Gettysburg: The last invasion, by Allen C Guelzo

Summary: a fine account of a key turning point of the American Civil War

At the beginning of July 1863 Robert E Lee, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, invaded Pennsylvania. Lee reckoned that victory in the North, and the final defeat of the Army of the Potomac, would guarantee Confederate success in the war.

He picked his moment well. The Army of the Potomac was in disarray having suffered a major defeat at Chancellorsville in April. This brought about the replacement of that army’s latest commander, Joe Hooker, with the uninspiring George Meade. In addition after years of bloody conflict the people of the North were sick of fighting and Lincoln looked set to lose the 1864 election to a Democrat who would certainly sue for peace.

Lee’s plan was to concentrate his forces close to the town of Gettysburg and then defeat the Army of the Potomac in element as it moved up to intercept him. This would then have opened the road to Philadelphia and even the possibility of capturing Washington DC.

However Lee’s plan was thwarted by one of Meade’s subordinate generals, John Reynolds. Reynolds’ cavalry located Lee and alerted him to bring the rest of his Corps up to Gettysburg to disrupt the Confederate’s concentration.

So began three days of desperate and murderous fighting. One of the first casualties was John Reynolds, killed leading his troops into position. But the Union held the high ground at the end of the first day in spite of Lee’s best efforts. By the end of the day Meade arrived on the field, not exactly gruntled that he was being effectively forced by his subordinates to fight at a place not of his choosing .

Meade’s caution was understandable as the second day of the battle saw the Union almost losing the fight on multiple occasions. Famously Joshua Chamberlain held the extreme flank of the Union lines with an imaginative bayonet charge at a critical moment. But, as Guelzo points out, the fame of Chamberlain’s charge was principally the result of the fact that of the commanders on that flank of the army, he was the only one to survive. Paddy O’Rourke who commanded a New York regiment there, and their brigade commander, Strong Vincent, both made decisive interventions in the fighting but were killed and so did not live to tell the world their stories.

But the “sublime” moment of the battle, as far as Guelzo is concerned, occurred later on the second day when on the orders of another of Meade’s senior subordinates, Winfield Scott Hancock, the 1st Minnesota Regiment under Colonel William Colvill counter-attacked a Confederate assault that was all but assured to overrun the Union positions. Though the Minnesota troops were outnumbered 10 to 1 the impetus of their charge drove back the attackers and saved the day, and with that the Union.

The Union effort over the three days of Gettysburg was a fragmented affair, little coordinated by Meade. Instead the victory was much more a result of the initiative and courage of subordinate commanders and their troops responding selflessly to the crises that they encountered across the field. Guelzo argues that these soldiers knew that the future of the Union would be determined at Gettysburg and proved themselves ready to pay “the last full measure of devotion”, as Lincoln put it, if that was what was required. Eight score years later, it is difficult to reflect on any account of this battle with anything other than horrified awe.

Caste: the lies that divide us, by Isabel Wilkerson

Summary: an elegantly written exploration of the poison at the heart of the American nightmare

“The townspeople of the East Texas village of Leesburg hammered a buggy axle into the ground to serve as a stake. Then they chained 19 year old Wylie McNeely to it. They collected the kindling they would use for the fire at the base of his feet, despite his protestations of innocence in connection to the white girl they said he had assaulted. Five hundred people gathered that fall in 1921 to see Wylie McNeely burn to death in front of them.”

Violence has long been at the heart of American society. It was intrinsic to slavery and it is intrinsic to maintaining the systems of preference and privilege that persist in America. With her book, Caste, Isabel Wilkerson focuses with impressive clarity on this violence and how it manifests in small ways and large to maintain the system of prejudice and discrimination that still afflicts the United States.

Following the Civil War the lynchings of innocent black people, such as that of Wylie McNeely that Wilkerson describes in such depressing and horrifying detail, became routine to remind black people that whatever the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution said, they still had to know their place. The contemporary police killings of black people serve the same purpose. It is also why so many Americans voted for a corrupt and imbecilic white supremacist to be their president.

As it did for Martin Luther King, the introduction to the South Asia concept of caste helps clarify for Wilkerson the nature of the United States’ own hierarchical system. But, unfortunately, this book provides only a limited discussion on the plight of Dalits – the Untouchables – and Adavasi – tribal peoples – in South Asia where they continue to struggle against ongoing enslavement, and routinized violence comparable to the worst excesses of the United States.

