A fiery and furious people – a history of violence in England, by James Sharpe

Take that! Blam! And that!! Oww!!

I saw this title a good few years ago and I thought, that’s one for me, that’ll be interesting. Are we English violent? Are we more violent than other races? Is it our Anglo-Saxon or Norse heritage? The Duke of Wellington famously said of his own troops that they were the “scum of the earth”, and it is possible that propensity to violence does make for good soldiers. One feels that crossing the street to avoid soldiers need not be completely unnecessary. The purpose of soldiers, after all, is to visit physical violence on others, hopefully, but not always, other soldiers.

James Sharpe traces the social, cultural and legal history of violence from the Middle Ages to the present. It’s mostly readable, although there were a few sections I had to skip, particularly the section about serial killers. Not because I’m particularly squeamish, but because the work in those places was in danger of being about crime and legislation, rather than violence per se. That said, you can’t today discuss violence without discussing crime and punishment, and that, of itself, is an important finding of the book. What passes for violence has changed through the ages. The degree and type of violence that the common people, the law, and indeed the State, will accept or put up with, and where the line is to be drawn, has changed much over time.

Sharpe has chapters on various themes, as well as moving in a logical way from the past to the present. He covers violence in the middle ages, where he draws in the influence of the Norman French feudal aristocracy and the effect of the concept of “Chivalry”. He covers dueling, and domestic violence, rape and sexual violence, and also serial killers. Of families, he notes: “It was only as feudalism succumbed to capitalism, and a traditional, community-based kinship dominated society started to give way to one in which individuals began to come to the fore, that the family as we understand it today, emerged”

He does note that most (although not all) violence is visited by men, and mostly, to be fair, on other men. It is men who are violent. Aggression plays a part. I’m reminded of Sebastian Junger’s excellent book “War”, about the young men fighting in Afghanistan. Here, we read of the importance, particularly for young men, not of war as such, but of combat. Most men understand this instinctively, even if today, that combat is no longer always physical.

Alas, he does not mention the story quoted I think by Churchill, that the Venetian Ambasssador was so intimidated by the physical presence of Henry VIII that whenever he was in that king’s presence, he never stopped worrying that the king would actually lay hands on him and do him violence.

Several more important conclusions are drawn. We should be careful of the danger of reading too much into crime statistics (or any statistics). Reporting of violent crime is not the same as violent crime. An example of this is the suggestion (reasonable certainty, really) that some police forces today – as in the past – do not have the funding to prosecute as many violent criminals as they otherwise ought – which will affect crime figures. Prosecuting people is expensive. Another: our world and the people in it are very much more complicated than it would appear from social media or from the pages of the Daily Mail. The nature of violence is changing; I don’t think it is getting less, although our tolerance of casual violence is lower than it was – just as it should be.

We come into a world now where social violence – trolling, online bullying etc – may need much more tightly regulating: because who needs a judge and jury when you’ve got Facebook?

I do hope there’s hope: a review of The Rig, by Roger Levy

I cannot now recall who recommended this story by Roger Levy: possibly William Gibson, on Twitter, or possibly the recommendation came from having read Dave Eggers’ upsetting story “The Circle”.

Do we judge a book by it’s cover? Alas, we do, and the publishers are complicit in this, bringing us paperbacks for womenfolk that are broadly (but not always) in light, pastel colours, and paperbacks for men, that are either black or in dark hues. You won’t be reading an Iain M. Banks novel in a paperback copy that is anything other than dark in colour. “Dark have been my dreams of late”, said Theoden King, in the Lord of the Rings. And well they might have been if he’d read this book or indeed a lot of other modern science fiction.

I long for science fiction that is positive and hopeful. I started “The Rig” and after a struggle at the start, I got into it. So I tweeted to the author that I thought it was great. [That this is possible at all is a both a blessing and a curse of modern social media]. I wrote to him, “I do hope there is hope”

What we have in “The Rig” is a future where humankind has had to move to another “system” where there are a number of nominally habitable planets. Much is made of terraforming. Two planets are different – and one of them, Gehenna, a loosely Christian religious dictatorship, forms the background to the opening of the story. The story’s hero is, as some say, “on the spectrum“. Indeed, Alef is autistic to the point of being socially inadequate, but very, very clever. He – and his father before him – are the not exactly unwilling tools of an unpleasant gangster needing assistance with computers.

