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Saturday 28 December 2013

Review: Junot Diaz, This Is How You Lose Her

This is the kind of book I like to read: under 200 pages of text and double spaced 26 lines to the page - maybe 50 000 words. You have to be a real cool dude for Penguin Books and Faber & Faber to allow you to write so little, like you were a poet or something.

It's an easy read. I don't know more than a few words of Spanish but I know enough French to work out some of the Spanish expressions which are crafted into the text and help give the stories credibility as "street smart" (to use The Financial Times'  dust jacket expression) and as representations of "working-class Latino life" (Daily Telegraph)

The troubles with writing in any street smart urban dialect are considerable. The words on the street change quite rapidly so you risk writing prose which will be dated when published, though not so street smart folks like me may not notice. And many urban dialects are tediously dependent on curses, sometimes to the extent that to the passing pedestrian ear they don't seem much more than permutations of fuckshitwankercunt words.

Diaz tackles both problems ruthlessly and this is where his craft skills as a writer are most in evidence. There are virtually no curse words to block the flow of his narrators' thoughts. And his narrators show distinct lack of interest in Sport and Music and Drugs - things which would date the prose. Instead, they are obsessively focussed on two things: the finer points of ethnic profiling and the precise description of female anatomy. Both are discussed with verbal dexterity, deploying an exuberantly baroque vocabulary. If they weren't so good with words, the guys who tell the stories would be nasty little racists and sexists.

Life ain't fair, but whether life ain't fair to his narrators is a question we are unlikely to ask. If we do, I think the answer is that they deserve most of what is coming to them. They are for the most part young men so full of themselves that they invite their own undoing. That's the moral of the book's title. That said, I find that I bear them no ill-will. They are engaging characters, likeable for the way they are tense combinations of amusing cockiness and painful vulnerability.

There are nine stories here. You can probably read them in a couple of hours. They won't do you any harm. They will make you smile. But the critics quoted all over the dust jacket do seem over-excited.

Thursday 26 December 2013

Review: Jonathan Coe, What a Carve Up!

Almost, but not quite. It's easy to read even at 500 pages and even though narrative drive has to be sustained across forward and back time shifts and changes of viewpoint which give many of the numerous characters their say. There is a great deal of "post-modern" allusion and inter-textuality, most obviously to the Gothic novel, Ealing movies, popular culture more generally.

The basic story line is simple: a novelist (Jonathan Coe / Michael Owen) accepts a lucrative commission to write a family history for a vanity press. The Winshaws are an odious bunch and they are used by Coe/Owen to exemplify all that is Nasty with the Nasty Party (Mrs Thatcher's Conservatives). The problem here is that they are gothic-horror-B-movie nasty and so fail to evoke any real repugnance. They are comically repugnant - though the book is not particularly funny. I was surprised to see one reviewer quoted on the cover using the word "hilarious". It isn't.

The members of the family hate each other with a vengeance and even the commission to write the history comes from a member of the family with a very big grudge to settle. As the narrative unfolds, we discover that Michael Owen has not been selected by chance. But when he too is killed off at the end, well, in this reader it evoked no emotion. The death is too contrived, too obviously crafted to create a parallelism with an earlier death.

Yet Jonathan Coe can write heartfelt and moving prose. This he does in the harrowing chapter in which Michael Owen's (platonic) lover Fiona dies at the hands of the NHS. She would probably have died anyway; the NHS just contrives the death to be faster and more gruesome. The writing here is very powerful and owes nothing to Ealing comedies. It skewers its political target more effectively than any of the cardboard cut-out portraits of the Winshaws.

He succeeds in a similar way in passages set in Iraq (Winshaw arms dealing with Saddam). Here the scenes are also Gothic and horrible - but in this case we know that they are for real - and Coe acknowledges his sources for them at the end. The effect is quite different from that one gets from the depiction of horrible family murders later in the book. These remain trapped in the frame of Professor Plum in the Library with the lead pipe.

Sunday 24 November 2013

Review: Perry Anderson, American Foreign Policy and Its Thinkers

Though published as an issue of New Left Review, this 162 page essay is in effect a book and the book is in effect an extended - the word "magisterial" comes to mind - literature review. It's not a bad achievement for a man born in 1938. I couldn't sustain Anderson's level of engagement with many dozens of books - and I was only born in 1947.

It has typical Anderson features which used to irritate us when we were young radicals: so the section on actual US foreign policy is entitled "Imperium" and that on its theorists "Concilium". Latinisms, Frenchisms, Germanisms and even one Chinese-ism (page 140) appear throughout the essay - but only the last is glossed. I can see that one might want to show a certain internationalism or cosmoplitanism in the way one writes, but the italicised foreign phrases come across simply as the tics of a very literate man.

The United Kingdom is regarded by several of the US theorists Anderson quotes as a mere dependency. The boys from Eton and Oxford currently in notional power know what is expected of them and don't even have to be told. Anderson is the Other of Cameron and Osborne: like them the product of  Eton and Oxford, he is the lifelong critic of American power. At the outset, he was an outsider, identified by his long-term editorship of the London-based New Left Review. Now, and ironically, he is lodged at the University of California Los Angeles - not even a backwater university but a major institution of the Empire.

What is most interesting in Anderson's sober account of American imperialism is just how total American ambition is (or has been) and just how unashamed its theorists have been in conjuring strategies and tactics for truly global control. The military bases are world-wide - no other country has a fraction of what America has - and there is no part of the world where America thinks its intervention is off-limits. Anderson is particularly good in engaging in a quiet and balanced way with US strategists who could easily be written off as megalomaniacs or totalitarians.

For the USA and even under Obama, all forms of intervention are always on the table from cultural offensives (funded in the past by the CIA) through economic presssures (sanctions against Iraq, Iran and still - vindictively - Cuba) through modest military intervention to topple unco-operative leaders (too numerous to list and even to remember) to all out carpet bombing of people who won't obey (Vietnam).

The rise of China has given US strategic thinkers a great deal to think about and I found particularly interesting Anderson's careful sorting of writers - those who don't want to yield an inch of American supremacy, those who want to "contain" China, those who want to engage, those who want to share the Empire - OK, you take South East Asia.

I had no difficulty working through this valuable survey, not least because I felt that I was being made familiar with the thinking of dozens of theorists who I would not read at first-hand. 

Monday 18 November 2013

Review: Katie Roiphe, In Praise of Messy Lives

I picked up this book because of its interesting title and because instead of the usual head and shoulders author photograph, there's a three-quarter length of a very attractive woman pressed into the corner of a sofa and displaying what used to be called rather a lot of thigh. It's a challenge - Do you have what it takes to sit down and hold a conversation with me? Well, perhaps not -  buying the book felt like a compromise.

The thirty essays which comprise it - only one previously unpublished - are the work of someone who is, I suppose, a New York Critic. They include essays on parenting, on being a single parent, on childhood, on women writers, on All-American male writers, on contemporary feminism, on the Internet and on sex and power - the final essay is a study of one professional Dominatrix.

The essays are short, lucid and well-crafted. They are meant to be provocative though the provocation is directed at a rather restricted group - not so much the New York chattering classes as a whole but New York chatterers who have two kids and eat wholefood and are a bit to the Right of Katie Roiphe who is an anti-parenting parent rather in the same way that she is an anti-feminist feminist.

