Pavane, by Keith Roberts

This is one of the “SF Masterworks” series which has re-issued, over the decades, some absolutely classic titles. Some of them are well-known to me; others, like this one, I had never heard of. You can see the list yourself here. I’ve read 21 of the 73 titles in the softcover list. It is necessarily some editor’s subjective choice, and there is a tendency for Philip K. Dick to appear rather too often in my view.

But this is about Pavane. A pavane, we read, is a kind of Latin dance. This is important. Roberts has written a work with six “measures”; six long chapters, each of them meaningful, each of them drawing us onto an inevitable conclusion. We start in the late 1960’s, and we finish sometime near the end of the 20th century, describing the growth of, the antecedents of, a very English revolution. A humble engine-driver at the beginning, further on has become a rich business man. His niece becomes the mother of a firebrand aristocrat, the Lady of Corfe, whose actions bring the established order down in flames and ruin. Throughout, there is an older hidden England, a faerie England, at work. It is at work for good. It is a concealed spiritual England such as C.S Lewis hints at “That Hideous Strength” – although he speaks rather, of “Logres”, a spiritual Britain.

Pavane is an alternative history. And it is remarkable as such, for it is a work of writing craftsmanship, a finely shaped bow or arc of story from beginning to end. In this alternative history, Good Queen Bess is assassinated in 1588; the Spanish Armada is successful in its conquest of England, and the entire Reformation is brought to a bloody halt, unlikely as it may seem (more on that in a minute.) The Catholic church militant then reigns from Rome, supreme and unchallenged, for centuries down to modern times.

The story starts in the late 1960’s in Dorset. Part of the attraction of the novel for me was the writer’s clear love of and knowledge of Dorset, an area I know and love myself. Most of the action is set between Dorchester and the Isle of Purbeck.

We see how control of innovation can prevent progress: in this alternate 1960’s, steam traction engines haul goods along rough unmade roads, often threatened by bandits in the woods, and subject to the constraints of impending darkness and winter weather. The use of concrete is tightly controlled and even banned – because concrete can be used to create fortifications, and hence foster rebellion against Rome, which is ruthlessly put down by the Church Militant.

There is no electricity; there is no radio or TV. Petrol and diesel engines have been invented, but the church has circumscribed the use of these new-fangled devices by Papal Decree. But in this world, unthinkable rebellion is brewing slowly, in the woods, in the fields, in the quiet villages. It is a world where the strength of England is found in the countryside.

Writing as a believing Christian here, I sense that Keith Roberts perhaps has little time for church or religion – but he never becomes openly anti-Christian, as in the worldview seen in such work as the “His dark materials” trilogy of Philip Pullman. He writes with a light pen of the faeries, the “old people”, of the old religions and the older Gods – Wotan, Thor, Freyr. In this he prefigures – or at least reminds me of – the much later work of Neil Gaiman in his excellent “American Gods”.

Pavane was very readable, very engaging, and full of delightful and evocative language. If I had a criticism of it, it would be of the opening premise – that the assassination of Queen Elizabeth I, and even victory for the Spanish Armada, would have been enough to destroy the Reformation and the protestant energy and faith of north-western Europe.

I’d argue not. I’d argue for a historical inertia; doubtless there are “cusp” points in human history when much can change subsequently because of a single event. But I’d argue that there are far fewer of them than science-fiction authors might like. I’d suggest the assassination of JFK might have been one; I’d certainly argue that the death from disease of Prince Arthur, allowing his younger brother Henry to become Henry VIII, was another.

But I think, rather, that there is a kind of historical inertia. I don’t think it’s quite so easy to change history through the turn of a card or the flap of a butterfly’s wing. I’d suggest that there is considerable cultural and historical momentum, which is preserved and not lightly shifted. Consider: throughout history there have been many times when reactionary forces might have won on the battlefield, but didn’t – would it have made much long-term difference even if they had?

Realistically would England be that different now if Charles I had won in the English Civil War? Would America today be really that different if the thirteen colonies had failed to prevail in their Revolution? And even if the South had won on the battlefield in the American Civil War, as a slave economy competing in a free market it could never have prevailed against the North in the long term. When the conservative, the reactionary and the traditional meets the progressive, the proactive, and the forward-looking, in the long run, there can be no doubt about what the outcome will be. The status quo is never acceptable.

Mortal engines

This is a short review of the film of Philip Reeve’s boys’ story, “Mortal Engines” which I watched on a flight, back before the lock-down, some three years ago.

