Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson

102B1280-1D11-4621-BBAA-F47CE042B218Summary: the gripping interwoven tales of an architect and a murderer in 1890s Chicago

The largely now forgotten World Fair in Chicago in 1892 changed the world. Amongst other things it gave us the first large scale testing of electric lighting from alternating current, a vision of how beautiful cities could be instead of the squalid, dirty things they often were, and the Ferris wheel. 

Devil in the White City is a compelling account of how the Head of Works for the Fair, Frank Burnham, a Chicago architect, marshalled the resources of the city to overcome an overwhelming set of organisational, technical and bureaucratic obstacles to deliver this world changing event.

If the book were only about Burnham and the World Fair it would be a compelling, though perhaps niche interest, work. Everyone who was anyone, except Mark Twain, seems to have been involved somehow with the Fair: President Grover Cleveland opened it. Buffalo Bill Cody put on a show there attended by Susan B Anthony; Theodore Dreiser escorted a party of schoolteachers who had won their trip from his newspaper. And amidst the crush of new visitors to Chicago, a doctor and pharmacist by the name of Herman Webster Mudgett, murdered and robbed dozens of innocent men, women and children, unbeknownst to the Chicago Police Department.

Devil in the White City is a combination of social and architectural history interwoven with a tragic and horrific story of a murderer and his desperately sad, trusting victims.  It is an extraordinary work quite unlike anything else I have ever read. 

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Apollo 8: the mission that change everything, by Martin W Sandler

Summary: up close to the raggedy edge of human exploration

In 1968 a rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral in Florida. Its crew were tasked with testing if Jack Kennedy’s ambition of putting a human on the moon before the end of the decade was at all feasible. So untried was the technology they were using and so enormous was the task they had been set, no one was quite sure if everyone on board was going to come back alive.

Human beings at the cutting edge of exploration is a recurrent theme of Marty Sandler’s work, and Apollo 8 is a gripping addition to his oeuvre. It tells the story of the first humans to break the ties of Earth and travel to the orbit of another planet. It is, as one might imagine, filled with incredible drama. But it is also, as Sandler very convincingly argues, a journey which changed the course of human history.

For many space programmes, such as Apollo, seem extravagant wastes of money given the challenges of hunger and poverty that face so many on Earth. Jack Kennedy’s own brother Edward made this very observation in the early 1970s. But, as they orbited the moon the crew of Apollo 8, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders, became the first humans in history to witness the Earth rising over the horizon of the moon. The photos they took of this captured the public imagination and conveyed in a way that words could not, the fragility of human existence in the vastness of the universe. Consequently it became an impetus for the environmental movement.

Apollo 8 tells the whole story of this extraordinary journey and its implications in Sandler snappy prose style. And the photographs that accompany the text are glorious.

Inglorious Empire: what the British did to India, by Shashi Tharoor

 

World’s Best Taoiseach

Summary: a scathing reminder that treating people with racism and brutality does not generally make a country many friends

A while ago I had a conversation with a South Asian friend about Leo Varadkar, the Irish Prime Minister. “It’s noticeable”, my friend said, “how Leo is being much tougher with the British than his predecessor. Do you know why that is?”

“Why?” I asked.

“It’s because Leo is also Indian,” which indeed he is – his father is from Mumbai. “So when he talks about famine, he is not just thinking of the Irish Famine but also of the British manufactured famines though the history of the Raj, including the appalling one in East Bengal in 1943. When he talks about partition, he is not just thinking of Irish partition, but the much, much, much bloodier British engineered division of the sub-continent into India and Pakistan.”

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Refugees during the Partition of India

Whether or not Leo is thinking about these things as he tries to negotiate with an increasingly disfunctional British government unfettered by reality, Shashi Tharoor, an Indian politician and intellectual certainly is. He details all these atrocities, and more, in his book Inglorious Empire, based upon a celebrated speech to the Oxford Union that he gave in 2015, in which he exposed some of the fundamental truths of Empire that the British conspire so aggressively to forget.

