Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Richard Fortey - Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution

I used to think that the trilobite was merely one of those instantly recognisable fossils, sort of like an elongated and flattened woodlouse. The sum total of my knowledge of trilobites was, in the style of a foot note to a child's introduction to fossils, that they were distant relations of the modern horseshoe crab. Growing up in Birmingham, I'd never seen a horseshoe crab, though on visits to Dudley Zoo, I should have become more acquainted with its older ancestor. Trilobites are found in vast numbers in quarries around that Midland town, and the 'Dudley Locust' as it was known, features on the town's crest.

Richard Fortey's book on trilobites is full of such facts. However it is much more than the sort of history that rests everything on a collection of similar pieces of information. The trilobite forms an important moment in the evolution of life on Earth, and its very success has enabled scientists like Fortey to contribute enormously to our understanding of the history of the planet.

The tale is also the tale of Fortey's own career. From his early discovery of a trilobite as a young boy looking for fossils, "other boys discovered girls, I discovered trilobites" to exhibitions as wide-spread as Spitsbergen, Canada and China, his studies of the thousands of trilobite species have led him to be one of those few individuals lucky enough to be pursuing a career in a childhood passion. But Fortey's own interests are much wider than trilobites. Alongside detailed explanations of natural history and planetary geology, his book is peppered with literary quotes and poems. All this makes for a readable and fascinating account.

So why are these animals so important. Its not their size. Few of the species seem to have grown more than a foot or so, many of them were a few centimetres in size. Their sheer numbers are stunning. Some of the pictures in the book of enormous quantities of fossils and pieces of fossil, piled on top of each other, are testament to the numbers of trilobites that must have existed on sea bottoms and in the depths of the water. Trilobites were amazingly successful. They came into being when the continents themselves were part of earlier arrangements - before the Pangean super-continent, stretching back millions of years. They lasted for 300 million or so years, far longer than our own species.

Its this longevity that in part explains tribolite importance. Mapping out the places that their fossils are found can help identify the locations of ancient seabeds and coastlines. The very movement of the Earth's plates, and hence the continents, around the globe are marked by were fossils of trilobites can be found.

A trilobite fossil, yesterday.
There's much more too. Despite the 540 million or so years since they lived, trilobites were not primitive creatures. Their hard shells demonstrate eons of evolution themselves. Able to curl up and protect themselves from predators, or on occasion produce spears and tridents to help get their food, scientists have identified trilobites that roamed the surface, swam in the Cambrian oceans and lived under the mud.

A few lucky scientists have made careers from bridging the boundaries of their disciplines. Most trilobites could see, growing crystals of calcite that focused light onto sensitive cells. The very notion of an animal with eyes partially made from the same substance as rocks or shells is stunning, and Fortey devotes a fascinating chapter to the evolutionary and biological questions that this throws up.

The trilobite is a humble creature. Fortey says that he has given up hope that there remains a remote ocean-valley holding a still living colony of these creatures. It seems, sadly, that despite the animal's success, it was unable to survive the changing environment. However, the insight that we can gain from its life into sciences as varied as plate-tectonics, genetics and evolution, surely gives this animal an importance far beyond its own humble life. Richard Fortey's wonderful book is a brilliant insight into all of these subjects and far beyond.

Related Reviews

Cadbury - The Dinosaur Hunters

Monday, December 26, 2011

Neil Gaiman - American Gods

I read the "author's preferred text".

I will start this review by making a very clear statement about the book under scrutiny. Neil Gaiman's American Gods is one of the best fantasy novels of the last twenty years. I am sure that most readers of this blog will know the feeling you get when you discover a new author that ticks all of your boxes. From almost the first page of this story I knew that I would eventually devour everything that Gaiman has written. The only question is one of speed.

Gaiman's view of the United States is not one that the American government would like. His America is one that is more than the superficial niceness of shopping malls, or the repetitive nature of identikit roadside restaurants. Gaiman peers through this to the uneven, dirty America beneath. One of poverty and shallowness, of kindness and hope mixed with despair. For most people, hope has been replaced by the short-term desire for objects and feelings that will numb the over-riding feeling of pointlessness.

Gods arise out of belief. When the first farmers gave thanks for their crops, or the hunters turned to the skies and praised those that had given them an easy kill, Gods were created. They drew strength from their followers. The more that made sacrifice or prayers the more powerful they were. America, a land populated by immigrants from the time of the last ice-age has many imported Gods. Those who arrived on the shores and gave thanks to the old Gods, created new versions of them on the new continent. The vikings (and other more fantastical visitors such as the Egyptians) brought Odin and Loki and numerous others. But the worship dwindled with the failure of those communities. Later immigrants brought Gods from Ireland and elsewhere. Some prospered, some are reduced to poverty, themselves praying for followers and urging worships.

But new Gods prosper and grow strong. The Gods of commodification and short-term pleasure. Gods of money and electricity, of railways and engineering. These might be seen as an analogy for capitalism itself, its dynamism throwing up new objects of worship, which are rapidly eclipsed like steam power gives way to electricity. The Gods engage in a final battle for supremacy, and Shadow, the hero of the piece is drawn in. As bodyguard and then as a central piece in the chess game itself. The battle between old and new is a metaphor for America itself. The backdrop is the very development of the continent and the lives of the people who made it.

The idea of Gods having strength from worship is not new. Nor is the mortality of Gods who lose their followers. Pratchett did it in Small Gods and Douglas Adams also played it for laughs in Dirk Gently. Gaiman creates a many-layered world of belief and magic, parallel to, but not separate from our own world. The differences between good and bad are blurred here. The unity of the Gods, old versus new, obscures the fact that both sides have their own divisions. For most of the Gods, humans worship them, but are also objects to satisfy their own base desires. People to be seduced, laughed at and scorned. You could if you want, employ a further metaphor here, human life generates the religious value that the Gods crave and need to continue their blind, irrational lives. The further accumulation of belief requires the further use and abuse of humans, even if some Gods enjoy the exploitation less than others.

I will avoid the temptation to draw out the detail of the story. The climatic battle between old and new here does not necessarily herald a change in the human world, though one is left with the feeling that a world were the only Gods that exist are ones that represent Internet shopping and machine guns would not be a good things for ordinary folk. Whether humanity ever ever throw off the Gods themselves is left to the imagination. His voyage through America as Shadow explores the other world that he has hitherto not observed, is a work of detail. From the small towns, with their delicious undercurrent of pain and suffering, to the rank, sterile life of shopping malls and banks, the book is part travelogue, part crime caper, part fantasy and in large part, a tale of retribution and revenge. It is a wonderful read that will suck you into an alternate world, but one that is strangely familiar.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Philip José Farmer - The Dark Design

Volume three of Philip José Farmer's Riverworld series is one of those novels were you wonder if the series is about to "jump the shark". The two earlier ones, set as they are, on a baffling and fantastic planet were the vast majority of humans from all epochs of history have been resurrected, are excellent reads.

Farmer's orginal idea though, was so vast in scope that there was no way that it could be limited to one or two books. Indeed, in the preface to this novel he explains that the story continued to grow. What was meant to be the final volume became the penultimate.

Farmer is trying to tie up lose ends here. His various characters, or groups of characters are all famous individuals from Earth's history. Unlikely groupings of people like Mark Twain and Cyrano de Bergarac, Jack London and Richard Burton are some of the figures that are trying to find their way to an enormous tower at the centre of an arctic sea. As suggested by its name, Riverworld is dominated by a single river that stretches from pole to pole and back around the other side of the globe. This continuously flowing stream is surrounded by millions of humans. Despite these numbers, chance encounters seem common enough. Certainly enough that Farmer can experiment with the lives (both actual and fictional) of his characters.

Despite some good ideas here the plot occasionally feels of artifical. In one area of the planet the stone age society (there are limited metals and minerals on Riverworld) is running short of the flint it needs for tools and weapons and society is moving backwards. Yet elsewhere, one of the planet's founders has been able to divert an asteroid to provide a huge variety of material for technological development. So some explorers, travelling now by assorted balloons, steam boats and blimps have helicopters and lasers, which seems to me to undermine the point of the story somewhat. Elsewhere the novel seems to have been limited by its editorship. Do we really need to have every measurement in both imperial and metric values? The following sentence, for instance, should win a prize;

"In this deep, cold cup the water surrendered warmth, so much that the temperature at 1524 metres or 5000 feet was 2 degrees above Centigrade."

On the same page, on character orders de Bergarac, the pilot of his airship to 'Take her down to 1530 metres, Cyrano'. The exactness of the figures seems unnecessary.

