According to A Man for All Seasons, Thomas More was a man of principle, willing to sacrifice his life rather than compromise his beliefs. Hilary Mantel’s portrayal of him in Wolf Hall gives an alternative view, of a man who was happy to burn heretics, sarcastic and cruel to those around him, and something of a misogynist. In this truly very brief history, John Guy tries to reveal the real man behind the myths.
My existing knowledge was that More was Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor during Henry’s attempt to ditch Katherine of Aragon in favour of Anne Boleyn; that More drew the line when Henry decided to ditch the Catholic Church, too, and declare himself the Supreme Head of the Church in England; and that for his defiance, More was executed. Oh, and that he wrote a book called Utopia, which I haven’t read. And tortured and burned heretics, although of course he wasn’t alone in enjoying that sport.
Sadly, once I had read this, I found that my existing knowledge hadn’t really expanded much at all. The book runs to 144 small pages, including notes, etc. I was reading the e-book, but at a guess I’d say 100-110 pages of text maximum, during which Guy romps through his life, discusses the writing and history of Utopia, talks about the portrayal of him in art following his death and in literature more recently, and finishes up with his route to sainthood. When I tell you that More dies at the 40% mark, you will be able to tell that the book doesn’t go into much depth regarding his life.
Guy always writes well and Thomas More has been a subject of study with him for many years, so there’s no doubt of the scholarship. But truthfully the biography section is so superficial as to be almost pointless, unless one literally knows nothing about More going in. (Which begs the question: why then would you be motivated to read the book in the first place?) And the rest reads like the epilogue to a biography – the kind of thing that historians put in as a last chapter to round the thing off.
Some of it is quite interesting, like the fact that Marx adopted Utopia as a socialist text and as a result there was a statue to commemorate More along with other great socialists in the USSR. Or that his sainthood only came through in 1935, by which time one would have hoped that the Catholic Church might have stopped sanctifying heretic-burners. (Mind you, Wikipedia tells me the Anglican Church recognised him as a martyr of the Reformation in 1980, so look out anyone who doesn’t conform to Anglicanism – the days of burning may not be as far behind us as we thought!) It is mildly amusing in a surreal kind of way that in 2000, Pope John Paul II made him the patron saint of politicians…
Which brings me neatly to my conclusion – it grieves me to say it since I’ve been an admirer of John Guy’s work for years but, frankly, reading the Wikipedia page on More is just about as informative as this book. I guess very brief histories just aren’t my kind of thing. Guy wrote a longer biography of More some years ago (although still only 272 pages, according to Goodreads), so I may read that some day to see if it’s more satisfying.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, SPCK.
Written in three parts some years after the Revolution of 1917, Trotsky sets out to give a detailed history of the events of that year, combined with his analysis of what led to Russia being ripe for revolution at that moment in time. He admits to his own bias, but claims that he has rigorously fact-checked, including only what can be verified in written records. In order to stop the book reading like an autobiography or memoir, he refers to himself in the third person throughout. I ended up with 24 A4 pages of notes on this 900-page book, so will be summarising and paraphrasing brutally to keep this review even close to a readable length. Given the complexity of the subject, it’s highly likely that a different reader would disagree with my interpretations or emphases.
Trotsky begins by giving a fascinating explanation of why revolutions arise, and how they differ from other forms of changes of government, even violent ones. His position is that the involvement of the masses is key – that a tipping point is reached when people suddenly feel they cannot tolerate the existing regime any longer. Therefore the masses create the demagogue to lead them once that point is reached, rather than the demagogue being the starting point. This section, and other sections where Trotsky talks in general terms on political theory, are excellent – intelligent, concise and clear; and the translation is remarkable, especially for such a complex subject. The translator, Max Eastman, knew Trotsky and was well aware of the events under discussion, which perhaps makes his translation transcend the literal.
Next Trotsky explains the historical background which brought Russia to the tipping point. His argument, in summary, is that for geographical and cultural reasons Russia was a backwards nation, politically and economically, so that, when it came under pressure from the encroaching Western powers to industrialise and modernise, it did so by jumping some of the steps that those more developed countries had already gone through. He calls this the law of combined development. This sudden industrialisation led to skewed figures in terms of the percentage of the population employed in huge industrial concerns – this new industrial class, the proletariat, forming an ideal environment for revolutionary ideas to ferment. And the increased poverty and suffering brought on by the lengthy war – an imperialist war – sped up the natural progression towards the revolutionary tipping point. At all stages, Trotsky’s argument is that the pressure for revolution came from the masses upwards, and that the Bolsheviks merely gave guidance to the process of insurrection through providing a Marxist-based political education to the workers.
Trotsky next speaks of the Romanovs and their supporters, and it’s here that any pretence of impartiality or balance disappears entirely. Trotsky’s words positively drip hatred and venom. He criticises their intelligence, understanding, lack of compassion, cruelty. He compares them to other monarchies overthrown in earlier revolutions, specifically the French and English, but ranging widely and knowledgeably over centuries of history. His anger and scorn come through in every word, and, while the various overthrown Kings are shown as weak and contemptible, he puts much of the blame on the Queens in virulent, misogynistic prose.
The whole establishment of the historical, political and philosophical background to the Revolution is excellent, so long as the reader keeps Trotsky’s bias firmly in mind at all times. The following sections then go into an extremely detailed blow-by-blow account of the period from February – the beginning of the 1917 insurrection – to October, when the Bolsheviks finally came to power. I found these parts much harder to follow, because Trotsky assumes a good deal of familiarity with the political stance of the many factions and personalities involved, and therefore often doesn’t explain them. I found I was constantly referring to the lists at the back of the book, which give brief summaries of each of the parties and explain the unfamiliar terms that appear frequently in the text. These lists are very good in that they are concise and focused, but I still found myself confused and glazing over at many points. As the book goes on (and on), I gradually grew to have a greater understanding of all these factions and their leaders, so that the last third was much clearer to me than the middle section when they are referred to first. If I had the strength of mind, I’m sure that a re-read of those middle chapters would be much easier, but on the whole, by the end, I felt I had gleaned enough to understand the overall progress of the Revolution even if some of the detail had passed over my head.
In terms of the writing itself, there’s a real mix. When Trotsky is detailing the more technical stuff, it can be very dry with long, convoluted sentences full of Marxist jargon, which require concentration. At other times, mainly when talking of Stalin or the bourgeoisie, he is sarcastic and often quite humorous. The Romanovs and imperialists in general bring out his anger and contempt. These are all written in the past tense. But when he gets misty-eyed about the masses, describing a rally or demonstration or some other part of the struggle, he drifts into present tense, becoming eloquent and, I admit, inspirational, writing with real power and emotionalism, and rising almost to the point of poeticism at times. I would find my critical faculties had switched off, and become suddenly aware of tears in my eyes – the power of the demagogue reaching beyond speech onto paper, indeed! These passages break up the more factual stuff, and remind the reader that Trotsky was an observer, a participant and a passionate leader in the events he’s describing.
By the time Trotsky was writing this, Lenin was of course dead, and Stalin had come to power. Trotsky appears to have three major aims in addition to recounting the history: firstly, to show that he himself played a crucial and central role in events; secondly, to prove that while he and Lenin may have disagreed on some practical issues, their political philosophies had been closely aligned; and thirdly, and leading on from the previous two, that Stalin’s attempt to re-write history must be exposed and repudiated. Stalin, Trotsky suggests, is deliberately changing history as it relates to Lenin and Trotsky, in order to justify his own policies – which, by extension, Trotsky believes are out of line with the Marxist-Leninist origins of the Revolution.
Again, he often assumes more understanding of the variations between Marxism, Leninism, Trotskyism and Stalinism than this poor reader has, and it began to feel like those endless nights down the pub in the ’70s when my fellow leftist unionists (usually the men) would start arguing over abstruse points of political ideology and calling each other names, generally after their fifth pint or so. It all seemed rather… trivial, though that feels like an inappropriate word given the many millions of people who have suffered and died under the yoke of these ideologies over decades. But Trotsky’s sycophancy over Lenin, self-aggrandisement, and sarcasm and spite towards Stalin ensured that any lingering affection I may have harboured for the idea of a socialist revolution dissipated long before I reached the end of the book. Power undoubtedly corrupts and I couldn’t quite see that the leadership of the USSR was much improvement over the admittedly hideous Romanovs in the end.
A fascinating book, not by any means an easy read, but certainly an enlightening and worthwhile one. It gets the full five-stars from me, though I freely admit the fifth one may be due purely to the euphoria I felt on finishing.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin Modern Classics.
On a day which had earlier been foggy but was now clear and calm, some passengers aboard the Lusitania stood on deck and watched the ‘dead wake’ of a German U-boat torpedo heading towards the bow of the ship. It was 7th May 1915; Europe was engulfed in war while the USA was desperately maintaining its position of neutrality. Larson tells the story of the last voyage of the Lusitania, its passengers and crew, and the wider political situation that gave rise to the circumstances in which the ship was left unprotected in waters in which it was known U-boats were operating.
Larson starts with a prologue about the evening before the attack. Before she sailed from New York, the Germans had threatened they would attack the Lusitania, but the passengers weren’t particularly anxious. The Lusitania had been built for speed, the fastest ship of its time. Captain William Turner was confident she could outrun any U-boat. Anyway, given the threat and the knowledge that U-boats were operating around the coasts of Britain and Ireland, there was a general confidence that the Royal Navy would be on hand to escort them for the last dangerous stage of the journey.
Larson uses four main strands to tell the full story of what happened. We learn about the codebreakers of the British Admiralty who had obtained the German codes and were therefore able to track U-boat movements with a fair degree of accuracy. Eerily reminiscent of the Bletchley codebreakers of WW2, there was the same dilemma as to how often to act on information obtained – too often and the Germans would work out that their codes had been cracked, and change them. So some ships were left unprotected, sacrifices, almost, to the greater war effort. Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty at the time, and was desperate to draw the US into the war on the British side. There appears to be little doubt that he felt that if German U-boats sank ships with American citizens aboard, this might be a decisive factor.
Secondly, Larson takes us aboard U-20, the U-boat that would fire the fatal torpedo, and introduces us to its Captain, Walther Schwieger. By using Schwieger’s logs amongst other sources, Larson creates an absorbing and authentic-feeling depiction of life aboard the ship, including a lot of fascinating detail about how U-boats actually worked – the logistical difficulties of diving, with the weight constantly changing as the amount of fuel aboard decreased; and how the crew would have to run from place to place to keep the boat level when manoeuvring. Larson widens this out to tell of some of the dangers for these early submarines, and some of the horrific accidents that had happened to them. And he takes us further, into the ever-changing policy of the German government with regards to the sinking of passenger and merchant ships.
