A Vast Conspiracy by Jeffrey Toobin

Sex, lies and audiotape…

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Every detail you ever wanted to know about the whole Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, and several that you didn’t. This is more than a salacious recounting of the affair that nearly brought down a President, however. Jeffrey Toobin argues convincingly that politicians on both sides of the aisle had gradually been using the courts more and more to decide political questions, and that the Clinton scandal was a clear indication that the balance of power had shifted, and that the legal system was from now on to be the arbiter of all political questions in the US. He also suggests that it was the beginning of the sordid game beloved by politicians and the media (but not so much by the public, he implies) of dragging political opponents down, not by dissecting their poor performance as politicians, but by pretended moral outrage over their private behaviour.

The book was originally published in 2000, so long before the MeToo movement but at a time when questions of sexual abuse in the workplace were being raised by feminist groups. In his introduction, Toobin admits that he may have treated Lewinsky differently had he been writing now, when terms like “power imbalance” are part of the everyday lexicon. To be honest, I’m glad he wrote it when he did then, for two reasons. Firstly, my opinion then (when I was still a fairly young, ambitious, working woman) and now is that a 22-year-old woman is a grown adult, perfectly capable of making her own decisions, and therefore morally responsible for her own behaviour. There was never a suggestion that Clinton forced himself on Lewinsky – quite the reverse – so while I think he’s a disgusting and rather pathetically inadequate adulterous pig, I’m not willing to see her as his victim. (Her treatment later, by her tape-recording “friend” and the lawyers investigating Clinton, seems to me far more abusive than anything Clinton did to her.) Secondly, because Toobin wrote it in the heat of the moment, more or less, it gives a much clearer picture, I think, of the attitudes prevalent at that time than any later history, trying hard to tell the story through the filter of a 2020 lens, could ever do. Although Toobin is pretty tough on Lewinsky, he also shows no mercy to Clinton, so this is in no way an apologia.

The happy couple…

Toobin spares us none of the intimate detail, and I fear I learned far more than I wanted or needed to about Clinton’s anatomy and sexual preferences, not to mention Lewinsky’s underwear and performative techniques. (It made me realise that, back in the day, although the case was reported on at extremely boring length over here too, our dear BBC must have decided to leave out the most salacious details, for which I belatedly thank them.) However, in terms of the book I do think it was necessary to include them, because part of Toobin’s argument is exactly that public interest arguments shouldn’t justify this level of intrusion into the minutiae of sex between consenting adults. This case opened the door to the constant diet of sleaze that is now common currency in what we laughably call political debate. Does the public have the right to know their President paid a porn star for her silence about their affair? Probably – it goes to questions of character and vulnerability to blackmail. But do we really need a detailed account of the act complete with anatomical measurements? I think not.

The other woman…

The bulk of the book, however, is about the Starr investigation, and how incestuous the whole relationship between the legal and political systems of the US has become, with partisan lawyers and judges acting to down political opponents and circumvent the laws of the land, rather than behaving as impartial administrators of justice. This provides a lot of insight for outsiders, and I expect for many Americans too, on why the most important agenda item for many politicians seems to be to pack the courts with their own appointees. One only has to see the reaction of the left to the appointment of Kavanaugh (who plays a bit part in the Clinton story), or the desperation with which the Democrats are praying that Ginsberg will be able to remain in her role until next January, or the disgust of Republicans that Chief Justice Roberts has “betrayed” the right in a couple of recent judgements to know that this politicisation of the legal system is corrupting even the Supreme Court. Toobin shows us the origins of this, and the collusion of all sides in allowing it to happen. There were several chapters where, had the names been omitted, the book could as easily have been about Trump, Mueller, and the biased and polarised media of today’s America.

The real US Government…

So despite all the sleazy details, I found this a fascinating and illuminating scrutiny of the modern American political system. It also surprised me that so many of the political players back then are still influential now – Kavanaugh, George Conway, Ann Coulter were all linked to the Starr investigation, while many of the Senators and members of Congress on both sides, mostly not young or junior even back then, were trotting out opposite arguments during the Trump impeachment two decades later. It made me wonder why the US seems to have stuck – these same people have been running it, badly, for decades. Maybe it’s time for a generational shift, though since the major question in this year’s election seems to be which of the candidates is less senile I’m not expecting it to happen soon. Recommended to Americans who want to understand how and why their system fails them, and to Brits and others as a stark warning not to follow them down the road of giving lawyers and judges more power than our elected politicians.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, William Collins.

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The Brothers York by Thomas Penn

I blame the parents…

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Penn starts this history of the three York brothers with the background story of the weak King Henry VI, surrounded by venal lords and constantly threatened by Richard, Duke of York, father of the three brothers, who had a competing claim to the throne through the female line. He then takes us in a linear fashion through the downfall of Henry, and the reigns of Edward IV and Richard III, ending with Richard’s downfall and the rise to power of Henry VII, the first of the Tudors.

Penn writes very well, avoiding academic jargon and taking plenty of time to fill in the characters of the people he’s discussing. He assumes no prior knowledge, which as a newcomer to the period I found extremely helpful since it meant I never found myself floundering over unexplained references, as can often happen with history books.

Edward IV

The bulk of the book concentrates on the reign of Edward IV, which makes sense since he ruled for over twenty years whereas the middle brother George, Duke of Clarence, never got to be king and the youngest brother, Richard III, managed a mere two years before he lost his crown, and his life along with it. Unfortunately, Richard is by far the more interesting king (in my opinion), so I’d have been happier to spend more time in his company and rather less on Edward’s interminable taxes and squabbles with France and Burgundy. I have a feeling this says far more about my dilettante approach to history than it does about the book, however! But after an excellent start with all the intrigue and fighting leading up to Edward’s final power grab, I found my interest dipped for quite a long period in the middle of the book as Penn laid out the detail of his long reign.

George, Duke of Clarence

It picks up again when Edward finally dies, and the nefarious Richard usurps the throne from his nephew. Richard’s reign might have been short but it’s full of incident and Penn tells it excellently. Intriguingly, although of course he relates the story of the Princes in the Tower, Penn doesn’t tell us his own opinion as to whether Richard was guilty of their murder or not. I suppose this makes sense, since (weirdly) there are still strong factions on either side of that question and he’d have been bound to alienate half his readership whichever position he took. He gives enough detail of the event and the contemporaneous rumours around it for the reader to make up her own mind, if she hasn’t already. (Yes, of course Richard was guilty, if you’re wondering… 😉 )

Richard III

Penn finishes as Richard’s reign comes to its tragic/well-deserved* end, rounding the story off with an uber-quick résumé of Henry VII and the Tudors, explaining how the Yorkist divide gradually diminished over time.

Thomas Penn
(photo: Justine Stoddart)

Overall, this is an excellent history, plainly but well told. I’d say it’s aimed more at the general reader than an academic audience, and is particularly good as an introduction to the period – I’m not sure that there’s much new in it for people who already have a solid understanding of the time of the York kings. It’s clearly well researched, with plenty of detail, and it covers all the major personalities of the time, not just the brothers. I came out of it feeling much clearer about how all the various well known names – Warwick, Elizabeth Woodville, Margaret of Anjou, etc. – fitted together, and what parts they played in the Yorkist story. I did struggle with the long middle section of Edward’s rather dull reign, but a historian really can’t be expected to make something exciting if it isn’t. But the first and last sections had more than enough treachery, betrayal and general skulduggery to satisfy even me! Recommended.

*delete according to preference

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Allen Lane.

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Enoch Powell: Politics and Ideas in Modern Britain by Paul Corthorn

The politics of decline and nationhood…

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For my generation, arriving at political awareness in the 1970s, Enoch Powell had already become the chief bogeyman for those of us on the left. He is best remembered for his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech of 1968, when he issued dire apocalyptic warnings about the dangers of mass immigration in terms which even in those days were incendiary and which to modern eyes are vilely, shockingly racist. He is still worshipped by the extreme right in Britain, happily a tiny proportion of our society, while some on the left still drag his name out whenever they want to present anti-immigrationism and racism as synonymous. However, he is also considered as one of the leading and most influential thinkers of his generation, and for many years I have wondered why such an intelligent man didn’t realise that this speech would blow his career into smithereens on that day in 1968, making him such a pariah to so many that all other aspects of his contribution to political life are hidden under its dark shadow, and also making rational discussion of immigration policies in the UK almost impossible for decades to come – still today, in fact.

Paul Corthorn is Senior Lecturer in Modern British History at Queen’s University Belfast. In his introduction, he acknowledges that much previous biography of Powell has been strongly pro or anti. In this book, Corthorn is striving to present Powell’s views on a variety of topics and how he came to form them, without judgement. Corthorn shapes his work around the political themes that engaged Powell throughout his political life rather than working to a timeline, and makes clear that this is an examination of Powell’s political thought and contribution rather than a personal biography of his life. Having previously ploughed through a rather nauseating and ultimately unrevealing hagiography of the man, I found this approach refreshing. Corthorn takes much of his argument from a close analysis of Powell’s speeches, to which Powell gave great thought. Corthorn suggests that the idea of ‘decline’ underpins much of Powell’s thinking, as his generation grappled with the end of the British Empire and sought to redefine nationhood and Britain’s role in the world, facing up to the new reality of American dominance.

The five themes Corthorn uses are international relations, economics, immigration, Europe and Northern Ireland. He does an excellent job of showing that each forms part of a coherent whole in terms of Powell’s thinking – that the ideas of decline and of nationhood run through all of his arguments and remain consistent, though his opinions on policy changed over time and sometimes could seem contradictory.

Enoch Powell

(The thing about Powell, as I learned when I reviewed a previous biography on Amazon, is that whatever you say about him he is so divisive that people will call you a fascist racist if you show any admiration for him at all, or a Trotskyite commie if you refuse to genuflect when mentioning his name. But hey! I reckon if people are calling you both, then you’re probably somewhere in the middle which is where I like to be, so if you’re going to be upset by me praising/criticising him you probably should look away now.)

There can be little doubt that Powell was one of the great political thinkers of the mid-twentieth century. He was tackling Britain’s future while most others were still clinging desperately to its past. He foresaw many of the issues we are dealing with today while others were burying their heads in the sand. He saw that American hegemony and the West’s interference in the Middle East would lead to a series of unwinnable wars. He was against devolution for the constituent nations of the UK because he believed that it would weaken identification with the UK as a nation state while never satisfying those who desired full independence. He believed that supranational organisations like the UN and NATO would weaken the ability of nation states to act in their own interests (which he saw as a bad thing). He believed that the then Common Market (now European Union) would progress inexorably towards political union – in his view, an undesirable outcome. And he believed that if governments refused to control immigration, then populism, with all its inherent dangers, would be the eventual outcome (the actual point he was making in 1968, lost entirely because of his use of degrading racist language). He was totally against allowing the Republic of Ireland to have a say in the administration of Northern Ireland, believing it would leave Northern Ireland always as a sort of semi-detached part of the UK – instead he wanted it be fully integrated into the non-devolved political system he favoured for all four UK nations. He was propounding the main ideas behind the economic theories that would eventually come to be called Thatcherism long before Thatcher.