On children and parenting, I think she is broadly correct. Children are born into worlds not of their choosing and have their work cut out to make sense of them and to make their way in them. They need their parents to engage with them and to support them - but not to be on their backs all the time. Children deserve to be left alone, left to their own devices. There is nothing more delightful than to observe a young child absorbed in an activity which may seem quite pointless to the adult and yet which clearly is very important to the child. Nothing worse than for an over-active parent (or teacher) to distract the child away from what they find absorbing towards something more "educational". Schooling does a terrible thing when it devotes itself to destroying children's attention span, constantly moving them from one worthy activity to the next. You can see where surfing the Internet comes from.

One essay, Profiles Encouraged - a critique of celebrity profiles in gossipy magazines and not-so gossipy newspapers - reminded me of early Roland Barthes,taking a cultural institution and demystifying it, pulling it apart between what it does and what it says it does. 

Other essays express frustration with other people's ridiculousness or evasiveness: if there is a Leitmotif it is expressed at the end of an essay on Mad Men:

we are bequeathed on earth one very short life, and it might be good, one of these days, to make sure that we are living it (p 152)
I raised an eyebrow in a few places, notably when the author assumes a level of ignorance in her readers which seems out of place. Thus, in the final essay, "We are talking about Story of O, a famous French novel from the fifties about sadomasochism" (page 257) and again, "Venus in Furs, written in 1870 by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch" (page 259). These turns of phrase either imply that New York is not so much a cosmopolitan city as a  bit of a Sunday School or that the habit of writing for the Internet (which Katie Roiphe does) leads all of us to avoid easy cultural assumptions since our audience could be anywhere. I know that whenever I look at my Google dashboard, I make a mental note that half the time I am not being read in the countries where I assume I would be read.

Looking at that Dashboard I can see that I have published over 800 Blog posts on my three on-going Blogs. On top of that, there's a website with sixty plus essays from my past. Sometimes I imagine putting together a book of my own very much like Katie Roiphe's - thirty selected essays, the lines on the page widely-spaced (thirty to the page in this book), so that it feels easy to read. Curiously, I imagine this at the same time as thinking that my Blogs probably have more page views than a book would have readers. Ah, yes, but the book would have more Reviewers. Indeed, you might say that the secret ingredient of Katie Roiphe's book is that it lends itself to being reviewed.

Wednesday 6 November 2013

Review: Anthony King and Ivor Crewe The Blunders of Our Governments

Any reader of the London-based satirical magazine Private Eye will be familiar with the substance of this book, despite the contrary claim of its authors (page ix). The book is a chronicle of British government incompetence over three decades - 1980 - 2010 - a period in which both Conservative and Labour parties were alternately in power. Both parties have major cock-ups to their debit accounts: the Poll Tax and the Child Support Agency (Conservative); the Private Finance Initiative for the London Underground and the National Health Service IT scheme (Labour). There are many others. All of them were chronicled, sometimes in depth, by Private Eye as they were on-going.

King and Crewe are less than generous towards Private Eye; they mention it once in the 415 page body of the book (page 199). But then the British Establishment is ambivalent about Private Eye and King and Crewe are paid-up (more accurately, paid for) members of the Establishment: they are senior academics, salaried from public funds and researching with support from public funds. Private Eye is a must-read for the Establishment but, like a pornographic magazine, it must not be seen to be read.

Despite the handicap of their Establishment status, King and Crewe do a very readable job chronicling failures of government policy, all of which cost the taxpayer money and many of which directly harmed vulnerable individuals (including people the policies were supposed to benefit). The chronicle occupies the first couple of hundred pages of the book. They do not even touch upon defence procurement or military operations, both disaster zones, confining themselves to civilian policy areas.

They preface the Chronicle with a disclaimer - something which is in their own terminology surely counts as a Prejudice. They say they are not trying to establish a "British outpost of the American Tea Party movement" (page xi). But why not? If governments repeatedly squander vasts sums of taxpayers' money, as King and Crewe claim that they do, fail to learn from their mistakes and blindly go on expensively proving themselves incapable of delivering the policies they promise to deliver, then it is surely a reasonable position to suggest that one solution is to give them less money to play with. Why encourage fecklessness?

King and Crewe consider such questions closed. It is not part of the way their group thinks. Instead, they devote a full dozen chapters to classifying and analysing why, where and how British governments go wrong and end up with expensive policy failures. These chapters are insightful, but King and Crewe are unable to identify any drivers of change which might push voters or politicians into changing a not-fit-for-purpose system. In contrast, it is quite clear that there are numerous stakeholders in a dysfunctional, sub-optimal system - for example, private companies who can rip off the state and politicians who know that they will be rewarded regardless of how may failures they achieve. John Prescott (to take an individual who they criticise by name) now sits in the House of Lords, despite having no identifiable achievement to his credit, and he is not alone: many of the individuals they have interviewed in the course of their research now have their knighthoods and peerages (page 450) regardless of whether or not in their careers they made a hash of things.

Some of their suggested changes could no doubt be acted upon by a reforming administration, but it is hard to imagine that increased accountability would be one of those changes. The only form of accountability which seems to work is the very, very crude electoral one. King and Crewe name and shame Gordon Brown repeatedly, and they characterise him in ways which ensure that you think he would have made a terrific 1950s American politician in the paranoid mode of that period. But it took the voters to get rid of him - and even then, and apparently without embarassment, the Labour Party invited him as the keynote speaker at the subsequent Party conference and gave him a standing ovation. Small wonder that some of us no longer vote.

Sunday 1 September 2013

Review: Victor Cha, The Impossible State: North Korea Past and Future

You need to get past two things in order to read this long (529 page) book.

First, the publishers don't employ a copy editor. As a result, the author is allowed to get away with cut and paste from texts written at different periods, producing most obviously paragraphs in which Kim Jong-Il is alive immediately followed by paragraphs in which he is dead. This runs right through the book and is jarring.

Second, the author was an adviser to the George W Bush White House, a fact of which he makes much use: there are eight sides of photos, two of which show images of the author with George W. Perhaps this just illustrates that very few interesting photos of North Korea exist, but I am not convinced.

There is much of interest scattered through a rather repetitive text and there is an overarching claim that, sooner or later (the author thinks sooner), North Korea will implode. That it hasn't already is due to the fact that it has been propped up since the Soviet Union and the successor Russian Federation pulled the plug on it in the 1990s. And so long as it is propped up, it won't implode.

So the question is this, Why has it been propped up? Cha identifies all the actors who have a stake in seeing the very unpleasant Kim family regime stumble on from year to year. And in effect he tells you what their stakes are.

Both South Korea and China dread a flood of starving (and emotionally disturbed) refugees coming across their borders. So they provide massive food aid to help keep people where they are - at the same time, disguising the inability of the regime to feed its population - an inability which has lasted now for twenty years.

China has additionally established an exploitative economic relationship with the North, extracting primary commodities (minerals) to supply some of its own insatiable needs. Often enough, it now treats North Korea like one of its own poor North Eastern provinces.

Russia has very small-scale aspirations to do the same thing, though using North Korea as a host for oil and gas pipelines and seaports. Russia's 12 mile border with North Korea could be made to work to Russia's benefit.

The other stakeholders, Japan and the USA, have ruled out military action to topple the regime and / or to denuclearize the country. Instead, they engage in interminable talks, where carrot and stick are used to try to contain the worst that North Korea can do. So far it hasn't nuked anyone, but it's the nukes which ensure that it is the subejct of repeated charm offensives - all of them chronicled in this book and some of them costing a great deal in terms of aid given.

So just as many small wars continue indefinitely because so many groups have a stake in their continuation, so North Korea has achieved the perverse position of being unwanted, unloved and bottom of every international ranking - and at the same time kept going by the actions of its regional neighbours and the USA.

