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Monday 18 June 2012

Review: Bernard Wasserstein, On The Eve

Some years ago, I visited the Museé d'art et d'histoire du Judaisme in Paris for an exhibition of the photographs of Roman Vishniac under the title "Un Monde Disparu". I used a postcard from the exhibition as a bookmark while reading On The Eve.

Wasserstein does not mention Vishniac anywhere in his 552 pages and, though he uses some photographs as illustrations, he does not use one of Vishniac's. I don't know why, though I now read on Wikipedia that there is controversy over the way Vishniac put together and wrote up his work, for example, combining images from different sources as if they belonged to a single scene. But that doesn't seem enough to me to ignore the work totally.

Anyway, I found it all a bit disconcerting since Vishniac, working without the benefit of hindsight, saw the Jews of Europe through much the same lens as now does Wasserstein, "The demographic trajectory was grim and, with declining fertility, large scale emigration, increasing outmarriage, and widespread apostasy, foreshadowed extinction" (p 434).

Wasserstein's book is, at best, encyclopaedic and, at worst, miscellaneous: "In Hungary, where name-changing was particularly common, Joseph Löwinger, a banker, changed his name upon ennoblment, to Lukács de Szeged. His son, György, born in 1885, was therefore known as von Lukács. In 1919, when he served briefly as deputy commissar for education in the short-lived Communist régime of Béla Kun, he dropped the von. Writing mainly in German, it was as Georg Lukács that he became the best-known Marxist literary critic of the age" (p 197)

A lot of the prose is as plodding and inconsequential as this and, at many points, I just wanted to give up. One cannot read a very long book for snippets of information alone.

There is a sustained engagement with Yiddish, as language and as literature. Wasserstein transliterates and thus makes the language more accessible to an outsider, but at the price perhaps of making it seem more accessible than it really is. More importantly, I felt that here a general historian was trying to do work which needs the co-operation of some pretty heavyweight historical linguists or sociolinguists if one is to hope to understand the dynamics of a minority language whose spoken form is partly inter-intelligible with one surrounding and often dominant language (German) but whose written form is not, since it uses a different alphabet. (The same is true of Judeo-Espagnol, which Wasserstein also discusses).

Structurally, there were times when I would have welcomed some comparison with the situation of Europe's other minorities of the inter-war period, in particular, the Roma. I thought that would help one understand more clearly what is specific to the Jewish experience between the two world wars (essentially, the time frame of this book). And, perhaps for no very good reason, I would have liked just a little about the Kairates especially as the book includes extensive discussion of Jews in Lithuania and Crimea - both Kairate strongholds (well, as Kairate things go). They did, after all, practice a Jewish faith. It is only with hindsight that they become radically other because the Nazis classified them as racially not Jewish.

Wasserstein most of the time avoids the pitfalls of hindsight and most of the time he calls a spade a spade and a rascal a rogue. The Munkácser rebbe appears repeatedly through the book as a warning against religious fundamentalism of all kinds. (I hope I don't misread Wasserstein here). More generally, I found it impossible to read Wasserstein's descriptions of religiously-controlled Jewish primary schooling in inter-war eastern Europe without thinking about what I read in my newspapers today about Islamic primary schooling in,say, Pakistan.

Maybe this book just attempts too much - the apparatus runs to 116 pages - and therefore becomes encyclopaedic and not very readable. Maybe there is just not enough analytical or theoretical zest to focus the remarkable amount of information assembled here.

Sunday 10 June 2012

Review: Matthew Lynn, Greece, The €uro, and the Sovereign Debt Crisis

I nearly stopped reading this book on page 3. It felt like it was being addressed to American readers and therefore taking into account their woeful ignorance of history and current affairs (witness the repeated gaffes of Republican presidential hopefuls). And the prose was pretty wooden. But I knew it was a book which would challenge some of my assumptions and beliefs, so I kept going. It gets a lot better as it goes on and I finished the whole book.

Lynn writes from a generally monetarist and fiscal conservative position: they're bust, we're bust, we're all bust. Except for Germany, the real and only home of Prudence.

He reckons the €uro was doomed from the moment the EU agreed to bail out Greece, creating more debt as if it would solve the problem of old debt. If Greece had not abided by the terms of the Growth and Stability pact, simply continuing its profligate path, how would throwing money at it alter that? I felt at the time(2010) that Greece should have been allowed to go bust and this book does nothing to challenge that as a sensible view.

Indeed, a year on in 2011, everywhere I read (including The Economist) is talking about the good sense of an "orderly default". There is no possible future in which Greece will be able to pay its debts, so why not recognise that now instead of throwing good money at the riot police?

Interestingly, whereas most fiscal conservatives are unconcerned by a bit of deflation, Lynn's best arguments are designed to show that the €urozone has now trapped itself within deflationary policies. Because no individual country can devalue, every country in even a bit of trouble is pushed towards exaggerated austerity and that deflationary pressure works it way round the whole monetary area.

Quite persuasively, he argues the case for Greece's exit from the €urozone. It would allow Greece's currency to devalue, just as the UK has been able to devalue against the €uro. When the €uro was introduced, I decided to dual-price my stock. I still have stickers which say "£10 or 16€". Then I realised it wouldn't work, so I started pricing just in €uros - a decision which has worked in my favour. Today, £10 is under 13 €. If you want 16€ worth of stuff now, and want to pay in sterling, it will cost you £14.16. In other words, the pound has devalued 40% against the €uro in under a decade. No wonder Booze Cruises are a thing of the past.

But my mistake was to think of the €uro simply as a medium of exchange, in which case, one currency rather than 500 is a no-brainer. Lynn does show how the €uro was not thought through beyond this level, when in fact a common currency will only work if there are fairly standardised (and healthy) fiscal policies throughout the currency area. Greece should never have been admitted to the €urozone in the first place; it was a basket case and the €uro of itself could do nothing to change that. Except indirectly: it was the money markets which downgraded Greek public debt just because they could see that Greek governments did not give a toss about the terms of the Growth and Stability pact. Unable to devalue, Greece could not escape the judgment of the markets.

Something I did not know: in the build-up discussions on the common currency, the UK suggested a system of dual or parallel currencies: each country keeps its own money (and central bank) but alongside these there is a common currency. You take your pick (just as you do when offered dual priced goods). If the common currency works well, then its advantages as a medium of exchange will progressively reduce the role of national currencies. It will grow organically towards being the people's choice. This is an interesting idea and one which could be revived.

Orignally published on my Blog, The Best I Can Do

Review: Ben Macintyre, Operation Mincemeat

Ben Macintyre is another journalist who knows how to do research and how to write. The result is a fascinating book, both thorough and highly readable, which has provided my relaxation this Easter weekend. Thank you!

The story (The Man Who Never Was) has been well known for over fifty years: Churchill's spooks mounted a deception exercise involving a dead body carrying fake papers washed ashore in Spain. By this means they succeeded in significantly misleading Hitler (possibly with some unexpected help from an anti-Hitler German aristocrat high up in German intelligence). As a result, Hitler had his forces in the wrong places when the Allies invaded Sicily in 1943. Thousands of Allied military lives were probably saved for a very modest outlay in pounds, shillings and pence.

Because it's in the News, I have been thinking about social mobility and internships. Put the spooks and other players in Operation Mincemeat through the grinder of those issues.

In many respects, the desperate struggle of World War Two forced the UK to open careers to talents. At the same time, as this book indicates, networks of privilege and sponsorship continued to operate - sometimes with disastrous results (think of the Cambridge circle of Soviet spies).

But I cannot at the moment convince myself that one would have got a better result than the clubland aristocrats and upper-class / upper middle-class eccentrics achieved in their Whitehall intelligence basements had one insisted on open recruitment and no sponsorship. It seems to me that these people were often the glitzy showmen or the nerds and anoraks of their day who would never had the chance to show their real abilities had they been put through some politically-correct recruitment procedure. Horses for courses, and not all courses are alike.

I will try to find something to read on this subject, specifically in relation to World War Two. Any suggestions?

Originally published on my Blog, The Best I Can Do

Review: Oliver Bullough, Let Our Fame Be Great

When journalists are good they are very, very good. Oliver Bullough is terrific. His combination of historical research and contemporary reportage is an extraordinary introduction to the history and continuing conflicts of the North Caucasus - that barrier of mountains and Muslims which once lay between Russia proper and its imperial ambitions in Transcaucasia and is now a mess of unhappy partlets of the Russian Federation: Kabardino - Balkaria, North Ossetia, Ingushetia, Dagestan and Chechnya. Since the 2008 conflict with Georgia, add Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Russia comes out very badly from Bullough's stories.

Imperial Russia in the 1860s drove the Circassians of what is now Abkhazia into the sea - by the hundreds of thousand - and, if they were lucky, exile in Ottoman Turkey.

Stalin, encouraged by his fellow-psychopath Beria, deported whole Caucasian populations en masse in the 1940s in the kind of closed rail wagons which were as good at killing mountain herders as elsewhere city Jews.

Post-Soviet Russia bludgeoned the Chechens into a kind of submission in wars of appalling brutality - though Bullough acknowledges, on both sides.

I read this 500 page book with unflagging interest. It is beautifully crafted and puts to shame the kind of dull prose which academics still deploy. But I would want to enter one corrective of perspective, which does not exonerate Russia but places it as just another Imperialist power.

Uniquely, Russia - both Imperial and Soviet - built its Empire by expanding overland North, East, South and West. At no point did it have to cross an ocean. All the colonial brutality it perpetrated occurred on the Eurasian landmass. This is one reason perhaps why Bullough thinks particularly reprehensible Russians' ignorance of their own terrible history.

