House of Weeds, by Amy Charlotte Kean

Summary: what weeds teach us about the human condition

I don’t read as much poetry as I used to, but I loved this book.

As its title suggests it takes its starting point from things we may often overlook or take for granted, but in these things Amy Charlotte Kean finds insights to the human condition, and indeed the universe, that “glitter like C-beams in the dark”.

Reflecting on the White Deadnettle, for example, Kean observes, “They/ sting/ because/ like and evil stepmother/ they flourish/ thru the elaborate dismantling of/ innocence.” Or her ruminations on life prompted by the Stag’s Horn Sumach: “The secret is to worship the poets/ Quote the philosophers, thank the men/ And don’t dare, even once, act normal.”

The book is beautifully illustrated by Jack Wallington, but it is Kean’s poetry that unsettles and stirs the soul.

The Philosopher Queens, edited by Rebecca Buxton and Lisa Whiting

Summary: An exquisite introduction to important, hitherto often suppressed, strands of philosophy from across history and the planet

The first thing to strike you about the book, The Philosopher Queens, is its startling beauty. It is an exquisitely illustrated book that simply lifts the heart just to look at.

More importantly the substance of the book is vital: the editors and authors have picked up the history of philosophy and shaken it “until the hidden women appear in plain sight,” to borrow a line from Natalie Haynes’ wonderful retelling of the tales of Troy, A Thousand Ships.

Starting with Diotama, a character in one of Plato’s dialogues from around 400 BCE, the book progresses across 20 essays via the great 18th century women’s rights and anti-slavery campaigner Mary Wollstonecraft, to Aziza Y al-Hibri, a Lebanese-American professor of human rights and Islamic jurisprudence.

As al-Hibri’s inclusion suggests the book avoids a northern hemisphere bias including important philosophers from Asia and Africa as well. These include Lalla, “one of the most influential figures in the religious history of Kashmir”, and Sophie Bosede Oluwole, “the erudite and provocative shaper of contemporary Yoruba classical philosophy”. In keeping with the book’s revolutionary approach to its subject, there is also a chapter on the American activist and political philosopher, Angela Davis. I was disappointed that there were no chapters on Rosa Luxemburg, Martha Nussbaum or Margaret Archer – but books are finite things and such omissions merely demonstrate that there is a need for at least one sequel to this volume.

Each of the essays provides a biographical sketch of its subject and their historical context as well as introducing some of their key ideas. However, these are not hagiographic. The essay on Hannah Arendt, for example, introduces her important work on totalitarianism, and her reflections on the “banality of evil” from Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem. But it does not shy away from also acknowledging her repulsive racism, and her “inconsistent treatment of Jewish oppression and African-American marginalisation in the US.” In raising this deeply troubling matter, the essay author, and co-editor of the book with Lisa Whiting, Rebecca Buxton makes the vital point that “no thinker should be idolised above criticism”.

The Philosopher Queens is a book that breaks the mould in more ways than one. It is both a fine introduction to the thinkers that it portrays, and an introduction to important though often neglected strands in “western” and “non-western” philosophy alike.

This book should become a compulsory textbook for students of philosophy. But it should also be more widely read to remind people that the world is a richer and more complex place than some folk may like us to think.

A Legacy of Spies; and Agent Running In The Field, by John le Carre

Summary: two fine, late career works by le Carre assert that Europe is indeed something worth fighting for

It’s no secret that David Cornwall (aka John le Carre) was a MI6 officer before the extraordinary success of his novel The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. His subsequent Cold War thrillers, many of them featuring George Smiley and his various colleagues, depicted an amoral conflict fought by cynical people for questionable gain but considerable pain. Indeed The Spy Who Came In From The Cold set something of a template for these subsequent works with its gripping portrayal of a British Intelligence plot to kill a senior East German spymaster.

