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.

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.

The Patient Assassin, by Anita Anand

Summary: A fine account of the Jallianwalla Bagh Massacre and its aftermath

On 13 April 1919 British armed forces under the command of General Reginald Dyer opened fire on a crowd of unarmed Indian protesters in Amritsar. The official figure for the dead is 379. The Indian National Congress estimated, perhaps more realistically, over 1,000.

Legend has it that one survivor of the massacre, Udham Singh, swore vengeance that day on the blood soaked earth. And, just over 20 years later, in 1940, this vow was fulfilled when Singh shot and killed Sir Michael O’Dwyer.

O’Dwyer had been lieutenant governor of the Punjab when the massacre occurred. While not involved in giving the order he was a long-standing apologist for Dyer’s murderousness. He was also an instigator of a few massacres of his own around the same time, as part of the British Empire’s bloody efforts to deny Indian self-determination.

The Patient Assassin is something of a triple biography, of Singh, O’Dwyer and Dyer. Particularly in piecing together Singh’s clandestine life, Anand has done an impressive job. Given this, it is almost churlish to complain that she makes some glaring mistakes elsewhere. For example, in her discussion of O’Dwyer’s background, failing to recognise that Daniel O’Connell was an Irish nationalist, indeed the most prominent one of the first half of the 19th Century.

By 1940, Dyer was dead. But O’Dwyer was crass as ever in his justification of the slaughter. It is ironic that a Catholic Irishman like O’Dwyer should have been such a advocate of empire given the depredations of violence and famine that the British had inflicted on his own people. But, there is a class of person, think Spiked’s Brendan O’Neill, or UK Home Secretary Priti Patel, who so desperately want acceptance by the Establishment that they seek to feverishly outdo them in the vileness of their racism, often against people from their own backgrounds. O’Dwyer was one such.

There is actually no evidence, Anand notes, that Singh had been at Amritsar. But whether he was or not the scale of the Amritsar outrage would doubtless have been enough to stir a visceral desire for revenge in him and millions of others across the entire sub-continent. A much smaller massacre by the British in Derry in 1972 was enough to exacerbate murderous insurrection across the North of Ireland.

Nevertheless it is unlikely that assassination was Singh’s primary purpose when he left India and started travelling the world. But the memory of massacre was doubtless an impetuous in his involvement in various expatriate revolutionary organisations. Eventually Singh’s wanderings brought him to London and the opportunity to settle some scores.

The Patient Assassin is a fine and important work of an aspect of Empire history that few British have the first clue about, but which reverberates still in India, where Singh is now hailed as a national hero, and amongst it’s diaspora. Perhaps if this story were more widely known it might go some way to dissipating the misty nostalgia for Empire that still afflicts so many of the English.

Dominion, by Tom Holland

Summary: An absorbing and convincing account of the influence of Christianity on contemporary Western society.

Dominion is essentially a history of thought, specifically how Christian thought, and its offshoots, have shaped Western civilisation over two millennia.

Because it has been with us so long it is easy to lose sight of just what a revolutionary philosophy Christianity was when it first arose in Roman Palestine and then swept across the empire.

The central symbol of Christianity, the cross, is a reminder that Christianity was the antithesis of the prevailing religions and sects which dominated the Mediterranean basin at the time which, often literally, deified prestige and power. The cross was a means to humiliate and torture political prisoners to death, and hence terrorise Roman subjects into obedience to the empire. It was the means of execution of Jesus, a young rabbi whose teachings of love and forgiveness had so unsettled the leaderships of both the Jewish and Roman administrations in Palestine.

Having initially been a supporter of the persecutions of Christians, Paul, on the road to Damascus of course, changed his mind and became one of the new religion’s most powerful advocates. As a Roman citizen he was able to travel the empire and so ensure the spread of this new religion that so radically emphasised the importance of loving each other and good works.

The refusal of Christians to participate in the sacrifices to the Roman gods, including the emperor, marked them apart as subversive to the order of the empire and so a handy scapegoat as the occasion demanded,

Things changed when the murderously psychotic Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and began to transform Christianity into a state religion. This process was briefly interrupted by his successor, Julian, who having grown up watching his family being murdered on the orders of Constantine, a threat that he lived under himself for many years, repudiated Christianity and tried to reinstall the old gods. But even this was irrevocably tainted by Christian thought as Julian insisted that the pagan temples must display charity to the poor, a wholly Christian idea hitherto unknown in paganism.

