To Kill the Truth, by Sam Bourne

Summary: a twisty Washington thriller for our troubled times

Maggie Costello, Sam Bourne’s recurrent trouble-shooting hero, is taking some time out as a student following the events of her previous outing in To Kill The President. But she is called back into political service by a friend – the new governor of Virginia, concerned now about the murder of a Civil War historian coinciding with a trial initiated by a charlatan intent on denying that slavery ever actually existed in the United States.

It quickly transpires that these events are just the tip of a conspiratorial iceberg as a shadowy Right-Wing organisation begins attacking the great libraries of the world, intent on destroying the pesky facts that tend to undermine their Brexit-level crazy views of the world.

Bourne, otherwise known as the Guardian’s former Washington correspondent Jonathan Freedland, is highly adept at crafting a satisfying, twisty thriller. But To Kill the Truth is more than that. It is an engaging meditation on the uses and abuses of history, the tension in conflicted societies between justice and peace, and how facts no longer “mark out the public square for honest debate” but are themselves the subject of partisan dispute. These are timely topics given how buffoons like Boris Johnson and Donald Trump wear their contempt for the truth as a badge of pride.

With Maggie Costello, Bourne has created an engaging hero for these troubled times – not just a woman of action, but a woman of principle too and an intellectual who thinks her way through problems when others are in thrall to emotion. She’s a reminder of what the world could be, if passions were more often tamed by reason, and humanity prized more than prejudice.

The History of Money, by Jack Weatherford

The History of Money covers similiar territory to David Graeber’s Debt: the first 5,000 years. But it is a much less sprawling volume and hence, perhaps, a better introduction to this most vital and elusive of things.

Weatherford focuses in particular on four paradigm shifts in the history of money: From the development of coinage in Lydia around 600 BCE to the establishment of banking in the Middle Ages, to the development of paper money, notably in the American revolution, to the evolution of money into what it principally is today – electronic information.

If this sounds dull it is not. The History of Money is essentially the story of the development of human society and a roll call of some of the blackest episodes arising from our perverse relationship with money.

Weatherford argues convincingly that it was the shift to coinages of precious metal away from local credit systems or commodity money, such as cattle or slave girls, that allowed international trade to develop. From this societies evolved from “honour” or ritual based societies such as Homeric Greece, into market-oriented ones.

Furthermore in assigning coinage values to everything from a goat to a sexual act with a goat, the development of coinage forced humans to develop our capacities for abstract thought. The international trade enabled by coinage prompted the adoption of a common lingua Franca – Greek – across the Mediterranean basin. This in turn allowed for the exchange of new ideas – from those of Socrates to those of Jesus – that the evolution of abstract thought facilitated.

But, as well as identifying how money catalysed these positive evolutions of human society, Weatherford also charts how the love of money is a particularly tenacious root of human evil. He argues that it was a financial crisis in the Roman state in the Third Century, rather than any profound intolerance of beliefs, that prompted first Diocletian’s bloody persecution of the Christians, and then Constantine’s persecution of the pagans: Declaring whole sections of society treasonous allowed the emperors to expropriate their property and replenish the coffers that had grown bare once the Romans had run out of foreign peoples to plunder.

It was avariciousness also that led to the brutal suppression of the Knights Templar: Their often vicious international crusading operations had led to the development of Europe’s first international banking system and an amassing of vast quantities of cash. King Philip of France decided that this money would be better in his hands than that of the Templars. Hence to justify his looting of their loot he concocted a spectacularly lurid set of allegations against them, from Satanism to necrophilia, that continue to fascinate and inspire salacious conspiracy theorists to this day.

Love of silver and gold inspired the Conquistadors to visit genocide and slavery upon the entire indigenous population of South America, and England’s murderous and shameful pillaging of South Asia. It inspires still the global “bad boys” who to this day plunder the planet and devastate the lives of ordinary people to further enhance their personal wealth.