A Legacy of Spies revisits that very plot, exploring it from the perspective of Peter Guillam, another of Le Carre’s recurrent characters, a fellow MI6 officer and friend of Alec Leamas, the eponymous Spy Who Came In From The Cold. It fleshes out some background, ties up some loose ends and answers some nagging questions about that earlier great work.

Agent Running In The Field is a more contemporary story set in the aftermath of the UK’s bizarre decision to leave the EU and bet its future on the whims of the profoundly flaky Trump-Putin axis. Nat, an MI6 officer coming to the end of his career, stumbles across an operation to betray British secrets to the Russians. As he digs into it he finds, with the shifting alliances of the post-Brexit world, and with the corruption of the upper echelons of British society by Russian kleptocrats, that the operation comes closer to home than he could have imagined. (The title is a cheeky nod to Theresa May’s response when asked, “What is the naughtiest thing you’ve ever done?”)

Of the two books Agent Running in the Field is perhaps the more satisfying, peopled with believable and likeable characters trying to come to grips with the lunacy of our contemporary world.

But together the two books perhaps represent a reassessment by le Carre of his own life as an intelligence officer. For all the moral ambiguities and unethical activities in intelligence operations, le Carre seems to now conclude that the battles he himself helped fight were indeed important ones, aimed at preserving liberal democracy in Europe from all foes, domestic and foreign. “Everything I did,” Smiley says in A Legacy of Spies, “I did for Europe”.

As the UK falls under the sway of the increasingly authoritarian cabal around Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings it is sobering to contemplate what can happen when the UK’s intelligence agencies do not fulfil their most basic functions of protecting national democracy. Johnson and co have, of course, already taken steps to ensure that their links with Putin are never explored by either MI5 or MI6. Whatever they do next is unlikely to even be in England’s interests, let alone Europe’s.

The Children of Jocasta, by Natalie Haynes

Summary: The story of Oedipus is more complex than you might think

The Irish playwright Frank McGuinness has described Sophocles’ play, Oedipus the King, as the first police procedural, focussing on Oedipus’ hunt for the culprit responsible for the plague on Thebes. So powerful a vision did Sophocles present that Natalie Haynes herself has argued in her spectacularly entertaining radio series, Stand Up For The Classics, that it has reverberated ever since in the personae of every brooding murder detective to have gotten their own TV show … apart maybe from Miss Marple.

Undaunted by the weight of this literary heritage, Haynes has imagined her own version of the tragedy of Oedipus and his family. Focussing particularly on two of the characters that Sophocles left rather silent, Jocasta and her daughter Ismene, Haynes has managed to craft something of a multi-generational political thriller that put me in mind of Seamus Deane’s masterpiece, Reading in the Dark.

Like Deane’s book, The Children of Jocasta follows the efforts of a young person, Ismene in this case, to unearth the truth of their family’s history. This has been kept from her and her siblings because it represents some rather awkward truths for the powers that be in her present-day Thebes. While there are a few differences between ancient Thebes and 20th Century Derry, human nature remains the same. And like Deane, like Sophocles, Haynes story is filled with compelling and believable characters confronted with some horrible dilemmas.

Haynes has thrown in a few sexy analogies to apricots – something she has pointed out elsewhere would not have been available in Greece for another thousand years – but the rest of her context is resolutely realistic. There are no “deus ex machina”, peculiar riddles, or flying monsters. Swords may glitter beautifully, but they also make horrible messes of human bodies, and power represents a prize that some may sacrifice even the closest bonds of family for.

As with her wonderful account of the Trojan War, A Thousand Ships, The Children of Jocasta brings new, predominantly female, perspectives on stories that many of us may feel we already know inside out. In doing so, she again finds the power to surprise and delight her readers with an exquisite piece of writing.

Night of the Bayonets, by Eric Lee

Summary: Georgian-Soviet tensions coming to a bloody reckoning in the last European battle of the Second World War

In their various books both Timothy Synder and Max Hastings have endeavoured to demonstrate how the good versus evil myth so beloved of British Second World War nostalgists, rings very hollow for the peoples of central and eastern Europe. For countries like Poland and Ukraine, for example, the experience was rather to be caught between the monstrous regimes of two of the Twentieth century’s greatest murderers: Stalin and Hitler.

