Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Vincent Bevins - If We Burn

Subtitled The Mass Protest Decade and the Missing Revolution, Vincent Bevin's book looks at a question that many activists and revolutionaries must be asking themselves after a period when huge protest movements have shaken governments around the world - how do we win? It is an important question, and Bevin's book is brave to ask it. 

My review of this book was published in Socialist Worker issue 2876. You can read it here.

I've written more on this subject in my own book Socialism or Extinction.

Claire North - The Pursuit of William Abbey

Claire North's books make an art out of the unusually framed narrative. Her novels have characters who enjoy, or suffer, from highly impossible conditions that allow them to travel in time by reliving their lives, change bodies, or see their own death. But The Pursuit of William Abbey is a particularly dark tale. William Abbey is cursed to be followed by a shade, whose close approach means he can read minds and feel peoples innermost emotions. The shades touch however, brings death to the living person that Abbey loves the most.

This setup in itself would allow a brilliant fantasy writer like North to tell a great story. But North's brilliance here is to frame this suffering in the context of colonialism. It is the late 19th century. European powers battle for supremacy across the globe, and Abbey's curse is utilised by British government so that he can spy on their rivals. They facilitate his constant moving to escape the shade but he himself becomes sort after by the country's rivals. If Britain and Germany are trying to outdo each other in building battleships, why not grab a spy who can read minds? It turns out, of course, that Abbey is not the only sufferer. There are many, and through human history they've played their roles - sometimes mystical, and at othertimes nefariously.

But it is in the carving up of the world in the run up to the First World War that North place's Abbey's power. It's this context, and indeed his very cursing, which comes out of his failure to even try to stop a racist lynching in Africa, that shapes the book. His curse, and the brutal ending, arise out of these contradictions. As North makes it clear - imperialist powers will take anything and use it to their ends - and they will stop at nothing to try and understand and control that power.

It's not an easy read. There's little humour as we follow Abbey's constant travels. But North certainly makes us think about how capitalism uses technology and information to pursue and protect its own interests. It's likely her best book so far.

Related Reviews

North - Touch
North - The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August
North - The End of the Day
North - The Gameshouse

Friday, September 15, 2023

Ben Rawlence - The Treeline: The last forest and the future of life on earth

There is a crude, but attractive, solution to climate disaster that has been on offer from various NGO, environmental groups, multinational corporations and governments at different points over the last fifty years. Plant trees. Trees, we hear all the time are the "lung" of the planet. Their loss contributes to a warming world and their planting will fix the problem. If only it was so simple.

Ben Rawlence's recent book The Treeline is a fascinating study of a specific set of trees - those that make up the boundaries between two climatic regions - the frozen wastelands and the warming, more comfortable bits. "The earth is out of balance" says Rawlence, and "the treeline zone is a terrritory in the grip of a large geological change, confounding and challenging our ideas of the past, present and future."

The book, part travelogue, part scientific account and very much a celebration of trees, ought to have been huge. Not least because the treeline itself, wrapped like a wavey line along the north pole, is very long indeed. But Rawlence explains that the book's length was constrained by his discovery that only "a tiny handful of tree species make up the treeline" and just six of them are the "familiar markers of the northern terroirtoies: three configfers and three broadleaves". For those confused by these terms there is a hand guide at the back of the book.

As the world is warming the treeline is moving, sometimes remarkably rapidly. As Rawlence travels around the Treeline, he meets people that are living, herding, surviving in areas were there should be no trees, and where the arrival of trees is both surprising and transformative. Take his visit to Norway.

The Sámi have been saying for at least fiften years that winters are getting 'weird'. The amount of light hasn't changed and the soil is the same, but more rain and more heat have made all the difference. The downy birch loves the warmer waether. It used to be confined to the dips and gullies on the plateau, out of the icy winds, but, unleashed by the warmth, it is storming over the top and out into the open, moving upslope at the rate of forty metres a year. And enormous amount of territory is being transformed from tundra into woodland at a lightning pace.