But I do not think Russia is unique in the horrors it inflicted or in ignorance of them.

The atrocities of a squalid Imperial bit player like Belgium occurred thousands of miles away in the Congo. It is probably still possible for Belgians to think that it is not part of "their" history.

France has a poor record in Africa up to the present day under Emperor Sarkozy. The civil war in Algeria is the one "we" know about. How different would it feel if Algeria had been attached to the south of France rather than separated from it by the Mediterranean? I think we might expect the French to be more apologetic than they are, which is in any case not very apologetic.

British subjects have until the past few weeks been shielded from much of the truth about the late colonial wars we waged in such countries as Kenya.

Probably the Germans have done most to acknowledge and deal with their own past.

What is notable about Vladimir Putin's attitudes, which figure significantly in Bullough's account of the Chechen Wars, is that he is determined that there shall be no accounting for the past or the present in his own backyard. What is perhaps most frustrating is that such an attitude is unnecessary to any sound project of ensuring Russia its rightful place in the world.

Originally published on my Blog, The Best I Can Do

Review: Fred Halliday, Political Journeys

Since his death, Fred Halliday (1946 - 2010) has figured in the newspapers as the retired Professor of International Relations who warned his old university, the London School of Economics, against entanglement with the Gadaffi regime.

I spotted his posthumous book, Political Journeys (Saqi 2011)on my last visit to the London Review of Books shop, bought it and read it - cover to cover as I normally do.

It's impressive. It's confident, decisive, principled and - though it derives from essays written at frequent intervals for online publication in openDemocracy - marshalls an extraordinary range and depth of reference. To single out just one from nearly fifty essays, there is a brisk but erudite demolition of (my) misconceptions about Sharia law, done and dusted in just four pages (pp 213 - 17).

The focus of the book is the Middle East where all through the historical and political analyses, the red thread of principle is oppositon to viciousness, whether by their side or your own.

But Halliday is also enlightening when he writes about other areas: there is a good essay on Georgia (pp 243 - 48) and a running theme of the weaknesses of small states or would-be states: not just Palestine but Northern Ireland, the Basque country and Tibet.

Halliday despairs of the stupidity and nastiness of the Bush regime, in power when most of these essays were written, but Tony Blair's journey is so far beneath his contempt as to be barely mentioned - his name occurs just three times in 277 pages.

Originally published on my Blog, The Best I Can Do

Review: Hubert Wolf - Pope and Devil

The future is like the past. And the past is like the future.

This is a fascinating book by an academic church historian, using the Vatican archives to show how it responded to the rise of Nazism and the reality of the Third Reich. It provides - perhaps unwittingly - insight into how the central bureaucracy of a totalitarian organisation functioned in the 1920s and 1930s and - no doubt - still functions today. There are obvious parallels between the way in which the Vatican has handled its recent sex abuse scandals and the way in which it handled its relations with Nazi Germany, in both cases always deciding in favour of institutional self-interest.

At first, I thought the author must be writing tongue in cheek, ironically, in taking us through the handling of matters about which priests in rather expensive black gowns get excited - female gymnastics in the case of the future Pope Pius XII. But by the end, I suspect not.

The Vatican as we know it was Mussolini's creation. He acceded to the Church's demand to remove itself from the jurisdiction of national civil and criminal law by granting it recognition as a state, able to send ambassadors all over the world, issue passports and postage stamps, but above all, able to claim immunity when threatened with action for the crimes of its leaders.

But its bogus claim to statehood is only one of the sources which nurtures the Vatican's irresponsibiliy. The other source is its unaccountability for the use to which it puts the funds furnished by the faithful. Hubert Wolf describes in detail what Vatican bureaucrats do with their time. So many bureaucrats, so much time on their hands. If God hadn't invented committees for them, they would have surely done so themselves.

It is in this area that I locate Wolf's lack of wider vision. As a church historian, he is above discussing the Vatican as an organisation where money, power and influence operate as in any organisation, only - because of its totalitarian character - more so.

Nor is it his job to moralise. I am free to do that. For me, the central question is this: Is the Vatican, as an organisation, a force for Good or Evil? (I am not a relativist and I am happy to use those terms).

I answer that it is a force for Evil, always ready to persecute, even excommunicate , those of its members who show too much humanity - as long as they have no worldly power. Always ready to accommodate to the powerful, to bow down to worldly power. Hitler was never excommunicated - a topic Wolf throws away lightly in his closing pages.

Nowadays, no one stands up to the Vatican. Only this year, all our politicians grovelled to Pope Benedict on a state visit got up by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

Standing up to the Vatican begins with withdrawing diplomatic recognition. No more Papal Nuncios scurrying around organising the bishops to fight the British version of Modernism. Wolf gives a detailed and fascinating account of what Nuncios - among whom the future Pius XII - got up to in the 1920s. I don't believe anything will have much changed. Read this book, and you won't want a Nuncio in your own back yard.

Postscript: "Nowadays, no one stands up to the Vatican". I forgot the recent action of the Belgain authorities who raided the Catholic bishops and archbishops, laptops and all, daring to treat them as subject to Belgian law. The indignation in the Vatican was intense: that our priests sexually abuse children is no business of the police!

Originally published on my Blog, The Best I Can Do, 8 November 2010

Saturday 9 June 2012

Review: Alex von Tunzelmann, Indian Summer

Alex von Tunzelmann's Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire (2007) is an extraordinarily well-written account of how between 1946 - 1948 Britain parted from 400 million out of the 500 million subjects of the British Empire and how the two new Dominions of India and Pakistan - independent states with a Commonwealth fig-leaf - came into being.

I read through its 370 pages with ease and absorption. That I read it in the week of the Queen and Prince Philip's visit to the Republic of Ireland added an unexpected twist.

On 27 August 1979, the IRA blew up a private fishing boat, Shadow V, at Mullaghmore, Sligo - in the Republic of Ireland. The explosion instantly killed three people in the boat: a local man, Paul Maxwell; a teenager, Nicholas Knatchbull, son of Patricia Mountbatten and her husband Lord Brabourne; and Nicholas's grandfather(Patricia's father), Earl Mountbatten of Burma. Lord Brabourne's mother died later of her injuries and Patricia Mountbatten spent weeks on a life support machine (von Tunzelmann, pages 365 - 366).

Earl Mountbatten of Burma ("Dickie") was Prince Philip's uncle and had always been close to him, as also to Prince Charles who treated him as an Honorary Grandfather. When Mountbatten was born in 1900 he was 49th in line to the Throne (von T., page 40)

This was the closest the IRA got to killing members of the Royal Family.

But in killing Mountbatten, they killed someone whose extraordinary life not only included war time service against Nazi Germany (much sympathised with in the old clerical-fascist Republic of Ireland) but who was also entrusted by the post-war Labour government of Clement Attlee with transferring Imperial power in India and Pakistan to local governments. Mountbatten - and his wife Edwina even more so - was an anti-colonialist.

He was also a remarkably brave man, and his wife, [the Countess] Edwina Mountbatten, at least equally so. Extraordinary bravery also distnguished the principal Indian figures with whom they engaged, Gandhi and Nehru.

These were people (Gandhi excepted) who thought that the way to deal with a riot was to commandeer a jeep, head for the riot, drive into it, stop the jeep and climb on its bonnet and tell people - thousands of them and often armed - to go home. Von Tunzelmann's book is full of stories of the Mountbattens and Nehru doing things which no modern politician or official(Mountbatten was Viceroy of India) would even be allowed to think about. If they did, they would be strong armed away by their security detail.

The only modern equivalent I can think of is that of Prime Minister Boris Yeltsin standing on a tank in Moscow rallyng opposition to the attempted coup against President Gorbachev.

Edwina Mountbatten is the heroine of von Tunzelmann's book. Anecdote upon anecdote piles up the case for secular sainthood. (And - Gandhi apart - these were secular people: Nehru was adamant throughout his life that the secular path was the only one which could protect India from inter-communal strife).

I have not really engaged with modern Indian history before, thinking it rather dull. But von Tunzlemann tells a riveting story.

Originally published on my Blog, The Best I can Do

Review: Clay Shirky, Cognitive Surplus: or the Big Society?

Subtitled "Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age", Clay Shirky's book selects and discusses in depth examples which show the capacity of the world wide web to improve the quality of private lives and to transform public and civic life.

At the individual level, powerful home computers plus amazing software plus the web has allowed people to break the divides between producers/consumers and professionals/amateurs. People have discovered ways of using their free time (what Shirky calls their "cognitive surplus") that are more participatory than sitting watching TV. You don't have to slump there watching sitcoms and soap operas; you can dramatise your own life on Facebook or YouTube or Blogger.

Shirky is positive about all this, though I note that the word "pornography" does not once occur in his book. But pornography and, in general, the search for sex, are absolutely central to private use of the web - and in ways which have probably transformed millions of people's lives. It's another book but it might be a less consistently feel-good one than Shirky's.

At another level, Shirky describes many uses of the web to connect people with shared concerns (such as illness) and to mobilise them for charitable giving, for civic action and for political protest. As events in the Middle East currently demonstrate, when everyone carries a camera - and now usually a video camera - in their mobile phone, when most young (and not so young) people know how to upload to the web - well, then there is no way that a regime can hide its brutality. You can keep the journalists away, but you can't keep the people away - they are the ones you are attacking.

In England, the only reason that PC Harwood will face a charge of manslaughter for the death of Ian Tomlinson is that a visitor to London pulled out his mobile phone and filmed the assault.