With Night of the Bayonets, Eric Lee focuses in on one small but hugely illuminating example of this bleak reality. 

In the early hours of 5 April 1945, Georgian soldiers serving with the Wehrmacht on the Dutch island of Texel rose up against their German comrades, butchering many of them with knives and bayonets as they slept. 

As Eric Lee explains, the Georgians may not have been enthusiastic Soviets, Georgian independence and democracy having been strangled in the cradle by the Bolsheviks. However, they were unlikely to have been enthusiastic Nazis either. Politics was probably less a factor in them turning their coats than survival. Having been captured by the Germans earlier in the war, donning the German uniform seemed one of their few chances of survival, the alternative being death by a swift bullet or by starvation and disease in a prison camp. 

With the approaching end of war however, the Georgians were pitched onto the horns of another dilemma: how would they be received back in Stalin’s USSR having served in German uniforms. Stalin had already declared surrendering Red Army solders to be traitors. The Georgians must have been aware that if they returned to the Soviet Union they would likely end up liquidated or in a Gulag. 

So, insurrection must have seemed a reasonable gamble, demonstrating their continued loyalty to the Allied cause, and by allying themselves with Dutch communists, with the cause of the Soviet Union. 

It was only after battle was joined that the Georgians found out what other resistance fighters, from Warsaw to Prague to rural France, also discovered: that they were expendable as far as the Allied high commands were concerned. As in Warsaw the Germans also realised this, and so they decided to take their time in exacting revenge on Georgian fighters and Dutch civilians alike. It was not until late May, long after VE day, that Canadian forces landed on Texel, ending the battle.

Other books – most famously Cornelius Ryan’s description of the fall of Berlin, or Stephen Harding’s account of the extraordinary action at the Schloss Itter in Austria – have claimed to be accounts of the “last” battle of the Second World War in Europe. However, Lee’s account of this “last battle” is important not as a historical curiosity, but because it also illuminates so much of contemporary Europe, not least in explaining something of the origins of the ongoing tensions between Georgia and Russia.

Night of the Bayonets is an elegantly written and important work of history, In providing a non-Anglo-American perspective on the Second World War in Europe, it may usefully punctures some of the contemporary myths of the Second World War that still pervade attitudes in the UK. For this, and for much else, it deserves a wide readership.

Catch 22, by Joseph Heller

Summary: Yossarian’s sanity almost drives him mad.

I once had a boss who had to vacate his office in favour of his superior because the said superior had discovered that his own office was two square feet smaller than that of my boss.

Anyone familiar with the world of work will have similar stories to tell about the petty jealousies and mindless bureaucracies that can blight this aspect of our lives. But such stupidities rarely threaten our lives – unless of course you are a health care worker depending on Boris Johnson for PPE during a global pandemic.

Mindless bureaucracy and petty jealousies are rarely the central themes of fictional portrayals of war, even though they are a frequent discussion in military history: Grant and Lee’s arguments over protocol at Cold Harbour, for example, that cost the lives of so many wounded. Or General Mark Clark’s career of incompetence during the Second World War’s Italian campaign.

Catch 22 sought to remedy that however. Bureaucracy, pointless protocol, military etiquette, get rich quick schemes dominate the narrative because it is these that dominate the priorities of those who don’t have to risk their lives.

However for the novel’s anti-hero, John Yossarian, none of these things matter. He just wants to survive. Unlike his superiors, Yossarian knows what flack can do to a human body. He just wants the unrelenting terror of operations to end and to go home. However Yossarian discovers no matter how often he braves the guns of the Herman Goering division, he still has to fly. His superior’s dreams of martial glory leads him to keep pushing up the mission count in the hope that this will help him to become a general. Yossarian, like his pal the Chaplin, does not have the comfort of insanity or selfishness to cushion him from the pity of war, and so hovers perpetually on the edge of breakdown.