Here we encounter the unanticipated problem caused by those who would simply plant more saplings. Trees don't always help ecological systems. This is for several reasons. The trees encroaching onto areas were they were previously absent destroy ecologies and landscapes. Their presence transforms the space they move into:

The greening of the tundra is closely linked to more warming as the birch improves the soil and warms it further with microbial activity, melthing the permafrost and releading methane - a greenhouse gas eight-five times more powerful than carbon dioxide in its warming effects over a shorter timeframe. 

Another problem is that that the trees that are exploding outwards aren't creating the same, historic forests that nuture and protect biodiversity. Where "old growth" forest "created a diverse forest full of hundrds of different kinds of plants", the old trees simply cannot grow in time. Instead fast growing species are blocking the potential for other trees to evolve their own space and support biodiversity such as the lichen that feed reindeer. Rawlence paints a picture of sometrees "racing over the tundra" while other species don't get a look in. It has tremendous consequences for animals like reindeer and the people who live on them.

One of the most important strengths of The Treeline is that Rawlence refuses to isolate the ecological systems from human society. 

The landscape we have grown up in and taken for granted in a few short generations are not timeless at all, but a human-shaped moment in a continuous drynamic of changing colours of blur ocean, white ice and green forest on a ball of rock, surrounded by gas, spinning in space. 

Countless generations have labourerd on their lands, relating to the species, encouraging, nuturing and fighting for an ecological space. Climate change is arriving like a massive hammer, smashing up complex relationships and undermining historically viable systems. The people who suffer first and foremost are some of the poorest - indigineous communities that are forgotten and neglected - yet also are often those with some of the best answers to solving ecological problems. Though it is very likely that many, such as the reindeer herders, will simply disappear from their current economic niche.

Rawlence also identifies as second factor. If we cannot ignore the role of humans in shaping a landscape, we cannot also ignore the role of the economic systems they create. Its unusual to read it in a book on ecology, so its worth highlighting this:

The breaching of the ecological ceiling of the planet was only enabled and accelerated by a specific recent economic model: industrial capitalism and its political export, colonialism.... our collective survival on the planet almost certainly depends on moving beyond it.

It's a stark choice. For readers who like easy solutions, there are plenty of examples that Rawlence gives, were small groups of people and individuals are fighting to protect and understand trees and the related economic systems. But these brief moments, in time and space, of rewilding are likely to be swallowed up by the vast forces unleased by industrial capitalism. Planting trees on its own is not going to cut it. Ben Rawlence's book is a celebration of trees, ecology and human life - through a study of the tree line in many different places. It's also a call to arms.

Related Reviews

Bourgon - Tree Thieves: Crime & Survival in the Woods
Rackham - Trees and Woodland in the British Landscape
Rackham - The Ash Tree
Bensaïd - The Dispossessed
Slaght - Owls of the Eastern Ice

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Fred Archer - Under the Parish Lantern

Fred Archer was a Warwickshire farmer who discovered a penchant for writing, and whose accounts of English rural life in the Vale of Evesham between the wars became best sellers. Reading Archer today it is easy to dismiss his work as bucolic whimsy. His tales of usually funny, salacious and often deal with the changes that Archer himself saw - the transition from horse power to the internal combustion engine, the transition away from traditional crafts and practices and the decline of the rural village as a centre for agricultural workers. Archer bemoans what has been lost, though he is rarely dismissive of the new. Unfortunately his comments on wider politics tend to be irksome, and simplistic.

That said, if you read between the whimsical lines there are some fascinating nuggets here, that illuminate wider rural issues. Many of these are related to questions of poverty and unemployment. But two chapters in Under the Parish Lantern stood out for me. The first relates the construction of the war memorial, which can still be seen in Ashton-under-Hill. There were two rival projects, the official construction was to be on land donated by a local landowner, but a smaller group of villagers argued that this land wasn't his to give - it had been illegally enclosed by the previous owner and belonged to the village by rights. They proposed an alternative location for the memorial and even began constructing it, before being stopped. Archer's dismissal of one of the leaders of this opposition for his left politics demonstrates that radical ideas did exist in the countryside, exacerbated by the way the individuals son continued to suffer from the gas he'd been the victim of on the Western Front. The battle over the war memorial highlights wider struggles, and how workers' memories of the past shaped their fears and thoughts in contemporary times.

