Master of the Senate, by Robert Caro

Summary: some Johnsons know how to wield power

Master of the Senate is the third volume of Robert Carol’s massive biography of Lyndon Johnson. Like the previous volumes, it is something of a history of his times as well as being a biography of Johnson.

So, Johnson is absent for large chunks of this biography as it introduces us to crusading economist Leland Olds, Hubert Humphrey, doyen of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, Richard Russell, the leader of the Senate’s virulently racist Southern caucus, and, of course, Martin King.

Among other things this book is a study in power. It is fascinating to learn how Johnson transformed the hitherto irrelevant role of Senate majority leader into an office of incredible power.

There was little personally attractive about Lyndon Johnson. He was a bully, a serial adulterer, and a racist. But he understood power and he wanted to be president. So to obtain a viable presidential candidacy, Johnson destroyed Olds to keep his financial backers in the oil industry happy, and cosied up to Russell and his determined efforts to maintain state sanctioned terrorism against the black citizens of the United States across the South.

Caro observes in the course of this book, as he has in previous volumes, that Johnson’s life is composed of light and dark threads. However where Johnson’s instinct for compassion conflicted with his personal advancement, then his selfish interests won out.

But, in 1956 as he made his first attempt at the Democratic nomination, Johnson discovered that the support of corrupt oil interests and racist bigots was not enough. He needed support in the North as well. And Johnson revolted Liberal Democrats. So he had to do something to appeal to them. This led him to championing what became the 1957 Civil Rights Act, after first gutting it of all the substantive portions that Russell and his ghouls objected to. The negotiations and manoeuvring towards even this modest achievement provide a gripping climax to this volume, as compelling as anything in The West Wing or The Wire.

Caro argues that ultimately Johnson was by far the most important civil rights president since Lincoln. It is a remarkable aspect of his story how such an extraordinary narcissist was led towards this end from a beginning of overweening and selfish hunger for power.

Glass, by Emily Cooper

Summary: an exquisite collection reflecting on life and loss

“I buy a slide projector in a charity shop/ another woman is after it/ I avoid eye contact” (Glass).

Antje Krog, in her remarkable book on the South African Truth Commission, Country of My Skull, suggested that finding a new way to say, “I love you, but you don’t notice me,” is a measure of a fine poet in Western society. In her book, Glass, Emily Cooper finds new ways of describing this and many other aspects of ordinary life, from heartbreak to cooking to bereavement.

Her poem, Notions of Sex, a poignant description of determined recovery from romantic disappointment, is also overlaid with echoes of the violence and threat that women and girls have to endure. Her poem Old Lives is a mediation on the regrets associated with paths not taken, the repercussions of very real grief, and lonely optimism: “Open the window and/ Drink a glass of cheap French brandy/ To bring in the New Year.”

With her Northern accented ponderings on life through the prisms of some of the quainter corners of our common European homeland, eel cookery, and the myths of ancient Greece, Cooper shows an echo of Seamus Heaney. But her voice is still all her own and she is an exquisite successor to that giant.

The Women of Troy, by Pat Barker

Summary: continuing the story of Briseis, perhaps with diminishing returns

By any measure The Women of Troy is a fine novel. I just have a niggling wish Pat Barker hadn’t written it.

This book is set in the days following the fall of Troy, but before the Greek fleet has embarked for home, it’s departure delayed by inclement weather. However It adds little to the peerless Silence of The Girls, Barker’s retelling of the Iliad and Euripides’ Trojan Women. Instead, borrowing heavily from Sophocles’ play, Antigone, The Women of Troy deals with the conflicts arising around the burial of Priam. While gripping it has few of the arresting insights on war and slavery that made its prequel so powerful.

So, there’s a bit of a Jaws 2 vibe to the whole thing. Still, paradoxically, I will be waiting with bated breath for a further sequel: the character of Briseis is a superb creation and I feel invested in her well-being now.

Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Summary: in the tradition of War and Peace but maybe better

Half of a Yellow Sun is an incredible book. A sort of a 20th century War and Peace but, for me, carrying a heftier emotional wallop than Tolstoy’s masterpiece.

Thirteen year old Ugwu gets a job as “houseboy” for Odenigbo, a lecturer at Nsukka University in Nigeria. There he meets Olanna, Odenigbo’s posh, beautiful girlfriend. He doesn’t quite realise for some time, as he continues with his household duties, that the two have effectively adopted him as part of the family, ensuring that he goes to school, planning university for him, and, when they can, taking care of Ugwu’s blood relations.