Catch 22 is a sprawling book, hopping amongst characters and their diverse but interconnected misadventures. Such is its complexity that George Clooney’s exceptionally fine television version of the story required robust editing of the narrative elements.

It is often described as a satire, and it certainly is rich with black comedy. But Joesph Heller was himself a veteran of 60 combat missions, like Yossarian, as a bombardier in the Italian campaign. So the horror of that experience is never far from the surface, and is something that moves centre-stage in the final chapters of the book.

Some years after Catch 22 was published a reporter put it to Heller that he had not written anything as good since. “No,” said Heller. “Neither has anyone else.”

No more evil geniuses any more

Summary: A Very British Coup

I suppose it comes from watching too much Dangermouse and James Bond as a kid: I came to expect the evil to be geniuses.

Watching Boris Johnson and his even less impressive minions like Nigel Farage, Priti Patel, Mark Francois, Andrew Bridgen, Sally Ann Hart and their ilk on television these days and I’m reminded of Hannah Arendt’s observations on the banality of evil. 

These are people who have not gotten into power because they are positive human exemplars of looks, brains or personality. They simply hate, and they share hatreds with enough others to have an electoral base.

More than any other European democracy, the UK is an elective dictatorship. Those checks and balances on the excesses of the executive as exist post-Brexit, such as the national courts and remaining international law, the British government is now openly talking about dismantling. So the only constraint on their power grab will be the speed of bureaucratic processes.

Basically, the health of English democracy will be determined by how much and how quickly the government can undermine it in the next four years. So, the only saving grace of Boris Johnson, like Donald Trump, is that he is inordinately lazy. So he might, on his own, not get around to many things. With the energetically deluded Dominic Cummings pulling the strings, however, this may change.

Even in the most notorious of dictatorships, authoritarianism can creep slowly. Mugabe’s power grab in Zimbabwe was a protracted but relentless affair, done in concert with the scapegoating of portions of the population, starting with the Ndebele, and, later, with the settler farmers.

Boris Johnson has based his political career on scapegoating too: first the European Union, now impoverished migrants trying to cross the English Channel. “Look”, he says, probably astonished that so much of the English population remains gullible enough to swallow his charlatanism whole, “these are the ones who are the causes of your problems, not me! Not the policies me and my pals have advocated and implemented for decades, not the incompetence I have shown in the face of a public health crisis.”

It is in moments like this that journalism’s role in defending democracy becomes most critical. But by fetishizing a notion of “balance” it is possible for even well-meaning media professionals to become cogs in a process aimed at obscuring the true causes of contemporary poverty and conflict. If, like the newspaper editor in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the press chooses in the name of “balance” to print the politicians’ legends while knowing they are untrue, then they become mere henchmen to government, not journalists.

Without sufficient critical appraisal of the Johnson circus’ shenanigans, people can become distracted by the performances. Then they may more easily overlook the growing stench of corruption and cronyism coming from the Prime Minister’s circle as lucrative contracts are awarded to school pals, and foreign intelligence agencies are tolerated in their murder and injury of British citizens because they donate to the Conservative party.

In 1944, the then US vice president Henry Wallace argued that in America fascism could come to power under the auspices of “Americanism.” In England authoritarianism is likely to come to power under the auspices of a form of “patriotism” in which intolerance is practiced in the name of toleration, and the wholesale destruction of human and civil rights accomplished in the name of “British values.”

Those who bring their country to this nadir will, of course, be too stupid to appreciate the irony.

John Hume: reflections on a life well lived

History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave,
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.- Seamus Heaney, The Cure at Troy

One of my earliest memories is watching a neighbour being shot. Another was of almost being caught, while on my way to primary school, in a culvert bomb attack launched by the IRA on the British army. The brother of a classmate was murdered by the SAS. A few years ago, I discovered that a bunch of loyalist paramilitaries had planned to massacre the children and staff of my Belleeks primary school. Fortunately for all of us, this was called off. Some war crimes were even too much for the war criminals of the North of Ireland.