Repressive regimes and London's police may resort to desperate measures - banning phones, seizing them. But, like drugs, there are too many people using them for there to be any chance of success. Even in North Korea daily life has been filmed and the resulting pictures of appalling misery smuggled abroad.

Shirky does not foreground these most overtly political uses of connectivity. He focusses on examples of do-gooding which fit comfortably into David Cameron's vision of the Big Society - and which show how that idea is realisable.

The key point is that the barriers to entry into the public sphere, both financial and organisational, have been dramatically lowered by modern "connectivity". Not only that, when you are once connected, you are in principle connected to the whole world. Set up a website or a Yahoo! group or a Facebook page for people suffering some rare illness and immediately you can connect to anyone anywhere in the world who is connected to the web.

The "Professionals" point to loss of control over "Quality" and they will attempt to re-assert control. They will award Kitemarks of quality and at the same time put anything so Kitemarked behind a Paywall. I think - I hope - they will lose the battle. Other solutions to the problem of Quality will be found.

This Blog was supposed to be a spin-off from my main website, though there is no link either way.

When I stopped teaching in 2000, I thought about the published and unpublished work I had produced over the thirty five years in which I had been "connected" to the university system - I went to University in 1965 aged 18. I toyed with the idea of putting together an edited collection - my Selected Works - and then trying to find a publisher for it. It would have been a long and probably fruitless enterprise.

Instead, I had a professional-looking website created for me and, bit by bit, with profesional assistance, published and re-published work that I thought was of interest. All of it could be downloaded, printed off, for free.

As a result I have undoubtedly had more readers than I ever had in my paper-based university career. As of today, the Flagcounter installed a few years ago shows visitors from 127 countries - the latest, Iraq. Alexa currently ranks the site at 4 627 553, which makes me laugh, though since there are over 100 million top level domains in the world, it ranks the site inside the top 5%. From emails I get, the people who appreciate the site are students in countries and institutions where getting access to academic work they need is still not easy - either because their libraries don't have it or because it's behind paywalls. I am pleased to have made it easier for them.

I still buy the books I want to read. I live within two hundred meters of a public library in a fine building, but I never go into it nowadays. If I want to find out something, I go on the web. Thank you, Wikipedia.

Originally published on my Blog, The Best I can Do

Review: Alex von Tunzelmann, Red Heat : American Foreign Policy as it was and may always be

This second book by Alex von Tunzlemann, like her first (Indian Summer) is well written, fascinating, troubling and - this time round - chilling. It basically tells the story of how through the 1950s and 1960s, America screwed up over Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Haiti and in doing so ensured that life in the last two of those countries remained nasty, brutal and short. In Haiti's case, it has never recovered from the regime of Papa Doc Duvalier.

The US repeatedly sided with the worst actors in the Caribbean's tragedy - the murderous regimes of Batista, Trujillo and Duvalier; it made policy on the back of pathetically inadequate intelligence-gathering and analysis; and it never managed to get to the position where the left hand knew what the right was doing. It's scary.

Von Tunzlemann doesn't link past to present in more than a minimal fashion, but it's not hard to expand from her history into contemporary politics.

The obsession with the Communist Threat blinkered and distorted information gathering, analysis and policy. Worse, bad practices such as appointing ambassadors for political services (and donations) rendered rather than their diplomatic skills meant that some of them actively distorted reports to Washington as they cosied up to dictators and furthered their own personal interests.

Today, obsession with the Terrorist Threat - Al Qaeda and all the rest - has been marked with more or less identical failings, of which George W Bush's desperate need to believe Saddam Hussein in bed with Osama bin Laden is just one example. Bush's taste for appointing cronies to positions for which they had no qualificatins or talent condemned (among other things) the so-called Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq to dismal failure (chronicled in such works as Imperial Life in the Emerald City by Rajiv Chandrasekaran)

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, an out of control and morally blank CIA did enormous harm. Von Tunzlemann chronicles it working with organised crime syndicates, pouring money into subversive groups lacking any popular support, plotting criminal acts aimed against the USA itself (and potentialy involving civilian deaths) with the aim of blaming them on Castro, all the time unperturbed by the horrific tortures practised, often personally, by its favoured friends.

That legacy of the CIA is still with us. It led - for example only - to Colin Powell going to the General Assembly of the United Nations with a cock and bull slide show about Iraq's mobile WMD capacity - all of it made up for the occasion with the help of an unreliable "informant", the now notorious "Curveball".

Goodness knows what the CIA is up to today in Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and a host of other countries. Of only one thing we can be sure, it is unlikely to bring increased personal security or economic well-being to ordinary citizens of those blighted countries.

The world described in Red Heat is unremittingly masculine. Women have only bit parts. The men chomp on cigars, shoot from the hip, are insufferably vain when they are not paranoid and megalomaniac, demand that women service them (JFK), and so on and so forth. Maybe the only change fifty years on is that there is Hilary Clinton as Secretary of State.

One other - perhaps smaller - thing. The Kennedy brothers - JFK and Robert - come out of this book very badly even though von Tunzelmann does not aim at that. Neither appears to have been fit for high office, any more than Johnson or Nixon. Both appear to have been without guiding principles, political or moral. JFK took crucial decisions under the influence of mind-altering drugs. Robert was prepared to contemplate murder and mayhem in pursuit of impulsively-chosen goals. Both appear to have had some links to organised crime. Perhaps it is not so surprising that they were both assassinated.

Originally published on my Blog, The Best I can Do

Review: Sherard Cowper-Coles, Cables from Kabul

The disarming first 24 of 26 chapters offer us, quite unselfconsciously, "Ruritania comes to Kabul". The last two chapters, quite another genre, provide a lucid, decisive critique of Western policy in Afghanistan, as it has been since 2001 and as it is now.

Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles was Her Britannic Majesty's Ambassador to Afghanistan from 2007 to 2010, the sort of job you can only get if you have studied Classics [Greats] at Oxford ("my best subject had been Roman military history" p.4 ). When you get to your Embassy, you imagine yourself "the headmaster of a run-down but generally happy and successful prep school..." (p.16) and you organise charity balls ( pp.95 -96 ) and sponsored beard-growing (pp 133-34). Your staff like competitions and the winning entry to name the Embassy bar is "The Inn Fidel". You do the rounds (endlessly) of the Afghan government and the other embassies, exchanging modest gifts, and you find time for visitors such as "Hilary, Lady Weir, out to see what the Brooke Trust (which she chaired) should be doing to help the working animals of Afghanistan" (p. 170).

Back home, the Foreign Office's Estates department tells you there is a budget of over £100 million to build you a new Embassy "in the poorest country in Asia" (p. 101)

You just happen to have a Close Protection Team of eight men with eight sub machine guns (facing page 154) and just happen to spend the time left over from the social whirl accompanying VIPs to the front line: in 2007, 27% of UK helicopter movements in southern Afghanistan were for the transport of VIPs (p. 178).

VIPs went to Helmand to observe the troops clearing out the Taliban as the first stage in the "Clear, Hold and Build" strategy. The second two stages are hopefully coming soon but the first stage is problematic, the Taliban now being mostly those locals who don't want the Infidel in their country. (Hence, chapters 25 & 26 of the book)

Cowper-Coles is clearly an able, very hard-working and brave man. He does his dangerous job knowing that he may suffer from the same congenital heart weakness which has recently claimed the life of his brother.

He is a splendid diplomat: his book has a good word to say about almost every character it mentions and where he can find no good word, he is usually silent. A damning comment about Prime Minister Gordon Brown's short-term opportunism over Afghanistan (just like over everything else) is as bad as it gets (pp. 119 - 120).

I don't think it comes naturally to him to write the final two chapters of the book.

The problems begin at the beginning. After 9 / 11 (coming up for ten years ago), George W Bush was not going to give the Taliban regime very long to meet his demand to hand over Osama Bin-Laden and his men. Cowper-Coles suggests that given a bit more time, they may have done so, if only on the grounds that Bin Laden and Co were foreigners who had abused Afghan hospitality.

So Bush went in and where Bush went, Tony Blair inevitably followed. Overthrowing the cruel and stupid Taliban regime was hardly difficult or controversial - it is worth recalling that at the time only three countries in the world still gave the regime diplomatic recognition (Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates).

But as later in Iraq, the West now had the problem of finding a replacement government. Unfortunately, the most plausible leader, Ahmed Massoud, leader of the Northern Alliance, was assassinated by the Taliban just before 9/11. Karzai was a second-best, though with the advantage of coming from the majority Pashtun community and himself an observant Muslim, No Smoking, No Drinking, his wife kept in Purdah.

The new government was very reluctant to actually do anything. Cowper-Coles repeats several times that the problem with Karzai was that he spent too much time meeting and greeting and not enough time governing.

But you should set beside that the throw-away statistic that President Karzai has a Presidential Protective Service not of eight but eight hundred (p. 149 ). He can't really go anywhere or do very much without them.

That will remain the case until there is some kind of national reconciliation - what Labour's Douglas Alexander was suggesting when he formulated "Engage, Stabilise and Develop" as an alternative to "Clear, Hold and Build" (p. 173 -74). And "Engage" means "Talk to the Taliban" - something which the Bush regime would not really contemplate.

"Talking to the Taliban" is as shocking as the advice the Soviet Union gave to Dr Najibullah who they installed as Afghan leader when they quit in 1989, "forget Communism, abandon socialism, embrace Islam and work with the tribes" (p. 56)

In addition, there is the whole question of Afghanistan's relations with its neighbours. It has borders with (clockwise) Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, China, India and Pakistan. All have different interests but not necessarily nefarious, since they do not generally want refugees, violence or drugs: "the export of Afghan narcotics has done especial damage to Iran. Between 1979 and 2003, some 3,700 Iranian border guards and other officials are said to have lost their lives combating the traffickers" (pp 74-75).