The third aspect revolves around President Wilson and America’s lengthy vacillations before finally committing to war. Politically hoping to sit it out while Britain bore the brunt, Wilson was also suffering personally from the loss of his much-loved wife, closely followed by what sounds like a rather adolescent rush of passion for another woman. It appears that he spent as much time a-wooing as a-Presidenting, and his desire to spend his life taking his new love out for romantic drives meant that he seemed almost infinitely capable of overlooking Germany’s constant breaches of the rules regarding neutral nations. (I should say the harshness of this interpretation is mine – Larson gives the facts but doesn’t draw the conclusions quite as brutally as I have done. Perhaps because he’s American and I’m British. But he leaves plenty of space for the reader to draw her own conclusions.)
The fourth section, and the one that humanises the story, is of the voyage of the Lusitania itself. Larson introduces us to many of the passengers, telling us a little of their lives before the voyage, so that we come to care about them. There were many children aboard, including young infants. Some people were bringing irreplaceable art and literary objects across in the way of business. There were pregnant women, and nannies and servants, and of course the crew. Larson explains that the crew were relatively inexperienced as so many sailors had been absorbed into the war effort. While they carried out regular drills, logistics meant they couldn’t actually lower all the lifeboats during them, so that when the disaster actually happened this lack of experience fed into the resulting loss of life. But he also shows the heroism of many of the crew and some of the passengers, turning their backs on their own safety to assist others. Even so, the loss of life was massive, and by telling the personal stories of some who died and others who survived but lost children or parents or lovers, Larson brings home the intimate tragedies that sometimes get lost in the bigger picture.
And finally, Larson tells of the aftermath, both personal for some of the survivors or grieving relatives of the dead; and political, in terms of the subsequent investigations in Britain into what went wrong, and Wilson’s attempts to ensure that even a direct attack on US citizens wouldn’t drag his country into war.
Larson balances the political and personal just about perfectly in the book, I feel. His excellent writing style creates the kind of tension normally associated with a novel rather than a factual book, and his careful characterisation of many of the people involved gives a human dimension that is often missing from straight histories. He doesn’t shy away from the politics though, and each of the governments, British, German and American, come in for their fair share of harsh criticism, including some of the individuals within them. An excellent book, thoroughly researched and well told – highly recommended.
In his introduction, Malcolm Vale suggests that Henry V’s reputation as a warrior-king shows only one aspect of his character, and not necessarily the most important one in letting us understand the man. To make his case, Vale looks at Henry’s other activities – how he carried out the daily business of government, how he dealt with matters of the Church, his involvement in encouragement of the arts, etc. Since, unusually for the time, Henry often wrote letters in his own hand, Vale suggests that for the first time we get to hear the actual ‘voice’ of a monarch.
This book is neither a history of the period nor a full biography of Henry. It is an extremely detailed look at various aspects of Henry’s reign, but makes no attempt to tell his whole ‘story’. Because of its focus on Henry’s peaceful activities, it only touches on his wars in passing. It’s academic in tone and assumes some familiarity on the part of the reader with the events and main players of the time. It’s therefore not a book for beginners. Since I most definitely am a beginner to this period of history, I would have struggled badly had it not been for the fortunate circumstance that I very recently read a biography of Henry IV, which gave me some background to the political situation in England and Europe. However, this is not in any way a criticism of the book. Vale sets out his agenda clearly in his introduction and fully meets it.
Each chapter covers one aspect of Henry’s reign. Vale starts with a look at how the daily business of government was carried out, showing the high level of personal involvement of Henry in decisions large and small. He shows how a bureaucracy grew up to streamline this and take some of the pressure off the King, and also to provide a consistent approach during Henry’s long absences in France. Vale goes into great detail over the uses of the various seals and signets and under what circumstances each was used. Henry is shown as having taken his duty as a monarch seriously, trying to provide justice and working closely with his council. Vale shows that, more than previous Kings, Henry’s own manual signature often appears on documents, suggesting that this was done as an extra indication of his personal will in certain matters.
Vale also discusses Henry’s involvement in Church matters, both at home and abroad. Henry is shown as genuinely religious, with a desire to support and protect religious establishments while expecting them to live up to their part of the bargain by curbing absenteeism, reforming some of the areas of abuse and tending to the cure of souls. Partly because of the weakness of papal authority due to the Schism, Henry had considerable power over appointments, and Vale suggests that he was effectively head of the church within his own territories, two centuries before Henry VIII’s break with Rome.
Henry’s interest in the peaceful arts comes under scrutiny too, showing his direct involvement in encouraging and even participating in them. It appears he may have composed music himself, as well as playing the harp. He read fairly widely, both religious and imaginative works, and commissioned translations. He also commissioned artistic work that formed part of the trappings of power – tapestries and textiles, ornamental and military metalwork, etc.
The chapter I found most interesting discusses Henry’s increasing use and promotion of the English language as his reign progressed. At the beginning of the reign, Norman French and Latin were still the languages of government, but from about the middle of his reign on, English begins to appear more often and Henry himself begins to write letters in that language. Vale suggests that this is a result of Henry’s desire to show that, should he succeed in gaining the crown of France, the two countries would remain separate, distinct entities with their own laws and identities. At that time, English was seen as an unsophisticated language without the vocabulary or nuance required of a language of government. Vale shows how much of the formal language was adopted wholesale from Norman French, either anglicised or literally translated. He also shows that even now, six centuries later, some of the phrases put into use in Henry’s time are still used in formal Parliamentary documents. This was the time of Chaucer and other early writers in English, and Vale discusses the literary development of the language, suggesting that the King’s influence in promoting English was crucial in its growth.
In conclusion, I feel Vale makes his case that there was much more to Henry V than simply being the warrior of Agincourt fame. The research that has gone into the book is clearly immense and it is well written and presented. Obviously I am not qualified to judge the accuracy of the facts or conclusions, but I found it a convincing read. Personally I found parts of it a little dry and repetitive and perhaps too detailed, but I put that down to a mismatch between reader and book. In tone, I would suggest it is aimed more at the academic reader, or at least a knowledgeable and enthusiastic amateur, than at the casual reader. Nonetheless I learned a good deal, not just about Henry, but about governance of the time, the growth of the English language, and the relationships between monarchy, religious institutions and the Papacy. 4 stars for me, but I’m confident this would be a 5-star read for someone with greater pre-knowledge of the period.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Yale University Press.
This is the story of how a college coach, Hal Mumme, developed an “unstoppable” offense that would defeat even the biggest, strongest defenses; and of how that offense gradually spread throughout college football and into the professional leagues, changing the very nature of the game – the Air Raid offense.
Sometimes you just have to take the things life throws at you and run with them. When SC Gwynne won my Book of the Year award in 2014 for Rebel Yell, his brilliant biography of Stonewall Jackson, I gave him the usual prize – my promise to read his next book. Of course, I was assuming it would be another biography of a historical soldier or politician. Imagine my… delight when it turned out to be a book about a passing offense in American football! In my life I have watched one full game and a bit of another, and frankly thought it was a jolly silly game a game one has to have grown up with to fully appreciate. So the question was not so much whether I’d like this book as whether I’d even understand it!
Gwynne starts with a great description of Texas Tech putting the Air Raid offense into action in 2008. He then whisks us back in time to meet Hal Mumme at the beginning of his coaching career. He shows the uncertainty of life as a college coach in a nation obsessed with the game – a hero when leading his team to victory, but abused and reviled if they lose. Hal had always wanted to coach, despite the low pay and precariousness of the profession. His big idea was that he was going to make throwing the ball the centre of the game.
To explain why this idea was so radical, Gwynne gives a potted history of the rise of football. He shows it as arising out of a nostalgia for war – an opportunity for men to hone their manly aggression in peacetime. Therefore it was all about brute force in “the pile” in the middle of the field – meat on meat, as it was charmingly summed up. The more broken bones, busted skulls and fatal injuries the better – a real man’s game! Forward passing was initially prohibited, but when reformers began demanding that the game be made less dangerous, it was eventually legalised. However, it was rarely used, since in this beefy culture it was seen as “feminising” the game. In short, passing was for sissies. Games were all about bulldozing the opposition, and as a result were usually low-scoring and rather dull to watch. This chapter is so well-told and very funny in places, especially over the “manliness” aspects of it all.
Though the passing technology was more than half a century old, there was still something morally thrilling about watching the quarterback toss the ball to the tailback, while the guard or tackle pulled and the fullback crashed down on the defensive end and the whole team seemed to move en masse in that swinging, lovely rightward arc of pure power followed by the popping sounds of all those helmets and pads and the scream of the crowd as the whole thing disintegrated into a mass of bodies on the turf.
Hal was convinced though that passing could be made to work, especially for teams without the brute power to win against bigger opponents using traditional plays. The bulk of the book is taken up with Hal’s long road to development of the Air Raid, learning from other coaches who used passing plays in their games, trying out new things with the various teams he worked with and, with his long-time coaching partner Mike Leach, gradually refining his system so that even fairly mediocre players could be taught it. It wasn’t just on the field that he changed things. Again the culture was to make the players prove their toughness in full contact training, often being injured before they even got to play, or being worked so hard in training sessions they would be on or past the point of collapse. Hal had his players do shorter sessions, focussed on passing rather than tackling, developing precision in throwing and tactics rather than beating each other to a pulp. His idea, which doesn’t sound as though it should have been revolutionary but apparently was, was that football should be fun!
And gradually, the no-hoper teams he initially worked with began to win games, and to win them spectacularly with huge scores. And dismissive traditionalist crowds began to see that the passing game was exciting (especially the fans of the winning teams – the losing fans perhaps weren’t quite so enthused). Slowly other coaches started to use Hal’s techniques until eventually passing became an accepted part of the game. Hal’s own career remained chequered and he never made it into the professional divisions, but his ideas did, and the final version of all his work, the Air Raid offense, has been used and adapted by the top teams.
One of Hal’s favourite sayings was, Play the next play. The words were a combination pep talk and theory of life, perfectly aligned with his coaching philosophy. The gist was, life, like football, is a headlong dive into the future. There is no past, at least not one you should worry too much about. If you lose, let it go. Don’t panic. If you win, don’t be too satisfied. Play the next play.
This isn’t a hugely long book, but even so I’ve only given a flavour of it. Gwynne’s writing brings the sport to life and he explains all the various plays clearly enough that even I felt I understood them. There are lots of diagrams to show the various offensive formations and how they’re designed to bamboozle the opposition defenses. Through it all, Gwynne’s respect for and warmth towards the game, its coaches and players, shines through, and the occasional humour and great descriptions of the games make the book entertaining as well as informative. A surprise hit for me, proving that a great writer can make almost any subject fascinating. I may even watch a few more games now…
(Since the game is American, I’ve gone along with the wrong American spellings of offence and defence throughout… 😉 )
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Scribner.
In his preface, Herman discusses previous biographies of General Douglas MacArthur, some sycophantic in their admiration, others dismissing him as everything from vain to incompetent. His hope is that by the end of the book the reader will be able to decide which description is the true one. Herman has ranged widely in his search for accurate source material, including China, Japan and Russia; and has also had access to newly opened archives within the US.