Sunday 4 August 2013

Review: Edward Luce, Time to Start Thinking. America and the Spectre of Decline

My UK edition of this book does not have Library of Congress Cataloguing In classifications, but I guess they are "1 America 2 Doomed". There are already quite a lot of books on that shelf, and many of the claims advanced in this book are familiar. However, the claims are often expressed directly by American movers and shakers who Luce (a Financial Times journalist) has interviewed, and this makes the book both readable and credible.

The principal claims are quite straightforward. America will lose its position as unchallenged super power in the very near future (by 2020). It has lost its industrial base and with it both its skilled labour force and the purchasing power skilled workers deployed. Its population is increasingly polarised into those who are getting by on debt  and those who are getting richer all the time. It does not get value for its tax money: notably, its state and federal governments fail to deliver adequate public education or public health care. Its society is broken with a prison system of Gulag proportions and cruelty. (For other social indicators of decline, see Luce page 280). Its constitution effectively gives veto powers to organised special interest minorities, making reform almost impossible. Its citizenry is appallingly ignorant: we already knew that they could not locate Afghanistan or Iraq on maps of the world; Luce throws in that nearly half of them believe that the sun orbits the earth. For many questions, Americans would know more if they picked their beliefs by tossing coins. Only in relation to sport and guns can we be sure they know what they are talking about.

"America's ignorance about the outside world is so great as to constitute a threat to national security" said a report by the Strategic Task Force on Education in 2003 (quoted by Luce page 184). It's also a threat to the rest of the world. Ignorance is a Weapon of Mass Destruction. 

We impose sanctions on countries to clean up their acts and we routinely impose reforms on countries as conditions of financial bail outs. Maybe someone should suggest to China that they make it a condition of continued funding of America's deficits that the US embarks on a sustained program of citizen education. 

Luce does not propose remedies though he hesitates to endorse the real reason: there are none. America is doomed. We just have to hope that it does not take the rest of us down with it (and here only China can help us). And that is what is different about America. Luce could write a very similar book about the UK,especially as it now tumbles down the Conservative path of "learning" from America. But though the UK is doomed, fortunately it does not have the capacity to take anyone down with it.

Saturday 27 July 2013

Review: David Caute, Isaac and Isaiah

I had my doubts about buying this book. I thought it might be parochial. In the event, the plot structure is clever. David Caute re-creates for us what academic and intellectual life in the US and UK was often like at the height of the Cold War, when Western governments and intelligence agencies channelled funds in friendly directions (Encounter magazine and such like) and Moscow could still rely on loyal support from a small number of able academics and writers, people who had formed their allegiances in the thirties and firmed them up in the War. It was a period when a great deal of the scribbling and teaching done in universities, and often enough broadcast on the radio, was of a more obviously "political"  than "academic" character, and that was true whether it was "Right" or "Left".

Caute works by focussing on the lives and careers of Isaiah Berlin (1909 - 1997) - wealthy, well-connected Oxford professor and Jewish emigrĂ© - and Isaac Deutscher (1907 - 1967) - prolific journalist,Marxist biographer of Stalin and Trotsky and Jewish emigrĂ©. And he particularises it still further to the animosity Berlin felt towards Deutscher, culminating in 1963 when  Berlin blackballed him from an academic appointment at the new University of Sussex - the subject of Caute's closing chapter 22. (At some point around 1969 - 70, I researched that story but I don't now know in what context and all I can recall is a visit to the North London home of Isaac Deutscher's widow,Tamara, and - though I can't put a picture to it - a candid conversation with Isaiah Berlin [ see Footnote] - who I did for sure once meet in his rooms at All Souls).

The book makes depressing reading for anyone who is a recluse. It is about people who did networking on a far grander scale than anyone (Tony Blair excepted) today. People whose address books bulged with contacts, world-wide, and whose correspondence stacked up into archives. In Berlin's case, they inhabited colleges which were the Oxford branches of London's gentlemen's clubs (or vice versa). In both cases, they had access to publications - like the Times Literary Supplement - which published your work anonymously, allowing you to puff up your chums and poop on your enemies. Caute provides numerous examples. No one seems to have heard of the idea of "declaration of interest". (As when I state before continuing: Berlin once in 1967 gave me and a friend a cheque for fifty quid to start a student magazine and told us to spend it on champagne if the idea didn't get off the ground - unfortunately, it did).

Caute's book ends abruptly, without any attempt to sum up. He provides much information which allows us to draw our own conclusions - Berlin comes across as a timid person who habitually trimmed his opinions to the person he was writing or speaking to, no matter if the result was support for opposites. More importantly, Caute does not really assess the work Berlin and Deutscher produced. Is there anything in it which is of enduring value, which stands the test of time?

I can't answer this question in relation to Deutscher for the simple reason that I don't think I have ever read more than a line of his work. I have never read the Biographies of Stalin and Trotsky, because at  the time (1960s - 1970s) I didn't read biographies (and I never met Deutscher so never had to mug up).

I do now read biographies but ones which have been able to access the Archives opened since the fall of the Soviet Union - Sebag-Montefiore on Stalin, for instance.

In relation to Berlin, I guess I  read quite a lot and as a university teacher I assigned the obvious ones, like Two Concepts of Liberty, as reading for student essays. But if you asked me now for a short judgement, I'd probably have to say that they belong as much to the higher journalism, to belles lettres, as to any obviously "academic" study. Perhaps no worse for that. (And as an undergraduate at Oxford, I was one of those who regarded Berlin's lectures in the Examination Schools as a high point of the week).

The remarkable thing about Caute's fairly detailed narrative is that though it chronicles a very recent cultural history - only finally terminated by the collapse of the Soviet Union - it reads like a story of things that happened a long time ago and in another country. I am sure Oxford colleges haven't changed very much, nor the London literary world (even if the Times Literary Supplement no longer gives anonymity to its reviewers). But still ... Only right at the end of this book, when Caute sketches Berlin's distaste for Hannah Arendt, did I feel I was reading something fresh and interesting - and those were the quotations from Arendt which Caute provides.


When I first saw the sub-title of the book, "The Covert Punishment of a Cold War Heretic", I knew it would deal with the "Sussex Affair". I remembered that I had visited Tamara Deutscher and I was also sure (before opening the book) that Berlin had once told me that, yes, he had advised Sussex against appointing Deutscher - explaining that he was a member of an External Committee appointed to mentor (to use a word we would use now) the new University of Sussex. But I cannot recall any meeting with Berlin other than the non-adversarial meeting in 1967. It may be that I raised the Deutscher question then, even though it only got in to the public domain in early 1969 when Black Dwarf edited by Tariq Ali used the story. However, Caute does quote a 1969 letter from Berlin in which he says that prior to the Black Dwarf article, "I knew that there was some rumour among the students ...that I had somehow vetoed Deutscher, but this is perfectly false" ( p 283). So it's possible that I had heard the story in 1967 and asked Berlin about it then, in a context where he was not on the defensive - Phillip Hodson and I were in his rooms asking for his support and money for our magazine!

Tuesday 23 July 2013

Review: Vasily Grossman, An Armenian Sketchbook

I previously wrote about Vasily Grossman's Everything Flows  (see my Post of 9 June 2012), a book I found powerful and moving. The same can be said for this recently (2013) translated work An Armenian Sketchbook first published in an uncensored Russian version Dobro Vam in 1998. The book was written in 1961, submitted for publication in 1962, and appeared in censored versions in 1965 and 1967; Grossman had meanwhile died in 1964. 