We’ve seen it all before. These gangsters and all their disgusting subordinate mercenaries, enforcers, mistresses and hangers-on all appear in the dark science fiction of such authors as Alistair Reynolds, Paul McAuley, Iain. M Banks and most particularly Richard Morgan. I grow tired of them. It displeases me that writers, publishers and indeed the reading public, seem have a fascination for them, all the sordid violence and mutilation, all the vengeance and torture. I agree with R.A Heinlein’s character Lazarus Long, who said in “Time enough for love”: “I’ve never understood the gangster mentality. I simply know what to do with gangsters“.

Notwithstanding all that, I found I could hardly put this book down, and I found that the plot drew me on. It was simple enough not to confuse me and yet refined and complex enough not to be completely see-through. You’ve got implicit discussion of the internet and what it all means; you’ve got old Earth clearly destroyed or rendered uninhabitable by some unexplained environmental catastrophe. You’ve got a dig at organised religion and for that matter, at Christianity. So far, so normal for “dark” sci-fi – all the right boxes are ticked. But, much more unusually, you’ve got an autistic main character whose feelings and thoughts the author has worked hard to portray.

I’d make a plea, as a Christian, for positive, hopeful and uplifting stories. I’ll admit the publisher may say “it won’t sell”, but you know – I think it will. Something that defies the rather H.P Lovecraftian view taken by nearly all modern science-fiction. In all my life of reading I can think of only a handful of authors writing such material. I was impressed by Maria Dona Russell’s “The Sparrow” – reviewed here, then we’re back to Stephen Lawhead, whose works The Search for Fierra/The Siege of Dome and Dream Thief I read thirty years ago. Or even C.S Lewis’ classics like “Out of the Silent Planet”, “Perelandraand “That Hideous Strength”.

From the Gulag to the Killing Fields – notes on Totalitarianism

A few musings on totalitarianism, brought on by a work-related visit to Vietnam. I have juxtaposed this with a recent re-reading of Orwell’s “1984”. I read a lot of books at once, mind, and I am also ploughing my way through a collection called “From the Gulag to the Killing Fields: Personal Accounts of Political Violence and Repression in Communist States”. It has been put together by an academic called Paul Hollander, himself a victim of the political violence of the Hungarian uprising of 1956. It’s certainly not bedtime reading. It makes uncomfortable reading for me, much less for anyone with remotely left-wing sensibilities. We tend to look at Russia and China as the worst offenders in terms of the sheer volume and quantity of communist political oppression and violence, and this book tends to support that view. But reading books these upsetting personal stories, other places take the record for sheer horror and human tragedy (Cambodia and Vietnam). For the ill-treatment of political prisoners, I’d look at Cuba, where there was a peculiar and toxic mixture of Latin machismo and the malevolent foolishness of Marxism.

It never fails to be a pleasant surprise to me that books like this collection are in print in the UK at all. It is not beyond the bounds of darkest fantasy that a time will come for the UK when having a copy of such a book could put someone at risk of being sent to prison.

It’s always good to pick up a few points from Orwell. His character “Bernstein” who ostensibly writes the “book within the book” plot device allowing Orwell to lecture us on totalitarianism, says that the rise of machines has, “by producing wealth which is sometimes impossible not to distribute”, led to an increase in average living standards. Our standard of living has indeed improved from the early 20th century (earlier really) until now, and should continue to improve all this century. This is not politics, nor economics, but technology – the rise of machines. Orwell notes that “an all-round increase in wealth threatens a hierarchical society” and “A hierarchical society is only possible on the basis of poverty and ignorance”. Amen. This truth lies at the very heart of “1984”, and at the heart of opposition to technology for it’s own sake. Opposition to “machines taking over men’s jobs” is at heart a desire for order and hierarchy, a vote for the established order, an endorsement of the status quo. And I believe the status quo is almost invariably worth upsetting. Technology and machines, of themselves, create wealth and hence threaten the status quo in hierarchical societies.

