Thoughts on the conquest of the American West

Long have I held a deep interest in the history and development of the American nation state – and most particularly, perhaps, the westward expansion to the Pacific during the nineteenth century.  For a number of interesting reasons, the conquest of the American West holds a peculiar and romantic place in our historical lexicon.

I’m just now reading Hampton Sides’ “Blood and Thunder“, a wide-ranging history of the American south-west based loosely around a biography of Kit Carson.  Apart from some florid descriptive language in places, it is most excellent and readable.  Reading it has begged some questions about the American West, perhaps most particularly about native Americans and their relationship with “European” America both then and now.

Mr Sides reports that Colonel John Washington, leading a US Army expedition into Navajo country in 1847, said this of the Navajo: “they must learn to cultivate the earth for an honest livelihood, or be destroyed”.  This was and is a general principle, rightly or wrongly, true of all hunter-gatherer cultures faced with exposure to technically advanced agricultural societies. The subsequent forcing of those hunter-gatherer nomads into a sedentary and agricultural lifestyle would – and did – destroy much of their culture.

It begs deeper questions about hunter-gatherer nomads in general, and about native American cultures as they were in the nineteenth century.  We in “the west” valued and still value the right to own property – yet we questioned the right of entire peoples to hold land undeveloped and wild, as property through which to roam as nomads.  There are those who would argue that inherited wealth and private property are of themselves bad things: I am not among them. Lennon’s “Imagine” I consider to be a childish dirge, not trenchant social comment.

But those same people who argue against inherited wealth would find no problem in arguing that native Americans (and indeed aboriginal peoples elsewhere in the world) should be able to collectively inherit and hold vast tracts of land in order to facilitate nomadic or hunter-gatherer lifestyles.

In the face of the relentless and inexorable westward expansion of the United States, the native Americans could never have held onto their land by any kind of “right”, only by main force – an area in which they could never have hoped to prevail against the Americans for long.

The Navajo, Sides’ writes, had “no concept of individual land ownership or constitutions or the rule of law or the delegation of political authority”. Their traditions were radically different. They had no point of meeting with the American invaders at all.

Who was right? The concepts of private ownership of property, constitution, the rule of law and political authority are what has enabled “the west” (in the  21st century sense meaning a culture that is broadly Anglo-Saxon yet open to others, Judaeo-Christian yet secular, capitalist yet not against other ideas, and fundamentally based in the rule of law) to prosper and grow so far and so fast.

Was the culture of 19th century America “better” culture than the native American cultures that were so casually and brutally destroyed? Are we better men and women than nomadic hunter-gatherers? Are we better than those who eschew the rule of law, private property and constitutional politics? Are we in “the west” culturally superior to they?

As individuals, almost certainly not – as John Steinbeck says – “I think we’re just as bright as the cave-men, and that’s pretty bright in the long run”. But collectively, culturally, in the mass, I do think that “the west” – hypocritical, violent, immoral and amoral, wasteful and destructive, IS morally superior to hunter-gatherer societies. The minute we question that inherent superiority, we have already lost.  Too many of us do question it – it is the “lack of civilisational self-confidence” spoken of by right-wing Canadian journalist Mark Steyn.

Why do I think this? Look at how in the last 150-200 years, the lot of the common person has improved. Look at the lives of those Navajo in the 1840’s, and then at the lives of the common folk in America and Europe in the 1840’s.  Then look again at 1910, and 1960, and today, and marvel at how much better off we are.  Lower infant mortality, fewer deaths in childbirth, more disposble income, more leisure. More hygiene, more health, better diet, better living conditions. All of those improvements come through technological innovation, and that technological innovation is allowed and encouraged because we live in a culture that respects private ownership of property, respect for the rule of law, and constitutional political arrangements.




The Edwardians, by Roy Hattersley

I’m a fan of sweeping accounts of history, those that cover the big, strategic picture.  This book is one such. A. N Wilson’s work on the Victorians is another.

Hattersley has an engaging style, and kept me interested through the whole book. After a few chapters covering the whole time period  (from the death of Queen Victoria in 1901 to the outbreak of the Great War in 1914), each of the chapters address different pertinent topics.

Where the work fell down for me, was that towards the end of each chapter, the work got bogged down in rather too much detail, and I lost my focus and had to skim a page or two.  This can happen in some military histories, when writers sometimes include what I consider far too much detail about actual battles and movements of troops on the ground. 

I was particularly pleased to read about the creation of the Daily Mail, and to see how little has changed there since Alfred Harmsworth’s day, and to see Churchill (central to so much of the first half of British  twentieth century history) treated without rancour.

Overall this was excellent: easy to read, informative, entertaining. I learnt much. Mr Hattersley’s politics, whilst implicit in the way he wrote about certain issues, were never on his sleeve, so to speak, but rather, suffused the book with gentle compassion and understanding.

