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.

The Second Sleep, by Robert Harris

Summary: Robert Harris on bleak, civilisation collapsing form

In March 2007 the singer Rhianna released the song Umbrella. This led many to believe, as the TV presenter Rick Edwards (I think) put it, that she was a voodoo devil woman whose song was directly responsible for the wettest, most miserable summer in living memory.

Now I’m not saying that Robert Harris is a warlock. But in 2019 he published The Second Sleep, a book about the aftermath of civilisation’s collapse, in which he mentions that such a collapse may be brought about by, amongst other things, a drug resistant pandemic.

Can it be a coincidence that I write this from a pandemic lockdown?

Some people may be curious to know that the Second Sleep is about a young priest’s investigation in the far, post-event, future into the mysterious death of an older priest. Some may also be interested that it is perhaps Harris’ bleakest book since his story of Nazism triumphant, Fatherland. Like that book The Second Sleep is an elegantly written and gripping thriller in which the initial death proves to be but the loose thread that unravels the veil covering a much greater monstrosity. Some may be interested to know that the other ways in which Harris postulates that civilisation may collapse are nuclear war, climate change, an asteroid strike, a super-volcano eruption (I think he means Yellowstone), or generalised information technology failure.

But all that is beside the point. Robert Harris has cursed us. He is the Rhianna of the Covid-19 generation.

The Volunteer: the true story of the resistance hero who infiltrated Auschwitz, by Jack Fairweather

Witold Pilecki

In the vastness of the Second World War, one fact contends for the title of most startling of all, and it is this: Polish officer Witold Pilecki volunteered to be imprisoned in Auschwitz.

It is true that, when he first agreed to the assignment in 1940, he probably could not have conceived of the scale of the risk and abject horror that he would encounter there. After all he took this intelligence mission specifically to find out what was going on in this secretive German facility. But having seen what was happening he still stayed for three years, risking his life every day in a effort to build a resistance movement there and to alert the outside world to what was happening.

A veteran of both the 1920 Poland-Russia war and the 1939 invasion of Poland by Germany Witold was a brave man with no illusions about war. But he had never seen anything like Auschwitz. No one had.

The reports that Witold sent to the resistance in Warsaw and to the Allies in London detailed something unprecedented in human history: the construction of an industrialised programme of mass murder. In the shadow of this Witold’s organisation gathered intelligence and, where they could, assassinated Nazis. But Witold also realised that kindness was resistance in that every time someone shared meagre food or helped a fellow prisoner it was a refusal to accept the dehumanisation that the Nazis intended for them.

Even seeing the Nazi atrocities against Jews, political prisoners and Russian prisoners of war with his own eyes Witold could barely comprehend it so vast and irrational was that killing. But the Allied High Commands who refused to respond to Witold’s pleas for direct action against this genocide have no such excuse. The cumulative evidence provided to them at enormous cost by the Polish Home Army and the Jewish Agency can have left little doubt as to what was happening. But thousands of miles away from the death cries of Jewish women and children and the stink of incinerated human flesh Churchill and Roosevelt found plenty of excuses for inaction.

Witold eventually escaped to make a direct appeal to the Home Army for military support to an uprising in Auschwitz. But by this stage they too were preoccupied with other things, most particularly their plans for an uprising in Warsaw to reassert Polish independence at war’s end. So the courageous resistance network that Witold had built up in Auschwitz was left hanging, eventually to be liquidated by the SS.

Witold died knowing that his mission to Auschwitz had been a failure. Furthermore as someone who was regarded as a traitor by the Stalinist authorities who replaced the Nazis the full details of what he did were also covered up until the fall of the Soviet Union. But, as Witold said before his death,”I tried to live my life in such a fashion so that in my last hour, I would be happy rather than fearful. I find happiness in knowing that the fight was worth it.”

Jack Fairweather’s book is a superb, and superbly gripping, tribute to this man of conscience and action who the butchers of history tried to erase. In spite of his failures Witold’s life stands as an enormous indictment of all those who fail to use the power that they have to diminish human suffering.

The Anarchy: the relentless rise of the East India Company, by William Dalrymple

Summary: a gripping account of the most hostile corporate takeover in history – the East India Company’s bloody seizure of the Mughal Empire

The East India Company was established in 1600 to facilitate trade between England and South Asia. New markets were desperately needed, then as now, following England’s hubristic decision to politically separate itself from its natural economic hinterland in mainland Europe.

The East India Company eventually established trading posts in the Mughal empire, at the time probably the wealthiest state in the world. By the mid-18th Century however cracks began to show in that empire as it lost territory to the south and came under attack from other powerful states in the north: Persia even sacked Delhi in the late 1730s.

By this stage the East India Company was already in possession of an army from earlier conflicts with the French in the region so it soon became drawn into these wars, first as a king-maker allying itself to different south Asian factions, then seizing the opportunity to take the whole state for itself. In other words the British subjugation of India began, literally, as the most hostile of corporate takeovers.

The cataclysm that British rule represented for ordinary south Asians, something still substantially under appreciated in Britain itself, was the subject of Shashi Tharoor’s excoriating Inglorious Empire. Dalrymple traces the origins of this to the general lack of concern by the English for their newly acquired subjects. Rather they viewed their new conquests as “a pirate views a galleon”, and plundered with murderous abandon.

Even the onset of famine in Bengal as a consequence of East India Company depredations did nothing to blunt their extraordinary rapaciousness. The state continued to be looted to provide riches for the Company officers and dividends to English shareholders with no thought of humanitarian relief for their victims. In the end it is estimated that up to 10 million people were starved to death.