The second chapter is actually the best - Archer's thoughts on how modern industrial farming is destroying nature. It is fascinating because it has great parallels with Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. Archer, a farmer close to the land and nature, understands exactly how the destruction of specific species has a much wider knock on effect. He notes how pesticides might kill one weed or insect that is damaging crops, but lead to a wider increase in destructive creatures. There's a broad range of examples, and it reminded me that ecological thinking is not a new thing. Indeed the whole chapter emphasises how important it is to ensure agricultural workers and farmers are part of the struggle to protect the environment and biodiversity.

Under the Parish Lantern is by no means a great work, but Archer's thoughts on industrial farming, labour and the nature of community - as well as his funny stories continue to entertain, many years after the community he describes has completely disappeared.

Related Reviews

Archer - A Distant Scene
Thompson - Lark Rise to Candleford
Whitlock - Peasant's Heritage
Bell - Men and the Fields

Wednesday, September 06, 2023

Ren Hutchings - Under Fortunate Stars

Ren Hutchings first novel Under Fortunate Stars has a fascinating premise. A state of the art spacecraft, owned by a bureaucratic galaxy wide corporation, on a diplomatic mission is sucked into a rift in space and finds itself out of touch with the rest of humanity. They quickly encounter another, much older spacecraft, crewed by a ragtag bunch of misfits from the past. These humans turn out to be the founders, the people whose intervention saved humanity by ending a devastating alien war. 

The presence of both craft in this space rift is inexplicable, and it becomes clear that unless the two ships return to their own times, history will be altered and the future may be completely changed as the war will not stop. 

Its a clever premise, but unfortunately it is undone by an overlong and too complicated story. Hidden in Under Fortunate Stars is a great novel, and a good editor should have cut a hundred pages to bring the story out. Instead we are given far too much exposition, background history and overlong technobabble. It makes the book to slow and boring and does nothing to fill out the characters. Unfortunately most of the main characters are one dimensional with people introduced then forgotten. I was left wondering what had happened to some of the main people on the historic ship that had jumped forward - they seem to play no role other than to make up numbers. The author lets the story unfold by telling the characters back story with chapters devoted to their own history. But the time jumping gets confused with the timetravel and its a little messy in places.

This is an ok novel that should have been great, so I find it hard to recommend.

Saturday, September 02, 2023

Duncan Stone - Different Class: The untold story of English cricket

Early this year, in June 2023, a long awaited, independent report into "Equity in Cricket" was published. The report was damning, saying that English cricket was not "for everyone", and prompted the chair of English cricket to say "This report makes clear that historic structures and systems have failed to prevent discrimination, and highlights the pain and exclusion this has caused." The report exploded like a bombshell during the Second Test of the summer's Ashes series. But by the end of the series it had all but disappeared from the headlines.

Anyone who has spent anytime following cricket in England will know that the sport is riddled with racism, misogyny and hostility to change. It has a strange obsession with its own history, and despite it being very much a sport liked, played and followed by thousands, there is a tendency for it only to be thought of in terms of test matches, national games and county cricket.

As a lifetime cricket fan and supporter of the "Anyone but England" position, I thought it time to delve deeper into the history of the game. Duncan Stone's Different Class seemed the ideal book to explore the real history of the game and try to understand how we have ended up with a national game that is so resistant to change. Stone shows how modern cricket evolved from a mass sport, that involved hundreds of thousands of players and supporters. 

Broadcasters, politicians and the people in charge of the contemporary game would have us believe its origins lie in gentile matches between village teams of vicars and blacksmiths, played purely for the love of the sport. In reality much of the mass participatory roots of the game lie in the huge profits to be made from gambling. It was precisely this mass appeal that meant the establishment saw in cricket something else. By the end of the nineteenth century,

Cricket's growing significance extended beyond what happened at the wicket. Thomas Martineau, the Mayor of Birmingham clarified this wider importance... in 1884: cricket, he argued, now formed "part of a larger question exercising the minds of many wise people in England... namely, the question of keeping up the strength of nation".

