Prisoners of Geography: Ten maps that tell you everything you need to know about global politics, by Tim Marshall

Summary: We’re all trapped, and since Trump inveigled his way into the Oval Office, probably going to die

Recently I was at a meeting with a pro-Brexit member of the British parliament who, six months after the referendum on Britain’s future in Europe, still did not understand the difference between the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights. Not everyone has to know that of course. But when the person in question is taking decisions that they promise will lead to a better tomorrow, one does expect them to have a firm grasp of the basic facts of today.

Prisoners of Geography is about some of those key and immutable facts. It is about the imperatives that are imposed upon political leaders by the geography within which they find their countries and how they feel compelled to respond.

For example Russia needs a warm water port for its navy. This allows it to project its military power across the oceans and be recognised as a world power. So, when Ukraine displayed a desire to move towards the European Union and Nato it did what it felt was necessary and reclaimed the Crimea and with that Sevastopol, the only warm water port available to it.

Similarly the historical Russian habit of extending its empire into Eastern Europe as far as the borders of Germany is explained by the vulnerability of Moscow to attack from the West across the Northern European Plain. Occupying Poland where the plain is at its narrowest, as it has frequently done, therefore increases Russia’s security from attack.

Another area of potential risk is the artic where Russia’s wish to control the energy sources there could put it on course for a clash with Nato.

Reading this book in the aftermath of 2016 US presidential election was a sobering experience. Marshall reminds us that the United States has a treaty with Taiwan which requires it to go to war if Taiwan is invaded. Something that would spark an invasion by China would be formal recognition by the US of Taiwan as an independent country. Fortunately “there is no sign of that”. Or at least there wasn’t until the US’s gerrymandered electoral system put a narcissist with a disinterest in facts and a xenophobia about China into the Oval Office.

Prisoners of Geography is illuminating not just on these contemporary geopolitical issues, but also on a range of developmental issues: why have Africa and South America developed, or failed to develop, as they have; how geography shaped European history and why the peace the continent has experienced over the past 70 years is not inevitable but the result of conscious political choice in the shape of the European Union. It also throws light on contemporary conflicts in the Middle East, between India and Pakistan, and in the Korean Peninsula.

I was mildly disappointed that there was no chapter on the geopolitics of Britain and Ireland, particularly as Brexit threatens to dangerously reshape the relations between the two islands once again. But, as Brexit also shows, as so much of the UK population and political class is utterly disinterested in reality at this moment in history perhaps there is no point.

Prisoners of Geography is a lucidly written and compelling book. It reminds us why the world is still a dangerous place. It is more dangerous still when power is put into the hands of the intellectually lazy, utterly disinterested in the facts.

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La La Land

Seb is a struggling musician… and a bit of a jerk. Mia is an aspiring actress who looks exactly like Emma Stone and is just as lovely. After a couple of inauspicious encounters they finally get to know each other and fall in love. Each encourages the other to pursue their dreams. But unfortunately the very pursuit of those dreams threatens to tear them apart.

The story may be slight, but the way La La Land tells it is nothing short of exquisite. It revives the Hollywood musical format in a way not seen in decades – particularly if one overlooks, as one should, the execrable movie version of Chicago. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are as lovely a central couple as have ever graced the silver screen. But there is something that seems grounded about their characters, almost ordinary, that makes them easy to relate to.

Like Singing in the Rain, La La Land is a movie about the makers of art. But there is something perhaps more universal to it. As well as the enormous joie de vivre of the film’s comedic exchanges and its glorious song and dance the movie takes seriously Beckett’s admonition: “Ever try? Ever fail? No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

I am generally not one for musicals, but I left the cinema wondering if La La Land had just stolen a place in my all time movie top 10. It is a lovely tonic in these bleak times, celebrating art and artists just as the storm clouds gather again on Europe and the United States. Just like the Women’s Marches across the world in the aftermath of Trump’s inauguration, La La Land reminds us of the importance of getting up after getting knocked down. It is perhaps the perfect movie for our times.

The Black House, by Peter May

A man is found murdered on Lewis, in the Scottish islands. The modus operandi of the killer is similar to that of a case that Fin McLeod, a Lewis native now a Detective Inspector, is investigating in Edinburgh. So Fin is sent North, returning home for the first time in 18 years, to see if he can be of any assistance to the police team investigating the Lewis case. What he finds reawakens a whole series of long suppressed memories. 

The Black House starts routinely (“There’s been a MURDER!”) enough as that classic trope: a police procedural with a flawed, troubled detective at its centre. But it quickly turns into something else. In significant part the book is about growing up, and a major portion of the book is told in the first person as Fin reminisces on his childhood, and the days leading up to his departure to university in Glasgow. This reminded me a lot of Seamus Deane’s sublime novel of childhood, family, politics and war in post-partition Derry, Reading in the Dark.   
Interspersed with this is the procedural part of the book, in the “present”, which is told in the third person. It is not at all clear until close to the end of the book just how these two parts relate to each other. But they ultimately merge very elegantly.

The Black House is the first part of a trilogy, and it is a hugely entertaining novel of life and crime, with a strikingly unusual setting in the Western Islands. I look forward to the rest of the series.