Paul Corthorn

Corthorn finishes with a brief but excellent critical round-up of the preceding chapters and an analysis of why Powell’s reputation and legacy are still matters of dispute. Love or hate him, it is fascinating to read of a politician who gave so much thought to the long-term and who rarely allowed partisanship to sway him into short-term compromise. He changed party affiliation frequently and expected a level of loyalty from others that he rarely was willing to give. This, of course, made him an arrogant maverick with more than a hint of narcissism, and meant that he never gained the power he felt was his due, where a more emollient compromiser may have achieved more. And ultimately it was that arrogance – that failure to accept that those he saw as his intellectual inferiors (i.e., everyone) would not be wowed into agreement by his brilliance – that led him to think that it would be acceptable to speak of immigration in the racist terminology he used in the 1968 speech.

An excellent book that gives real and balanced insight into the thinking of this undoubtedly brilliant, undoubtedly deeply flawed man, and along the way casts a lot of thought-provoking light on many of the questions we are still grappling with today. I can’t say I like Powell any better than I did, but I rather wish I believed our present generation of politicians were as deep-thinking and forward-looking. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford University Press.

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Peterloo: The English Uprising by Robert Poole

A milestone on the road to democracy…

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Two hundred years ago, on 16th August, 1819, a huge rally of some 50,000 people gathered in St Peter’s Field in Manchester, to demand greater representation in Parliament. Although the demonstrators were peaceful and unarmed, they were charged by the cavalry and local Yeomanry, riding through the crowd with sabres drawn. Many hundreds were injured and eighteen were killed, either from crush injuries or from sabre wounds. Known as Peterloo, this incident is embedded in the national consciousness as a tragic milestone on the long, long road to democracy.

Robert Poole is Professor of History at the University of Central Lancashire. He suggests that 1819 should be seen in the context of the end of the long 18th century following the Glorious Revolution, as much as the beginning of the reforming 19th century. The Napoleonic Wars had ended at last, but for the handloom weavers and mill-workers in and around Manchester, peace brought no dividend. The huge national debt had led to high taxation, usually indirect which then as now hit the poor disproportionately. Wealth inequality, already major, was growing. Government policies such as the Corn Laws favoured landowners and voters (a tiny number of the wealthy) rather than workers. Wages, already low, were falling still further. Starvation was an actuality even for people working long hours in appalling conditions.

One of the banners carried by the marchers that so frightened the authorities.

Poole concentrates most of the book on the period between the end of the Napoleonic Wars (1815) and 1819, with the focus on what led up to the massacre more than on its aftermath. He gives a detailed account of the conditions of the workers, the prevailing economic circumstances, the political environment, and the effect of recent upheavals in France on the establishment’s fear of bloody revolution. The book is clearly the result of immense research, pulled together into a very readable narrative that is accessible to the non-historian without in any way over-simplifying the content. There are maps of the area, and a generous helping of illustrations throughout, which aid in understanding how events were perceived at the time. Although it’s clear Poole is on the “side” of the reformers (who in today’s Britain would disagree with that position?), he nevertheless casts an objective eye on why the authorities behaved as they did, condemning where appropriate, but showing some understanding of the pressures they felt themselves under too. He also shows that, although there was no violence on that day from the reformers’ side, there had been violent incidents before, and it was known that the marchers had been being drilled by ex-soldiers, leading the authorities to fear an armed uprising. Overall I felt that Poole gave as even-handed an account of the background as possible, while not in any way minimising or excusing the atrocity that occurred.

Along the way, we learn a lot about the leaders of the Reform movement and their aims, not always uniform. Poole also tells us about the many spies embedded in the movement, reporting every word and action back to the Home Office. We are told about the Government’s use of political power to make it almost impossible for people to protest legally, and about the abuses of the legal system, such as the suspension of habeas corpus, to allow those perceived as ringleaders to be kept in jail for long periods often without trial. Poole tells us about the women who joined the reform movement, not at this early stage demanding votes for themselves, but in support of their men. Despite all the attempts to threaten, bully or otherwise silence them, the people marched, and marched again, and the authorities, local and national, unwilling, perhaps unable, to give in to their demands, felt they had to do something to restore order.

As a casual reader, I found the middle section of the book, where Poole describes the many marches and protests prior to the day of Peterloo, harder to plough through, although this is more a criticism of me than the book. For students, historians or people who like an in-depth approach, then the level of detail Poole provides will be appreciated. However, I found the long first section on the political, social and economic background fascinating and written with great clarity, while the description of the event itself at the end is excellent – a clear and balanced account, and by that stage Poole has ensured the reader understands all the various elements that came together to clash so tragically on St Peter’s Field.

Poole concludes by examining the numbers of dead and injured, explaining the sources historians have used for determining these figures. He discusses the trials and imprisonments that followed. He takes a very interesting look at the reporting of the day and how public opinion was changed by a few journalists offering eyewitness accounts. He then sets this event as a link in the chain of the longer reform movement, later leading to the 1832 Reform Act and on towards Chartism and eventual achievement of universal manhood suffrage, where every vote counted equally. He compares (as I did while reading) the period 1817/19 to today’s Britain (and I’d add America and several European nations, not omitting the EU itself), with populism rising as a response to an elite who don’t listen to the concerns of the people, (and again I’d add, or who discount the legitimacy of any democratically-expressed decision with which they disagree). I also found myself comparing these events to the ongoing Hong Kong protests, with a chilling sense of foreboding.

I was taught about Peterloo by an inspirational history teacher at school and it helped form my long-held opinion that if democracy is to survive, then democracy itself must be accepted by all as more important than any one political issue or partisan affiliation. Democracy is a fragile thing, and this book is an excellent reminder of how hard-fought the battle was to win it. I highly recommend it.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford University Press.

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The Hour of Peril by Daniel Stashower

The President and the detective…

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Abraham Lincoln has won the Presidential election and now, in early 1861, is about to undertake the journey from his home in Springfield, Illinois, to Washington for his inauguration. But these are troubled times, and the journey is complicated because of all of the different railroad companies that own parts of the route. One of the company owners hears of a plot to destroy his railroad to prevent Lincoln making it to Washington, and so he calls in the already famous private detective, Allan Pinkerton. But when Pinkerton starts to investigate, he becomes convinced that there is a deeper plot in the planning – to assassinate Lincoln before he is inaugurated. This book tells the story of Lincoln’s journey, the plot against him, and Pinkerton’s attempt to ensure his safe arrival in Washington.

It’s written very much in the style of a true crime book, although it has aspects that fall as much into the category of history. Stashower focuses on three main aspects: a biographical look at Pinkerton and the development of his detective agency; the rising tensions in the still-new nation that would soon break out into full scale civil war; and Lincoln’s journey, and the plot against him.

Route of Lincoln’s whistle-stop inaugural trip 1861

The first section is mostly about Pinkerton, a man who started out as a political activist in his native Glasgow in Scotland until, perhaps to escape the authorities there, he emigrated to America with his young wife. I grew up knowing tales of the great American detective Pinkerton and his agents, but hadn’t realised he was born and lived only three or so miles away from where I spent my childhood years, so that was an added point of interest for me; plus the authenticity shown in the little time that the book spends on Scotland and the political situation there (about which I know a fair amount) convinced me of the author’s historical reliability. Once the story moves to America, Stashower shows us how this journeyman cooper gradually became a detective for hire, and then grew a business of many agents able to work undercover in all levels of society. Stashower discusses Pinkerton’s methods,  his policy that “the ends justify the means”, and the clients who called on him to prevent crimes if he could, or else bring the criminals to justice after the event.

The logo that gave rise to the expression, “private eye”

Pinkerton was also ahead of his time in recognising the value of women detectives, though it was actually a woman, Kate Warne, who convinced him of this when she persuaded him to hire her. She went on to become one of his most trusted agents, and played a major role in the events covered by the book, all of which Stashower recounts most interestingly. If any biographers are out there looking for a subject, I’d love to read a full bio of her life!

The focus then switches between Lincoln and Pinkerton, the one preparing for his journey, the other setting up his agents to infiltrate the pro-Secessionists in Baltimore, where the threat to Lincoln seemed to be greatest. The political background is woven into these two stories, with Stashower assuming some prior knowledge of the events leading up to the civil war on the part of his readers, but ensuring that he gives enough so that people, like me, whose understanding of that period is superficial and even sketchy don’t get left behind.

Stashower tells us of the various people surrounding Lincoln, and their differing opinions on how he should meet the threat. Given that he had won the election on a minority of the vote, it was felt to be important that he should let people see and hear him, trying to win them over before he took office. This meant that the train journey became serpentine, looping and doubling back so that he could visit as many places as possible. To make matters worse from a security point of view, his advisors and he thought it was necessary to put out an itinerary in advance, so that the people, and unfortunately therefore the plotters, would know when and where they could get close to him. To get to Washington, he would have to go through Baltimore – a state then known as Mobtown and one that was considered likely to go over to the Confederacy side in the event of war. Despite the fact that we all know that Lincoln survived for a few more years, Stashower manages to build a real atmosphere of tension – we may know the outcome, but I certainly didn’t know how or even if he would make it through Baltimore safely.

Pinkerton (left) with Lincoln and Major General John A. McClernand at Antietam in1862

Meantime, Pinkerton and his agents take us undercover deep into the conspiracy to stop Lincoln, showing how for many of those involved it was really a talking game, but for a few fanatics, it was a real plot. Pinkerton’s task was a double one – to trap the plotters while also managing Lincoln’s safe transit through this dangerous city. I’ll say no more, so that I won’t spoil the tension for anyone who, like me, doesn’t know this story. But towards the end I found it as tense as a thriller and raced through the last chapters with a need to know how it all worked out.

Daniel Stashower

Finally, Stashower gives a short summary of what happened afterwards to the various people involved – the people who travelled with Lincoln, Pinkerton and his agents, and some of the plotters. He also shows how conflicting versions of the story make getting at the facts difficult – Pinkerton and some of Lincoln’s people didn’t see eye to eye either at the time or afterwards, and each side perhaps embellished the facts to suit their own purposes. Nothing really changes, eh? Except maybe it’s a bit easier to travel from Illinois to Washington now.

A thoroughly enjoyable book – well written, interesting and informative, giving a lot of insight into this troubled period just before the Civil War. Highly recommended!

Thanks, Margot – you know my tastes well. 😀

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The Women of the Moon by Daniel R. Altschuler & Fernando J. Ballesteros

Twenty-eight…

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Since the 16th century, with the development of the first telescopes, scientists have been naming craters on the moon after other scientists and philosophers. When this book was first published in 2014, there were 1586 named craters, of which 28 were named for women. Twenty-eight. Over five centuries. In this book, the authors (both scientists and, ironically, both men) tell us who these women were and what they did to achieve such an honour (did I mention there are only 28 of them?), and through their stories show how hard it has been over the centuries for women to break into a field for which most men (and, yes, many women too) felt they were unsuited, intellectually and emotionally. They also show that happily things have improved, in some parts of the world at least, though the battle for access to and recognition in the field of science is by no means won.