The quest to get to the tower dominates the lives of the characters, the sole point of the world that the author has created is to beg the question why has this happened and why have human's been resurrected upon it. The quests to the tower, initiated by a rogue member of the intelligent beings that created the planet are part of finding the answers. Yet the story keeps running away from the author. It is non-linear too, Farmer weaving plot-lines around each other in a confusing mix. Farmer created a wonderful fantasy world here. I just hope that the final parts of the story answer the questions posed early on and don't confuse things more.

Related Reviews

Farmer - To Your Scattered Bodies Go
Farmer - The Fabulous Riverboat

Monday, December 19, 2011

David J. Breeze - The Antonine Wall

The northern-most frontier of the Roman Empire, marked out by the Antonine Wall is often overlooked by its more impressive southern cousin built by Hadrian. The history of the Antonine Wall is much shorter, and according to David Breeze, it was likely to have been built by a new Emperor, keen to extend his Imperial boundaries in order to win a triumph. But extending the borders like this didn't really win the Emperor much, Breeze points out that he conquered "territory which had once been Roman and, we might expect, had been kept under Roman surveillance ever since."

Unlike Hadrian's wall, much of Antonine's was constructed from turf, rather than stone. An impressive military way would have shadowed the wall, and forts and fortlets helped soldiers patrol and guard the approach. Again, as with Hadrian's wall, this was less of a military defence and more of a border or statement of power. Breeze locates the wall in a wider "military landscape", with Roman forts, settlements and patrols extending over a wider area, north and south of the actual border line.

For those academically interested, there is a wealth of detail here - distances and sizes, lists of military forces based at particular points and so the like. There is also a smidgen of humour, I liked that the chapter dealing with the day to day life of the soldiers stationed on the wall, is called "Life on the Edge". For those soldiers who may have served, or originated in Africa, as evidence of ancient cooking styles implies, this cold northerly location at the most extreme end of the Empire must have felt very isolated indeed. Very much an edge between the known and unknown.

Sadly little of Antonine's wall survive. Extensive parts have fallen foul of the plough, but Breeze's book provides a useful guide to the best places to view the wall. From personal experience I recommend Rough Castle, not simply for the remains, but because of the sense of the wider landscape that the Romans would have been located in. This is a useful introduction to the history of this part of the Roman world and some of the debates and discussions that are still absorbing academic minds. Breeze is honest enough to admit that he has emphasised the evidence that backs his own theories, but I suspect that much of this would mean little to the lay reader anyway, and is unlikely to detract from a useful introduction to a small part of Roman Britain.

Related Reviews

Watkins - The Roman Forum
Parenti - The Assassination of Julius Caesar
Beard - Pompeii; The Life of a Roman Town
Beard - The Roman Triumph

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Gitta Sereny - Albert Speer: His Battle With Truth

Gitta Sereny's detailed and scholarly examination of one of the key figures in Hitler's leadership is also extremely readable and powerful, two qualities rare in biography. At times it is terrible to read, the subject matter by necessity must examine details of the Holocaust and the use of slave labour that is repugnant. There is a compelling fascination though. For anyone who has ever wondered how the Holocaust could happen, how fairly ordinary men and women could be complicit in the mass murder of six million Jews, and millions of communists, socialists, trade unionists, Gypsies, gays and lesbians and countless other "undesirables" there is a desire to try and understand the reality of life under German Fascism.

There is meticulous research behind this book. Sereny seems to have spent a lifetime in archives, reading documents and interviewing every conceivable participant who knew the individual she was writing about. From his secretaries and servants in Hitler's bunker, to his wife and prison guards. But most of all, she interviewed Speer himself.

Following his trial at Nuremberg for his involvement in war-crimes, Speer was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Even before the trial itself he was undergoing a transformation. By the time of his release, he seemed obsessed with expressing his own repentance. Many of his existing circle of friends disowned him - they could not understand his desire to distance himself from Hitler, nor criticise the former Fuhrer. This process had begun, at least publicly, for Speer in the dock, when he'd attacked the man to whom he owed so much. Even in Spandau prison, several of his co-defendants could not forgive him for this.

Sereny's biography beings with Speer's childhood. Given the realities of German life in the early twentieth century, Speer was lucky to be the son of a prosperous, if unloving architect. The stilted and cool atmosphere of the middle class upbringing shaped Speer's own inability to display warmth. No doubt, his later relationship with Hitler carried echoes of the relationship that Speer would have liked to have had with his own father. However, to reduce their complex friendship to this would make nonsense of the other factors and realities of Speers' life.

By chance Speer found himself the favoured architect of Hitler. Speer had never been a party man, though he rapidly found himself at the heart of the Nazi organisation, joining formally in the early 1930s. However his rise was startling, and by the time of the war, he had moved on from designing homes to prominent Nazis, to heading up some of the most important industries of the German war economy. He proved extremely able. Even during the height of the bombing campaigns Speer helped ensure that the German economy continued to produce munitions and equipment for the armed forces. Central to this was the question of slave labour, labour that originated in the concentration camps, from Jew's exiled from their homes and from captured prisoners.

At the heart of the book, and indeed most articles about Speer is the question of his knowledge. To what extent was he aware of the mass murder taking place? Sereny's answer is couched in riders. Firstly she argues that it wasn't true that everyone in Germany was aware of the mechanised slaughter taking place at death-camps in Poland. This is not to say that people didn't think killing was taking place, or that something was going on. She includes Speer in this - he must have been aware that large numbers of people were being transported away from their homes, just has he must have known that hundreds of thousands of labourers were coming from somewhere.

Central to this debate, is whether or not Speer was present at an infamous speech that Himmler made to leading members of the SS. The text of Himmler's speech, which mentioned the slaughter and what needed to be done to solve the Jewish question, refers to Speer on several occasions, as if Speer himself was in the hall. Speer admits that he was there in an earlier session, speaking on questions of wartime production, but claims to have left. When the speech was made public, Speer spent many long hours trying to prove that he wasn't there, by sitting in the archives looking for evidence.

It is worth at this point noting Sereny's own brilliance as a researcher and historian. She examines Speer's life day by day, sometimes hour by hour, trying to tease out exactly where he was and when. What could he have known, who else was with him, what might he have heard. The detail is almost overwhelming, but builds up her central thesis, that Speer knew far more than he let on. This level of detail is important for Sereny too, because Speer spent many many ours creating his own story in an attempt to free himself of suspicion.

This desire to clear his name shaped Speer's later life. His defence at Nuremberg, was to denounce Hitler and his actions, accepting his responsibilities, but not his guilt. However once his imprisonment began, he seems to have begun to construct a careful web of stories that highlight his independence and criticism of Hitler as well as ignore his links to the aspects of the regime that would have acknowledged his awareness of the Holocaust. One example of this, is in the description of his final meeting with Hitler. Speer claims in his book, Inside the Third Reich, that he re-afirmed his personal loyalty, but admitting to working to countermand Hitler's final scorched earth policies. In a famous paragraph, Sereny points out that:

"Psychologically, it is possible that this is the way he remembered the occasion, because it was how he would have liked to behave, and the way he would have liked Hitler to react. But the fact is that none of it happened; our witness to this is Speer himself." [529]

Speer's original draft manuscript for the book, written in prison, contained no such story - surely something that would have been at the forefront of his mind. In fact the opposite is then claimed, Speer saying that he did not confess to Hitler. Similar examples abound in Sereny's book, as she uncovers the detailed process that Speer went through, before presenting his carefully selected story to the world. Speer makes much of his break with Hitler - his desire to protect the German people. So much so, that Speer claimed to have made plans to kill the Fuhrer.

After reading over 700 pages of Sereny's detailed account, its difficult to believe anything that Speer says. Not necessarily because he deliberately lied all the time, but because he was keen to portray himself in a particular way. He was after all, one of the last remaining figures from Hitler's inner circle and few could contradict him.

Sereny doesn't limit herself simply to telling, or criticising Speer's story. She spends time examining other aspects to the story of Nazi Germany. Some of the powerful parts are the tales of those that did know about the Holocaust and sought to alert the world. Some of these tales are tragic, as the fairly to be believed or listened to, drove individuals to despair and suicide. Sereny highlights these tales, to argue that some people were brave enough to stand up, or at least find out what was going on. Those who argue that the only chance to survive the dictatorship was to keep ones head down, may have been accurate, but they took a particular moral path.

