The Whydah: A Pirate Ship Feared, Wrecked and Found, by Martin W. Sandler

Summary: A fine young adult account of the heyday of piracy in the Americas, with plenty of interesting detail for the more jaded.

On the night of 26 April 1717 the pirate ship, the Whydah foundered off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, bringing to an end the short but spectacular career of Black Sam Bellemy and over 130 of his crew. They had spent the previous year raiding and looting with impressive efficiency honest merchant shipping from the Caribbean to Maine.

Of course the thing was that much of this legitimate commerce that Bellamy and his crew were so dangerously disrupting was based on the “triangular trade”, the genocidal system that captured, tortured and enslaved Africans to enrich the Western world.

The Whydah, is a narrative history for young adults focussing on the story of the ship from its launch to the discovery of its wreck. By way of full disclosure: the author, Marty Sandler, is one of my best friends in the entire world, so I was positively disposed to like this book even before I picked it up.

Having said that this is an important book. Because in focussing on this sliver of history, Marty illuminates a much wider society in a way that many, even today, would rather not contemplate.

Marty presents evidence to show pirate society, violent and avaricious as it was, to be in many ways vastly more admirable than the system of Western “civilisation” against which it rebelled and fought. For example the pirate ships were democracies, electing their officers, and amongst the very few places in the 18th Century where Blacks and Whites lived and worked as equals. Some of the pirate captains even had ethical objections to the slave trade.

IMG_1266The Whydah is a book that will encourage young people to think and question the myths and fables their more powerful elders tell them. And for those of us who occasionally like to look out to sea, it reminds us how the horizon was once speckled with wooden boats, filled with desperate men and women, prepared to try to steal a better life from those who denied such a thing to them.

Somethings have changed since then.  Today the desperate have plastic boats.

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PT 109: An American Epic of War, Survival, and the Destiny of John F Kennedy, by William Doyle

Summary: A gripping war story that gets to the heart of important truths about both war and Jack Kennedy

In 1945 John Ford made a cracking war movie called “They Were Expendable” about the exploits of a motor torpedo (PT) boat unit, including, of course, John Wayne, defending the Philippines against the Japanese onslaught.

The thing about the movie though, was that the capabilities of the PT boat therein portrayed were horseshit. The PT boat was a lousy weapon. Its torpedoes were close to useless as, due to technical flaws in their design, they rarely hit their targets let alone detonated. Few of the PT boats were equipped with radar though they were expected to fight in the darkest of nights. And these mahogany constructions were sent into conflict against much more heavily armed and steel armoured destroyers. This was only slightly more hopeful, in military terms, than sending a mime troupe to attack a panzer division, to borrow from Milan Kundera. Indeed in this book William Doyle notes that of the three confirmed sinkings of major ships by PT boats during the Second World War, one of them was American.

This was the branch of the Navy that Jack Kennedy, millionaire son of the former US ambassador to the Court of St James’s and best selling author of Why England Slept, joined in the Solomon Islands in 1943. It made him president.

Dave Powers, a friend and aide to Jack, once commented that, “Without PT 109 there would never have been a President John F Kennedy.” The legend of Jack’s fortitude and leadership following the sinking of his boat during a small battle in which 15 ill-equipped PT boats were sent to ineffectually attack a convoy of Japanese destroyers, was the foundation upon which Jack’s political career was built. But the story of this relatively brief episode in Jack’s relatively brief life is more important for a number of reasons, not least, after over half a century of muck raking and character assassination, it has proven pretty close to impossible to tarnish this truth of his heroism during those days.

Certainly it has been tried. Doyle notes the simmering accusation that it was Jack’s incompetence as a boat skipper that led to his boat being sunk, the only PT boat to have been sunk by ramming during the course of the war. However Doyle’s account of the ill-conceived battle in which the sinking occurs offers evidence that this is an unfair charge and that it was ill-luck on Jack’s part exploited by an imaginatively aggressive Japanese commander, Kohei Hanami, that led to the sinking. Later Kennedy, in a comment that gains enormous retrospective poignancy, noted his thoughts just before the moment of impact: “This is how it feels to be killed.”

He didn’t die then and went on to play a decisive role in saving the lives of his surviving crew. Doyle notes: “The longest Olympic swimming event staged before then, the men’s 4,000 metre freestyle race, was held only once, in 1900. Fourteen of the twenty-eight competitors… “did not finish” and the distance was promptly retired. On the afternoon of August 2, 1943, John F. Kennedy covered the same distance, plus a mile more, over open water, behind enemy lines in broad daylight…All the while he bit on a strap and towed a badly burned sailor along with him. Simultaneously … leading nine other men.. towards safety… it was an astonishing feat his crewmen never forgot.”