When I looked at the index of names, I was appalled that even out of this tiny number of women, I had only heard of a handful of them. (Mind you, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have heard of most of the 1558 men either. It occurred to me that, since this book runs to 290 pages, if a similar book was to be written about The Men of the Moon, it would come in at approximately 16,000 pages. Whew! I’m glad I wasn’t reading that one!)

Mary Somerville 1780-1872
Scottish science writer and polymath. Amongst other achievements, she inspired the research which led to the discovery of Neptune.

The entries are in chronological order, starting with the mathematician Hypatia of Alexandria in the 4th century and ending with Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman to go into space, and the only one who’s still alive. Hypatia is an outlier – most of the women are from what we think of as the modern era, from the eighteenth century on. The cumulative effect is to give a broad outline of the history of women in science and education generally, from the days when they weren’t allowed into universities and couldn’t get paid positions even after they had self-educated themselves, through to now, when at last women are being actively encouraged to enter scientific careers.

As well as gender, there is also a major geographical disparity in the namings. While I’m proud that a couple of the women were Scots, by birth at least, and there are other Brits, Irish, Europeans and Russians, the majority are either American or carried out much of their work in America. There are obvious reasons for this in the past, both in that, hard though it was for women to participate in science in those regions, it was still easier than in much of the world, and, of course, Americans and Europeans controlled the naming conventions for most of the period. Hopefully, now that the science community values international co-operation more and as more of the world allows women to participate fully in science, this will be reflected in future namings.

Williamina Paton Fleming 1857-1911
Scottish astronomer who worked as a “computer” at Harvard Observatory. Amongst other achievements, her work led to the discovery of white dwarf stars.

The authors give each woman an individual chapter, and these vary in length depending on the extent of the woman’s scientific contribution and/or on how much is known of her personal circumstances. They write extremely well, explaining the science parts with enough simplicity and clarity for a non-scientist to grasp at least the relevance and importance of it, and recounting the life stories of these remarkable women with warmth and admiration, not just for their work but for the obstacles they had to overcome to be taken seriously in this male dominated field. Not all of them were practical scientists, indeed; some were communicators, who took academic science papers and turned them into books and lectures that could be understood by and inspire the layperson (think Neil deGrasse Tyson or Brian Cox – tragically I can’t think of a modern woman who’s at the forefront in that role…?), while others “bought” their craters by providing much-needed funding for scientific projects or institutions.

Several of the women worked with their husbands or in partnership with male scientists, and the authors point out that, in many cases, the men would win prestigious prizes while the women barely got a mention even when the woman was clearly the more brilliant of the two. But they also tell of some of the men who did recognise the worth of women in the scientific world, though often in the tedious jobs men didn’t want to do, or because women could be paid considerably less, if at all. Nonetheless, intentionally or otherwise, these men provided a narrow gateway that some women were able to push wide open by their own efforts.

Christa McAuliffe 1948-1986
First teacher in space, killed in the Challenger disaster. Her story continues to inspire new generations.

The convention is that craters are only named for people after their deaths (Tereshkova is an exception). This has the effect that amongst the most recent women are those astronauts who died in the Challenger and Columbia disasters. These chapters are sensitively handled, never veering into the sensationalist or the mawkish. Of course, I knew these stories already in their broad outlines, but I found learning about the individual women – their enthusiasm, their courage, their dreams – a moving and fitting way to bring the book to its conclusion.

An excellent book that I heartily recommend to all, but think would be especially great to give as a gift to a teenage girl who’s interested in a career in science – she’ll find it inspirational, I’m certain. Alternatively, the next time you meet someone who says science isn’t really a suitable career for a woman, you could use it to bash him over the head with… ah! Now I wish I had that 16,000-page men’s book after all.

The authors: Daniel R. Altschuler and Fernando J. Ballesteros

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford University Press.

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Peacemakers by Margaret MacMillan

A memorable date…

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The 28th of June 1919 is one of the very few historical dates I never forget. One hundred years ago today, the victors and vanquished of “the war to end all wars” gathered in Paris to sign the treaty that brought the Great War officially to an end – the Treaty of Versailles. On the same day, in a small town in the north of Scotland, my grandmother gave birth to her youngest son, my father, conceived while her husband was home on leave from that war. Twenty years later, the world would be plunged into another devastating war, and my father would spend six years of his youth fighting in it.

The generally accepted view is that the harsh terms meted out to Germany in the Treaty contributed to its economic collapse, creating the conditions in which Hitler and the Nazis rose to power, and thus were a major contributory cause of the Second World War. In this book, Margaret MacMillan looks in depth at how the Treaty was formulated and argues that, flawed though some of its terms were, the peacemakers did as well as they could in fairly impossible circumstances. She goes further, arguing that the reparations demanded from Germany were not as punitive as previous historians have suggested, and can’t be seen as having led directly to WW2.

I’ll start by saying MacMillan failed to convince me of the latter, but mainly because I felt her argument was based on something of a false premise. In fact, I felt she over-emphasised the importance that history has given to the reparations element of the Treaty, thus enabling her to knock down an argument that few people would make in quite such black and white terms, except as a convenient shorthand. I was once tasked at University with writing an 800-word essay on the causes of the First World War, and found it an impossible task because how can one possibly condense so much complexity into such a tiny word count? (MacMillan herself took 500 pages to do it, in her later, excellent book, The War That Ended Peace.) Saying that the reparations in the Treaty of Versailles caused WW2 seems to me the equivalent of saying that the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand caused WW1. It’s true, but not the whole truth.

The Big Four – David Lloyd George of Britain, Vittorio Emanuele Orlando of Italy, Georges Clemenceau of France, Woodrow Wilson of the U.S.

In fact, though, her argument is only a tiny part of the book, crammed into a few pages at the end. The bulk of the book is a detailed look at the negotiations that led up to the Treaty and, like the war itself, ranges far beyond western Europe in scope. Macmillan first introduces us to the main peacemakers – the heads of government of the Allies. She sketches their characters and explains their motivations as they sat round the table – Wilson of the USA and his desire for a League of Nations, Lloyd George trying to defend and expand Britain’s empire, Clemenceau of France, after repeated Franco-German wars desperate to take this opportunity to crush Germany so it couldn’t represent a future threat, and Italy’s Orlando, out for a land grab of the other side of the Adriatic.

MacMillan then takes us around the world, nation by nation, explaining how and why the peacemakers decided to carve them up and reshape them in the way they did. Some of their motivations were altruistic, to protect minority ethnic populations within nations and to give (some) peoples the right to self-determination. Some were designed to build a bulwark between western Europe and the newly revolutionary Russia. Some were simply a matter of expedience – the art of the possible. And some were frankly down to national greed and expansionism. Many of the decisions they made are still reverberating today, such as the uneasy amalgamation of different ethnicities and religions crammed together and called Iraq, or the decision to create a Zionist homeland for the Jews in land belonging to the Palestinians. The dismissive treatment of Arabs and Asians, and non-white people generally, isn’t unexpected but it’s still breath-taking in its arrogance, and we still pay the price for it every day. That’s not to say that the peacemakers could have somehow waved a magic wand and made all these problems disappear, and to that extent I agree with MacMillan. Even at the time, though, many warning voices were raised but ignored.

Spectators climbing over furniture to watch the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, 1919

MacMillan writes well and clearly, and spices the dry facts up with anecdotes that are revealing about the various personalities involved in the process. I’m afraid I have to admit shamefacedly to being far more interested in the major western powers than in all the little nations in the Balkans and the splintering Ottoman empire, so I found some chapters considerably more interesting than others, but that’s down to my biased worldview rather than MacMillan’s writing. While I found it tedious to learn all about these amalgamated countries which were created after WW1 only to disintegrate again post-WW2, I found that many of the sections gave a great deal of insight into the origins of some of our on-going problems today – Syria, Palestine, Iraq, even the background to the philosophical reasoning behind the rise of ISIS, although this book was published in 2001 before that became a thing. Closer to home, it also explains a lot about what happened in western Europe over the next couple of decades, and in the US and the Far East, too, to a degree. Perhaps the scope is a little wide, so that some parts, such as Japan and China, felt rather shallow and rushed, but that in itself gives some idea of the immense complexity the peacemakers were forced to deal with in a short space of time.

Overall, then, although I found it hard going in places and found myself unconvinced by MacMillan’s attempt to absolve the Treaty from its role in contributing to WW2, I learned enough to make it well worth the time spent reading it. Sometimes, though, I think historians shouldn’t work quite so hard at finding a “revisionist” angle…

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The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective by Susannah Stapleton

Detecting the detective…

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Susannah Stapleton is a historical researcher and life-long fan of Golden Age crime novels. It was while reading one of Gladys Mitchell’s Mrs Bradley novels that she found herself wondering “Were there really lady detectives – proper fleshandblood ones – in the golden age of crime?” A little searching turned up the name of Maud West, who advertised herself as “London’s only Lady detective”. Intrigued, Stapleton turned her research abilities towards finding out more about this elusive woman, and along the way to learning about the world of private detection in the first few decades of the twentieth century.

Maud’s story runs through the centre of the book, and we do gradually learn a good deal about her life. But Stapleton uses her as a jumping off point to look at all kinds of quirky aspects of society of her time, such as the growth in divorce cases, blackmail and extortion rackets, theft and kleptomania in high society, dodgy spiritualists, and the expanding role of women in the professional world – of detection, specifically, but also more generally. She uses actual cases to illustrate her subject matter and writes in an approachable, chatty style that makes the book easy and enjoyable to read. She’s also more than willing to allow her own opinions to come through, thus avoiding the dryness a more academic approach may have had, and she’s often humorous.

Maud was a mistress of self-advertisement, and wrote many articles for the newspapers and magazines of the day in which she related some of her racier adventures, with much gun-slinging, travel to exotic locations and evil blackguards whose dastardly deeds were thwarted by Maud and her team of crack detectives. Each chapter ends with either one of these tales or with an interview given by Maud to a journalist of the day. Stapleton can’t exactly disprove Maud’s stories, but nor could she prove most of them, and she’s clear that she suspects most of them are exaggerated at the very least, if not entirely invented. They add a lot to the fun though.

Stapleton digs down into old newspapers reports to find cases that Maud definitely worked on, and mostly these are to do with rather less glamorous crimes – divorces, thefts, missing persons, etc. That’s not to imply that her real work was dull – Maud was apparently a mistress of disguise, often dressing as a man in order to follow people or cases into places not easy for a “lady” to access. Her work involved her in some of the sensational society divorces of the time, and while the dope factories of South America may have been pure invention, she clearly did traipse around the spots of Europe where the rich Brits abroad got up to skulduggery, often of the amorous kind.