I have gone full circle in terms of fiction. Eleven years ago I read my son’s copy of “Mortal Engines” whilst on a long-haul flight. I am just now sitting through the film version of the same story, also whilst on-board a long-haul flight. And to be perfectly honest the film is as weak and as thin as the original boys’ story. The original story was for children and I – as well I might as an adult – found it too thin. This film, however, is in effect not for children but for all (PG cert) and I found the same lack of conviction that I found in the original book, though perhaps for quite different reasons. The book and the series to which it belongs were successful in their time, doubly so really, in that Hollywood bought the options to make it into a film.

As a film, I found it cliched. It was a triumph of special effects over plot, as so many sci-fi films are these days. I confess I’m not a fan of Hugo Weaving’s work and he plays the baddie in this film. I did like his role as Agent Smith in The Matrix, but not his Elrond in The Lord of the Rings. As a fan of the LOTR I’m familiar with Elrond as a character and I didn’t like at all the way he played Elrond: not at all like the character in the book. Here in Mortal Engines, he plays the Bearded Sultry Older Man. There is a beautiful daughter, a geeky hero and a second male lead with a strong Irish accent. It was quite literally tiresome to watch.

It would be interesting to see who wrote the screenplay for the adaption of Philip Reeves’ original novel. I had to give up watching, about a half hour from the end. It was so predictable and conventional I literally could not be bothered to watch it. Yet, along the way, amidst all the usual adventure thriller science-fiction memes and tropes, were some very interesting nuggets. This told me something about the screenwriters, hence my earlier comments. I’ve spent some time studying the Bible, and an aspect of doing so is what is called “redaction criticism”. Today we think of “redaction” as removing text from a document for whatever reason. But “redaction criticism” is trying to understand the use by biblical authors, of earlier written material. Take an example from the “Lord of the Rings”: recall the character Aragorn. Do we know if Tolkien, in his youth, read “The last of the Mohicans”? For Tolkien’s character Aragorn so closely resembles Fennimore Cooper’s character “Hawkeye” that it seems likely that Tolkien would have, and may have been influenced thereby. There is no way of knowing, of course. This then, is redaction criticism. And my senses are alert to it here: what influences were there on the screenwriters for this picture? It matters to me.

The first was the Shrike. Where does this immortal android zombie come from? Does he appear in the original books? I cannot now recall. I ask this because “the Shrike” is a strange and shadowy character in Dan Simmons’s Endymion in his very readable Hyperion novels. A dread figure, often invoked, rarely seen, much feared. Could Simmons’s work have influenced the screenwriters here? The Shrike in this Mortal Engines film excites some sympathy; there is, deep within it, some deeply buried kernel of humanity, some taste-bomb of humaneness that emerges to save the life of the young hero.

The second was the use of the term “shield wall” – towards which the travelling city of London is making its way. The term “Shield wall” originates in Frank Herbert’s “Dune”. An interesting juxtaposition, particularly when we see that this “Shield Wall” is actually located in the heart of central Asia, in what is now the Tien Shan of China.

Then, we have the environmentalist trope. I got the distinct sense that these marauding, raiding rolling cities, using up resources, harming the environment, represent the west, whereas the fixed buildings hidden behind the shield wall, are the east – the home of the “anti-tractionists”. They are portrayed as somehow better, and somehow inherently eastern. It is all a bit naïve and simplistic, and it can be, for it can easily be passed off as being for children, or being “just” science-fiction. But actually it’s quite cleverly crafted cultural spin and I don’t care for it as such.

Ahead of its time: Robert Heinlein’s “Friday”

I first read “Friday” not long after it came out. It remains a remarkable novel, worth reviewing and unpicking even now forty years after its release. It’s a “Cyberpunk” novel published two years before William Gibson published “Neuromancer”; it was environmentally aware decades before the modern movement to environmental sustainability.  It posits a balkanised North America that to this day few if any other authors have dared describe. Its heroine, the female spy of the title, remains a relatively unknown icon of feminine power and ability.

“Friday” addresses racial prejudice and everyday sexism. It addresses police brutality, corruption amongst public employees, and – a favourite theme for Heinlein – the relationship of the individual with the state.  It upsets conventional storybook wisdom and in this respect is years ahead of its time. It would make a cracking film if only someone would write a screenplay for it.