Holland traces the evolutions in Christian thinking, and the schisms, wars and Reformations that resulted over the subsequent two millennia. Certainly this includes many tales of hypocrisy, intolerance and bloodshed. But alongside these, there are also stories of courage and redemption, such as the ending of Apartheid in South Africa, which show what may be achieved when flawed people endeavour to hold to the ideals that Jesus was assassinated for.

If many in secular Europe with its assertion of universal human rights feel that much of what Christianity had to offer is no longer relevant it is worth bearing in mind that secularism is itself a specifically Christian concept, and human rights, as Holland points out, originally a Catholic idea.

Dominion is a fine, gripping book that helps to understand the origins of Western society and how these origins still reverberate, often unacknowledged, in so much contemporary Western thought.

Lyndon Johnson, volume 2: Means of Ascent, by Robert A Caro

Summary: A detailed guide on how to appear a war hero and steal a Texas election

Robert Caro describes there being two threads running through Lyndon Johnson’s life: a bright one of commitment to public service that he displayed as a young teacher of poor Hispanic Texan students, or as a young congressman driving rural electrification for poor Texas communities; and a dark, selfish one, concerned with his self-promotion and personal enrichment without the least care as to who he hurt to achieve this.

In this volume of his biography of Johnson, covering the years from his war service to his election to the US Senate, Caro notes that only the dark thread is visible.

Even Johnson’s military service is problematic. Despite his commission as a Lieutenant Commander in the US Navy Reserves Johnson gave little impression that he was really interested in active duty as he had promised in various speeches. Eventually though concerns about future electoral credibility compelled him to participate in a mission to the South Pacific as an observer. In this role he participated, again as an observer, in a single, terrifying combat mission, for which he was awarded the Silver Star. While he did display a certain coolness under fire, it was notable, Caro observes, that the actual aircrew he was flying with, who risked their lives in dozens more missions, were not considered for bravery awards. As is still the case, who you know matters more than anything else. So, as a congressman on the naval affairs committee, Johnson knew General McArthur who recommended him for the award, no doubt thinking that Johnson might be a useful ally on Capitol Hill.

A considerable portion of the book focusses on Johnson’s senatorial election. This was a revolutionary campaign. It was the first in which a candidate used a helicopter. This Johnson used to ferry him from town to remote Texan town, brandishing his Silver Star while he told the crowds gathering to see this strange new flying machine exaggerated stories of his war. The quantity of Johnson’s usage of radio as a campaigning medium was also unprecedented.

Johnson had already shown himself to be a superb organiser of elections from his management of the national Democratic congressional effort in 1940. However when all the electoral innovations that he brought to bear on this election still came up short, Caro argues convincingly that Johnson resorted to the old-fashioned expedient of stealing the election from the former governor Coke Stevenson, an ultra-conservative Democrat.

Caro clearly has a soft spot for Stevenson, undoubtedly an extraordinary individual, which has perhaps led to him skating somewhat over his reactionary views. Not that Johnson was a progressive champion. His liberality was always only skin deep, something worth appearing when Roosevelt was president, but shed quickly when campaign financiers demanded he dance to a different tune. Perhaps Johnson felt justified in stealing this election having had his previous effort to become a US Senator stolen from him by another former Texas governor, Pappy O’Daniel.

With Volume 2 of his biography of Johnson, Caro again provides a compelling portrait of Johnson, his times, and his place, with fascinating insights into Texas politics and history. I’m already looking forward to reading volume 3.

The Undiscovered Country

The tree was in the river and the kid was in the tree… The kid couldn’t have been more than ten or eleven. He looked like a ragdoll caught in the branches.”

So begins my novel, The Undiscovered Country, which, after a long road to publication, is finally out in time for Second Lockdown/ Christmas. The Irish Times has called it, “‘A smart and pacy debut that details a historical period that deserves further exploration.”

For Hamlet, the “undiscovered country” was death. That lurks within these pages alongside reflections on Dutch people’s relationship with beer and cheese, the origins of the idea of the rule of law, and the true meaning of red-headed women in Renaissance paintings. These ruminations are my protagonists’ equivalent of whistling in the dark as they try to get to the truth about a murder that they stumble upon in the midst of a war for another “undiscovered country”, the emergent Irish republic in 1920.

Try it, you might like it. 🙏

It’s available on Hive https://www.hive.co.uk/Product/Aidan-McQuade/The-Undiscovered-Country/24931562

and on Amazon, https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1783528079/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_api_i_rSTAFbSQ8WKS0

The Philosopher Queens, edited by Rebecca Buxton and Lisa Whiting

Summary: An exquisite introduction to important, hitherto often suppressed, strands of philosophy from across history and the planet

The first thing to strike you about the book, The Philosopher Queens, is its startling beauty. It is an exquisitely illustrated book that simply lifts the heart just to look at.