I start by saying that, prior to reading this book, I knew absolutely nothing about Douglas MacArthur and very little about the events in which he was involved. I am, therefore, in no position to judge the accuracy of either the history or the portrait Herman paints of this clearly divisive American hero. I decided to read it because I have greatly enjoyed several other of Herman’s books, finding him a great storyteller who brings history vividly to life. And from the prologue of this one, where he gives a dramatic description of the events at Inchon and then leaves those of us who don’t know our history on a cliffhanger, foreshadowing MacArthur’s future downfall, I knew he was going to achieve the remarkable, I might even have said impossible, feat of making me enjoy over 800 pages of the history of a soldier fighting the various American wars of the first half of the twentieth century.
In his conclusion, Herman suggests there are three main aspects that are crucial to understanding Douglas MacArthur – the degree to which he was influenced by his father’s life; the relationships with the various women in his life, his mother and his second wife Jean in particular; and his “brilliance as a grand strategist – perhaps the most incisive the American military has ever produced.” This serves as a fair summary of how Herman approaches his subject throughout the book.
To explain how influential Arthur MacArthur was on his son’s life, Herman gives the reader a mini-biography of the elder man – his early career as a Unionist hero of the Civil War, and his later fascination with the East, becoming convinced that the Pacific rim would be of more importance to the future America than its old attachments to Europe. So interesting does Herman make this story that I was left hoping that perhaps his next task will be to do a full biography of Arthur, a man whose life sounds as eventful and interesting as his son’s.
Herman goes into Douglas MacArthur’s relationship with his mother in some depth, suggesting that she was something of a driving force behind her son’s career not just in his youth but right through till his late thirties and forties. A late bloomer in the romance stakes, MacArthur’s first marriage failed quite quickly. His second marriage to Jean, however, brought him the kind of support his mother had provided and Herman shows how important this domestic stability was to MacArthur when dealing with the various military crises of his life.
While talking about MacArthur’s career between the two world wars, Herman praises MacArthur’s achievements both as head of the US Olympic committee and for forcing the Army to face up to the need to modernise the training of its young officers while he was in charge of West Point. He also discusses in depth the apparently infamous breaking up of the Bonus Army camps, when MacArthur used troops to drive out army veterans who were protesting over the government’s refusal to bring forward payment of their promised bonuses. Since this was an episode I had never heard of, I was totally reliant on Herman’s version. It seemed to me that he very much took MacArthur’s side, perhaps too much so, almost absolving him of all responsibility for the matter.
However, he also put the opposite case clearly enough for me to consider the question of bias at all, and that’s one of the main reasons I like Herman. In the past, I have always found him to be sympathetic to his subjects, and so he is in this one. But although he can come across as biased in his conclusions, it seems to me he always presents the other side of the argument, leaving the reader to follow his bias or argue against it. Since it is a rare author indeed who can write without bias, my preference is for open bias of the Herman kind, rather than the kind where only one story is told with no indication that there may be another version.
But the real meat of the book is, as it should be, MacArthur’s military career. So involved was MacArthur in most of the important events of the time, so well told are the various episodes, so clearly does Herman lay out the background and consequences of each, that the book is as much history as biography. From MacArthur’s leadership of the Rainbow Division in WW1, through the often horrific story of the Philippines, Japan and the Pacific arena in WW2, and on to MacArthur’s successes and failures in Korea, Herman thoroughly explains the politics, domestic and foreign, that impacted on each campaign, and provides clear and often very moving stories of the military battles, showing how narrow is the dividing line between heroic success and tragic failure. Herman also delves into the period after WW2 when MacArthur spent some years as the ‘American Shogun’ ruling almost monarchically over a defeated Japan, and paints him as someone who chose not to exact revenge, but rather to try to change the culture and structure of the society to prevent future wars. Herman in fact gives MacArthur credit for sowing the seeds of the Japanese economic miracle of the latter part of the century.
Throughout all this, Herman doesn’t shy away from criticising MacArthur’s decisions on occasion, but always puts his mistakes into context. The picture that emerges is of a true military hero, a man of great personal courage, with a huge ego and a desire for public recognition and even glory, but with a driving ambition to see his nation provide a shining example to the rest of the world. A flawed hero perhaps, but I sometimes think we as a society expect a level of perfection that our heroes cannot possibly achieve, and in general I prefer sympathetic biographies that recognise and allow for human fallibility. So from my perspective, this is another great biography from Herman, thoroughly researched and immensely readable. I shall leave it to the MacArthur buffs on both sides to argue over its bias or otherwise.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House.
For ten days in the summer of July 1895, two boys spent their time roaming round coffee shops and attending cricket matches, and telling anyone who asked that their mother had gone to visit relatives in Liverpool. They slept downstairs in the back parlour of their house, with a family friend who had come at their request to look after them. Meantime, an unpleasant smell was beginning to seep from the house, becoming so bad eventually that the neighbours complained to the boys’ aunt. When she forced her way into the house, she discovered the badly decomposed body of the boys’ mother, and immediately young Robert Coombes admitted to having stabbed her to death.
This is a chilling but fascinating true crime story from the end of the Victorian era. Robert Coombes was thirteen at the time of the murder and his brother Nattie was twelve. The idea of the matricide itself horrified contemporary society enough, but it was the cool behaviour of the boys over the following ten days that made the crime seem even more shocking. Evidence showed that the murder was planned – Robert had bought the knife specially a few days earlier, and he later claimed that he and Nattie had arranged a signal for when the deed should be done.
The first part of the book concentrates on the crime and the trial procedures and Summerscale covers these with her usual excellent attention to detail. Because they felt that their case against Robert would be stronger if his brother gave evidence, the prosecution were keen to have the charges against Nattie dropped, since at that time defendants were not allowed to tell their story in court. In the early proceedings, Robert had no lawyer or other representation and was expected to cross-examine witnesses by himself. The boys’ father was a steward on board a transatlantic cattle vessel, and wasn’t even aware of the murder till after the first hearings had taken place.
Although this all sounds horrific to our modern ideas of justice, especially for children, there seems little doubt that Robert was indeed guilty, and some of the court officers did their best to make the process as easy for him as they could within the system. The boys were held in an adult jail during the trial process, but had individual cells – a luxury they might be unlikely to get today. The boys’ extended family did show up for the hearings, so Nattie at least had some adult support.
The defence quickly decided to try for an insanity ruling, which meant that they actually preferred for there not to be a rational motive, while the prosecution felt Robert’s guilt was so obvious they didn’t need one. The result of this is that no-one ever really asked why Robert did it, and so the motivation remains unclear. Summerscale suggests on the basis of some fairly circumstantial evidence that the mother may have been cruel to the boys in her husband’s absence – there is a suggestion that she too suffered from “excitability” and extreme mood swings, and may have beaten the boys badly, but this is largely speculation.
In this first section, Summerscale also widens her discussion out to look at the society and living conditions of the time. Robert’s family was working class, but not grindingly poor – his father had a decent income, and the boys got a good education. However, at that time, there was much debate as to whether educating the poor was a good thing, especially since the ability to read allowed boys access to the “penny dreadfuls” of the time, which many considered to have a bad influence on impressionable young minds. Robert had a collection of such pamphlets, and the press made much of this. The crime took place in Plaistow in Essex, an industrial area within the range of the heavily polluted atmosphere of London. There was also much debate at that time about the general poor health of the urban poor, while the acceptance of the theory of evolution brought with it a belief in the possibility of its opposite, degeneration. It all reminded me of the “bad boy” culture that Andrew Levy discussed so thoroughly in his book about Twain’s young hero, Huck Finn’s America.
The second half of the book tells the story of what happened to Robert after his conviction. Summerscale is asking, and answering, the question of whether someone who has done such a dreadful thing can go on to lead a normal, even worthwhile life. Robert spent several years in Broadmoor, the hospital for the criminally insane, where again because of his youth he was in fact treated more kindly than we might expect. This whole section is fascinating in what it tells us about the treatment of those judged criminally insane. In fact, from time to time there were complaints that the treatment was too kind – that people were faking insanity to avoid the much harder regime in normal prisons.
This is not the end of Robert’s story, though. Following his eventual release from Broadmoor, Summerscale follows his trail through the rest of his life, uncovering some interesting and unexpected details about how he turned out. So often true crime stories from the Victorian era end with a conviction and capital punishment. This one, being somewhat later and also because it concerned a child, is intriguing because we are able to see the aftermath. At the point of conviction Robert would undoubtedly have been seen as some kind of monster, but Summerscale lets us see whether the rest of his life confirmed that or allowed him to find some kind of redemption. Immaculately researched, well written and presented, this is easily the equal of Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, and personally, having worked with boys of that age with troubled and often criminal histories, I found this one even more interesting. Highly recommended.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin Group.
In his preface, John Guy suggests that biographers of Elizabeth I of England tend to have paid less attention to the later years of her life, often relying on the accepted story created by earlier writers. Guy has gone back to the original source documents, stripping back the accumulated layers of mythology surrounding her to reveal the complex and very human character beneath.
During the first part of Elizabeth’s reign, she was under continual pressure to marry, partly to provide an heir but also because of the prevailing feeling that women were not suited to be monarchs. Having seen the unhappy and unsuccessful marriage of her sister Mary to Philip of Spain, not to mention the hardly idyllic marriage of her tyrannical father to her soon-to-be-headless mother, Elizabeth was always reluctant to reach a decision that would make her subordinate to a husband. However, marriage negotiations rumbled on throughout her child-bearing years.
But by the age of 50 when it was finally clear that the Queen would have no direct heir, Guy suggests she was for the first time really accepted, however reluctantly, as a monarch in her own right – a Prince or King as she often referred to herself – and felt herself freer to stamp her royal authority on those around her. These later years – the period covered in this book – were dominated by the interminable wars in Europe, concern over the succession, power struggles and conspiracies at home, and, of course, Essex, her arrogant young favourite.
As well as being a serious historian, Guy has a gift for storytelling which always makes his books a pleasure to read. It seems to me he has mastered the art of presenting history in a way that makes it fully accessible to the casual, non-academic reader without ever ‘dumbing down’. He does masses of research, from original sources where possible, then, having decided what ‘story’ he is going to tell, he distils all that information down to those people and events that will illustrate his arguments. It’s a simplification in presentation, but not in scholarship. As with all the best historical writers, he knows what information should appear in the main body of the text and what can be left to the notes at the back for people who wish to look into the subject more deeply. As a result, the cast of ‘characters’, which can often become overwhelming in history books, is kept to a small, manageable level, and the reader gets to know not just the principal subject but the people who most closely influence events.
So in this book, as well as a revealing and convincing picture of the ageing Elizabeth, we also get a thorough understanding of those who were most relevant to her at this later period: an equally ageing Burghley, and the younger men, struggling amongst themselves to win her favour and the political power that came with it – Burghley’s son Cecil, Sir Walter Ralegh, and Essex, who almost shares star billing with the Queen herself.
