Archive for the 'history' Category

2022: My year of reading

December 30, 2022

A house move early this year has had a major impact on my reading: books boxed up, being unable to find books that I wanted to read, far less time to read due to having so many other pressing things to deal with: are those excuses or reasons? I’m not sure. But the books are now, much later, out of boxes and on shelves, although in different places, so tracking down and finding a book still isn’t easy, until my ageing brain has internalised my new system…

There has been a certain amount or re-reading; there has been the usual ‘compulsory’ reading for our book group, some of which were real eye-openers. In 2022 I bought or was given (and kept) all of 19 books, which represents a slight decrease on 2021; I read 50 books, which marks a serious decrease on last year’s total, for the reason above-mentioned.

I have a number of resolutions for 2023: to continue buying fewer books – and this is partly because a good number of the new books I come across I only want to read once, and I know I shan’t return to them – to return to my interrupted project to re-read all of Shakespeare’s plays in chronological sequence, to revisit a lot of the poetry I cherish, to revisit some old favourites including Josef Skvorecky, Garrison Keillor and Amin Maalouf, and to continue weeding my library and disposing of books I no longer want. And, driven by the final TV series which is currently being screened, I want to re-read Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy: I’ve watched the TV adaptations and loved them, and I’ve listened several times to the excellent full audiobook recording of the trilogy while I’ve been on my travels, but it’s a good few years since I actually consumed the printed volumes…

I’ve read far fewer travel books this year, and I’m wondering if I’ve finally exhausted that bug. There does seem to be a limit to the number of new travelogues through Siberia, or the various deserts of the world, that a person needs.

This year’s awards:

Best novel: Sequioa Nagamatsu How High We Go In The Dark. A novelist I’d never head of and took a punt on; a challenging fantasy which I really enjoyed and hope to go back to shortly. It’s good to read new authors.

Best non-fiction: Alberto Angela Une Journée Dans La Rome Antique. I’ve liked everything I’ve read by him.I’ve been fascinated by ancient Rome since my school days, and this historian brings it to life with a wealth of detail, without ever being patronising or talking down to his readers.

Best travel: Edward Abbey Desert Solitaire. I love deserts, and travel in deserts, and this journal of time in one of the US natioanl parks by an early ecologist (as you’d have to call him nowadays) is a gem: he shows you the desert and makes you love it as much as he does.

Best re-read: Jan Potocki Manuscript Found in Saragossa: an astonishing novel, a tour de force from the early 19th century; it was good finally to find time to re-read this one. And I have the film, waiting to be watched, too.

Best book group discovery: Ben MacIntyre Agent Sonya. I thought, “Do I really want to bother reading this? Why would I read this?” and I did, and it was another object lesson in not dismissing books too easily. A fascinating and thought-provoking account of pro-Soviet espionage in the twenties, thirties and forties, and out book group discussion was enhanced by a guest appearance from one of the heroine’s relatives.

I’m hoping to resume normal service in 2023, ie lots more reading and re-reading, further pruning of my library, and continuing to buy rather fewer books than previously.

Ben MacIntyre: Agent Sonya

December 4, 2022

     Most of us of a certain age have a vague picture of the espionage that was an integral part of the Cold War years and much earlier; this is the first time I’ve read a detailed account of any of it, and the stories of some of the people who were involved in it, although quite a few of the names had been familiar to me. It was fascinating to read an in-depth account, and to reflect on the implications of what went on. It’s a workmanlike piece of writing; the facts and the biography are what matters, not the style. There are some minor carelessnesses in historical and geographical detail, but not many.

The innate sexism of MI5/MI6, the idea that a ‘housewife’ could not possibly be up to no good, allowed the heroine to get aways with a lot; there’s a certain amount of almost comic silliness in the behaviour of British intelligence (!) at the time as we read about their investigations and interrogations.