More importantly the substance of the book is vital: the editors and authors have picked up the history of philosophy and shaken it “until the hidden women appear in plain sight,” to borrow a line from Natalie Haynes’ wonderful retelling of the tales of Troy, A Thousand Ships.

Starting with Zoi Aliozi’s fascinating essay on Diotima – a character in one of Plato’s dialogues from around 400 BCE who, according to Socrates, taught him “his” method and her philosophy of love – the book progresses across 20 essays via Sandrine Berges’ fine portrait of the great 18th century women’s rights and anti-slavery campaigner Mary Wollstonecraft, to Nima Dahir’s reflections on Aziza Y al-Hibri, a Lebanese-American professor of human rights and Islamic jurisprudence.

As al-Hibri’s inclusion suggests the book avoids a northern hemisphere bias including important philosophers from Asia and Africa as well. These include Shalini Sinha on Lalla, “one of the most influential figures in the religious history of Kashmir”, and Minna Salami on Sophie Bosede Oluwole, “the erudite and provocative shaper of contemporary Yoruba classical philosophy”. In keeping with the book’s revolutionary approach to its subject, there is also a chapter by Anita L Allen on the American activist and political philosopher, Angela Davis. I was disappointed that there were no chapters on Rosa Luxemburg, Martha Nussbaum or Margaret Archer – but books are finite things and such omissions merely demonstrate that there is a need for at least one sequel to this volume.

Each of the essays provides a biographical sketch of its subject and their historical context as well as introducing some of their key ideas. However, these are not hagiographic. The essay on Hannah Arendt, for example, introduces her important work on totalitarianism, and her reflections on the “banality of evil” from Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem. But it does not shy away from also acknowledging her repulsive racism, and her “inconsistent treatment of Jewish oppression and African-American marginalisation in the US.” In raising this deeply troubling matter, the essay author, and co-editor of the book with Lisa Whiting, Rebecca Buxton makes the vital point that “no thinker should be idolised above criticism”.

The Philosopher Queens is a book that breaks the mould in more ways than one. It is both a fine introduction to the thinkers that it portrays, and an introduction to important though often neglected strands in “western” and “non-western” philosophy alike.

This book should become a compulsory textbook for students of philosophy. But it should also be more widely read to remind people that the world is a richer and more complex place than some folk may like us to think.

Night of the Bayonets, by Eric Lee

Summary: Georgian-Soviet tensions coming to a bloody reckoning in the last European battle of the Second World War

In their various books both Timothy Synder and Max Hastings have endeavoured to demonstrate how the good versus evil myth so beloved of British Second World War nostalgists, rings very hollow for the peoples of central and eastern Europe. For countries like Poland and Ukraine, for example, the experience was rather to be caught between the monstrous regimes of two of the Twentieth century’s greatest murderers: Stalin and Hitler.

With Night of the Bayonets, Eric Lee focuses in on one small but hugely illuminating example of this bleak reality. 

In the early hours of 5 April 1945, Georgian soldiers serving with the Wehrmacht on the Dutch island of Texel rose up against their German comrades, butchering many of them with knives and bayonets as they slept. 

As Eric Lee explains, the Georgians may not have been enthusiastic Soviets, Georgian independence and democracy having been strangled in the cradle by the Bolsheviks. However, they were unlikely to have been enthusiastic Nazis either. Politics was probably less a factor in them turning their coats than survival. Having been captured by the Germans earlier in the war, donning the German uniform seemed one of their few chances of survival, the alternative being death by a swift bullet or by starvation and disease in a prison camp. 

With the approaching end of war however, the Georgians were pitched onto the horns of another dilemma: how would they be received back in Stalin’s USSR having served in German uniforms. Stalin had already declared surrendering Red Army solders to be traitors. The Georgians must have been aware that if they returned to the Soviet Union they would likely end up liquidated or in a Gulag. 

So, insurrection must have seemed a reasonable gamble, demonstrating their continued loyalty to the Allied cause, and by allying themselves with Dutch communists, with the cause of the Soviet Union. 

It was only after battle was joined that the Georgians found out what other resistance fighters, from Warsaw to Prague to rural France, also discovered: that they were expendable as far as the Allied high commands were concerned. As in Warsaw the Germans also realised this, and so they decided to take their time in exacting revenge on Georgian fighters and Dutch civilians alike. It was not until late May, long after VE day, that Canadian forces landed on Texel, ending the battle.