Once rescued with the crucial help of courageous Solomon Island scouts and an Australian Coastwatcher, he refused the option to return to the States but remained in the combat zone for months more. During that time he helped save the lives of 10 more Americans before ill-health forced him home.

For all his other flaws, these events, and those of the Cuban Missiles Crisis, more starkly than any others, show the greatness at the heart of Jack Kennedy. Indeed, it was almost certainly his experience of the chaos of warfare in the Solomons that stiffened Kennedy’s moral courage to face down the hawks in his administration and save the world from nuclear annihilation during that Crisis.

PT 109 is a gripping book about war, endurance and a young man leading in the most horrendous of circumstances. Would that there was someone with the qualities that Jack Kennedy displayed then in the White House today.

Small Vices, by Robert B Parker

Summary: Spenser on sparkling form

Spenser’s pal, the high-flying lawyer Rita Fiore, hires him to look into the conviction of a black man, Ellis Alves. Alves, a petty criminal with a history of sexual violence, has been sent to prison for the apparent sexual murder of a young student. The thing is, Alves, unpleasant a human being as ever there was, might not have actually done it.

Spenser starts poking about in the case with his usual mixture of insight and irreverence and finds the cases against Alves to be a bit on the fishy side. All the more so when folk start showing up threatening to do him violence for asking questions in the wrong places. In this instance, however, the violence that they are threatening may, for once, be more than Spenser can handle, even with the capable assistance of his buddy, Hawk.

Parker’s Spenser is a great creation – smart, kind and tough in equal measures, in the mould of the classic knight errant of American gumshoe literature, dwelling amidst a great community of characters, cops and crooks alike. This is a particularly satisfying episode in his literary career, when he finds himself faced with an opponent who may be his martial superior. All in all, a  great episode in the Spenser canon.

The Pale Criminal, by Philip Kerr

Summary: A bleak tale of serial murder as the Nazis prepare to liquidate Berlin’s reputation for toleration

It’s 1938 and Bernie Gunther is enjoying a decent living in Berlin as a private detective, blackmail and missing persons a speciality. Unfortunately Reinhard Heydrich has not forgotten him. He press-gangs Bernie back into the police to oversee the investigation into an apparent serial killer, one who is butchering Aryan schoolgirls in a manner that bears striking resemblance to what anti-Semitic propaganda portrays as Jewish ritual blood sacrifice.

I didn’t enjoy this particular outing of Bernie Gunther as much as others in the series. Perhaps it was the bleakness of the subject matter. Perhaps it was the violence of the plot. Perhaps it was that the portrayal of life in the tolerant capital of a state that has set itself on a path to self-destruction through its surrender to atavistic racism felt a bit close to the bone in post-Brexit London. Perhaps it was the way the recurrent invocation of “the will of the people” by the Nazi characters as justification for their every squalid deed that bothered me: it was like spending my leisure time with a bunch of moronic Brexiteers invading my reading. Perhaps it was a combination of all these things.

Aside from this there is still much to recommend the novel, its labyrinthine plot reflecting the tortuous descent into evil of the nation in which it is set; its detailed historical research and well drawn characters, even the monster Heydrich is recognisably human. And of course it has at its centre Bernie Gunther as our guide: morally compromised, lonely, and striving to be decent. In spite of all he remains likeable and with a firm grip on his flawed humanity. Still one of the greatest literary detectives.

The Great Crash 1929, by JK Galbraith

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JK Galbraith

Summary: A witty, but challenging, take on how human greed and folly devastated the lives of millions

Some years, like some poets and politicians and some lovely women, are singled out for fame far beyond the common lot, and 1929 was clearly such a year.” 

John Kenneth Galbraith, the legendary economist and public servant, wrote this book in the midst of difficulties he was having in completing another, The Affluent Society. The result is generally regarded as the definitive work on the Crash. But in spite of the seriousness of the subject Galbraith writes with a lightness and humour that leavens the complexity, and which pokes fun at the folly of human beings.

img_1232-1Because what Galbraith depicts is a sort of collective madness that gripped a nation, or more specifically the wealthy of the nation: it was only really they who had the cash to speculate. The rising market of the 1920s convinced many that they could become rich without much effort. It was this delusion combined with extraordinary social inequality, other structural defects in the economy, and inadequate mechanisms and political will to regulate the craziness that led to a Crash of enormous proportions, which acted as a prelude to the Depression and the devastation of millions of lives across the globe.