Into the orbit of this non-traditional family, comes Olanna’s non-traditional sister Kainene, a business executive, and her English boyfriend, Richard, an academic drawn to this part of West Africa by his love of its art. None of these adults receives much approval from their other relatives and parts of their communities for their choice of lovers and the tensions that these bring allows for particular insight into the diversity of Nigerian cultures and British and Nigerian attitudes towards each other.

But all of these prejudices pale in the face of the bloodbath of civil war that engulfs Nigeria and leads to the establishment of the breakaway state of Biafra.

When I was growing up Biafra was still a by-word for famine and the punchline for knuckleheaded racist jokes. With Half of a Yellow Sun, Adichie describes the horror of the war there through the eyes of this small group of young people.

As well as the specific details and dynamics of that half-forgotten war, Half of a Yellow Sun tells the universal story of the impact of war on ordinary people, shattering life and love and brutalising and breaking even the best of people.

It is a masterpiece and wholly deserved of its reputation as one of the greatest books of the 21st century.

Yes We Mustard, by Ginny Hogan

Summary: Catch-22 for the millennium generation

Emery gets a job with an exciting new tech-condiment-start-up, Yes We Mustard, a company whose business model and CEO bear ABSOLUTELY NO RESEMBLENCE to Facebook or Mark Zuckerberg. Soon, her desire to be loved for saving the world and become an inspirational GIRL BOSS, leads her to investigate the mysterious “addictive fructose powder” that is being put into the company’s exciting condiment products.

Ginny Hogan’s satire is a glorious affair. With a joke rate comparable to a great Marx Brothers’ movie, she lampoons everything that crosses her path, from corporate culture (“now you can listen to your great and heroic CEO”), to faux-feminism (“when a man fires someone it’s mean, but when a woman fires someone it’s empowering”), to the eternal shallowness of men (“men don’t like her because she’s a good person. Men like her because she’s insanely hot”). Her real targets though are ignorance and selfishness – things that the ENLIGHTENED leaders of Facebook and their ilk are in no way responsible for just because their entire business models are based on their promotion.

Ginny Hogan has been an impressive stand-up for a number of years now. Based on Yes We Mustard she is also a gifted playwright. I look forward to more of both from her in the years to come.

Check it out on audible or here: https://podtail.com/podcast/the-audio-verse-awards-nominee-showcase-podcast/2021-showcase-yes-we-mustard/

William Wilberforce, by William Hague

Summary: an exceptionally fine and engrossing biography of a great humanitarian

In the sublimely brilliant film, The Ladykillers, the exquisite Katie Johnson’s character is called Mrs Wilberforce. In giving her that name the producers wanted to signal immediately to the audience that this little old lady represented the epitome of English decency and moral courage.

Her character’s namesake, William, is a rarity in British history: a hero who is celebrated not for their participation in conflict or colonialism, but for their role in a humanitarian campaign – the ending of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

The trans-Atlantic slave trade was one of the worst crimes against humanity in history. Over the centuries the slave-trading European powers stoked wars in Africa and trafficked over 10 million human beings into brutal enslavement in the Americas, killing millions more along the way.

William Hague’s biography of this key parliamentary figure in the struggle against the slave trade is a richly detailed and elegantly written account of the man’s life. Along the way he makes some fascinating excursions into the wider history of the time, including 18th century parliamentary machinations, evangelical religious revivalism, and the dubious electoral politics of that era.

Hague is generous in his assessment of Thomas Clarkson, the towering anti-slavery campaigner, without whom Wilberforce’s parliamentary efforts would have come to nothing. Of course, Hague argues, without Wilberforce Clarkson’s campaigning would also likely have been fruitless. Instead he asserts the critical complementarity that these two brought as the cutting edge of a national movement brought into being by, more than anyone else, the Quakers.

Similar to Jenkin’s biography of Churchill, this book is enriched by Hague’s understanding of parliament and government gained over the course of his own senior political career. It is an exceptionally fine work of history and reminds the reader why the name Wilberforce remains such a resonant one.

Contemporary British Politics on the Right: The Unbearable Weight of Sh*t

Summary: things are going to get worse

In the Milan Kundera novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the character Sabina, an artist, has a particular repugnance for kitsch. This is, she says, art with the shit removed. It’s the sort of thing exemplified by the socialist realist art of the communist era which would show heroic soldiers and smiling happy people basking in the sun of their Dear Leader. Never would these images ever hint at food shortages, Nazi collaboration, gulags, or the torture chambers where political prisoners would get their fingernails pulled out.

