of the West". The national bourgeoisie then must be resolutely opposed, and a new vision of development fought for that doesn't try to copy the Western states. But I think it's fair to say that Fanon doesn't really answer what this might look like. Though he offers some interesting hints, they tend to be general and focus on culture, rather than wider economic and social institutions.

The struggle for freedom does not give back to the national culture its former value and shapes; this struggle which aims at a fundamentally different set of relations between men cannot leave intact either the form or the content of the people's culture. After the conflict there is not only the disappearance of colonialism but also the disappearance of the colonised man.

This is why, of course, the workers movement against colonialism is so important - but must be tied to a theory of workers' emancipation that goes beyond opposing colonialism and then fighting for social and economic equality. It is why the writings of revolutionaries like Lenin remain so important, and the Marxst tradition so crucial, for national liberation movements today. But against this project, Fanon essential sets a different system of struggle - violence.

Violence alone, violence committeed by the people, violence organised and educated by its leaders, makes it possible fotr the masses to understand social truths and gives the key to them. Without that struggle, without that knowledge of the practice of action, there's nothing byt a fancy-dress parade and the blare of trumpeets.. a few reforms at the top... and down there at the bottom an undivided mass, still living in the Middle Ages, endlessly marking time.

This of course, poses a question of what Fanon means by "violence". Quotes like the above are often used to paint him as a bloodthirsty revolutionary. And, to be sure, Fanon refuses on principle, to condemn the violence of the oppressed against the oppressor. Indeed many of the leftists and pacifists who currently bemoan the "violence on both sides" in the Middle East, ought to read Fanon whose robust defence of the right to resist arises directly from his involvement in the struggle for liberation of Algeria, and brokers no cowardly refusal to take sides.

But I think that Fanon's "violence" is less about the actual violence itself, but more a substitute for the  process of the overthrow of oppressive relations and institutions, which Fanon understands won't happen peacefully. This is, of course, far more revolutionary than many in liberation movements would like, and his repeated denunciation of those who would simply place themselves into new "national" positions of power emphasises this. So Fanon's work remains crucial, directly relevant, and inspiring. But it cannot be read on its own, as his focus on the peasantry instead of the working class, will not lead to the sort of liberation he wants and that oppressed people need. Nonetheless, his vision for change is, at times, intoxicating:

We must leave our dreams and abandon our old beliefs and friendships of the time before life began. Let us waste not time in sterile litanies and nauseating mimicry. Leave this Europe where they are never done talking of Man, yet murder men everywhere they find them, at the corner of every one of their own streets, in all the corners of the globe. For centuries they have stifled almost the whole of humanity in the name of a so-called spiritual experience. Look at them today swaying between atomic and spiritual disintegration.

Wretched of the Earth was first published in 1961 and Frantz Fanon died the same year. One can only wonder what he would have learnt from, and thought of, the mass movements that exploded in France a few years later, which had an insurgent working class at their heart. 

Related Reviews

Achebe - An Image of Africa
Rodney - The Russian Revolution: A View from the Third World

Marx & Engels - On Colonialism
Horne - The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism
Baku: Congress of the Peoples of the East
Harman - Zombie Capitalism: Global Crisis & The Relevance of Marx

Friday, December 01, 2023

Willard Price - Whale Adventure

When I was young in the early 1980s I was obsessed with Willard Price's Adventure series. These books followed the unlikely adventures of Hal and Roger Hunt, whose father collected specimins for zoos. He gave them a year out to go on expeditions to capture (but not kill) animals for zoos, and I had South Sea Adventure, Amazon Adventure and Arctic Adventure. Somewhere I still have Arctic, it's cover is battered from repeated reading, and I dreamed of the others.

A chance find on a charity stall of a battered copy of Whale Adventure recently bought it all back. This was first published in 1960, but my copy is the 1973 edition. Rereading it has reminded me of the importance of those early books, and my enjoyment of them. But it's also shown me some pitfalls of youthfull reading!

But Whale Adventure is very different to the ones I devoured. In Whale, Roger and Hal kill animals. They are on board the Killer, one of the last three masted whale hunting sailing ships. The ship is captained by the cruel Grindle who enjoys violence and torture of his crew. His consequent shortage of crew forces him to take the two boys (19 and 12) onboard, but he treats them with disdain for their "gent" like ways.

Willard Price liked, as many young peoples' books do, using his writing to educate as well as entertain. So there's plenty here about life and work on a whaleship - the sights, smells and violence. Both Hal and Roger get to kill whales, and there's a lot about how the animals are butchered in the old way, and later on the factory ships. Price also introduces a host of other animals, Killer Whales, sharks of various types and seabirds. The reader enjoys it, and learns. But what do they learn?

