Debt: the first 5,000 years, by David Graeber

Summary: a vast and sprawling account of the vast and sprawling realities of human life and debt

In early medieval Ireland the basic unit of currency was the slave girl. This could be sub-divided into units of milk-cows, and provided the basis of not just commerce but the judiciary: the compensation a family could expect for the killing of a son, for example was set out in terms of slave girls and cattle depending on any extenuating circumstances that might exist. (Such was the negotiation that Queen Mebh undertook with Ferdia in the Irish national epic, The Tain, as she tried to bribe him to kill his foster brother, Cuchullain, with promises of bond-maids, including her own daughter.)

This is one of the many historic and geographic excursions that David Graeber undertakes in this book, an effort to demonstrate the nature of credit, money and debt over the millennia. It is an extraordinarily sprawling and rich account.

Graeber is an anthropologist not an economist. One gets the sense that his real purpose with the book – more than showing the origins of money or the interlinkage and interdependency through history of violence, debt and slavery – is to show the extraordinary complexity of human societies, how these complexities are often manifest in the way debt, money and credit are conceived, and that human beings, and hence human societies are vastly more complex than economists like to imagine.

With regards to that interdependence of war, debt and slavery, medieval Ireland’s use of slaves as a currency unit makes that perhaps more explicit than most societies. Others have sought to disguise the relationship not least through the media of gold and silver. But it is war, Graeber convincingly argues, that gives bullion its allure: it is easier to pay rampaging armies with precious metals than with promises of slave girls that they will take anyway. And it’s easier to transport bullion than livestock.

During their invasion and occupation of the Americas, the conquistadors butchered entire civilisations to get their hands on their precious metal objects and then enslaved the survivors to be worked to death in silver mines. This silver ushered in a new golden age for Spain, and because it was increasing accepted as a medium of exchange in international trade it opened enormous new commerce with Asia. But all of this was facilitated at root by the brutal enslavement of hundreds of thousands of native Americans.

The Trans-Atlantic Slave trade, which enriched much of Northern Europe, also exemplifies the interdependency of war, debt and slavery: African debtors and prisoners of war, were traded for firearms and other goods, to be shipped to the Americas and, once there, traded again for the sugar and tobacco that Europeans craved.

Today debt is the most common mechanism for enslavement of human beings: debt bondage was recognised by the United Nations in 1956 as a “slavery-like” practice. Bizarrely Graeber does not explore this phenomenon much: he’s, perhaps, too caught up in Orlando Patterson’s idea of “slavery as social death” to realise that for millions of people across the world slavery is also “social life”, and loving communities live with this reality decade in, decade out, hemmed in by debt.

This considerable lacuna aside there is an enormous amount to recommend this book. Amongst other things it has illuminating discussions of the origins of money, the role of debt cancellations or “jubilees”, such as that announced by the Rosetta Stone, in economic history, and the development of coinage during the “Axial Age”: a period of parallel flowerings of civilisations on the shores of the Aegean, in the Ganges Valley of India, and the Yellow River kingdoms and city states of China when Pythagoras, Buddha, Lao-Tse, and Confucius were all simultaneously alive. As well as being erudite it is also frequently very funny. It makes a strong case for a much more human understanding of the economy and society, and a radical reformulation of systems of credit and debt away from the cons and Ponzi schemes that currently pass for international finance that benefit only a tiny few while consuming the very Earth.

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Nights in Armour, by Sam Thompson

Summary: a fine novel of ordinary people at war and the horrendous consequences of violence

There’s an echo of Hill Street Blues, the seminal 1980s cop show, in this book. Like that series this book also encompasses a teeming cast of characters, police of all ranks and paramilitaries, to paint a portrait of what it was like to be a peeler in the North of Ireland in the shadow of the 1981 hunger strikes.

Thompson does not paint a heroic picture. His characters are flawed. Some are bigots. Some are fearful. All are human, living cheek by jowl with violence and death. Traffic accidents, riots, assassinations, attacks on themselves all take their toll as the British Government’s “Ulsterisation” increasingly places them in the forefront of the conflict and hence on the receiving end of the paramilitary offensive.

Thompson’s descriptions of violence are particularly striking. A former cop himself he writes these with the forensic clarity of someone who has seen what firearms and explosives do to human beings and human bodies.

Nights in Armour is a fine novel of war in all its ghastliness. It should be read by every young Irish person with romantic notions of what the Troubles were actually like. And it should be read by every English politician prepared to jeopardise the fragile peace in Ireland for their ludicrous dreams of reclaiming faded British imperial grandeur.

The Churchill Factor, by Boris Johnson

Summary: I read it so you don’t have to

It would be unfair to say this book is not entertaining. But then it would be hard to write a dull book about Churchill so packed with incident was his life. However it’s hardly a book that offers any profound, or even shallow, insights on its subject or his times.