Ursula/Sonya is clearly a character of her times, and looking back from our perspective now, it’s rather hard to see why someone would undergo the great rigours of training in espionage and sabotage and take on board all the risks, dangers and penalties of the role. We are taken through her decision to become involved, her recruitment, her work in China during the Civil War, in Europe in the run-up to the Second World War, in Switzerland during that war, her flight to England and her involvement in the passing of many secrets, including research on the atomic bomb to her paymasters in the USSR.

I found thinking about the issues involved in this espionage history quite interesting. I felt that the author seemed to gloss over Sonya’s naivete, even wilful blindness at various times, for instance her response to the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of August 1939, and also her reaction to the disappearance of so many of her connections during the Stalinist purges. At one level, being so embroiled already, one might argue she didn’t have much option other than to stick with the side that was paying her. Equally, I could understand her decision to move to the DDR in the late forties when she was about to be rumbled. There was clearly a sense of idealism at play: there should be a level playing field, and why were researches and developments not being shared with an all? Idealism too, now vanished, that there was an alternative, however flawed, to capitalism, in construction in a large and important country.

More than this, however, I found myself actually admiring and respecting the efforts, the risks and the decisions taken by those whose actions evened the odds, if you like, during the Second World War and the Cold War; it was clear quite early on that the West was positioning itself for maximum advantage once the ‘Allies’ had defeated the Nazis, and actually, contemplating the outcome of another war when the Soviets did not have the ‘equality’ of nuclear weapons, was pretty horrifying. What sort of a world might we have been living in now? And I’m appalled at myself for almost accepting the balance of terror here. But for many years I realise that I actually did feel ‘safer’ during the Cold War than I have done since…

Alberto Angela: Cleopatra

November 29, 2022

     I’ve grown to like Alberto Angela’s books over the past few years, after discovering him on a visit to the Roman sites in Provence. I suppose he should be classified as a popular historian, although he seems to take great care to annotate and support what he writes. He makes us aware, from the sources of the time, just how much information about life and the history of the Roman era is actually recorded, as well as by whom and what axes they were grinding, and just how many gaps there are too: like other historians writing about those times, he must necessarily speculate, and he’s always very clear with the reader when he’s doing that.

He’s written about the Roman Empire, daily life in ancient Rome, and the destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum. This book is rather different, focussing on historical personalities at the time of the final demise of the republic, and it’s the first one of his that I’ve read in English. I’ll get my gripe over quickly: the proof-reading is shocking, with a serious number of careless errors that should have been corrected before it ever got to print…

What Angela particularly excels at, in my opinion, is his way of bringing the ancient world to life for the reader through a myriad of small details, either from sources or through logical deduction and inference, thus fully contextualising his subject-matter. I was astonished to learn, that if one did the sums from information known, then there might be around two million wrecked boats and ships at the bottom of the Mediterranean! One of the things I gradually came to realise – my recent knowledge of Antony and Cleopatra being through Shakespeare’s eponymous tragedy, is just how freely the bard adapted his source material, whilst keeping the outlines of the story and the character traits of the principal actors. But his focus was on the personalities and their flaws, and their tragedy.

There are times when Angela is perhaps a little too free with his imagination, too fanciful – he is dealing with Cleopatra after all – although given the fatal attraction between her and Mark Antony, speculation about the exact nature of their relationship is surely allowed. Octavian emerges as a far nastier and ruthless creature than I recalled from my classes in Roman history over half a century ago. The real revelation for me was Cleopatra’s intelligence: she was a very well-educated and powerful woman, a master-strategist, perhaps the most powerful woman in history in terms of her influence and effect: Angela reminds us several times how different the Roman world, and hence ours, might have been if things had gone the other way, and Octavian had not become the god Augustus who founded the Roman empire.

A fascinating read, well worth my eyeball time.

Proud of my country?

November 21, 2022

I’m conscious of John of Gaunt’s pride in his country, and find myself thinking what can I be proud of in today’s England (or Britain)? I’m proud of the NHS, battered and constrained as it is, and hope it endures to look after me in my final years. I feel a great sense of loyalty to it: my mother trained as a children’s nurse as it came into existence, and made sure we had all that it offered to keep us healthy as children, all the jabs, the free orange juice and rose hip syrup and codliver oil.