In The Anarchy Dalrymple provides a fine narrative account of the establishment of the East India Company and its conquest of India. He draws not only on European sources for this but also Asian ones. Hence he provides a fine and nuanced portrait of an Indian society before, during and after its destruction by the mercenaries of the East India Company, notably Clive.

Dalrymple seems to have something of a soft spot for Warren Hastings, a successor to Clive, who in spite of his complicity with this larcenous enterprise, was something of an Indiaphile. He also brings to new audiences the careers of major India figures such as Tipu Sultan, and casts new light on the careers of figures whose infamy is now largely forgotten, such as Richard Wellesley, brother of the more famous Arthur, Duke of Wellington.

It is said that the curse of the Irish is we remember everything, while the curse of the English is they remember nothing. As England prepares to cut itself loose again from Europe, this is a portion of their history which they should learn urgently. It will help them understand better why India will likely seek to eat them raw in future trade negations.

Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power, by Robert Caro

Summary: the extraordinary first volume of Caro’s planned five volume biography of LBJ

The Path to Power is volume one of Robert Caro’s celebrated, multi-volume biography of

Lyndon Johnson – four volumes have already been published with a fifth planned. This one covers Johnson’s career from birth to the outbreak of the Second World War, including his election to Congress and his first, failed, Senate run.

Nevertheless in spite of its mammoth size this is not a book that I would ever describe as “sprawling”. For all its numerous, fascinating, digressions – into Texas social history or politics, for example, or concise biographies of Sam Johnson, Lyndon’s father, or Sam Rayburn, the powerful Speaker of the US House of Representatives and sometime patron of Lyndon – Caro never once loses sight of the central purpose of his work, which is to try to explain Lyndon Johnson. Hence any digressions that he makes are provided to establish a context from which better understanding can be derived.

Johnson was not a very nice man. But he was a fascinating one with an extraordinary impulse for power, an awesome appetite for hard work, and a fundamental grasp of political campaigning, both for himself and, as described in this book, as a leader of Democratic national election campaigning. (It’s a pity that some of the clowns leading Labour’s disastrous December 2019 election campaign did not spend some time studying this book to learn some of the basics of winning elections.)

In the course of his career he did much good and some extraordinary evil. But he never for a moment seems to have been motivated by anything other than a desire for self promotion. Despite coming from a Texas Liberal tradition – both his father and Rayburn were unequivocal men of the Left, Johnson was not by any means wedded to these ideals. Over the course of his career he shifted from Left to Right and back again depending on the prevailing political winds and which alliances he felt would most probably advance his self interest.

Such calculation was not restricted to his professional life. His marriage to Lady Bird seemed to have been wholly functional, its purpose to obtain for him a rich wife whose family might help bankroll his political campaigns. All of his relationships, with one exception, seem to have been developed with the sole consideration of how they would advance his political career.

The sole exception was his affair with Alice Glass, the wife of one of his most important political backers. Johnson simply could not resist Alice in spite of the damage that it would have caused him had Alice’s husband discovered the true nature of their relationship. Lady Bird had, of course, to live with the humiliating knowledge of the affair, conducted with no concern whatsoever for her feelings.

Alice, in fact, seems to have been the only woman Johnson ever loved. So there is a sort of Karmic justice that towards the end of her life Alice had wanted to destroy all her correspondence with Johnson. She was afraid that her children would discover not that she had an affair, but that she had one with the man most responsible for the US’s murderous involvement in Vietnam.

The Path to Power is a gripping book, elegantly written and displaying an extraordinary depth of research. It is a matter of unspeakable pleasure to know that I have at least three more volumes of this work to read.

The Greek Myths, by Robert Graves

Summary: myth as a prophesy of war

In the Greek Myths, Robert Graves provides a sprawling and comprehensive survey of these stories from creation to the return of Odysseus to Ithaca. The approach is mostly “chronological” though some portions, such as Agamemnon’s return and the vengeance of Orestes, are placed in the narrative before temporally subsequent ones, such as the sack of Troy.

Many of these stories are now perhaps best known from classical literature such as Homer, Virgil, Aeschylus or Sophocles. But here Graves tries to be true to their oral origins, acknowledging that there are a variety of versions of the stories, including differences in some of the reported names of the characters and indeed in some of the stories’ conclusions: Some say that Theseus felt bad about abandoning Ariadne, for example; or some say that Iphigenia was rescued by the goddess Artemis, not trussed up and slaughtered like a goat by her own father.

These stories have been cleaned up over the years, often for children, by the likes of Charles Kingsley or Roger Lancelyn Green. But here the “heroes” are as they were – an array of bloody men, and a few bloody women, from an era when the only balm from trauma was the facade of martial glory.

Hence it is difficult to see the story of Theseus as anything other than the story of an idealistic young man descending into increased horror and cruelty as a result of a career of killing that he enters in the hope of fame and glory. Heracles comes across as little more than a psychopath: extraordinary that someone should decide to make a Disney cartoon out of that one. Odysseus is clever and brave, but also venial, untrustworthy and brutal, breaking his word to those Trojans to whom he promised protection, and personally murdering Hector’s infant son, amongst other vile and treacherous deeds in his career of war and wandering,

Perhaps this volume makes better sense as a work of reference than an a work of narrative. But, taken in total, these stories give a shockingly stark portrayal of the effects of violence and warfare on both the victims and the perpetrators. Perhaps this was part of their appeal to Graves, himself a veteran of the carnage of the First World War.

Neither the Trojan War nor the wars of the Twentieth Century seem to have done much to dispel the attraction to war for a certain class of human. So in telling these stories, as well as his own war experiences elsewhere, Graves may have realised that he was also heir to Cassandra, the princess of Troy, gifted with the power of perfect prophesy and cursed with the knowledge that even her most desperate warnings would never to be heeded no matter how menacing the approaching “smell of blood”.