Wilkerson defines caste as the “granting or withholding of respect, status, honour, attention, privileges, resources, benefit of the doubt, and human kindness to someone on the basis of their perceived rank or standing in” a hierarchy. She identifies Nazi Germany, contemporary India and the United States as the principal exemplars of caste societies. Indeed, the Nazis drew on the US South’s segregation laws as inspiration for their own anti-Semitic laws, though they did initially find some of the American laws too extreme.

Wilkerson draws some hope from the fact that casteism has been dismantled in German society. However its persistence in both South Asia and the US shows just what a pernicious and destructive idea it still is. But to have any hope of combatting it, it is first necessary to see it clearly, and this is what Wilkerson does in relation to the practice of caste in her own country

Perhaps having diagnosed with such clarity this sickness at the heart of US society, some US legislators may follow the advice of “the Martin Luther King of India”, BR Ambedkar, and propose new laws to help heal a body politic diseased with ignorance and hatred.

The Thursday Murder Club, by Richard Osman

Summary: A genteel case of murder

This book does much what it says on the tin: a small group of pensioners living in a retirement community get together on Thursday evenings to examine cold murder cases as a way to keep themselves amused and mentally active.

Then a real murder crops up in their midst. So it would be almost rude of them not to investigate. As is the wont with these sorts of stories, the bodies soon pile up.

Osman’s book is a genteel affair: there is little jeopardy for our heroes; the murderees are a thoroughly reprehensible bunch so there is little grieving for their losses. But it is still a very enjoyable book. It doesn’t quite have a twisty plot but it does have a pleasantly rambly one. The likeable cast of characters are thoroughly multicultural but are never troubled by racism or Brexity xenophobia. So it’s a quintessentially English story, even if the England it portrays, if it ever existed, is as dead now as the crooks and gangsters whose corpses the Thursday Murder Club pore over.

How shall we fail thee, Comrades? Let us count the ways…

Summary: UK Labour’s fundamental strategic failure is its endemic innumeracy

It is an axiom that the most important skill in politics is the ability to count. It’s the skill, probably more than any other, that made Lyndon Johnson President of the United States. And yet, for many years now UK Labour appears innumerate.

It’s never a good idea to go into an election 10 points behind your opposition. But this is what Labour allowed happen to itself in 2019. The result was its worst defeat since 1935 and the installation of an increasingly authoritarian, and wholly incompetent, Conservative government. To make matters worse of course, this happened just as a perfect storm of two existential crises – one constitutional and economic, the other public health – hit the UK.

Innumeracy is a key reason UK Labour has never properly backed the introduction of proportional representation in Westminster elections. Even when the PR-lite “alternative vote” system was offered to the UK electorate a decade ago, many Labour leaders grumbled that it was “too complicated.”

Every other country in Europe has PR. Scotland and Northern Ireland have it for elections for their devolved government structures. Even the US has a form of PR, with its primary system. Why do so many in the UK’s political elite think such a system is too complicated for the English electorate?

Truth is, you do need a basic understanding of fractions and decimal numbers to be able to fully understand most systems of proportional representation. You know: the stuff you were taught in primary school, shortly after “one plus one equals two.”

As it stands the UK’s electoral system is a gerrymander. The population of England is broadly centre-left when one amalgamates the 2019 votes of Labour, the Lib-Dems and the Greens. In spite of this the Conservatives have a massive majority in parliament. This sort of systemic anti-democracy sparked a civil rights movement in the North of Ireland in 1968. However the English continue with their bovine acceptance that this is the best electoral system in the world, because it’s English, just as the British response to Covid is “world-beating” irrespective of how many corpses pile up.

Currently Labour looks set to go into the next gerrymandered UK general election with the same guilelessness born of their innumeracy that allowed them to be bushwacked with such electoral slaughter in 2019. There will be the usual witterings of “undemocratic practices” should anyone suggest an electoral alliance between the broad centre-left parties, or even tactical voting.

Instead Labour seems set to offer as an alternative for government the same Little Englandism offered by the Tories but with a promise for more competent management of the national decline. In such a competition, pandering to the prejudices of the voters of the reactionary portion of the electorate rather than setting out a progressive, internationalist and European alternative to the Tories, Labour seems already doomed to lose.

It’s easy to see why, in spite of all his lethal blundering, Boris Johnson still looks so pleased with himself.

Joe Biden: American Dreamer, by Evan Osnos

Summary: a hopeful portrait of the man striving to rescue American democracy

Joe Biden: American Dreamer is a brief but engaging biography of the US President-Elect, by an author who has covered Biden’s career for over a decade.