Speer did not do this. He feigned ignorance and enjoyed his privileged life as long as he could. That said, he did clearly break with Hitler. He seemed to be one of the few who could challenge Hitler's madness, though Speer was not brave enough to break completely. There is an element, at least in how SEreny describes it, of love between the two men. Or perhaps hero worship by Speer. His return to Berlin to see Hitler one last time, smacks vaguely of the behaviour of a lover who cannot quite bring themself to say a final goodbye.

Sereny shows that many of those who knew Speer, during the war, during his imprisonment and after his release seem to have fallen into a kind of spell. Speer was clever, articulate, handsome and dashing. But she reminds us, he worked closely with people who had inspected concentration camps. Drank champagne with men who organised the Holocaust and had visited the slave labour camps. Even if the experience here shocked him enough to demand improved conditions for the workers.

Sereny concludes by quoting an exchange with Speer. An article she'd written quoted some word's of Speer's, written in 1977:

"However to this day I still consider my main guilt to be my tacit acceptance [Billigung] of the persecution and the murder of millions of Jews."

After he had checked this with her, and added a clarifying footnote which, if anything, strengthens the statement, Sereny asks why he was saying this now after denying it for so long. The article he had written was in response to a Holocaust denial book and Speer explained that he could no longer "hedge" the question, "for this purpose". Sereny comments that had Speer said this at Nuremberg, he would have hung with the other Nazis.

Sereny's book leaves little doubt that Speer knew far more than he admitted. His survival at Nuremberg and the second career he carved out as a writer stem from his ability to selectively tell a horrific story. But it is also clear that Speer was himself horrified by what had been done. The Holocaust was the outcome of the coming to power of a powerful political force that had been moulded by Hitler. The fascist bands that made Germany safe from socialist revolution relied on racism and prejudice to cement the street gangs together. They broke the communists and the trade unions, but they also opened the door to mass murder. Speer, and many of the industrialists that he came to work closely with during the war, found the world of Hitler one that they could do business with. A tiny number turned their backs and walked away, Speer and many others did not.

Related Reviews

Sereny - Into that Darkness: From Mercy Killing to Mass Murder
Paxton - The Anatomy of Fascism
Guerin - Fascism and Big Business
Lipstadt - Denying the Holocaust, the Growing Assault on Truth and History

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Brian Greene - The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory

In this challenging book "string theorist" Brian Greene has attempted to being together the most recent understanding of this complex branch of theoretical physics together with the context that it was developed in. He starts, as any explanation of modern physics must, with the inadequacies of our own experience of the universe. We can, to borrow Greene's analogy, understand why a ball might bounce, but we cannot use the same set of ideas to explain what happens when a star enters a black hole, or what happens to particles travelling close to the speed of light.

So Greene begins with a detailed explanation of the big picture. Starting with Newtonian physics, he quickly moves through the developments that led Einstein to his Special theory of Relativity and thence onto the General Theory. Having efficiently and clearly covered this ground, Greene turns to the other end of the scale and teaches the reader Quantum Mechanics in a few chapters. These sections of the book are some of the best, most accessible and well written. Greene is given to the over use of metaphor, something that is always a problem when discussing theoretical physics, but sometimes the metaphor's are culturally limited and difficult to understand ("It's as if you were playing The Price is Right and Bob Parker gives you ten billion billion dollars and challenges you to purchase products that will cost... all but 189 of the dollars").

Having reached general relativity and quantum mechanics physicists were then challenged with finding the link between them. Or rather a theory that could include both. Both work extremely well on the macro and micro levels, but though general relativity should theoretically work on a quantum level, the equations break down. String Theory is an attempt to link the two together and get us closer to a Grand Theory of Everything.

Now String Theory is a way of looking at the building blocks of the universe as being small loops of vibrating string. The different vibrations represent different energies and hence, because mass and energy are linked, different types of particles. All well and good. Explanations beyond this become complex and difficult and you really need to find a good book to explain it further.

The question is, has Brian Greene written that book? I have to say that I don't think so. Its been immensely popular, and even if it has slightly dated in the decade or so since first publication, it pretty much covers the basic areas covered by modern string theory. But does it explain it well?

Firstly I struggled to work out who the book was aimed at. Certainly not string theorists themselves (many of whom are name-checked here). It is designed as an introduction to the topic. What about scientifically literate readers such as myself? Well I have a degree in Maths and Physics and some of the sections in here were baffling to me, despite repeated readings. In places I felt I needed more (perhaps more equations and numbers would have helped). The biggest problem was I felt, that without a fairly detailed grasp of the equations themselves, no amount of metaphor can explain the concept of dimensions folded in on themselves, or other equally complex ideas. Certainly I felt that without some grounding in science, many readers would have great trouble understanding what was being written about.

There are of course some fascinating parts to the book and it is worth reading just to get a general idea of what is happening. Its clear that string theorists believe that they are, or at least were, on the cusp of further great insights into the universe. Greene avoids saying to definitely that he thinks string theory will lead directly to the Grand Theory, though he clearly thinks its our best chance. Towards the end of the book, he concludes that "[c]enturies from now, superstring theory... may have developed so far beyond our current formulation that it might be unrecognizable even to today's leading researchers". This is probably fair. Even if string theory is found to be a dead end in some respects, it will have at least helped break the reliance on a particular way of looking at the universe.

My final gripe though is that Greene leaves much of the work shrouded in fog. Time and again we are told of a scientist or a researcher developing some insight, making a breakthrough or clearing something up. Yet we're not told how this work progresses. I presume its through some form of computer modelling, yet this is rarely mentioned. It can't all be sitting there with a blank page staring at equations. Take these lines, for instance:

"What about the other forces of the standard model? How do their intrinsic strengths vary with distance? In 1973, Gross and Frank Wilczek at Peinceton, and, independently, David Politzer at Harvard, studied this question and found a surprising answer". 

Yet nothing is explained about their study. How did they do it? Later, Greene continues, the scientists "argued that this difference is actually due to the different effect that the haze of microscopic quantum activity has on each force. Their calculations showed that if this haze is penetrated by examining the forces..."

Yet this haze is a metaphor. No instruments exist that can peer that closely into quantum relations. What is the mechanism for this penetration? How exactly did the scientists proceed in their examination? The reader remains in the dark.

Sadly I feel that this book was a missed opportunity. For the layman, most of it will be incomprehensible. Some will finish it and be tempted to dismiss the whole subject as a dark art. Even for a physics student used to the rarefied ways that scientists can talk, some of this will be difficult. Sadly the book falls between two audiences and will, I suspect only be enjoyed by a small number of readers which is a great tragedy.

Related Reviews

Clegg - Infinity
Cathcart - The Fly in the Cathedral

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Alan Moorehead - The Fatal Impact

This is a beautifully written book about the terrible legacy of European exploration of the Pacific. Alan Moorehead's classic study of the impact of European arrival in Tahiti, Australia and to a lesser extent the Antarctic is a tale of death, destruction and ecological distortion.

The story begins with Captain Cook, who arrived in Tahiti in 1769. As many books, films and stories since have told, Tahiti was at first glance an island paradise. Certainly for those who had travelled there on Cook's tiny ships, underfed, sick and tired, Tahiti must have been a dream come true. The Tahitians rarely wanted for food - their island was well stocked with a rich variety of fruits, plants and animals. Work was limited and the Tahitians had attitudes to sex that were far from the sailors' morally restricted lives back home. While life there was not utopian, there were inter-tribal wars and ritual sacrifice for instance, this was certainly a far better place to live than the lives the sailors were used to.

Alan Moorehead documents the rapid decline of the island once the Europeans arrived. From the first encounters with Cook's men, the Tahitians, lacking European notions of ownership were want to try and take the amazing objects that they saw for themselves. Guns and parts of the ships would vanish and Cook had to lead a number of punitive exhibitions to retrieve these. On later trips Cook attempted to introduce European animals to the islands, distorting and changing the ecology of Tahiti. Within a few years, the highly embellished tales of the exotic life on the islands attracted more explorers. Tahiti became fashionable, and the opportunities for replenishment of ships meant it also became a pawn in inter-colonial rivalry. Those who suffered the most of course, where the Tahitians. Their isolated lives had left them unable to deal with the arrival of the Europeans. Technologically or militarily they could not compete, nor did their world-view allow them to comprehend what could happen to them. Their isolation also left their bodies unprepared for the arrival of small pox or STDs, and within 50 years of Cook's first arrival, the population had crashed form 40,000 to 9,000.