Maud in disguise

Maud the detective is easier to pin down than Maud the woman, though. Stapleton sifts through the many and varied stories Maud gives of her own origins in interviews over the years, and tries to get at the truth of who Maud was, where she came from, and how she ended up in “an unsuitable job for a woman”. This becomes a detective story in its own right, and the other interesting aspect of the book is that Stapleton takes us with her on her research journey rather than simply presenting us with the results. So we learn how she goes about looking up old records – censuses, birth and death records, newspaper reports and so on – and she tells us when something sets up a suspicion in her mind and how she then sets about proving or disproving it. Sometimes these leaps seem too fanciful, and often peter out, but even as they do they often reveal another piece of the jigsaw. As often happens with me when the subject of a biography is someone who didn’t necessarily want to put her private life in the public gaze, I found some of these details a little too personal, occasionally making me feel a shade uneasy. I was rather glad to discover that Stapleton herself had considered that aspect…

Doubt rippled through me. Had I got carried away? Were the dead fair game? And, if so, just how dead did they have to be to make it okay? Was Maud dead enough?

Without wishing to spoil the story, by the end, like Stapleton, I felt somewhat reassured about the acceptability of publishing the revelations she discovered along the way.

Stapleton also discovered that Maud’s claim to be London’s only Lady detective was entirely untrue. Not only were there other detective firms owned and run by women, but there were lots of women employed as store detectives, or working alongside the police in cases where women were able to gain easier access – in the fight against prostitution, for example, or secretly policing society events, or monitoring the more violent suffragette groups. Stapleton tells of how women gradually began to be officially employed by the police, usually as clerks but sometimes involved in detective work.

As the Leeds Mercury commented, however, ‘like all leagues to put women in the place which according to man they should occupy, the League of Womanhood has a man for its organiser.’ In this case, it was Captain Alfred Henderson-Livesey, a former officer in the Household Cavalry, who had devoted himself to reclaiming public life as an exclusively male sphere.
He’d even written a book on the subject. Sex and Public Life was, naturally, dedicated to his mother, and had a bright yellow binding to match the bile within. The main thrust of his argument was that professional women were not real women but genetically abnormal ‘sexual intermediates’ whose second-rate achievements were of interest purely because of their sex. As such, they must be stopped from corrupting the nation’s true womenfolk before the whole ‘virile race’ descended into debauched halfwittery.

Susannah Stapleton

I thoroughly enjoyed this one. Maud’s story is interesting in itself, but even more fascinating are all the insights into the darker recesses of Golden Age society and particularly the rapidly changing role of women in these early years of the fight for equality. I liked Stapleton’s relaxed and often humorously judgemental and sarcastic style, and found her account of her own researches as entertaining as the information they uncovered. And for Golden Age fans, there’s a special treat in the chapter headings, mostly (perhaps all) taken from the titles of famous mystery novels and stories – Partners in Crime, A Kiss Before Dying, A Case of Identity, etc. – and the various hidden references to some of the greats Stapleton makes in her text. Highly recommended!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Picador.

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Book 2 of 20

American Heiress: The Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst by Jeffrey Toobin

Money talks…

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When Patty Hearst was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) back in 1974, it was such a huge story that it made headlines for months not only in the US but here in the UK too. I was in my early teens at the time – old enough to be aware of what was going on in the world but still young enough not to always fully understand it. Was she a victim or a terrorist? Willing or brainwashed? Heroine or villain? In this book, Jeffrey Toobin sets out to tell the story of the kidnapping and its aftermath, and to answer some of those questions. To do this, he also has to analyse the political and social forces of the time, and the counterculture which, in America, had grown out of the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam protests.

Toobin begins by describing the kidnapping itself, which is effective in concentrating the reader’s mind on the fear Hearst must have felt at that moment, whatever her later actions may have been. He then backtracks to tell the story of the Hearst dynasty – Patty was the granddaughter of the newspaper magnate, William P Hearst, immortalised in Orson Welles’ masterpiece, Citizen Kane. It was therefore assumed that her family would be enormously wealthy and to a degree they were, although William P had left his money tied up in ways that allowed his children to lead pampered lives without having control of the capital. As was relatively normal then, Patty wasn’t fully aware of her father’s financial position so, like the members of the SLA, probably thought he had easy access to far more cash than was in fact the case. So his later inability to meet the SLA’s ever-increasing demands may have made her feel that she had been deserted and betrayed by him.

Marcus Foster – educator.
Murdered by the SLA prior to the kidnapping of Hearst.

Toobin then introduces us to the selection of misfits and oddities who made up the SLA. I never understood in my youth what the SLA was all about – who were the “Symbionese” and what were they trying to liberate themselves from? As Toobin describes it, it seems my vagueness on the subject is not so surprising after all. The leader, Donald DeFreeze, was a black man who had been “radicalised” in prison by a combination of the rhetoric of the Black Panthers and white, middle-class, left-wing students rebelling against their parents and The Man, man. DeFreeze and his two original followers – both female, both his lovers – drew up a kind of vague, incoherent manifesto, proclaiming themselves as a vanguard of the revolution against the fascist state and gave themselves a made up name, derived from the word “symbiosis”. They attracted a few more wannabe revolutionaries, all white, several of them theatre people, and they all liked to dress up and play soldiers and have copious amounts of sex to prove how much more politically mature they were than previous generations. It all sounds so silly and childish in retrospect, and Toobin makes it pretty clear they were a bunch of sad, insignificant losers. But with guns.

Myrna Opsahl
Mother of four.
Murdered by the SLA during a bank robbery in which Hearst willingly participated.

“Oh, she’s dead, but it doesn’t really matter. She was a bourgeois pig anyway.” – reportedly said by Emily Harris, murderer and one of Hearst’s fellow “revolutionaries”.

As Toobin tells it, the hope and innocence of the ‘60s had turned darker in the ‘70s, and in San Francisco the Summer of Love had been superceded by crime-filled streets, and the twin horrors of the “Zodiac” serial killer and the “Zebra” murders, carried out by a gang of black men randomly killing white people as a perverted kind of fightback against racial injustice. He talks about the disconnect between generations, and shows the widespread sympathy many on the left felt towards the low-level terrorist tactics of the counterculture, for a while, at least.

Jeffrey Toobin

Toobin then goes into detail on the events leading up to the kidnapping, and on Hearst’s long period in captivity. Hearst refused to talk to him for the book, but he had extensive access to other people and to primary source documents relating to the legal cases that followed. It seems clear that Hearst was radicalised in turn, and there will probably never be a definitive answer as to how much fear affected her, initially at least. But within a few months, she was gun-toting with the rest of them, willing to steal, bomb and kill for the cause, though subsequently it became clear she was equally willing to sell out her former fellow revolutionaries and go back to her pampered life when it suited her.

The whole thing is well written and excellently told, as informative about the wider society of the time as it is about the philosophy and actions of the SLA and the counterculture. I tried hard to maintain some level of sympathy for Hearst, but I see in my notes I’ve described her as “basically just a stupid, spoilt, violent, murderous little brat” so I guess my attempt to be non-judgemental failed. Toobin maintains considerably more balance in his summing up, and the final section describes the legal consequences for poor little rich kid Hearst and her surviving comrades, showing quite clearly that, when it comes to justice, money talks. Highly recommended.

The man who gave Hearst a full pardon following her conviction for armed bank robbery.
Money talks.

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Seashaken Houses by Tom Nancollas

A lyrical voyage of discovery…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

If there’s one thing I love more than most things, it’s being told all about a subject I know nothing about by someone with an enthusiastic passion for it and the ability to write in a way that brings it to life. I knew nothing about the various rock lighthouses that stand as warnings to shipping around Britain’s shore, and I couldn’t have asked for a better guide to them than Tom Nancollas.

He starts with a brief introduction of himself – he is a building conservationist who chose to study rock lighthouses for his dissertation, giving him a lasting interest in the subject. Having regularly visited as a boy both the Wirral coastline and Cornwall, where his family originated, he tells us he grew up feeling an affinity for the sea and a fascination for all its many moods. For this book, he set out to visit seven of the major rock lighthouses, sometimes getting permission to land and see the interiors, other times examining them from the outside. Along the way, he tells us tales of their construction and history, of the men who built, lived in and maintained them over the years, and of the many shipwrecks they have doubtless averted and of some they didn’t. His style is non-academic, sometimes lyrical, always enthusiastic, and I found myself coming to share his fascination for these incredible feats of engineering and his admiration for those who built and worked on them.

Shipping off the Eddystone Lighthouse
Attributed to Vilhelm Melbye (1824-1882)

He begins with Eddystone, off Plymouth as a way of showing how what became the standard design for rock lighthouses developed. Eddystone has had four lighthouses over the centuries – the first rather whimsical structure unable to withstand its first storm, the second, a part timber building destroyed by fire. The third, (above), built of interlocking stone blocks which provided the strength and stability required to stand up to the sea’s constant pounding, became the model for future lighthouses, and lasted for many years until it too eventually began to shake. It wasn’t the lighthouse at fault though – the rock it was built on had eroded. And so the Victorians built a fourth, the one which still stands, still warning ships to steer clear.

The chapter is a great mix of explaining the building techniques in language easily understandable by the complete layperson, together with vignettes about the architects and builders which humanise the subject. Nancollas also fills in the historical background, lightly but with enough depth to give a feel for what was going on in Britain and the western world at each point. He talks of Britain’s growing status as a maritime trading nation and tells tales of the shipwrecks and disasters that gave an urgency to finding some reliable way of guiding ships safely through the rocky hazards around the coast.

Bell Rock Lighthouse during a storm by John Horsburgh
Illus. in: Robert Stevenson, An Account of the Bell Rock Lighthouse.

Each subsequent chapter takes a similar form, gradually leading us round the coasts: to Cornwall’s rocky shores to visit Wolf Rock lighthouse; over to the Scillies to Bishop Rock; up to Scotland to the Bell Rock off Arbroath, built by the grandfather of Robert Louis Stevenson; to the now disused and decaying Perch Rock in the Wirral; over to Ireland to Fastnet off Cork; and to Haulbowline on Carlingford Lough, in a kind of no-man’s-sea between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Each has its own story and its own history, and Nancollas extends out to tell us something of the places near which they’re situated.

For example, while discussing Bishop Rock, he talks about the Scillies, once one landmass and perhaps even attached to Cornwall, now divided into somewhat isolated islands by rising sea levels. He doesn’t specifically mention climate change, but talks of how the Scillies will eventually be completely submerged and, as the highest point, the Bishop Rock lighthouse will be the last thing in that seascape to be seen above the water. It’s beautifully written, and I found it both moving and frightening.

Haulbowline Light on Carlingford Lough
Photo Credit: Keith Ruffles

Or another example – Haulbowline. The troubled history of the divided island of Ireland means that all records of its building have been lost, if they ever existed. The lighthouse is now unmanned, but Nancollas visits it and tries to visualise it as it once was, with the help of stories from the men with him – the ferry pilot, the lighthouse mechanic, and the grandson of a previous keeper. He tells of how during the Troubles, the British Navy patrolled the lough, stopping and searching suspect ships for contraband, smuggled weapons, etc. He describes the lighthouse as liminal, belonging to neither one side nor the other but standing as a kind of symbol of humanity amidst this disputed and often violent zone.