I repeat these brushes with violence not to suggest that I am special in any way, but because these were typical life experiences for people living in the North of Ireland during the 70s and 80s. Indeed I was very lucky. Aside from a nasty kicking I once got from Shinners for having the temerity to canvas for the SDLP in West Belfast, my family was notably unscathed by the squalid little war that engulfed the North until John Hume finally managed to organise its ending.

I met John Hume a couple of times, but I doubt he ever remembered my name. I was a minor student activist in the SDLP, gone after a couple of years and never to return. So, it doesn’t matter much in the grand scheme of things that, from the first moment I heard of them, I was in favour of the Hume-Adams talks. It was, it seemed to me, an honourable effort towards peace and the logical extension of the philosophy of dialogue and persuasion that Hume had always advocated and that I had bought into early.

It is true that I did not think that the peace it ultimately brought would lead to Sinn Fein’s regrettable electoral ascendancy, as other more astute observers, such as Seamus Mallon, feared. But even in retrospect I think it a price worth paying. As has been said before: there are people alive today because of what Hume did to obtain peace. As Hume argued at the time, that is more important than the electoral success of any party.

Since his death some commentators have not even been able to wait until Hume was at rest in his grave before resurrecting the attacks that they began on him when he first sat down to talk with the Provos and that bore so heavily on him throughout those ghastly days. The thrust of their attack remains: because the peace process is imperfect, it is reprehensible. 

It is easy to be glib about war when it is not something that is likely to cut short your life or that of someone you love. That is something that the relatives of those butchered at Greysteel understood when one of their daughters told Hume they had prayed over her father’s coffin that he would be successful in his efforts with the Provos so that other families would not have to suffer as they had. 

Today it’s easy to indulge in the sort of maudlin glorifications beloved by Sinn Fein and the British Establishment of those who have taken up arms on their behalf. But I remember war too well to buy that nonsense. Ballymurphy, Bloody Sunday, Bloody Friday, the Miami Showband massacre, Kingsmill, the Shankill Butchers, La Mon, Enniskillen, may be selectively remembered still. But they were just larger examples of the “exchange of murders”, as Malachi O’Doherty once accurately described them, that typified the conflict.

In truth I’ve never found war anything other than a squalid matter, whether practiced in the North of Ireland, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Afghanistan or Angola. The scales of conflict in each place were different. But across the globe and through history each have in common that they enmesh ordinary people in systems of increasingly brutal inhumanity towards other people. This is true for just and unjust wars alike.

Of course as Bono noted in his bleak, beautiful lament for those massacred at Omagh, “hope and history don’t rhyme”. But they do have an assonance: a half rhyme.

Even a failed poet like me knows that the line “sometimes hope and history are in assonance” doesn’t have the quality of Heaney’s phrase or that of Bono. But that is where we are, and it is better than where we were. Musicians no longer have to worry about being targeted for playing to the “wrong” crowds. Dog fanciers no longer have to worry about being burned to death while having an evening out. Protesters for civil rights do not have to worry about being shot down in the streets by a foreign army. 

John Hume understood that imperfect peace is preferable to any war. His monumental life’s achievement in wresting that from the most nihilistic of conflicts is but another stepping-stone to a better society, to a better agreed society. 

It is for the rest of us to continue that journey now, remembering, as John Hume showed us, that no matter how bleak the moment, or imperfect the circumstances, if we put the sweat in, we also can overcome.

The Border Trilogy (All the Pretty Horses; The Crossing; Cities of the Plain), by Cormac McCarthy

Summary: Cowboy Homer, Homeric cowboys

The last line of the Iliad is, “Thus they busied themselves with the burial of Hector, tamer of horses.” John Grady Cole is a tamer of horses too. A gifted trainer in love with the cowboying life, something as doomed as Troy by drought and modernity.