Much of the book has previously appeared in New Yorker articles over the years. But it is well researched and elegantly edited together into a highly readable and intriguing portrait of a man who has found a third act to his career just when most other people would be putting their feet up in retirement.

Even before reaching the presidency, Biden’s life has been marked by spectacular achievement and almost unbearable loss. Elected to the Senate just before his 30th birthday appalling personal tragedies followed soon after with the death of his wife and young daughter in a car accident. Tragedy struck again when Vice President and his son died of cancer. The grief he has had to bear has eroded much of the arrogance typical of senior politicians and enhanced his legendary gift for empathy.

Still, after decades in the Senate and eight years as Vice President, one might think that a Biden presidency will offer few surprises. But, Osnos describes Biden as a man with a remarkable capacity for learning and acknowledging error and hence an almost Lincolnesque capacity for personal growth and political evolution.

A cautious politician, Biden nevertheless has a keen eye for the historic opportunity. So, appreciating the shifts in the current political environment, most notably the growing hunger amongst young people for social democracy, Biden has incorporated into his campaign leading advisers from the Left of the Democratic Party to help craft key plans for government including on health and the environment.

Biden has suggested a number of times that he wants to have not just a transitional presidency to a new generation, but also a transformational one, comparable to FDR.

In defeating the openly fascist Donald Trump for the presidency Biden has already earned a place in history by helping rescue American democracy itself. And, as Osnos’ book indicates, it would be a fool who would suggest that this is the last service he will do for his country before he finally puts his feet up for that well earned rest.

The Clare in the Community Collection, by Harry Venning

Summary: the iconic hero we need right now

This book is an exquisite collection of Clare’s adventures from her earliest days, through her legendary years in the Guardian, battling government cuts, office politics, and global patriarchy.

Helpfully the book contains facsimiles of the Guardian front pages that accompanied many of the strips, reminding the reader of the events that would have been irking Clare that week.

Self-righteous, occasionally mean, but always with her heart in the right place, Clare is the wonderful creation of Harry Venning. Together, she and he represent the finest social justice traditions of British society, with better jokes than Orwell.

It’s a sardonic love letter to the do-gooders at the sharp end of a broken country, the ones who will ultimately rebuild a decent society after the old Etonian parasites have finally shuffled off the stage.

Just lovely.

A Foreign Country; A Colder War; and A Divided Spy (The Thomas Kell trilogy), by Charles Cumming

Summary: A fine set of twisty thrillers set in the contemporary world of Western espionage operations against Islamist extremists and functionaries of the Russian kleptocracy

Any contemporary spy novel is going to draw comparison with John le Carre. So, if it’s George Smiley you are most familiar with, these are stories from the lower ranks, the roles occupied by the likes of Peter Guillam or Toby Esterhause in the Smiley books.

When we first meet Thomas Kell he is pretty washed up. On indefinite leave due to allegations of torture plaguing him, with his marriage to a habitually unfaithful wife on the rocks. However he is quickly called back into service to track down a friend who has gone missing: a fellow MI6 officer, Amelia, who is on the verge of being appointed head of the service.

The reader is quickly pitched into the minutiae of the trade craft of intelligence operations. Hence it takes a while to get to know the sort of person that Kell is, as operational priorities dominate the characters’ actions and Kell’s assessment of individual colleagues and targets.

In the pauses in the action Kell is often found reading Seamus Heaney, which is always a dependable indicator that someone is a good egg. As the books progress there is more opportunity for rumination on a profession in which treachery is stock in trade, the toll this takes on its practitioners, and the challenges of the contemporary world, particularly the threats from Islamist extremism, a resurgent kleptocracy in Russia, and most troubling, their points of overlap.

But none of this is allowed to get in the way of mounting narrative tension and twisty plotting: the books often end up in completely unexpected places from where they start out. The Kell trilogy are gripping thrillers and across these three books Kell is an engaging protagonist, wounded and conflicted, but striving towards a moral purpose that often eludes him.

Anatomy of a Killing, by Ian Cobain

Summary: an exceptional work of history and journalism, exploring in careful detail the tragedies and atrocities borne and perpetrated by ordinary people in war

On the morning of 22 April 1978 the IRA assassinated Millar McAllister, a police photographer, in front of his young son. The trigger man, Harry Murray, was one of the IRA’s few Protestant volunteers. A former member of the RAF, Murray had been embittered against the Loyalist community when it had driven him out of his own home early in the Troubles for the offence of marrying a Catholic.