Typically each chapter begins with an anecdote upon which Johnson will reflect on its meaning to him and what he thinks it says about Churchill. Johnson has a simple thesis: that Churchill was the greatest human ever and it would have been catastrophic to British and European history if he had not existed. Johnson strains every ounce of lard in his being to convince the reader of what he clearly regards as a self-evident truth.

But the reason for reading this book now, if one must, is not to find out about Churchill – there are much better books for that. It is to find out about Johnson as he stands poised on acceding to the British premiership. On the basis of this book one can say that Johnson is an even more peculiar character than one might discern from his public persona of lazy buffoon and lying charlatan.

Certainly the laziness is here to see: I don’t think Johnson had much more knowledge of Churchill than I did – gleaned from Roy Jenkins’ and Max Hastings‘ biographies – when he sat down to write this book. Johnson also makes tiresome use of straw-man arguments – establishing positions that nobody really holds in order to knock them down. It’s a lazy approach to argumentation which I have found seems to be a bad habit particularly inculcated in the privileged students of parts of Oxbridge.

Superficially there are similarities between Johnson and Churchill. Both are portly. Both journalists turned politicians. Like Johnson, Churchill was, mostly, a Tory. Like Johnson he was a racist. Johnson also strains to emulate Churchill with witty turns of phrase, but on this front he could have done with a firm editor clearing out screeds of what one would presume passes for humour in the Bullingdon Club.

But, on almost every other aspect of his character that Johnson chooses to discuss, Churchill was the polar opposite of Johnson. Churchill was a, mostly, faithful husband. Churchill was a ferociously hard worker, managing in parallel with his hugely effective political career a literary output that won him a Nobel Prize. Churchill was a master of policy detail, the sort of politician who would have known what was said in Article 25, paragraph C before staking the entire credibility of his policy upon it. Churchill was beloved by colleagues and subordinates who worked with him. Churchill spoke truth to power rather than, by and large, pandering to the mob.

Perhaps most fundamentally of all, Churchill defined much of the latter part of his career as a ferocious opponent of the policy of appeasing the far-Right. In contrast Johnson has courted such extremists to the extent of subverting his own nation’s interests and pandered to a neo-fascist leader in the US in the hope of mitigating the damage brought by his signature cause, Brexit.

In other words Johnson utterly hero-worships a historical figure who represents the opposite of much that he espouses politically, and everything that he is personally. This is cognitive dissonance of almost mythic proportions.

At the outset of the book Johnson states he agrees with the ancient Greeks who said “Character is destiny.” If this book is anything to go by then the destiny of the United Kingdom is going to be a deeply troubled one.

Listening Woman, by Tony Hillerman

Summary: a fascinating insight into the Navajo nation via the medium of a gripping manhunt

Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn of the Navajo Tribal Police does not want to babysit a national scout jamboree taking place on the reservation, particularly as he has just almost been run down by a homicidal driver who is still on the loose. Instead he agrees to look into a number of cold cases including a brutal double murder and the mystery of a disappeared helicopter, to give him time to try to trace the man who tried to kill him.

Hillerman’s Navajo novels are more than your typical crime fare. They are also explorations Navajo culture and belief. Amongst the Navajo nation the past is not past, with, for example, the repercussions of Kit Carson’s brutal conquest in the 19th century, still reverberating into the present.

It is this intersection of police procedural and cultural exploration that make Hillerman’s Navajo stories so special. Listening Woman is a particularly satisfying one as the diverse strands of the novel build to a violent climax in a remote and desolate corner of the vividly described deserts of the American south-west.

Shadowplay: Behind the lines and under fire – the inside story of Europe’s last war, by Tim Marshall

Summary: a fine journalistic account of war and power politics in the Balkans

img_1613The war correspondent is something of a non-fiction counterpart to crime novels’ gumshoe: a guide through the dark and bloody places that most of us would never dream of personally approaching but still are fascinated by from a few steps removed. Journalistic accounts of war also provide even the most venial of hacks the opportunity to present themselves as heroes of their narratives.

Tim Marshall, author of an outstanding book on geo-politics, Prisoners of Geography, avoids that particular egocentric trap by casting himself very much as the anti-hero. Here he is generally the blundering foreigner dependent on his savvy Serbian colleagues to obtain understanding and avoid dangers.

It is a generous approach and illuminates with flashes of warmth and friendship this, often bleak, account of bloodshed and power politics during the war in Kosovo and the democratic revolution in Serbia.

After the Second World War,” Marshall notes, “the West Europeans gradually invented the European Union as their attempt to prevent them from killing each other again. The Serbs and their neighbours had Yugoslavia, Communism and Tito. The EU survived, and the other three didn’t. When Tito died, the ties that bound their neighbours, almost as brothers, frayed and then snapped.

Marshall may, on occasion, display a regard for the British Army that can really only be shown by someone who has never had their country occupied by them. But otherwise he is impressively clear-sighted about the atrocities and bloody blundering of all sides in these wars, including NATO.