Spoiler alert! Friday Jones, a female James Bond, calls herself a “combat courier”.  She is also an “artificial person”, that is, she is not born of woman, but a genetically enhanced superhuman rather like the characters hunted down by Deckard in “Blade Runner”.  She kills someone she finds following her while passing through an airport in Kenya. Hours later, the Nairobi Hilton is fire-bombed minutes after she checks out. She fails to connect these incidents. Arriving back at base in North America, she settles down for a ride in a horse-drawn carriage: in this world, fossil-fuel driven ground vehicles are not allowed. They are somewhere in what today is the Rust Belt of Illinois and Michigan: the chauffeur notes that “two hundred years ago, all these trees and fields were factories“.

Seconds later she is betrayed by that same chauffeur, captured by the enemy, and interrogated. Heinlein subverts the usual spy genre tropes and puts the obligatory torture scene (from which the hero escapes, as the climax of the book, right near the end) right at the beginning. Torturing a woman also is not normally the done thing. But Friday remains cheerful: she suggests to her torturer that he go and do something which she believes is anatomically possible, for some males…

She’s rescued, and nursed back to health. Her boss, the character in this story representing Ian Fleming’s “M”, sends her on break, and she goes to New Zealand to see her adopted family. Heinlein has always had innovative and unusual (and indeed questionable) ideas about marriage and sex. Friday belongs to a “line” or “group” marriage. Men and women, but in a line, as if for a dance. The difference is, all of the men, maybe 2, 3, 4 or eight men, are married to all of the women. Like Don Henley sings, “this could be heaven or it could be hell”…

All seems well until the “senior wife” in the marriage (the oldest wife and in this case one of the founding members of the marriage) finds out that Friday is an “artificial person”. Friday is summarily divorced. One minute, in the bosom of her family, the next, out on the street.

On the rebound, our heroine has a fling with a handsome Canadian airline pilot. As you do…perhaps. While she is in bed with him, a terrible world event happens, something rather like 9/11 but many orders of magnitude worse. “Black Thursday” or something like that. All airline traffic is stopped. Governments collapse; martial law is introduced; the Four Horseman have a brief canter through the world, and tens of thousands of people die or are imprisoned. Armed police come to the airline pilots house, and there is violence: a policeman lays hands on someone. Friday kills him, and she has to flee.

She spends a long time travelling round what in our world is the continental United States, trying to get back to base and report in to her boss. In this world, the United States has long gone: it is several different countries – the Chicago Imperium; British Columbia, the Republic of California, and the Lone Star Republic.  The story is set in the late fifties – we know this because at one point a lady of a certain age buys a lottery ticket ending in “99”, saying that this is a lucky number – it was the year of her birth. But we don’t know what century – certainly well into the 3rd Millennium. There is faster than light travel and a dozen or so settled planets around different stars. All industry and all vehicles are powered by “Shipstone” batteries, which working in some unknown proprietary way. Commercial aircraft are “semi-ballistic” glide rockets undertaking transcontinental journeys in merely hours. 

A favourite device of Heinlein’s is to see society through its small ads: in this part of the book there are fascinating job adverts: “Tranuranics Golden Division on Planet Golden around Procyon-B wants experienced mining engineers. Five year renewable contract”…the reader is told that the advert omits to mention that humans are unlikely to survive 5 years in the job…

Eventually Friday makes it back to her boss and checks in: he sets her to work on something we take for granted with Google and the internet: completely undirected and unsupervised research. This would have been very difficult to do in 1982 without access to reference libraries of books. After some weeks of this he rings her up in the middle of the night, and asks her “when will the next outbreak of Bubonic plague be?” A voice tells him the answer, and she is astonished to find that the voice is her own. That knowledge is the side-effect almost, the fruit, of her undirected research.  A few days later, her boss, an old man, is dead of natural causes, and she is out of a job.

Friday gets another job eventually – couriering something out to the royal family on The Realm, a fabulously rich and infamously totalitarian space colony. On the starship voyage out there, she becomes aware that she is pregnant and being closely watched by bodyguards everywhere. She works out that the unborn child planted within her is destined to become a royal daughter. She will go into hospital alive, go under anaesthetic for what she thinks is a minor procedure, and that will be the end of her.

With some difficulty, Friday escapes: she jumps ship at a colony world halfway; more by luck and plot devices than her own skill and judgement. She escapes from her bodyguards, disappears into the woods, and settles down to a normal existence as a colony wife, Cub den leader and mother.

Red sky at noon, by Simon Sebag Montefiore

I saw this and I picked it up on the instant: Years ago I read Simon Sebag Montefiore’s “biography” of Jerusalem, and more recently, his non-fiction work on Stalin, “The Court of the Red Tsar”. A most readable and engaging writer, and Russia is a subject of abiding interest to me.