Leaving aside the implausibility of the story line, which features boys proving their value to experienced sailors, cruel captains, shipwreck and mutiny, the problem is with the information about the animals themselves. It is true that in the last 60 years since the books were written our knowledge of these animals has vastly grown. In Whale Adventure Price quotes a few recent studies to show that whales communicate - something that was clearly considered novel at the time. But the hunt itself is certainly not criticised, and his depictions of the animals, in particular the Killer Whales, is often widely inaccurate. For instance, whale spouts - the air they breath out - are repeatedly depicted as dangerously acidic. That's not true. Checking some of Price's assertions led me to this fascinating piece on how inaccurate young people's books (including non-fiction) actually are. Particularly pertinent to this story are the comments in this about Killer Whales, "In the span of a human lifetime, we’ve gone from fearing killer whales to seeing them as cuddly entertainers and then as intelligent animals that deserve our respect and protection." 

Do these inaccuracies matter? Well I certainly know that Price's Adventure stories impacted on how I understood the world and animals in it. They were informative and encouraged me enjoy animals and want to preserve the "natural" world. But I still retain, likely inaccurate, knowledge from those books. As the article linked above points out:

In a 2016 article called, tellingly, “Cetacean Frustration,” four British scientists surveyed picture books that feature whales and other cetaceans. Of 116 books, 74 had errors. The rate was higher in fiction, but almost half of the nonfiction books also contained errors.

The problem is that children accept uncritically the information they read. Not least because:

So good information matters, especially for kids. In a 2002 article in the journal the Reading Teacher, science educator Diana C. Rice wrote it’s a mistake to assume that science misconceptions from early childhood will be corrected later. Rather, “research in science education suggests just the opposite, that we cannot assume that children’s ideas in science will become more sophisticated.” She cited a 1999 survey of American adults in which about half of the respondents believed that early humans lived at the same time as dinosaurs, an idea, she wrote, derived from children’s books, movies, television, and—in some cases—religion.

In re-reading Willard Price, I've discovered that these books are actually not that great at developing children's understanding of the world - though most of them (where they don't kill) are actually desgined to foster a love of nature, animals and the world around us. Does this matter? Well all Price's Adventure books are currently available, with modern flashy covers. There are also, other, problems. For instance in the whole of Whale Adventure there are no female characters - not even in the background of the scene setting pages. I dread to think what Price's Cannibal Adventure might be like. Much as I loved them, perhaps these books should be left on the nostalgia shelves?

Related Reviews

Philbrick - In the Heart of the Sea
Wise - To Catch a Whale
Richards - The World Hunt: An Environmental History of the Commodification of Animals

Saturday, November 25, 2023

Lyn MacDonald - Somme

Lyn MacDonald's Somme was the third of her books on World War One, drawing on her huge and detailed collection of reminisances and memoires of former soldiers. Like the first, They Called It Passchendaele, which told the story of the Third Battle of Ypres, it is an unflinching account of the brutality of trench warfare. Somme however, deals with the most famous of the bloodbaths of the Western Front. MacDonald starts with the meticulous, detailed and finely tuned battle plan that would see millions of shells fired at the German trenches, followed by coordinated attacks timed to the second. British troops would carry mirrors and flags so that their generals could track their victorious march. The reality was a blood bath. The detailed instructions gave no room for flexibility on the ground. As the Germans took out the first over the top, following troops had no idea what to do, as their objectives were not even close. As Sergeant Jim Myer's of the Machine Gun Corps recalled:

The biggest mistake that was made on manoeuvres and training was that we were never told what to do in case of failure. All this time we'd gone backwards and forwards, training, doing it over and over again like clockwork and then when we had to advance, when it came to the bit, we didn't know what to do! Nothing seemed to be arranged in case of failure.

Thousands, upon thousands, died. MacDonald's interviewees tell the stories of individual tragedy, and bravery. Of the groups of "Pals", from the same village, factory, industry, even sports teams, who died together. The survivors left shocked and demoralised by what they had seen. Corporal Harry Shaw, of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, summed up that first attack:

Whatever was gained, it wasn't worth the price that the men had paid to gain that advantage. It was no advantage to anybody. It was just sheer bloody murder. That's the only words you can use for it.

Most of the accounts MacDonald draws on are of front line troops. But a great strength of the book is that it gives a sense of the scale of the undertaking. She includes the voices and accounts of people who drove the ambulances, salvaged broken equipment for recycling into more shells and guns, and the people who laid roads, cooked food and reported for the press. But it is the horror of the front, the chaos of battle and the sheer bloody uselessness of the high command that will stay with the reader. The Battle for High Wood will stick with me, as troops captured and area, only to see it slip from the grasp as their Generals ordered in cavalry that took a whole day to arrive. The thousands who died in the follow up should never have died there.

Somme is not a detailed history of the battle. At times its hard to follow events, or even grasp the scale of particular attacks. The pictures are also unclear to me. But this is not a book to be read for detailed accounts. This is the human story of the slaughter of Kitchener's Army, "shipping clerks, errand-boys, stevedores, railway porters, grocers' assistants, postmen". 

Related Reviews

Macdonald - Passchendaele: The Story of the Third Battle of Ypres 1917
Sherry - Empire and Revolution
Zurbrugg - Not Our War
Romains - Verdun