The first few chapters romp through the early years of Elizabeth’s accession and reign, really just to give the reader a bit of background, then each subsequent chapter focuses on a particular person or event. As is my usual way, I found the sections relating to the wars least interesting, though Guy does a good job of explaining all the shifting allegiances and showing how the various campaigns led to the rise or fall of those leading them. He also shows the contrast between Elizabeth’s concern for her aristocratic commanders and her casual disregard for the welfare of the ordinary soldiers, sometimes leaving them unpaid and with no way to get home from their campaigns. But throughout the period, as usual in these endless wars, those at the top were constantly changing sides or even religions, and no-one really ever seems to win or lose, and I just don’t care!
Much more interesting to me are the power struggles at home and Guy gives a very clear picture of the personalities involved here. In the latter years of Elizabeth’s reign, Burghley was ageing, while Walsingham’s death left a vacancy Elizabeth found difficult to fill. But worse, she had also lost Leicester, the love of her life. She may have had disagreements with all three of these men at various times, but she also depended on them and trusted them to a degree that she would find difficult with the young men coming up. Guy makes clear that, while Essex was a favourite, he was no replacement for Leicester and Elizabeth was fairly clear-sighted about his weaknesses and unreliability. Burghley was keen that his son, Cecil, should succeed him as the main power in the government, while Ralegh and Essex looked to war and naval exploits to gain favour. (Interesting aside for non-Brits – the Cecils have lasted well. The most recent, a direct descendant of Burghley, was leader of the House of Lords as recently as 1997. We do seem to cling on to our aristocracy!)
Once it was clear that Elizabeth would never have a child, her advisers wanted to settle the question of the succession. However, Elizabeth would never allow this to be discussed, partly through a dislike of thinking about her death and partly because she feared that a settled succession may lead to conspiracies to force her to abdicate or, worse, to murder her, thus making way for the new king. The obvious successor in terms of bloodlines was James VI of Scotland and he had the further advantage of having been brought up in the Protestant religion. Elizabeth’s refusal to name a successor meant that, as she approached the end of her life, even her nearest courtiers were carrying on secret correspondences with James – Essex primarily for his own advantage and possibly to the point of treason, but also Cecil who, while looking out for his own interests too, seemed genuinely to want to avoid major disruption on Elizabeth’s death.
Guy’s portrait of Elizabeth feels credible and human. She seems to have been vain and capricious, temperamental, cruel when angered and vindictive when she felt betrayed. But as we see her age, with all her early advisors dying one by one, including Leicester, her one true love, and eventually also Kate Carey, her greatest friend, in the end she seems a rather lonely and pitiful figure. Another first-class biography from Guy – highly recommended.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Viking Books.
Liberally illustrated by true tales of crimes from the Victorian era, the book’s real focus is on advances and developments in the science of detection and the prosecution of poisoning cases. In each chapter, Stratmann looks at one aspect of these and gives one or more examples to show their impact in practice.
Stratmann opens with the case of Eliza Fenning, a maidservant hanged for the attempted poisoning of her employers. This case came to be seen as a major miscarriage of justice, highlighting the inadequacies of the justice system as it related to poisoning cases. Cases were dependant on proof of two things – that the victim had in fact been poisoned, and that the accused had deliberately administered the poison. The science at the time was so weak that proof of the first part was almost entirely dependent on observation of the victim’s symptoms, and the second was complicated by the fact that poisons were readily available without any safeguards, and in fact were often used in small doses as medicines.
Arsenic was the poison most often suspected in the early days of the period, and at this time women were the ones most likely to be accused of using it. Although the focus of the book is on the science, Stratmann also touches on the social conditions behind many of the cases she discusses. Arsenic was easily obtainable and simple to use, and its use as a rat poison meant that there was nothing particularly suspicious about women buying it. At the time, divorce was difficult, especially for the poor, and especially for women. While men could divorce an unfaithful wife, a woman could only divorce her husband for much worse things; for example, if he was violent or deserted her. Married women had no property rights – whereas a widow could inherit her husband’s property. So the temptation to do away with a brutal (or sometimes just boring) husband was always there…
But it wasn’t only inconvenient husbands who could be disposed of with relative ease. During this period, the Government changed the law so that an unmarried mother could no longer get maintenance from her child’s father through the court. Add to this the rise of ‘burial clubs’ – an insurance scheme where payouts greater than the cost of the funeral would be made on the death of the insured – and it’s hardly surprising there was a rise in the number of cases of infanticide amongst the poor. Stratmann makes two interesting points about these cases – firstly, that women murdering their children tended to use laudanum rather than arsenic because it was a ‘kinder’ death, causing less suffering to the victim; and, secondly, that juries, who probably had a good understanding of the impossible poverty some women found themselves in, tended to take a more sympathetic and lenient view of such cases than we might expect from Victorian men.
Stratmann makes the point that, although there were indeed many poisoning cases in the period, much of the hysteria around the apparent prevalence of poisoning was due in large part to the effect of ‘moral panic’, as the media and special interest groups whipped up fear amongst the populace for their own advantage. The new Pharmacists Association and the forerunner of the British Medical Association saw panic over poisons as a means to boost recognition of their own professions as the best people to sell and control drugs, while nothing sells more newspapers than a horrific murder and, preferably, a good public hanging to follow.
As the science of detection gradually improved and the Government slowly began to take measures to make the purchase of arsenic a little harder, the focus changed somewhat to vegetable alkaloids, such as the infamous strychnine. Since these poisons were harder to get hold off and in some cases required a bit of knowledge to use effectively, the ‘moral panic’ pendulum swung and it was now men who were seen as the main poisoners, especially well-educated, respectable men. Again Stratmann raises some interesting points here, such as the reluctance of doctors called in to such cases to suggest poisoning because of the elevated social positions of the ‘suspects’. She gives us examples of cases where a wife would be slowly poisoned, with her attending physicians suspecting poison for days, even weeks, before death but doing nothing constructive to stop it. The British class system at play as usual – isn’t it great?
Meantime, the science was improving but unfortunately the egos of the scientists were growing alongside. Now both prosecution and defence would call ‘expert witnesses’ who would battle it out in court, more interested sometimes in their own reputations than in the guilt or innocence of the accused. This had the double effect of making it next to impossible for jury members to decide on scientific points they didn’t understand, while undermining public faith in science in general. In some of the examples Stratmann cites here, I was frankly glad I hadn’t been on the jury, as both sides set out to destroy the reputation of the other. She also compares the British system to the French, where the court would appoint its own expert, thus avoiding this kind of courtroom confrontation (but also meaning that perhaps too much reverence and faith was placed on one man’s opinion).
So, interesting stuff. Unfortunately overall, I found the interesting bits were pretty deeply submerged under a lot of scientific stuff I didn’t really understand and didn’t think was explained clearly enough for the layperson. Also, there are far too many examples of cases given, all complete with very similar gruesome descriptions of vomiting, bodily excretions, autopsies and horrific scientific experimentation, mainly on dogs. All the cases eventually merged into one mass of yuckiness – a few cases more carefully chosen would have been much more effective, in my opinion. By the final few chapters, I was skipping over the cases, and the science, I must admit, to get to the little bits of interest to me. In the end, I felt it was all too detailed and had too much repetition of points already made. However, it is undoubtedly a thoroughly researched and well written book which will be a worthwhile read for anyone interested in the science, justice system or social conditions of the time.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Yale University Press.
Two of the most iconic figures of the 20th century, Gandhi and Churchill met only once, but spent much of their lives locked in a battle over the future of India, a battle that would have repercussions far beyond the borders of that nation and long after both men had quit the political stage.
The scope of this book is huge. Herman gives us parallel biographies of both men from birth to death, a full political history of India under the Raj, and a wider look at the impact the battle for control of India had on the British Empire in the East and on the course of the bloody history of Europe and, indeed, the world in the first half of the century. He handles it superbly, remaining even-handed throughout, showing both men’s failures and weaknesses as well as their strengths, and how the intransigence of each grew out of their personal histories. There’s no sycophancy here, but neither is there an attempt to vilify either man – Herman suggests that neither deserves the reputation for unalloyed greatness that they tend to have been given in the popular mind in their respective nations, but both worked hard all their lives to achieve what they genuinely believed was for the best, for both nations.
Born just five years apart in the middle of the 19th century, both men grew up with the Victorian attitude to Empire. Churchill’s father had been Secretary of State for India and been instrumental in annexing Upper Burma, and Herman suggests that Churchill’s lifelong desire to live up to the expectations of the father he lost in his youth affected Churchill’s attitude to maintaining the Empire throughout his life. Gandhi, like most high-caste and educated Indians of the time, was a supporter of the Empire in his youth, and indeed for much of his political career, fighting for equality for the races within the Empire rather than independence from it, until quite a late stage in his life.
Equality for the Indian races, that is – both men were fundamentally racist, as was pretty much the norm at the time. Churchill believed in the innate superiority of the white races, happy to give self-ruling Dominion status to the white colonies populated by good Anglo-Saxon stock, but believing in a more direct form of rule of the other colonies, since he believed they were not capable of governing themselves. The British attitude was to differentiate even between those other races, in India seeing the Muslims as a fighting people who were the backbone of the Indian Army, while Hindus were seen as having weaker, less manly attributes. Gandhi believed that Indians, or rather Hindus, were spiritually superior to other races; and his racism is further shown during the period he spent in South Africa, fighting for equality of the educated Indians in the country, but appalled at being expected to use the same doors as Africans. At this time Gandhi’s desire for equality didn’t include the low-caste Indians in South Africa either.
Herman clearly shows the parallels between the class and race attitudes of the Britons and of the Indians – the idea that the British Empire was in some way exclusively racist is shown as a too simplistic belief. Indeed, one of Churchill’s motivations in denying Indian independence for so long was his somewhat prophetic belief that the withdrawal of the Raj would lead to appalling consequences for the minorities or politically weak groupings in Indian society – specifically the Muslims and the Untouchables.
Herman draws other parallels. Both men knew what it was to fail – Churchill in the disastrous Dardanelles campaign in WW1, Gandhi in his various satyagraha (non-violent resistance) campaigns which rarely achieved any real gains and frequently descended into violence and riots. Both men lost the trust of their colleagues and were politically sidelined, to be later recalled at moments of crisis. Both men knew how it felt to ask other men to give up their lives for a cause. Both men could be brutal in pursuit of their aims – Gandhi refusing to compromise on full independence, even as violence, massacres and mass movements of refugees devastated the nation; Churchill allowing vast numbers of people to starve in the famine of 1943, unwilling to divert resources from the war effort elsewhere.
And Herman concludes that, despite successes along the way, in terms of their hopes for India both men ultimately failed. The partitioned India that finally achieved independence was not the one Gandhi had dreamed of and worked for, neither politically nor spiritually. And Churchill lived long enough to see the dismantling of his beloved Empire, which he had hoped that victory in WW2 would preserve, and the diminishing of Britain as a global force. But after death, both men would become almost mythic in their native lands – Churchill as the great war leader who stood alone against the Nazi threat, and Gandhi as the great spiritual leader of his nation – two formidable forces who influenced the world, though not always perhaps in the ways they intended.