As Stone continues, it was

cricket, more than any other sport, that came to define the spiritual (or moral) health of the English. If the overwhelming mass of ordinary cricketers and administrators had done the most to make cricket the national game, the "spirit" of English cricket would be shaped by a mere handful of gentlemen amateurs who had, invariably, attended one of the nation's famous public schools.

A running theme through Stone's book, and indeed the history of English cricket, is the way that the administrators of the national game hated and disliked the cricket from below epitomised by countless different leagues and groups of teams. One cricket writer, Alec Waugh, worried in the Cricketer in 1922 that cricket "is no longer entertained for a few. It has become a part of the national life, and probably, if the Bolsheviks get their way with her, it will be nationalised with the cinema and the theatre and Association Football." Chance would be a fine thing.

Such ludicrous musings on the part of Waugh reflected a genuine fear of sport from below, and the idea that ordinary players and supporters could enjoy and manage their own game. Much of Stone's book explores how the various leagues evolved and existed, demonstrating an amazing life that is hidden from official histories that focus on specific matches, players and the national game.

The official focus on games for the sake of games demonstrated an "increasing rejection of competitive cricket" which was seen as working class, radical and unsporting. The country's industrial north was associated with competitive professional leagues and the south, alleged to be about sportsmanship and playing the game. Stone's detailed accounts shows that this was far from true, but the administrators in London were able to shape a narrative that writes out the working class, ordinary person's game from history. As Stone summaries:

While working-class cricketers in the Home Countries continued to play against their neighbours in local leagues, clubs dominated by the region's middle class coveted visits from elite metropolitan clubs. Regional and local rivalries did not strictly disappear, but one's social class or education rather than place or community, now defined sporting rivalries where the middle class dominated. Over time, this made it increasingly difficult to determine which clubs were the best in playing terms, as a club's status hinged upon their facilities, the social statues of its players and those it played against. 

Such was the position in the run up to the Second World War, and it is one that Stone argues came to be defended and extended after the interregnum caused by the conflict. It also continues to define the game today. Let's spell out Stone's argument. Essentially he says that class interests came to dominate the game, though their wealth and power. 

The warring factions in club cricket's cold war were split between those who wished to preserve a non-competitive form of the game where elite clubs got to choose who they mixed with, and those who wanted to see the introduction of meritocratic leagues that would encourage youth, raise standards and public interest.

Despite the continued love of the game, mass participation and dynamic leagues and local clubs, this situation essentially continues today. The purse strings repeatedly fail to open for working class communities, whose school children have lost their playing fields and rarely have access to the equipment needed to play cricket. Much vaunted attempts to get more non-white players, women and so on into the sport have repeatedly failed and the national game (of both men and women) remains dominated by individuals from middle and upper class backgrounds. The playing fields of Eton, and its like, continue to dominate the game.

The recent success of the English women's team demonstrates the appetite for the watching public for cricket. But it remains a game that is frequently out of the reach of ordinary people. Stone argues that the English Cricket Board continues to ensure that cricket was "run in the interests of a minority of subscribers". 

For those who enjoy cricket it is a depressing situation. Though, as Stone demonstrates, there is a lot of cricket out there, though not necessarily in the public view. Stone's book is a powerful polemic that ought to be widely read. It is a history that has very little anecdotes from extraordinary games, few tales of eccentric and talented players and very little of the "leather on willow" beloved of the usual cricket history. It won't be widely read in Lords or in the members' pavilion at Edgbaston where I spent a few depressing years. But it is all the better for that. While the reader may struggle with the detail of the ins and outs of various leagues, it is worth persevering. As Stone says, the future of the game as a sport with "broad appeal" will very much depend on it coming to "reflect the nation that is England today". 

Related Reviews

Bhattacharya – You Must Like Cricket – Memoirs of an Indian Cricket Fan
James - Beyond A Boundary
Trevelyan - English Social History
MacDonell - England, their England