The Outlaw Ocean, by Ian Urbina

Summary: an impressive work of investigative journalism detailing the vast scale of human rights abuses and environmental damage in the world’s oceans.

The Outlaw Ocean is based on a celebrated series of articles that Ian Urbina wrote for the New York Times on the struggles for human rights and environmental standards in the vast lawless expanses of the world’s seas.

It is an impressive achievement, but also a deeply depressing one. As well as the continuing butchery of the planet’s whales, Urbina catalogues the environmental devastation of bottom trawling, the damage caused by the oil and gas industries, the risks arising from the destruction, “bleaching”, of the world’s corals, and the routine and brutal enslavement of seafarers, particularly fishermen, on the world’s ships and boats.

There are some heartening descriptions of the work of activists, such as those of Stella Maris or Sea Shepherd, who strive to bring some measure of humanity to this brutal realm, and there are exciting descriptions of some of their operations. But, appositely enough, all these seem like drops in the ocean such is the scale of the both environmental and human rights challenges.

Urbina shows how the abuses at sea are perhaps the most extreme example in history of the “tragedy of the commons” – the idea that when, in effect, everyone is responsible for something then no one actually takes responsibility. International maritime law, such as it exists, empowers states with its enforcement. This means that on the high seas – beyond territorial waters – a vessel flagged to a particular country can only be boarded by a war ship of that country. So the vast majority of the ships are simply never inspected at all. A land locked country like Mongolia, to which many ships are registered under flags of convenience, does not even have a navy.

Much maritime law, such as the 2006 international convention, does not apply to fishing vessels anyway which can do so much environmental damage through overfishing and other devastating fishing practices. Consequently slavery is also endemic on these vessels, most notoriously on the high seas of South East Asia. But I have also encountered it in the territorial waters of Myanmar and Ireland due to poor regulation and inadequate inspection.

Those who are enslaved are generally migrants, so desperately poor that they are driven to seek work from unscrupulous labour brokers. Urbina describes how sharp practices amongst labour brokers lead to seafarers becoming debt bonded, a form of slavery recognised in international law. Once this has happened the boat captains who receive them as crew routinely use physical violence, including murder, to keep discipline.

Urbina’s impressive work shows how the roots of enslavement on the sea lie on land in the indebtedness of the families and communities from which seafarers originate. This is something I also found in 2019 when researching the enslavement of raft fishermen in Myanmar’s Gulf of Motama. Hence it is a logical extension of Urbina’s research that prevention of slavery requires focussed attention on eliminating the debt that is the key mechanism for so much contemporary slavery.

Such is the scale of “modern” slavery, currently estimated as affecting over 40 million people globally, that meaningful action to reduce these numbers would require a response of comparable imaginative and actual scale to the Marshall Plan. Such a plan should focus on creation in slavery vulnerable communities of decent work, and direct cash transfers to secure early child development and school attendance. A crackdown on usurious money lenders and unscrupulous labour brokers would also be a welcome thing.

Until that happens Urbina’s work will stand as an appalling indictment of the human rights and environmental carnage at sea that the world is collectively turning a blind eye to.

To Kill a Man, by Sam Bourne

Summary: a meditation on the debasement of justice disguised as a pageturing thriller

Natasha Winthrop is a big deal. A high-profile Washington human rights lawyer who has just gained national attention as Democratic counsel in televised Congressional hearings.

Then a man breaks into her apartment intent on rape. This is the man’s last big mistake as Natasha manages to kill him in the course of the attack. The cops though… the bleeding cops! They never liked Natasha. It’s getting like they can’t murder black people in broad daylight any more without some bleeding-heart lawyer like her taking a law suit against them. So, if there are a few discrepancies in Natasha’s story, well then there’s no doubt that she’s going to get the benefit of. 

Natasha though, she’s a smart enough cookie to know when she needs reinforcements. So she picks up the phone to Maggie Costello, sometime international peace mediator and counsellor to presidents, but full-time Dublin street fighter who’s never seen a trouble she couldn’t shoot. 