The book covers so much it’s impossible to give even a real flavour of it in a review. In short, it is a stunning achievement. Herman writes brilliantly, making even the most complex subject clear. He has the gift of knowing what to put in and what to leave out, so that the reader feels fully informed without ever becoming bogged down by a lot of irrelevant details. Even on the bits of history that he mentions more or less in passing – the background to the Suez crisis, for example, or Kashmir – his short explanations give a clarity often missed in more detailed accounts. And his writing flows – the book is as readable as a fine literary novel, a great, sweeping saga covering a hundred years or more of history, populated by characters we come to know and understand. Quite possibly the best biographical history I have ever read, and one that gets my highest recommendation.
NB This book was provided for review by Santa. Thanks, Santa!
My existing knowledge of Henry IV amounted to the assumption that he probably came somewhere between Henry III and Henry V. So I hoped that this biography, part of the Yale University Press English Monarchs series, would fill a pretty big hole. And, with a large degree of success, it does.
In the introduction, Christopher Given-Wilson makes it clear that the book is a political biography of the man rather than a history of the period, though obviously the two are intertwined. Most of the book is a fairly linear account of Henry’s life, starting with an explanation of the growth of Lancastrian wealth and power under his father, John of Gaunt. While political life in England was more centred on the monarchy than in many other countries, he gives a very clear picture of the factionalism and rivalries between some of the major landowners, and how the major players would build their own ‘affinities’ – paid knightly retainers who would fight for their overlord when required. I gathered from the notes that these affinities are a field of special expertise for Given-Wilson, and I found his detailed insights into this aspect fascinating.
Henry’s forays to the Crusades gave him the opportunity to win a reputation as a knightly hero, while Richard II was making himself increasingly unpopular at home. Even before this, Henry had been heavily involved with others in trying to curtail what some saw as Richard’s misuse of power, so when the opportunity arose, Richard sent him off into exile. But when John of Gaunt died and Richard attempted a land-grab of Lancastrian property, Henry returned and, largely with popular support, usurped the throne.
For me, this section was considerably more interesting than the account of Henry’s time as King. Given-Wilson goes into immense detail on subjects such as finances, tax-raising and the cost of foreign ventures. Necessary in an academic book, but I’m afraid much of it made for rather dry reading, and often used terminology unfamiliar to me without explaining it clearly enough.
I was more interested in learning about the various wars and skirmishes going on around Henry’s borders, with Welsh, Scots and Irish all causing problems, not to mention the ongoing struggle for Henry to maintain his claim to the title of King of France. Given-Wilson explains well the lead up to the Hotspur rebellions and their aftermath, and I also felt that I got some insight into the background to Henry V’s later adventures in France. But again, I found parts of these sections confusing as so many names came and went (and, as is always a problem, people frequently changed their names as they inherited titles or rose through the ranks of the aristocracy) leaving me frankly bewildered on occasion as to who was on whose side.
In the final few chapters of the book, Given-Wilson changes from a linear narrative to concentrating on one aspect of Henry’s life or character at a time – for example, personality and image, wars and tactics, lawlessness among the gentry (which Given-Wilson calls by my favourite new phrase – “fur-collar crime”), etc. For me, these worked better than the earlier chapters in finally making me feel that I was beginning to understand the man behind the history. Given-Wilson concludes that Henry IV was more relevant than history sometimes suggests, and puts the blame firmly on Shakespeare for creating an inaccurate picture of him. Certainly the picture Given-Wilson paints in this book suggests Henry was more or less forced into usurpation by Richard’s desire to smash Lancastrian power.
With any biography or history, the author has to decide what audience he is addressing. Given-Wilson is clearly aiming at people with some pre-existing knowledge of the period – i.e., not me. That’s not to say I didn’t glean a lot from the book. But I also found many times that I was at something of a loss. For example, I’m sure that way back in the Dark Ages when I was at school, some poor history teacher probably explained the Great Schism to me, and possibly even Lollardy. But I fear the brain-cells where I stored that information must have been recycled somewhere along the way. (It’s interesting to speculate what might have over-written them – I’m guessing it’s my in-depth knowledge of the history of the various incarnations of the USS Enterprise…) I am certainly not criticising Given-Wilson’s decision not to explain the background to some of the things that impacted on Henry’s reign, but it does mean that I can’t wholeheartedly recommend this one for the casual reader or total newcomer to the period.
However, it’s well-written and thoroughly researched and, assuming one has the necessary background knowledge, gives a clear, well laid-out and informatively detailed account of Henry’s life and reign.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Yale University Press.
Before he became a politician, Churchill was both a serving soldier and a war correspondent, forging a relationship with the right-wing Telegraph newspaper that lasted on and off for the whole of his life. This book is an amalgamation of articles which appeared in the paper, either written by or about Churchill over his long career. Having thoroughly enjoyed another Telegraph publication last year, The Telegraph Book of the First World War, I had high expectations of this one, which sadly it didn’t wholly meet.
Some of the articles written by Churchill are outstanding. His description of the naval war in WW1 is lucid and revealing about the arguments over tactics between the politicians and Admiralty bigwigs. It’s a potted history of the whole thing, from the positioning of the Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow through to the U-boat war and the measures taken to combat it – the Dover barrage and the adoption of the system of convoys. As always in his writing, Churchill’s personality comes through – his criticisms of the Admiralty feel personal on occasion – but he is very good at making complicated issues clear for the less well informed reader.
He also speaks intelligently and perceptively about the ‘dole’ – how National Insurance should be used, in his opinion, to support those people who are left without work for a period of time. Many of the arguments he was putting forward back in the middle of the last century are still being debated today and he was unusually perceptive at recognising that the future would probably lead to an ageing population with all the pressures that would place on the newly-formed Welfare State. It’s rather depressing to think that present-day politicians seem to have been taken by surprise by issues Churchill foresaw 60 or 70 years ago.
There is also a rather excellent section in the book on Churchill’s post-WW2 plea for the formation of a United States of Europe, where he envisions much of what has subsequently come to pass, and pretty much in the way he suggested. He felt that it was crucial for France, still reeling from the war, to reach out a hand of forgiveness to defeated Germany, and to forge unbreakable bonds between first the major and then the minor nations of Europe to prevent the never-ending wars that had brought the entire continent to its knees. He believed both the United Nations and a treaty between Europe and the US (subsequently NATO) would be crucial in ensuring peace and in providing a bulwark against the encroachment of communism in the form of the USSR. All familiar stuff to us now, but prescient and influential when he was writing.
So there’s plenty of good stuff in here. Unfortunately, a lot of the rest is either filler or not set well enough in context to make it informative without pre-existing background knowledge. Each section has a little introduction, but these don’t give enough information to explain the background to the following articles. Therefore, the bits I’ve picked out as excellent are the things that I already had some knowledge of. But when Churchill is talking about his time in India way back before WW1, for example, I was completely at a loss – I didn’t know who we were fighting or why, or who won, and I was none the wiser afterwards. Like the First World War book, this one has no notes, but while I felt in worked in that book by pushing the reader into the same position as the original readers of the newspaper, in this one it felt like a real weakness – the original readers would have been aware of the context in a way that most modern readers won’t be. I also found the articles about Churchill arriving at train stations, complete with descriptions of what he and his wife were wearing, or the articles about his pets(!), lacked much relevance or interest to all but the most dedicated Churchill enthusiast.
My other main complaint is that the book is by no means complete. We are told that Churchill wrote a series of fortnightly articles for the paper during the run-up to WW2. But we only get to read a couple of them. Had the bits about his budgerigar been left out, perhaps the space could have been filled with something more enlightening. Also, the way the book has been divided up into sections by subject means that the timeline jumps all over the place – one minute we’re in the 1940s and then suddenly we’re back in the 1910s. And oddly, WW2 seems to be almost entirely missing! I grant that Churchill probably didn’t have much time for article writing at that period; however, presumably the paper was reporting on the war and on Churchill’s role, but the mentions of it in this book are few and far between.
So, despite a few excellent articles, overall I found the book pretty disappointing. A missed opportunity – with more focused editing, a linear structure and fuller contextual information I feel this could have been done so much better. As it is, I can’t give it more than a lukewarm recommendation at best.
It’s nearly 500 years since Martin Luther kicked off the Reformation by criticising the practices of the Roman Catholic church and refusing to accept the Pope as the sole arbiter of the meaning of the Bible. What started as a fairly straightforward dispute over the sale of indulgences grew into a theological war that first split the church and then splintered the Reformers themselves into different factions, arguing over some pretty esoteric points of interpretation of the gospels.
Scott H. Hendrix is Emeritus Professor of Reformation History, Princeton Theological Seminary, and tells us in the preface that he struggled during his teaching years to find a full and well-researched but readable biography of Luther to recommend to his students, so decided to write one. Unusually, the problem for Luther biographers is one of too much, rather than too little, information, making the biographer’s task one of deciding what is true and relevant. Although this isn’t the chunkiest biography in the world, its 290 pages plus notes give a thorough account both of Luther’s personal life, at least as much as is known about it, and of the various steps that led him from monk to leader of the Reformation. He explains the main points of Luther’s theological insights clearly enough for this atheist to understand, including the finer points where differences of interpretation arose amongst the Reformers. Hendrix also gives enough information about the prevailing political situation in Germany and further afield to put the Reformation into its historical context, particularly in explaining the level of protection Luther and his colleagues gained from the need of the Emperor to keep the various reformed Princes onside.
The book is in a fairly straightforward linear style, starting with a quick run through of what little is known about Luther’s early years, and then going into more depth once he became associated with the Reformers. Hendrix makes it clear that, though Luther is the one whose name became best known both at the time and to later generations, he worked closely with colleagues at all stages, and that much of what is attributed to Luther, such as the translation of the Bible into German, was in part a collaborative effort involving various scholars and theologians, a fact that Luther himself emphasised. However, Luther became the figurehead of the movement, and to a large degree the arbiter of the direction the early Reformation would take.
I am in my usual position of not being able to speak to the accuracy of the facts or of Hendrix’s interpretation of them, but the book is clearly well researched and it’s obvious that Hendrix knows his subject inside out. He takes a fairly neutral stance on Luther – at least it feels that way – being willing to give both praise and criticism.
Luther comes over as a man who genuinely believed that he was doing the work of God and who worked hard all his life to bring people to ‘true religion’. Of course, like all these people who think they are God’s chosen, he appeared to become more arrogant and self-satisfied as time went on, and made it clear that he believed that anyone who took a different approach was being influenced by Satan, a figure that to him was as real and nearly as powerful as God himself. In fact, in his later years, Hendrix gives the impression that Luther felt that Satan was out to get him – either true, or a real sign that he was letting his opinion of his own importance get a little out of control.
