Jerusalem, by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Summary: an elegant and compelling account of the long bloody history of perhaps the most contentious and contended city in the world

Jerusalem is where Solomon built the Jewish Temple, where Jesus was crucified for teaching that people should love one another, and where Mohammed ended his mystical Night Journey. Hence it is a place that is sacred to three of the world’s great religions. And it is a place where all three of these religions have consistently and horrifically disgraced themselves for the much of the city’s history.

The Crusaders, for example, deciding to misinterpret Jesus’ teachings as meaning that you only have to love other Christians, claimed to have waded through blood up to the bridles of their horses from the massacre they instituted when they first took the city.

To be fair, they were following a long sanguinary tradition. When the future Roman emperor Titus took the city from Jewish rebels in 70 AD he butchered not just the rebels but the civilian population that the rebels had oppressed, and tortured other survivors to death for the entertainment of his troops and the citizens of Rome.

After the Romans and the Franks the Ottoman Empire also conquered the city before losing it to the British in the First World War. The French, Russians and Americans also intrigued over the place, before it was ceded to Jordan and then captured by the Israelis in 1967. Of course that has not settled anything: any peace settlement in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict must include some way to share the city between these two peoples with equally legitimate claims on it.

Many of the stories recounted in this book – of David and Solomon, of the Maccabees, of Jesus, of Titus and Josephus, of the Crusades and the great Kurdish leader Saladin, of Lawrence of Arabia, of Rabin and Dayan – will be familiar to the general reader. But by placing them in chronological order and in their international context Sebag Montefiore shows how the city has been at the centre of so many world changing political convulsions over the centuries, right up to the present day.

In Luke’s gospel there is the story of how the Devil led Jesus to a high place and “in an instant showed him all the kingdoms of the world.” In this history of Jerusalem Simon Sebag Montefiore manages a trick similar to the Devil’s: illuminating the history of the world from the perspective of the Temple Mount.

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The Guns of August, by Barbara Tuchman

Summary: exquisitely written and utterly gripping account of the first weeks of the First World War

My friend Caitlin, a state-level chess champion in her US high school days, once gave me the best tip ever for playing the game: “Remember,” she said, “it’s not just about what you are planning to do, but what your opponent is planning to do as well.”

As with so many things about chess, Caitlin’s tip is important more generally in life. And Barbara Tuchman in The Guns of August shows how it is, perhaps, most vital of all in war.

In the decades before the outbreak of the First World War many brilliant generals across Europe developed many different plans that would grant them decisive victory. Unfortunately these plans tended to rely on opponents behaving in a way that would conform most helpfully with planners’ ambitions.

For example, the German High Command did not anticipate that King Albert of Belgium would actively resist Germany’s brutal invasion of his country. Nor did they expect Tsar Nicholas to uphold his treaty obligations to his Western Allies by mobilising Russian forces. And, as the fighting of the first weeks of the war unfolded, they did not expect the garrison of Paris to sally from the city to attack their flanks and initiate battle on the Marne.

As these things happened, quite contrary to the expectations of the shinny Schlieffen plan that had for so long promised swift victory to Germany over France, the Western offensive of the Germans crumpled into the muddy, bloody stalemate of the trenches.

Much of the focus of The Guns of August is on the machinations of the various high commands as their hopes collide with the realities of European politics on the battlefield. But Tuchman also gives human faces to the warlords who led their countries.

The book has its heroes, notably King Albert who, of all his royal contemporaries, was the only one, Tuchman notes, who achieved personal greatness. Of the other generals it is perhaps Sir John French, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, who comes out of Tuchman’s account worst, as a remarkably hesitant and ineffectual commander.

When they finally met in London in 1922 Michael Collins found French, who he had once tried to kill, a charming and engaging man. It is a sobering thought that it may well be humans’ finest qualities that render them of least utility in war. In other words, as Chaucer realised, the myth of the “perfect, gentle knight” is just that: a myth.

The Guns of August quickly established itself as a modern classic shortly after its publication in 1962. It is a deserved reputation. The book is an elegantly written, gripping, and enormously erudite account of the first weeks of the First World War, ending abruptly, in an echo of Thucydides, on the eve of the critical Battle of the Marne.