There is still, on the Left, some childish nostalgia for communism which, in the great tradition of kitsch, asserts that its dreadful absurdities and ghastly atrocities were aberrations from “true” communism, rather than its essence.

But, in a sort of bizarre historical symmetry, the Right in the U.K. seems increasingly dominated by an indulgence in the shit that the Left has jettisoned. Ignorance is always the soundest basis for prejudice. So, for some years the British Right has been wallowing in that like pigs as they have stoked the xenophobia and racism that is at the heart of their entire Brexit project.

But bad as things are, and they are dreadful, things are likely to get even worse before they get better. How do I know? Well, it’s there for everyone to see in pounds, shillings and inches.

Even thinking, as Boris Johnson has, of reintroducing the Imperial system of measurement to a nation that has not taught or used this system in the past 50 years is the epitome of a shit idea. But it is apposite that this idea should come from Johnson, a man fixated on bridges but infamous for being incapable of getting any built anywhere, something that today fundamentally depends on usage of the metric system.

If this was ancient Rome, Boris Johnson might try circuses to distract his subjects from their increasing poverty as he extends his brand of blundering authoritarianism. But the British Right has only shit to play with so it throws the masses shit.

It is beyond weird that a country that has produced Shakespeare and the Beatles, Mary Wollstonecraft and Benjamin Zephaniah should think that its culture depends fundamentally on an impractical system of measurement. But if you don’t know one end of a measuring tape from a theodolite, then that is the sort of shit you might believe.

As Sabina knew in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, shit is essential to life. But you shouldn’t play with it, let alone try to turn it into public policy.

The Afghanistan Papers, by Craig Whitlock; and Freedom, by Sebastian Junger

Summary: Why, long ago, the West lost again in Afghanistan.

On 18 August 2021, as the Taliban retook Kabul and the US prepared for full withdrawal from Afghanistan, Conservative MP and Afghanistan veteran Tom Tugendhat made a powerful and moving speech condemning the US “abandonment” of that country. Tugendhat suggested that the West had not shown sufficient patience to prevail in the conflict.

Tugendhat’s words, spoken in the context of the emerging vista of the Taliban’s renewed misogynistic rule in Afghanistan, struck a deep chord and drew considerable praise. Revisiting it in the context of The Afghanistan Papers, Craig Whitlock’s book based on the Washington Post’s reporting of successive US governments’ assessment of the war, suggests that Tugendhat’s speech was deeply mistaken.

The US went into Afghanistan to destroy Al Qaeda. Before this had been achieved it had also invaded Iraq. Whitlock details how this distracted military thinking and resources from the primary mission of killing or capturing bin Laden who was able to escape into Pakistan.

However, the hubris gained from the relatively quick overthrow of the Taliban led to the US deciding to set itself the goal of creating a liberal democracy in that country. That they decided on this goal was a testament not only to a remarkable arrogance, but also to the depth of their ignorance of Afghanistan. Donald Rumsfeld was not alone in plaintively asking the question “Who are the bad guys?”

In many American minds the Taliban were fellow travellers with Al Qaeda and so “the enemy”. However, while they had given Al Qaeda sanctuary and shared an Islamist outlook with them, the Taliban were a particularly Afghan phenomenon, a product of the diverse ethnic and tribal rivalries that have plagued this part of central Asia for centuries. They were disinterested in world revolution and so could have been co-opted by the US if the US had bothered to learn.

Instead, the US allied with a different bunch of murderous warlords and corrupt local politicians and started shovelling cash at them, and lead and high explosives at ordinary Afghan people. Three presidents, Junior Bush, Obama and Trump, kept this up, all effectively lying to the American people that things were going well while blundering from one misconceived approach to another.

For example, at one point under Bush, the US decided that the Taliban were being funded by the opium trade and decided to eradicate it by paying farmers to stop growing opium. This of course boosted opium production as farmers rushed to ensure they could claim the available cash. The US also got into bulldozing the poppy fields, but their Afghan allies made sure that this policy only applied to their rivals consequently ensuring little actual effect on opium production. However, those who were disadvantaged by the crop destruction were thereafter predisposed to allying with the Taliban who had actually banned the opium trade as un-Islamic when in power.