Tom Nancollas
Photo Credit: Phil Fisk

I have one criticism of the book, which is the lack of adequate illustrations. There are some black and white on page photos, but the book is crying out for glossy sections of full colour pictures: of the lighthouses themselves first and foremost, but also of some of the many men we learn so much about along the way. (I nearly deducted half a star for the lack, but in the end couldn’t bring myself to do it.) That aside, I loved Nancollas’ writing, when he is explaining technical stuff simply, or when he is musing more philosophically about things past and future, or when he talks lyrically of the power of the sea.

I had time, from the elevated perspective of the tower balcony and lantern, to study the sea, really look at it, and watch it behaving in a way you don’t really see from the shore. It breaks around the reef in repeating patterns that reflect the submerged geology around the rock’s waist. There is a point to the south-west, in the path of the Atlantic, where the sea gathers itself up and splinters over a submerged reef on a long, horizontal plume that looks like the scaly neck of a giant beast. On a smaller piece of rock nearby it breaks into a perfectly contained white cloud, always the same size and shape. Engulfing the Little Fastnet, the sea falls back and dribbles in thousands of streams down crevices that will deepen over the centuries. Here, you get something of the sea’s eternity – rising, falling, calming, dousing and rinsing and thrusting against the rocks in myriad ways, a lazy, beast-like play of motion that will never end.

A fascinating subject, brought wonderfully to life, I highly recommend this one.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Particular Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House. All the lighthouse illustrations I’ve used are from Wikimedia Commons.

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The Scottish Clearances by TM Devine

A history of the dispossessed…

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The Highland Clearances of the 19th century are one of the great factors in the Scottish psyche, a period which has left a legacy of bitterness against landlordism, and about which we can still become outraged, even while being proud of the Scottish Diaspora of which it formed a considerable part. The legend is that landowners and clan chiefs, in pursuit of profit, turned the land over to sheep and forcibly evicted the crofters who had traditionally eked out a precarious subsistence from their small portions of land. Some were driven to emigrate semi-voluntarily for economic reasons; some were forced into emigration by landowners who simply wanted to rid themselves of these inconvenient hindrances to “improved” land use. The story is made worse by the feelings of betrayal – the breaking of the bonds of kinship that were at the heart of the clan system.

Tom Devine doesn’t exactly aim to overturn the legend in this scholarly and convincing work. Rather, he sets out to expand and explain – to strip out the emotion and look more closely at the historical factors that led to the Clearances, and to give an accurate, and therefore more balanced, picture of what actually happened. He also seeks to answer the question of why the similar patterns of altered land use and emigration that took place in the rural Lowlands were neither as traumatic at the time, nor have the same emotional resonances today.

(The Corries lamenting the Clearances in Hush Hush)

He starts by looking at Highland society in the centuries prior to the Clearances, debunking some of the myths embedded in the later romanticisation of the clan system. For example, he points out that bonds of kinship weren’t as strong as we like to think, since warring clan chiefs regularly took territory from their opponents and inherited the occupants of the land as they did so. However, in return for their military service, the clan leaders were seen as having a responsibility to provide clan members with land. Rents were initially paid in kind, but over the years this gradually changed to cash transactions, so that eventually the relationship became more akin to landlord and tenant. Devine suggests, therefore, that the clan system had begun to decline long before the 19th century, helped on its way by the repressive measures various monarchs used against their unruly Highland subjects, culminating in the deliberate attempt to break the power of the clan chiefs following the last Jacobite rebellion in 1745.

Devine then discusses the similarities and differences between Lowland and Highland society. Geographical factors made the Lowlands more suitable for arable farming while the Highlands were largely given over to livestock farming. This led to longer leases in the Lowlands, which in turn meant that evictions could only happen more slowly. In the Highlands leases tended to be annual so that large numbers of people could be evicted in short spaces of time. Arable farming required more labour, especially in the early stages of improvement, giving more time for the rural population to adjust and to develop other marketable skills, such as the small cottage industries that grew up in Border villages around this time. The Lowlands had the further advantage of proximity to the towns which were beginning to grow in response to the industrial revolution, absorbing some of the excess population from the rural areas.

(The Emigrants – the statue at Helmsdale laments the Clearances while recognising our national pride in the achievements of the resulting Diaspora)

Devine also points to religion as a factor, with the Presbyterian church acting as a socially cohesive factor in the Lowlands, while in the Highlands their Episcopalian and Catholic religions were out of favour and seen as a focus for disloyalty and rebellion. There was also a level of racism involved that reduced the sympathy for Highlanders – Celts were seen as throw-backs, aborigines, lazy, while Anglo-Saxon Lowlanders were hard-working achievers. So, following the years of famines when Highlanders depended on various charities to survive, charitable impulses ran dry and there was a general feeling that ridding the country of these sub-standard parasites would be of benefit to the nation as a whole. (I’m glad to say that I think that particularly vile strand of racism doesn’t exist any more, though I feel there were still remnants of it around during my childhood).

(The Proclaimers comparing the Thatcherite industrial devastation of Scotland in the 1980s to the Clearances of a century and half earlier in Letter from America)

Even in the Highlands, though, Devine does a little to absolve the landlords of their reputation for callous greed. He makes the point that many of the hereditary chiefs by this time were in severe financial straits. Some had sold out to incomers, others had had to put their bankrupt estates in the hands of trustees, usually based in far-away Edinburgh and with a legal responsibility to return the land to profitability regardless of the human cost. He gives examples of how some landlords tried to mitigate the effects of the changes, with varying degrees of success. And he makes the point that a system that depends on small land-holdings only works as long as population numbers remain stable – if the population rises, as it began to do when healthcare and general conditions improved, then the system of subsistence crofting is bound to fail.

This is only a brief flavour of what is covered in the book. It’s very well written and all the points are clearly explained, so that it’s easily accessible to the general reader, but it also has plenty of tables of facts and figures for those who are looking at it more academically. I have a reasonable familiarity with Scottish history of this period but still learned a great deal and appreciated the comparisons between the two very different societies which make up our small country. I also found it put the period into context with events happening elsewhere in Britain and the western world. I would highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in Scottish history.

Sir Tom Devine

But I’d go further, and say that it’s a real insight into how societies react to major changes in economic circumstances, relevant to many of those communities currently being hit by the advances from the industrial 20th century to the technological 21st. The comparisons between the impacts on the Lowlands and the Highlands of changes in land use and economic systems surely have lessons we can learn about how such changes can be managed to minimise the trauma for the people caught up in these often unavoidable shifts.

So I’m not ready to let go of my bitterness completely nor to entirely forgive, but I have a fuller understanding now of the historical forces behind the events, and that can only be a good thing.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Allen Lane.

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Heretics and Believers by Peter Marshall

From papists to puritans, and all points in-between…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

In this massive history of the English Reformation, Marshall looks in detail at the people and events that gradually led England from Catholicism to Protestantism. He doesn’t fixate on the bickering Tudor Royals, although of course they played their part. Instead he focuses mostly on those of the ranks below – the lords, bishops and religious thinkers of the period, with the occasional nod to the common people. He therefore gives a picture of the Reformation as being fundamentally about points of difference in interpretation of the Gospel, rather than, as is sometimes portrayed, a largely political change carried out by and for the benefit of those pesky Kings and Queens. He suggests that the Reformation was bloodier than is often claimed, and that its relative slowness meant that people became accustomed to thinking about questions that had previously been simply accepted. He gives the impression that he believes the Reformation allowed the genie of individual thought out of the bottle, whether for good or ill.

The book begins with an excellent exposition of medieval religious rites and traditions, and how the Biblical stories were interpreted into daily ritual. The sacraments and sacramentals, the eucharist, transubstantiation, purgatory, etc., are all explained simply and without judgement or commentary. This is enormously helpful to those of us who are not practising Christians and so are vague about what these things mean today, much less half a millennium ago. Marshall points out that the pre-Reformation Catholic church had not been an unchanging entity for centuries, as it is often portrayed, and that even prior to the Reformation there was a growing number of people who were concerned that the rituals, relics and so on, were taking away from the simplicity of the core message of salvation through Christ.

The history is largely given in a linear fashion, starting with an in-depth look at the status of the Church prior to what would come to be seen as the beginning of the Reformation, then going through all the various stages of it, the advances and retreats, power-struggles, factions, purges, burnings and bloody executions. Along the way Marshall introduces us to the major, and many minor, players, and discusses the development of the theology underpinning the religious arguments and the political considerations motivating the powerful.

The book contains a massive amount of detail, and it is well written without unnecessary academic jargon. So in that sense, it is approachable for the general reader. However, this general reader often felt swamped by the hundreds of unfamiliar names trotted out once to illustrate a particular point. For me, with only a superficial knowledge of the period, I found the meat of the argument was often lost in the minutiae which surrounded it. I’m sure all the detail would make it an excellent read for people with a sound existing knowledge of the period who wish to gain additional insight, or particularly for students. But I don’t know that I’d wholeheartedly recommend it as an introduction to the subject, or even as a next step to the relative newcomer.

Peter Marshall

Having said that, I left it for a few weeks before writing this review to see how it settled in my mind, and now that my memory has expelled all the minor names and incidents, I do feel I have a much clearer idea about the broad sweep of events and, more importantly, about the religious arguments behind them. I find Marshall has also made me more aware that ordinary worshippers were more than simply pawns of the powerful – that these arguments mattered to them too and that pressure for change came from the bottom up as much as from the top down. So, although I admit I struggled at times with what felt like information overload, in the end I feel I have gained from the reading of it.

Peter Marshall is professor of history at the University of Warwick. Heretics and Believers won the 2018 Wolfson History Prize.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Yale University Press.

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1917: Lenin, Wilson, and the Birth of the New World Disorder by Arthur Herman

Save me from the exceptional…

😐 😐

In 1917, the USA finally entered World War I after years of pusillanimous dithering, and Russia threw its revolution after years of poverty and imperialist wars. In this book, Herman looks at the two men who led those events, Woodrow Wilson and Vladimir Lenin, and suggests that out of their respective philosophies of power grew the 20th century and all of its horrors.

Normally, when reviewing a major history book, I find that even though I might not like the style or may feel the author hasn’t entirely convinced me with his or her arguments, I still feel at the end that I have gained enough from reading it to have made it worthwhile. Sadly, this is the exception. I have thoroughly enjoyed each of Arthur Herman’s books which I’ve read to date, so fully anticipated that this would be a great book to finish my Reading the Russian Revolution challenge. Herman is often biased, but usually openly, so that I feel the reader can allow for his bias in forming her own judgements. Here, however, his bias seeps into every analysis he makes and it seems as if he’s perhaps not even aware of it. American capitalism is good, Russian communism is bad. Wilson is an idealist, Lenin is a cynic. America is a shining beacon on the hill, the USSR is a blot on the escutcheon of history. I realise these are standard viewpoints on the other side of the Atlantic, and some parts of them would be accepted over here too, though perhaps less so after the last couple of years. But a history book with this level of bias teaches nothing, except perhaps that history should never be written by those with a dogmatic belief in the superiority of one particular nation or form of government.