We first meet him just after the Second World War when he and his friend Lacey Rawlins leave their homes in the US and cross into Mexico looking for work as cowboys. Their adventures and misadventures on that trip are recounted in All the Pretty Horses. That odyssey echoes another journey undertaken by Billy Parham and his brother before the war, the subject of The Crossing. 

At the beginning of Cities of the Plain Billy and John Grady are friends, working together on a ranch in New Mexico. One night in a whorehouse across the border in Mexico John Grady sees a young girl, sold into slavery there to pay someone else’s gambling debt. Her long black hair reminds the reader, as perhaps it does John Grady, of Alejandra, the girl he fell in love with in All the Pretty Horses

Each novel of the Border Trilogy is a self-contained work, but collectively they chronicle the lives of John Grady and Billy and their dying lifestyles. They are exquisitely rich with the intricacies of ranching life while shot through with the tension and violence of the most accomplished thriller. 

Love, whether for a woman or for a brother, in these books tends to be a source of trouble. Alongside it, honour, courage and integrity are no more a guarantor of justice for Billy and John Grady than they were for Hector before the gates of Troy.

Perhaps the United States is too large and diverse to have a single National Epic like the Iliad for Greece or the Táin for Ireland. But with the Border Trilogy maybe the American South-West has a work of literature that captures the lost essence and ideals of that mythic cowboying community that John Grady and Billy represent.

East West Street: on the origins of genocide and crimes against humanity, by Philippe Sands

Summary: an lucid and important exploration of the personal consequences of atrocity, and the origins of international human rights law.

East West Street is something of a hybrid of a book. It is part family memoir: Sands’ maternal grandparents were survivors of the Holocaust, but never spoke about their experiences. And while loving people, they never smiled much, something that becomes more understandable as their biographies are painstakingly revealed.

In part the book is a history of the philosophy of international law. The book is also a joint biography of the originators of key concepts of human rights: Rafael Lemkin postulated the idea of “genocide” – the destruction of groups of people based on their identity; Hersch Lauterpacht formulated the idea of “crimes against humanity” – atrocities against individual civilians, often by their own governments.

What binds all this into a remarkable whole is the strange coincidence that, like Sands’ grandfather, Lemkin and Lauterpacht had deep ties with the city of Lviv, currently in Ukraine, previously known as Lemberg when it was in the Hapsburg empire. It was there that Lemkin and Lauterpacht originally studied law, and may well have come to know each other, though they do not seem ever to have become friends. Lemkin was a solitary and spiky soul. Lauterpacht had deep concerns that the concept of genocide would drive human beings deeper into their group identities and hence perpetuate the roots of genocide, if not its actual manifestation.

Nevertheless, both “genocide” and “crimes against humanity” are now important concepts in international human rights law. However, it was a struggle to get them accepted at Nuremberg. The US and the UK did not like the idea of genocide having been formidable practitioners of it themselves in the past. The Soviets, whose own campaign in the East had been marked with atrocity, including mass rape during the conquest of Berlin, did not like the concept of “crimes against humanity.” Nevertheless, Lemkin and Lauterpacht’s advocacy, and the interventions of Robert Jackson the chief US prosecutor, and Hartley Shawcross, the British Attorney General, eventually got them included.

The book builds considerable momentum towards its climax at the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals. Here the personal, political and legal strands of the book are drawn together into what must be the most important courtroom drama in history. Sands focusses particularly on the case of Hans Frank in this trial. Himself a lawyer, as Governor General of Nazi occupied territories in Poland, Frank was ultimately responsible for the murders of many of Lemkin’s and Lauterpacht’s families, as well as members of Sands’ own family. 

In the course of writing this lucid and important book Sands became friends with Frank’s son, Niklas. Together in the courtroom where his father was sentenced to death, Niklas described it as a “happy place.” Later Niklas explained further that he was against the death penalty, but not for his own father. 

East West Street is a mighty book.