Endurance – a life of Emil Zatopek, by Rick Broadbent

This was a good read, particularly encouraging to me as an erstwhile and very amateur 10km runner.  I first heard of the Czech long distance runner Emil Zatopek when I was just a boy.  I used to get “Look and Learn” and “World of Wonder (incorporating ‘Speed and Power’)” which were improving and educating magazines for the boys of the time.  And I recall reading in those magazines about Zatopek’s amazing triple triumph at the Helsinki Olympics in 1952. That year, he took the gold medal in the 5000m, 10000m, and in the Marathon. And as he entered the stadium at the end of the Marathon, the magazine told me, he heard the crowd chanting, Zatopek, Zatopek, Zatopek…

I found the book much more interesting in the first half, which dealt with Zatopek’s upbringing and his early success as an athlete.  The second half, dealing with his fame and his struggles with the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia, whilst important enough a subject, I confess I found less stimulating.

But it was certainly inspiring.  Zatopek’s training methods (he more or less invented “interval training”), his humble background and his sheer success captured my attention.  I myself have run a little faster and a little harder since reading this book.


My ten favourite sci-fi novels

1.     Robert A Heinlein – Time enough for Love

The story of the healing and recovery of Lazarus Long, a 2000 year-old man, from the ennui and depression caused by living for such a long time. This book has influenced me more than any other book I have ever read, including (probably) the Bible. It is long and complicated with several independent anecdotes, rather like the “1001 nights”, to which the author pays conscious and deliberate homage. There is more wisdom in this book than in any fifty other books I’ve ever read.

2.    Robert A Heinlein – To sail beyond the sunset 

Heinlein’s swansong, published in his dotage in 1989. This fictional memoir of Maureen Johnson, the mother of Lazarus Long, is flawed brilliance. He swoops from inspired fictional family history to some seriously inappropriate incestuous practices. It is both trenchant social comment and exciting adventure, but incest is always off-putting and always out of order, and unfortunately there is plenty of it in here, both father-daughter and mother-son. Though it ties in with many other Heinlein works such as “The number of the beast” and “The cat who walks through walls”, Heinlein’s flaky sexuality at the end of a long and glorious writing career means that I could not recommend this to teenagers, even though this is possibly one of his best works.

3.    Arthur C Clarke – Islands in the sky

One of the very first science-fiction novels I read, this is the story of a young fellow who wins a TV quiz show, and the prize is a free ticket to anywhere in the world. The youngster insists on being allowed to visit an orbiting space station, and this is the story of his adventures whilst up there in orbit.

4.     Alistair Reynolds – Chasm City

Guy Sajer in “The forgotten soldier” has written about the power of forgiveness. In this dark space-opera set in the 28th century, Reynolds tells a compelling story of the power of insanity, bitterness and unforgiveness. A man chases his enemy across space and time, whilst an entire planet remains at war for centuries because one starship captain, Sky Hausmann, committed terrible atrocities in the distant past – (our near future, the 22nd century), in his efforts to get an edge over his fellow man. Even the planet’s name – Sky’s Edge – tells a terrible story.

5.    Iain M Banks – Feersum Endjinn

Difficult to read at first because of the phonetic spelling used by Banks’ character Bascule the Teller, this is the surreal story of a human society living in a giant, kilometres high scale model of a castle, at least thirty thousand years in the future, and the way different parts of that society respond to the approach of a planet-threatening interstellar dust cloud. In my opinion this is his best work.

6.    Greg Bear – Eon

Written during the eighties but set in the late nineties, this is the story an asteroid entering the solar system, slowing down and entering orbit round the earth. Humans fly up to investigate, and find the rock riddled with seven caverns full of high-tech equipment from mankind’s own future. The seventh cavern goes off into infinity – it is the entrance to a different universe. The discovery of the asteroid and the startling seventh chamber triggers a nuclear war between America and the Soviet Union.

7.    Frank Herbert – Hellstrom’s Hive

An awful, frightening vision of humankind as hive creatures. The story begins and ends with no-one aware of the danger posed by Hellstrom’s Hive, a hive burrowed miles under the ground in Oregon. None can prevail against the hive economy. This story is finely drawn and ultimately horrifying. Really it’s a horror story with shades of “Brave New World”

8.    Ann McAffrey – Dragons Dawn/The White Dragon

Dragons Dawn is the prequel to McAffrey’s “medieval sci-fi” dragon novels, the story of how star-faring pioneer settlers on the planet Pern addressed the danger posed by lethal fungoid “threads” falling from the skies. The White Dragon is set thousands of years later, when the medieval descendants of the early settlers rediscover high-tech computers buried in a remote place, and make steps to once again become a modern, mechanised society.

9.    Ray Bradbury – Fahrenheit 451

Classic literature which I read before I was 15, the story of Montag the fireman and his discovery of himself, and his turning against a culture that despises knowledge and books. The value of people learning books or parts of books by rote is explained here, as nuclear war overtakes the society and all the knowledge that remains is stored in people’s heads.