The evolution of paper money brought with it new problems, or perhaps simply old problems in new guises: The debasement of the coinage that Roman emperors undertook in the Third Century, has been replicated in more recent times in the recurrent practice of financially incompetent rulers simply printing more money to pay their bills. From that spiralling inflation results, which disproportionately impoverishes the poor. The continued growth of electronic money is likely to bring new challenges.

In the end of the day money is trust. And, as always, when trust is broken or abused it can wreak devastation.

SPQR, by Mary Beard

Summary: history that the victors would not want you to read

It is axiomatic that history is written by the winners. But, as far as Mary Beard is concerned, that’s no reason to take every tale they spin at face value.

SPQR is, perhaps, more of a histiography of the Roman Empire than a traditional narrative history. Each story of Empire she presents, from Romulus and Remus to Cicero and Caesar, she interrogates with great rigour, testing both it’s internal logic and it’s consistency with other available evidence, particularly the available archeological findings.

Hence it is a sustained lesson in critical thinking as well as classical history. Consequently Beard is no respecter of received wisdoms or conventional understandings. She thinks anew about this subject and demands her readers do too.

Sometimes this iconoclasm can go a bit far. For example, she dismisses Hannibal’s sanguinary victory at Cannae, one that has inspired generations of commanders, with the conclusion that all he really did was sneak around behind the Romans… which is true. But this does seem rather to underestimate all that this involved when outnumbered by thousands of armed and angry Italians.

Elsewhere she notes with approval the comment of a Roman writer that the real skill required to be a general is that of being able to organise a good dinner party. Again perhaps not wholly fair, but an eminently healthy attitude in any society, like Rome, like much of the contemporary world, which lionises the military – or the paramilitary – and turns a blind eye to their atrocities.

For all Beard’s remarkable communication skills SPQR is perhaps not a book that I would recommend as an introduction to ancient Roman history. But it is a vital one for anyone who wishes to get beyond the more simplistic narratives of that empire and to learn how to think more carefully about our own times and the false narratives and propaganda our own leaders still try to force down our throats.

We shall always overcome: speech to Rally For Our Rights, London, 12 Oct 2019

A couple of weeks ago I was back in Ireland visiting my family in the very place that Boris Johnson wants to reimpose a hard border.

It was a time for remembering and we remembered the dead: the dozens of people, British and Irish, who had died violently mere hundreds of metres from where we met.

There is peace now. It’s a peace that was forged by peaceful protest, by force of argument, by the spilling of sweat not blood. It’s a peace that has European foundations. Britain and Ireland’s common EU membership allowed different identities to be accommodated and old quarrels to be recast. From that new alliances and friendships have formed: before the 2016 referendum Ireland and Britain were the closest allies in the EU.

How things have changed. Now the uppity Irish are the bogey men and women of Brexit, disgracing ourselves in Brexiter eyes by our insistence that our peace is more important than their fantasies of reclaimed imperial glory.

But Boris Johnson and the imbecilic charlatans that form his government have forgotten something. They have forgotten that Britain is not just a land of Empire nostalgists and currency speculators. Like every country it may have a few racists and Blackshirts.

But Britain is also the land of the anti-slavery movement and the first trades unions. It is the land of the suffragettes and campaigns to make poverty history. In other words, this is a country filled with uppity citizens, people who believe in justice and fair play no matter what they are told by those who seek to profit from lies.

Following the corrupted referendum of 2016 the political leaderships of this country, Left and Right, wanted us to go quietly into the darkness. They wanted us to surrender to a far-Right clique the progress that had been made in peace, democracy, human rights, and environmental protections as a result of the UK’s membership of the EU. And they gave us comforting myths to help us on our way: garbage about a “jobs first” Brexit from the Left; nonsense about the Dunkirk spirit from the Right.

But we have not gone quietly. Instead a movement was born of ordinary people showing what Bobby Kennedy called numberless diverse acts of courage and belief and so reshaping the history of these times.

This movement is an expression of that collective sense of outrage that drove the anti-slavery movement and the suffragettes, and that drives still the demands for justice for Grenfell, the Windrush generation and Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. It is the same sense of outrage that drives every struggle for social justice and human rights across the world.

Each of us here today is saying with our presence that we are not prepared to silently accept the stripping away of the rights of young people to live and study and work and love across Europe.