My father was an exile from Poland, and after the war ended nobody wanted him and his comrades any more: they were foreigners, taking away jobs from the British etc etc – where have we heard that one recently? Reluctantly he and his mates were allowed to remain, all sorts of obstacles were put in their way, they were used and exploited. Nevertheless he was loyal to his adoptive country and eventually took British nationality.

My memories of my younger days are of a country that provided work for almost everyone, benefits (paltry, perhaps) for those that needed them, grants for students rather than loans, and offered supplementary benefits, as they were called back then, even to students who did not find work in the holidays. There were very few people living on the streets and no foodbanks. There was unemployment and poverty, but not the outright misery and destitution as we see nowadays.

Although I regarded it as my right, I had eight years of state support through my studies, and I recognise the value of what the country invested in me; equally, I can see that I paid it all back over the years through taxation and through service as a teacher.

Back in the past housing was affordable and rents were controlled: one income would support a family, even my father’s meagre wages, supplemented by overtime and some moonlighting. And although he always loathed them, trade unions were able to defend the working people and ensure a reasonable standard of wages, working conditions and pensions.

I remember grand projects: Concorde, Intercity 125 trains, the struggle to join the Common Market which became the European Community and then the European Union. All of my travel as a student was made so much easier by our membership, and I was glad of the new-found freedom, and the ability to encounter other peoples and cultures.

Like any old codger, I’m waxing lyrical about the days of my youth. But I lived through the Cuban missile crisis and Reagan’s cruise missiles and I did not feel as endangered then as I do now under the rule of incompetent liars. I lived through the so-called winter of discontent in 1978-9; it wasn’t that bad and there certainly wasn’t the feeling of impending doom that many of us are currently fighting off.

I have seen so much that was not perfect but that was decent enough, and certainly far better than we have now, deliberately demolished, destroyed and sold off to other countries through the greed and rapaciousness started by Thatcher and her cronies. I don’t need to ponder why there is a housing crisis, a shortage of homes: I remember what she did. I don’t need to bother my head with whether Johnson or Truss was a worse prime minister, as Thatcher scoops all the awards there.

There are many good things in the history of our country and these islands; there are as many dark pages, and the difference between us and a country like Germany, for instance, is that we do not wish to confront and recognise that dark past; we are waylaid and misled by those who think that our past glories mean we are automatically entitled to a glorious future… We are a small island off the coast of Europe, that Europe can ignore without too great a loss; it’s not the same the other way round.

More than anything I have an image of a country with its head in the sand, ruled by an aristocracy which has embedded itself deep in our national psyche over a millennium; we invented a form of democracy a couple of centuries back and think it’s still fit for purpose; we are collectively unwilling to face the challenges of the future, whether they are economic or meteorological, and we allow rich and vested interests shamelessly to play to the darkest sides of people in order to hang on to their privilege.

I have very mixed feelings about England and Britain. It’s my home, for better or worse. There are things I have been grateful for; there are things I love, but increasingly there are things I truly despair about.

ed Stevan Davies: The Gospel of Thomas

November 14, 2022

    Having realised long ago that Christianity, despite its spiritual origins and intentions, is also a construct of those fallible human beings who shaped and directed it particularly in its earliest years, I’ve been exploring some of the writings which, for all sorts of reasons, are nowadays regarded as apocryphal, unorthodox or deuterocanonical; the Gospel of Thomas is one of those.

There is, of course, ongoing debate about its status, authenticity, and whether it’s gnostic or not; it appears to be synchronous with other of the earliest accepted writings, though offering a different perspective. It’s a list of sayings of Jesus, with almost no narrative content at all; there is considerable overlap with what Jesus says in the synoptic gospels. So, is it actually another source for those?