It’s not that Herman is uncritical of Wilson and America – in fact, sometimes he’s almost sneeringly contemptuous of Wilson. It’s more in the language he uses. Some of his statements are simplistic and unnuanced in the extreme, and his facts are carefully selected to support his basic argument that both Wilson and Lenin were more interested in forcing their worldview on the rest of the world than in acting in their own nations’ self-interest. He speaks of “American exceptionalism” with a straight face, clearly believing the propaganda which has done so much damage in convincing so many Americans (but not many other people) that they are somehow intrinsically superior to other races, nations, etc. And yet this is exactly the kind of propaganda he condemns in his despised USSR. His conclusion, broadly summarised, is that everything bad in the 20th century comes from Russia, while America could have done better in the world, but did pretty well. An arguable stance, and I’d have appreciated an argument about it rather than it being presented as if it were an indisputable statement of fact.

Please don’t think I’m an apologist for the extreme communism of the USSR, nor the horrors carried out in its name. But nor am I an apologist for the extreme capitalism of the USA, complete with its own murky history of horrors. Unfortunately Mr Herman is, and appears to believe that America must stay engaged with the world to save it by exporting its form of capitalism to the rest of us. Personally, I think the world needs to be saved from all nations who think they have the right to force their views on other people and from all extremists who believe they are “exceptional” in any way. I find it difficult to recommend this one – the overwhelming weight of bias prevents it from adding any real insight into the subject.

PS Yes, I’m aware my own biases show here, but I’m not writing a history book. Nor am I advocating that the world should submit to the exceptional superiority of Scotland.

Daughters of the Winter Queen by Nancy Goldstone

Or maybe the sons…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

The Winter Queen of the title is Elizabeth, daughter of James VI of Scotland, later James I of England, and herself briefly Queen of Bohemia, through her marriage to Frederick, also known as the Palatinate. Elizabeth and Frederick produced an alarming number of children, the majority of whom lived into adulthood, and as their sons and daughters grew up and contracted marriages or made alliances, they spread their influence throughout the ruling families of 17th century Europe, thus being involved in all the major events (aka wars) of that turbulent period. The book is ostensibly about the four daughters who survived their childhood years – Elizabeth, Louise Hollandine, Henrietta Maria, and Sophia.

Did you notice that sneaky word “ostensibly”? In fact, the book is much more about the kings and sons than it is about queens and daughters. (Feminists may wish to look away for the next couple of sentences.) This is completely understandable since, at that period as in so much of history, women generally played a very small role in events, limited as often as not to being pawns in the diplomatic marriage market. There’s no doubt Elizabeth’s sons led much more interesting lives than her daughters, especially since only two of the girls married, and one of those died almost immediately afterwards. (You can come back now.) So I’m not complaining about the fact that Goldstone spent far more time with the men than the women – I’m merely pointing out that the title is a little misleading and the book may therefore set up false expectations in the prospective reader.

Goldstone writes breezily, with a great deal of affection towards her subjects, and with a lot of humour. The history can sometimes feel a little superficial – she is trying to cover a lengthy and complicated period in a relatively compact book – but it’s fun, and the characterisation is great. I use the word ‘characterisation’ intentionally, because she tells her story almost as if she were writing a novel – a comedy of manners, perhaps, with the odd episode of tragedy thrown in to leaven it. I feel that all sounds a little dismissive, and I don’t mean it to be. There’s lots of history in here, clearly excellently researched, and the non-academic style makes it approachable and easily digestible. The book is a pleasure to read, which is not something that can always be said about history books!

The first few chapters give a biography of Elizabeth (the Winter Queen) and then in the latter two-thirds or so of the book, Goldstone moves on to the daughters, rotating through them, giving them each a chapter in turn. So in total each daughter merits around four chapters. You can tell from this that we largely get a broad overview of their lives rather than the detailed minutiae that tends to appear in a single subject biography. Given the fact that in reality none of the women lived particularly exciting or historically significant lives, I felt this was plenty.

Triumph of the Winter Queen by Gerrit van Honthorst
The Queen surrounded by her many, many children in various allegorical poses.

But in fact, most of the chapters start with one of the daughters and then promptly swing away to her brother, husband, suitor or male friend. We follow a couple of the sons to England where they were involved in the events leading up to and following the execution of Charles I. Through Elizabeth, we spend some time in the company of her friend and teacher Descartes. Henrietta Maria married but then died too young to have much of a story to leave, poor thing. Through Louise, a skilled painter in her own right, we learn something about the artistic movements of the time. And through Sophia, the one who married and lived, we are taken into the politics of succession – the various manoeuvrings of those in power to gain territory through war, alliance and inheritance, again told mostly through the men’s stories.

Along the way, Goldstone brings the characters, male and female, to life by including their own words from correspondence and journals and by telling anecdotes about them. This gives a great and, I assume, accurate feel for their different personalities, and Goldstone delves back into their childhoods to show how their early experiences helped to mould them into the women (or men) they became. On the whole, the daughters seemed to be a pragmatic bunch. The various religious shenanigans in Europe meant that there was a limited pool of suitable matches for impoverished Protestant princesses, so those who didn’t marry took religious orders – one converting to Catholicism to do so. Sophia was the one who interested me most, not only because her life as a daughter, wife and mother of powerful men meant that she was more involved in events, but because she loved to write and had a witty, acerbic style that gave a real feeling for her and for the people she somewhat wickedly observed.

Nancy Goldstone

Overall, I enjoyed this book. That particular period of history is complicated by all the religious squabbling and ever-shifting allegiances so my eyes glazed over from time to time, but Goldstone does an excellent job of simplifying it and helping the reader through the maze. I thoroughly enjoy her writing style and would mention that her footnotes are not to be glossed over – often the best humour in the book is hidden in them. The book wasn’t quite what I was expecting, and the daughters weren’t as interesting as I’d hoped, on the whole, but there was plenty to keep me engaged in the stories of the sons, fathers and husbands. Next time though, I’d hope Goldstone could find women who were more interesting in their own right (as she did with Catherine de’ Medici and Marguerite de Valois in her previous book The Rival Queens) or not set up false expectations in her title. Not every book has to have a feminist angle, especially when there isn’t one, and The Children of the Winter Queen would have worked just as well, I feel. Recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Little, Brown Book Group.

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Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy by Serhii Plokhy

Causes and effects…

😀 😀 😀 😀

On 26 April 1986 the no.4 reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Soviet Ukraine exploded. In this book, Plokhy sets out to explain why and how this disaster occurred, and to look at the fallout, both actual and political, that followed. Plokhy is the Mykhailo Hrushevsky professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard University. The book begins with him visiting the present-day Chernobyl site, now a kind of macabre tourist venue, with the destroyed reactor buried in its own specially designed sarcophagus.

He then takes us back in time, to the Soviet Congress of 1986, when the newly elected Mikhail Gorbachev set out to change the direction of the USSR from military might through the long-standing arms race to becoming an economic powerhouse. This led to dramatic increases in targets for the building of nuclear power plants and for the amount of energy to be produced, all on ridiculously short time-frames. Plokhy goes even further back to show the early slipshod development of nuclear power plants in the USSR. While some people already had safety concerns, they were living under a regime that didn’t welcome dissent, and so mostly these were not passed up the line or were ignored when they were.

Having set the technical and political background, Plokhy then recounts in detail the events that led up to the disaster – a series of technical and management failures, mostly caused by the time pressures and targets forced on the plant. He gives a vivid account of the immediate aftermath, when it was unclear how devastating the accident had been, and when men were sent in to investigate without adequate equipment to protect themselves or even to accurately measure the radiation. Denial became a feature of the whole thing – both official denials by the government, trying to hide the scale of the accident from their own people and from international governments; and the more human denial, of people caught up in the disaster, unable or unwilling to believe that they couldn’t somehow put the genie back in the bottle – that things had spiralled beyond their control. Plokhy shows clearly how the regime’s culture of holding individuals culpable as scapegoats for systemic failures led to a lack of openness, which in turn delayed necessary actions like evacuation which would have saved at least some lives.

The sarcophagus built over the destroyed reactor

Plokhy goes on to show the political aftermath, suggesting that the disaster played a major role in the break-up of the Soviet Union a few years later. And he finishes with a heartfelt plea to the international community to act to prevent such disasters in the future by monitoring and rigorously inspecting nuclear facilities, especially in countries with authoritarian governments where there is a culture of blame that prevents people expressing safety concerns.

I found this an interesting and informative read, and felt Plokhy handled the technical side of the story well. He simplified it enough for my non-technical brain to grasp the main points, but there are plenty of facts and figures in there for those with a greater understanding of the science of nuclear power. In terms of style, he tries to get a balance between the politics, the technological aspects and the individual people caught up in the events, and to a large degree he manages this well. However, I did find the book occasionally got bogged down in giving too much biographical detail about some individuals – more than I felt was necessary for the purpose of the book. In contrast, I found as the book went on there was a tendency to deal in numbers rather than people, so that the book didn’t have quite the emotional punch I was expecting. Regulars will know I’m not one for a lot of emoting in factual books, but I did feel with this one that I began to view the outcomes as statistical rather than as a tragedy with a human face.

Serhii Plokhy

And I found the somewhat polemical chapters at the end rather simplistic, in truth. While I wouldn’t at all argue with the need for monitoring, I’m not convinced that, firstly, authoritarian states would welcome international interference and, secondly, that we in the oh-so-superior democratic west have a much better record in either safety or encouraging openness. Seems to me we do a pretty good line in “blame culture” ourselves. However, I agree with Plokhy’s basic argument – that this technology with such vast potential for disaster should be subject to international scrutiny, since radiation respects no borders.

Overall then, despite a few criticisms, I found this a well-presented and worthwhile read that shows clearly the links between policy and technology and the dangers when the two are not working in synch. Recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Allen Lane, via Amazon Vine UK.

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Endurance by Alfred Lansing

True heroism…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This is a straightforward, factual telling of the story of Ernest Shackleton and his crew, and their failed 1914 bid to cross the Antarctic on foot from west to east. It’s also one of the most stirring and emotionally turbulent books I’ve ever read. These were the days of the great explorers, making crazy expeditions in the name of scientific discovery, but just as much for national pride and for the sheer glory of being the first. Shackleton’s expedition was at least in part to wipe out Britain’s humiliation at being beaten to the South Pole by Norway’s Roald Amundsen.

If by any chance you don’t know whether Shackleton and his men survived, I urge you not to look it up before reading this one. I was extremely vague on the whole thing and as a result found myself totally caught up, willing them on, crying over each new disaster, celebrating with them over any small triumph. Talk about emotional rollercoaster! As it got towards the end, my tension levels were going through the roof, just as they would have been had these men been personal friends – indeed, after the long journey I’d made in their company, I truly felt they were.