Rocket Fighter, by Mano Ziegler

What a remarkable read! Mano Ziegler, a second world war fighter pilot with the Luftwaffe, published, in 1961, “Raketenjaeger 163“. This excellent little book was subsequently published in English as “Rocket Fighter”. It is the very readable story of the development of the Messerschmidt 163 rocket-powered interceptor during WWII. My copy came as a gift from a close friend of mine.

image: Wikipedia

It is wonderfully written. Lovely English – one may ask whether this is because it was well written in the original German (which I find more than likely) or is it an artifact of translation by someone who can write beautiful English? It comes across in waves of easy-to-read, rolling prose.

It’s worth mentioning, at a remove of seventy years since WWII, that the work is completely free of any political rancour or bitterness, and there is little mention of the war itself at all, except toward the end of the book when the onward juggernaut of the Soviets was making its way across eastern Germany. The war is seen always as an effect, a shadow, an influence.

The story here is about the airmen who worked to the best of their abilities to transform this innovative new rocket plane into an actual operational fighter. The heroes are the airmen. They are no different to American airmen, or British airmen. At one point, a pair of Mustangs fly over and strafe the airfield, causing the flyers and a number of their female colleagues (WAAFs of some kind) to fling themselves into a slit trench or ditch for shelter. Emerging from shelter after the raiders had gone, one of the airmen shakes his fist at the retreating Americans: “look at my bloody trousers – straight from the cleaners too!!” These men had an excellent custom of “birthdays”. if something happened to an airman where he ought by rights, to have died – but survives – that day, ever afterwards, becomes a new birthday, with cake and drinks and appropriate celebration.

The heroes are the men that lived and died working on the rocket planes, which were unreliable if amazing when they worked. And these brave men sometimes died hard, literally dissolved by the liquid rocket fuel, which was concentrated Hydrogen Peroxide.

The astonishing technology is the other hidden hero here. History is generally written by the victors: I was brought up in 1970’s Britain, and was taught in school that Frank Whittle invented the jet engine. German aviation technology seems almost like “alternative history” to me. Men like Alexander Lippisch, who pioneered the tail-less “delta” shaped aircraft (so iconic later in the Avro Vulcan) so nearly brought the Germans victory in WWII. To read or watch Philip K Dick’s nightmare vision of a 1960’s where the Nazis won (“The Man in the High Castle“) and see a world spanned by supersonic jets, and a manned mission to Mars, is to shiver. Terribly plausible, at one level, when you consider this frighteningly advanced technology, and the upright, honest and capable men, like Mano Ziegler and others, who were set by the Nazis to develop it and fly it.

Walk East Til I die, by Mike Pinnock

I like a good outdoorsman’s travelogue, and this falls into the same category as Nicholas Crane’s “Clear Waters Rising” or “Two degrees West”.  An Englishman of a certain age sets himself to do an all-but impossible adventure – what’s not to like? I’m an Englishman of a certain age myself – but Mike is older.  I should admit early on in the interests of transparency that Mike is a relative of mine.   

All that said, I liked the historical accounts in this work better.  There’s only so many pints of lager you vicariously enjoy.  Mike paints an interesting story of Eire today and in the past.  My wife and I visited Kerry on our honeymoon in 1990, and we were told that almost no-one lives within twenty miles of the west coast of Ireland, except for those whose living depends on tourism.  Mike’s account bears that out – there seems to be no-one there.  A far cry from queuing up to walk along Crib Goch in Snowdonia, as you’ll have to do on any fine weekend in summer.  

I learned much of Irlsh history.  You’ll not be learning this kind of thing in English schools, not this last 40-50 years. I’d heard of Michael Collins, of the Easter Rising, and of the Irish Free State, and few would not have heard of Eamon De Valera.  What Mike has done has coloured in the gaps a little, brought to life some of that fascinating past, some of the terrible suffering.  From the medieval saints, through the Norman overlordship, and onto Cromwell’s atrocities, then the Potato Famine and the emergence of Eire, Mike has provided some insights into Irish history without ever being partisan or taking an obvious side.  

Dark Eden, by Chris Beckett

I picked this up in a charity shop in Aberdeen: I’ve been in that shop a dozen times and bought nothing. Then, I go in on a rainy September morning, on the way from one meeting to another, and find not one, not two, but three books. I’m reading all three at once; this one I have finished already.