The censored passages included all of the very interesting discussion of Nationalism in chapter 4 and the emotional heart of the final chapter (Chapter 12), a long, deeply felt narrative of an Armenian village wedding which culminates for Grossman in a speech by one of the guests ("the collective farm carpenter"), who addresses himself directly to the stranger invited to the wedding:
Martirosyan interpreted [ for me]. The carpenter was talking about the Jews, saying that when he was taken prisoner during the War he had seen all the Jews being taken away somewhere separate. All his Jewish comrades had been killed. He spoke of the compassion and love he felt for the Jewish women and children who had perished in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. He said how he had read articles of mine about the war, with portrayals of Armenians, and had thought how this man writing about Armenians was from a nation that has also suffered a great deal. He hoped that it would not be long before a son of the much-suffering Armenian nation wrote about the Jews. To this he now raised his glass" (page 191)
As if in reply, Grossman's book heaps praise on the Armenian peasants and workers, with whom he spent much of his time during his 1961 visit, in effect contrasting their wisdom and humanity with the shallowness he finds in officially-approved writers, in literary bureaucrats who he has to meet, and even in the officially-approved Catholicos of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Vazgen the First:

Vazgen I ...was clearly not a great man. I calmed down [from my excitement at the thought of meeting him] not because he was kind and considerate but because I realised that he was unremarkable. I had already met many people like him (page 157) 
Grossman has rather more interesting things to say about the Armenian Church itself. He classifies it as essentially Pagan, where what matters is the performance of the rites and  the sacrificial slaughter of  the lambs, brought to the porch of churches to be blessed and then taken round the back to have their throats cut (I saw that happen when I visited Armenia in 1997). But if he had listened to Armenian church music, to the singing ( he visited Echmiadzin but it seems not on a Sunday) then I think he would have had to qualify that "Pagan" judgement.

The contrast between the two worlds of rulers and ruled does slip into sentimentality, perhaps Tolstoyan sentimentality. Peasants are as capable of terrible crimes as vicars of Christ. One has the sense that Grossman coming towards the end of his life and completely disillusioned with the Soviet system which he had served - and very successfully (even Stalin read his despatches as a War correspondent) - is looking for somewhere where we can place his hopes. He places his hopes in the People. It's not a dishonourable choice.
Probably I have said much that is clumsy and wrong. But all I have said,clumsy or not, I have said with love (page 194)

Departure of the Tourist Bus from an Armenian Village, 1997
Photo: Trevor Pateman

Sunday 21 July 2013

Review: John Dickie,Mafia Republic

What is wrong with Italy? At the heart of Europe and the European Union, Italy ranks 72 out of 174 on Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index. Denmark and Finland share joint first place as least corrupt; Afghanistan, North Korea and Somalia are down there at 174.

It may be salutary to list some of the countries ranked less corrupt than Italy, for example: Botswana (ranked 30), Hungary (46), Georgia (51), Turkey (54), Namibia (58), Ghana (64), Romania (66) and South Africa (69). In other words, Italy is more corrupt than some countries in Africa and some countries in what was bad old Eastern Europe.

It gets worse. Towards the end of his book, John Dickie mentions in passing that in 2011 the World Bank ranked Italy 158 out of 183 countries "for the efficiency of its justice system in enforcing contracts". It was below Pakistan, Madagascar and Kosovo and just three places above ... wait for it ... Afghanistan (page 474). Enforcement of contracts includes such simple things as getting a customer to pay for goods supplied. This is a service which any modern state needs to provide; Italy's weak and corrupt state apparatus can't manage it - and that immediately creates a niche market, even today, for criminal organisations to step forward and offer to enforce contracts, for a price.

Dickie's book gives a large part of an answer to the question, What is wrong with Italy? In a review of  the post - World War Two history of Italy's three biggest Mafias - Sicily's Cosa Nostra, the Neapolitan camorra and Calabria's 'ndrangheta he shows them to be much bigger (thousands of people, not hundreds), much more robust and much more violent than one might - from a distance - imagine. He shows how they successfully infiltrated, manipulated and fed off Italy's post-War political parties, particularly the US- and Vatican-backed Democrazia Cristiana (the DC) . He documents how they spread corruption and fear in local and regional government thereby guaranteeing themselves lucrative contracts, particularly in construction and waste management, which littered southern Italy with shoddy housing developments and toxic waste.

He points out that the Vatican, Italy's fourth Mafia, (though he doesn't call it that I think it's an apt description) did not speak out against the other Mafias until 1993 when Pope John Paul II on a visit to Sicily made an unscripted attack on Cosa Nostra's "culture of death" (pp 384 - 85).

Dickie's book is full of short narratives documenting crimes of extraordinary Mafia violence. It is only at the end of his book that the reader realises that this is a little unbalanced insofar as the Mafias had and have other means of enforcing their will: for the first time, he mentions that a tell-tale sign that racketeers are at work is the incidence of a crime identified in Italy as "vandalism followed by arson", which occurs when firms fail to pay up for protection, and continues, "In 2011 , there were 2,246 cases of vandalism followed by arson in Sicily: the highest in any Italian region, and an increase on the preceding years" (page 467)

Dickie also devotes many fascinating pages to documenting the work of anti-Mafia magistrates and police often left unsupported or actively undermined in their work by corrupt senior figures in both the court and police systems and - of course - by corrupt politicians. It went and maybe still goes all the way to the top, with seven-times Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti heading the list (page 214)

It's a long book - 524 pages including the apparatus - but much, much better written than the average academic work: John Dickie is Professor of Italian Studies at University College, London

Saturday 13 July 2013

Review: Frank Ledwidge, Investment in Blood

I reviewed Frank Ledwidge's previous book Losing Small Wars, about the British defeat in Iraq and Afghanistan. You can find the Review in the June 2012 listing. When I saw this new book I didn't need any recommendation to buy it. Ledwidge is a heavyweight. He brings a background in military intelligence (the UKs military intelligence) to a critical analysis of the UKs disastrous failures in Basra and Helmand.

This time he looks at the costs of Britain's latest Afghan War, modelling himself on Stiglitz and Bilmes' Three Trillion Dollar War (2008), an economist's costing of the US invasion of Iraq. But he goes beyond that in continuing his critique of the political, strategic, and tactical failings of our political and military "policy" in Afghanistan.

Though he does not dwell on it (page 20), the Big New Mistake in the second phase of the Afghan War was the one made by Tony Blair in 2005 when he decided that in a fresh allocation of invading forces' responsibilities, the UK would take on  Helmand province, centre of Afghan opium production then and bigger centre of opium production now: 40% of all Afghan opium output in 2006 and 49% in 2012 (page 180). There were two very good reasons for not taking on Helmand: (1) it's a very big place and we didn't actually have enough troops to occupy it ; (2) the Helmandis have a specific hatred of the British, dating back to the previous Afghan Wars we have launched against them.

But even bigger than this mistake was the overall mistake of giving both political and military backing to Karzai and his gang of war lords and kleptocrats. Official UK aid to Afghanistan does not trickle down much farther than their pockets. We know this. Transparency International ranks 183 countries on its scale of governmental corruption; Afghanistan is down there in position 180, far worse than say Azerbaijan (at 143) where Mr Blair likes to hang out these days. Only North Korea and Somalia (which has recently acquired a  government to corrupt) are behind Afghanistan; Myanamar is equal 180th. (pages 146 - 48)

This known fact about what we are backing in Afghanistan is one reason why the British political class and its compliant civil servants (not many whistleblowers here) are determined to withhold as much information as possible on the costs of our prolonged Afghan adventure. Ledwidge repeatedly has to resort to best guesses, estimates and extrapolations from bits of known evidence. This is true for costs of military hardware and troop deployment; insurance and medical treatment costs associated with deaths, injuries, trauma both now and recurrent in the future; costs to the Afghan economy of our presence; costs of Afghan deaths, injuries and trauma.