At the time at which the British first began their invasion, India represented over one-quarter of the global economy, dwarfing the UK. Over the subsequent centuries Britain reversed this through systematic transfer of India’s wealth to Britain through an undisguised looting of the sub-continent (“loot” being an Indian word). Violent theft and punitive taxation were the order of the day. Britain also employed an aggressive policy of deindustrialisation, destroying the competition from, among others, India’s shipping, textile and metallurgy industries which, at the beginning of the 18th Century were the most advanced in the world.

Tharoor does acknowledge certain benefits of British colonialism: “tea, cricket, and the English language.” But otherwise his book is a forthright repudiation of the deceitful arguments of hard-Right ideologues such as Niall Fergusson who seeks to recast the brutal, racist project of colonialism as some sort of philanthropic endeavour.

This book must also be a warning to the fantasists of the Brexit movement whose warm fuzzy beliefs about the British Empire are unconstrained by facts or any imaginative understanding of what it meant to those subjugated by its depredations. In the years to come, as Britain becomes the sort of third-rate power that its exit from the European Union entails, ordinary Britons can only hope that, now the boot is on the other foot, India will act towards Britain in future trade and others dealings with a measure of justice that Britain never showed India.

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Bengal famine, 1943

Brexit, Trump and Vladimir Putin’s assault on European and US democracy: The Road to Unfreedom, by Timothy Snyder

img_1459Summary: A terrifying and convincing account of the assault of Russian fascists and their useful idiots upon Western democracy 

Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands, like Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, is a book that makes you fundamentally rethink your understanding of history. With The Road to Unfreedom Snyder makes us fundamentally rethink our understanding of the present.

The recent political success of far Right elements in the UK, Poland, Hungary and the US are not mere fluctuations in normal politics, Snyder argues. Nor are they solely a product of domestic political turmoil. They are also a consequence of a deliberate and aggressive foreign policy pursued by Vladimir Putin in order to undermine the systems of rule of law that underpin the democracies of the US and the European Union.

Synder argues that since 2010 Vladimir Putin has embraced a particularly Russian brand of fascism, with its pronounced homophobia, as a way in which to entrench in Russian society the kleptocracy over which he presides. Richard Evans, the distinguished British historian takes some issue with this, noting that Putin’s favorite thinker, Ivan Illyin, was a conservative ultra-nationalist rather than a fascist.  However the authoritarianism that Putin has established, like fascist regimes of the past, defines itself by its enemies, and for enemies Putin has chosen the European Union and the United States. Snyder notes that this is not because of anything that these have done, but rather because of what they are. The EU in particular stands as a telling contrast to the Russian Federation. Russia’s thieving oligarchs have made it the most unequal country on earth. On the other hand the EU has provided a better standard of living for its people within the frameworks of human rights and the rule of law, ideas anathema to Russian fascism.

Authoritarianism arrives, Synder notes, “not because people say that they want it, but because they lose the ability to distinguish between facts and desires.” Hence much of Putin’s assault has been in the realm of cyber-space: weaponising systems like Facebook to direct focused, usually fictional, racist, homophobic and anti-democratic propaganda to the users in a way that distorts their perceptions and bolsters their prejudices; or surreptitiously hacking vital information systems, such as those underpinning the US and Ukrainian electoral systems. These cyber-warfare processes are assisted by an array of corrupt “assets” and “useful idiots” who publicly advocate Russia’s desired outcomes even while Putin is attacking their own countries. These include former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, the Czech President Milos Zeman, former Polish Defence minister Antonio Macierewicz, Marin le Pen, the French Far Right leader, Nigel Farage, the disgusting former leader of the UKIP, Seumus Milne, Jeremy Corbyn’s current communications and strategy director, and, of course, Donald Trump and many of his inner circle.

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Putin and his boy

The success of Russian disinformation can be seen in the pages of even the Guardian, which has published puff-pieces for Putin by supposedly Left-wing journalists such as Milne and John Pilger, whose opinions have been untroubled by actual reporting. It is enabled further by the refusal of British and US Republican political leaders to acknowledge the effectiveness of Putin’s undermining of their democracy.

Carol Cadwalladr’s investigations for the Guardian have turned up probable corrupt links between, in particular, the Brexit establishment and Russia. Robert Mueller‘ s investigation in the US hints at exposing further, perhaps treasonous, criminality. But, Synder notes, much of the information about Putin’s web of influence, and his destructive intent is publicly available. Putin has not made his embrace of fascism a secret, frequently citing Ilyin in his speeches, passing aggressive homophobic laws, trampling roughshod over rule of international law with this invasion of Ukraine, and his sneering attitude toward the corruption of the US election.