Luther also appears to have been what could be described as either pragmatic or hypocritical, depending on one’s viewpoint, changing direction on occasion to fit the prevailing political situation. For example, although against bigamy, he would cheerfully make an exception and find ways to justify it theologically when one of his powerful backers decided two wives were better than one. Apparently he also felt that it would be better if Henry VIII married Anne Boleyn bigamously rather than divorcing Katherine of Aragorn. (One wonders if he would have felt Henry should also marry Jane, Anne, Catherine and Katherine simultaneously – that would have made for some fun dinner parties.) Luther’s views on violence were subject to similar changes over the years depending on who wanted to be violent to whom. (One odd side effect of the book was that my opinion of John Knox improved when I compared the two – miserable old misogynist though he was, Knox seems to have stuck rigidly to his beliefs in the face of all opposition, even when it meant he made dangerous enemies of some powerful people. While rigidity of opinion isn’t always a trait I admire, there’s something to be said for not reinterpreting one’s spiritual beliefs every time the wind changes direction.)
Hendrix also discusses Luther’s anti-semitism, but puts it into the context of the times when anti-semitism was almost universal in Europe. Luther advocated the burning of synagogues, but Hendrix clarifies that he did not call for the killing of Jews. Hence, Hendrix dismisses the Nazis’ later adoption of Luther as some kind of justification for their actions in the Holocaust, but it seems this has left a lasting stain on Luther, possibly even more in modern Germany than elsewhere.
Hendrix writes clearly and well, making the book very accessible to the non-academic reader. He rarely left me in a position of needing to look elsewhere for explanation of terms or ideas and while there are the usual notes at the back of the book, I was happily able to ignore them – always my desire when reading history and biography. Hendrix made one decision that really grated on me and that I’m baffled to understand – he decided to anglicise all the names. Thus Johann and Johannes become John, he drops the ‘von’ from von Staupitz, etc. I can’t accept that these names are hard for any reader and see no benefit in me now having no idea of the real names of many of the major players. It seems to me a hideous example of ‘dumbing down’ and is the main reason why I can only rate the book as four stars. Otherwise, this is a very good biography that sheds a lot of light on Luther without engulfing the casual reader in unnecessary information overload.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Yale University Press.
From the early 19th to the mid 20th century, London spent large parts of the winter months shrouded under dense and dirty fogs, so thick that people quite literally could walk into the Thames without seeing it. Corton sets out to tell the two stories of the fog – the actual one of what caused it and how it was eventually defeated, and the artistic one, of how it was used atmospherically and metaphorically in the literature and art of the period.
As the Industrial Revolution got underway, factories began belching their coal smoke into the air of a city that was already at the heart of a great Empire and, for its time, huge – a mass of people, living cheek by jowl, often in intolerable conditions of poverty. And in winter, these people would huddle round their coal fires adding to the polluted atmosphere. As the population grew, so did the smoke. The location of London meant that it was already prone to mists and with the addition of all this coal smoke, the mists became fogs – fogs that worsened throughout the 19th century, reaching their peak in the 1880s and 90s, but remaining significant for several decades after that, until finally legislation and health concerns abated the worst of the pollution.
Corton tells us that Herman Melville coined the expression “pea-soup” to describe the thick consistency and colour of the London fog – yellow, as pea-soup was commonly made from yellow peas at that time. But it was Dickens who first made use of the fog in literature, descriptively at first but later, as he developed as a writer and as fogs worsened, as a metaphor for the corruption and social degeneracy of the city.
Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ’prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds…
… And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.
Bleak House, Charles Dickens
Gradually the fog became such an all-pervasive feature of London life that other writers began to use it in similar ways. Corton gives many examples, from writers famous or forgotten, showing the different ways they used fog in their work. Sometimes it would be used as a cloak for hideous crimes, sometimes as a tool to show the poverty, not just physical but also a poverty of aspiration, in society. Some writers used it as metaphor for the restrictions placed on women, while others allowed their female characters a freedom they could only have when shielded by the anonymity that the fog gave. And as the fogs worsened, a sub-genre developed of apocalyptic fiction – the fog shown as finally sucking the life from the inhabitants, or as a cause for moral corruption so severe that it and the inevitable destruction of the city that followed took on almost Biblical proportions.
Artists, too, became increasingly fascinated by the fog – the colours in it depending on the type of pollution and the invisible sun above. And not just local artists – famous artists travelled from Europe, America and even the Orient to try to capture this phenomenon. (I guess once they managed to pollute their own cities enough, they were able to stay home!) The book is wonderfully illustrated with examples of this art – I read it on my Kindle Fire which is good for colour illustrations, but I wished I’d been reading the hardback.
Alongside this, Corton tells the story of how the fog impacted on people in real life and of the long fight by reformers to have the use of coal smoke regulated and reduced. The story of the beginnings of the fog and the various theories that were propounded as to its cause fascinated me, as did the descriptions given in journals and newspapers of how it actually felt trying to get around during a fog. Corton shoes how real-life criminals could use its cover for their activities, including the linklighters – the boys who carried torches to light people as they travelled – who were notorious for their criminality. The dangers for women in particular are emphasised, with a feeling that they were unsafe in the fog without the protection of a man.
At first, I also found the tale of the political fighting to do something about the fog interesting but, after a while, I began to find the telling of it too detailed, especially the Parliamentary side of it, and it began to drag. I found I was increasingly glad to get back to the literary and artistic sections. The problem of the fog decreased gradually over the 20th century, but wasn’t finally resolved until the 1950s. As a result, Corton continues her story of how it was used in literature and art well beyond the Victorian era, but as the fog faded, so did its usefulness as a metaphor. Corton makes the point that writers such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, though writing well into the 20th century, often based their stories back in the 1880s and 90s so that they could use the fog to its fullest effect.
Overall, I found this great in parts and rather dull in other parts. The effect of reading for review is that I have a tendency not to like to skip, otherwise I would fairly early on have been jumping the sections relating to the various politicians and reformers. The sections on writers and artists were of much more interest, to me at least, although here I did feel that sometimes Corton was stretching too far, and drawing conclusions about fog as metaphor that aren’t always justified by the reading of the books. But then this is a fault I routinely find in literary criticism. Despite that, one that I am sure will be enjoyed by anyone interested in either crime or literary fiction of the period. And it occurred to me it would be great as a research tool for any writer out there wanting to set their book in the London of that period…
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Harvard University Press.
In 1606, Shakespeare wrote three plays – King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra. James Shapiro sets out to show how this burst of creativity reflected the events and concerns of the times and to reveal what Shakespeare may have been thinking as he wrote.
Shapiro reminds us that Shakespeare was as much a Jacobean playwright as an Elizabethan one, and suggests that these later plays show how the English world had changed since James I came to the throne in 1603. For most of the latter part of Elizabeth’s reign, the major concern of the political classes had been the question of succession, but now that question had been resolved. Not only had James succeeded peacefully to the throne but he had two sons, securing the continuance of his dynasty for at least another generation. There was now a new question – as King of both Scotland and England, James was eager to create a union between them, a plan that was less attractive to the powerful elites in either nation. It was in this context that Lear was written, though Shapiro makes the point that it’s unclear whether the play is pro- or anti-Union – apparently scholars have continued to argue it both ways over the intervening years.
As well as the contemporary context, Shapiro looks at Shakespeare’s use of sources. In the case of Lear much of the play is based on an earlier play, King Leir by Samuel Harsnett. Shapiro shows how Shakespeare retained the basic structure and some of the language of the earlier work, while changing much of the text and creating a considerably darker ending. He speculates on how these changes would have played with the expectations of a contemporary audience familiar with the earlier play, making Shakespeare’s ending even more shocking in its unexpectedness.
The end of 1605 was marked by the Gunpowder Plot which, though it failed, revealed the rising anxiety over religious divisions and led to an atmosphere of fear and tension. Shapiro shows the links of the plotters to the Midlands and hence to the society that Shakespeare knew well. Following the plot, there was a threatened uprising near Stratford with friends and neighbours of Shakespeare on either side. Shapiro gives a good picture of how small the world of the gentry was at this time, and how Catholicism may have gone underground but hadn’t gone away. All of this would have meant that Shakespeare would have felt more than interested – involved almost – in the plots and their aftermath.
This was also a time obsessed with tales of witchcraft and demonic possession, subjects in which James himself was deeply interested, becoming personally involved in investigating some of the cases of alleged possession. Shapiro shows how both these contemporary concerns – plotting and the supernatural – fed into the writing of Macbeth.
Shapiro’s own writing is very readable and it’s clear he has researched both the period and the plays thoroughly. However, I feel the book sometimes lacks focus, becoming more of a history of the year than an analysis of the plays. While he ties contemporary concerns well into both Lear and Macbeth, I felt the section on Antony and Cleopatra was looser and therefore less successful. He also discusses some other aspects of the year, such as theatre closures due to plague, which, while interesting in themselves, didn’t seem to have much relevance to the creation of these specific plays. I feel the book rather falls between two stools – the attempt to tie everything back to the plays makes the history feel a bit superficial and occasionally contrived, while the lack of information about Shakespeare’s life means that a lot of Shapiro’s analysis is necessarily based on assumption rather than fact. In terms of interest, I found parts of it fascinating and other parts frankly rather dull – of course, I realise that much of that is subjective. But I felt that a tighter structure focused more clearly on the plays would have worked better. Or alternatively perhaps, a structure that focused exclusively on the events and concerns of the year with less of an attempt to show their relevance to the plays. Trying to do both somehow left me feeling a bit shortchanged on each.
However, there is certainly enough of interest to make the book well worth reading even if it didn’t quite meet my expectations. In amongst the other stuff, Shapiro gives a good picture of contemporary theatre, from Ben Jonson’s masques to the collapse of the boys’ companies as a result of the plague. He discusses how Shakespeare’s own company was ageing by this period, allowing Shakespeare to write some older parts. He shows the pressure that companies were under to produce new plays to feed the appetite for performances at court. But he also goes off at a tangent at times – for example, discussing how Kings were traditionally expected to ‘cure’ the King’s Evil (scrofula) – leaving me wondering about the relevance to the subject of the book.
A bit of a mixed bag then – I’d be tempted to recommend it more strongly to people with an interest in the society and culture of the period than to people primarily interested in Shakespeare. And, since I am interested in the period, in the end I got enough from it to feel my time had been well spent.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Simon & Schuster.
Following the death of James VI and I in 1625, rumours abounded that he had been done away with by his favourite, George Villiers, by then Duke of Buckingham. Over the intervening period these rumours have been dismissed by historians, partly on the grounds of lack of real evidence and partly as a result of developments in the field of forensic medicine, which suggest other, natural causes for his death. In this book, the authors’ position is that whether James was or wasn’t murdered is not the point. They argue that it is how and why the allegations were made that matters, and how they were spread, perceived by contemporary society, and altered over time to suit the end purposes of various factions. They set out to prove that the allegations played a major role in the downfall of Charles I, and were still exerting a political influence many decades after the event, all through the period of Cromwell’s Protectorate, through the Restoration, and on to the final demise of the Stuart dynasty.
The authors start by examining the relationship between James, his son Charles, and Buckingham, favourite of both Royals. They show how Buckingham had worked his way up on the basis of favours granted by James to a position of extraordinary power and influence, a position which his contemporaries felt he abused. Through marriage and patronage, Buckingham had advanced many of his family and friends and this was thoroughly resented. Buckingham was also close to Charles and, by the time of James’ death, he was seen as exerting too much influence over the new King.