It's an honest and unsparing book. There are two things missing.

First, recognition of the fact (stressed by Sherard Cowper-Coles in Cables from Kabul) that Afghanistan has neighbours: not just Pakistan but Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikstan, China and India. This is not a very encouraging list. But these countries have all paid a price for American-led adventurism in Afghanistan. And Pakistan has paid a heavy price for its former Imperial power's occupation of Helmand. Ledwidge does briefly discuss the consequences for British homeland security of the damage we have done in Helmand (pages 208 - 211). This line of thinking is one that urgently needs to be pursued.

Second, a link needs to be made to the analysis offered in David Keen's book Useful Enemies which argues that many wars drag on for years because there are stakeholders who have an interest in their continuation. Ledwidge does mention, more than once (pages 20 - 21 and elsewhere),  the "use them or lose them" remark attributed to General Sir Richard Dannatt when Chief of the General Staff (2007) suggesting that if troops did not deploy from Iraq to Afghanistan then they would be declared redundant in some round of defence cuts.

But it is more than that. There are stakeholders everywhere: Karzai and his chums trousering aid money; the Taliban taking bribes not to attack enemy convoys; drug lords providing income in an economy which cannot be normal while fighting continues; British politicians basically channeling tax money to the arms manufacturers on whom we rely to keep the unemployment figures down; the military trying to defend its turf; Prince Harry needing photo ops ... the list goes on. And now we have Britain's answer to Donald Rumsfeld, our Foreign Secretary William Hague, casting around - almost desperately -  for some new war to lose when the troops become free from Afghanistan. It's not the winning that matters; it's the taking part.

Thursday 11 July 2013

The State of Publishing?

Reblogged from Private Eye, issue No. 1344 ( 12 - 25 July 2013), available at all good British newsagents price £1.50

Monday 1 July 2013

Review: Adam Lebor, Tower of Basel

This book is part muck-raking journalism, part serious study and not always easily combined. It's credibility isn't helped by the poor quality of the proof reading - nowadays with so many unemployed graduates competing for work, you just don't expect to have to deal with typos. in the books you read.

It's subject matter is the history of the Bank of International Settlements, the BIS, an extra-territorial organisation physically located in Basel. It was created in 1930 as a bank for central banks and central bankers. The shareholders were the central banks, the number of whom belonging to the organisation has increased over time. It has always been extremely profitable, holding and moving around large sums of money for a very small number of institutional clients - Lebor gives a figure of 140 at some point. It co-ooperates with the Swiss National Bank - for example, using that bank's secure vaults to store the gold it holds on deposit. But Switzerland has no jurisdiction over the Bank and the bank's employees don't pay Swiss taxes. So it enjoys the kind of privileges a foreign embassy would have.

The muck-raking part of the book charts how the Bank developed through the 1930s as an instrument of Third Reich policy, to which the close relationship between Hjalmar Schacht of the Reichsbank and Montagu Norman of the Bank of England was essential. And when War came, though professing itself  "Neutral", the bank - like "neutral" Swiss banks - co-operated in handling looted assets - particularly gold. Even at the time, this became a scandal: there was an outcry when it was discovered that the BIS had transferred the gold deposits held in Basel by the Czech National Bank to the Reichsbank. The BIS said the Czech Bank had asked it to do this - but since Germany had just occupied Czechoslovakia and was pointing the guns, everyone knew that the Czech Bank was acting under duress. The BIS did not regard that as relevant - though the outcry did lead it to take a different line when the Soviets asked for the gold held by the Baltic states. That gold was frozen in Basel until the Soviet Union disintegrated and the Baltic States re-emerged as independent countries.

Perhaps more interesting is the way Lebor documents the way in which some Nazi thinking about post-war Europe - in which they assumed themselves the winners - anticipated the main lines of the integrationist policies which have been pursued since 1950 when the European Coal and Steel Community was created. That thinking was never abandoned: when German bankers and industrialists began (around 1943) to plan for a post-War in which Germany was the loser, they stayed with the integrationist idea as providing the best chance for an export-led reconstruction of German industry.

At the same time, the Americans were thinking along the same lines. The Question was this: How do we stop these European countries from going to war with each other, especially as we seem to get dragged in every time? And the answer was: We create a Federal system, we create a United States of Europe. That idea became even more attractive as the Cold War developed: a United Europe would counter-balance the Soviet bloc.

This very simple American policy is very much alive over half a century later. Only recently, President Obama has told the United Kingdom government that the UK belongs in Europe and that the Americans expect it to remain there. We can expect a concerted push by the USA - and that will include the usual slush funds and dirty tricks - to ensure that in any Referendum, British voters vote to stay in the European Union. Forget it UKIP, the future of the UK has been settled in Washington - as it has been since 1945 (remember Suez?)

What Lebor doesn't do - rather surprisingly - is point out that this convergence of Nazi, post - Nazi and American thinking about the Future of Europe created a very broad coalition in favour of European unity, both economic and political. And because some of it has now been around so long, we easily forget that unity can indeed have real advantages not just for elites in the corridors of the Bank of International Settlements (corridors in which the European Central Bank was planned and created) but for everyone. 

British tourists simply take for granted that they can go and buy as many €uros as they want before they jet off or drive off on holiday, that they can bring back what they want without having to pay import duties, that if they fancy buying a holiday home in Spain they can, and that if they drive down to it from Calais, there are no longer any border controls on the way. They do indeed need to be reminded that It Wasn't Always Like That and if it takes American slush funds to get that idea into their thick heads, all well and good.

Sunday 23 June 2013

Review: Hsiao-Hung Pai, Invisible - Britain's Migrant Sex Workers

I greatly admired Nick Broomfield's film Ghosts based on the researches of Hsiao-Hung Pai into the lives (and deaths) of Chinese migrant workers in the UK and on that basis bought her new book on migrant sex workers in Britain.

There have always been migrant workers, legal and illegal, voluntary and coerced. Probably the majority of them have always been poorly paid and badly treated. Sex work differs from factory or restaurant work - it gives some migrant workers the chance to be relatively well paid and badly treated. 

Hsiao-Hung Pai works undercover as a Maid - a Housekeeper - in downmarket brothels in London and grim provincial towns like Portsmouth. As an employee she has to deal with aggressive and unpleasant bosses and ditto customers. In between, she tries to find out the life stories of the women providing sexual services. Some are illegal migrants (all the Chinese women)  some are legal, notably women from Poland . A few have been indisputably trafficked and coerced - the story of a Lithuanian woman, Galina, is particularly shocking. Some are pimped in more or less coercive ways. But probably the majority have gravitated towards sex work from low-paid jobs in food processing or restaurants. Very rarely do they have a good command of English, which is one reason I guess why they do not use the Internet and work independently as escorts. Whether they make good money depends a bit on the whims of their employers, a bit on the location of the brothel, a bit on whether or not it is targetted by the police, and a lot on whether there is a pimp skimming their earnings. But, overall, they seem to do better than they did as low paid workers in other sectors.

