Monday, April 27, 2020

Review of 'The Fire Next Time' by James Baldwin

A beautifully written, insightful book about race in America, though one that has not aged particularly well. Much has changed about race relations in America (there's an African-American middle class, for a start) and much has stayed the same - racism is still fundamental to American class relations, even though it's not the same as it was in the mid-1960s. The 'fire' that Baldwin seems to have been predicted has not come, though.

Parts of this are really interesting - I particularly liked the description of his meeting with Elijah Muhammad of the 'Nation of Islam', a slightly mad sect that doesn't have all that much to do with Islam, and which once looked like it might become important. Unfortunately my copy is missing a few pages of this section, so I missed his discussion of where the Nation got its money from and its sometimes-cozy relationship with White Supremacists.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Review of 'England in the Late Middle Ages' by A R Myers

I really enjoyed this, even though it's not the best-written history book. Bits of it are really dull, and it has an odd structure - the chapter names repeat - 'Economic and Social Development', 'The Arts', and so on several times to reflect changes over the period covered by the book. I realised as I read it that I still don't really know what happened between the Plantagenets and the Tudors - it's all very muddled in my head, though I now suspect that this is because it is in fact very muddly. School history tries to pretend that there is an unbroken hereditary line of succession in the English monarchy, but - particularly in this period - there are a lot of opportunistic seizures of the throne by those who might be called usurpers if that term really had any meaning.

Anyway, this is great background reading if you enjoyed Wolf Hall or Bring Up The Bodies - it makes it much clearer why so many people were prepared to put with Henry VIII's capriciousness and his efforts to ensure a legitimate unchallengeable heir - anything seemed better than a return to the wars for the throne.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Review of The Dating List

Haven't watched many films during lockdown, curiously enough. There are some good films on BBC iPlayer but I've seen most of them. There are lots of bad or mediocre films on Netflix and Prime. There are probably some good ones too, but they are either hard to find or don't fit in with the mood - I don't want to watch anything too harrowing or even emotionally engaging at the moment.

But the consequence is that you end up watching stuff that's not emotionally engaging - of course - but also not engaging in any other way. Like this pointess, dull romcom - why was it made? None of the actors have anything remotely resembling presence, the script is boring, the setting bland - I thought Portland Oregon was meant to be a cool and interesting town, but it doesn't look like it here.

There ought to have been enough in the scenario to sustain interest - a would-be junior editor at a publishing house is taken on as a temp to sort out her bitch-boss's romantic life for her, because she hasn't got the time to screen the responses to her online dating profile. There's a pseudonymous author who guards his privacy (but somehow is one of the profiles that the heroine has to screen - why does that even make sense?), and some bitchy corporate politics.

But it's just boring - to be endured rather than enjoyed.

Watched on All4 via Chromecast. The ad breaks were the best bits.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Review of Bring Up The Bodies

Hilary Mantel doesn't need a review from me, but a few notes to remember what I liked about this brilliant book. It draws you in from the very first, and though it's years since I read 'Wolf Hall' I was back in there right away, inside Thomas Cromwell's head and seeing the world through his eyes.

What makes it so special for me is that Cromwell is at once clever, and distanced from, and critical of, his master Henry and yet utterly devoted to his business and his objectives. He is at once Trotsky and Beria to Henry's Stalin. He has no illusions about the man's childish capriciousness, and yet he has given his life - and will, we know, ultimately give his life - to his service. Some of it, as he acknowledges, is sort of in self-defence...if he doesn't act against Henry's enemies (like the Boleyns) then they will do for him and his family; but not all of it. Because Cromwell is so intelligent, and so insightful, it comes as a shock to realize every so often that he is also a brutal butcher, wiping out the obstacles to Henry's latest whims and pleasures without either regret or malice. "We're not interested in the whole truth, only the truth we can use," he says.

Can't wait to read the final book, after a decent interval to recover.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Review of Ladies in Black

It's hard to convey how inconsequential this film is. I tried describing it to a friend and she said it sounded like a dessert, sweet and enjoyable but not very nutritious. But if it were a dessert it would be Angel Delight, an artificial concoction having the form of a dessert but not really all that enjoyable. It's set in Sydney in the late 1950s, and it's striking how well the film-makers have managed to reconstruct it, down to the shots of the harbour without the Opera House, and with the trams still running in the city.