That's about ten times the number of UK military casualties in our ten year engagement. (On this subject, Cowper-Coles allows the social reality to intrude: "A high proportion of the dead soldiers came from the poorer parts of the United Kingdom, and from broken homes ..." (p. 172))

But the neighbours have not been successfully engaged - the Bush regime wasn't in to that sort of thing and the legacy remains to be overcome.

These points and many others are developed, carefully and clearly, in the final two chapters of the book. Start there and then, if you can stomach it, read about Ruritania. I warn you that you will discover that at one point the British taxpayer flew Karzai to Britain in a chartered jet, basically so that he could go Scottish hill-walking with Prince Charles. They both like walking and they got on famously.

Sherard Cowper-Coles was previously our Man in Saudi Arabia and in Israel. Born in 1955, he has now prematurely left the Foreign Service. He is not a liberal or a radical; he has gone to work for BAE which sells military hardware to unpleasant regimes.

Originally published on my Blog, The Best I can Do

Review: Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, Delete

This is an academic book (Princeton University Press) but it is simply written and methodically organised. It belongs to the emerging genre of books which reflect on the implications of digital technology / media for our lives.

The author (I will abbreviate him to V.M-S) is principally concerned with the fact that we can now store truly enormous quantities of information very cheaply, that we can retrieve it almost effortlessly using extraordinarily powerful technologies, and that we can potentially share it or access it globally. There is really no incentive to forget, lose or shred information; unless we do something about it, it can and will sit there forever.

V. M-S thinks we should do something about it. Historically, human lives can go on and societies remain viable because we can and do forget: literally, we forget because our minds can't remember everything and, metaphorically, we forget because information held in traditional ways degrades: even our cherished manuscripts succumb to "the gnawing criticism of the mice" (Marx). At both individual and social levels, forgetting is closely connected to forgiving - and moving on.

Forgetting used to be our "default" setting, says V. M-S, but that is changing: our default is now to remember - and to put ourselves in a position where others can remember for us, often with no more effort than typing a few words into Google. In a number of ways, we risk being unable to move on from, escape from our past.

V. M-S argues that we can and should reverse the trend but without giving up on the benefits which the digital revolution has brought us. In his chapter Five, he reviews half a dozen strategies for taming the negative consequences of our new World Memory, our digital Panopticon, among them - most obviously - the strengthening of privacy laws.

But in chapter Six, he advances his own favoured solution, beautifully simple but potentially enormously powerful. He argues that digital information should have an Expiry Date, after which it is deleted or - less drastically - shifted into long-term storage so that (for example) it no longer comes up on routine Google searches.

In some cases, individuals should specify an expiry date: for example, imagine having to tag the emails you have sent with a date at which they are automatically deleted.

In other cases, the Expiry date could be contractually agreed - when, for example, I agree to a seller's proposal that my personal data be held for not longer than six months after our business transaction.

Finally, the state might legislate in important cases.

Creating software to manage this would be easy and, in fact, has been done.

This simple strategy is intuitively appealing: one of people's worries about the Internet has been precisely that everything is there for ever and that there is little or nothing they can do about it. It also has in-built flexibility - different expiry dates can apply to different categories of information. And if I am convinced that my manuscripts should not be shredded, I could tag them to be kept alive "forever".

I would have welcomed more examples than V. M-S gives in what is a rather sparely written book. And I think that there is a much more overtly political story to be written than the one he has given us. Since he is now Oxford's Professor of Internet Governance and Regulation, that may be on some future agenda.

Originally published on my Blog, The Best I can Do

Review: Terry Eagleton, Why Marx Was Right

If my Blog was called "Why Marx was Right" it would have many more visitors. And many more comments, since there is a large world-wide community of postgraduates who want to engage in exegetical dispute. As People of the Book, we could fight like fraternal ferrets in a sack. It could be great fun, if you are into that sort of fun.

How much fun was indicated by my previous post: Google returns over a million results for the phrase "Why Marx Was Right" and only a measly sixteen thousand for "Why Jesus Was Right".

Terry Eagleton is onto a winner.

The book itself is all right and good in parts, especially once you get past the first three chapters and into the philosophical anthropology which takes its inspiration from Marx's 1844 Manuscripts. It is the work of someone who has been a stout trouper for a humanist and fairly ecumenical Marxism over fifty years.

This fact does make the opening sentence look like rhetorical false naivety:

"This book had its origin in a single striking thought: What if all the most familiar objections to Marx's work are mistaken? Or at least, if not totally wrongheaded, mostly so?" (p. ix)

That made me imagine the Pope starting a sermon, "I woke up this morning with a single striking thought: What if all the most familiar objections to Roman Catholicism are mistaken? Or at least ..."

I find it difficult to engage with People of the Book. It's an odd kind of intellectual life to poke around in the textual remains of a dead man, pulling out bits which you can flourish with a "See, he was right!"

In the case of Marx, there is an awful lot of text and it would be remarkable if you could find nothing to flourish. As a literary theorist, Eagleton knows that, just as he knows that the secret of a good interpretation is to keep it pretty general: "The End of the World is Nigh" not "The World will end on 20 January 2012".

I can understand the attraction of a Book which has an Answer to all Questions, especially when it allows you to skip class. That attracted me when I was eighteen. Then I realised that if you want to know anything you just have to study history, economics and all the rest and that it's never-ending. Of course, it's not theory-free but the object of science is not to preserve the theory ( to "save the appearances") but to advance understanding.

Terry Eagleton is a very, very well-read man but there are occasionally points where it's clear he has skipped a class - thus at page 180: "Surprisingly little blood was spilt in the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. In fact, the actual takeover of key points in Moscow was accomplished without a shot being fired".

Er, Petrograd?*


* The Bolsheviks seized power in the capital, Petrograd, on the night of 24 - 25 October (Old Style) 1917. This was bloodless. The subsequent seizure of power in Moscow was not bloodless. Moscow became the capital of Russia in 1918.

Originally published on my Blog, The Best I can Do

Review: Federico Varese, Mafias on the Move

This is a very academic study (Princeton University Press 2011) of a very non-academic subject and the overall effect is a bit like Brechtian estrangement (Verfremdung): instead of portraits of godfathers who are, at the same time, chilling and charismatic, Varese offers correlations and statistical significance.

He works with a narrow definition of mafias as criminal organisations which offer protection (often willingly sought) backed up with the threat of violence. This makes mafias alternatives to the state - the organisation which in a given territory is able to claim a legitimate monopoly over the use of force to secure, when needed, life and property.

This contrast between private and public enforcement makes less surprising Varese's conclusion that mafias emerge and achieve success where there is a deficit of state power - where state organs are unable to protect markets and enforce debts and private groups step in to do so.

State organs may themselves operate like mafias providing "protection umbrellas" in return for bribes and retainers. This is what happens in contemporary China and once happened in "Tammany Hall" New York, making it hard for private mafias to break into the market.

On Varese's definition, the involvement of mafias in illegal rackets - alcohol, drugs, gambling, prostitution - is secondary to their main activity.

All mafia activities, if even half-way successful, generate large amounts of money and the most serious internal mafia disputes, often fatal for participants, seem to arise from free-lancing with community funds or even outright embezzlement. Varese documents this in his studies of Russian mafias.

As the title of his book indicates, his specific focus is on mafia mobility. He concludes that mafias are very much linked to a territory (just like ordinary state authorities) where they know everyone who matters, who can be trusted and who can't. They do not migrate voluntarily, only to escape state authorities or rival mobs. And when they do migrate, they are not always successful in establishing themselves in a new territory. The sub-title of the book is a bit misleading: "How Organised Crime Conquers New Territories". Varese's conclusion is that quite often, they don't - which is less sensational than the sub-title implies.

If you can bear the prose, Varese's book is interesting and his field research demonstrates personal courage.

But Varese does rather confirm a feeling I have that, nowadays, much of the best research we have is done not by academics but by serious investigative journalists. In my own recent reading, I would single out Barbara Demick's, Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea (Granta 2010) as a book which provides a mass of data in the context of a narrative at once sophisticated and compelling. It ought to be possible to write many books about the world's many mafias which achive that combination.

Originally published on my Blog, The Best I can Do

Review: Frank Furedi, On Tolerance

Frank Furedi is a Professor of Sociology but this is a work of social criticsm rather than sociological analysis.

Furedi thinks that "tolerance" has been redefined in (fairly recent)social practice to mean uncritical acceptance of diversity rather than recognition of the right to speak freely about things that matter (and even things that don't).

The intolerant person is now the person who does not accept (let alone welcome) diversity, who criticises other people's beliefs and lifestyles. Such people must, at the very least, be stigmatised and ostracised; in some cases, they should be prosecuted and silenced. Tolerance of diversity should be upheld by means of intolerance towards critics.

As part of the shift, the old John Stuart Mill-inspired notions - that the state should only act to prevent physical or material harms to others and that the (psychological) harm of being offended does not count - have been reworked so that the harm of offence is elevated to the same rank as other harms.

Furedi regards this shift and reworking as inherently paternalistic: individuals and groups are seen as psychologically vulnerable and in need of protection from both the careless and the careful words of others. They are not thought to be strong enough to have the thought that sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.

"Free Speech" once meant that you could not only criticise but do it with gusto: Marx once wrote that you treat the ridiculous seriously when you treat it as ridiculous - and proceeded to do so. Woe betide anyone nowadays who thinks that such freedom remains.

