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Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Adventures in Bookland: Total Destruction of the Tamil Tigers by Paul Moorcroft

Wednesday, October 18th, 2017

When writing about the many small wars that have characterised conflict, particularly since the end of the Cold War, pundits are fond of trotting out the standard line: there can be no military solution, only a political one. This is generally accepted as an a priori truth; so much so that no one argues with it. But thinking about Sri Lanka’s long civil war, I begin to wonder if it is necessarily so, and the human cost of prolonging conflicts in search of those elusive political solutions.

For if we accept the premise that there must always be a political solution, then the pattern that emerges is one of low-level warfare, interspersed with periods of truce while international intermediaries seek that solution and international aid agencies feed the people displaced by the conflict, only for the conflict to flare up once more. By leading the search for solutions, and by taking responsibility for the people the combatants are generally fighting to rule, the international community runs the risk of bleeding the conflict out – allowing the combatants time to regroup and rearm and then fight again. It’s at least possible that, left to themselves, the conflict would end more quickly, although the resolution would surely be bloody. But would more blood be shed in a short war fought to an end rather than the apparently endless rounds of conflict punctuated by periods of exhausted truce, before the whole thing starts up again? That is the question the thirty years of civil war between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers poses. Paul Moorcroft doesn’t try to answer the question in this book: instead, he looks at how the Sri Lankan military were able to create a military solution to a war that lasted a generation, as well as the political conditions that the Rajapaksa government put into place to allow that military solution.

Yes, there can be no doubt that many civilians were killed in the final desperate months of the war, when the cornered Tigers fought like, well, tigers, for the LTTE had no compunction about using their own population as human shields. The calculation was clearly made, among the LTTE leadership, that if they could get enough pictures of dead children on the TV screens of the world, then the resulting international outcry would be sufficient to force the Sri Lankan goverment to call a halt to military action, giving them time to regroup and escape. Thus, civilian Tamil casualties were a clear strategy for the Tigers in their final struggle. Just as clearly, the Sri Lankan government and military sought to stop such images getting out: they prevented journalists getting anywhere near the battleground, with pointed references to being unable to guarantee their safety which served as veiled threats, while working behind the scenes to keep India, the one regional power that could stop everything in its tracks, on board. Moorcraft is excellent in showing how the Rajapaksa brothers maintained contacts with the Indian government, giving it daily briefings to ensure that the northern behemoth stayed on the other side of the Palk Strait. The book is also good on the overall military reorganisation that allowed the government forces to finally defeat an enemy that had defeated them for so long, although I would have liked more detail about the tactical shifts that allowed the Sri Lankan army to gain the upper hand over the LTTE cadres.

The question remains though: is this an example of a war where the only possible solution was military? For the Tigers, a political solution required the Sri Lankan government to give in completely to their demands – something that was clearly impossible. So the Tigers sought to create their own de facto state. Meanwhile, Sri Lankan governments before the Rajapaksa administration had sought for political solutions, with varying degrees of commitment, only to find that none of the proposed political solutions were possible from their point of view either. In the end, the only solution was blood. Without all the well meaning international intervention over the years, maybe that solution would have come earlier, and many lives might have been spared. Something to think on the next time someone trots out the line that there are no military solutions, only political ones.

Big Announcement Number 2

Friday, September 29th, 2017

Second, sustained drum roll….

Here it is, big announcement number 2: my next non-fiction book will be called Warrior: the Biography of a Man with No Name, and it will be published by Granta.

Now this really is pretty big: Granta is about the most prestigious publisher in Britain and having them publish my next book will ensure it gets noticed in all sorts of places that have previously ignored my work, including the national press (although that also opens the possibility of scathing reviews from reviewers working on the principle that a good kicking is always more fun to write and read in review than any amount of glowing praise).

As to the book itself, it is the story of one of the people excavated at the Bowl Hole Cemetery near Bamburgh Castle. While human remains provide all sort of useful archaeological evidence, their great drawback is that skeletons are mute: they tell no story. But for a variety of reasons, we can say much more about one particular man, buried within sight of castle and sea, than is normally the case, and it is his story that we will tell in this book. When I say we, it really will be a book written in the first person plural, as I will be collaborating on it with Paul Gething, one of the directors of the Bamburgh Research Project and the man who excavated the body of this Dark-Age warrior.

Warrior will be published in 2019.

