Monday, 21 April 2014

Easter Reading

This Easter I avoided the crowds and curled up with my tottering pile of unread books. First installment is non-art; art reviews to follow next week, time permitting. 
Picture: Amazon

Despite the dreadful record of modern wars, violent deaths have been falling overall. Indeed, the highest rates of violent death occur in primitive societies. Political order increases the efficiency and effectiveness of warfare, but it constrains low-level violence that, left unchecked, claims more lives. That's a superficially surprising fact, but it's well established in the academic literature. This book builds quite an edifice on that observation, but it adds little to our understanding of war and peace. Thomas Hobbes put it better in 1651; this book dumbs it down and adds some data. It reads like a pitch for a TED talk, written for people who don't read much. 

Every chapter starts with an anecdote, a classic formula taught in corporate communication seminars. Some of his chapters don't lend themselves to that approach, and some of the anecdotes are ponderous and badly told. He doesn't bother with references. Direct quotations are listed at the back, but lots of other claims that needed referencing are simply asserted (such as reported murder rates across medieval Europe, p. 145). His folksy language is irritating (he doesn't read Shakespeare, he 'cracks its spine'). At one point he thinks he's testing a theory by adding the example of the Americas to that of Eurasia, increasing his sample size from one to two. He wants to borrow the authority of hard science, but he's not sure how to use it. He concludes that violence has declined because he got into fights as a kid, whereas a small group of Stamford students he chatted to one evening hadn't hit anyone. Statistics, innit? And his assessment of the relative benefits of empire is laughably simplistic (could be a bit brutal, but the British abolished widow burning). 

The last chapter collapses into utter nonsense. He jumps suddenly from considering the whole sweep of human history to considering what he's been reading in the news over the past weeks. To prove that violence is in retreat, he cites the decline in homicide in New York between 2004 and 2010. The huge increase in crime in the 1960s and 1970s isn't mentioned, but in any case these recent data don't fit his epochal frame of reference. It's a bit like pontificating about climate change based on observations about yesterday's weather. Some of the later sections are purely anecdotal, and a little odd. He thinks the European sovereign debt crisis is under control because a policy of inactivity is working. I don't even know where to begin with that claim; it makes me wonder if Morris is even reading the newspapers. 

Bold claims and big synthetic works of history often require a degree of bravery in tackling subjects outside one's own specialism. I loved Parker's Global Crisis. My objection is not to the genre, or to the scale of ambition. It is to the paucity of the result. Morris doesn't draw much on his own expertise in ancient history. He just pulls together some anecdotes and ties them together with dubious logic and bad prose. I liked his previous book Why the West Rules, for now much better. But this one is dire. 
Picture: Amazon
Robert M. Gates Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War WH Allen 2014 £25

This is one of the best political memoirs I've read. Reviewers have appreciated Gates's candid account of his time as Secretary of Defense under George W. Bush and Barack Obama. I also appreciated its insight into bureaucracy. Gates is above all a bureaucrat, in the best sense of the term. He was an efficient and admired administrator, and his memoirs often describe the sheer size of the organisation he ran. Gates's concern for the people he managed comes across strongly and sincerely. He fought hard for better protected vehicles and improved medical care for soldiers.

Gates's account of dealing with politicians is scathing. The only surprise is that such a discreet Secretary of Defense was so brutally honest and open in his memoirs. He describes the wallet list of pork barrel projects that everyone seemed to carry in Washington, and the desire of politicians to continue funding projects that are not required by the military but create local jobs. And he is appalled by the experience of testifying before Congress: "In the privacy of their offices, members of Congress could be calm, thoughtful, and sometimes insightful and intelligent in discussing issues. But when they went into an open hearing, and the little red light went on atop a television camera, it had the effect of a full moon on a werewolf. Many would posture and preach, with long lectures and harshly critical language; some became raving lunatics" (p. 89).

Hillary Clinton and Obama had both opposed the surge of troops in Iraq, but after Obama's election Hillary Clinton was quite open about her opposition being political, and had no compunction in acknowledging its success (p. 376). Gates is critical of Obama, questioning his commitment to the war in Afghanistan and describing his administration as micromanaging and obsessively focused on politics and spin. His distrust comes through in the debate on intervention in Libya, when he told his staff: "Don't give the White House staff and NSS too much information on the military options [...] they don't understand it, and 'experts' like Samantha Power will decide when we should move militarily" (p. 512). My shock at his openness in concealing information was tempered by my delight at his putting Samantha Power in her place.

Gates's own weakness seems to me to be the opposite; that he doesn't understand politics, in its wider sense, at all. He is of course superbly attuned to organisational politics, and he understands as well as anyone how to deal with politicians and the media. But he seems not to understand the perspective of critics. For example, he is interesting in his account of the impact of  9.11 on Bush and his advisers, which he thinks  is widely underestimated. But he goes on to say that, "Those who years later would criticize some of those actions, including the detention center at Guantanomo and interrogation techniques, could have benefited from greater perspective on both the fear and the urgency to protect the country" (p. 93). But I don't think understanding the President's state of mind would or should change anyone's mind. Indeed, having a critical distance from the psychology behind those momentous decisions seems to me crucial for mature public deliberation and critical assessment. The question is not whether Bush's concern to protect the country was sincere, but whether his actions were appropriate - and the weaselly term 'interrogation techniques' instead of the more common word 'torture' seeks to evade honest debate.