10.    Isaac Asimov –  Foundation trilogy

This is Asimov’s central work, a three-part adventure covering the fall of the Galactic Empire and psycho-historian Hari Seldon’s attempts to establish secret institutes that would prevent a 30000-year dark age following that fall. The rise of “The Mule” in the third novel, “Second foundation”, is perhaps the best bit, though like much of Asimov’s fiction, it can all seem somewhat bloodless.

Ten works that have influenced me

1) Quest for the highest – J.E Church – the story of the East African Revival

2) Mere Christianity – C.S Lewis – a reasoned and sane explanation of my faith

3) The Cost of Discipleship – Dietrich Bonhoeffer – VERY challenging; too difficult to read because I am falling short of the example set by the author

4) The Gulag Archipelago – Alexander Solzhenitsyn – Brilliant. It never fails to amaze me that this book is not banned by the liberal left establishment!

5) The Handmaids Tale – Margaret Atwood – An America that could happen

6) The Fountainhead – Ayn Rand – influential to me at a subconscious and visceral level as I read it before I was 17

7) News from Tartary – Peter Fleming – the book that started my interest in all matters to do with Central Asia

8) Perelandra – C.S Lewis – a beautiful story of the Fall, averted rather than recurring on a watery paradise Venus

9) 1984 – George Orwell – the most important political novel of the 20th century and perhaps one of the most important English language works. Everyone should read it, especially leftists

10) Time enough for love – R.A Heinlein – Heinlein remains the single greatest secular influence on my thinking, though I am a Christian. No-one else can say or has said the things he has said, nor done so in such elegant prose.

“The ordinary British sentence – which is a noble thing”

I have encountered a rather strange thing in some work I am reviewing. It is deeply displeasing and demotivating to me to see it. But more of that particular strange thing in a moment.

If one is involved in a car crash, then one’s car will be damaged. It will be taken to the garage, and they will effect repairs. They will send the bill either to you or possibly to the insurance company. But if the car is very badly damaged, then the garage or the insurance company may deem that the cost of repairs actually exceeds the value of the car itself. In such cases it is common to say that the car has been “written off”. We use the term “written off”, therefore, to describe something that is damaged beyond economic repair.

An important part of my job is reviewing and revising the writing of others.  In this task, I may encounter sentences that are damaged, or more likely, badly constructed from the start. I may come across concepts that are difficult to understand, and I sometimes read phrases that are simply incomprehensible. Just as garage mechanics repair cars, I repair sentences. But just occasionally, I come across sentences that are so convoluted, so twisted and arcane, that repair is just not possible. We might fairly say of such sentences that like badly damaged cars, they are “written off”; they are beyond economic repair.

The problem is that in revising such sentences you have to understand completely the mind of the author; you need a thorough comprehension of what he or she was trying to say – so that you can then construct an easy-to-understand and comprehensible sentence for the reader.

That is the heart and soul of my job. It is not easy and it is fair to say that it has brought me to my knees, at least metaphorically, on a number of occasions.

The strange thing that I encountered? It is a number of sentences of Pauline intensity and length. (The Apostle Paul is known amongst students of the Bible for having using long and complicated sentences; it is something the student of St Paul’s letters must ever be on the lookout for.)

As writers, what is the longest sentence that we might deliver? I have looked through this short piece and shortened a number of sentences to less than 30 words. I am not wanting to see sentences of 71 words. I am most dismayed at having to read a sentence of 87 words. That saps my strength – for I believe strongly that it is the writer, and not the reader, who should be doing the hard work.

In the graveyard


I met a crying woman
In the graveyard
In the rain
On a humid summer evegraveyard.gif
In the graveyard
In the rain

Rejoice with me”, the farmer says
In Jesus’ parable
I found my lost sheep
But the woman’s sheep was dead
In the graveyard
In the rain

Can’t afford the vet” she said
To find out why she’s dead
Then she got all choked up
Her tears mixed with rain
In the graveyard
On a summer eve

Maybe I can help, I said
There’s a little bit of shepherd too
In each of all of us
And just those words were comfort then
In the graveyard
In the rain

That Great Shepherd of the sheep
Has led our footsteps here
To provide a moment’s grace and rest
For the crying woman
In the graveyard
In the rain

Where is the edge?

I went to the home of a tired old toiler,
A council house with huge TV,
Mother’s Day cards, and a crucifix
Prominent in the hall.

From there I went to a rich man’s house,
A mansion on the hill.
Crunchy gravel on the drive
Flowers on the sill.

I heard about a City Gent,
who had a “Proper Job”
All tailored suits and fountain pen,
And journeys up to Town.

Fountain pens and tailored suits
Are maybe not for me
My suits, and demons,
Middle class, off the peg, and tame.

Where is the edge of the stockbroker belt?
How is culture now defined?
Who shall say what’s posh or not?
Who is, and who’s not, refined?

A line ‘twixt good and evil
Goes through every human heart
Where is the edge of the stockbroker belt?
How shall it now be found?

I went to see a play
In the County School big hall.
I could see that edge right then and there
Directly through that hall.