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.

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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.

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.

Shadowplay: Behind the lines and under fire – the inside story of Europe’s last war, by Tim Marshall

Summary: a fine journalistic account of war and power politics in the Balkans

img_1613The war correspondent is something of a non-fiction counterpart to crime novels’ gumshoe: a guide through the dark and bloody places that most of us would never dream of personally approaching but still are fascinated by from a few steps removed. Journalistic accounts of war also provide even the most venial of hacks the opportunity to present themselves as heroes of their narratives.

Tim Marshall, author of an outstanding book on geo-politics, Prisoners of Geography, avoids that particular egocentric trap by casting himself very much as the anti-hero. Here he is generally the blundering foreigner dependent on his savvy Serbian colleagues to obtain understanding and avoid dangers.

It is a generous approach and illuminates with flashes of warmth and friendship this, often bleak, account of bloodshed and power politics during the war in Kosovo and the democratic revolution in Serbia.

After the Second World War,” Marshall notes, “the West Europeans gradually invented the European Union as their attempt to prevent them from killing each other again. The Serbs and their neighbours had Yugoslavia, Communism and Tito. The EU survived, and the other three didn’t. When Tito died, the ties that bound their neighbours, almost as brothers, frayed and then snapped.

Marshall may, on occasion, display a regard for the British Army that can really only be shown by someone who has never had their country occupied by them. But otherwise he is impressively clear-sighted about the atrocities and bloody blundering of all sides in these wars, including NATO.

Like much of history, this is not a book with a happy ending. Both Serbia and Kosovo currently sit outside the European Union, their economic and democratic development stunted, with many of their young people abandoning their countries in the hope for a better life elsewhere. Neither will be admitted so long as there is a continuing “bilateral dispute” between them.

This seems rather short-sighted however. Both the UK and Ireland entered the EU in 1973 with a de-facto “bilateral dispute” relating to the North of Ireland, and it was common membership that provided the framework for ultimate resolution of that “dispute” with the Good Friday Agreement – something Brexit now fundamentally threatens. Given Europe’s abject failures in relation to the Balkan wars of the 1990s perhaps we should relook at the opportunities for enduring peace that all the Balkan nations accession the the EU could provide.

Churchill, by Roy Jenkins

Summary: Churchill – both a hero and a villain

321F9220-5CD0-49CB-9EC9-689E793FD92FIn Brexit Britain one’s attitude towards Churchill is something of a faux-patriotic touchstone. Recently shadow chancellor John McDonnell caused frothing indignation amongst the perpetually offended right-wing of British society when in response to a silly question, “Churchill: hero or villain?” he responded, “Villain,” citing Churchill’s behaviour, when Home Secretary, towards striking miners in Tonypandy.

Of course, one of the reasons that Churchill attracts so much biographical attention is that he is a complex figure.

Considerable portions of Churchill’s career, most notably his resistance to Nazism, are the epitome of heroism. At a human level he was also very funny and impressively magnanimous. For example, he formed a close friendship with Smuts, who he had fought against, and been imprisoned by, in South Africa. Jenkins also suggests, probably correctly, that Michael Collins would have become an enduring friend if he had lived, and one can only regret the consequences to Anglo-Irish relations that he did not.

But other aspects of Churchill’s character and leadership are markedly less attractive. For example his deep grained racism and his unreconstructed imperialism are manifestations of the very worst aspects of British history and society.

That these positive and negative elements resided in Churchill simultaneously, for example catastrophically worsening the Bengal Famine in 1943 while playing a central role in formulating strategy against Hitler, makes him an altogether more interesting and problematic personality than either his acolytes or his detractors might prefer.

Roy Jenkins’ biography of Churchill goes a considerable way towards exploring this complexity across the course of Churchill’s career from youthful imperial war-junkie, to young Conservative MP, to Leftish Liberal cabinet minister, to rancidly bigotted opponent of Indian independence, to prophetic voice against the rise of Hitlerism, to heroic war leader and after. Jenkins also details Churchill’s parallel career as a voluminous writer, a career that ultimately brought him a, somewhat controversial, Nobel Prize for Literature.

There are omissions – there is no discussion of the Bengal Famine – the gravest stain on Churchill’s record, dwarfing even his civilian bombing policy against Germany, his startlingly naïve fawning towards Stalin, and his complicity in the betrayal of Poland to Soviet tyranny, all issues which Jenkins discusses in some detail,

It is very much a political biography focusing on Westminster and Whitehall machinations, and the deliberations of high summitry amongst the “Great Powers.” So it would probably benefit a reader to have some extant knowledge of events in the wider world as they affected ordinary human beings, particularly the struggle for Indian independence, the course of the Second World War, and the Suez crisis.

The book is enriched by Jenkins’ insider knowledge: his early parliamentary career overlapped with that of Churchill; and before rising to the presidency of the European Commission Jenkins was also British Chancellor and Home Secretary, two posts Churchill also held.

Nicholas Soames, currently a Tory MP, tells the story of how, as an eight year old he once intruded on Churchill with the question, “Grandpapa, is it true you are the greatest man in the world?”

“Yes,” said Churchill. “Now bugger off.”

Ultimately Jenkins shares this conclusion, that Churchill was the greatest human being ever to hold the office of British Prime Minister. It is perhaps an easier assertion for a Briton to make than for any citizen of a nation that suffered the bloody consequences of his racism to accept. But Jenkins certainly provides a rich portrait of this compelling personality, one who did so much to shape the Twentieth Century, particularly in relation to the triumph of European democracy.

Arnhem: the battle for the bridges, 1944, by Antony Beevor

Summary: a thorough, and thoroughly bleak, account of what happens when Europe is divided

Much like XXX Corps in this book I stalled on the Neder Rijn: I must confess to finding this account of the infamous Allied defeat in the Netherlands so bleak that I had to set it aside for a couple of months before finishing it.

Nevertheless there is much to recommend in this book. First, in its ability to make a more critical assessment of the main protagonists in the battle, it has a more rounded view of them than could be obtained from either Cornelius Ryan’s gripping account, A Bridge Too Far, or Richard Attenborough’s celebrated film of the same name.

Second, both these depictions of the battle obtain their narrative drive by focussing on the efforts to relieve the paratroopers in Arnhem. But, in truth, as Stephen Ambrose discerned when writing Band of Brothers, and as Beevor also shows here, the entire plan was woefully conceived as it was almost impossible to secure the road against German counter-attacks to ensure sufficient support and supply to the advancing armour to ever make the seizure of a bridgehead across the Rhine, the objective of the operation, a realistic objective. That the advance got as far as it did was in spite of the plan, not because of it.

American general Jim Gavin saw this from the outset but kept his mouth shut and distinguished himself during the battle as arguably the most gifted commander. Polish general Stanislaw Sosabowski, in a vain effort to save lives, made the mistake of pointing out to the British what a dumb, stupid plan this was. Hence, in spite of the courage he and his men showed in the fighting, including in rearguard, he was scapegoated by British generals Browning and Horrocks when their incompetence became apparent. (It is clearly a tradition in British public life for incompetents to blame the perspicacious, particularly when foreign, for their own inadequacies).

The book also pays tribute to the courage of Dutch Resistance and civilians in the course of the battle and notes how they bore the brunt of German fury after the Allies had been forced to withdraw.

For my money Antony Beevor’s best book is the Battle for Spain. But this book is a timely reminder of the shocking brutalities of European civil war that the establishment of the European Union finally rendered obsolete.