Adventures in Bookland: Mont Saint Michel and Chartres by Henry Adams

Monday, July 10th, 2017


The cover photo gives, as much as is possible, some idea of what is inside this most extraordinary of books. Look at it carefully. Rising from surrounding water a ziggurat of stone rendered into yearning patterns of ascent points to the overarching sky. It is a medieval rocket to heaven, a union of all the different worlds, a place that, seeing it, grabs the breath and awes the eye. The French refer to part of it as ‘La Merveille’ but it is all a marvel, almost impossible to comprehend. That the men of the eleventh century were able to make such a place seems scarcely credible, and yet they did, raising a work greater than any of the wonders of antiquity. Although the medievals revered the classical past, in truth they outdid it in what they built, in stone and thought and culture.

This book, faced with such marvels, answers with its own, for it is, without doubt, one of the three or four most extraordinary books I have ever read. The author, Henry Adams, was the great grandson of John Adams, the second president of the United States; his grandfather, John Quincy Adams, was the sixth president; his father, Charles Francis Adams, was US ambassador to Britain during the American Civil War. So, not much to live up to there then!

What must it be like to grow up in such a milieu? Henry Adams went on to become a historian and journalist, but in terms of obvious accomplishment, he did not match his forbears. Yet he wrote two books, The Education of Henry Adams and this volume, Mont Saint Michel and Chartres, that rank as classics, although each are strange members of that class of literature. The Education is an autobiography, of sorts, while Mont Saint Michel is ostensibly a travel guide. But when I was working as a travel writer for publishers such as Time Out, I’d have had my copy spiked if I’d submitted anything like Mont Saint Michel (oh, if only I could write so well!). Perhaps the best comparison, in terms of style, is John Henry Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua, although that would not be obvious from the playful preface, where Adams dedicates this book to ‘nieces in wish’, willing to read the musings of an uncle on the strange and distant land of France and the stranger and more distant lands of the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

Adams, with a mix of erudition and wit (he assumes his reader is fluent in French, Latin and reasonably conversant in Greek), leads his niece in wish upwards through Mont St Michel, ascending it in thought and learning, placing it within the compass of the society and times that created it and, in doing so, he does something that I would have thought impossible: despite being something of an Anglo-Saxonist, he makes me appreciate the Normans. Then, by way of the birth of Gothic, Adams takes the visitor to the pinnacle of Gothic architecture, Chartres Cathedral, and sings the hymn of its inspiration and, in truth, its maker, the Virgin herself. No where else have I read such an intense and lived encounter with the medieval mind, such an appreciation of its peculiar and particular genius.

Yet, it was an appreciation born in a nihilism that, occasionally, shatters the stained glass and leaves the reader face to face with the dark cold at the heart of Adams’ world.

It was very childlike, very foolish, very beautiful, and very true,- -as art, at least:—so true that everything else shades off into vulgarity… For seven hundred years Chartres has seen pilgrims, coming and going more or less like us, and will perhaps see them for another seven hundred years; but we shall see it no more, and can safely leave the Virgin in her majesty, with her three great prophets on either hand, as calm and confident in their own strength and in God’s providence as they were when Saint Louis was born, but looking down from a deserted heaven, into an empty church, on a dead faith.

Few saints have seen as clearly into the mystery of Chartres and Mont St Michel as Adams, yet he sees it all as shadow play, and a play of shadows, the footlings of earnest and talented children before they shuffle into the dark.

It is a bleak vision.

But it only breaks through briefly and, for most of the book, Adams is content to walk in the vivid colours of the medieval, letting its bright, primary colours light his prose.

There are other points where the book comes to a juddering, jarring halt, however, and this is wherever Adams mentions Jews. He was, to put it simply, an anti-semite, and on paper at least a vicious one. Reading him, as complete a product of civilised 19th-century culture as one could wish to find, it becomes a little clearer how the 20th century could produce the Holocaust.

For some, these sudden eruptions of nihilism and hatred into this most civilised and civilising of texts might serve to render it beyond reading, and I would have no objections to that. But they are part of what makes this book extraordinary, for they serve to help to define how precious and rare a man of truly civilised culture is, and how even the best of these may be distorted by the culture they embody. This book is a 19th-century understanding of the High Middle Ages and it enlightens the modern reader about both in a way no other book I’ve ever read does. Do read it.