A similar tale can be told of what happened to the Aboriginal peoples of Australia, when Europeans arrived. Initially, the barren and dry country was not seen as a prime destination. It was only a few decades later, when Britain sought a location of the victims of its over-zealous attitudes towards crime that Australia was considered. The 800 convicts who first arrived in Botany Bay in 1788 found a land badly suited to European notions of farming and society. Many died and many more almost perished. Once again it was the native peoples who suffered; the complexities of their hunter-gather communities over-looked by Europeans unable to see anything other than a childlike simplicity. This reached its extreme with the systematic murder and genocide directed against the people of Tasmania, hunted down like animals by European settlers.

This is a classic book. Historically it is detailed and as a work of literature it reads more like a tragic novel than a piece of academic writing. In places it is somewhat dated, Moorehead's use of language that was considered appropriate in the 1960s would not pass the proofing stage today. But the author's sympathies lie with those whose lives were destroyed by colonialism. Unlike some today, he is no apologist for Empire. His writings, particularly of the lives of the aboriginal people of Australia are fascinating because they uncover the complex nature of their lives, culture, language and customs. This would be a useful place to start for anyone wanting to explore these topics further. For Moorehead there are few happy outcomes from the exploration of the Pacific ocean. Apart from the tragedies that befell the natives of these islands, most of the sailors he mentions meet early deaths, as does Captain Cook himself (though the story is far from the tale of murder at the hands of savages that I learnt as a child).

The Fatal Impact might be considered an early example of the type of history that attempts a more detailed look at the intertwined fates of people, environment and their ecology as representatives of different modes of production meet. The story was repeated in many ways, in many places over the period described here. Its an aspect of history that deserves further study as we continue to consider the impact of our own society on the wider environment.

Further Reading

More on Alan Moorehead's fascinating life and writings can be found here. (PDF file)

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Leon Trotsky - On Britain

Leon Trotsky is of course, best known for helping lead the Russian Revolution and creating the Red Army to win the Civil War. He was also someone who took great interest in history and current affairs. His belief in the socialist future, and his internationalist outlook contrasted him to the growing clique around Stalin who, after the failure of revolutions in Europe in the early 1920s, turned increasingly towards the idea of Socialism in One Country.

Trotsky wrote a number of polemical pieces and books aimed at communists in other countries. This collection of essays begins with his book "Wither Britain" and includes extracts from a several reviews (almost all of them hostile) and a critical introduction by a British Labour leader. The later parts of this are Trotsky's responses and further writings, dealing in the main with the role of the Anglo-Russian Committee and the attitude of leading communists in the Soviet Union towards this body. The ARC was a co-ordinating group between leading British trade unionists and parts of the Soviet's international bodies. Designed to support the Russian Revolution at a time of isolation, it was also seen as a way of helping strengthen socialist forces in the UK. Trotsky's polemic here is aimed at the forces around Stalin who increasingly saw the ARC as being a way to help defend the USSR from intervention and economic isolation, rather than as a tool for revolution.

This attitude helps explain the earlier parts of the book. Trotsky attacks the sacred beliefs of many leading British Labourites and socialist. In particular, he opposes their arguments of non-violence (or pacifism) and the concept of gradualism. These arise, he says, not because of any inherent differences between the British national character and that of workers abroad, but because they are fundamentally opposed to the action struggles that are needed to over throw the state. As his writings get closer to the 1926 General Strike, from afar, Trotsky's view is much clearer than the so called socialist leaders in the UK. He can see the preparations being made for class-war by the capitalists. The British leaders, he points out, are enjoying too much their new found positions at the head of trade unions and in parliament.

The inclusion of articles by his critics, including Ramsay MacDonald, George Lansbury and Bertrand Russell is useful, because it shows how bankrupt their politics already were. They constantly argue that Trotsky's book is interesting and entertaining but shows no understanding of the life of British workers, or the nature of the movement. They urge him to acknowledge the role of the progressive church, of gradualism and the better relations with capitalists here. Trotsky, in response, points out their own lack of understanding, the bankrupt nature of the church and the failure to understand the way that the British ruling class was prepared to maintain its position by making workers pay. Something all too familiar today. Britain is different they plead, no it is not responds Trotsky, speaking to those who had already broken from the reformists but lacked clarity from their own leaders.

Trotsky's major problem is the fledgling nature of the British Communist Party, founded only a few years before the General Strike. The CP was, at its beginning, hampered by sectarian attitudes from some of its constituent members. Despite the bravery and commitment of many of its members, its small size and its distorted politics (in particularly, its belief that it was possible to win the Labour Party to socialism by leaning on the leadership) was to lead to disaster during the General Strike. The Russian leadership of the Communist International did not help much, in part because of their lack of understanding of the nature of trade union bureacracies, steming from their lack of experience in this field. Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein have discussed this in detail elsewhere.

Trostky's polemic is shaped by the recent disasters in Germany. Time and again he returns to the need for a mass, revolutionary organisation, capable of working with, but independently of the trade union and Labour leaders. One of the strengths of the book is seeing how Trotsky was coming towards a detailed grasp of the United Front tactic. However even Trotsky's brilliant mind is, occasionally confused by the reality of the Labour Party.

Ultimately, the sell-out of the 1926 General Strike by the union leaders seems to have come as a shock to the commentators overseas. Trotsky and those around him no-doubt hoped that this was the very beginning of the British revolution. Instead it was to herald a period of defeat for the British workers. The mistakes made by revolutionaries no had a far greater impact. The failure to break with the ARC in the aftermath of the sell-out, was one side of the coin. The other side was the way that the British CP put all its hopes in the General Council of the TUC. For Stalin, the way forward was now to appease the capitalist powers and build up the economic strength of the USSR. But this strategy helped to lay the path for the defeat of revolutionary movements in China and Spain. Trotsky's brilliant analysis in this book, shows the beginnings of his increasing break with the official politics of the CP and the twists, turns and betrayals of revolutionary movements that Stalin would now take.

Related Reviews

Trotsky - An Appeal to the Toiling, Oppressed and Exhausted Peoples of Europe
Cliff - Trotsky; Towards October 1879 - 1917
Cliff - Trotsky; Sword of the Revolution 1917 - 1923
Hallas - Trotsky's Marxism
Choonara - A Rebels' Guide to Trotsky

Monday, November 21, 2011

Sally Campbell - A Rebel's Guide to Rosa Luxemburg

In this latest addition to the Rebel's Guide series, Sally Campbell points out that many aspects of the modern world would be instantly recognisable to the revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg. We live in an era of revolution and war, repeated mass strikes have taken place in many countries in the last year. Here in the UK a public sector strike of up to 3 million workers at the end of November may well signal a new period of working class struggle.

Sally Campbell also points out, that the stark choice that Luxemburg offered, between "Socialism and Barbarism" remains even more true. The failure of the German revolution in the early 1920s led to the further isolation of Russia's revolution. This in turn helped entrench Stalin in power. In Germany the defeat of the revolutionary left, led to the rise of the Nazis, and in turn, the barbarism of the Holocaust and World War Two.

Rosa Luxemburg is one of the more misunderstood revolutionaries. Her incredibly important contributions to Marxist theory and revolutionary practice are often ignored in favour of detailing her polemics against the Bolsheviks. She is, as Campbell points out, many things to many people, tending to be a pawn in wider political arguments. Possibly the worst example of this that I have ever seen, is Joel Kovel's argument in The Enemy of Nature, where he declares that Rosa Luxemburg was more concerned that other male revolutionaries about questions of nature and ecology, because of her gender.

This makes Campbell's short book very important. Luxemburg's revolutionary life deserves to be celebrated, not simply for her dedication, nor to mark her horrific death, but because her contributions to the wider movement were so important. Her polemics with Lenin over questions of party organisation or the nature of Imperialism, which Campbell ably details, are not ones that are the result of cynicism towards revolution, rather they are the thoughts and writings of someone determined to play a part in the working classes' victory over capitalism.

The author of this book deserves congratulations for fitting so much into so few pages. The book never reads as superficial, though I wished it was longer. The section on Luxemburg's pamphlet The Mass Strike will, I hope, encourage many more people to read this important work themselves. Similarly I hope that people might go on to read her Junius Pamphlet, one of the most powerful polemics against war and imperialism I've ever read.

As Campbell celebrates Luxemburg's life, she also critiques her. Luxemburg made many mistakes, as do all revolutionaries. Perhaps her greatest mistake was remaining part of a broader socialist organisation for far to long, before she broke and formed the group that eventually became the German Communist Party. As Campbell points out there were reasons for this, and the debates were long and detailed as German socialists weighed up the pros and cons of their actions. Sadly they got it wrong and this mistake was a major factor in the failure of the German Revolution and Luxemburg's own death. Today, as a new generation of socialists face the challenges thrown up by a decaying capitalism - war and economic crisis, we must relearn the lessons from our own history. Sally Campbell has produced a great introduction to a forgotten but important part of that history. I urge comrades, old and new to read it.