Sam Bourne’s (Jonathan Freedland) Maggie Costello series is set, for the most part, in Washington DC politics. This is a subject that Freedland knows well as a former Guardian correspondent. The series specialises in plots that resonate with major contemporary issues. These have included having a megalomaniac imbecile in the White House, and the undermining of the factual framework for public discourse. It also should be said that, while not the main issue, a not inconsiderable achievement of these books is that Freedland captures the cadences of Dublin speech so well. Maggie’s exchanges with her sister are a particular pleasure, note perfect in the rhythms of Irish sibling banter.

This episode of Maggie’s adventures focusses on the disturbing fact that in the US, similar to many other places, less that 1% of perpetrators of rape or sexual assault ever see the inside of a prison cell.  Given this, the book ponders, is society saying sexual violence is actually now as acceptable as speeding or doing weed?

To Kill a Man is a deeply satisfying, thought-provoking thriller and meditation on the state of the Brexity, Trumpton world in which we live. It is, paradoxically, a perfect summer distraction from the insanity of that world which, nevertheless, reminds the reader of just how insane it remains.

The Dutch House, by Ann Patchett

Summary: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

When reviewing for the first time the play, “Waiting for Godot”, the theatre critic Vivian Mercier, writing in the Irish Times, famously described it as a play in which ‘nothing happens, twice’.

I had a similar thought when reading Ann Patchett’s “The Dutch House.” Nothing happens a lot in it.

Its narrator, Danny Conroy, describes his generally unremarkable life in an account that hops back and forth in time, much like an unreliable memory. Son of a wealthy property developer father in Philadelphia, Danny is really brought up by his older sister Maeve. She takes on maternal responsibilities after their mother’s departure from the family home – the Dutch House of the title. Maeve’s burdens are added to when their father acquiesces to marry Andrea. While the two step-sisters this brings them may not be ugly, Andrea certainly carries a measure of evil with her.

Danny, aware enough to know that he is self-absorbed, gets to go to medical school through Maeve’s efforts and wiles. But he never really practices as a doctor opting instead to become a property developer like his father. Maeve becomes the finance manager of a food company. Danny marries and has a family. Unfortunately, Maeve and his wife, Celeste, do not really get on. 

Around them America is changing, with the Vietnam war, and the demands for civil rights. But these barely encroach upon Danny’s consciousness. Maeve is, we learn in passing, socially engaged.But Danny is never really interested enough in what she is doing to tell the reader more.

So, that’s about it. 

But I don’t want to sell this short. “The Dutch House” is, perhaps, the literary equivalent of a still life of a fruit bowl: an exquisitely crafted rendering of ordinary life, or rather of life of unfulfilled potential. Selfless, wise-cracking Maeve, one feels throughout the book, should be the heroine of golden era Hollywood, a sort of Rosalind Russell figure from “His Girl Friday”, working on front page exposes of graft and corruption instead of being stuck, happily she claims, with balance sheets. By the end of the book one feels that her niece and namesake Mae is on the verge of the sort of life that Maeve should have lived.

“The Dutch House” is shot through with this sort of melancholia, and moments of unambiguous grief. It is a beautifully written and haunting book.

Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders

Summary: the restless dead, and their thoughts on the mid-19th century state of the union

In certain schools of Buddhism the “Bardo” is an intermediate place between death and rebirth or heaven. It is into this Purgatory that William Wallace Lincoln, third son of Abraham, arrives in 1862.

Unlike the other children who arrive there Willie lingers, longing to see his father again. Some of the older ghosts – a young man regretful of his suicide, a middle-aged man pining for his young wife, a elderly minister fearful of what lies beyond – worry about what will befall Willie if he stays too long. So they take it upon themselves to help the young fellow move on. As a result they encounter the devastated president, come to visit the grave of his beloved son.

Lincoln in the Bardo is a strange book. Literary critics call it “experimental”. Portions of it, those providing the historical context, are edited from the vast literature of Lincoln and the Civil War. Into this context George Saunders creates a sort of American “Cré na Cille”, populating his narrative with the ghostly denizens of the graveyard where Willie lies.