"Doing better" is defined by their ability to remit funds to their families back home. The most striking thing about Hsiao-Hung Pei's characters is that they are not young women. They are mostly in their thirties, often married, and generally with children and parents back home. Eventually, they hope to go home themselves. Hsia-Hung Pai doesn't point out that in the case of illegal migrants, this is easier said than done: if you don't have a passport or a passport with a valid visa, then you can only exit the UK as you entered it - illegally - unless you manage to get caught and deported. (I am curious to know: What happens if you walk into a police station, declare yourself an illegal immigrant and ask to be deported? And suppose you offer to pay the regular air fare?)

The pressure to remit money can be quite strong. In some cases, this derives from and extends a cultural expectation that adult children should look after their parents. In some cases - and this is me speaking not the author -  it just looks like another form of coercion. It is certainly not a benign relationship and, ironically, there are no doubt cases where the people back home are living easier lives on their remittances than those who are doing the remitting.

Hsai-Hung Pai's book is not about sex and doesn't really address the specificity of sex work except insofar as she points out that it isolates women from their own migrant communities, since it is rarely if ever something which can be discussed. This is clear, for example, in the case of Beata, a Polish Catholic who can't talk about what she is doing with other Poles and instead, in one of the book's poignant episodes, ends up discussing the ethics of sex work with an Ecuadorean Catholic punter (pp 245 - 50).

The book is quite readable. It's not theoretically strong or analytically focussed and it won't satisfy those who have strong anti -sex work agendas. Hsiao-Hung Pai tells a sympathetic, human interest story in the way John Berger and Jean Mohr did many years ago in their book on migrant male workers, A Seventh Man. One of the things that has changed since then is the large proportion of migrant workers who are now women.

Wednesday 19 June 2013

Review: Brian Jones, Failing Intelligence

"We know that he [ Saddam Hussein ] has stockpiles of major amounts of chemical and biological weapons ..." 
Tony Blair on America's NBC News, 3 April 2002, quoted page 64
This book is at turns ludicrous and compelling. It would provide a very good basis for a seminar course on the "Whitehall" relationship between British civil servants and politicians and equally for a course on the organisation of British Intelligence activities.

Brian Jones was - until his early retirement - a middle ranking British civil servant on the Defence Intelligence Staff of the Ministry of Defence,  primarily tasked with analysing intelligence information on biological, chemical and nuclear weapons threats from possible enemies, including Iraq. Because he was located in the War Ministry, his immediate responsibility was to make assessments of Battlefield Relevance - what non-conventional weapons were or might be available for use against British troops in a given theatre of war and what precautions would need to be taken against them.

As a civil servant, he turns up at the office, works his hours, catches the train home, takes days off and goes on holiday. This routine is uninterrupted in the build up to the Iraq War and so quite often in the book he has to tell us that he wasn't there during such-and-such developments:
I was unaware of any of these events when I returned to work on Wednesday 18 September 2002. I was surprised to be told that work on the Prime Minister's dossier had dominated my staff's activities in my absence. 'All hell' had broken loose at the beginning of the month with the requirment for the dossier to be written and published within three weeks (page 79)

With the benefit of hindsight on a reckless and catastrophic invasion of a country which posed no actual threat, this reads as ludicrous. But it marks one of the differences between a civil servant and a politician who would never say, "Well, it was my day off when that happened".

Brian Jones also comes across as a pedant and a bore - but that's how it should be, That Was His Job and he did it conscientiously. On the evidence available to him, he was - like the German Foreign Minister, Joschka Fischer, who famously said it to Donald Rumsfeld's face - unconvinced. He is at the opposite pole from Tony Blair, whose sense of divine mission allowed him (and not just in relation to Iraq) to be careless of detail and too fast to judgement. At one point, Jones rightly remarks that he thereby risked failing in his Duty of Care to British troops - not to expose them recklessly to danger.

It also places Jones at odds with MI6, the most politicised of the intelligence agencies, which - on Jones's and other accounts - saw its task as to help the government of the day succeed in making its case for its war policy and for rallying support (including Parliamentary support) for participation in the American invasion of Iraq. Hopes of personal career advancement clearly influenced some individuals involved. Jones summarises the conflict on page 206 saying that his own department [ie, it's boss]:

was persuaded to ignore the advice of its own experts in favour of whispered reassurances that everything was in order from an ascendant MI6
It is in this area that there are some really interesting insights into the complexity of the relations between intelligence gathering, intelligence assessment (is it reliable? and so on), intelligence analysis (building up an overall picture) and political judgement (what shall we do with what we know?). The whole business reads like an advanced course in Modal Logic, seeking to clarify the relationship between possibly, could, would, might, may, probably, certainly ...

Two ministers in Tony Blair's government resigned in order to oppose the war against Iraq: Robin Cook and John Denham. Elizabeth Wilmshurst at the Foreign Office resigned in order to avoid being party to the War Crime of aggression (she isn't mentioned in this book - her resignation letter can be found online). Dr David Kelly gave unauthorised briefings to journalists and committed suicide. Brian Jones wrote a Memo. to his boss (who was furious that he did) and as a result ended up a public figure and author of this book.

Sunday 9 June 2013

Review: Calder Walton, Empire of Secrets

It took me a long time to read this 350 + page book. It's not a gripping tale, but the outcome of an academic engagement with the history of British intelligence begun at the University of Cambridge under the (doctoral) supervision of Christopher Andrew. (In the past Cambridge bred spies; now it studies them).

There is a focus - the role of British intelligence agencies (MI5, MI6 / SIS, GCHQ and so on) in the final decades of the British Empire when colonies turned into independent states. There is a thesis - those agencies often enough smoothed the path to independence and, despite everything (in some cases a Lot of everything), helped create at least a semblance of working relations between the United Kingdom and former colonies - working relations symbolised by the fact that most colonies on leaving the Empire chose to join the Commonwealth. But this does not create a single narrative. Rather, we are presented with a large number of thumbnails from which we don't get a feel for what the day to day operations of the Intelligence agencies involved. I feel I ended up knowing a little about a lot of colonial histories, including lots that I certainly did not know before.

In a couple of cases the thumbnails are quite expanded, as in discussions of the end of the Palestinian Mandate and the Mau Mau insurgency in Kenya and these were the most interesting sections of the book.

Walton takes some trouble to explain what distinguishes the Intelligence agencies of the UK from a secret police. The core criterion is the fact that our agencies do not have powers of arrest and imprisonment. Their job is to collect and analyse intelligence and pass it on - and in good time, if it concerns specific threats. MI5 which took the lead role in intelligence work in the colonies, worked very hard to get this model adopted in colonies becoming independent.

It helped that in several instances MI5 regarded local Nationalist leaders,like Kwame Nkrumah in the Gold Coast and Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya, as less threatening than did British politicians who in the 1950s saw Communists behind every instance of colonial unrest. This was not without bad faith: if Communists were to blame, then the United States would be more likely to accept repression as necessary in the Cold War context than regard it as an instance of outmoded colonialism.

In one important case, both American and British politicians convinced themselves - and despite Intelligence to the contrary - that a local Nationalist leader did pose a Communist threat. This was Cheddi Jagan who had the misfortune to be working for the independence of a colony - British Guiana - in America's backyard. So with  the help of CIA money and dirty tricks (and,basically, the CIA in the 1950s wasn't about much more than money and dirty tricks), Jagan was ousted from government and replaced with the puppet figure of Forbes Burnham - who went on to wreck his country's democracy and economy. (A bit like Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, who was seen by Britain as the "Best Bet" for a post-independence leader) .