This book is the second of a trilogy, but it stands up well as a novel on its own. I found it a deeply human story, celebrating the worth of individuals, very much in the style of Alan Furst’s novels about pre-World War II Europe. And yet, the story encompasses one of the titanic struggles of all history, that between Stalin and Hitler on the great steppes of western Russia.

Great opening lines matter. William Gibson opens his novel Neuromancer with “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” Simon Sebag Montefiore opens here: “The red earth was already baking and the sun was just rising when they mounted their horses and rode across the grasslands towards a horizon that was on fire”…how could you not be hooked by that opening line?

He does does not shrink from the full horror of war on the Eastern Front. Yet, he manages to draw into his characters, qualities of humanity and gentleness that, while perhaps testing one’s suspension of disbelief, provide an important emotional and individual counterpoint to that titanic collective struggle.

Here we read of a political officer or “politruk”, an unpleasant fellow like all his kind, giving his life (though perhaps inadvertently) to save the life of a Jewish comrade. We read of the dictator Stalin, murderer of tens of millions of innocents, working himself to exhaustion to save Mother Russia from destruction at the hands of the Germans. Here we read of a man’s live saved several times over, because of his relationship with his horse.

This is the only book I’ve ever read other than the pretty much non-serious war novels of Sven Hassel, that mentions the dreadful German war criminal Oskar Dirlewanger. He has a small and unimportant part to play in this work. But of him we will write no more: over some of the deepest evils committed on the Eastern Front, a veil ought be drawn.

This then, is the story of a brief love affair between an Italian woman and a Russian man. It is the tale of a huge and complex intelligence operation almost ruined by a well-meaning man in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is the story of a man who somehow survived the GULAG. It is a story about prison and about war, and love and about combat, and primarily, about Russia, about the Cossacks and the Don steppes.

The long way to a small angry planet, by Becky Chambers

A readable example of what some have referred to as “social” science fiction, that is, science fiction that (at least ostensibly) deals with the human or personal story rather than engines, guns, planets and stars – though all of the latter four items figure in this book. Other examples of this sub-genre would be Maria Dona Russell’s The Sparrow (reviewed here) and Dark Eden by Chris Beckett, reviewed here. We can include in this category, some sci-fi classics like Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness.

I found this copy in a pile of second-hand books in a church in the Peak District, and it did make for entertaining and satisfying holiday reading. To me, that is enough. However, once into it, one swiftly became aware of the rather conventional Californian left-liberal politics and moral philosophy of the author. It’s all co-operation and warm fuzzy feelings, and that’s fine, as far as it goes – even if it all seems a little far-fetched to this hard-headed and cynical reviewer.

At one level, this is exactly what I have long called for – science fiction that is positive, warm and encouraging, eschewing the dreadful dystopian vision of many modern writers. At another level, it beggars my belief at least – there are no convincing baddies in this book, save possibly for a few prison guards. There’s never any sense that things could go badly wrong.

What’s the story? A young, well-born woman escaping from her past, takes a job as a clerk on a ship…a ship whose crew, all have their own secrets. The ship is then swept up into an escalating war, from which they narrowly escape. The plot, which is solid and believable, is pretty much used as an excuse for five or six essays or short stories on the secrets of the crew. We have a nod to Vernor Vinge’s “Fire on the deep” in that humankind are part of a pan-galactic community of sapient species, all connected by some form of galactic internet. We have a borrow from Ursula Le Guin in the use of her word “ansible” to mean a device enabling faster-than-light communication. The author must be familiar with the darker futures described in the works of such writers as Richard Morgan and Alistair Reynolds. She has worked hard to portray something better, and has brought us something – there’s no other word for it – more feminine.

Part of the back-story is that humankind has managed to completely ruin the earth, and yet somehow be technically able to escape to the stars and thus be rescued, as refugees escaping from a desolation, by compassionate star-faring aliens. There’s a strong theme of pacifism in here; the captain of the ship, an otherwise sensible and upright fellow, has pacifist leanings. The “Exodans” – the humans who have escaped from the dying earth, have learned lessons in that escape, ostensibly, about peace and war, about the importance of co-operation versus competition. These are, perhaps, important lessons. It is an interesting position to take, but it is a feminine position. It’s not a position I wholly share. I think aggression, chutzpah, arrogance, risk-taking, curiosity, and immense energy are some of the fundamental qualities that have brought humankind out of the dust. The meek will inherit the earth, as R. A Heinlein’s character Lazarus Long notes, “but only in plots about six foot by three foot”.

