The Five: The untold lives of the women killed by Jack the Ripper, by Hallie Rubenhold

Summary: an extraordinarily powerful and desperately sad account of five poor women whose lives were brutally cut short

Biography is a common enough form in political and military history often, when used well, providing telling insight into pivotal events. It is certainly a much less common approach in social history. But this is the approach that Hallie Rubenhold adopts in The Five. The result is stunning.

It is a book, like Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, that demands the reader rethinks their understanding of history. It debunks the myths and falsehoods constructed around a particular time and set of events to serve the interests of the powerful rather that the actual truth of what happened and, most unjustly, who it happened to.

Take for example the most commonly held falsehood: that Jack the Ripper killed prostitutes. Apart for Elizabeth Stride and Mary Jane Kelly, there is no evidence at all that any of the other three had ever had anything to do with sex work. What they had in common was that they were poor women driven by circumstances to the margins. Hence they were exceptionally vulnerable, often forced to spend nights on the streets where several were murdered in their sleep.

Rubenhold ignores all the fevered speculation about Jack the Ripper, instead focussing on the women themselves and how they ended up vulnerable and destitute. As Rubenhold says they were daughters, wives, mothers, lovers and their biographies are as varied and fascinating as any Victorian imperial “Great Man” and, in their ferocious efforts to survive, a damn sight more heroic even if ultimately tragic. Mary Jane, for example, managed the extraordinary feat of escaping from from human traffickers in Paris and, as was disclosed at her inquest, was active in trying to offer protection to other destitute women fearful in the shadow of this apparent serial killing spree.

It is comforting to think that the callous social policies and cultural attitudes that caused these poor women’s destitution are a thing of the past. But the methods human traffickers used to entrap Mary Jane are still commonly used in the trafficking of women and girls to this day. And there is so much in the stories of Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Kate and Mary Jane that echo in the life experiences of poor female factory workers and sex workers who I interviewed only last year in South East Asia. Things haven’t changed. They have just been moved on in the same way the homeless were “moved on” in Victorian times. People can tolerate much injustice so long as it doesn’t spoil their view.

The Five is an extraordinary work: rigorously researched, beautifully written, and desperately sad. It deserves to win every prize that it is eligible for.

It should win all the rest as well.

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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.

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.