Galbraith notes that, “I have never adhered to the view that Wall Street is uniquely evil, just as I have never found it possible to accept with complete confidence the alternative view… that it is uniquely wise.” But, as John Lanchester demonstrates in his book,”How to speak money”, the opacity of financial and economic language makes these sectors relatively immune from the sort of democratic scrutiny that other critical sectors, such as defence or the public services, are routinely subject. In such circumstances those who have mastered the language can appear sagacious to the uninitiated.

Galbraith describes in colourful terms just how dangerous this is and the risks that pertain when this happens. As the 2008 crash showed the economy has not yet been inoculated to human deceit and folly, and citizens must remain vigilant lest some future charlatans seek to sell financial snake oil to the rest of us.

Lamentation, by CJ Sansom

img_1225Summary: Henry VIII really wasn’t a nice man. What could possibly go wrong if you upset him?

Matthew Shardlake, the lawyer protagonist of Sansom’s series of Tudor detective novels, is asked by the queen, Catherine Parr, to help with a most delicate matter. A book she has written, Lamentation of a Sinner, has disappeared from her private apartments. The book contains some ideas that the king, Henry VIII, might find heretical and hence could lead to her death, possibly by fire as a heretic.

Shardlake, smart, a bit grumpy, and tolerant is a compelling guide through the insanity of Tudor London. Here the idea of freedom of conscience is little known and life and death depend on being seen to be slavishly devoted to the whims of the king’s religious pronouncements. In this book Shardlake guides us through a labyrinthine plot involving multiple cases, complicated by suspicions of religious orthodoxy and multiple murderers with opaque motives and loyalties.

There is a pervasive sense of dread to this book. It is clear from the outset, a horrific multiple execution by burning, that even well-liked characters from earlier books are not safe, and skill, intelligence and decency are faint protections from the capricious cruelties of tyranny.

One bonus to this book is a detailed historical note at the end in which Sansom speculates on a range of historical issues – from the cause of Henry VIII bloating and death (untreated type 2 diabetes, Sansom reckons) to the fate of Catherine Parr. In this Sansom notes that Elizabeth I, as a child, was sexually abused by Thomas Seymour, Parr’s last husband. Disturbingly this sordid tale was turned into a romantic drama, Young Bess, in the 1950s. This led me to wonder what sort of sick mind would ever wish to turn the story of a child abuser into that of a romantic hero played by Stewart Granger?

The Shardlake novels are a fine portrayal of life in a theocratic police state, inviting us to imagine what life in such places may be like in the contemporary world, and reminding those of us lucky enough to live in the secular and more tolerant West, that we are not so far removed from the less tolerant societies that still disfigure our planet.

A Selfish Plan to Change the World: Finding Big Purpose in Big Problems, by Justin Dillon

img_1203I must begin with a declaration of interest: Justin Dillon is a pal, someone I got to know and like over beers and years in the margins of conferences and meetings in different parts of the world.

Justin’s warmth, enthusiasms and likeablity come through strongly in this book, which is part memoir, part reportage, part philosophical treatise.

The book begins, rather disconcertingly, with an account of a performance by the Clash in Dublin. This inspired U2 to become who they are, who in turn inspired Justin, an accomplished musician, to change direction to become the filmmaker and anti-slavery activist that he is today. I think Joe Strummer would be pleased by that.

It is an important book in a number of respects. First of all at a time when much of the global discourse on slavery focuses simplistically on the minority of cases that relate to organised crime, Justin shows with illustrative cases from Haiti to Ghana to India that slavery is a complex issue of power, poverty, human rights and international development, not simply one of law enforcement.

Given this, a further theme of the book is even more apposite. This is the importance of purpose. Even before I got to the section in which Justin discusses Victor Frankl I was reflecting that the book could be considered as an application in the field of activism of Frankl’s remarkable work on humans’ search for meaning. Justin discusses how the lack of resources and power that impoverish so many across the world, their “poverty of means”, is echoed in the “poverty of meaning” in the lives of so many who in other respects seem wealthy. His “selfish plan to change the world” then relates to addressing this poverty of meaning by engaging those who lack purpose with the challenge of empowering those who lack means. In honour of Joe Strummer he exhorts his readers to find their “riot,” the struggle for justice that they they wish to be part of.

Justin describes the book as a “self-help manual”, but I doubt there are many other self help manuals like this, because it is one with a profoundly social purpose. Justin recognises that in order to change the world we may first have to change ourselves, and he shows the desperate needs that still exist across the world that demand we all look beyond ourselves.