The crew as the voyage begins

Having set the scene for the expedition, Lansing introduces us to Shackleton the man – rather self-aggrandizing, hoping to enrich himself, but also a great leader, loyal to his men and capable of inspiring great loyalty from them – and from the reader. I didn’t totally like him, but if I’m ever trapped in a life or death situation, I hope Shackleton is my leader. Gradually, Lansing then brings each of the men to life, using extracts from journals and other records to show us how they worked together as a team, and played together to keep their spirits up and fend off boredom even when in extreme situations. We are made privy to their jokes, their foibles, their little rivalries, and most of all to their truly heroic will to survive. When you read old adventure stories, like Rider Haggard or Conan Doyle, sometimes the heroes can seem too good to be true. But the men of the Endurance are real, and they are as great as any fictional heroes – the stronger looking out for the weaker, no disloyalty, no factions emerging, no blame being cast around when things go wrong. Working together, finding ways to overcome every hurdle, never giving up hope… oh no! I’m going to start sobbing again any minute now…

Trapped in the ice during the long polar night…

Anyway! It all goes wrong early on, when the Endurance becomes trapped in the ice. There’s nothing the crew can do except wait, and hope that the ice drifts in the direction they want to go, or breaks up enough to allow them to get back to open water. But the great pressure of the ice on the hull eventually proves too much for the brave ship, and the men find themselves out on the ice with only what they could salvage before she went to her doom. From there on, it’s a battle between man and nature, with nature holding all the cards. Having said don’t look it up, I won’t spoil it by telling you what happens, but there are moments of drama, tragedy, hope, despair and even occasionally laughter.

Frank Wild (left) and Ernest Shackleton with the crushed Endurance

Lansing presents all this in a rather understated way. The book is full of facts – like the compass position of the men each time they are able to take a measurement, or exactly what food rations they were allowed each day. He doesn’t give a running commentary on either people or events – he simply presents them to the reader, often using the crew members’ own words as recorded contemporaneously in their journals. Lansing’s language is wonderfully descriptive, but not full of overly poetic flourishes. This rather plain style, however, works beautifully – the events are so thrilling and the men are such heroes that they don’t need any great fanfares or flowery flourishes to enhance their story. And he makes us hear each crack of the ice, each groan of the ship’s timbers. We feel the bitter cold and the perpetually soaked clothing and bedding. And we are shown the men’s hunger so vividly that we too begin to see each passing seal as food…

Making camp on an ice floe…

Shackleton came to no. 5 tent, just at breakfast time, to inform Macklin that he had decided against the trip. It was a crushing disappointment, coming as it did on the heels of a miserable night of wet, misty weather during which nobody had slept much. Shackleton had hardly left when Macklin turned on Clark for some feeble reason, and the two men were almost immediately shouting at one another. The tension spread to Orde-Lees and Worsley and triggered a blasphemous exchange between them. In the midst of it, Greenstreet upset his powdered milk. He whirled on Clark, cursing him for causing the accident, because Clark had called his attention for a moment. Clark tried to protest, but Greenstreet shouted him down. Then Greenstreet paused to get his breath, and in that instant his anger was spent and he suddenly fell silent. Everyone else in the tent became quiet too and looked at Greenstreet, shaggy-haired, bearded and filthy with blubber-soot, holding his empty mug in his hand and looking helplessly down into the snow that had thirstily soaked up his precious milk. The loss was so tragic, he seemed almost on the point of weeping. Without speaking, Clark reached out and poured some of his milk into Greenstreet’s mug, then Worsley, then Macklin, and Rickinson and Kerr, Orde-Lees and finally Blackborow. They finished in silence.

I listened to the audio version narrated by Simon Prebble, and he does a fabulous job. The crew were a diverse group, with Irish, Scots, Australians, New Zealanders, etc., alongside the Englishmen who made up the majority, and Prebble gives each a distinctive voice and personality, complete with appropriate accent. This added to the feeling of getting to know them as real living individuals rather than simply as historical characters on the page.

A wonderfully emotive journey that shows the human spirit at its very best – I can’t recommend this one highly enough! I was a sobbing, traumatised wreck by the end – but was the ending tragedy or triumph? If you don’t already know, you’ll have to read it to find out… or better still, listen to the audiobook.

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The Country House Library by Mark Purcell

Books, books, glorious books!

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This beautifully produced and gorgeously, lavishly illustrated publication is far more than a coffee table book. It’s a comprehensive history of British bookishness from its beginning to the present day. The main thrust of it covers the 17th to 19th centuries – the period when the country house came into its own and wealthy people saw Libraries as an essential feature of their homes. Mark Purcell looks at both the books and the rooms they were stored in, and differentiates between them by calling the book collections ‘libraries’ with a small ‘l’ and the rooms ‘Libraries’ with a capital ‘L’, and I’m going to stick with that for this review.

There’s so much in the book that I’ll only be able to give a flavour of it. Purcell has clearly had a ball prying into the bookshelves and book catalogues of centuries’ worth of bibliophiles, and his enthusiasm is matched by deep knowledge, backed up with an immense amount of research. This results in a phenomenal amount of detail, which in the early chapters overwhelmed me a little and made the reading heavy going. Purcell doesn’t simplify by explaining bookish vocabulary which may be unfamiliar to the general reader (like me!), so at first I found myself doing a bit of googling.

The Great Library at Cassiobury Park

But I found that I gradually became fascinated, especially when I realised that the bookshelves of the rich – who, of course, were also the powerful – cast an interesting sidelight on many famous historical personages and the societies in which they lived. Because Purcell tells us as much about the storage of books as the books themselves, it also becomes an architectural history, and a history of the lifestyles, interests and leisure pursuits of these people – an aspect often not covered in standard histories which tend to be concentrated on politics and power.

Eighth century book storage

Purcell follows a fairly linear timeline throughout. He starts with the speculation that the tradition of libraries in Britain began in Roman villas, with scrolls, and discusses in depth what kind of books would have been read. In the next few chapters, he covers the period up to and through medieval times, showing that there was a considerable level of scholarship amongst the nobility. He also discusses how books were stored before Libraries became a feature – in chests or flat on shelves in small studies or closets set aside purely for the purpose of reading and study. Not unnaturally, the main focus is on the English since they comprise by far the largest population, but happily he ranges out to Scotland, Ireland and Wales too throughout the book, which I found tended to bring together the histories of those nations, showing a common Britishness that often doesn’t come through in histories or biographies of a particular subject.

Medieval study

He then goes on to discuss the foundations (and fates) of the great libraries of the late 17th and 18th centuries, some of which would later form the basis of many of our great national and public collections today (and some of America’s and even Australia’s too). By now, some of the collectors were including lighter, more entertaining books amongst the great classics and heavy religious texts – novels, but also lots of informative books, like cookery books, books on animal husbandry, etc. English was by now more common than Latin and Greek, and books in modern languages were beginning to appear on the shelves of the well-travelled. Illustrated books of things like foreign flora and fauna made me feel that this illustrated book is part of a long tradition, and while wikipedia and Google are fabulous alternatives for those of us with modest homes, I lusted for the libraries of the 19th century in particular.

Alnswick Castle

I also lusted for their Libraries! From the illustrations, the earliest ones look rather bare and functional – huge half-empty rooms surrounded by shelving. But by the 19th century, Libraries had become living spaces where people spent part of their leisure time. Railways had allowed for the tradition of the weekend house party to begin, and Libraries were becoming part of the attractions of the country house, sometimes even including billiard tables, or being situated next door to the billiard room. Comfy seats appear – and footstools, card tables, open fires and reading lamps. The nouveau riche in particular went for comfort and novels, and I found myself longing to either be a nouveau riche 19th or early 20th century country house owner, or at the very least to be invited to one of their house parties. Another place to be added to my ‘where to go when they invent a time machine’ list.

Purcell is a bit saddened by book collectors who had old books rebound – personally I think they’re gorgeous!

In the major houses, books regularly outgrew the space in the main Library, (don’t we all recognise that problem!), so that other rooms would gradually be co-opted into use as secondary Libraries. Purcell shows that many of the householders provided books and even occasionally specific Libraries for their servants, and some of the libraries gradually began to operate almost like public lending libraries for people in the surrounding countryside.

On the right: Vita Sackville-West’s tower room library

Purcell finishes by discussing the 20th century, when many of these libraries were sold off or donated, sometimes as a method of paying off swingeing inheritance taxes. He himself works with the National Trust, the body that has taken over responsibility for maintaining many of these great country houses on behalf of the nation, and he tells how they’ve gradually realised the bookish treasures they’ve acquired along with the houses. A sad and also happy end – the passing of a great tradition, but hopefully these rooms and books will be maintained and made available to scholars and the public for years to come, even if we’re not allowed to actually read them.

As you can hopefully tell, I loved this – it might have been heavy going in places, but I learned lots about a subject dear to my bookish heart. And those illustrations are to die for…

Chatsworth: Darcy’s Library!!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Yale University Press.

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Rasputin: The Biography by Douglas Smith

Saint or sinner…

🙂 🙂 🙂

Douglas Smith starts his biography of Rasputin by laying out the two competing claims about him that were current during his life and still rumble on today: that he was the ‘mad monk’, the ‘holy devil’, debauched and wicked, practising profane religious rites, and with an unhealthy grip on the Tsar; or, that he was a true holy man and visionary, so much so that some groups within the Orthodox church are attempting to have him made a saint.

He begins by telling us what little is known of Rasputin’s early years in a peasant village in Siberia. Smith shows how difficult it is to sift through the layers of later accounts to get to the truth, especially about someone who lived in a largely illiterate milieu. Some accounts describe him as dirty and uncouth, a thief and a horse-thief, but Smith says the original records don’t support these claims. What is true is that he married and had several children, of whom many died. In his late twenties, he took to going off on pilgrimages, apparently a common occurrence in the Russia of that time. However, he looked after his family in financial terms and continued to return to his home village throughout his life. He gradually acquired a reputation as a starets, a kind of religious elder sought out for spiritual guidance.

At this early stage, the book is very well written. Notes are kept out of the way at the back, so that the main text maintains a good flow without too many digressions into the minutiae of sources.

Smith then takes the tale to the Romanov court, giving the background to the marriage and relationship of Nicholas and Alexandra. He gives a fascinating picture of the various strange religious sects that grew up in late 19th century Russia, and how susceptible the Romanovs and high society in general were to the latest ‘holy man’ to come along. Rasputin was not the first visionary to be taken up by the Royal couple. But because of the timing, when the state was already cracking, war was on its way and revolutionary fervour was building, he became a focus of much of what people despised about the ruling class.