Walton deals with the question of interrogation techniques and torture in British colonies, using documents which have only recently been allowed into the public domain. This provides a context, for example, to understand the recent court cases in London brought by former Mau Mau detainees. He also has some damning quotations ( Page 344) documenting  the British government's simultaneously racist and servile behaviour in clearing the inhabitants of Diego Garcia from their Indian Ocean  island home in order to make way for a giant  military base demanded by the Americans. In related discussions, he explain why in pre-Internet days Britain hung on to territorial outposts not only as places where warships could refuel or war planes could land and take off, but also as listening posts from which one could eavesdrop on other people's radio traffic. Cyprus provides a notable example and explains why we still claim the Freehold of part of the island  which in consequence is divided in three,not two as is usually thought.

Well, it took me a long time to read but I find I have had quite a bit to say about this book. And that does tend to support its claim to offer a study of topics previously little studied.

Saturday 13 April 2013

Review: Oliver Bullough, The Last Man in Russia

When I saw this book on the table at Waterstones, I bought it at once: I had read Oliver Bullough's Let Our Fame Be Great , an impressive, very well-written combination of reportage and research about the Russian Caucasus. 

But though still well-written and once again a combination of reportage and research, this is a broken backed book. It tries to do two things and they don't quite come together.

First, as the cover suggests it is a book about Russia's core problems: a shrinking and ageing population, falling life expectancy, high levels of crime and violence. Bullough identifies alcohol and alcoholism as the driver of all three. He is probably right but he doesn't really develop the case he opens up. Too many things are mentioned in passing, like Gorbachev's anti-alcohol programme and Putin's more limited initiatives.  There is no reportage from the cities or suburbs where homelessness and crime are driven by drugs as well as alcohol. And, surprisingly, Bullough misses a trick when he fails to make any mention of Russian Brides.

Young women want to leave Russia for many reasons, but a major one is to escape the possibility (even the  probability) that they will end up married to an alcoholic whose life style will depress their standard of living and make for domestic misery. And the fact that many women of child-bearing age do succeed in leaving ensures that the birth rate will continue to fall. That is why Russian Brides is a subject which has excited the Russian Parliament, with proposals (for example) to strip women who leave of their citizenship. Bullough mentions none of this.

Instead, he pursues another story, the biography of the Russian Orthodox priest, Dmitry Dudko (1922 - 2004). I think this is just the wrong story to follow.  Though it allows a narrative to develop about despair and distrust - to which Dudko the priest responded - and to the role of both state and state church in creating such hopelessness, it does not really connect enough to the narrative about alcohol.

Father Dmitry was once a Soviet dissident but - without support from his own heavily compromised Russian Orthodox church - broke under pressure from the KGB and after the fall of Communism was known simply as a Russian nationalist and anti-semite. It's all rather unsavoury, but no more so than the Russian Orthodox church itself. (Though to be fair, it is not alone among Orthodox churches in its lack of humanity: if you ran the 20th century history of the Greek Orthodox church alongside that of the Russian Orthodox, it would be hard to know which one would come out worst).  

Bullough has nothing to say about other religious movements in Russia which have placed themselves outside the state church. I felt this was another weakness of his book.

Because Bullough writes well and knows how to interleave personal reportage and historical narrative, it's easy to go through this book in a few hours. But it's not in the same league as his first book.  

Tuesday 9 April 2013

Review: Emil Draitser, Agent Dmitri - The Secret History of Russia's Most Daring Spy

I like Spy books but the first half of this one left me uneasy. I took me some time to work out why but I think the problem is this. We have two unreliable narrators: Agent Dmitri and his biographer, Emil Draitser.

Dmitri Bystrolyotov (1901 - 1975) wrote prolifically about his 1920s and 1930s career as a Soviet undercover agent working across Europe and even in Africa. But he wrote in the Soviet Union (mostly) in the 1960s and hoped to see at least some of his work published there. As a result, he tries not to give away too many secrets and also to depict his career in politically correct (and 1960s Soviet prudish) terms. But Spying, Political Correctness and Prudishness simply don't go together and Dmitri ends up as an unreliable narrator of his own life. 

Emil Draitser has had access to all Dmitri's manuscripts and tries to correct their unreliability using other sources, interpretations, decodings and more candid parts of Bystrolytov's writings. But he adds in his own rather simplistic psychoanalytic interpretations and it may be these which made me think that Draitser is also an unreliable narrator. The publishing history of this book is also rather odd: it was first published by an American academic publisher (the reputable Northwestern University Press) but with a lurid title Russia's Romeo Spy. There is a dead website with the same title. In the UK it has been published by the reputable academically-oriented publisher, Duckworth, but with the down-market cover shown above. Clearly, we are also dealing with unreliable publishers who can't make up their minds what kind of book they are publishing.

The book only comes together in the second half which takes us through Dmitri's arrest in 1937, his interrogation under torture, his imprisonment in the Gulag (1938 - 1954), his rehabilitation in 1956 and his later life. Here the narrative is more assured - and often harrowing. Dmitri experienced the worst the Gulag could offer - Norilsk, war time hunger rations, false hopes of early release - and almost certainly owed his survival not only to his previous career as a spy but his medical qualifications, which allowed him to function for much of his Gulag sentence as a Camp medical assistant or doctor.

I think a better book could be written. Draitser argues that recent KGB / FSB authorised biographies of Dmitri - which (for example) fail to mention the torture -  are not in this category - and about that, I am sure he is right.


One small detail aroused my interest. In the 1930s Dmitri was sent on a mission to French colonial Africa with a brief to check out French claims that, in the event of a European war, they could raise large forces of troops / mercenaries from among their black African colonial subjects. Dmitri's assessment was negative. But  it was the case (this is not mentioned in the book) that later on Free French Forces did include troops recruited from the African colonies - and they are on record as behaving badly (rape, looting) in at least two instances: in Syria where they were used to suppress Nationalist uprisings against French rule and in the liberation of Germany. And it occurs to me that if you want to understand why post-colonial armies and militias in former French Africa behave badly, then you may have to go back to this earlier period when black troops were first deployed by their colonial masters.

Sunday 17 March 2013

Review:Christopher de Bellaigue, Patriot of Persia - Muhammad Mossadegh and a Very British Coup

The title is surprisingly misleading: it was an American coup, directed by Kermit "Kim" Roosevelt dispensing an awful lot of dollars. The British were no longer up to the task of toppling governments unaided, though they still hoped to be the main beneficiaries of the 1953 coup which toppled Mossadegh. The British wanted back Anglo-Iranian Oil, nationalised by Mossadegh's government. They didn't get it, though they did get to share the post-coup oil concessions with the American companies - the big winners. Roosevelt got good value for his dollars.

The British still regarded the Middle East as theirs to control and in Iran they had only recently been - along with the Soviet Union - joint military occupiers for the duration of World War Two. But they were now on their way down. They had been kicked out of Palestine in 1948 - see my immediately preceding review on this Blog - and in 1956 the refusal of the Americans to support them meant that they were kicked out of Suez.

To this day, the Brits still want to intervene in the Middle East at every available opportunity, but they can now only do so on American coat tails. Mr Blair would not have got his war in Iraq if President Bush hadn't wanted one.