Related Reviews

Orr - Sexism and the System; A Rebel's Guide to Women's Liberation
Choonara - A Rebel's Guide to Trotsky
Bambery - A Rebel's Guide to Gramsci
Birchall - A Rebel's Guide to Lenin

Gonzalez - A Rebel's Guide to Marx

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Patricia A. McAnany & Norman Yoffee - Questioning Collapse: Human Resilience, Ecological Vulnerability, and the Aftermath of Empire

Jared Diamond's books have become phenomenal bestsellers. Both Guns, Germs and Steel and the more recent Collapse have sold in their thousands and are regularly referenced, quoted and used as academic texts. Diamond has been, and should be praised for his attempts to look at human society and history with a critical eye. Famously he quotes a Papua New Guinean, Yali, in the first book, who questions why it is that white people have all the goods and his people have none. In trying to answer this complex question, Diamond challenges many assumptions. Not least some attitudes of racial superiority from the whites against those with darker skins.

However, many people clearly feel that Diamonds reductionism is inadequate. I felt that Collapse was less persuasive than Guns, Germs and Steel. In my review of it though, I complained that I didn't like the way that Diamond could point the finger at irrational behaviour in historical societies, without a similar critique of the irrationality at the heart of modern capitalism.

In Questioning Collapse, a wide range of anthropologists, archaeologists and social scientists offer their responses to Diamonds books. Most of these responses are very critical indeed. The advertising campaign for Collapse centred on Diamond's version of the story of the end of the civilisation on Easter Island. Diamond located the collapse here, in the irrational destruction of the islands forests. "What did the person who cut the last tree down think?" was the question posed by the advertising agency. Yet the title to the chapter on Easter Island in this volume refers to the "Myth" of ecocide on Easter Island. The authors conclude that "there is no evidence that the island represents a case of 'ecocide' where a large population crashed from environmental ruin before Europeans arrived".

Instead, this version of the Easter Island story is one were the European arrival was the trigger for population crash on the islands, instead, "as the idea of 'ecocide' has gained currency, the victims of cultural and physical extermination have been turned into the perpetrators of their own demise!"

Similar arguments are thrown up in other chapters. The author of the chapter responding to Diamond's thoughts on the "Archaeology of the American Southwest" is very critical of Diamond's methods. He accuses Diamond of "completely ignoring" thousands of years of history. The story of "environmental mismanagement" by indigenous people that Diamond offers, this author suggests, ends up justifying the actions of the colonizers. After all, if the native people couldn't manage the land properly, than those who came after them could. Thus, despite the evidence of thousands of years of successful farming in the desert, we are led to believe that the indigenous people were "failures" whereas those who green the desert of the American south-west with golf courses are somehow successful.

Several essays remind us that many of the civilisations that Diamond classes as failures, have survived far longer than those that he considers successes. The decline of the Norse society in Greenland, long enough to provide "four additional generations" is, longer than several twentieth-century European states have lasted. The city of Uruk in Mesopotamia, "flourished, though not without its ups and downs, for more than 3,000 years", hardly an example of a mismanaged environment.

What these authors are trying to do, is to avoid looking for simple answers to difficult questions. Several of them ask, what do we actually mean by collapse? In Mesopotamia, or South America in the case of the Maya, civilisations declined, and populations decreased enormously. But this does not necessarily mean the end of civilisation. Hundreds of thousands of people still speak Maya, and even play a version of the ancient ball-game. Is this actually a Collapse?

Changes to human societies, and even their collapse is down to many factors. Sometimes environmental questions play a role. Though more often, the determining factor is not the climate, but the political and economic setup. The "choices" a society can make are constrained by the social forces within those societies. Some Maya cities did decline rapidly in the face of drought. Others continued to thrive or expand, despite suffering from similar environmental problems. Those that survived were ones that adapted and changed, often because new forces were able to force rulers to behave differently, or stand aside. As in the case of the American people in the south-west, Diamond's failure to explain their own history, ends up misunderstanding the nature of the decline of their society. It ends up letting those who re-shaped America in their own interests, off the hook. Consistently Diamond is accused of misrepresenting the realities of the societies he examines, in the case of south America David Cahill argues, for instance, that he "misrepresents, perhaps unintentionally, the complexity and achievements of Incan or Andean civilization".

These essays are stimulating and informative. They are also unusual in that the authors are presented not simply as academics, but as people engaged in real dialogues and discussions with the people and places that they study. Several, such as Michael Wilcox who wrote the chapter on the indigenous people of the south-west of America, are also part of the communities they study. His chapter is both an academic critique of Diamond's work and a personal cry of rage at the attitudes that many academics have taken towards his people.

This is not to say the essays are perfect. I was struck reading the book that rarely are Diamond's ideas laid open. It would be more useful if some of the authors had said "on page X, Diamond argues this, but we believe this other thing". Too many of the responses are generalised critiques of Diamond's positions, not detailed challenges to his ideas.

These are not academic spats. There are real questions of how groups of humans can and do survive environmental catastrophe. These have important lessons for our own times. As the authors of the chapter on Easter Island finish, the "real story here is one of human ingenuity and success that lasted more than 500 years on one of the world's most remote human outposts."

I would recommend this book to those interested in the fates of human societies facing environmental and social changes. But I would also encourage people to read Jared Diamond's books alongside them, at least for reference. Diamond builds up a powerful case and we can all learn from the challenges to his arguments and ideas.

Related Reviews

Diamond - Collapse

This review of Questioning Collapse by a anthropology academic is also useful and can mark the start point for interested readers who want to reader more about the debates that have sprung up as a result of the publication of QC.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Immanuel Ness & Dario Azzellini (eds) - Ours to Master and to Own: Workers' Control from the Commune to the Present

As I write this review, tens of thousands of people are engaged in Occupy protests and occupations around the world. Most famously in Wall Street, but also on the doorstep of the London Stock Exchange and in a hundred other locations around the globe. Workplace occupations have also been part of the recent struggles - here in the UK, in the last few years at the Visteon and Vestas plants. As this book ably documents, workers control, or at least workers management has been a feature of recent class struggle, as well as in the past. The revolution in Egypt is still developing, so it forms no part of the debates here. Perhaps a new chapter will have to be written soon.

Nevertheless, this collection of essays is extremely timely. Divided into several parts, the editors have collected articles to examine the full range of experiences. Some of the strongest articles are over-views of the historical process from a Marxist point of view. Of these, two in particular stood out. Donny Gluckstein's summary of the experience of Workers' Councils in Europe, based in part on his excellent book The Western Soviets looks at how workplace council's rose as out of revolutionary struggles, beginning with the Paris Commune and then the upheavels following the end of World War One. Similarly, Sheila Cohen's article looks at some of these events and those post World War Two in Europe, together with questions of the role of the State and alternatives to capitalism.

Several articles examine these processes in detail. Three look at the worker's council movement in Europe post World War One, examining Italy, Germany and Russia. The article on Germany is particularly interesting, as it looks at the question of workers organisation under the conditions of illegality, as well as the challenges posed by a young, immature shop-stewards movement faced with an explosion of revolution. It also rescues the fascinating and magnificent role of the workers leader, Richard Muller, who has been largely forgotten to revolutionary history. There are also superb chapters on obscure moments of working class history, Java and Algeria being two. One great strength of this book, is that it doesn't concentrate on the experience of workers in America or Europe, but draws on lessons from every corner of the globe, including near forgotten moments of our history.

These chapters are in my opinion some of the strongest. This is not because they are better written than the others, rather it is because the revolutionary period they cover is inspiring and offers real examples of alternatives to capitalism. The stories of how worker's ideas change at moments of mass revolutionary action is always inspiring and examples of how people take production into their own collective hands, overthrowing the boss and the manager and beginning to run society in their own interest are always useful.

Sadly, later chapters don't match these peaks. This is not simply because the subject matter is obscure. Their is confusion with the definition of workers control. For some authors, it is blurred between the potential for the revolutionary control of the means of production and any example of workers being involved in factory management. This later definition can often come from very top down initiative, such as the experience in Yugoslavia (the rather clunky titled chapter on "Self-Management as State Paradigm").

This is duplicated in later chapters on South America. Here worker's control and self-management have been taken to great heights by the state. Workers are encouraged to take control of their factories, managing them in the interest of the wider economy, yet without the bottom-up experience that marks the high-points of revolution. This is not to say the experience isn't positive. In Brazil, the reaction to bankruptcy of some industries has lead to "Recovered Factories" where despite the problems, it is "impossible to be indifferent after entering a factory like the former Botoes Diamantina... and watching the factory workers handling all different matters themselves, with the CUT flag hanging in the conference room."