This is not a book to read for an understanding of the debate about the ethics or politics of military intervention, but its revelations should inform that debate. It's a great account of a fascinating episode in recent history.
Picture: Amazon
John Adamson The Noble Revolt: The overthrow of Charles I Weidenfeld & Nicholson 2007 £16.99

This is the pinnacle of historical writing. The Noble Revolt is a serious academic tome with nearly 200 pages of footnotes. But it's also a gripping narrative written for the general reader. Adamson is a superb writer and the seventeenth century nobles at the heart of the English Civil War come alive. He has a rare ability to address the non-specialist without condescension. 

Adamson's subject is notoriously controversial, but this is narrative rather than analytical history. He tells the story of the build up to civil war, or at least a version of that story, rather than engaging in debate with other versions of that story. Adamson's position is that the key actors were noblemen rather than commoners, that interests were more important than ideas, that religion is less important as an independent motive factor than is generally allowed, and without lapsing into determinism he believes that the English Civil War nearly began much earlier than generally credited, and was more likely to occur than is often realised. I have only a lay knowledge of English Civil War debates, and I'm sure I'm missing subtleties and nuances. Adamson does provide some analytic background and sometimes engages historians such as Conrad Russell directly, but I would have appreciated more grounding of the argument. That said, the great advantage of his approach is that his book can be read profitably and with pleasure by anyone with a general interest. It's inspired me to read more English Civil War history; I look forward to following up some of those footnotes.
Picture: MS
Millicent Rose The East End of London Cresset Press 1951, 31'6 (out of print)

This book was warmly recommended by the always-reliable Any Amount of Books on Charing Cross Road, and it was another good tip. It's an idiosyncratic old study of London's East End, written in stridently judgmental language. "Heterogeneous and for the most part ignoble", she says of Algate, now obliterated by a vast gyratory (p. 36). 'East End Georgian' is well-characterised as having details very like those in the fashionable west end, but "coarser, less ambitious workmanship ... a way of building that could be adapted to mass-production without losing its character" (p. 156). 

Rose is especially strong on East End architecture, and her forceful judgments are reliable. She was writing on the cusp of ghastly redevelopments that have spoiled swaths of London, but the East End still has some fine old buildings. It benefited from relative poverty, escaping the wholesale redevelopment and 'improvement' imposed elsewhere. When you look in an estate agent's window in the more expensive parts of London you see almost every house has been turned into an identikit soulless box with recessed lighting, walls knocked through and high-tech kitchens and bathrooms. In places like Shoreditch and Whitechapel you can still see original Georgian houses and churches, despite the efforts of recent generations of developers and planners. 

But in 1951 the worst was yet to come, hinted at in Rose's reference to the County of London Plan that determined the Lea River should be an 'industrial river' below Lea Bridge, "making it permanently fishless and hideous, and a blight to an area of which it was once the greatest beauty" (p. 247). On the cusp of the great era of local government philistinism she perceptively notes that "a speculative builder has, in some measure, to put up the houses people want; the philanthropist builds what he thinks people ought to have. I would not be understood to advocate speculative as opposed to planned building; but the efforts of charity were just as unplanned ... [the philanthropist] was a West Ender with theories, was entirely ignorant of local custom, and regarded the 'industrious poor' of Stepney and Bethnal Green as a species alien and by nature brutish, one that must be coaxed and goaded into changing its way of life" (p. 267). 

Social history is covered more anecdotally, and she betrays some odd prejudices. East Enders are described as 'inarticulate' (p. 166), and she says that the Jewish community has been neglected because she can't read Hebrew, which is rather a surprising justification given that Yiddish rather than Hebrew would have been used. She does discuss the Jewish community, albeit sometimes stereotypically. Her Jewish stereotypes are positive - she says that the Jews eat better and have more outside interests than other East Enders. I'd love to have seen more about the social and economic aspects of the East End; there is virtually nothing about pubs, for example. But for all its oddities and its prejudices, this is a splendid read, with some wonderful old photographs. Well worth picking up one of the cheap second hand copies listed on Abebooks or Amazon (or see if Any Amount of Books has another copy).


  1. Thank you for the Rose review.

    How ironic that the East End benefited from relative poverty, escaping the wholesale redevelopment found elsewhere. In places like Shoreditch and Whitechapel you can indeed see original Georgian houses and churches, but the poverty must have been horrible. My grandmother's family consisted of mum, dad, dad's brother newly arrived in the UK, 10 living children, 3 bedrooms and no inside toilet. 4 other babies died as neonates. I will be interested to see how Rose balances the preservation Vs development debate.

    By the way, could you attach labels/key words to each post. They save the reader a great deal of searching :)

    1. She doesn't really talk much about either the poverty or the development debate. It's quite an idiosyncratic book, but I enjoyed its eccentricities and forgave its gaps. Quite right on the poverty, although London used to have more of a patchwork of wealth and poverty. Parts of West London were also desperately poor. Developers back to the eighteenth century wanted to build first rate houses and wealthy enclaves, but they built far more big houses than the market demanded. So many of the fine mansions were subdivided, and even into the 1970s and 1980s Notting Hill was one of the more run down areas.

      Thanks for reminder on labels ... I'm afraid I often forget!

  2. You might be qualified to get a $1,000 Amazon Gift Card.