Furedi does not work up his examples very satisfactorily and this may be because he too is inhibited by his academic milieu from saying what he thinks. Universities are now places where the route to success is the path defined by whatever currently counts as inclusive, responsible and politically correct. No one is interested in unpleasant truths, especially if they are truths.

Furedi misses a major element of classical liberalism, that its theory of liberty was the twin of a theory of authority. John Stuart Mill probably wrote more about authority and spent more time thinking about it than he did about liberty. His theory of liberty emerges in the context of developing an account of the kinds of authority (centrally, political authority) to which we should freely and rationally consent. The starting point for this account is an understanding of how authority in science is established. (See my essay, "Liberty, Authority and the Negative Dialectics of J.S.Mill" on my website).

Taking a look at this 19th century preoccupation with scientific authority would allow Furedi to improve on his briefly-expressed scepticism about peer review (pp.188-90).

This is a readable polemic which will be disliked by the Sunday School tendency among ecologists, feminists, postmodernists and those ridiculous people who call themselves relativists only to become very agitated by anyone who disagrees.

Originally published on my Blog, The Best I can Do

Review: Abdul Salaam Zaeff, My Life with The Taliban

Recently I reviewed here the Memoirs of the UKs former Ambassador in Kabul, Sherard Cowper-Coles (Cables from Kabul) who came to the conclusion that the only way forward (read: out of the mess)in Afghanistan would involve engaging in a political dialogue with the Taliban, whose Islamic Emirate government the Americans overthrew in the aftermath of 9 / 11.

This position is based on Cowper-Coles' "close to conclusive" belief that the Taliban and Al Qaeda were and are quite different orgnisations, with different aspirations and goals. The Taliban want Afghanistan for the (Islamic) Afghans. Al Qaeda wanted global jihad and simply used Afghanistan as a base for its global adventures.

Abdul Salam Zaeff was a senior member of the 'old' Taliban who was the Islamic Emirate's Ambasador to Pakistan at 9 / 11. He became the international face of the Taliban as it resisted demands to hand over Osama bin Laden to the USA.

Now he is living back in Kabul after several years as a prisoner of the Americans in Bagram, Kandahar and Guantanamo - a protracted experience which he recounts in harrowing detail. The detail suggests to me that he is telling the truth and more than fully explains his current desire to be left alone in Kabul and not drawn into the "dialogue" now being proposed. The US would like to see him as "Moderate Taliban", a label he resists strenuously: "The thought of dividing them into moderates and hardliners is a useless and reckless aim" (p 153)

He comes across as a man who has experienced too much: born in 1968, orphaned as a young boy, exiled in Pakistani refugee camps, a fifteen-year old jihadi against the Russian Occupation, a founder member of the Taliban opposition to the war lords and mobsters who moved into the vacuum left by the retreating Russians, a minister in the Taliban government, a much-abused prisoner of the Americans.

I have a sense of someone brave and defiant but also as someone struggling with depression, seeking support in religion and wanting nothing more than to pursue his Islamic studies. He comes across as both humane and flawed. He gives very little ground.

For example, on the destruction of the Buddhist statues at Bamyan, he observes "While I agreed that the destruction was within the boundaries of shari'a law, I considered the issue of the statues to be more than just a religious matter, and that the destruction was unnecessary and a case of bad timing" (p. 128). That is the sum total effect on him of entreaties [he was Ambassador in Pakistan at the time]from China, Iran and Japan.

Again, when he has to deal with US demands for the extradition of Osama bin Laden, he takes the diplomatic high-ground - we don't have an extradition treaty with you, if he is guilty of any offence then we will try him if you give us the evidence or even allow an Islamic tribunal in another country to do so, and so on - when probably he could have said, we don't know where he is and we cannot control him.

At the same time, Zaeff cries when he is summoned by a neighbour to watch on TV the destruction of the Twin Towers since he immediately realises that it is a disaster for Afghanistan (pp 141 - 143). That did not lead him to conclude that maybe Afghan hospitality extended to bin Laden was at an end.

There are surprising themes in this book, notably his hatred of the Pakistani authorities who he sees as tools of the Americans, and nasty ones at that. He also sees the British presence as motivated by a desire to revenge ninety year old defeats - not so laughable when you realise that we back it up by seeing Afghanistan as a suitable theatre of war for our spare princes.

There are also big ommisions - next to nothing about drugs, no attempt to defend the Taliban's exclusion of women from education and public life, or its taste for public executions (though the USA has never made Saudi Arabia justify those). Nor does he confront the fact that some Afghans may want a different future to the one he imagines for them, though it is true the Taliban did try to come to some agreement with the Northern Alliance before assasinating its leader (Massoud).

Zaeff often comes across as a likeable man, but at other moments I am not sure if I am dealing with religous conviction or just with priggishness and narrow-mindedness - the same kind of feeling I might well have reading Catholic theologians. There is a general problem with those who come at the world from a theologically-schooled world-view, that they cannot always see the wood for the trees. They don't prioritise. Zaeff's remarks on the Bamyan statues is as close as he gets to doing so.

This is a very readable book, once you realise that you do not have to remember the names of the Tolstoyanly long list of characters. A great deal of credit is undoubtedly due to Zaeff's editors, Alix Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn.

Originally published on my Blog, The Best I can Do

Review: Liaquat Ahamed, Lords of Finance

In the UK, the department of Business, Innovation and Skills (Proprietor: Vince Cable) issues a list of dates on which it advises employers to lock out their workers. These are what are commonly known as Bank Holidays and are designed nowadays to boost imports (people go abroad) and kill off any "green shoots" of growth in GDP.

It felt appropriate to read Liaquat Ahamed's splendid book over the long August Bank Holiday weekend. It's another of those books by someone who isn't an academic which makes one wonder why we bother with academics. It's true that he has degrees from Harvard and Cambridge; but he has written this beautifully crafted and researched 500 page book in his spare time away from being a "professional investment manager".

Though the cover blurb makes you think it is going to be about the Great Crash and the Great Depression, it is actually a much bigger study of central banking between 1914 and the mid-1930s focussing on the relations between four key players - Benjmain Strong at the New York Fed, Montagu Norman at the Bank of England, Hjalmar Scacht at the Reichsbank and Emile Moreau at La Banque de France. These institutions were still, for all or much of this period, privately owned and foolishly organised but responsibility devolved upon them to maintain financial stability at both domestic and international levels - the four main characters spend much of their time travelling, by train and boat, to meet each other.

They deal with bank reserves, international loans, interest rate setting, money supply, price inflation (or deflation), employment levels, war debts, war reparations and exchange rates. For much of the time, they are committed to mantaining the Gold Standard. Some of them do and some of them don't know what they are doing and the same is true of the politicians with whom they are uneasily involved. Britain's Labour Party comes out of the story as clueless and deferential to every orthodoxy around.

Some of the most interesting cameos in the book concern the moments when the politicians and the bankers collide: for example, Winston Churchill fatefully returning the UK to the Gold Standard in 1925 - a decision he later acknowledged as the worst in his life. Or, more importantly, Franklin Roosevelt tearing up the rule book, taking America off gold, encouraging price inflation, and thus in a very short period, turning around the US economy. This narative comes at the tail end of Ahamed's book and feels less than generous towards Roosevelt's huge achievement. In contrast, Keynes gets full credit for the perspicacity of the running critique he offers for the entire period and mostly from the sidelines.

Many other episodes have - and are designed to have - a contemporary resonance, right down to the rogue trader who busts an investment bank. And when in 1928 a British treasury official snootily remarks that "The French have always had a sure instinct for investing in bankrupt countries" it is impossible not to think of BNP Paribas' current exposure to Greek debt.

The really sobering thing about this very readable book is that though it gestures to the post-war achievements of the IMF, the World Bank and Keynesian economics in avoiding anything like the turmoils of the 1920s and 1930s it still leaves me with the thought that plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. It also leaves a clear message that big players never pay their debts.

Originally published on my Blog, The Best I can Do

Review: Matthew Sweet, The West End Front

London is the whole world in one city - if it chose to become a country, it would be a rich and powerful one. Within its boundaries, a thousand and one narratives of great political, economic, cultural and social significance are constantly played out.

Matthew Sweet's The West End Front (Faber and Faber 2011) picks up some World War Two narratives the threads of which pass through London's grand hotels - the Savoy, The Ritz, the Dorchester, Claridge's. Each thread provides a chapter heading: Sweet has ten stories about - among others - spies, homosexuals, agitators, con men and women, abortionists and exiles.

It is thoroughly researched, carefully crafted and often moving. Sweet is not an academic, which appears to me increasingly a condition of writing a good book - I kept comparing Sweet favourably with an academic work in the same genre but without a heart: Frank Mort's deadly Capital Affairs which I tried to read a while back.

There is a moving chapter which details the death of just one young woman, Mary Pickwoad, following a botched abortion in a London hotel, the Mount Royal. Sweet has gone after every document which might still exist and every person still alive who might have something to tell about the story. It is a beautiful Memorial.

More shocking and often surprising are the details which show England's class system functioning at all levels, in government, in the military, the police and among the spooks who were denizens of all the big hotels. In the early stages of the war, at least, Hitler was not unambiguously everyone's enemy; Jews and Communists were more menacing enemies for some of Sweet's upper-class and institutionally powerful characters. In my previous Blog, I noted the extraordinary way in which at the beginning of the War, whilst the big hotels had deep bomb-proof shelters, the London Underground was initially closed as a place of refuge from the Blitz. How many of us knew that before, I wonder?