A cross-section of American society from independence until 1862 is here: white supremacists dwelling alongside the slaves dumped in a common pit; wealthy misers rubbing ectoplasm with alcoholic down-and-outs. They reflect the nation at the moment of crisis that Lincoln confronts. Their stories, their memories of their past lives and their gossip on the current scandals of the graveyard society, are by turns hilarious and shocking, always entertaining and ultimately gripping.

At first President Lincoln’s presence in the midst of this cacophony of voices seems almost incidental. But it is not. Rather his presence is catalytic, provoking profound changes to the social order of the Bardo just as he is about to lead profound changes to the order of the Union.

Lincoln may sometimes be thought of as one of the last fatalities of the Civil War. But he wasn’t that. George Floyd may hold that dreadful distinction at the time of writing, but of course that won’t last for long. But Lincoln, alongside the likes of Martin Luther King, offers a glimpse of how much better America can be when it confronts its own original sins of slavery and genocide. That idealism echoes in this book.

The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler

Summary: A routine blackmail case opens a whole nother can of worms for Marlowe

img_1848If Rusty Regan had still been around General Sternwood would never have had to call Marlowe. But Rusty took off weeks ago and Sternwood needs someone discrete to handle this Geiger fellow’s blackmailing grift.

It seems like a straightforward gig to Marlowe. Then Geiger turns up dead. And everyone starts getting real interested in the whereabouts of former IRA commandant Terrance Regan.

Four things you can always count on Chandler for: twisty plots, strong atmosphere, femmes fatales, and prejudice. Just as I was feeling that The Big Sleep was remarkably free of the sort of bigotries that mar his other books, such as The Long Goodbye, Chandler decides The Big Sleep needs a discourse on gay men. Unsurprisingly Chandler’s thoughts on the subject are of the sort that probably render the reader just a little stupider in their reading.

There are bona fide loose ends in The Big Sleep: it’s never quite clear who killed everyone or why. But a thing that has always intrigued me about The Big Sleep is whether Chandler based the character of Regan on Ernie O’Malley.

Regan?

O’Malley, a former IRA commander and writer, spent a chunk of the late Twenties and Thirties in the US hanging out amidst artistic and literary circles. I can’t find any indication that Chandler and O’Malley ever met. But Chandler’s description of Regan does sound very like O’Malley: “a face that is sad rather than merry, more reserved than brash… a forehead broad rather than high, a mat of dark, clustering hair… the face of a man who would move fast and play for keeps.”

Admittedly this question is probably only of minority interest. What is more important is that if you can stomach Chandler’s horrible prejudices for a bit, this is a classic piece of hard-boiled detective fiction, beautifully written with moments of poetry, and gripping from start to finish.

Blood and Sugar, by Laura Shepherd-Robinson

Summary: A gripping historical detective story, probing the dark heart of the system of slavery that made Britain rich.

The origins of Britain as a leading commercial and industrial nation lie in two comparably genocidal events: the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and the conquest of India.

These are atrocities that the majority of British people know little about. Insofar as they may be aware of the slave trade they probably only know of William Wilberforce’s parliamentary campaign to end it. The painstaking and arguably more important work by Clarkson, Sharpe, Equiano and the Quakers, that made parliamentary action possible by shifting the tide of public opinion against this industrialised trafficking of human beings, is much less well known.

Well, if British people remain ignorant of this for much longer, it will not be for Laura Shepherd-Robinson’s want of trying.

Blood and Sugar starts with the gruesome murder of an abolitionist lawyer in the slave port of Deptford. But, horrific as this event is, as veteran of the American war, Harry Corsham, discovers when he begins to probe into the death of his erstwhile friend, this is not the worst thing that those responsible for the slave trade have done.

Blood and Sugar is a gripping and richly detailed historical detective thriller that probes unflinchingly into the savagery of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Its power is magnified by its verisimilitude: while the foreground figures may be fictitious there is nothing made up about Shepherd-Robinson’s descriptions of the horrors of the Middle Passage and the tortures routinely inflicted upon enslaved Africans.