Of course Murray did not act alone, and in Anatomy of a Killing, Ian Cobain presents a horribly gripping account of the operation, not only examining the various roles of those involved, but also their motivations and rationales for their choices, and the strategies, arising in part from history, of both the British and the IRA which led to their actions.

In Cobain’s account the IRA’s adoption of the tactic of “close quarters assassinations” was in response to the revulsion caused by the burning to death of 10 civilians on an evening out at La Mon House hotel. This atrocity was directly facilitated by spectacular incompetence in issuing a warning by the IRA unit who planted the blast-incendiary devices on the hotel’s dining room. But this sort of bloodshed was almost an inevitable outcome of the campaign of “economic warfare” which the IRA in their dubious strategic wisdom had fixed upon.

So rather than risk the bad publicity that outrages such as La Mon provoked, the IRA leadership decided that it was a more moral course to focus on members of the state forces. McAllister was mistakenly believed to be a special branch detective, so this, combined with the opportunity of carrying out an attack in the garrison town of Lisburn led to him being targeted.

Of course the idea that such a killing would have any influence upon establishing a more just British policy in the North was as deluded as the idea that “economic warfare”, the destruction of Northern Irish businesses, would shift British thinking.

The Northern Ireland Secretary at the time, Roy Mason, was a rancid anti-Irish bigot, bone-headedly enamoured with tough talk and aggressive military action. Callaghan’s Labour government, as so often with British Labour misjudging the imperative moral issues of the day, was preoccupied by Britain’s economic travails, rather than any effort to create a just and lasting peace in Ireland.

In other words, both Callaghan and Mason displayed a similar contempt for Irish peace as Stanley Johnson, the father of “Boris”, who in a 2018 interview dismissed the risks to Ireland posed by Brexit: “the Irish will shoot each other if they want.”

Hence Callaghan and Mason were promoters of “Ulsterisation”, the policy that the brunt of security responsibility in the North of Ireland should fall to people from there. People like Millar McAllister, rather than to English, Scottish or Welsh soldiers whose lives Callaghan and Mason valued more highly. Hundreds more ordinary people died as pointlessly as McAllister did until John Hume and others managed to organise a flawed but vital peace process – something that might no longer exist if the European Union had not stopped Stanley’s supercilious son from vandalising it.

Anatomy of a Killing is an extraordinary work, informed by careful research, interviews with the, usually unrepentant, perpetrators, and a proper understanding of the pity of war. It weaves together discussions of both state and paramilitary “high” strategy with unflinching descriptions of its squalid and tragic consequences. It is one of the finest books yet written on the Troubles, and is a vital contribution to writing on the histories of Ireland and Britain at this bleak moment in our shared history.

Pandora’s Jar, by Natalie Haynes; Heroes, and Troy, by Stephen Fry

Summary: beware gift books bearing Greeks

In 1955 Robert Graves published The Greek Myths, a compendium of these stories from creation to the return of Odysseus. Graves’ dark vision bears the mark of the trenches, as he recounts the stories of Theseus, Heracles and the others as descents into atrocity and trauma.

More recently Pat Barker, with her exquisite retelling of the Iliad, The Silence of the Girls, and Natalie Haynes, with A Thousand Ships, The Children of Jocasta and now Pandora’s Jar, have brought a feminist perspective to bear on these stories, finding new focus on the consequences of war for women and children as the “heroes” pursue their dreams of martial glory.

The unsettling insights of these writers seems to have passed Stephen Fry completely. He presents instead a more “jolly hockey sticks” version of these myths. The murders, tortures and general mayhem that his “heroes” indulge in is treated as light comedy, and the rapes are excised almost completely. There is, of course, the unavoidable figure of Helen of Sparta who cannot ever be ignored. So, as if to give some excuse to Theseus for abducting and raping her, Fry states this happened when Helen was 12 rather than as a 7 year old to which, as Natalie Haynes points out, many ancient writers attest.