However in many cases, the experience of taking over factories in economic crisis has proved difficult, if not impossible. A chapter on Venezuela points out many of the difficulties for such workers co-operatives. How much worker's control is there really when because "the state was the majority stockholder, all important decisions had to be approved by the ministry"? In response, the workers moved on from "comanagement" to workers councils, because, as one worker said, "we didn't kick out one capitalist to create 60 new ones". There is a danger, within capitalism, that isolated examples of workers management lead to a "market of solidarity" between such enterprises, struggling to survive without a further challenge to the status quo.

Despite this, even in the context of capitalism co-operatives challenge the priorities of the system. One characteristic of almost all the examples in the book is that when workers are given some control over their lives, they begin to change. The thrilling story of the Canadian telecom workers who, for five days ran the whole telephone company is a powerful story of how, by kicking out managers, work becomes more interesting, more fulfilling and the service improves. These workers learnt their own power, and because they could engage with others in the workplace, they understood their industry even better, learning about company jobs that they had never heard from before. This is the very beginnings of the old quote from Lenin, about how in the new workers state, "every cook should govern". The Canadian telecoms workers remained until forced out by the existing state and its legal apparatus, though the solidarity they received shows the potential for action even at low points in the class struggle (this was 1981). Their story is particularly of interest, because the strategy of occupation and control was used by a union that was considered weak and couldn't sustain the normal strike procedures.

It would be wrong to review such an important book without engaging in some slight criticism. One criticism I have is that in too few of the articles do we hear how the actual occupations, workers control or self-management worked. The Canadian story is one of the exceptions, but if we are to inspire a new generation of factory occupations and workers councils, we'll have to show how workers' democracy can work (warts and all) and how occupations might proceed. This book has too much of what the people at the top say and do, and too little stories from the ground. A few more quotes and recollections from participants would have helped enormously.

Finally, my main criticism is the old point about reform or revolution. For me, we look at workers councils in the past, to learn lessons about how to transform society in future revolutionary moments. The councils that sprang up from the bottom during the revolutions of 1917-1920, or those in Spain in 1936 or Chile, Portugal and others in the 1970s offer both a potential for a future society and lessons for us today. There is a danger that we see them as historical curiosities. Peter Robinson falls into this trap when he concludes his chapter on Worker's Control in Portugal, writing that it "was an extraordinary period, one that needs to be further studied and celebrated". Here Robinson makes the process sound like an abstract historical argument, rather than, as other chapters show, a living breathing debate that workers' in many parts of the world are engaging in today. As the recession deepens and the capitalists try to make workers globally pay for the crisis, its a discussion that millions more will take part in.

Related Reviews

Dave Sherry - Occupy! A Short History of Workers' Occupations

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Eric Simons - Darwin Slept Here

While this book will contain little for evolutionary scientists or Darwin scholars, for those who like their travel books to be a little more than stories of visiting unusual places and gawping at them, it is interesting enough. Eric Simon's is travelling in South America when he stumbles across a copy of Charles Darwin's accounts of his own travels around that continent, The Voyage of the Beagle.

When I read Voyage myself, I was struck by Darwin as a person. Taken direct from his own diaries, the trip is as much a voyage of scientific discovery as it is the tale of a young man grappling with his own ideas and thoughts.

Simon's decides to try and follow in Darwin's footsteps. While this means trying to locate obscure valleys or buildings from descriptions that are over a hundred years old, it also means grappling with some of Darwin's thoughts ideologically and scientifically. There is very little hear about the scientific ideas. Simons dwells mostly on Darwin's thoughts about slavery, which he hated. In trying to understand this, Simons comes to realise that much of the history of the region has been lost. In particular, the story of the impact of European colonialism upon the indigenous peoples of South America has been forgotten, or perhaps distorted. In one tourist video Simons sees at a distillery in Chile, the subtitles inform the tourist that "The indigenous people had developed a culture perfectly suited to receive the Spanish settlers".

This of course fits the narrative that the people of the majority of the world were fit to become the ruled, rather than run their own lives. Darwin himself grappled with the complexities of these ideas. Complex not because they are difficult, but because challenging things like racism meant challenging the Victorian world view. Something that Darwin was to prove more than fit for later in life, though in his earlier twenties he was still learning.

Simons' is keen to bring to life the story of the young Darwin, excited by travel and exploration, amazed by the world around him, on the cusp of greatness and scientific breakthrough. Darwin Slept Here won't detain the reader for long, and it will ably prepare them for reading Darwin's own travel accounts, which should be the next step.

Related Reviews

Darwin - The Voyage of the Beagle

Monday, November 07, 2011

Terry Pratchett - Snuff

Terry Pratchett's latest Discworld novel, Snuff, has become the third fastest selling non-fiction book in history. It deserves this accolade. Pratchett has kept us entertained now for many years, and while his books are always fun and deeper than many critics might imagine, in recent years they haven't quite touched the heights that some of his earlier books did. Snuff is a return to form. I think it is one of the best since Night Watch and is on a par with some of the earlier novels, such as Jingo or Feet of Clay.

I pick these three quite deliberately. Pratchett being back on form is not simply about laughs. But at his best he manages quite detailed social commentary. Jingo was an outstanding statement about the insanity of war and Imperialism at the time of the First Gulf War. That war unlike the more recent Iraq conflict was not marked by repeated, huge anti-war protests. It is a brave novel that deals with the consequences of war and racism. Night Watch was about revolution, or at least rebellion and Feet of Clay used the metaphor of the Golem to represent the struggle for worker's rights.

I have complained about the recurrance of the Watch and Sam Vimes in particular in recent Discworld novels. But Snuff shows how wrong I was. The problem wasn't the characters that Pratchett was using, rather it was the tales themselves that had lost their way. In this latest book, Pratchett deals explicitly with class and class conflict. Class has always been a part of the Discworld. There are rich people and lots of poor people. Vimes rises from the lowly rank of policeman to Commander of the Watch at the same time as marrying the richest woman in Ankh Morpork. The question of Kings and Regicide as been a repeated theme of several of Pratchett's books.

What is different here is that Pratchett makes the question of class a key component of the story. Holidaying at his wife's country home, Vimes is stunned by the attitudes of the servants who behave like characters in some victorian novel. They face the wall as he, the master of the house, walks past. Rural workers doff their caps and stammer when spoken to. All except the Blacksmith who speaks in near cliched terms of the oppression of the ordinary folk.

Skillfully though, this is the precurrsor to wider conflict. For crime rears its head as it is bound to, with a policeman on holiday. This time the victims are a new race. The Goblins. Decride as being dirty and disliked unanimously by the rest of the Discworld's many peoples, the Goblins are new to the canon. Their emancipation is forced by Vimes and others (though not, Marxists should note, by a mass movement). The slavery and suffering they experience, is brutal and violent. Pratchett does not shy away from this aspect of his tale. The question of money and those landed gentry who profit from the deals forms a backdrop to the wider story.

It would be easy to try and impose some Marxist sub-text onto the novel. Certainly though there are some interesting comparisions. Vimes carries with him the stigma of the city, and the gulf between the attitudes of the city dwellers from advanced Ankh Morpork and those in the countryside might be interpreted as some fantasy version of Marx's rift between Town and Country. Perhaps that's reading a little too much into it. But certainly the countryside here is backward and superstitious, the city advanced and benvolent.

If a Marxist wanted to critique this further, one could see illusions in the state. Vimes himself and the cities ruler, represent a liberal, outward looking state, keen to drag the system into a modern era, doing away with the old trappings of fuedalism that hold things back. But both Vimes and the Patrician like to reserve the right to violence themselves. The Death Penalty is something that should, according to Vimes, be reserved for use by those in power, not arbitarily executed by the common people, no matter how justified their cause. This personal urge for revenge is played out in this novel through Vimes. Sickened and appalled by the violent death of a female Goblin, Vimes barely restrains himself from summary justice.

There's much else here. The process of Goblin emancipation is fascinating too. It is only when their "humanity" is recognised, rather than their intelligence, that they become accepted. They can be free, so long as they behave like sensible people and aren't too outlandish.

I hope that Pratchett continues to write and I hope that his future writings match the depth and passion contained in Snuff. Fantasy fiction has too often been claimed by the right-wing. But this is progressive fiction at its best. Pratchett isn't a revolutionary, but he certainly is on the side of the 99%. Though we must remember that fantasy is rarely totally accurate and there are few, if any benevolent dictators, or policemen. They still have the monopoly on violence in the real world too.