Each of us is saying with our presence that we are not prepared to silently allow the denial of the rights of our friends and neighbours to contribute to the flourishing of this society simply because they come from a different part of Europe.

Each of us is saying with our presence that we are not prepared to allow the peace forged at great effort in Ireland to be jeopardised through the racist blundering of the buffoons who currently occupy Downing Street: people who for all their crass talk of world wars have never seen the effect of a bullet or a bomb on a human body, or the devastation that a battle can inflict upon a community or a war upon a society.

The spirit of British decency is alive on these streets today. It has forced the political leadership of this country to accept that Brexit is not a done deal. We have shown them all, from Boris Johnson to Jeremy Corbyn, something they should never have forgotten. That when citizens are outraged, united by our common humanity and repudiating the hatred and racism of the bigots around us, then no matter what injustice we may be confronted with, we will always overcome.

Jerusalem, by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Summary: an elegant and compelling account of the long bloody history of perhaps the most contentious and contended city in the world

Jerusalem is where Solomon built the Jewish Temple, where Jesus was crucified for teaching that people should love one another, and where Mohammed ended his mystical Night Journey. Hence it is a place that is sacred to three of the world’s great religions. And it is a place where all three of these religions have consistently and horrifically disgraced themselves for the much of the city’s history.

The Crusaders, for example, deciding to misinterpret Jesus’ teachings as meaning that you only have to love other Christians, claimed to have waded through blood up to the bridles of their horses from the massacre they instituted when they first took the city.

To be fair, they were following a long sanguinary tradition. When the future Roman emperor Titus took the city from Jewish rebels in 70 AD he butchered not just the rebels but the civilian population that the rebels had oppressed, and tortured other survivors to death for the entertainment of his troops and the citizens of Rome.

After the Romans and the Franks the Ottoman Empire also conquered the city before losing it to the British in the First World War. The French, Russians and Americans also intrigued over the place, before it was ceded to Jordan and then captured by the Israelis in 1967. Of course that has not settled anything: any peace settlement in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict must include some way to share the city between these two peoples with equally legitimate claims on it.

Many of the stories recounted in this book – of David and Solomon, of the Maccabees, of Jesus, of Titus and Josephus, of the Crusades and the great Kurdish leader Saladin, of Lawrence of Arabia, of Rabin and Dayan – will be familiar to the general reader. But by placing them in chronological order and in their international context Sebag Montefiore shows how the city has been at the centre of so many world changing political convulsions over the centuries, right up to the present day.

In Luke’s gospel there is the story of how the Devil led Jesus to a high place and “in an instant showed him all the kingdoms of the world.” In this history of Jerusalem Simon Sebag Montefiore manages a trick similar to the Devil’s: illuminating the history of the world from the perspective of the Temple Mount.

The Guns of August, by Barbara Tuchman

Summary: exquisitely written and utterly gripping account of the first weeks of the First World War

My friend Caitlin, a state-level chess champion in her US high school days, once gave me the best tip ever for playing the game: “Remember,” she said, “it’s not just about what you are planning to do, but what your opponent is planning to do as well.”

As with so many things about chess, Caitlin’s tip is important more generally in life. And Barbara Tuchman in The Guns of August shows how it is, perhaps, most vital of all in war.

In the decades before the outbreak of the First World War many brilliant generals across Europe developed many different plans that would grant them decisive victory. Unfortunately these plans tended to rely on opponents behaving in a way that would conform most helpfully with planners’ ambitions.

For example, the German High Command did not anticipate that King Albert of Belgium would actively resist Germany’s brutal invasion of his country. Nor did they expect Tsar Nicholas to uphold his treaty obligations to his Western Allies by mobilising Russian forces. And, as the fighting of the first weeks of the war unfolded, they did not expect the garrison of Paris to sally from the city to attack their flanks and initiate battle on the Marne.

As these things happened, quite contrary to the expectations of the shinny Schlieffen plan that had for so long promised swift victory to Germany over France, the Western offensive of the Germans crumpled into the muddy, bloody stalemate of the trenches.