Like much of history, this is not a book with a happy ending. Both Serbia and Kosovo currently sit outside the European Union, their economic and democratic development stunted, with many of their young people abandoning their countries in the hope for a better life elsewhere. Neither will be admitted so long as there is a continuing “bilateral dispute” between them.

This seems rather short-sighted however. Both the UK and Ireland entered the EU in 1973 with a de-facto “bilateral dispute” relating to the North of Ireland, and it was common membership that provided the framework for ultimate resolution of that “dispute” with the Good Friday Agreement – something Brexit now fundamentally threatens. Given Europe’s abject failures in relation to the Balkan wars of the 1990s perhaps we should relook at the opportunities for enduring peace that all the Balkan nations accession the the EU could provide.

“Broadsword calling Danny Boy”: on Where Eagles Dare, by Geoff Dyer

This is a book that is so silly in its concept that it’s actually brilliant. It is a scene by scene discussion of the movie Where Eagles Dare, a movie that has somehow come to occupy a “unique place in the consciousness” of the author.

The book reminded me in a strange way of another film, The Grand Budapest Hotel. That film pretended to be a whimsical farce, but ended up touching quite profoundly upon life and history. In this book, Where Eagles Dare allows the author to entertainingly digress on all manner of subjects, from Richard Burton’s drinking, to Mary Ure’s pioneering work as action heroine – a proto-Buffy, if you will – to Clint Eastwood character’s disturbingly sadistic preference for killing with a knife when in possession of a perfectly good silencer. In the course of this the author also touches upon youthful hope, life, and war.

I’m never going to be 15 again watching this for the first time with my family at Christmas. But this book brought back the memory of that pleasure, if only for a fleeting moment.

Churchill, by Roy Jenkins

Summary: Churchill – both a hero and a villain

321F9220-5CD0-49CB-9EC9-689E793FD92FIn Brexit Britain one’s attitude towards Churchill is something of a faux-patriotic touchstone. Recently shadow chancellor John McDonnell caused frothing indignation amongst the perpetually offended right-wing of British society when in response to a silly question, “Churchill: hero or villain?” he responded, “Villain,” citing Churchill’s behaviour, when Home Secretary, towards striking miners in Tonypandy.

Of course, one of the reasons that Churchill attracts so much biographical attention is that he is a complex figure.

Considerable portions of Churchill’s career, most notably his resistance to Nazism, are the epitome of heroism. At a human level he was also very funny and impressively magnanimous. For example, he formed a close friendship with Smuts, who he had fought against, and been imprisoned by, in South Africa. Jenkins also suggests, probably correctly, that Michael Collins would have become an enduring friend if he had lived, and one can only regret the consequences to Anglo-Irish relations that he did not.

But other aspects of Churchill’s character and leadership are markedly less attractive. For example his deep grained racism and his unreconstructed imperialism are manifestations of the very worst aspects of British history and society.

That these positive and negative elements resided in Churchill simultaneously, for example catastrophically worsening the Bengal Famine in 1943 while playing a central role in formulating strategy against Hitler, makes him an altogether more interesting and problematic personality than either his acolytes or his detractors might prefer.

Roy Jenkins’ biography of Churchill goes a considerable way towards exploring this complexity across the course of Churchill’s career from youthful imperial war-junkie, to young Conservative MP, to Leftish Liberal cabinet minister, to rancidly bigotted opponent of Indian independence, to prophetic voice against the rise of Hitlerism, to heroic war leader and after. Jenkins also details Churchill’s parallel career as a voluminous writer, a career that ultimately brought him a, somewhat controversial, Nobel Prize for Literature.

There are omissions – there is no discussion of the Bengal Famine – the gravest stain on Churchill’s record, dwarfing even his civilian bombing policy against Germany, his startlingly naïve fawning towards Stalin, and his complicity in the betrayal of Poland to Soviet tyranny, all issues which Jenkins discusses in some detail,

It is very much a political biography focusing on Westminster and Whitehall machinations, and the deliberations of high summitry amongst the “Great Powers.” So it would probably benefit a reader to have some extant knowledge of events in the wider world as they affected ordinary human beings, particularly the struggle for Indian independence, the course of the Second World War, and the Suez crisis.

The book is enriched by Jenkins’ insider knowledge: his early parliamentary career overlapped with that of Churchill; and before rising to the presidency of the European Commission Jenkins was also British Chancellor and Home Secretary, two posts Churchill also held.

Nicholas Soames, currently a Tory MP, tells the story of how, as an eight year old he once intruded on Churchill with the question, “Grandpapa, is it true you are the greatest man in the world?”

“Yes,” said Churchill. “Now bugger off.”

Ultimately Jenkins shares this conclusion, that Churchill was the greatest human being ever to hold the office of British Prime Minister. It is perhaps an easier assertion for a Briton to make than for any citizen of a nation that suffered the bloody consequences of his racism to accept. But Jenkins certainly provides a rich portrait of this compelling personality, one who did so much to shape the Twentieth Century, particularly in relation to the triumph of European democracy.