Related Reviews

Pratchett - Unseen Academicals
Pratchett - Making Money
Pratchett - Wintersmith
Pratchett - Thud
Pratchett - Going Postal
Pratchett - Colour of Magic

Further Reading

Great Review of Snuff from Comrade Markin here.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

J.G.Farrell - The Singapore Grip

The Singapore Grip is a different novel to the others in J.G.Farrell's Empire trilogy. At just of 675 pages in length it is by far the longest and sadly at times, it has a somewhat bloated feel. But its length is not the only difference. The two earlier novels dealt with the end of the British Empire, through the lens of two moments of Imperial collapse. The first, The Siege of Krishnapaur, deals with the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the follow-up, Troubles, with the Irish Rebellion of 1919.

The Singapore Grip, as the name suggests, deals with the invasion of the supposedly impenetrable base of Singapore during World War II. Singapore, the jewel in the crown of Britain's South-East Asian interests, is, at the beginning of the conflict, seemingly untouched by the troubles of the home country. The Second World War has barely impacted upon the lives of the British characters here. In Singapore, most Brits lead a life of luxury, lording it over the natives whose lives are destined to serve and create profit for the British.

Here is the crucial difference. Rather cleverly, Farrel spends the vast majority of the novel dealing with metaphors for the end of the old order, without dealing with the war itself. Reflecting the period he is writing about, the novel is dominated by the business of making profits from rubber. The characters who he concentrates on, are those intimately connected with big business. Even their love lives and weddings are about sealing the future of profits. Rubber is a business that is doing well from the war, in high demand for the tanks, planes and ships that the Allies need. There appears to be a high demand, much higher than the rubber being sent abroad. Yet the industry is barely operating at capacity, much more rubber could be produced, but that would reduce its price and effect profits. Despite their protestations of loyalty, these rubber barons stand first and foremost with their shareholders.

So here is the decline, a metaphor for the changing world itself, the power of big business to override all other ideas and principles in the search for higher profits. Farrell challenges this of course. The main spanner in the works is Matthew, a young heir to a vast rubber fortune, whose ideas of human fraternity, clash badly with those at the dinner parties around him.

As with Troubles and Siege, the principle characters steal the show. We know what is coming, so we can guess the threat they face. But Farrell spends much more time filling in the faces of the supporting cast. Here are native workers from Singapore, refugees from the conflict between China and Japan and servants. Few of these are as obnoxious as the establishment figures that we follow, but they had, as history shows, far more to lose.

The ending is ambiguous. Delightfully so. We do not know what happens to most of the characters, though Farrell leaves us some hints. Singapore was liberated eventually, but the refugees who had escaped there and been trapped as well as many of those soldiers taken prisoner, suffered dreadfully. But the British experience was never the same. The last of the Empire Trilogy, is a fitting end to a story that spans a period of a century - the gradual decline and fall of the British colonial rule. The ambiguity of the ending of this novel, perhaps being a further metaphor for the continuing imperial ambitions of a small island off the north-west of Europe that cannot seem to realise that its glory days are over.

Related Reviews

Farrell - Siege of Krishnapaur
Farrell - Troubles

Friday, October 28, 2011

Kester Aspden - The Hounding of David Oluwale

Rarely do I read a book that leaves me quite so upset and angry. The life of David Oluwale should really  have been a footnote in history. Like many Commonwealth citizens in the 1950s and 60s, he came to the UK as an immigrant, firmly believing no doubt, that the mother-country would provide a life and work for him. Oluwale arrived as a stowaway and eventually worked in a succession of different jobs, ending up in Leeds. Many of his contemporaries did this and ended up living successful, if unnoteworthy lives.

What marks Oluwale's life out though, is the manner of his death. Kester Aspden has pieced together the little that is known of his life - through interviews with surviving friends and acquaintances, detailed researches in the archives and newspapers of the time. In the early 1950s, Oluwale was admitted to a psychiatric hospital. Care was primitive, treatment limited and brutal, involving electroconvulsive therapy. Oluwale left hospital a decade later a changed man. Unable to hold down work, his life increasingly seems to have become dominated by rough sleeping, drugs and alcohol. He also attracted the attention of the police.

Two officers in particular seem to have taken a personal dislike to Oluwale. Following a number of violent incidents when David bit and fought back, they seem to have deliberately targeted him. Asking fellow officers to alert them if he was seen, hunting him down, "hounding" him. One police officer reported, while a witness in their later trial that he'd seen one officer urinating on Oluwale, while he slept in a doorway. The other held the torch. To the policement concerned, Oluwale was a piece of rubbish. Something that littered the night-time streets of Leeds. Somebody to be moved on, harassed and beaten. He was, as they described in the nationality section of two charges sheets, merely a "wog". Oluwale was clearly violent, though given the abuse, its not surprising that he didn't fight back to try and resist being taken into a police vehicle where he might repeatedly bang his head, or be kicked in the groin. On one occasion Officers Kitching and Ellerker drove Oluwale for 40 minutes into the countryside, leaving him in a forest. What was going through the man's head during those minutes as they drove him far away cannot be imagined.

Yet others didn't see him as violent. Several shopkeepers describe how he was not violent in the slightest when they moved him away from their doors. Others saw him as gentle, if excitable and frustrated. An ambulance worker who knew him seems to have genuinely liked Oluwale.

Aspden's book brings to life a forgotten era in our recent history. The 1950s and 1960s were not easy times, economically or socially. Racism was rife, it was a long time before public institutions would acknowledge the need to combat it. The words of Enoch Powell had a hearing from large sections of the populations. The small number of immigrants were blamed for job losses and social problems.

Certainly there was a level of acceptable racism. The police force was then, as now, a notable hotbed of backward attitudes and racism. It seems that many of the colleagues of Kitching and Ellerker believed that they were guilty of Oluwales' death. Abusing him one last time and either pushing him, or causing him to jump to his death in the Aire River. No one seems to have spoken out, until one young policeman asked a few awkward questions.

Aspden's book is not really about the search for some belated justice. What he has tried to do, is to reconstruct a difficult and forgotten past to better illuminate our own history and ask pertinent questions. What is it about a society were a man can fall so far down, that no-one seriously attempts to help him? How can a man, repeatedly end up in front of the courts, without another section of society trying to understand why? How can police officers, who regularly saw violence against a member of the public, not speak out, nor intervene, despite their personal disgust?

Social justice, if it is to mean anything, should be for everyone. But in the Oluwale case, institutionalised stigmas and racism, a culture of violence and apathy towards those at the bottom of society, conspired to culminate years of abuse into murder.

The consequences were limited, but there were changes. The Leeds police's credibility was damaged beyond repair - the force was merged a few years later. Leeds United fans chanted "Never Trust the Leeds Police - Ol-u-wa-a-le" at the coppers in the football ground. When Ellerker and Kitching were released from prison (not for Oluwale's murder it should be said) they were shunned by their colleagues. In particular, the trade unionists at Ellerker's new workplace tried to prevent him joining their union. This reaction was not the end of racism, but it demonstrates a new era of solidarity growing. Oluwale's death highlighted injustice and was a small part in the further demonisation of racism that still needs to be done today.

Aspden's book is an amazing read. Few books have made me gasp out loud in shock and anger. Few non-fiction works make me cry like this. I urge you to read it. But it made me think too. Oluwale slipped through a social security net that barely existed. In the 1950s no one cared about mentally ill black people. Today, things are better, though there are still inequalities in the way that black people are treated by the mental-health system. Police racism still exists, as does corruption and cover-up.

But we have won some changes. Health care for the vulnerable is far better than 60 years ago. The police cannot get away with everything as they used to think they could. But what of the future? What happens if the NHS is further eroded by the Tories. What if funding is further cut for the most vulnerable in society? What then for those who end up on the streets, unable to escape a cycle of violence and poverty, finding themselves at the end of a racist coppers truncheon?

Further Reading

A far better review than mine of "The Hounding of David Oluwale" is here in Socialist Worker from 2007. An interview with the author was also published in the same edition. It can be found here.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Henry Mayhew - London Labour and the London Poor

Henry Mayhew's classic text, London Labour and the London Poor is a powerful and fascinating study of life on the streets during the later half of the nineteenth century. This new edition comes with a very useful introduction which puts Mayhew's life and work into the context of the times.