I don’t particularly care, although the scholarly debate is mildly interesting; what interests me is the content. And the sayings of Jesus as reported in this text offer a rather different perspective: the kingdom of heaven is here and now, within us – reminds me of Philip Pullman’s Republic of Heaven at the end of the Dark Materials trilogy! – and there is no place for the sin and salvation narratives of the canonical gospels. Self-knowledge is the road to salvation. There are no miracles, and no prophecies about the future.

Davies’ commentary I found not particularly helpful, ranging from the obvious to the purely speculative, and I was thrown by a basic error in his Latin at one point, too. I’m not sure he offers very much enlightenment, but he does provide a clearly accessible text for the general reader, which I suppose I am, in the end. What I did notice were clear links between the simplicity of Jesus’ message in the Gospel of Thomas and the Quaker approach to the scriptures, and I was reminded of what I’ve read about the beliefs and practices of the Cathars, too.

Jean Verdon: S’amuser au Moyen Âge

October 5, 2022

     It’s not a book I’d have chosen to buy, but when I bought a pile of French novels in Luxembourg earlier this year, the assistant said, ‘You get a free book!’ and presented me with a box to choose from… I had read one of Jean Verdon’s earlier books on travel in the Middle Ages and it was fascinating. This one I have to confess to skim-reading a good deal of, particularly the lengthy extracts from documents in mediaeval French.

Life was so different back then: so many religious feast days (and leftovers from earlier, pagan days, too, despite the best efforts of the church) when work just didn’t happen or was limited; of course this counterbalanced those times when you had to work every hour that God sent, but even so… and there were also restrictions in terms of the daylight available for anything productive. It was a time of lurching from feast to famine; so much of the empty time was spent on eating and drinking when that was possible, and hunting and fishing. Peasants had their own produce whereas townsfolk did not, but then they were at the mercy of the weather. There were innumerable taverns – a regulation was passed somewhere once saying there should be no more than one for every eight houses – and prostitution was rife.

Having made the simplistic judgement that things have always been pretty much the same, I then thought a bit more deeply: work as we understand it now was a rather different concept for most people. At one level it was a deeply integrated part of your life and the person you were, with no possible escape from that fate, but it didn’t tie you down in quite the same futile ways it perhaps does today, when you think about what is real work, and what are real necessities.

Equally, there were none of the static, time-wasting amusements that we ‘enjoy’ today; what people did was largely participatory and based on social interaction; the closest a peasant would have got to anything resembling today’s passively consumed entertainments was possibly a travelling mystery or morality play. These, incidentally, were far more sophisticated in terms of stagecraft and mechanics than I’d previously known. And there were processions, royal entrances, public executions.

I wouldn’t have liked to live back then, obviously; life was proverbially nasty, brutish and short, and I have greatly valued the intellectual stimulus of my studies and career. Nevertheless the value of a book like this lies in its ability to make one step back for a while and reflect on what is of real significance and value in our own lives and what is of no real value and serves someone else’s purposes…

Albert Nolan: Jesus Before Christianity

October 3, 2022

     In a way this book covers similar territory to E P Sanders’ book I read and wrote about recently; in another way it’s very different. It’s not so scrupulously detailed or annotated, for a start.

Jesus is seen as a follower of John the Baptist initially, who then turns his attention to the downtrodden, oppressed classes who have no hope of escaping their poverty, which is basically regarded as a sinful state. I’d never thought of him as ‘middle class’ though in terms of the society of his time, he was. Nolan develops a coherent picture of, and interpretation of, Jesus’ work in the context of his time. However, and this is where I encountered the greatest difficulty, he attempts to be dispassionate and analytical against the background of his own faith and what he perceives to be Jesus’ picture of God as well. Faith is opposed to fatalism: things can be done, we can make the world a different place. Nolan’s Jesus preaches community, equality, the sharing of surplus, ie only having what you actually need. He is very clear about the man as radical, and what was new about his teaching and life; Jesus comes across not as a revolutionary in the manner of others of his time, but as someone who can understand and show us what right living is…

For Nolan the central incident sealing Jesus’ fate is the clearing out of the money-changers in the Temple, which made him a known and potentially dangerous figure in different ways to the Jewish leaders and Roman rulers.