The authors then go into the actual circumstances of James’ death in great detail. They use an interesting technique, to examine the same event or period from a variety of different perspectives. So they look at the medical practices in place at the time, the medical protocols put in place by the King’s chief physician, letters written by a courtier giving the layman’s view of events in the sickroom. Then they discuss the aftermath – how the King’s death was immediately mythologised as a ‘good’ death – i.e., that he died sure in his Protestant faith, and how this view was spread to the populace. They look at the evidence, and subsequent rumours, relating to Buckingham’s behaviour in the sickroom, when he apparently gave the king a ‘plaster’ – some kind of poultice – and a potion, without the full sanction of James’ doctors. And they look at how this was the period when the practice of autopsies was in its infancy and how that played into the rumours.
This approach of coming at the thing from various angles gives a slow and thorough build-up to an extremely detailed picture, and it’s the approach they take with each section of the book. The other main participant in the ‘story’ is George Eglisham, who put in print the rumour that Buckingham had in fact poisoned James, in his pamphlet The Forerunner of Revenge. Starting with a biography of Eglisham, they circle through printing and distribution methods, the growing use of propaganda on both sides of the religious divide, how this division has to be seen in a European rather than simply British context, and so on. They then follow the journey of the pamphlet, arguing that it and the rumours it contained played a crucial role in the failed Parliament of 1626, a role not given due weight by more recent historians. And they suggest that the pamphlet maintained its important influence throughout Charles’s reign and beyond, with his defence of Buckingham’s role making Charles seem complicit in his father’s murder in many eyes. This, they suggest, helped to define the public attitude to the Stuart dynasty through the rest of the century, and they show how the pamphlet was frequently re-edited and re-produced to further the schemes of various factions, with Eglisham being represented as everything from the disaffected Catholic that he actually was through to being some kind of Protestant hero when it suited.
As any regular reader of the blog will know, I am a bit of a history and politics geek, and I found the story the authors told fascinating. However, I will say this book is much more academic in style than most of the history I’ve reviewed, therefore a tougher read. It is a brick, coming in at about 550 pages plus notes, and goes into a great depth of detail, including extensive quoting from sources – I’ve barely touched on the ground it covers. It is very well written, though – thoroughly explained and convincingly argued, and free of academic jargon, so still quite accessible to the general reader. Personally I found it an immersive experience, at some points feeling that I knew the players and politics of the period of and just after the ‘murder’ better than I do the contemporary political scene. Although I’d say it’s perhaps geared more towards an academic than a general audience, it certainly isn’t necessary to have an existing knowledge of the period going in – my knowledge of the Stuart era could be described as sketchy at best, and I found the authors gave me all the information I required to understand the background to the events they describe. In fact, as well as the specific arguments of the book, I feel I now have a thorough grounding on the general political history of the period. The book is also extensively illustrated throughout, particularly with the frontispieces of the various books and pamphlets to which the text refers, which is extremely helpful in understanding the authors’ explanations of their symbolic features. So, with the proviso that it’s not what I’d think of as a light, casual read, highly recommended.
Alastair Bellany is associate professor of history at Rutgers University and the author of The Politics of Court Scandal in Early Modern England. Thomas Cogswell is professor of history at UC Riverside. His books include The Blessed Revolution: English Politics and the Coming of War, 1621-1624.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Yale University Press.
(P.S. I forgave the authors for the book title since in the first line of the introduction they give him his proper title of King James VI and I. 😉 )
There have been at least three editions of this biography since it was first published in 2013, each with a different subtitle: The Visionary Who Invented Modern Politics; The First Conservative; and Philosopher, Politician, Prophet. Pretty impressive claims for one man! The message that the book is going to be complimentary to its subject is reaffirmed in the first sentence of the introduction:-
Edmund Burke is both the greatest and the most underrated political thinker of the past 300 years.
I must admit that all of this made me worried that the book was going to be completely hagiographic. While I prefer biographies that are sympathetic, I also look for biographers to take a balanced approach and to criticise where criticism is due. I’m glad to say that the bulk of the book is not quite as fawningly sycophantic as these early impressions had made me fear, though it is clear that the author is coming at his subject from a position of deep admiration.
Jesse Norman is a British politician and a Conservative Member of Parliament. Prior to that, he gained a degree in Classics from Oxford, and went on to study and later lecture in philosophy. In the introduction, he advises that the book does not contain primary research, but instead represents his personal interpretation of Burke’s life, philosophy and legacy.
The book has a rather unusual structure for a biography. The first half is given over to a fairly standard account of Burke’s life and career, while the second part takes a closer look at his thought. I felt this divide worked quite well, although since Burke’s life was considerably less interesting than his thought, equally the second half of the book was a good deal more interesting than the first.
Born in Dublin in 1730, Burke saw at first hand the repression of the Catholics in Ireland and the negative effect this had on society. Norman suggests this early experience remained an influence throughout his life, feeding along with later experiences into the seemingly contradictory stances he took over the American and French Revolutions at the end of the century. In summing up Burke’s core beliefs, Norman says he held that “the purpose of politics is not to satisfy the interests of individuals living now: it is to preserve an evolving social order which meets the needs of generations past, present and future.” Thus, he agreed with the American colonists that there should be no taxation without representation and felt that it was important that colonies were embedded socially by creation of the kinds of institutions that existed in nation states, rather than being controlled remotely from afar. On the other hand, while he accepted the cruelties of the inequalities that led to the French Revolution, there he felt that the revolutionaries were crushing and destroying those very institutions that are required to maintain social cohesion.
This dichotomy gives the impression of him as a very practical politician and philosopher, willing to examine each event on its own merits, but with his opinions firmly embedded in his core beliefs. However this in turn meant that he didn’t please those in power all the time, being in and out of favour with his electorate, political colleagues and the King depending on what subject was uppermost at the time. This may explain why, despite his obvious intellect and talents, he never reached the upper echelons of parliamentary power. However, Norman shows the influence that Burke’s thinking had on how Parliament developed in Britain (and, Norman claims, in America) – an influence still felt today. It was Burke who argued that government should be representative – that once in Parliament MPs should be governed by their own opinions rather than bowing directly to the wishes of their electorate. This rested on his idea that it is the duty of politicians to study deeply and understand the history behind current events and the institutions that form the basis of stable societies.
There really is too much in the book to cover in a review without it becoming unwieldy. I found it well written and accessible, and Norman has the ability to compress large historical subjects into easily understood summaries, leaving him plenty of room to make his arguments about Burke’s influence and importance. As usual, I am in the position of not being able to speak to the accuracy of either the facts nor Norman’s interpretation of them, but I found his arguments convincing. Bearing in mind that Norman is a practising Conservative politician, his conclusions read a little like a plea for the Conservative Party, amongst others, to reacquaint themselves with the founding principles of the party – to accept, for instance, that, contrary to Mrs Thatcher’s claim, in fact there is such a thing as society, and that markets and other institutions are cultural artefacts to be mediated through good governance rather than to be left entirely to their own devices. Norman also makes the point that Burke believed that, since man is a social animal, then society’s needs should take precedence over the wishes of the individual – something that seems to have become forgotten in the last few decades of rampant individualism. (Interestingly, he points out that since most social studies research is carried out in American Universities with students as subjects, then this may skew results to increase the apparent appeal of liberal individualism.)
Overall, a thought-provoking read which doesn’t require any pre-knowledge of Burke’s contribution to philosophy or political thinking – interesting both in its historical context and in how Burke’s influence still resonates in politics today.
Evan Thomas tells us in his introduction that he is not attempting to “weigh the success and failure of Nixon as a policy maker” or to solve the “many mysteries” of Watergate. Instead, his aim is to understand Nixon as a person or, as he puts it, “to understand what it was like to actually be Nixon”. The book is very well written in a style that makes it accessible to the general reader. It’s a linear biography that follows its subject from birth to death, and is well balanced in that the bulk of it concentrates on Nixon’s political career, with just enough of the before and after to shed light on Nixon’s character.
Thomas shows the child Nixon as a high achiever at school, despite being naturally shy. His background was one of hardship, though not poverty, which prevented him from attending one of the Ivy League colleges. This meant that after graduation he wasn’t able to get into the top law firms, and Thomas suggests that this left him with a lifelong chip on his shoulder, always declaring he wouldn’t have Ivy League graduates working for him, though in fact he put many of them into top jobs. This small example in itself shows a trait that is repeated again and again throughout his life – a disconnect between what he said and how he acted. Even at this young age, Nixon is shown as pompous and humourless, and something of a loner. Despite his Quaker background, when America entered WW2 he joined the Army, though he was never directly involved in the fighting.
His introduction to political campaigning came after the war when he was invited to stand for Congress in California. Dirty tricks were rife and accepted as pretty much the norm by all sides. Again this is something Thomas emphasises all the way through, that dirty campaigns were not unusual and that each side expected the other side to be as devious as they were.
In recounting Nixon’s pre-Presidential political career, Thomas highlights most those features that he feels shed some light on Nixon’s personality, character and political beliefs. Politically, even at this early stage Nixon’s interests lay more in foreign than domestic affairs. He made his name by going after Alger Hiss on behalf of the House Un-American Activities Committee, refusing to give up until he achieved success. Thomas suggests this experience was important in forming Nixon’s approach to politics in general – at times when he faced difficulties he often referred back to the Hiss affair as a way of insisting that his tactics were the way to get results. He also served on the committee that pushed through the Marshall Plan and was genuinely fearful of the communist threat to a destroyed and poverty-ridden Europe. Later, when serving as Vice-President, Eisenhower would use him as a kind of travelling diplomat, in which role he had some significant successes. At home, he was used as Ike’s attack dog against his political opponents. Reviled by the Press and despised by the social and political elite because, Thomas suggests, of his comparatively humble background and lack of social savoir-faire, Nixon nonetheless had the common touch, and when Ike considered dropping him as running mate in ’56, it was popular pressure that kept him on the ticket.
In the ’60 election, Thomas suggests that the Kennedy camp ran a huge dirty tricks campaign, pretty much buying JFK’s way in to the Presidency with blatant bribes and backhanders. I have no way of knowing how accurate that is, but given that underhand and devious methods seem to have been the norm on both sides, it doesn’t sound unbelievable. However at this point for the first time Thomas gave me the impression that he was being too soft on Nixon, building excuses for his later behaviour. He suggests Nixon vowed after this never to be beaten in the matter of dirty tricks again.
Once the book reaches the stage of Nixon’s Presidency, Thomas provides a believable picture of a rather isolated President, not personally close even to the people who worked most directly with him. The concentration on Nixon’s personality leaves the book a little light on actual policy matters, I felt, assuming a familiarity with events that some non-American readers and even perhaps younger US readers might not have. But I thought Thomas gave a really good picture of the social unrest of the late ’60s and of how Nixon reacted to the ongoing questions of race, social liberalisation and, of course, Vietnam.