Victorian attitudes to the poor varied considerably, but the majority opinion seems to be that they were lazy, feckless or represented some sort of unemployable section of society that could never make good. While clearly having great sympathy with his subjects, Mayhew does reflect these sentiments occasionally. His four part classification (Those that will work, Those that cannot work, Those that will not work and Those that need not work) summing this up well. But Mayhew doesn't try and explain the situation, he wants to report it, and his interviews capture the lives of those trapped in poverty at the bottom of society. Through the voices of the individuals he meets, we see that often their poverty is the result of mishap, old age or family circumstance.

Some of the tales are extraordinary. To take one example, the young man, turned burglar, whose succession of jobs are ruined by his brother who pressurises him to steal money or materials from each business, eventually leading him into unemployment and a life of crime. Here is one of Mayhew's common themes, the idea of a fall from grace leading to criminality or life on the edge of society. Occasionally Mayhew's generalities can seem annoying to the modern reader

"The chimney-sweepers generally are fond of drink, indeed their calling, like that of dustmen, is one of those which naturally lead to it."

But such statements reflect the prejudices of the time, rather than any attempt to understand life at the bottom. Is it any wonder that men, who, Mayhew is told have "vomited balls of soot" like to have a good drink?

Mayhew's reportage was immensely popular at the time. This seems slightly strange. Many of the people who bought and read these tales, must have seen this life all around them. But what may have been attractive to them are the lives that are led behind the scenes - the small tricks of the trade - how the pickpockets learnt to steal, or the life of "Old Sarah" the blind hurdy-gurdy player who in her forty years on the streets had gone through "four guides and worn out three instruments" until struck by a cab and left unable to play, finally died alone. The modern fascination for tricksters and swindlers shown by the popular program, The Real Hustle, is no different to Mayhew's detailed accounts of the tricks of beggars, or the activities of burglars and other criminals.

Many of the jobs are forgotten today - some are unnecessary - the crossing sweepers, who cleared the horse-shit and rubbish from the road when higher class people wanted to cross the road are one example. These young men created their own organisation, with code-words and slang, nicknames for particular police men and strict codes of conduct for who could lay claim to particular individuals that approached. They would encourage charity and employment by turning cart-wheels, and presumeably, like all young boys, boast to Mayhew about being the best at particular tumbles. But there are more oddities. Then man who earns a living by imitating farmyard animals, another who gets a few coins allowing people to look through his microscope and so on.

Mayhew is not afraid of the poverty or the people. He paints a picture of a society dominated by the lack of wealth, struggling to survive. But despite the poverty, a strong sense of solidarity comes through. While crime was rife and people thought nothing of cheating a customer (the photographers are a particularly amusing example of this - most people had never seen their own image, so the pictures often weren't even of the subject) people did help each other. Unlike some Victorian writers, Mayhew doesn't hide things that he doesn't approve of. Prostitution was part and parcel of the life he was documenting, and while he doesn't go into great detail, his interviews with prostitutes of different ages show that the reality was far from the lives documented in a few recent fictional depictions of life on the streets at the time.

Some of the book seems dated and Mayhew's methodology may be suspect - he has suspiciously accurate figures for the amount of rubbish discarded (2,240 lbs of cigar ends annually) for instance. But these stories (and this new edition from OUP is but a selection of the much larger Mayhew collection) are a wonderfully evocative taste of life in Victorian London.

The patter of the street seller who, in the 1800s encouraged his onlookers to purchase his goods like this:

"Well, then say 17,16,15,14,13,12,11, 10 shillings; what, none of you give ten shillings for this beautiful article? See how it improves a man's appearance'....'Any young man here present wearing this chain will always be show into the parlour instead of the tap-room; into the best pew in church,.... But I'll ruin myself for your sakes... Say 9s. for this splendid piece of jewellery - 8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1 -a shilling.... will anyone give me a shilling...."

He could be transported to street markets the length and breadth of the British Isles today and find his pitch and sell his gear. In many respects, despite the lack of crossing-sweepers and animal impersonators, very little has changed.

Related Reviews

Fishman - East End 1888
Wise - The Blackest Streets

Friday, October 14, 2011

Philip José Farmer - The Fabulous Riverboat

I've previously reviewed the first novel of Philip José Farmer's series set on the fantastic Riverworld, so I won't repeat my descriptions of that amazing planet. Volume two of the series is more action packed and less thoughtful than the first book, but that does not undermine the essential brilliance of the novels. Here we have the most impossible planet, made to feel possible.

This volume only mentions Richard Burton, the hero of the first book in passing. Burton now has reached almost mystical proportions amongst the denziens of Riverworld. A few characters return, Goering, as a rather annoying religious character for instance.

This plot centres on the desires of Mark Twain, or Sam Clemens to use his given name. Sam wants to build the eponymous riverboat, to explore and find the true meaning of Riverworld. To do so, he needs a source of metal and other materials that barely exist on the planet. The intervention of a rogue member of the planet's alien masters allows this material to be found, and the kingdoms that develop around the locations of these new resources creates the potential both for technological advances and conflict. An era of Imperialism has arrived to Riverworld. Interestingly, slavery (in the form of grail slaves) has re-made an appearance. On a planet were no-one has to work, because food is provided through the grails that each person has on reincarnation, getting others to labour or fight for you, can be difficult. Taking their grails away makes slavery possible. It also makes slave revolts a possibility too.

The uneasy alliances between such historically untrustworthy characters as Eric the Bloodaxe and King John are of course bound to be full of tension. To tell more would ruin the story, but Farmer skillfully keeps us believing its all possible and throws in a few sharp commentaries on the way the world runs today.

Related Reviews

Philip José Farmer - To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Monday, October 10, 2011

David Kynaston - Austerity Britain 1945 - 1951

As the Tories and their lickspittle friends the Liberal Democrats try to destroy every last vestige of the welfare state, what better book to read than an account of Britain's greyest hour - the post war years. Austerity Britain is well titled. The sufferings of the war-years, the rationing, the death and destruction rapidly passed into a period of dull greyness. People continued to go hungry, if anything rationing got worse as the food aid that had poured into the country from the United States no longer arrived. The destruction wrought by bombing, added to the over-crowded conditions in many working class areas from before the war, meant that housing was in short supply.

David Kynaston's history of this period is a superb follow up to a book I read and reviewed here recently - Angus Calder's history of World War Two - A People's War. Like Calder, Kynaston uses extensive social records from the time, Mass Observation in particular, but also diaries, reminiscences and interviews. Many of these are from ordinary people, though Kynaston is at pains to try and include all sides of the class divide. This is important - class differences a very stark during these years.

The book starts with the most hopeful period - the introduction of the welfare state and the nationalisation of industry. Around a fifth of the economy was nationalised - including the coal industry, energy, the Bank of England and the railways. Kynaston argues that this nationalisation was at the heart of the post-war Labour government's agenda, and as a consequence was viewed with terror by the establishment and the Tories. As the election results came in, many middle and upper class people thought their time had come. They imagined their wealth being taken from them, losing their money, businesses and homes. In fact this didn't happen. Labour proceeded nervously, seemingly unsure of how to use their popular mandate, terrified of upsetting big business.

As unemployment rose, cynicism seems to abound. Kynaston paints a picture of a population unhappy and grumbling, unhappy with their lot, but unconfident to challenge the system. There must be some truth in this - strike figures don't exactly show a combative working class, but you do see the settings for future conflicts beginning to be laid out.

One review of the book, in Socialist Review, argues that there is not much to this, than a series of anecdotes. There is much truth in this, and I agree with that reviewer that the anecdotes are illuminating. Too often they seem random, but they are given context and the astute reader can develop a better understanding of the time. There are startling omissions - the rest of the world most importantly. The ending of the War, marked the beginning of the end of Britain's Empire, yet some of these great events, which surely must have impacted upon people's consciousness barely get a mention. I do not recall a single mention of Indian Independence in 1947 for instance.

The book is at its best when it gives a flavour of life and the times. The sections on the lives of recent immigrants to the country from the West Indies for instance, are fascinating. The chapters dealing with the reaction of the establishment to the election of Labour are similarly interesting and show how scared their side is of us. Labour comes out of the book, less like the domineering and influential post-war government that we are often told about. The creation of the Welfare State brought was done with frequent pandering to the vested interests for instance. Leading politicians seem to show ignorance, naivety and indecisiveness in the face of economic crisis and social change, but nothing new there.

If you enjoyed A People's War, you'll probably enjoy this, though there is a weaker narrative - the book is more of a sequential history, rather than an attempt to come to many conclusions. That said, for those interested in social history, there is a wealth of material here of interest.

Related Reviews

Angus Clader - A People's War