The invasion of Ukraine is something of a pivotal event in this book. The Russian processes of disinformation and cyber warfare that corrupted both the Brexit vote and the 2016 US elections, bringing the neo-fascist Trump to power in spite of the popular vote against him, may have come into sharp focus with Mueller’s and Cadwalladr’s investigations. But the warning signs were there to be seen with the Russian invasion of Ukraine – a warning that most of Europe and the US failed to heed.

That so much of this has been missed and mis-reported must arise from a lack of proper journalism commissioned by editors with sufficient international awareness to understand emergent trends and geo-politics, and conducted on the ground by investigative journalists fluent in the languages of the countries they are reporting on. Synder dedicates this book to reporters, and it is the investigative journalists of Russia, Ukraine, Poland and elsewhere who have provided much of the raw material upon which Synder constructs this vital history of our times.

The Shortest History of Germany, by James Hawes

img_1450Summary: A spectre is haunting Europe and it is the spectre of Prussia

In this book James Hawes argues there are two Germanys. One is in the West, orientated towards Paris, Brussels and the rest of Western Europe. This part of Germany conforms to the part that was Romanised, and subsequently formed part of Charlemagne’s empire. This part is substantially Catholic and was notably resistant to Nazism in the past and the far Right and far Left in the present.

On the other hand there is Prussia: Protestant and Russian-orientated, it formed in territory that was conquered and colonised, and which, under Bismarck, conquered Western Germany to establish the German Empire. The rump of this state, which the Allies tried to bury beneath modern Poland at the end of the Second World War, still persists in the East.

To this day, Hawes argues, many of the inhabitants of Prussia continue to bear the racist attitudes of colonisers, regarding themselves as somehow “special” compared to the ordinary mass of human beings. Prussia more than any other part of Germany facilitated the rise of militarism and Nazism in the late 19th and 20th Centuries, and provides fertile ground for extremists to this day.

The reunification of Germany in the 1990s brought together again these two quite different countries to restore the borders of Bismarck’s Empire. This reunification, Hawes argues, was not undertaken for any carefully considered reasons regarding how these two German states should best grow and develop. Rather Helmut Kohl saw that Christian Democrat support in the East would guarantee him a further term as Chancellor so he went full steam ahead for that with little thought of anything else.

The consequence has been something of a return to the pre-war arrangements between West and East: Since reunification the West subvents the impoverished East to the tune of trillions of Euros with little sign of obtaining any change in those repellent aspects of Prussian culture that have caused so many problems for Germany and the rest of Europe over the past 200 years.

Hawes notes that “what makes people vulnerable to wild scares and promises isn’t just income but culture.” And it is the culture of the peoples of the old colonial and imperial powers of Europe, such as Prussia, such as Britain, clinging to their notions of superiority and exceptionalism, that prove most susceptible to the promises of political snake-oil salesmen. Recognising this, and confronting such prejudices in Britain, Germany and elsewhere offers a more promising prospect of eroding them than the pusillanimous approach of pandering to them and insisting they must be respected when presented as “the will of the people”.

The Shortest History of Germany is a fine, lucidly written and thought-provoking account of German history covering over 2,000 years from Caesar to the present day. It packs a startling amount into a very short text, and is essential reading for all Europeans

Road of Bones: The Siege of Kohima 1944, by Fergal Keane

Summary: War is cruelty, and so is reading about it sometimes

In 1989 Alan Clarke and Danny Boyle made a short film for the BBC called Elephant. There was little dialogue, and little narrative. What there was instead was a reenactment of a series of 18 killings based on real incidents from the Troubles in the North of Ireland. The film did not seek to explain the causes of the conflict, which still had almost 10 years left to run when the film was broadcast. Nor did it endeavour to posit what political processes may be needed to end it. Instead it sought only to provide a visceral account of some killings. The cumulative effect of this relentless depiction of deliberate butchery of was one of horror.