The Last Solderslinger

Friday, March 17th, 2017

For many years, I worked repairing TVs and videos, driving around in my white van. It was a family business, and it had kept us all gainfully employed for twenty years or so. But sometime in the late 1990s we realised that our days wielding the soldering iron and the Avometer were numbered. Most of the other repairmen, men who had started when you could warm a house from the heat generated by the thermionic valves in the back of a television, also lay down their irons around this time. I wrote this piece for us all.

Cyril Dennis retires after 53 years repairing TVs.

The last solderslinger drove out of town. It was showdown time. The Cyber Cowboy was going to pay. Twenty one years ago the last solderslinger had rolled into the city, sniffed the petrol in the air, and settled down to raising kids. Now the young whippersnappers thought they could steal stock from right under his nose. Well, today they were going to see the old timer still had a few tricks left in his toolbox.

The solderslinger pulled up in his Transit outside the new ‘light industrial unit’. Things sure had changed since he started riding the range twenty one years ago.

Striding towards his enemy’s stronghold, he remembered his first van: £4141 in 1980. Then only this year he had gotten a brand new transit from Dan Dan the Van Man for £11926.

But in that time his stock, ah, his stock. The first time, alone and nervous, he had gone out to see a sick TV was in 1980. There were three TV channels and BBC 1 played the national anthem shortly after midnight and went to bed like decent folk. And the TV, a Sony KV2204, complete with Trinitron tube and plastic wood appearance fascia, that fine piece of livestock had cost £530. Now a Sony KV21X5 went for £260.

Then his stock was 12.8% the cost of his nag. Now it was 2.2%. If he wanted to keep his ranch he was going to have to take out the Cyber Cowboy.

The last solderslinger burst through the doors, solder gun in one hand, Avometer in the other.

‘Come on then, you varmints, eat solder!’

The Cyber Cowboy looked up, startled. On the bench before him, innards indecently displayed to the watching world, lay a Sony KV28-DX30 hissing in pain from the torture instruments plunged deep inside its gizzards.

‘What are you no good son of a bitch doing to that there TV?’ demanded the last solderslinger, waving his gun menacingly.

‘Er, repairing it?’ said the Cyber Cowboy, some little whippersnapper who looked like he’d never even gotten a decent electric shock when disconnecting the EHT lead.

‘Sure,’ said the last solderslinger. ‘How?

‘Well, I just hook it up to the PC and it runs a set of diagnostics and then I do what it tells me to do,’ said the Cyber Cowboy.

‘Pah,’ said the last solderslinger. ‘Call that repair? Bet that gear costs thousands. Give it here and I’ll sort it with my Avometer in an hour flat.’

‘What’s an Avometer?’ asked the Cyber Cowboy.

*

A little while later the solderslinger sat in his van. He had lost. They had taken away his solder gun and Avometer and given him an application form for a training course in basic IT skills for the over-fifties.

He opened his flask and drank, but the milk tasted sour. No longer the last solderslinger, just the millionth mousketeer.

He got out of the van, went to the back and scratched a couple of words in the dirt, then got in and drove away.

‘For sale.’

A soldering iron.

An Avometer.

Adventures in Bookland: First Light by Geoffrey Wellum

Friday, January 27th, 2017

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This won’t be so much a review as an injunction: read this book. That’s right, stop reading this review right now and go and get hold of First Light however you can: buy it, borrow it, steal it if necessary (any writer in his deepest heart wants readers more than anything else, so if you can’t afford to buy his work, he’ll forgive someone who steals to read).

Right, got it? What, you mean you haven’t bought it yet? Well, let me tell you why you should. Firstly, this book has moved, in a single reading, into my top five favourite books of all time. The achievement is all the greater in that the other occupiers of that list were books I read when I was much younger, unmarked, and could receive deeper and more lasting impressions from the books I read. But First Light has broken through the dull accretions, and the dullening, of age. So, if you would be young again, read First Light.

How has it managed to do this? Because it combines two things in a quite extraordinary manner. Firstly, it is the memoir of a boy growing into manhood while flying Spitfires during the Battle of Britain. As such, it is thrilling, humbling and intense in a way that very little else could be. (As an aside, the great Australian cricketer, Keith Miller, also flew fighter planes during the Second World War. When interviewed many years later by Michael Parkinson, Parkinson asked him about how the pressure of playing top-level cricket, to which Miller gave the immortal, and precise, answer: ‘Pressure is a Messerschmitt up your arse, playing cricket is not.’)