The Afghanistan Papers describes an ineffectual war fought for an institutionally corrupt and ineffectual government. The messy nature of the fighting which often sowed support for the Taliban by the “collateral damage” of horrendous civilian casualties, was described in memorable detail by Sebastian Junger in his book, War, an account of a period he spent embedded with one US army outpost in Afghanistan. Freedom is something of a sequel to that book. Ostensibly it is an account of a trek with some unnamed friends, some of them Afghanistan veterans, along the railway lines of the east coast of the United States. But really the book is a mediation on why the US was doomed to lose in Afghanistan. Drawing on sources as varied as the 1916 Irish rebellion, the Pacquiao-Mayweather title fight in 2015, and the Apache’s campaign in the US South-West, Junger explains why poor, weak opponents can so consistently defeat wealthier, more powerful foes.

Whitlock quotes a source saying, “Foreigners read The Kite Runner on the plane and think they are experts on Afghanistan.” I have never thought myself an expert on Afghanistan and left the place perhaps more confused about it than when I first arrived. But then I was only engineering water supplies, not trying to construct a new society. But the awful ignorance of Nato soldiers and policy makers described in the Afghanistan Papers seems one of the few constants in the past 20 years of war.

Perhaps Tom Tugendhat has read more stuff and is the man with the strategic genius to articulate the winning formula that has evaded every other military and political leader in Nato for the past 20 years.

The evidence instead suggests that defeat in Afghanistan was inevitable once the US embarked upon its hubristic goal of nation-building. So, while the final withdrawal of US forces could perhaps have been handled better, Joe Biden deserves respect for the moral courage he has shown in facing up to this stark truth.

The sunlit uplands in historical context

Summary: It’s going to get worse.

In 1974 the first power sharing government in the North of Ireland collapsed as a result of a coup d’etat against it by loyalist paramilitaries who had taken control of public utilities, including electricity. On the eve of its resignation, John Hume, a minister at the time, mused that the executive should refuse to surrender. “I’ll sit here,” he said in his government office, “until there is shit flowing up Royal Avenue [in central Belfast] and then the people will realise what these [paramilitaries] are about and then we will see who wins”. Hume’s biographer, Barry White, noted that he believed it was useful to show who were the builders and who were the destroyers.

The collapse of that Northern Ireland executive led to decades more bloodshed until a comparable deal was finally reached, for the “slow learners” of Northern Ireland politics in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

The spiritual heirs to the paramilitaries who destroyed that prospect of peace in the North of Ireland are now in power in the UK. The Brexit mob smashed the political economy created by the UK’s membership of the EU simply because they could. As Dominic Cummings rambling interview with Laura Kuenssberg showed, neither he nor anyone else in the Brexit elite had any sense of what they should build instead. But neither were they bothered about that. Like the Loyalist paramilitaries of 1974 their political philosophy is not much more evolved than that of the teenage vandal.

Johnson and his repellent coterie did discern however that Brexit offered them a path to political power. This, in turn would provide opportunities aplenty for pillage. In addition they could undermine democratic norms and erode rule of law to lessen the risk that they would ever be held accountable for their greed and incompetence.

Today, as in 1974, the British Labour party is proving useless in opposing the wreckers. They seem more terrified of upsetting the xenophobes than explicitly calling out the Big Lie that provides the animating philosophy of the country’s far-Right.

How this will win them power is not clear. The Tory policy of Brexit has put a sword of Damocles over the fishing and farming industries. Supermarket shelves are already emptying as Brexit buckles British supply chains. By the time the shit begins to flow in the streets, those who once voted for the whole show will wonder why Labour stayed silent rather than tell them the hard truth.

Lots of Brexit benefits for sale at my local supermarket

For centuries, the British Establishment plundered half the world with its empire, using racism to justify its many depredations. Now that same racism and xenophobia has given it a chance to convince enough of their subjects to slip the bonds that have, until now, restrained them from barefaced plunder of their own country. It is almost karmic.

In the end the English will have to rejoin Europe. The political and economic logic of the world already makes that plain to anyone who has ever taken the time to locate Calais in a school atlas. The sooner the slow learners of British politics realise that, the fewer young lives will be blighted by the pusillanimous surrender of government to the wrecking fools currently cosplaying the role of Fascist Italy from their Whitehall offices.

Fragments of Afghanistan


Summary: old memories of a war, with no useful conclusion beyond despair

Afghanistan was in chaos when I worked there towards the end of 1994. The warlords were still squabbling over the spoils following the Soviet withdrawal. So, as usual in war, the civilian population were caught in the middle. 