“Dark Eden” explores what might happen a few generations down the line, if a very few people – in this case, just two – found themselves having to scratch a living having landed with little or no equipment on a deeply unsuitable world. Stephen Baxter covers similar ideas in his “pendant” short stories “Earth II” and “Earth III”. Heinlein touches on it in a brief aside in “Time enough for love”.

Beckett neatly side-steps the science. It is not necessary to explain the biology and geology of his strange sunless world, quite literally enlivened by bizarre geothermal trees. But we’ve seen the life on geothermal vents on the seabed – such things are more than plausible. His forests are islands full of life and light, in a sea of darkness, snow and ice. In the story, the protagonists travel from one such island to another, to make a new life where there is more game, more space, more resources. It is an ancient story, going back a million years on our own world.

Where the story excels, is in dealing with human relationships. It deals head on with the very serious consequences of inbreeding several generations in from just one man and woman. Many of the population have cleft pallettes, hare lips and club feet – and are looked after by their healthier, luckier siblings. Truly a dark Eden, but with the warm light of compassion only now starting to flicker. The primitive society that has formed from the original couple is matriarchal, and the heroine can see that the time for this is ending, and that “the time of men” is coming. The hero, John Redlantern, as well as being a visionary, a Moses who leads his people through the wilderness, is also the first to commit murder, a destroyer of tradition and stability, and also inherently self-centred – it’s all about him.

Wikipedia describes the novel as “Social science fiction” which may not be flattering. But, “social science” is all over the story. Many important ideas are discussed. We see how hunter-gatherers can lay waste to swathes of forest over generations. We see how a matriarchal society can work where there is plenty – but how such a society begins to break down when resources are scarce. We see the effects of inbreeding. We see the importance of tradition in retaining knowledge in a society where there is little or no learning.

What I liked is that this is no dystopia: though things are going wrong, though things are changing, from beginning to end, there is a positive dialogue with what is happening and what has happened. In a genre where so often we find stories focusing on the negative – the very dark but excellent work of Richard Morgan and Alistair Reynolds are just two examples – it’s refreshing to see a positive outlook.

Dune, by Frank Herbert

It is quite odd, re-reading Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction novel, to see his ideas  – written down in the early 1960’s and ahead of their time then – in relation to how we stand today in relation to Islam.

Dune, at one level, is a sweeping space opera, an adventure where two noble families battle for supremacy in an imperial setting – but set in a strange and far future.  Imperial politics are what they usually are – but are also subtly controlled by a shadowy and all-powerful female priesthood, the Bene Gesserit.  Interstellar space travel is controlled exclusively by the Guild of Navigators – and they accomplish it only by use of a difficult to obtain mind-altering drug.  This drug is made from a strange spice available in one place only in all the universe – the desert planet Arrakis, or Dune.  The novel is the story of two families fighting for control of the spice.

But at another level, Dune explores the culture of desert Arabs, and draws heavily on Islamic ideas such as jihad or holy war.  I don’t think a publisher would touch it if it was written today.  Indeed, even writing such a work would put you at risk from those who see Islam as completely beyond or above discussion – much less actual criticism.

Whilst is is broadly sympathetic to Islam and to desert culture, we see parallels drawn between the rise of the prophet, and the rise of Frank Herbert’s central character Paul Muad’Dib, and the holy war or Jihad that Paul Muad’Dib is so keen to prevent.  He sees it in visions and dreams: war, suffering, warriors and fighting, spreading out unstoppable from Arrakis, across the known universe.  And it is the last thing he wants.

As a writer though, two things to note: firstly, Dune as pure story seems much less sophisticated than later science fiction, and second, there is some wonderful mixing of metaphor and adjective, which I record here.  The central character Paul – at this point just fifteen but the son of a Duke – and his mother are marooned in the desert after a plane crash, and “…he inhaled, sensed the softly contralto smell of sage climbing the night…it had brought a stillness to the basin so unuttered that the blue milk moonlight could almost be heard flowing across sentinel saguaro and spiked paint brush. There was a low humming of light…”

I was charmed by the idea that moonlight could be heard, or that the smell of sage could be contralto, or stillness, unuttered.