As a straight memoir, First Light would be a good book for the almost impressionist way it brings to life the stress and tension of being a front line fighter pilot during the Second World War. But there are many other memoirs of the air war. Where First Light becomes something quite exceptional is that, unlike most of the other memoirs, it was written many years after the events it describes, when Wellum, so young during the Battle of Britain that he was nicknamed ‘Boy’ by the other members of his squadron, had become an old man. What’s more, he was an old man whose marriage had broken down and who had withdrawn from his old life.

First Light is the record of an old man looking back on his life and asking the question of whether that life was worthwhile. It is the record of humanity staring into the great unknown that awaits and asking, ‘Did I live in vain?’ There is thus, behind the tale of the young man growing up, the almost unbearable poignancy of an old man assessing his years and weighing them in the scales. This is what makes First Light so exceptional: youth recalled in age, and the great question of whether, when Geoffrey Wellum meets his maker, he will have anything to place in the scales to weigh his life as having been well lived.

Although there is an aching sense that Wellum himself is unsure of the answer, to the reader there is no doubt: that we live to read what you have written is testament to your life and its worth.

Thank you, Mr Wellum, for your life and for your book.

Adventures in Bookland: The Norman Conquest by Marc Morris

Monday, January 16th, 2017

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Hands down, the best popular account of what it says in the title on the bookshelves today. What makes this so good is Morris’s brilliant balancing of a consideration of the sources with the narrative imperatives of telling the story of what actually happened. That he does this so masterfully is shown by the fact that, until it was over and I was thinking back over it for the purposes of writing a review, I didn’t even realise just how he’d pulled off the hardest trick of writing history: embedding a consideration of the sources in the narrative without stopping the narrative dead in its tracks. Well done, Marc Morris!

 

Adventures in Bookland: Recce by Koos Stadler

Sunday, January 1st, 2017

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A profound paradox lies at the heart of this book, a paradox not even hinted at in its subtitle (“Small team missions behind enemy lines”), although it is mentioned, without comment, in the book’s blurb. For while it is an intriguing and insightful examination of the specialised and deadly world of special forces’ operations, what is skated over is who these special forces were and what they were fighting against.

The special forces were part of the South African army and they were fighting the guerillas of SWAPO, the organisation struggling to free South West Africa (now Namibia) from the racist control of the apartheid regime in Pretoria. And the author of Recce, Koos Stadler, was one of the men fighting to preserve that regime.

For some, that in itself might disqualify the book from reading lists, but that would be to miss another of the paradoxes at the book’s heart: while the author is fighting to defend the indefensible, reading Recce brings the reader to the slow realisation that good men can be committed to fighting for what is wrong. For Stadler is undoubtedly a good man and a good soldier, serving his country, his people and his God as best he knows how. Nor is he, the servant of a racist regime, in any way racist himself: how could he be, when in the long border war he served alongside so many black African soldiers, creating the sorts of bonds of mutual trust and friendship that staring into the face of death together forge between men.

And this reveals the book’s final paradox: how many black Africans fought alongside the South African army against the guerillas of SWAPO. So the book’s final lesson is that, even in the struggle against apartheid, things are never just black and white.

Adventures in Bookland: The Path to War by Michael Neiberg

Sunday, January 1st, 2017

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At the dawn of the 20th century, the United States was a power hiding behind oceans. In the first decades of the 21st century, it is the world’s only hyperpower, able to project its military and cultural influence to every corner of the world. This fascinating book – at least, it’s fascinating for those with an interest in the political and sociological history of America – tells how America made the decisive turn towards engagement with the outside world.

It may be hard to realise now, but through most of its history, isolationism has been the strongest strand to America’s foreign policy. Its founders and first generations of immigrants crossed the sea to escape the wars and persecutions – political and religious – of the Old World. Having found a home in the New World, they had no wish to engage in the wars of their old homes. So when the First World War broke out, America remained neutral. Not only did this keep it out of the war, neutrality brought huge profits in its wake, as American goods and products found ready markets among all the combatants.

But such blood profits sat uneasily on American consciences, bought as they were in the immolation of a continent that many Americans still thought of as home. For none was this problem more acute than for German-Americans. Where did their loyalty lie? At first, they pushed for continued American neutrality. But as the war continued and incidents such as the sinking of the Lusitania increased anti-German feeling, such a position became increasingly untenable. War was coming. And German-Americans, in common with Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans and the other national groups, came to the one, common conclusion: they were Americans before they were anything else. Thus, the First World War killed off the 19th-century American experiment in multiculturalism (played out in a multitude of national-language newspapers and societies) and ushered in a new consciousness of what it was to be American.