MSF Holland, who I was working for at the time, had a base in Peshawar in Pakistan from which we operated into Jalalabad in Afghanistan. 

Peshawar was a strange city. A garrison town under the British it fulfilled a similar function for the Pakistani government. Beyond the city limits lay the North-West Frontier province, that lawless area which the British could never control. Neither could the Pakistani government. So it was declared “self-governing”. That meant no government in reality. 

The North-West Frontier province began in the Peshwar suburbs, beyond the official city limits. After this point, marked by an arch across the road, the nature of the roadside shops changed from ones selling food and clothes, to ones selling hand grenades and Kalashnikovs. 

As the road twisted up through the foothills of the Hindu Kush towards the Khyber Pass it passed a palace, believed locally to contain the residence and laboratory of one of the wealthiest heroin processors in the world. Efforts by Pakistan to close down this enterprise were, it was said, always frustrated by the armed tribesmen of the North-West Frontier who valued the revenue this man brought into the region, being a ready market for their poppies and those of their counterparts in Afghanistan.

The relative order of the Pakistan side of the Khyber gates, maintained by the club-armed Pakistani police and soldiers, was wholly absent on the Afghan side, where crowds of migrants, desperate to get across the border seethed awaiting for an opening when the occasional authorised vehicle passed. When this happened they would try to surge through only to be beaten back by the Pakistani border guards. 

I worked designing a piped water scheme for a camp of people who had fled Kabul as a result of the fighting. In the arid countryside between Jalalabad and the border with Pakistan a new city of tents and mud had grown up for a quarter of a million people, scorching hot in summer, bitterly cold in winter. 

It was a land sown with dragons’ teeth. The countryside had been a battlefield for so long that occasionally kids trying to scavenge scrap metal would have lumps blown off them when they picked up some unexploded ordnance or discarded anti-personnel mine. 

In the evening there was little to do in Jalalabad other than play chess. One of the drivers was particularly good. In years gone by he had been good enough to be selected to play the Russian grand master Anatoly Karpov in an exhibition match when he visited Afghanistan.

One night our warehouse in Jalalabad was robbed. We contacted the local authorities and the governor himself showed up to take charge of the investigation. This amounted to him ordering the warehouse guards arrested and beaten until they told the truth of who was responsible. The governor just naturally assumed that these young guards were involved somehow. Still, I don’t think the culprits were ever caught.

Once, in the Jalalabad bazaar to buy some fruit juice, I remember a young Afghan man, sporting bandoliers and carrying an AK 47 slung over his shoulder, screaming at me for reasons that I could not discern. Discretion always being the better part of valour, I tried to make myself scarce. But I noticed his green eyes dilated with drugs as I fled.

There was a shop in the bazaar we called the antique shop. It sold all manner of bric-a-brac. This included buttons cut from the uniforms of British and Soviet soldiers who had died at the hands of Afghan guerrillas during 19th and 20th Century imperial adventures, and whose graves lay still in the mountains around us. I imagined that if you went deep enough into that bazaar there might be a shop where the lamps burned darkness and, for the price of your soul, even a flying carpet could be yours to possess. 

Around this time we first heard the stirrings of the Taliban. I don’t know where I first heard the suggestion, whether it was in Afghanistan or Pakistan, that this might be a good thing. At least they were a national movement, it was said, who might finally end the years of factional and ethnic conflict in the country. Certainly uniting in the face of a common enemy would be one way of obtaining national unity. Unfortunately women and girls seemed to be the ones who would obtain that unfortunate designation of “common enemy”. 

Not that it was a feminist halcyon up to that. One Afghan engineer I worked with was nervously hoping that his pregnant wife would give birth to a son. If she didn’t his mother and sisters were already pressuring him to take another wife who would produce a boy.

***

Years later, on a beach outside the port of Massawa in Eritrea, I fell into a fragmented conversation with a small group of Russian sailors in port for a couple of days. One of them, the one who spoke the most English pointed to the eldest of the group. “He is an Afghanski”, I was told, a veteran of the Afghan war.

“What parts of Afghanistan did he serve in?” I asked. 

From the litany he repeated one name stuck out: Jalalabad. “What did you do there?” I asked.

“You know the power plant in Jalalabad?” he asked, via our translator. 

“There was no power plant.” I said. “It had been blown up.”

“Yes,” the Afghanski said. “I blew it up.”