Hayne’s discusses Helen alongside other of the key female figures of the Greek myths in Pandora’s Jar. Her insights are always entertaining and frequently arresting. Medusa, for example, is remembered now as a monster with serpent tresses whose gaze turned mortals to stone. But before that she was a young woman with beautiful hair who was raped by Poseidon in a temple of Athena, who cursed her rather than her rapist. Poor Medusa then hid some place where she couldn’t hurt anyone until Perseus, egged on again by Athena, showed up to murder her while she slept. Or the fearsome Medea, the beautiful, green-eyed girl without whose courage and learning Jason would never have laid a hand on the golden fleece. She is remembered now principally as the murderess of her own children. But were her achievements and transgressions any better or worse than those other child murderers Theseus, Heracles, and, according to Graves, Odysseus? At least Medea had the honesty not to blame her butchery on Hera or Poseidon, as her male counterparts did.

He murdered her, and their children

Fry’s stories are certainly entertaining. But they are also deeply problematic. Perhaps he lacks the splinter of ice in his heart necessary to look clearly at his protagonists. But he does seem to believe that the serial rapist Theseus and the mass murderer Heracles should be regarded as some sort of exemplars for our contemporary world. Heracles, for example, did show considerable fortitude in bearing the guilt of murdering his wife and children… though that didn’t stop him murdering just about everyone else who ever slightly upset him.

It is only when he discusses the fall of Troy that the scale of the horror he is recounting seems to dawn on Fry. It is, of course, really only at this point, the point when myth begins to collide with history, that the murdered and the raped of these stories were allowed to voice their own hopes and fears. So here it is more difficult to ignore the humanity of, for example, Priam and Cassandra, compared to, say, the cartoonish villains and nameless foot soldiers that Heracles slaughtered in his boneheaded, bloody career.

In her work, Natalie Haynes shows not just erudition, but also empathy for her subjects. Consequently, Pandora’s Jar, and her other books, encourage her readers to think critically about both that mythic and our contemporary world. Fry, drawing on exactly the same sources, offers only an opiate for the masses.

How to fight inequality (and why that fight needs you), by Ben Phillips

Summary: You’ve got to search for the hero inside yourself!

In 2014, a study partly funded by NASA found that the competition for resources and the stratification of society into “elites” and “masses” were key factors in the collapse of civilisations. Essentially, by the time the existential threat to a civilisation began to encroach upon the day-to-day lives of the “elites” to such an extent that they were inclined to do something about it, it was already too late.

Put another way, inequality in itself poses an existential threat to civilisation.

But it’s unquestionably nice for the elites while it lasts. All them private jets and champagne and cocaine quaffed from the bum cracks of super models. Who would ever want to give that up for the mere prospect of human rights for poor people and sustained life for future generations. Better to keep venial charlatans like Boris Johnson and Donald Trump in power than risk paying more equitable rates of tax or submit to more effective environmental legislation.

Ben Phillips suggests, however, that we should not go meekly into the dark night that the super rich would like for us. Indeed, he points out that if the moral arc of the history has bent towards justice, it is because millions of ordinary people have twisted it in that direction in “numberless diverse acts of courage and belief”, as Bobby Kennedy observed.

His book then is a manifesto for the “uppity”, the people who don’t know their place, the people who, like Angela Davis, have had enough with accepting the things they cannot change and have gotten down to changing the things they cannot accept.

It is a vital book, not least for one critical point that Phillips makes repeatedly: if you seek change but do not risk causing the displeasure of the powerful, then you are unlikely to ever obtain the change you seek. Change is achieved by unsettling the status quo and making life uncomfortable for those in charge. Indeed, even the most progressive of politicians need this sort of upward pressure to obtain for them political space for manoeuvre and the impetus to compel them in the right direction. Lincoln, for example, would not have achieved what he did without the agitation of the anti-slavery societies and the courage of the black regiments of the Union army.

This is a point that has been forgotten by many working in movements mandated for social change. Some church leaders, for example, forget that Jesus said, “I bring not peace but the sword,” as they hobnob over sherry with the very government ministers whose policies lead to the enslavement of their own congregants. Some charities so want the favour of government that they formally collaborate with them on the systematic abuse of the human rights of vulnerable people.

If the only thing Phillips did with this book was to elucidate the fundamental importance of the courage to be unpopular in obtaining social change, then this book would be worthwhile. But “How to Fight Inequality” is richer still, with examples on how social change has been achieved, how it has been undermined, and the importance of organisation and patience in achieving change. As a leadership mentor of my own once said to me, “You must always be able to show that your intent to endure exceeds their capacity to resist.

How to Fight Inequality” is a mighty book. It is, in itself, an act against inequality and injustice and one that will hopefully inspire and aid numberless, diverse others to endure in their fight for justice as they themselves inspire others and unsettle the greedy and complacent who threaten the very future of our planet.