If you like reading about World War Two or about London, this is a very good book to go after

Originally published on my Blog, The Best I can Do

Review: Stephen Gundle, Death and the Dolce Vita

If you wondered how Berlusconi survived for so long, this well-written book will provide many clues.

Stephen Gundle is Professor of Film and Television Studies at the University of Warwick. In the 1950s, Rome was a major film production centre for both Italian and American films. Producers like Fellini, Rossellini and da Sica had international reputations. Italian actors and American actors who worked in Rome were front page material for movie magazines and popular newspapers. Think of Gina Lollobrigida, Sophia Loren, Marcello Mastroiani just for the Italian side.

But rather than write a straightforward history of Italian cinema in the 1950s, Gundle has come at the story from another angle. He structures his book around the never-explained death of a young woman, Wilma Montesi, in April 1953 and provides a crime-detective narrative which, as it unfolds, provides a social history of post-war Rome.

Wilma Montesi was a lower middle-class girl from Rome whose family home was just a short walk from the bright lights of the city. Looking for a life less dull than that favoured by her family and her wooden fiancé, she got mixed up with the wrong crowd and within months died in mysterious circumstances.

The wrong crowd included a career criminal, Ugo Montagna, a man who did not file tax-returns and who had navigated his way to a success which grew through successive regimes - Fascist, American Occupation, Christian Democracy - and the wayward son, Piero Piccioni, of a top Christian Democrat politician. They had a taste for drugs and for sex. Wilma Montesi probably worked as a local drugs courier within Rome and she may have been groomed for sex. One night, something went wrong and she ended up dead on a beach near Rome.

Together Montagna and Piccioni could call in favours and call on connections. Montagna was buddy with the national commissioner for police and the elderly police commissioner for Rome was not going to argue with his boss. The investigation into Wilma Montesi's death was very rapidly closed after a perfunctory autopsy. It was an accident, a verdict her family were happy to embrace since it left their daughter's public reputation - and their own - intact.

The case was only re-opened because Italy's newly-free press would not let go of it. It had all ingredients of a circulation-boosting story: the mysterious death of a pretty young woman, the debauched lives of the rich and powerful (or sons of the powerful) and - not least - cover-up and corruption in high places continuing as if democracy had not yet come to Italy. Silvano Muto, on the journalistic right, led the way and the left followed.

The Vatican also had its own interests. Anything that served to weaken the strength of the Communists in post-war Italy was Good, anything which weakened the strength of the Christian Democrats was Bad. Here the Vatican and the USA, still heavily involved in Italian affairs, shared identical positions.

Gundle develops all this in a carefully-crafted, readable book. He avoids heavy-handed theoretical analysis, but there is an underlying structure: the opposition of high and low life and their proximity to each other in capital cities; the role of mass circulation magazines and newspapers in both sustaining a public sphere of debate but also in structuring the aspirations of young women; the hostility of the Vatican to anything which threatened sexual repression or the subordination of women; the spill-over of film culture into everyday life and the reverse.

If you want to understand the context out of which came Fellini's La Dolce Vita , then read this book. If you want to understand the long-term context in which a regime as corrupt and bacchanalian as Berlusconi's was possible, then this book also provides a remarkable amount of insight.

Originally published on my Blog, The Best I can Do

Review: Anthony Summers & Robbyn Swan, The Eleventh Day

After reading this book, you may well wonder why President Bush was never impeached.

Under President Clinton, Al Qaeda was regarded as the Number One threat to US security, at home and abroad, and efforts were made to neutralise it. Clinton even travelled to Pakistan (regarded as off limits for his personal safety) in order to try to get Pakistan's co-operation.

In 2000, everything changed. The incoming Bush administration was briefed about the Al Qaeda threat. They did not want to know, in some cases ostentatiously so. Both the general analysis and specific warnings were ignored - by Bush, by Rice, by Rumsfeld, by Ashcroft. The Republican administration was interested in other things - tax cuts, the projected Europe-based Missile Shield, in the background, Iraq. In many ways, it wasn't interested in very much at all - Bush went on holiday for all of August 2001.

Though the CIA briefed at top level, lower down it functioned poorly. So did the FBI. So did the Federal Aviation Authority, responsible for keeping the skies safe. And the turf war between them meant that crucial information was never exchanged. Even with poor exchange of information, quite a few people (including people in foreign intelligence services) had good reason to suspect an imminent terrorist attack from within the United States - and some of them could even give you the date, within a day or two, 9/11 - and the method, planes. But they were ignored.

To all intents and purposes, America's leaders and America's security organisations allowed 9/11 to happen.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack on the Twin Towers, Bush showed no qualities of leadership. The authors of this book carefully build up the case for saying that it was Cheney, not Bush, who was responsible for the Shoot Down order in respect of planes continuing to fly despite the FAA order grounding all aircraft. Rumsfeld is documented behaving idiotically. But Cheney had no authority to issue the order; Bush and Rumsfeld did.

Very quickly - within hours even - the Bush administration sought to turn 9 / 11 to the advantage of one of their pet projects, the toppling of Saddam Hussein. Richard Clarke (Bush's counter-terrorism co-ordinator) has documented this in his book Against All Enemies (2004).

At the same time, Buash & Co did not want to know about Saudi involvement in financing and supporting not only Al Qaeda in general but the 19 hijackers of 9/11 in particular. Summers and Swan go into detail to demonstrate this involvement, up to and including members of the Saudi Royal Family and government administration. The "Don't Want to Know" approach of the Bush administration began within hours of the attacks: Saudi royals and members of the Bin Laden family were allowed to leave the USA on special flights, with little or no questioning.

Much of the evidence for Saudi involvement has been redacted from material the US government has published, including the 9 / 11 Commission report. Fifteen of the nineteen hijackers on 9 /11 were Saudi; half of the American public - of whom the world should be more terrified than it is - ended up believing that some or most of the hijackers were Iraqi. None were.

Bob Graham, joint Chair of the Congressional Inquiry into 9 / 11, concluded "It was as if the President's loyalty lay more with Saudi Arabia than with America's safety" - and as a result, Graham concluded he should have been impeached (page 420)

Summers and Swan are caustically dismissive of the conspiracy theories around 9 / 11: the Bush administration did not set the hijackers to work, it did not bring down the Twin Towers by controlled demolition, a plane did hit the Pentagon ... But the tale they have to tell is at least as scary as any of those conspiracy theories.

And this year, America may once again be stupid enough to elect another dumb Republican President.

Originally published on my Blog, The Best I can Do

Review: Frank Ledwidge, Losing Small Wars. British Military Failure in Iraq and Afghanistan

Read this book and you will likely want immediately to confine British forces to barracks and base. It's not safe to let them go anywhere or do anything.

Lieutenant Commander Ledwidge spent fifteen years as a Naval Reserve military intelligence officer and served in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. He is now retired. He begins rather uncertainly, as if unsure that he should be writing this kind of book at all, but as he gets into his stride, he delivers page after page of understated, but to an outsider like me, seemingly withering critique.

His book is not about the politicians who, out of weakness or ignorance or vainglory, despatched British forces to Iraq and Afghanistan. He is concerned with how the armed forces - and principally the army - handled the missions they were assigned or, in default of proper political direction, invented for themselves.

At the very top, Ledwidge rebukes the top brass for having failed to "speak truth to power": "generals, ill-trained and inadequately educated in the basic elements of strategy, failed in their role as speakers of truth to power" (p 262). In thrall to bluff and hearty notions - Can Do, Cracking On - they failed to demand a clear mission brief, failed to say that - as they understood the brief - it could not be delivered with the resources available, failed to raises issues about what might be legitimate in the circumstances, and so on.

In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the invading and occupying British forces actually did very little - except kill and antagonise local civilians.

In southern Iraq (Basra), they were initially welcomed but squandered goodwill by aligning themselves with militias and gangsters posing as the local administration. They simply lacked the on-the-ground intelligence to realise that this is what they were doing. In the end, they ended up largely confined to base. When they did venture out, in very small numbers, local civilians were quite often terrorised and occasionally tortured and killed.

Ledwidge makes some scathing remarks around this subject. We are frequently told that problems arise when we don't understand the local culture. Nonsense, says Ledwidge, culture is the same in Basra as in Basingstoke: in neither place do people want their doors kicked in at night by heavily armed soldiers speaking a foreign language and uncertain about their reasons for being in your living room.

In Afghanistan, it was insane for the top brass to agree to deployment in Helmand - a province where the British have been hated ever since they were last there.

It was insane to suppose that you could separate the "people" from the "insurgents" (Taliban) when you actually had less to offer the people by way of provision of security and available justice than did the insurgents and when your orders were to ally yourselves with prime sources of local unhappiness - a criminal police and judiciary.

As in Basra, the Brits ended up confined to base with occasional adventures into the occupied territory. Tragically, in Afghanistan, such adventures were often enough backed up with heavy weaponry and missile attacks. Many civilians dead, many more "hearts and minds" lost. What makes us think that it is even legitimate to be firing these missiles, as if Helmand is some kind of battlefield in which we face an enemy threatening our very existence?

Ledwidge goes after these failures with chilling anecdotes, sharp thumbnail analyses, detailed critique of the Army's military culture, and occasionally open exasperation. He rejects the notion that it was all the American's fault, or NATO's fault. These were British mistakes.This is how he sums up:

"The defeats - let us not mince words - in the civil wars - the "counter-insurgencies" - in Helmand and Basra need not have been so comprehensive; indeed, they need not have happened at all... in Basra, the British started with a "winning hand" and played it poorly. In Helmand, they managed to ignore several factors to which any Afghan could (and would) have drawn their attention (and to which several soldeirs did) - this was the single worst possible province into which the British could crash" (p 259)

Lt Cdr Ledwidge is too polite to add, the politicians and the top brass even thought that Helmand would be a good place to deploy one of our spare princelings, Prince Harry.