Other books – most famously Cornelius Ryan’s description of the fall of Berlin, or Stephen Harding’s account of the extraordinary action at the Schloss Itter in Austria – have claimed to be accounts of the “last” battle of the Second World War in Europe. However, Lee’s account of this “last battle” is important not as a historical curiosity, but because it also illuminates so much of contemporary Europe, not least in explaining something of the origins of the ongoing tensions between Georgia and Russia.

Night of the Bayonets is an elegantly written and important work of history, In providing a non-Anglo-American perspective on the Second World War in Europe, it may usefully punctures some of the contemporary myths of the Second World War that still pervade attitudes in the UK. For this, and for much else, it deserves a wide readership.

East West Street: on the origins of genocide and crimes against humanity, by Philippe Sands

Summary: an lucid and important exploration of the personal consequences of atrocity, and the origins of international human rights law.

East West Street is something of a hybrid of a book. It is part family memoir: Sands’ maternal grandparents were survivors of the Holocaust, but never spoke about their experiences. And while loving people, they never smiled much, something that becomes more understandable as their biographies are painstakingly revealed.

In part the book is a history of the philosophy of international law. The book is also a joint biography of the originators of key concepts of human rights: Rafael Lemkin postulated the idea of “genocide” – the destruction of groups of people based on their identity; Hersch Lauterpacht formulated the idea of “crimes against humanity” – atrocities against individual civilians, often by their own governments.

What binds all this into a remarkable whole is the strange coincidence that, like Sands’ grandfather, Lemkin and Lauterpacht had deep ties with the city of Lviv, currently in Ukraine, previously known as Lemberg when it was in the Hapsburg empire. It was there that Lemkin and Lauterpacht originally studied law, and may well have come to know each other, though they do not seem ever to have become friends. Lemkin was a solitary and spiky soul. Lauterpacht had deep concerns that the concept of genocide would drive human beings deeper into their group identities and hence perpetuate the roots of genocide, if not its actual manifestation.

Nevertheless, both “genocide” and “crimes against humanity” are now important concepts in international human rights law. However, it was a struggle to get them accepted at Nuremberg. The US and the UK did not like the idea of genocide having been formidable practitioners of it themselves in the past. The Soviets, whose own campaign in the East had been marked with atrocity, including mass rape during the conquest of Berlin, did not like the concept of “crimes against humanity.” Nevertheless, Lemkin and Lauterpacht’s advocacy, and the interventions of Robert Jackson the chief US prosecutor, and Hartley Shawcross, the British Attorney General, eventually got them included.

The book builds considerable momentum towards its climax at the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals. Here the personal, political and legal strands of the book are drawn together into what must be the most important courtroom drama in history. Sands focusses particularly on the case of Hans Frank in this trial. Himself a lawyer, as Governor General of Nazi occupied territories in Poland, Frank was ultimately responsible for the murders of many of Lemkin’s and Lauterpacht’s families, as well as members of Sands’ own family. 

In the course of writing this lucid and important book Sands became friends with Frank’s son, Niklas. Together in the courtroom where his father was sentenced to death, Niklas described it as a “happy place.” Later Niklas explained further that he was against the death penalty, but not for his own father. 

East West Street is a mighty book.

Lincoln on the Verge, by Ted Widmer

Summary: One for the specialists… particularly if you like trains

If you like Great Railway Journeys of the World, you will probably like this account of the 13-day journey Abraham Lincoln took as President Elect from his home in Springfield Illinois to Washington DC. Indeed Michael “Choo-choo” Portillo is probably already in the process of pitching it to the BBC as a new series idea.

It has much interesting material, including a social portrait of the United States, or at least those states that Lincoln visited on this journey, on the eve of Civil War, and details of the “Baltimore Plot” to assassinate Lincoln as he passed through Maryland before he even took up the burden of the presidency. 

Lincoln was one of the greatest public speakers of the 19th Century, indeed of world history, So I find it reassuring that even he could occasionally deliver a poor speech, as he did on this journey. But then he had to deliver hundreds of speeches during these 13 days. In these he strove to articulate his vision for a country where all are equal before the law just as the racists of the Confederacy were seeking to create a new country founded on the “principle” of inequality to allow them to continue inflicting dehumanising violence on millions of human beings through the system of slavery.

It’s an elegantly written and illustrated book, but I am not sure I would describe it as compelling. It is probably one for more specialist readers rather than for someone looking for a general introduction to Lincoln or to the Civil War… but it would make a great Great Railway journey.