I was reminded of that film about half way through this book, which has, as its centrepiece, an account of the siege of Kohima, a bloody portion of a wider battle on the borders of India and Myanmar in 1944. At Kohima the Japanese sought to break through Allied defences and cut loose into North Eastern India. Meanwhile a combined forced of British and South Asian troops, with limited supplies of ammunition and water attempted to thwart these plans from hastily constructed defences.

It’s tough reading: pieced together from diverse accounts of both Allied and Japanese soldiers these central chapters are essentially an anthology of killings. As with the film Elephant the effect, I found, was ultimately one of numbed horror.

I am not sure if this was the intent of Keane with this portion of the book. I found it difficult to make sense from the account of any grand, or even basic, tactical vision of either the defenders or attackers. Certainly the account he presents here reflects the experiences of the soldiers fighting for their own lives and those of their comrades. But the officers who also left accounts were tasked with managing the battle and must have had a broader perspective.

In contrast with the organised chaos of the account of the bloody fighting at Kohima Keane does go to some lengths to place the role of this siege in the wider strategic considerations of Slim, the commander to the British 14th Army, and Mountbatten, the Allied Supreme Commander in South East Asia. He also does a fine job of explaining the British efforts in South East Asia in the context of the geopolitics of the time, including Churchill’s grubby imperialist pretensions.

There is much else admirable about the book, not least Keane’s efforts to bear witness to the story of the Naga allies of the British, a tribal people who stood with the British in their darkest hour at Kohima only to be betrayed by them shortly after when they were no longer needed. Admirably Keane also gives voice to the humanity and experiences of the Japanese who fought in the battle, while never overlooking their brutality and atrocities. The passages describing how the starving Japanese fared in retreat are some of the most powerful of the book.

Ultimately, perhaps as one would expect of Fergal Keane, a veteran correspondent of some of the nastiest conflicts of the past 30 years, he writes of the pity of war and the humanity of those compelled to fight. It is a book that bears witness to Sherman’s blunt observation, “War is cruelty,” and, consequently perhaps, it is at times a gruelling reading experience.

The Undiscovered Country appeal: Dublin reflections

Dublin Castle

Across the rooftops to Dublin Castle

This week I’m in Dublin, where, during Easter Week 1916 the Irish War of Independence began. Historians still argue over how necessary or justifiable that war was to achieve Irish independence. But whatever the rights and wrongs of it in the grand, historical scheme of things, at the most basic level it followed a bloody path of ordinary people doing brutal things to each other. As Eamon says in The Undiscovered Country, “even just wars are evil things.”

I learned the evil of war early. One of my earliest memories is seeing a neighbour getting shot. Another is of narrowly avoiding a culvert bomb set by the IRA to attack the British Army. The brother of a classmate at primary school was murdered by the SAS. Ten years ago I discovered that a group of Loyalist paramilitaries had planned, in reprisal for an IRA atrocity, to attack the primary school that I attended to kill all the children and teachers. The plan was eventually vetoed: some things were just too much of a war crime for the war criminals of the North of Ireland.

Some of the the themes of The Undiscovered Country are, unfortunately, as timeless as war itself. Others are, equally unfortunately, very timely. I wrote much of the book as a hard won peace, brought into being at another past Easter with the Good Friday Agreement, came under threat from a neo-imperialist faction of the British Establishment blundering towards a scorched-earth Brexit with utter unconcern for the damage they will cause to erstwhile friends and neighbours. It’s in this context that Eamon and Mick ruminate over chess and pints on the realities of colonialism and some of the absurdities of historical memory.

Thanks to the extraordinary generosity and support of over 150 friends I have now reached 62% funding for The Undiscovered Country. So, with another 40 or so pre-sales, the next big milestone of 70% funding beckons, and with that a step closer to the chance to share with the wider world all this, and more en route to solving a knotty mystery, including the cultural threats posed by mainland Europe’s resealable beer bottles, an assessment of Hamlet as a revolutionary, and the etiquette of buying pints in an Irish pub.

So, if you can see your way to adding your support to this endeavour by following this link

https://unbound.com/books/the-undiscovered-country/

and pledging what you would like, I would send you a hundred thousand and mark your name with gratitude in the book itself.

Very best

Aidan