There is one topic which Ledwidge does not address but which complicates the picture. The wars he discusses have been fought for domestic political consumption. That is why there are so many VIPs on the ground (see Cowper-Coles' Cables from Kabul for examples). That is why there have to be Photo Ops involving bullets and missiles, when really - as Ledwidge several times observes in a discussion of "courageous restraint" - the real military challenge is to manage things so that you don't fire many bullets - and certainly don't fire any missiles.

I can't see the PR man installed as Prime Minister in Downing Street reading this book - which is one reason why I say: Read This Book!

Review: Anthony Summers, Official and Confidential: the Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover

We need to talk about America.

Reading this very carefully researched book, I began to understand how 9 / 11 conspiracy theories could hold such appeal.As well as delivering the dirt on Hoover, who spent a lifetime delivering the dirt on anyone who aroused his dislike, it chronicles conspiracy after conspiracy, cover up upon cover up, negligence and downright corruption extraordinary at the highest levels of American executive and political life. Very few people emerge with much credit left (President Harry Truman appears an exception and, in some respects, Robert Kennedy). To a greater or lesser degree, all the others are crooks.

As a teenager, I was much affected by the death of President Kennedy: I can still remember hearing the news on the old valve wireless in our living room (there wasn't a television) and I recall it as the last time in my life that I prayed in any conventional sense.

There was a conspiracy to assassinate John Kennedy, almost certainly involving senior Mafia figures feeling betrayed by Kennedy and his brother,who as Attorney General had made the FBI tackle the problem of organised crime. The Mafia (with whom the Kennedys' father had a long association) had given campaign money and other help to the younger Kennedys and they did not like being kicked in the teeth.

Almost certainly, FBI reports brought in enough prior intelligence to indicate that something was about to happen to Kennedy. The Secret Service should have been alerted - the FBI was tasked with doing just that. But Hoover as Director of the FBI sat on the information. In effect, he let the assassination happen - rather as the FBI in a later incarnation let 9 / 11 happen.

After the event, the FBI ( = Hoover) sought to close the file as rapidly as possible: Lee Harvey Oswald did it and he did it alone. They had ample evidence to lead to the conclusion that this wasn't the case, but Hoover was compromised by his own links (extensive) to the Mafia and he had no inclination to dig dirt on his cronies.

When President Johnson set up the Warren Commission to produce a definitive account of the assassination, the FBI obstructed and misled it. The Commission's report was a British-style whitewash.

When Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated, the FBI ( = Hoover) did not want to know. Hoover had only been interested in their marital infidelities, on which he kept bulging files.

Summers focusses on Hoover's vulnerability as a gay-hating closet homosexual who converted the FBI into a witch-hunting and blackmailing right wing organisation with files on everybody of importance. Congress could never touch him - he died in office, back in 1972, at the age of 77 - because he had files on all of them and knew how to use them when it suited him.

What Summers does not try to do is place this corrupt work in the context of the other activities of the FBI. He occasionally indicates the proportion of FBI time devoted to witch-hunting rather than criminal hunting, but I end up with no real sense of how the FBI functioned day to day and whether there was a routine and effective side to its work alongside the corrupt practices directed by Hoover.

Reading this book, I smiled at the thought that the America Summers describes, starting back in the 1920s, is the America with which British politicians insist on having a "Special Relationship". Maybe they would like to be as corrupt as the Big Boys in America.

Previously published on my Blog, The Best I can Do

Review: Vasily Grossman, Everything Flows & the Holodomor

Some time ago I read Vasily Grossman's A Writer at War 1941-1945, a book of extraordinary reportage from the Red Army front line. So when I saw Everything Flows in the bookshop, I bought it.

Written between 1955 and Grossman's death in 1964, but first published (in the Soviet Union) in 1989, it is part fictional story of a man just released, after many years, from the Gulag and part political essay about the Russian soul, about the Russian experience of serfdom, about Lenin as begetter of Stalin.

There are two chapters (14 and 15) which provide a detailed, precise and harrowing account of the artificial famine (the Holodomor) which killed millions in Ukraine in 1932 - 33. The narrative is written as if from the knowledge of a (female) eye-witness. I was astonished that Grossman knew so much about something which in the Soviet Union of the Khruschev years was still barely acknowledged. But then I discovered from the biographical notice that Grossman, who I had previously thought of as a Russian Jew, was in fact a Ukrainian Jew from Berdichev (its Jewish community was finally exterminated in 1941). And I guess as a major figure in Soviet literary life, people told him things.

Though there is ongoing and highly charged debate about the Holodomor (see the Wikipedia entry for example), these two chapters by Grossman astonished me as evocations of what it is like to die of starvation and in pinpointing details of what was involved in engineering it or allowing it to happen. I felt these chapters deserve to be read.

When I got to the end of the book and read the Afterword by Grossman's daughter, I found her saying "I have always thought that the two chapters about the famine...are the most powerful in all Grossman's work" (page 288). So now you have two recommendations.

Previously published on my Blog, The Best I can Do

Review: Rodric Braithwaite, Afgansty: the Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89

American ambassadors are political appointees, rewarded for financial contributions to election campaigns, and they are often enough stupid or crooks: try the examples in Alex von Tunzelmann's Red Heat for proof.

British ambassadors are career appointees and often enough clever and honourable. Sherard Cowper-Coles who wrote Cables from Kabul is a good, recent example. So too is Rodric Braithwaite.

His book is partly an unspoken ("diplomatic") critique of the current NATO occupation of Afghanistan. Every chapter of his book about the Russian Occupation of 1979 - 1989 allows parallels to be drawn with the current disaster.

The book is remarkable for its clear-headed portrayal of the horrors of war, and especially, the horrors of wars of occupation. Perhaps surprisingly for a former ambassador engaged in high diplomacy, Braithwaite dwells at length on the experience of ordinary Afghans and ordinary Russian soldiers and technical advisers. He writes a very humane book, readable from cover to cover. But quite often, it is disturbing reading.

At the same time, Braithwaite presents the leadership and higher authorities (military, intelligence, civilian) of the Soviet Union as less sclerotic and less vicious than is often imagined. At times, I guess that what he writes will make people in the Foreign Office think that he is just another of those ambassadors who "went native". (He was Ambassador to Moscow, 1988 - 1992).

The Soviet Union got itself into a mess in Afghanistan, found it hard to get out, and when it did so left a legacy of bitterness both in Afghanistan and in Russia where veterans of the war and parents of dead soldiers felt betrayed.

15 000 Soviet soldiers died in Afghanistan; somewhere between 600 000 and 2 500 000 Afghans: no one was counting and perhaps 1 million is the safe guess. See pages 346-47 for the number crunching.

In due course, when we have left, writers will tally the figures from the current war.

Previously published on my Blog, The Best I can Do

Review: Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin

This is not an easy book to read; it does not stray from the cataloguing and analysis of policies of terror, destruction and extermination between 1933 and 1945. But the analysis is new (to me)and there is much in the detail which I had simply not encountered before.

The analysis is new insofar as it places the Jewish Holocaust (six million dead) in the context of fourteen million dead from policies pursued by Hitler and Stalin in what Snyder calls "The Bloodlands" - Poland, Belarus, Ukraine and, to a lesser degree, the Baltic States.

Big numbers to the death tally are contributed by Stalin's deliberate creation of famine in 1932-33 Ukraine (3.3 million, page 411), with which Snyder begins his narrative. More big numbers are added by the German treatment of Soviet Prisoners of War, captured in vast numbers as the Nazis swept into the Soviet Union in 1941 and either shot or allowed to die of starvation in horrific conditions (3.1 million, page 184):

"In late 1941, when [Soviet] prisoners of war were very likely to starve to death, some of them survived by fleeing - to the Minsk ghetto. The ghetto was still a safer place than the prisoner-of-war camps. In the last few months of 1941, more people died at nearby Dulags and Stalags than in the Minsk ghetto" (page 230; see also the figures at page 179)

In this connection, Snyder clearly has no patience with the distinction between a "good" Wehrmacht (professional soldiers doing their duty) and the Nazis: in the Bloodlands, the Wehrmacht were enthusiasts for killing.

The tally increases hundreds of thousands at a time from other policies of Stalin and Hitler:

- Stalin's Great Terror of 1937 - 38
- Stalin's selective executions and mass deportations of ethnic groups from Soviet border areas where they were thought likely to sympathises with an invader
- Hitler's and Stalin's joint actions in exterminating Polish elites, military and civlian. The Katyn Massacre of the Polish Officer class is the most familiar. The Soviets were responsible but it could equally have been the Germans.
- Hitler's "Reprisal" killings of civilians, notably in Belarus and Poland. In Belarus there was quite a lot of Soviet inspired Partisan activity and in Poland, there was both the Home Army of the Polish government in exile and Soviet-directed Partisans. After the Warsaw Uprisings, all of Warsaw was razed to the ground.
- The advancing Soviet Army's raping and killing spree in 1944-45

Snyder's list is longer than this summary.

New to me was his emphasis on the fact that Hitler did not want either the people or the cities of the occupied East: he wanted a tabula rasa on which to start again: new inhabitants and new infrastructure. What seems to an outsider wanton destruction was almost always part of a policy. The same is true of Stalin's Ukraine Famine.