It centres on two women, and a young girl working as a temp, in a big department store, who all have their issues and problems - the girl wants to go to university (she's very clever) but her dad doesn't believe girls should, one of the women has a shy and useless-in-bed husband, and so on. But none of this amounts to any dramatic tension; as soon as an issue is introduced it is resolved or dissolved. Oddly, there's a strong migration theme - some of the main characters are European refugees...but again this is all sweetness and light, with nothing really approaching an issue; the refugees eat unfamiliar food, but the native-born Ozzies try it and like it, and that's it.

I can't imagine why Bruce Beresford wanted to direct this, or even why it was made.

Watched on Amazon Prime via Chromecast.

Thursday, April 09, 2020


I'm struck by some of my friends' connection to a place - not all of my friends, but some, and especially the newer ones in Gloucestershire. I'm aware that I don't have that sort of connection. In a recent conversation about 'home' it seemed entirely natural to me, and to the person I was talking to, to make a distinction between home as an actual physical place and 'the sense of home' that you have from being in a good state of mind. I think that for some people, at least, this would seem an entirely abstract and artificial distinction, because for them 'home' is unproblematically a place. This, I think, is part of what Bruno Latour is going on about in "Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime"...well, probably, because it's quite hard to understand.

It's hard to avoid concluding that for me, this alienation from place is a Jewish thing. We really are rootless cosmopolitans. At least one of my sons was born in a different country from both of his parents, who were themselves born in different countries from each other. In my wife's case, her father was born in a third country, and her grandfathers (and grandmothers) in fourth and fifth countries.

Jewish rootlessness has deep roots. Jew were sometimes prohibited from owning land, but even when they weren't few Jews became farmers. (The Talmud is full of rules about how to farm according to God's will, mind you.) Even when Jews do become farmers, and there seems to be a move towards this at the moment, it doesn't seem to translate into a deep connection with a place. Trotsky's parents were Jewish farmers, but they upped and moved to a town. Max Yasgur, the farmer who owned the site where the Woodstock festival was held, eventually sold up and his son is a lawyer.

I'd like to cite King Josiah as the culprit. He's the guy who created the pre-Jewish temple-based religion, in which the ancient Judaeans worshipped only one God, through animal sacrifices performed by a hereditary priesthood at a single centralised site - the temple in Jerusalem. No other place mattered at all. Josiah, and then his successor kings, spent a lot of time overthrowing other altars to God, often in 'High Places'. They destroyed sacred groves in which God, and other gods, had been worshipped; they deposed these other gods, referred to in the Bible as the 'Host of Heaven'.

It's pretty clear that until then the Israelites, or whatever name the pre-Jews went by, were keen on sacred groves and trees, and holy places, and that they used them to worship a range of divinities and supernatural beings. After the Josiah 'revolution' all this disappears, and there's only one God to be worshipped, though for a while others continue to exist - sometimes as angels or demons. It's possible that Josiah's motivation was entirely theological, and that the revolution was inspired by spiritual inspiration; but establishing that there was only one God to be worshipped, and that one at a shrine entirely under one's own control, had a political pay-off. The cultural consequence, though, was a divorce from places, and to a lesser extent from nature.

Some of this has carried over into Christianity, but unevenly. The early Christian were good at co-opting local supernatural beings into saints, and turning local sacred sites into 'holy' wells, or putting churches on them. In some churchyards the yew trees, which were considered sacred by pre-Christians, are older than the church. Reformed churches were more like the Jews, and down on made-up saints and holy sites (and very down on graven images). I came across this Calvinist website that goes into great detail about how bad sacred groves are. On the other hand, non-conformist chapels are often named after places in the Bible (Ebenezer, where Jacob's ladder had its foot, and Bethel, and Shiloh, are all favourites) - the same places where the post-Josiah kings overthrew altars and destroyed sacred groves.

Friday, April 03, 2020

Review of 'The Great Transformation' by Karl Polanyi

I finally got round to reading this book. It's been on my list for several years, mainly because I'd heard that it was about the breakdown of the global economy that existed before WW1 - and that the pre-WW1 world had been much more integrated than was the case for much of the C20th afterwards.

It does cover that, and much else, but the Great Transformation of the title is about the move to a market economy during the C18th and early C19th. Polanyi demonstrates in great detail, and with many illustrative anecdotes and historical references, how the idea of a market economy in which pretty much everything is a commodity that finds its own level through the price mechanism had to be invented, and how the economy itself had to be created. Doing so required much violence and cruelty, and this was frankly acknowledged at the time.