Shepherd-Robinson has already gained deserved praise from other exemplars of the historical detective story. But even if comparably entertaining to the best of this genre Blood and Sugar is something altogether more important. It is an act of remembering, bringing to, potentially, a whole new audience one of the foundational events of modern Britain. If readers are also stirred to remember that slavery still afflicts some 40 million people across the globe, many of them still in conditions akin to those described in this book, then all the better.

Blood and Sugar is a mighty accomplishment.

The Silence of the Girls, by Pat Barker

 

Summary: “Of course, the deaths of young men in battle are tragic. But that is not the worst fate.”

History tends to be kind to men because, until quite recently, we tended to write all of it. Hence the literature on war has emphasised the courage, camaraderie and sacrifice of the combatants, rather than the plunder and rape they have so often indulged in after the battles.

This pattern was set from the outset with the Iliad. It tells us that Briseis was Achilles’ slave taken when he stormed one of many Trojan cities. But the depth of the brutality of her experience is not explored. It is a mere footnote on the Iliad’s central concerns of Achilles’ rage – at Agamemnon’s affront to his honour, and at Hector’s killing of Patroclus in battle.

With The Silence of the Girls, Pat Barker refocuses the story of the Iliad onto the civilian victims of war, the women and children raped, and then enslaved or murdered by the “heroes” of the Iliad. With this focus on violence against women, it is perhaps something of a fictional counterpart to The Five, Hallie Rubenhold’s extraordinary account of the lives of the women murdered by Jack the Ripper.

In many ways this is a faithful version of the Iliad. The famous events, and some of the dialogue of that classic are all here. But the shift of focus of the narrative from Achilles to Briseis results in a wholly arresting and new work of literature. It is her unflinching descriptions of the horrors she and the other captured women and girls endure, and her cool assessments of the incidents and personalities she encounters, that forces us to think anew about this story.

The casualties of war are not distant memories to Briseis, but brothers, neighbours and a husband. The women reduced to chattel slavery by the war are not footnotes to the main story, but her friends, a last source of tenderness in the midst of all the cruelty and carnage.

War has made Briseis wise beyond her years, with any illusions, if she ever had them, about martial glory stripped away and replaced by a profound understanding of human nature in this nightmare. Briseis sees through the facades of “honour” to the truth of the combatants’ characters: Patroclus, in spite of everything, a kind man; Achilles, a warrior since childhood, now a traumatised bundle of rage; Agamemnon, the worst of the worst, a greedy venial despot who has “forgotten nothing and learned nothing,” as Briseis puts it.

I cannot recall being as consumed by a book since I first read Ernie O’Malley’s classic memoir of war, On Another Man’s Wound, when I was about 16 – and I have read many, many great books in the decades since.

The Silence of the Girls is an exquisitely written, unflinching and stunningly beautiful meditation on endurance amidst the horrors of war. It is quite simply a masterpiece.

The Pursuit of Power, by Richard J Evans

Summary: the origins of our common European identity

In The Pursuit of Power, Richard Evans, a distinguished historian of the Twentieth Century, traces the history of Europe from 1814 to 1914. It is an astonishingly erudite work, alternating chapters on the political history of Europe with ones its social and economic development during these years.

Liberal Europe tried to be born in the 19th Century but was bloodily suppressed across the continent by the forces of reaction in 1848 – militarily in most places but by famine stoked by racist English misgovernment in Ireland.

Nevertheless, the 19th Century did transform Europe in crucial ways: serfdom was abolished; the industrial revolution took place and the continent became more urban; literacy expanded; and from Ireland to Poland subject peoples demanded their rights, respect and freedom.

But just as the seeds of a progressive social democracy were taking root in Europe, the imperial elites had their last piratical fling with their colonialist project, including their Scramble for Africa. This brought 57% of the world’s population under often brutal European and American rule on the eve of the First World War.