Much of the focus of The Guns of August is on the machinations of the various high commands as their hopes collide with the realities of European politics on the battlefield. But Tuchman also gives human faces to the warlords who led their countries.

The book has its heroes, notably King Albert who, of all his royal contemporaries, was the only one, Tuchman notes, who achieved personal greatness. Of the other generals it is perhaps Sir John French, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, who comes out of Tuchman’s account worst, as a remarkably hesitant and ineffectual commander.

When they finally met in London in 1922 Michael Collins found French, who he had once tried to kill, a charming and engaging man. It is a sobering thought that it may well be humans’ finest qualities that render them of least utility in war. In other words, as Chaucer realised, the myth of the “perfect, gentle knight” is just that: a myth.

The Guns of August quickly established itself as a modern classic shortly after its publication in 1962. It is a deserved reputation. The book is an elegantly written, gripping, and enormously erudite account of the first weeks of the First World War, ending abruptly, in an echo of Thucydides, on the eve of the critical Battle of the Marne.

Perhaps it is also a book that helped to save the world. Jack Kennedy read it shortly after its publication and, himself a veteran of confused battles and command bungling, was impressed by a key theme of the book – the miscalculations and errors that led to war and battlefield disaster. So, a few months later, during the desperate days of the Cuban Missiles Crisis, Kennedy made very sure to constantly wonder about what his opponents – in Washington, Moscow and Havana – were planning to do.

Cummings is not getting his Johnson out any time soon: on the decline of British democracy

Johnson

There’s a lot of things Boris Johnson doesn’t like: monogamy; consistency; telling the truth; Paddies… particularly smart Paddies; “picaninnies with watermelon smiles“. But since he became Prime Minister it has become clear that more than anything else Johnson detests scrutiny. Foghorn Leghorn is less chicken than Johnson faced with evidence of his lies, duplicities and stupidities.

Of course this would be fine in a totalitarian society. You know: one that does not have a parliamentary system like the one Johnson has just decided to shut down. There Johnson would make a passable Mussolini, or a Ceausescu at a pinch.

But it is a terrible problem in a society that is meant to be democratic: in such societies the executive are meant to be accountable to the citizenry through parliament, and citizens can only fulfil our responsibilities in the system if parliament is functioning and we know what is going on.

This is what Edmund Burke was getting at in 1787 during a parliamentary debate on opening up of press reporting of the House of Commons. Then he refered to the press as the “fourth estate, thereby alluding to the vital role they had in ensuring that the people of a nation knew what was afoot with their government.

Cummings

So one can at least see consistency when, in addition to shutting down parliament, Johnson and his minion Dominic Cummings establish a policy of refusing Channel 4 News and BBC Newsnight requests for interviews. Just like House of Commons select committees, these are the few remaining places in the UK where Johnson and his spectacularly dim ministers might get asked hard questions. Like: It’s just that you really don’t care if bloodshed returns to the British border in Ireland, isn’t it? Or: How many ruined lives would you deem as too many for a proper British Brexit?

You might think that voters have a right to know Johnson’s answers to such questions. But understand it from his point of view. Honest answers would make him look bad. And, as Eddie Mair showed, he really isn’t a good enough liar to blag his way when faced by a competent interviewer.

No! It’s better for Johnson if he just bunkers in and avoids the nasty hard questions that make him look like the callous eejit that he really is.

Johnson’s hero Churchill may have eschewed the safety of the bunker during crises, but there’s no reason why Johnson should. After all, its not like Herman Goering gave interviews to to the Manchester Guardian when he was also trying to trash British democracy.

Given this, it would probably not cut much ice with Johnson or Cummings to remind them of what that smart Paddy President Jack Kennedy once said:

“there is a terrific disadvantage not having the abrasive quality of the press applied to you daily, to an administration, even though we never like it, and… even though we disapprove, there isn’t any doubt that we could not do the job at all in a free society without a very, very active press.

Such ideals are not to be allowed in Johnson’s Airstrip One. Here “ignorance is strength”, and that is how the tinpot have always liked it.