I think I said in response to Sanders’ book that his purely rational, historical analysis of Jesus as a human being should make no difference to a person’s faith; I find the confusion of analysis and urge to faith here very unhelpful. Nolan tries to make Jesus human before his death, almost omits the resurrection as an embarrassment, and then somehow tries to make him into an extraordinary figure for those who remained, quite suddenly almost an extension of God; here he lost me, I’m afraid: this bolting of a religious message on to the end did not work for me.

Clearly I’ve been reading a good deal about the man Jesus and his times over recent years; I’m still not sure if I call my response a belief or a faith, but none of the historical investigations have diminished the inspirational teachings I have always seen at the heart of the message…

Erich Maria Remarque: All Quiet on the Western Front

October 1, 2022

     My former students will know, and if you search this blog you will discover, that I have a reasonably comprehensive knowledge of literature from the Great War. This novel, which I’ve read several times now, still moves me to tears at the end, and, I would argue, is probably the most powerful novel written about those hellish places and times. And, for the first time, I was struck by the parallel between the end of the novel and the final moments of the epic film O What A Lovely War.

Written in 1929 and the first novel (and film) the Nazis banned on coming to power, it clearly gains from the sense of immediacy – only a decade after the events it recalls. The writer lived through those times; it shows in a way in which no modern novel, no matter how well-researched, can do, and that is not to disparage contemporary writers like Pat Barker or Sebastian Faulks. It’s different from novels which present the British or French perspective; in particular the serious privations of both the men at the front and their folk at home are emphasised.

Remarque’s techniques stand up to scrutiny. The tone of the narrative is matter-of-fact throughout: the message is that you will get used to anything, eventually: the horrors are not dwelt on in gory detail. The tone makes the novel, laconic, the hero old and wise before his time, with a sense of doom ever-present in the back of his mind (just as in Wilfred Owen’s poem Anthem for Doomed Youth, I feel). The language enhances the effect, with the constant feeling that there just aren’t the words available to describe what he and his comrades experience. And there’s also the feeling that insanity is never that far away; even the hero notices and remarks on this. There is that memorable scene in the 1930 film when the men are under endless bombardment, which I still cannot forget even after many years. (Incidentally, why remake the film, as I learn has been done?)

There is a sense of timelessness; home and past are now and forever unreal. I have always found the section where Paul goes home on leave one of the most poignant in the novel. He can have none of that old life back, ever. I realised how much more effectively this is portrayed here, than in more recent fiction, too. Remarque’s style is obviously not contemporary; it takes us back in time in a different way. I found myself trying to work out why, for me, writing from that time is so much more effective, and I think it comes down to the fact that I’m not seduced by plot or story here; there is just warfare; there are just incidents; characters come and go (they are killed)…

This timelessness is enhanced by the wide use of the present tense in the narrative: here it works to convey the sense that there is only now for these men; that technique is gratuitously overused to no effect in much contemporary fiction. What will happen, what can happen for these men if they survive, and when the war is over? There is no future for them; their minds and hopes are already destroyed. The sadness about the love and the sex they will never enjoy is hinted at, just as in Owen’s Disability, which for my money is one of the most powerful poems ever written about that or any war. And Remarque did write a sequel, about what happened to those who made their way back, and in its own way, it’s as grim as this novel.

I remain of the opinion I formed half a century ago: war serves no purpose, war is evil. Some vile people derive power and profit from it: most people suffer. Re-reading this novel, and contemplating current events confirm my feeling.

Norman Davies: God’s Playground – A History of Poland (vol 2)

September 19, 2022

    This second volume of Norman Davies’ history begins with a nation that has vanished from the map of Europe; the idea of Poland survives nevertheless, and he shows us the problems national aspirations can cause. His account of the period is wide-ranging, comprehensive, and he demonstrates a deep level both of sympathy with, and understanding of, the situation of Poles during those years; he is a historian widely read and respected in Poland. Given the absence of a country of which to record the history, he examines things thematically: church, language, history and race create a sense of a nation.