Aside from a few points of irritation – the wife of the great Irish leader Charles Stewart Parnell was called Katey NOT Kitty, a moniker both Parnell and his wife loathed – The Pursuit of Power is an extraordinary work. In spite of its vastness of scale it is an elegant and remarkably disciplined piece of writing. The grand sweep of the narrative is frequently illuminated with the voices of ordinary people from across the continent. So, Evans ensures this history retains its human faces. And it demonstrates that, as well as its national sub-plots, an interplay of social, economic and political factors shaped the whole continent and its emergent European identity. Even if that identity’s common values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law did not gain its full expression until after the bloodbath of the Second World War, and even though these values are again under threat, particularly in the UK and Hungary, Evans’ work shows how deep the roots run.

As Sam Bourne (Jonathan Freedland) noted in his recent thriller, To Kill the Truth, some things have a future because they have a past. Europe is one of those things.

 

The Long Goodbye, by Raymond Chandler

Summary: The Shamus’s Shamus shows how it’s done, but rarely explains why.

Terry Lennox was the politest drunk Marlowe ever met. Not the worst sort of guy to share a gimlet with on a Los Angeles evening. So when he shows up at Marlowe’s place one morning with a Mauser 7.65 automatic in his hand and a worried look on his face, what sort of a heel would Marlowe be if he didn’t give his pal a lift to Tijuana, just like he asked?

Then Terry’s wife shows up dead and Marlowe finds himself in a jam of his own when the cops show up at his door curious to know why he seems to be the last person Terry was in touch with.

Raymond Chandler thought of The Long Goodbye as his finest novel, though critics, I read, have been more divided on it. I loved it, though, like his other books, this one is rather tainted by the casual racism of its day. Marlowe is, as always, a tarnished knight errant, more moral than Sam Spade, less enlightened than Spencer, and very much a man of his times, a subject upon which he waxes lyrical.

There is a legend that Howard Hawkes and William Faulkner, director and screenwriter respectively of the classic screen version of another of Chandler’s novels, The Big Sleep, finished the picture with no real knowledge of who was killed or why.

This is of course nonsense. But, like the movie The Big Sleep, chunks of Chandler’s books can race by leaving the reader in some sense of bewilderment as Marlowe’s acerbic comments and laconic attitude rarely lets the reader completely into his thought processes.

But, perhaps because of this, it is intoxicating to be taken along for the ride. Los Angeles’ mean streets never had a better guide.

The Vanquished: why the First World War failed to end, by Robert Gerwarth

Summary: a fine, at times horrific, survey of the aftermath of the First World War in Central and Eastern Europe, vital for all Europeans with an interest in the future of our continent

The First World War did not end in 1918. It merely transmuted into a bloody set of interlocking independence struggles and civil wars that racked Europe from Ireland to Russia until 1923.

In this violence lay the seeds of the war that engulfed Europe in 1939. Indeed, as Robert Gerwarth notes in this fine, if necessarily at times horrific, survey of this period in central and Eastern Europe, many of the individuals who brought Europe to its nadir in the 1940s began their murderous careers in the bloody struggles of these years.

In this context Ireland’s bloody independence struggle appears almost civilised in comparison with some of the savagery that the rest of the continent experienced. The atrocities in single weeks in, for example, Turkey, Russia or Ukraine regularly dwarfed the worst that Ireland saw in any given year of its revolutionary period.

The seeds of wider cataclysm in the 1940s were fertilised by the harsh peace terms imposed on the defeated Central Powers in the Versailles Settlement. These treated the democratic revolutionaries of Germany and Austria who helped to bring an end to the fighting on the Western front as if they were the Prussian and Hapsburg militarists who had initiated the bloodshed in 1914.

Given their inauspicious beginnings, it is small wonder then that so many of the liberal democracies established in the ruins of empire at the beginnings of the 1920s collapsed into authoritarianism even before the rise of Nazism that plunged Europe into renewed fratricide. Indeed, as Joe Lee pointed out a few decades ago in his extraordinary book, Ireland 1912-85, Politics and Society, it is not an inconsiderable achievement that, for all its flaws, Ireland did not follow a similar path.

As so many in England now aim to rip up the systems of cooperation that are the foundations of peace in Europe, it is worth remembering the savagery that ordinary people can descend to in times of civil war – and all these European wars were civil wars. Of course if so many in England had a knowledge of war and history greater than that gleaned from watching The Dambusters, perhaps we would not be at this dark juncture.