Perhaps it is also a book that helped to save the world. Jack Kennedy read it shortly after its publication and, himself a veteran of confused battles and command bungling, was impressed by a key theme of the book – the miscalculations and errors that led to war and battlefield disaster. So, a few months later, during the desperate days of the Cuban Missiles Crisis, Kennedy made very sure to constantly wonder about what his opponents – in Washington, Moscow and Havana – were planning to do.

Say Nothing, by Patrick Radden Keefe

Summary: a devastatingly powerful account of the impact of murder on its victims and perpetrators. One of the finest books ever about the Troubles in the North of Ireland.

In 1972 the IRA kidnapped Jean McConville, a widowed mother of ten. She was never seen alive by her family again. In 2013, following storms, her remains were discovered where they had been buried on Shelling Hill beach in County Louth. She had been killed by a single gunshot to the head.

Jean McConville’s murder by the IRA, on the trumped up excuse that she was informing to the British, was hardly out of the ordinary. Others were also disappeared. Hundreds of innocent non-combatants were killed by the IRA, sometimes by accident, sometimes deliberately. Hundreds more were killed by British Crown Forces and Loyalist paramilitaries. But the IRA’s decision to adopt the tactics of a South American dictatorship and disappear Jean, telling her children that she had abandoned them and that she was a tout, has made Jean’s tragedy one of the most notorious incidents of the Troubles.

It is saying something about the richness and quality of this book that Radden Keefe’s final uncovering of the truth of Jean’s last hours and the name of the person who fired the fatal shot is not necessarily the book’s most important aspect.

Say Nothing draws in part on the “Belfast Project” of Boston College – an attempt at an oral history project on the Troubles so botched that it was easily portrayed, with some justice, as an effort by critics of Gerry Adams to give other critics an opportunity to give vent to their spleen towards him for his imagined betrayal of them by his involvement in the Peace Process. When it was finally subpoenaed by the police it provided them with a rich source of intelligence on historical crimes.

Carefully triangulating the Belfast Project material with his own research and interviews, Radden Keefe focuses on the lives of three of those involved in Jean’s death – IRA members Brendan Hughes, Dolours Price and Gerry Adams – and on the dreadful consequences of the killing on Jean’s children. The result is a devastatingly powerful account of the impact of the squalid, intimate war known on the Troubles on the lives of both its combatants and victims.

Dolours Price and Brendan Hughes were in many ways hugely impressive people: idealistic, extraordinarily brave and self-sacrificing – both endured time on hunger strike, Dolours being tortured through force feeding over a protracted period. But this book details how even these most admirable of human virtues can be twisted in war to enable savagely evil acts.

Both Price and Hughes ended their lives embittered opponents of the Irish Peace Process. They believed that what they had done in war could not be justified by the peace deal that their former commanding officer, Gerry Adams, had signed up to. While they were wrong about the Peace Process they were both probably right that many of their actions could never be justified, not least because so much of their armed struggle was pointless.

On the signing of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) in 1998 Seamus Mallon, Deputy Leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), described that agreement as “Sunningdale for slow learners.” It’s a line that rankles the Provos to this day. Mallon was referring to a power-sharing agreement in 1974 that had similar constitutional provisions to the GFA, but which Sinn Fein and the IRA, along with the far-Right Democratic Unionist Party, had opposed. This led, in part, to the bloody continuance of war for another two decades until we ended up in more or less the same place.

Jean and some of her children

Peace has been good to Gerry Adams – the man who, as an IRA commander, according to Price and Hughes, ordered the death and disappearance of Jean. He is now something of an elder statesman, basking in the glow of the Peace Process and apparently untroubled by his bloody IRA past. Of course he always denies having been a member of the IRA, a barefaced lie that stoked the fury and deepened the embitterment of both Price and Hughes, subordinates who had only been following his orders.

Both Price and Hughes went to early graves consumed by the guilt and trauma of what they had done to Jean and others like her. Doubtless when they died they were still trying to convince themselves of the rightness of their actions. Doubtless also they tried not to think of the consequences of their actions on Jean’s children: Her lonely murder at night on the shores of the Irish Sea led to the break up of the family, the institutionalisation of several of her children, and the devastation of the lives of that next generation.

Say Nothing is a remarkable work of journalism and history. It is one of the finest books ever written on the Troubles. It is vital reading for anyone glib about the value of the Peace Process or with any romantic illusions about revolutionary war.

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.

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.