Thomas delves into the background and events of Watergate in some detail, and I was left with the impression that it was a combination of paranoia and the belief that as President he was untouchable that led Nixon to become so heavily implicated. He also is shown to have had a kind of mistaken loyalty, or perhaps it was just weakness, that prevented him from getting rid of people as they fell under suspicion. Though he was clearly responsible for setting the tone that led to the prevalence of dirty tricks within his office, he probably wasn’t aware of the actual Watergate affair in advance, so could probably have escaped the worst of the scandal had he been more decisive and brutal about sacking people at an earlier stage.
Thomas finishes with a look at Nixon’s life after the Presidency, when he gradually became a kind of elder statesman, giving advice to a succession of Presidents.
If Thomas’ portrayal is accurate, then it all seems like a rather sad waste of a man who clearly had great talent and intellect, but whose personality weaknesses took him along a path that led to his own downfall. If there was really as much corruption in politics as Thomas suggests, then one can’t help feeling that Nixon was merely the one who got caught. Though it seemed that just occasionally Thomas went a little easy on him, I felt overall that this was a fairly balanced account and certainly provided a credible portrait of Nixon’s complex character. An interesting biography.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House.
In this beautifully written and thoughtful book, the author, a British-born Jew, muses on her troubled relationship with the place she thinks of as ‘home’ – Israel. Her parents were kibbutzniks there, but emigrated to Britain before Donahaye’s birth. Donahaye made the first of her many visits to Israel at the age of ten, a visit that had a profound effect on her when she saw her mother blossom amongst the places and language of her youth, becoming someone other than the person Donahaye knew. This not altogether positive experience was followed by other trips during which Donahaye came to love and admire her mother’s country deeply, absorbing from her extended family the Zionist version of the history of the State of Israel as it has become mythologised by those who have lived, fought and died there since its foundation. For many years, Donahaye didn’t question this version of events.
However at the age of forty, on discovering that her grandfather had been involved in the driving out of the Arabs from their villages in 1947, Donahaye started a journey that led her to learn the other history of Israel – the one that talks about ethnic cleansing of the Arabs, that explains the refugee camps, that suggests that the Palestinian Arabs saw this land as home as much as the Jews, either of Palestine or from the diaspora, ever did, and had as much right to it. This book is the story of that journey, as Donahaye takes the reader through her gradual awakening to the full complexities of the history of this troubled region and her agonised process of reassessment of the country she still loves and feels inextricably drawn towards.
I’ll get my criticisms out of the way first because, though not unflawed, it is in many ways an exceptional read, whichever side of the Zionist debate the reader might tend towards. The book is short, but in truth I felt it was also a little too long for its subject matter. The tone is unbrokenly melancholic and this made it quite a monotone read. There are too many divergences to describe bird-watching experiences, although these passages are often beautifully written and she frequently uses them as metaphors for the migrations of both Jews and Palestinian Arabs.
I also felt Donahaye must have been remarkably unaware of politics if she had managed to live for forty years without being conscious of the other side of the Palestinian question. I could perhaps have understood that more had she lived in Israel, where the atmosphere of constant threat from outside might encourage a national blindness to other viewpoints. But living in the UK where there are at least as many critics of Israel’s stance towards the Palestinian Arabs as supporters of it, then one would have to have no interest in the subject at all to remain ignorant of at least some of the arguments. While her investigations did uncover some small facts that are not generally known, the big picture that seemed to shock her so much is one that has been debated and argued over for decades. As such, I didn’t find that the book really added much to the debate – though perhaps it would in Israel, if it is an accurate picture Donahaye paints of it as almost a police state where anyone who tries to find out about its history is immediately suspect and subjected to state surveillance.
Bearing that in mind then, for me the chief interest in the book was in seeing how her discoveries affected her emotionally, as she gradually changed her mind about the unarguable rightness of the Israeli position. Torn between her love for the nation and her horror at finding out how the Palestinian Arabs had been treated by it, she describes her struggles eloquently, using some beautiful, almost poetic language, even if just occasionally I found that in her new-found awareness she was veering perhaps a little too far towards the maudlin end of liberal political correctness. She talks not just of the politics and history of Israel, but of the land itself – its beauty, its wildlife and the lack of water which, she suggests perceptively, may in the end be a crucial factor in determining how the future pans out. When she speaks of her family in Israel, we see how the fear and anxiety they live with daily affects their opinions and attitudes. She writes emotively of how her researches upset the elder members of her family, challenging the foundations of their loyalty to their nation.
The book is at its most profound, I feel, when she discusses the ways histories are made by those with a vested interest in ensuring their version is accepted. Renaming of Arab villages after they had been cleared of their occupants, to give them Hebrew names and to, in some cases, suggest links back to the Biblical era, is shown as a means both of legitimising the Israeli State and of obliterating the long history between that earlier time and the present and, with it, obliterating the suggestion of any other occupants having legitimate claims to the land. Donahaye describes how the older members of her family still tend to use the old Arab names that were current in their childhood, while young people are forgetting not only the old names, but the very fact that they ever existed. And, in parallel with this, she shows how easy, and perhaps necessary, it can be for the people on one side of a conflict to dehumanise those on the other.
An emotional exploration of one woman’s journey, this might not change the terms of the debate, but it certainly casts light on it. And is an eloquent testimony to the heart-rending that can be caused when the nation one loves acts in ways one finds hard to bear.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Seren.
It’s little wonder that Nancy Goldstone has chosen to use quotes from Machiavelli to head each chapter in her romping history of her rival Queens, Catherine de’ Medici, Queen of France, and her daughter Marguerite de Valois, Queen of Navarre. It was a great time for Queens, though maybe not quite so great for their subjects. Over in England, Elizabeth was working up to the beheading of her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots. But the shenanigans of Catherine and Marguerite frankly make the British Royals look tame.
Goldstone sets the scene well by beginning with Marguerite’s wedding to Henry of Navarre, a marriage she didn’t want since she was a devout Catholic and Henry was one of the leaders of the Protestant Huguenots. But Catherine didn’t much care for what her children wanted, on the whole – especially her daughters. From her perspective, they were simply pawns to be pushed around on the dynastic chessboard of Europe. To be fair, that was how she had been treated herself, so hardly surprising that she dealt with her own children’s wishes as cavalierly. But to then massacre the bridegroom’s friends and relatives during the wedding celebrations might have been a little over the top even for Renaissance royalty!
Goldstone then takes us back to Catherine’s early life as Queen to Henri II of France. Throughout, the tone of this hugely readable history is light. This early section in particular is full of some fairly ribald humour, as we learn of Catherine’s difficulties in becoming pregnant, and the helpful bedroom tips she is offered by Henri’s long-term mistress, Diane de Poitiers. In truth, by page 25 I had tears of laughter streaming down my face and my only regret is that if I were to quote the passages that made me howl so much I’d have to re-rate my blog as ‘explicit content’! Suffice to say, this book has the honour of containing the funniest footnote of all time and my Google search recommendations may never recover…
After this rocky start, Catherine managed to produce ten children (Diane’s advice must have been spectacular!) before Henri’s death left her poised to become regent for her young son Charles IX. After years of playing second fiddle to Diane and being sidelined as Queen, there might be some slight justification for Catherine’s desire to grab power when the chance arose. And she soon proved there was nothing that she wouldn’t consider, including murder and war, to hold onto it. Unfortunate for her that this was the time of the Reformation, meaning that the country was almost constantly either in civil war or in danger of it. The Huguenots were numerically hugely outnumbered in the general population, but had some influential people at their head, while the Catholic Guises were constantly on the prowl, looking for opportunities to gain control over the throne for themselves.
Catherine started out willing to conciliate the Huguenots, hence the betrothal of her young daughter to Henry of Navarre. But by the time of the marriage, Catherine’s attitude had changed, not for reasons of religious conviction (of which she had none, it would seem), but mainly to try to get in the good books of Philip of Spain. Having gone through with the marriage and then been horrified by the massacre which followed, Marguerite found herself in an uneasy alignment with the Huguenot husband she didn’t love and the brother, Francis, whom she did, and at odds with her mother and the King. From there on, the story is one of plot and counter-plot, shifting allegiances, betrayals and lots and lots of romping! Unloved by her husband, Marguerite took comfort in a succession of affairs throughout her life, seeming to be fairly indiscriminate on whom she bestowed her favours. In and out of her mother’s favour at different times, always for reasons of politics rather than any kind of familial love, the rivalry was finally resolved only by Catherine’s eventual unlamented death. Marguerite’s husband later ascended to the throne of France, at which point he promptly divorced the childless Marguerite (if only Diane had still been around to advise, eh?). But they got on better after that, and Marguerite ended her days as a sort of favoured aunt to Henry’s children with his second wife, and loved by the populace for her charitable works.
Despite the light tone, the book feels well-researched, although I give my usual disclaimer that I’m not qualified to judge its historical accuracy. Goldstone handles all the personalities well, making it easy for the reader to keep up, despite the fact that almost everyone is called either Henri or Henry. I felt that she was very biased in Marguerite’s favour and against Catherine. As often as not, the source material that she quotes is Marguerite’s own memoirs – again, I can’t judge, but I’d have assumed these would not be an unbiased account of the period. My own view was that Catherine was indeed not a shining example of motherhood, or Queenhood for that matter, but that Marguerite wasn’t exactly blameless either. Both women seemed willing to use their subjects as dispensable pawns in their own struggle for power and wealth and both seemed to have a pretty superficial view of what was important in life – money, sex, money, power and money. Goldstone remarks on Marguerite’s devotion to Catholicism frequently, but her moral behaviour suggests she was pretty relaxed about following the Church’s teachings only when it suited her.
Goldstone just stops short of claiming that Marguerite’s sexual adventures showed her to be an early feminist, demanding the same sexual freedom as the men. This seemed like a fairly ridiculous leap to me – historical characters must surely be judged by the standards of the society in which they lived rather than by those of today, and there seems little doubt that Marguerite was more promiscuous, or at least less discreet, than was considered acceptable at the time. And Goldstone is fairly harsh on Catherine for remaining in control (emotionally and politically) each time one of her children died – again I felt this was projecting today’s sensibilities backwards. Early death was much commoner then and therefore something that had to be coped with. I wondered if Goldstone would have expected a King to fall apart in similar circumstances. It seemed a bit unbalanced that Marguerite’s behaviour was a sign of feminism while Catherine’s was a sign of unwomanliness.
A biased history then, I think, but a highly readable one. At points it reads like a great thriller, complete with cliffhanger endings to chapters, and then at others it becomes like an episode of Dallas, with Catherine in the role of JR and Marguerite as sweet little Pamela. It concentrates entirely on the machinations of those in power, so there is no feeling for the social history of the time beyond mentions of the disruption caused by the religious wars. For me, this was a limitation although clearly an intentional one, and it undoubtedly made the book easier to read and more enjoyable. However sometimes I felt the subject matter perhaps deserved a rather more serious treatment – one feels somehow that the French people probably didn’t have as much fun living under these awful monarchs as I had reading about them. A great starter book though for someone who, like me, knows very little of that period of French and European history – a very palatable way to learn some history.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Weidenfield & Nicolson.