Unless you are prepared to go into great depth, you will never unpick or make sense of the incredible complexity of Polish history, culture and society. Davies manages to do all of this, making things clear and evident, as well as acknowledging that there’s often a touch of the mildly insane about it all…

At another level, the problems really began in 1919, with the task of reconstituting a nation from its very disparate parts, after more than a century of oblivion: the Russian, Prussian and Austro-Hungarian empires had all now disappeared, but each had left a very different mark, culturally, politically and physically, on the Polish space. Although this wasn’t the first time I’d read this magisterial work, I had allowed myself to forget the extent of the horrendous catalogue of bestial Russian behaviour towards the Poles in the part of the nation they occupied (and from which my ancestors came); the picture is of more than two centuries of both Tsarist and Bolshevik domination and brutality. I’d make a glib observation about some aspects of the Russian character and psyche, except that I then remember the atrocities the occupying Nazis carried out; it’s human beings per se that are not a very nice species…

So, to write a fair history of Poland, one needs to have a full grasp of, and be able to explain to others, both the complexities on the ground, and also in hearts and heads; Norman Davies and Timothy Snyder are the only ones I’ve found able to do justice. Davies sets the record of the Second World War straight too, and he’s not afraid to be critical; Poland doesn’t emerge from that period of martyrdom completely covered in glory, and there are those in the current regime who wish to sweep certain things under the carpet. Poland’s shameful treatment by the Western Allies is also fully and correctly catalogued.

A range of necessary maps are included, but I have to say they are reproduced too small and fail to do justice to the subject, mainly through illegibility. Davies has an encyclopaedic knowledge at his fingertips. It’s not a recent work – completed before the advent of the Solidarity movement in 1980 – and his summative remarks at the end of the history do read like something from another age; to be fair to Davies, he does acknowledge that historians shouldn’t write about (their) present. I don’t imagine another history this complete and comprehensive being written in the near future.

E P Sanders: The Historical Figure of Jesus

September 3, 2022

  This was a most interesting read, mainly because of Sanders’ perspective and approach, as a historian writing about Jesus as just another historical character, and setting him clearly in the context of his time and society, using all available sources. For any other historical personage this would be standard practice and unsurprising, but the story of this particular character has been so swamped with other approaches, and uncritical veneration, that being faced with a dispassionate investigative approach was a serious eye-opener, at least for this reader.

New fact number one was chronology: Paul’s letters were written before any of the gospels were committed to writing, ergo he did not know the gospels, and neither do the gospel writers seem to have known his letters. Then Sanders unpicks and explains the Roman regime which ran Palestine at the time, and dispels a number of old chestnuts about the roles and powers of a Roman governor, about Pontius Pilate in particular, about Jewish high priests and what they had the power to do, about how Jewish civil society was organised and run. There was clearly a good deal of autonomy as long as the local population behaved.

Sanders’ forensic investigative approach somehow “shrinks” and normalises Jesus: he’s a human character in human history here; nothing of God or Christianity interferes. He shows what a historian can work out from the available material, and there is clearly a good deal more than I was aware of. Comparison of gospels reveals a lot, inconsistencies included, and much can be deduced or surmised; Sanders carefully clarifies what we can be sure of and what must forever remain unclear or unknown.

It is an exhaustive and at times densely-written academic work. The picture which gradually emerges is of a man who clearly believed he was carrying out a God-given mission, who became a thorn in the side of the Jewish authorities, and they quickly organised his execution. What they didn’t count on was what came after. That doesn’t mean the resurrection, the nature of which Sanders makes clear we can never know, but the work of his followers in the aftermath of Jesus’ disappearance, powered by their belief in his imminent return…

Faith is most definitely not part of this historian’s work, and perhaps for this reason, believers may find it disturbing or disorienting, though I personally don’t actually see why this should be the case. I feel a good deal more informed, factually and contextually and that is all very interesting, but it doesn’t really change what I understand to be the message of Jesus’ teaching.

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