Snyder does not write about acts of individual humanity or resistance to horrific policy and behaviour. The book is unremittingly bleak. Nor does he look at the role of institutions which still existed to some extent independent of Nazi or Communist control. He says nothing about the churches, Roman Catholic, Orthodox and (in the Baltics) Lutheran. Some of them were complicit in murderous policies and that should be analysed. Some of them housed individuals who risked their lives for others.

Snyder does emphasise that the Western allies - the USA, the UK - took little or no interest in what was happening in the European lands fought over between Hitler and Stalin, and declined to act on what they did know. I quote one story which was new to me:

'Shmuel Zygielbojm, the representative of the [Jewish socialist] Bund to the Polish government-in-exile in London, knew that the [Warsaw] ghetto was going up in flames. He had a clear idea of the general course of the Holocaust from Jan Karski, a Home Army courier who had brought news of the the mass murder to the Allied leaders in 1942....In a careful suicide note of 12 May 1943....he wrote: "Though the responsibility fro the crime of the murder of the entire Jewish nation rests above all upon the perpetrators, indirect blame must be borne by humanity itself" The next day he burned himself alive in front of the British parliament...' (page 292)[* but see my Footnote below]

In the shadow and the wake of fourteen million dead people, there were also those who survived, often Displaced, often Deported, often in Exile and almost inevitably traumatised. Their contribution to the post-war world often demonstrated an extraordinary ability to triumph over adversity. At times, their contribution was not constructive - so much so that in his book Political Journeys Fred Halliday concludes that the role of diasporas in the politics of their homeland is always negative. But the world of the survivors is another book.

I am glad I read Snyder's extraordinarily broad and detailed work, cover to cover. I recommend it.

Footnote added 19 May 2012: In his 1944 autobiographical book, Story of a Secret State,Jan Karski gives a detailed and moving account of his meeting in London with Zygielbojm. But the suicide is described as having been committed at home, by turning on the gas (page 366 of the 2012 Penguin edition). The Wikipedia entry for Zygielbojm makes no mention of a public suicide. It does, however, say that Zygielbojm's body was cremated at the time in symbolic solidarity with Polish Jews and that because this was contrary to Jewish burial traditions, it posed problems for the interment of his ashes, when they were located in 1959, and which were not resolved until 1961.

Previously published on my Blog, The Best I can Do

Review: Alexander Etkind, Internal Colonization: Russia's Imperial Experience

Russia was an empire, but (except in the case of Alaska) no oceans separated its centres of power from its colonies - only marshes, steppes and desert. The colonies were on the periphery - Siberia, Central Asia, Transcaucasia, the Baltics - but also in the heartlands over whose Russian peasants their masters - though often of the same race and speaking the same language - exercised an uncertain dominion. Russia's colonial history in many respects reflects this specific and unusual geographical character of the Empire.

Alexander Etkind comes at this subject as a University teacher of Russian Literature and Cultural History.

In the past (quite distant now), his subject matter would have been fair game for writers and intellectuals receiving no specific state subvention for their work. They would have produced belles-lettres, sometimes idiosyncratic and unreliable. Professors aim for something different and so Etkind pays his respects to the theorists of cultural history who matter in his world - Edward Said, Homi Bhaba, Michel Foucault, Mikhail Bakhtin - though he largely spares us Derrida.

But having paid his respects, I am not sure that it makes much difference to what he writes. He starts from a Bibliography to die for (pp 257 - 82) and turns in some virtuoso performances, for example on the fur trade. But overall the book is a collection of sketches from an academic's album: seminar papers ("In this chapter, I will re-read these novellas together with two lesser known non-fiction texts by the same authors..." (page 214), biographical entries for little-known writers, "compare and contrast" literary essays,and - at worst - plot summaries and cabinets of curiosities. It is modern belles-lettres, with an academic cover story, and perhaps no worse for that.

On the other hand, Etkind does miss the opportunity for an integrated narrative of Russian colonial experience when he throws away a very interesting and important idea in just two pages (pp 143 - 144). He reprises this idea in his Conclusion:

"the Russian Empire demonstrated a reversed imperial gradient: people on the periphery lived better than those in the central provinces. The Empire settled foreigners on its lands, giving them privileges over Russians and other locals. Among all ethnicities in the Empire, only Russian and some other eastern Slavs were subject to serfdom..."(p 252)

This idea struck a lot of chords. Not so long ago I read Nicolas Breyfogle's Heretics and Colonizers ( 2005). He shows how religious heretics (schismatics) originally exiled to the Caucasus to keep them away from the Orthodox in the Russian heartlands ended up both enjoying very obvious privileges, such as exemption from military service, and being relied on by the Imperial administration to provide valuable services to the Empire, for instance maintaining postroads and post stations on the Imperial periphery. At one and the same time, the heretics were outcasts, privileged and indispensable.

The Caucasus was also home to communities of foreign (mostly German) sects - Wurttemburgists, Mennonites - who were allowed enough autonomy to put their energies to long-term productive use. In the settlement of [H]elenendorf (after 1914, Elenino / Eleneno) in predominantly Muslim Elisavetpol guberniya, Wurttemburgists - who had arrived as far back as 1818 - produced wine and marketed it through a company of some importance, Concordia. The community survived until 1940 when Stalin exiled these Germans to Kazakhstan. There were a score or more communities like Elenino.

In another direction,the striking fact that peasants in the heartlands lived worse than those in the "colonial" periphery could be seen as critical to understanding both the collapse of the regime in 1917 and later (1918 - 21) features of War Communism.

In relation to the collapse, it was workers and peasants in the Russian heartlands who disproportionately provided the manpower to fight the First World War and who bore the brunt of German assaults. They were on the sharp end of the failings of the Imperial regime, not least the class (Estates, Ranks) system which made officers completely foreign to their men.

In contrast, and by way of example,for almost the whole war period, Russian Poland was under German Occupation. The subjects of the Tsar got on with their lives under German Occupation and parts of the civil administration were devolved to them. In the East, the Germans were not defeated - and after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, they took control of even more Imperial territory (the Baltic provinces, Ukraine).

The Bolshevik re-conquest of Russia in the East - Ukraine, the Don and Kuban,Central Asia, Siberia - which involved the defeat of all the opposing "White" forces by the end of 1920 - also deployed soldiers recruited primarily from the Russian heartlands from among poor workers and peasants. As the Red Army moved south and east, into areas richer in food and other products than the heartlands, so it requisitioned produce for the centre - for Petrograd and Moscow. And, at an individual level, soldiers looted or acquired on favourable terms food and other goods which they shipped back home by post. In a very crude and violent way, there was a redistribution from the wealthier periphery to the poorer centre.

Under Stalin, that redistribution from periphery to centre became larger and even more lethal, culminating in the Ukrainian Holodomor of 1932 -33 [ see my review of Vasily Grossman's Everything Flows in a previous Blog].

So I think that Etkind in the idea of the "Reversed Imperial Gradient" touched on something which could perhaps have been developed at much greater length and which might have integrated some of the disparate material in this interesting book.

Previously published on my Blog, The Best I can Do

Review: Ferdinand Mount, The New Few or a Very British Oligarchy

Inequality in Britain has increased, is increasing and ought to be reduced. This is now part of the British political consensus, with no one against except for the nastier kinds of self-made men.

In respect to those, Mr Mount (he could call himself Sir Ferdinand but chooses not to - the title came from an uncle) voted in 2010, moving his money from Bob Diamond-geezer's Barclays to the Co-op.

That may not seem bad for a former head of Margaret Thatcher's Downing Street Policy Unit (1982-84), though in reality Mr Mount was not a Thatcherite and is perhaps best described as a life-long, old-fashioned "One Nation" Tory, formed in the schools of Eton and Christ Church.

As such, he is very much in favour of things like the London Living Wage campaign (pp 263 - 68) which aims to raise wages at the bottom. Equally, he is in favour of shareholder vetoes over executive remuneration which would damp down wages and bonuses at the top without the need for legislative capping.

Mr Mount's economic oligarchies are made up of new men - the bankers at the forefront. He has nothing to say about old money, but old money is still up there on the Sunday Times Rich List. Think only of the Duke of Westminster, who through the Grosvenor estates owns the posh bits of London.

Mr Mount is also agin the new political oligarchies which over decades have weakened local government, the political parties, the House of Commons and installed Sofa Government in their place. Both Mrs Thatcher and Tony Blair very much wanted to have their own way and the outcome is what other writers (though not Mount) call a "democratic deficit".

Mount sees things moving the other way under the Coalition government though, ironically, the vote against elected mayors in most English cities suggests that those who vote aren't in favour of more democracy. Ditto for the rejection of proportional representation.

Popular rejectionism also shows in attitudes to economic oligarchies and economic inequalities.

Voters of the middling kind didn't much like "Equality of Opportunity" since there was a risk that the 11+ would move their own children down rather than up. Faith schools now shelter anxious parents from such risks.

Voters of all kinds are generally rather impressed by those who can command very large sums of money for doing little or (in the case of the Lottery) nothing. Leave aside occasional outbreaks of Fred Goodwin-rage and there seems a great deal of tolerance for paying millions to footballers who don't actually score many goals and singers who - well, I won't say can't sing, - let's say, singers who can belt out popular tunes.

So I think the malaise is deeper than Mr Mount allows. He comes across as quite an optimist and also as someone who doesn't ask that very much should change. The book is an easy read, and good in parts - on local government and, perhaps surprisingly, on the 2011 urban riots.

Previously published on my Blog, The Best I can Do