De Bellaigue's book is a bit awkward in structure, rather like the man who is its central character. It isn't a hagiography and the author is quite clear that Mossadegh could have avoided his fate. He did not see how much in his favour were the formulas crafted by a Truman Administration, sympathetic to Iranian aspirations to free themselves from quasi-colonial dependence but trying at the same time to save British face. De Bellaigue is equally clear that both the British and Americans failed to appreciate that Mossadegh's ideals were much more aligned with liberal democratic values than with Soviet ones or those of the Shah's supporters. The eventual  obsession with Soviet expansion meant that  the Shah's regime after Mossadegh became unpleasantly authoritarian with a vicious security apparatus, the Savak, as its American- and Israeli-trained guardian. ( In those days, Private Eye always referred to the Shah as the Shit of Persia).

Mossadegh emerges as an eccentric character who found his mission as a champion of national self-determination. His roots were in the old ruling class; his education partly Western and secular; his values liberal ( opponents usually got off very lightly by Iranian standards); and his politics veering between the democratic and - later in life - the populist or Messianic.

I liked this book because of its complexity. De Bellaigue has some straightforward Bad Guys - the arrogant and stupid British executives at Anglo Iranian oil, notably - but the rest of the cast are in shades of grey rather than black and white.

Monday 4 March 2013

Review: James Barr, A Line In The Sand

I am shocked. From the time in 1918 - when they were granted League of Nations mandates to run the former Ottoman Middle East -  until 1948 - when Britain abandoned Palestine - France and Britain fought like ferrets in a sack to extend their areas of effective control in the Levant. The Second World War did not even cause a blip in the struggle. No Method to advance their respective causes was ruled out - and when I say "No Method", I mean that. Terrorists proved useful to both sides, who supplied them with money and machine guns.

The First World War was in many ways an "Eastern" war, fought for future control of the crumbling Ottoman Empire. Russia, for example, wanted Constantinople and ports on the coast of northern Turkey so that it had full control over the Black Sea routes from Odessa and Batum to the Mediterranean.

Britain wanted - and at the end of the War, received from the League of Nations - Iraq, Transjordan and Palestine. There were two reasons. First, to provide a protective buffer to the east of British - controlled Egypt and the Suez Canal. Second, for Oil.

In 1912, the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, followed Naval advice and committed to switch the Royal Navy - the most powerful fleet in the world - from coal to oil. That entailed establishing fuel security and back then, fuel security meant owning the source of supply: it wasn't thought acceptable to rely on America (or its goodwill). So casting around for oil supplies, the British decided they just had to have oil-rich  Iraq with a southern outlet to the sea; and then they had to have Transjordan and Palestine to the west, so that they could run and control pipelines across to the Mediterranean.

So Oil is nothing new in determining foreign policy and Churchill's fuelling decision in 1912 has claims to be a Major Fact of British History which all school children should know.

The French wanted Syria and Lebanon (and a big chunk of Turkey, which they didn't get). Their reasons are a little less clear-cut. They wanted oil, for sure, but they also wanted to be a Great Power in the Middle East - and woe betide anyone who injured French amour propre. In 1943, de Gaulle's forces were unleashed on a War Crimes spree against the mandated populations of Lebanon and Syria, who had spent the War initially under Vichy French and then under Free French control. It didn't make much difference and the personnel were often the same. And the personnel often had little interest in the fate of Europe, only in French standing in the Middle East. And standing often meant a boot crushed in an Arab's face.

The French, the British, Arab Nationalists - and then the Zionists, who became increasingly important players in the Middle East conflict as Hitler expanded his power and his territories and America closed its doors to new migrants. By the end of Barr's story, Zionist terror groups - the Irgun and the Stern Gang - are being funded and equipped by the French to drive the British out of Palestine.

 Back in 1940, Stern himself - the Stern Gang takes its name from him - had seen Hitler as a possible ally:
in 1940 Stern had passed a message into Vichy Syria, offering to fight for Germany if Hitler would support the "re-establishment of the Jewish state in its historic borders, on a national and totalitarian basis, allied to the German Reich" (page 268)
The emergence of the State of Israel out of a planned partition by the United Nations ( and no Plebiscites or Referendums among the inhabitants) appears in Barr's book as just another grubby episode in thirty grubby years of Anglo-French control of the Middle East, not least because Israel provided the victorious Allies with a convenient solution to their Jewish Problem - what to do with all the unwanted survivors of the Holocaust. Why, just make the Arabs make way for them.

Since 1948, America has joined in the struggle for control of the Middle East but the French and the British are still there, meddling as best they can. The history is no less grubby.

This is an excellent book, full of surprising and genuinely shocking material extracted from archives now open to the historian. I thought I knew a bit about this period of history; reading this book, I felt that I didn't.

Saturday 23 February 2013

Review: William Dalrymple, Return of a King

I hesitated over buying this book: Would I really commit to reading 500 pages on the first British Invasion of Afghanistan, way back in 1839. But then I remembered Dalrymple as a fine writer from one of his previous books, From the Holy Mountain, and I remembered that the Taliban remember all our Invasions. They provide the context in which the Taliban view our current stupidities, such as the deployment of a spare Princeling Harry - a move we make without thinking or caring that it will immediately revive memories of the past inglories of our ruling classte.

Dalrymple's book is about the first of those inglories. We invaded Afghanistan in 1839 to overthrow a ruler, Dost Mohammad, perfectly well disposed towards us. But a paranoid fear of Russian Designs on Afghanistan clouded our judgement. At great expense in men and treasure, we re-installed his predecessor, Shah Shuja, who had been our pensioner for decades. But though he was at least reasonably capable of ruling in his own right, we made him appear a mere puppet. At the same time, we failed to get our own act together militarily (Elphinstone) and politically (Macnaghten, Burnes, Auckland). Right at the outset, the rape of a young Afghan girl by a drunken soldier (pp 172 - 73) concentrated the minds of Afghans on what it means to live under Foreign occupation and, in due course and after other affronts, the clergy sanctioned a jihad for the defence of Islam. Dost Mohammad's son, Akbar Khan, proved a capable military leader and within a short space of time Shah Shuja, Burnes and Macnaghten were murdered and the Army of Occupation forced into a harrowing winter Retreat which few survived.

Unwilling to accept humiliation,  we started again in 1842 and sent in an Army of Retribution under Sir George Pollock with a mission to loot, rape and kill - and, as if that was not enough to satisfy our need for Retribution, cut rings around Afghan fruit trees. We had no intention to stay and occupy, but the new Governor General of India, Lord Ellenborough, gave Pollock's Army and that of General Knott, based in Kandahar,  permission to "withdraw via Kabul" (page 440). By the time they got there, most of the Afghan population had left to hide in the hills. So the Armies had to take their vengeance on the city itself, burning it to the ground; they also attacked the few hundred  pro-British Indian traders who had remained in the city, foolishly thinking that it was their Friends who were arriving.

Having ensured that the fruit trees would die, we left - and in due course, allowed Dost Mohammad to resume his interrupted rule. He reigned successfully until his death in 1863, securing what are more or less the boundaries of modern Afghanistan. 

Dalrymple tells his story both from the well-known letters, diaries and historical narratives of the British (basically, English and Scottish) participants in the disaster but also from Afghan narratives, which he claims to be the first to utilise fully (see the "Author;'s Note" at pp.489 - 502). Quotations from these sources - often written in the form of epic poems - form a significant part of the book and throw into relief the lack of understanding, competence and clarity of purpose shown by the British leadership. 

In the end, it was not difficult to read these 500 pages, sobering as many of them are. At the end, Dalrymple lightly sketches their connection to the failure of the latest invasion of Afghanistan.

Dalrymple has done a terrific amount of research to write this book, has written it well, and deserves to have a wide readership.