Rasputin with Tsarina Alexandra and children

Unfortunately, once these excellent introductory chapters are out of the way, the rest of the book gets bogged down in a morass of rather repetitive detail. It tends to take the format of Smith telling us about reports of some unsavoury episode in Rasputin’s life, and then going back over it to show that either it couldn’t be true or that it can’t be proven. As is always a problem with this period of Russian history, there’s a constantly changing cast of characters near the throne, so that names came and went without me feeling I was getting to know much about them. When the book concentrates specifically on the Romanovs it feels focused, and I did get a good impression of how detached they were from the Russian people’s opinion of them, especially Alexandra. But Rasputin himself felt ever vaguer as every story about him was shown to be at best misleading and at worst untrue. I felt I learned far more about who Rasputin wasn’t than about who he was. Maybe that was the point, but it made for unsatisfactory reading from my perspective.

There is a lot of information about the various efforts to persuade the Romanovs to give Rasputin up. For years he was under investigation and being tracked by the authorities, while the newspapers were printing ever more salacious details about his alleged debauchery. Again Smith goes into far too much detail; for example, on one occasion actually listing the names of the eight secret service men who were detailed to monitor him – information that surely should have been relegated to the notes if it is indeed required at all. And again, far more time is spent debunking false newspaper stories than detailing the true facts.

I found this a frustrating read. Smith’s research is obviously immense and the book does create a real impression of the strange, brittle society at the top of Russia and its desperate search for some kind of spiritual meaning or revelation. But the same clarity doesn’t apply to Rasputin – I felt no nearer knowing the true character of the man at the end as at the beginning; if anything, I felt he had become even more obscure. Smith often seems like something of an apologist for him, although he never openly says so. But when, for example, he treats seriously the question of whether Rasputin was actually a genuine faith healer, then I fear the book began to lose credibility with me. The question of whether Rasputin was a debauched lecher living off his rich patrons or a holy man sent by God to save Russia seemed relatively easy to answer, and I found the book tended to overcomplicate the issue in an attempt to portray both sides equally. A bit like giving equal prominence to climate change deniers as to the 97% of scientists who know it to be true.

Rasputin with his (mostly female) aristocratic acolytes

The book has won awards, so clearly other people have been more impressed by it than I was. I do think it’s an interesting if over-long read, but more for what it tells us about the last days of the Romanovs than for what it reveals about Rasputin. For me, the definitive biography of this uniquely intriguing life remains to be written.

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Visions of Empire by Krishan Kumar

The sun never sets…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Kumar begins this wide-ranging review of past empires by speculating why interest in empires seems to be growing again. He suggests that firstly, enough time has passed to allow the more recent ones to be assessed more objectively. But secondly, issues such as globalisation and climate change are causing people to question what is the best way to govern – is the nation state really the answer that it seemed to be when the age of empires ground to a halt? Kumar doesn’t directly set out to answer this question. Instead, he looks at five of the most significant recent empires, considering how they were ruled, what were the objectives of the rulers, and what effect being the “load-bearing” part of an empire had on the national spirit of the ruling nations. He also considers the idea that, since most nations are a kind of empire, having won their territory out from an original centre, then perhaps the converse is also true – that empires can seen be seen as a form of nation.

Before he looks at the five recent empires, Kumar starts with a short chapter on Rome, on the grounds that all the later empires were to some degree influenced by its aims and methods of governance. He discusses the importance of citizenship and the use of religion – in Rome’s case, Christianity – to homogenise the different peoples that came under its sway. These are themes he returns to in each of his five chosen empires, showing how they mirrored or differed from Rome in these aspects.

The five main empires covered in the book are the Ottoman, the Habsburg, the Russian (later USSR), the British and the French. In each case he starts with a run through of their development and spread – which territories they colonised. These were the least interesting parts for me, and I felt a real need for more and better maps than the book provides. After that, however, I found each chapter became more interesting as Kumar began to look at the methods of rule each empire put into place, showing how this usually arose out of the way the empire developed. So he draws a distinction between those empires which were basically land empires, such as the Russian, with all territories spreading out contiguously from a centre, and overseas empires like the British.

In each case, he then looks at what the rulers saw as the purpose of their empire. Obviously, for some, a major purpose was to do with generating wealth, but beyond that Kumar looks at, for example, the Spanish mission to protect and spread Catholicism, or the French desire to spread their Enlightenment ideals to the territories they controlled. He takes a rather positive view, suggesting many subject territories felt a considerable loyalty to their empire, citing many examples of where they willingly fought in the wars of the central nations. This is a book about rulers, so there’s not much here about how the ‘ordinary’ people may have felt about empire, but certainly he makes a good case for the benefits that often accrued both to the central nations and the subject territories, in terms of both economic and cultural trade.

In his concluding chapter, Kumar looks at the difficulties the central nations have had in rediscovering their own identities following the collapse of their empires. He also discusses neocolonialism and the empire-like status of the superpowers – America, China, and the EU, which he suggests some see as the Habsburg empire resuscitated. And finally he discusses the growth of supranational bodies which take on some of the aspects of empire – the UN, International Courts, even global NGOs.

British Empire 1886

Overall, I found the book interesting and informative. It is rather academic in style but not enough so to make it inaccessible to the casual reader like myself. What caused me a little more difficulty is Kumar’s assumption of a level of prior knowledge. This isn’t a criticism – the book is clearly aimed at people with an existing interest in empire, or people who are formally studying the subject, and it would be impossible to cover such a wide range if every reference had to be explained in depth for newcomers to the subject. However, the result was that I found the chapters on empires I know something about – Habsburg, Russian and, of course, especially the British – were easier to read and absorb, and I took more away from them. The French Empire (oddly) I know little about and so struggled more as Kumar referred to historical events of which I had no real knowledge. But the worst for me was the section on the Ottoman Empire – my knowledge of that one is almost non-existent and I found the chapter hard work to get through and didn’t feel at the end of it as if I had gained much. I would suggest, therefore, that this certainly isn’t a ‘starter’ book for someone wanting an introductory history to the various empires.

However, for anyone with an existing interest in some or all of the empires discussed, it’s a thought-provoking and interesting read – clearly written, informative, and I found Kumar’s arguments convincing. Despite my struggles at some points, I found it an enjoyable read – one that passes over the simple and now somewhat out-dated wholesale condemnation of empire in favour of a more nuanced look at the various forms and degrees of rule and co-operation between the states and territories that made up these ever-shifting entities.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Princeton University Press.

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The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich

A valuable but somewhat biased contribution…

🙂 🙂 🙂

During World War II, many women in Soviet Russia went off to war, not just in the traditional female roles of nurses, cooks, etc., but to take up arms themselves – to kill or die for their country. When they came home – those who came home – they were not lauded as heroines. At best their service was forgotten; at worst, they were seen as unwomanly, no longer suitable marriage material, sometimes even shunned by those around them. Decades later in 1985, as Soviet Russia was about to enter the period of glasnost (openess) under then President Gorbachev, Svetlana Alexievich published this collection of oral histories from some of the women who served. For her ground-breaking work, including this book, Alexievich, a Belarusian journalist, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015. This is the first time the book has been translated into English, by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, the current leaders in the field of Russian-English translation.

There is no doubt of the importance of this work in bringing a piece of the Soviet Union’s lesser-known history to light, and for giving a voice to many women who had been silenced by their society’s desire to forget their contribution. Many of the memories Alexievich records show the patriotism and courage of these women, while also giving an insight into their naivety as they set off for “the Front” – words that seem almost to have taken on an element of propaganda, as something glorious and heroic. The reality, of course, was brutal and barbaric. Alexievich tries to understand why so many women – girls, in many cases, often only sixteen or seventeen – were determined to cut off their cherished braids, learn to shoot or fly or bandage wounds, and set off for war.

I left for the front a materialist. An atheist. I left as a good Soviet schoolgirl, who had been well taught. And there . . . There I began to pray . . . I always prayed before a battle, I read my prayers. The words were simple . . . My own words . . . They had one meaning, that I would return to mama and papa.

The answers were as varied as the girls themselves. Some went against the opposition of their mothers, because they had lost a father or brother or lover and wanted revenge. Some saw it as a great patriotic duty. Some were more or less forced into it by parents who had no sons to send, or who had already lost their sons in the carnage. Some went simply because their friends were going. Some, and these were the saddest, saw it as an exciting adventure. Often the recruiting officers tried to talk them out of it, but the girls were determined to go – I formed the distinct impression it had simply become the ‘done thing’, a kind of macabre fashion statement. When they got there, the men they were to serve with often saw them at first as an annoyance – just another thing they needed to worry about. But many of these girls soon became vital cogs in an army that was losing men in almost unimaginable numbers. Alexievich lets us hear from snipers, girls who worked dragging the injured from burning tanks, women who flew war planes or manned their guns, surgeons who worked through extreme exhaustion to treat a never-ending stream of men and women with horrific injuries, nurses who tried to give some comfort to those in agony, waiting for death.

I had some reservations though, mainly around Alexievich’s intentions. Apparently she interviewed hundreds of women and received written accounts from many more. At the beginning of each section, she gives a little introduction telling the story of how she collected and selected her material, and it was these that made me wonder about her agenda. She becomes emotional to the point of mawkishness again and again, often inserting herself into the middle of a memory to show how deeply it has affected her. She admits immediately to being obsessed with death, and I felt it became clear quite quickly that she also had what felt like an unhealthy, voyeuristic obsession with suffering.

I listen to the pain . . . Pain as the proof of past life. There are no other proofs, I don’t trust other proofs. Words have more than once led us away from the truth.

I think of suffering as the highest form of information, having a direct connection with mystery. With the mystery of life. All of Russian literature is about that. It has written more about suffering than about love.

And these women tell me more about it . . .

She makes plain – though I’m not sure intentionally – that she dismissed memories that didn’t meet her criteria. So women who wanted to talk about pride in the eventual victory rather than suffering were dismissed, with it being signalled that they had been indoctrinated by men to think about the ‘man’s’ war rather than the ‘woman’s’.

Svetlana Alexievich
(Photo by Elke Wetzig)

I couldn’t help but feel that she was very close to distorting history to suit her agenda – to prove that women suffer more, have bigger hearts, more capacity for empathy, find it harder to kill. True? Perhaps. Or perhaps some form of reverse sexism. We live now in a world where women regularly serve on front lines – in some countries it has been the norm for decades, if not centuries – and I doubt if our female soldiers would relish being portrayed as somehow less fitted for war, or that the many men who live with ongoing emotional trauma are happy to be considered less feeling. I also felt that Alexievich’s sympathy for the women only lasted until it interfered with her work. I was particularly put off by one anecdote she recounts, when she sent a transcript to a woman she had interviewed. The woman scored out some personal stuff and said her son would be horrified to read it, since she had never told him. But Alexievich overrode the woman’s objections and printed it anyway, carefully including the woman’s full name. It felt as abusive as anything the society she is criticising had done to the women.

Some of the extracts are intensely moving, some so horrifying they are difficult to read. Others left me curiously untouched – repetition dulls the senses perhaps. Eventually I found I was having to force myself to pick the book up, so finally gave up at about two-thirds of the way through. I do think this is a valuable contribution to the historical record, but one that needs to be viewed with a certain amount of caution as having been too carefully selected to bolster the author’s viewpoint, rather than to give an unbiased and balanced platform for the memories of the women who served.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin Classics.

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