The Pale Criminal, by Philip Kerr

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

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

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

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

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The Great Crash 1929, by JK Galbraith

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JK Galbraith

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another fine mess: politics since the Brexit vote

Also published in Left Foot Forward 

When I worked in Angola in the late 1990s, towards the end of the Civil War, I discovered an important truth: just when you think things can’t get any worse, they can. So has it proven with British politics since the 23 June 2016 when the UK narrowly voted to leave the European Union.

Before the 2017 UK General Election I had thought that a hung parliament was probably the best possible outcome, to force some sanity and compromise into the UK’s intent to exit the European Union. Instead, Theresa May has sought a de-facto coalition with the Irish Democratic Unionist Party, a group so extreme that for them the witch burning scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail is not so much comedy, but a utopian ideal.

For many observers the UK’s attitude to the EU in general and to its putative departure from the Union seems profoundly irrational. The government’s stated intention to leave both the Single Market and the Customs Union, ignores the vast economic cost of such moves. Instead Brexiteers fall back on the slogan “take back control”, dreams of a British Empire 2.0, and cooked-up alternative numbers that have little basis in reality. This is a position that has gone broadly unchallenged by the opposition Labour Party who promise the fairytale of a “People’s Brexit” if the electorate were only to entrust them with the levers of government.

To “take back control” of what the government has never really been clear. Certainly immigration, in spite of the UK’s need for immigrants, in order to satisfy the xenophobic amongst the government and its voters.

The government is also intent to “take back control” from the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice of the European Union, in spite of the threat that this poses to security and justice cooperation in Europe at a time of rising tensions and increasing violence across the continent. This perhaps gets to the nub of the matter. Because it suggests that rather than the government’s approach to Brexit being only economically incompetent and politically delusional it rather suggests that the government’s intent is profoundly ideological.

Taken alongside the antipathy of Theresa May to the European Court of Human Rights, and the former Prime Minister David Cameron’s decision to remove from the Ministerial Code an obligation for ministers to comply with international law, the UK’s intent to quit the European Union indicates an enduring colonialist instinct in the government that still bristles at the idea of international rule of law. They seem to regard it as an affront to the primacy of the UK parliament, which some seem to believe still should rule the waves.

But, of course, the supremacy of the UK parliament has already taken a kicking in the Brexit process as dozens of MPs, contrary to their judgment as to what is best for their country, voted to uphold the notional “will of the people” as expressed through a blood-stained and, it now increasingly appears, a corrupted referendum.

But this is as nothing to the intent of the Great Repeal Bill, to invest ministers with Henry VIII powers that will enable them to make vast swathes of law for years to come without reference to parliament. In other words the intent of the Great Repeal Bill appear less to do with withdrawal from the EU and more to do with a significant repeal of democracy itself.

The UK may appear to be blundering towards the exit of the EU like a drunk staggering towards the door of a bar. But all citizens must beware that the pantomime shenanigans of Davis, Johnson and Fox, the three Brexit Stooges, mask a much more sinister domestic agenda. And Labour needs to stop being the government’s poodle on Brexit.

 

 

Lamentation, by CJ Sansom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

img_1203Summary: a self-help book like no other I have read, concerned with identification of personal purpose, and giving some important insight into contemporary slavery

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clausewitz On War, by Hew Strachan

Summary: A difficult introduction to a complex work

I was not very impressed by Hew Strachan’s book, The First World War: Strachan seemed to me much too enamoured with the grand strategy of that war to the exclusion of the human cost for either civilian populations, or for the ordinary soldiers who fought on the diverse battlefields of that war.

This, nevertheless, is an interesting introduction to Clausewitz’s tome, a famously difficult and unfinished work, beloved by professional soldiers and armchair militarists alike.

Some of Clausewitz’s more famous dictums are now well known, such as the idea that, “War is the continuation of politics by other means”. But this can belie the complexity of his thought which was still evolving as he wrote, based on his study and his experience of fighting in the Napoleonic wars,. His experiences with the Russian forces during Bonaparte’s 1812 invasion was particularly influential as he realised that he had participated in one of the most novel campaigns in history.

The complexity of Clausewitz’s thought means that, aside from a interesting biographical chapter, Strachan’s book is itself complex. I think I would need to read it at least twice to begin to grasp some of the ideas properly. So perhaps this is not a book meant for the casual reader but for one preparing to tackle Clausewitz’s On War itself as part of a serious programme of study.

However there is still something to be gleaned from this for the average citizen. Clausewitz remains enormously influential on policy makers and war planners, and as war continues to deface the contemporary world these are ideas which are important to understand. As Clemenceau said, and as Jack Kennedy proved during the Cuban Missiles Crisis, war is much too important to be left to the generals.

Yeats’ question

For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said

– Easter 1916

With the triggering by the British Government in March 2017 of Article 50 to remove the UK from the European Union, Yeats’ question receives, perhaps, a rather definitive answer.

The foundations of Irish peace are European. Ireland’s and Britain’s common membership of the European Union allowed for some of the most corrosive aspects of the relationships between the two islands, and within the island of Ireland, to be finessed and for relationships to be recast in more constructive ways. Now that the Troubles are taking on the aspect of history it is too easy to forget how ghastly they truly were, and the sort of concerted, painful political effort that was necessary to bring them to some sort of conclusion.

But the careful progress that has been made towards a more enduring peace has been cast aside by the English political establishment as something of no account. So intent are English nationalists now on their dreams of reclaiming some long past imperial “glory” they plan to devastate the foundations of that peace with no thought of the consequences.

England won’t ever keep faith with Ireland, it seems. Ireland’s interests, Ireland’s peace, will always be subordinate to English prejudices and xenophobia.