It was well understood that the lower orders would not sell their labour power, or not sell it in the quantities and at the prices that the emerging capitalist economy needed, unless they were driven to do so by hunger to the point of starvation. If they earned too much they wouldn't work hard enough or long enough - preferring to the take increased productivity as extra leisure - so they had to be kept lean. Their cottage gardens and customary access to growing or grazing space had to be taken away too, so that they had nothing to fall back on if the labour market did not want to buy them at a 'too-high' price. The early political economists and 'reformers' were quite explicit about this, and it's there for all to see in their writings - especially the Utilitarians and Benthamites, who I'd learned at school were progressive liberal types. So they were, except that the kind of progress and liberalism that they propounded wasn't much to do with what those terms have come to mean now. Part of the strength of Polanyi's book is that it is a history of economic thought by someone who knows about both history and economics, and about the relationship between thought and power.

It is much more than that, though. It is also a history of how social relations were transformed, and how "economic man" who maximises his utility in the way prescribed by rational economics had to be created - that this way of thinking is by no means 'human nature'. He draws on lots of examples from anthropology to illustrate how money, payment and even the notion of gain are absent from most of the history of work, and more surprisingly, trade. The idea that trade and exchange are natural consequences of different abilities and the division of labour is shown to be a construction of C18th economists, not an observation of historians or anthropologists.

Lots of the history feels chillingly contemporary. The accounts of the Speenhamland System, which provided Outdoor Relief (that is, welfare benefits without the compulsion to enter a workhouse) from the Poor Law rates, reminded me of the scandalous way in which our current benefit system is used to subsidise low wages, to the detriment of both the working poor and the taxpayer and to the benefit of shareholders in the employing companies. The accounts of the operation of the global financial system - and in particular the Gold Standard, which imposed balanced budgets and prevented any kind of economic intervention by nominally independent governments, was really reminiscent of the current Euro crisis. And in case you were wondering, this 'self-balancing' system ultimately failed to balance, and collapsed into war and then fascism, and then even more war. The lessons from the history recounted in the book are important, and suggest that we really ought to find a way to extricate ourselves from the iron cage into which the financial markets have locked us.

There's lots more too. The book is really worth reading. There are some odd twists in it, though. He seems to be a big softy as regards the traditional pre-capitalist upper class, regarding them as somehow 'custodians of nature' through their relationship with the land and customary relations with agricultural workers. And he seems to think that their efforts to slow down the transformation at least as regards agriculture was somehow benign, or at least a barrier on the absolute and ruthless operation of market forces. Elsewhere, though, he seems to have a good understanding of the way that early C19th politics, including the efforts to 'reform' the Poor Law, was about the struggle between two different groups of buyers of labour power.

Also, perhaps because of his personal history as a refugee from the short-lived Bela Kun Hungarian Soviet Republic and his involvement with Social Democratic parties, Polanyi seems to feel it's necessary to take issue with Marx's account of the role of class struggle in history. So he argues that classes are not permanent entities but are constantly in flux, and that therefore they can't be actors in the way that Marx describes them as being. As a consequence the narrative of the Great Transformation is something of a crime with a victim but no perpetrator - except the ideas of the political economists.

And his critique of class seems to me to be a bit of an Aunt Sally, though perhaps it was a more relevant argument in the context of Stalinised Marxism in the 1930s when Polanyi's ideas were developing. Incidentally, he's quite soft on Stalinism and the system it created.

Interestingly, lots of the material about pre-capitalist forms of work and trade also turns up in David Graeber's wonderful book 'Debt: The First 5000 Years', where it is supplemented with more historical research that wouldn't have been available to Polanyi.

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Review of The Man with the Iron Heart

Really good, tense war film about the assassination of Heydrich in Prague by the Czech resistance, with good acting and visualisation. The first half is mainly about Heydrich's rise through the Nazi party, so that we are quite sure that we hate him when he comes to be killed. Rosamund Pike plays his ambitious and very Nazi wife.

A few interesting asides: we have a tiny personal connection because our lovely friend Dave Kaspar is the son of the man who planned the assassination from London, and who wanted to take part in what was pretty obviously a suicide mission but wasn't allowed to. Also, it's mentioned in the film that there hadn't been any other examples of resistance fighters or partisans killing high-ranking Nazis, and I wasn't aware of any subsequent examples of this - so why this one? A friend shared a theory that Heydrich was killed because he was planning to move against Admiral Canaris, head of the German Navy intelligence service, who was actually a secret Allied sympathiser - and that the Allies organised the assassination even though they knew the reprisals would be terrible.

Watched on BBC iPlayer via laptop and HDMI cable, because our Chromecast broke - didn't realise how dependent we had become on it until it was gone. Have ordered another one.