Neiberg tells the story of this profound change through an encyclopaedic knowledge of the time, ranging from popular songs, through speeches and newspaper articles, to the letters of people ranging from Theodore Roosevelt to ordinary mothers contemplating the possibility of their sons being called up. It’s a great piece of scholarship – but only bother with reading it if you’re interested in the subject.

Adventures in Bookland: King Cnut by WB Bartlett

Saturday, December 31st, 2016

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Ask the man in the street how many times England has been successfully invaded and he’ll reply, “Twice: the Romans and the Normans.” Ask a historian, particularly one specialising in constitutional history, and he’ll add a third: William and Mary’s invasion in 1688.

They’re all wrong. There have been at least five successful invasions of England. These three, plus the slow-motion carving out of an England separate from Britain by the Anglo-Saxons and then, fifty years before the one date in English history everyone knows, the Vikings finally succeeded in what they’d been trying to do for the previous 150 years: grab the country.

This long-overdue book is about the Viking invasions that first crippled and then ended the reign of England’s worst-ever king, Æthelred, and the man who finally succeeded him, Cnut. In Denmark, his homeland, Cnut’s name is invariably followed by his appellation, ‘the Great’, but in England, where he spent most of his adult life and where he was buried, he is all but forgotten, his fame as a conqueror eclipsed by the man who followed him, fifty years later. Bartlett’s book seeks to redress that balance and it does a good job of demonstrating what a remarkable king Cnut was, holding together a sea-spanning empire encompassing Denmark, England, Norway and much of Sweden.

As a sea pirate with imperial pretensions, Cnut did all that he could to ensure the history makers of his time – the clerks of the Church – were on his side, as well as doing what he could in later life to atone for the judicious murders of his early life that had made his grasp of the crown more secure. The book is thorough in its exploration of the man and his time, although a little on the bloodless side. This is no fault of the author, but rather inherent in the limited contemporary sources – mainly chronicles and charters – which do not lend themselves to rounded character portraits. Later Norse sagas add colour but the careful historian, and Bartlett is careful, has to be cautious about adding these details to what is a sober assessment of England’s forgotten conqueror.

And the tide story? First related by Henry of Huntingdon in the 12th century (a century after Cnut’s death).

 

Adventures in Bookland: St Augustine’s First Footfall by Gerald Moody

Wednesday, December 28th, 2016

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This slim (87 page) book does exactly what it says in its subtitle: An Investigation into the Probable Location of the Landing Site of Augustine’s Mission in 597 AD. Of course, the really fascinating thing is why Augustine (the missionary sent by Pope Gregory the Great to bring the pagan and barbarian Angl0-Saxons into the fold of civilisation) should land right where, in centuries before and afterward, visitors and invaders ranging from the Emperor Claudius, through Hengist and Horsa, all manner of Vikings and, even would-be invaders such as Napoleon and Hitler, all made first footfall.

The answer lies in part in geography. Yes, Dover is closer to France, but it is exposed and has great towering cliffs standing over it: a particularly vulnerable place to make a landing. The great secret to landing where Augustine, and so many others, landed, is that the Isle of Thanet really was an island back then, a chalk hill cut off from the rest of Kent by the Wantsum Channel. In places, this channel was a mile wide, and up until the 15th century a ferry trip was still needed to get to Thanet. But the Wantsum silted up, joining Thanet to the mainland. However, while Thanet was an island, it provided a unique, and uniquely defensible, entry point to England.

In this book, Gerald Moody, deputy director of the Trust for Thanet Archaeology, employs the latest research into how Thanet’s coastline has changed to investigate just where Augustine and his team of Italian missionaries landed in 597 AD. According to our chronicler of the event, Bede, Augustine and crew were detained on Thanet while the king of Kent, Æthelberht, decided what to do with these strange visitors. Moody does an excellent job of examining the historical account through the lens of modern archaeology, and makes a convincing case for his siting of the landing and the location of Augustine’s stay on Thanet.

In short, an absorbing and detailed little book, well worth reading for anyone interested in the particulars (Augustine’s mission) or the general (England’s changing coastline).