In the end, if the author is weak on engineering and logic, she is strong on relationship, on friendship, and on compassion. I’m happy for faster-than-light travel to be illogical or inadequately explained, in exchange for a series of sketches of broken people moving toward healing, towards a kind of very secular redemption. It works, as far as it goes. As a man I’m afraid my suspension of disbelief did fail in places. Humans are nasty as well as good, and the balance is a little too much in favour of the good here. No-one is that nice in reality. But well worthwhile and thought-provoking reading.

Earning the Rockies, by Robert D. Kaplan

The first Kaplan I read was “To the ends of the earth”, an account of travels through dusty, broken lands. I became a fan of his writing on the instant. This book is about the United States: dusty in places certainly, broken in places perhaps, but vital, he argues, to the future of our world.

It is a book full of quotable truism. “Comparison”, he opines, “is painful and not always polite, but it is at the root of all serious analysis”. This is something we learned in geography in school. Our teacher laboured to teach us the importance of the word “whereas”. Kaplan’s father, a truck driver, gifted Kaplan with what he calls a “cruel objectivity”. This work is neither cruel nor objective. Not a hymn of praise to America, more a reasoned defence of the American imperial project, which he argues, has grown out of the physical geography of the American continent. He seeks to “rediscover what is vital, yet forgotten, what is commonplace, yet overlooked.”

He roots the book in the influential work of an almost forgotten man of American letters, Bernard DeVoto. DeVoto’s understanding of the American West was like Devils Tower, Wyoming, towering over the surrounding plain of knowledge. Kaplan’s book is one whose moral and philosophical heart is west of St Louis, at the one hundredth meridian. It is a book that acknowledges the continuing power and importance of the frontier in American thought. Kaplan has to deal robustly with that depressingly popular school of thought that the settlement and conquest of the American West was just a terrible crime. Those grave injustices can’t be swept aside, of course. They are dealt with very well in such seminal works as Dee Brown’s “Bury my heart at Wounded Knee”, which should be required reading for all students of the American West.

I rather like his travelogue style of writing. His observations of places like Wheeler, West Virginia, and Portsmouth, Ohio, are fascinating commentary about the human condition as well as a discussion of the American psyche. Rather like Neil Sheehan in “A bright shining lie” (reviewed here), he draws attention to the Scots-Irish or “redneck” heritage, noting that “America as a democracy has a highly developed warrior ethos”. Americans are a fighting people, he suggests. Civil society in the USA has a far closer and more respectful relationship with the military than you’ll find elsewhere in the world.

Of the politeness found throughout the United States, particularly perhaps in the South and in the Mid-west, he suggests that it is just politeness – it goes no further than that. He writes that we must not confuse politeness with hospitality, such as that found in the Middle East or in Africa. Hospitality helps social stability, he writes, but politeness helps efficiency and production.

His road journey is completed at San Diego when he reaches the Pacific and sees the gathered grey hulls of the U.S Navy. At that point he does get a little misty-eyed, like Natalie Merchant’s youthful soldier in her song “Gun shy”:

So now does your heart pitter pat with a patriotic song
When you see the stripes of Old Glory waving?

The final third of the book seems quite distinct from the rest, and was not quite as readable – although still interesting. The mordant pen of an observant and humane travel journalist is gone. It is replaced by that of the geopolitical analyst with a distinct, refreshing, and quite understandable bias for, and love of, the United States of America. Modern left-wing liberal culture, particularly in western Europe and in the UK, does tend to be dismissive of the USA.

He does mis-step on occasion and say some odd things. To describe Israel, the Baltic states and Taiwan as “robust, venerable and iconic democracies” (as he does on page 136 of my copy) is pushing it a bit, to say the least! But mostly he is right on the money, as when he writes that the European Union, and globalisation itself, would be impossible to contemplate without the “overarching fact of American power“. That’s the plain truth, if an unpalatable truth to some. The bill for defence of western Europe, from Pearl Harbor down to the present day, has been paid for by American taxpayers and in American lives. Because the Americans have 300 warships, the Royal Navy can get away with a few dozen. European nations are able to spend as little as 1-2% of their GDP on defence, primarily because the Americans spend twice that much.

A note on sustainability: he notes in one place that California and the great cities of the American southwest, use the water of the Colorado River in a wasteful, unsustainable way. In another place, he notes that most European countries maintain an unsustainable level of social welfare, broadly made possible because of American power. It’s the juxtaposition here that interests me. These two unsustainable practices may be connected or linked in some way. There’s no maybe about the fact that both will change.

What would America and the world look like today had the continent been settled eastwards from what is now California, rather than westward from the water-rich Thirteen Colonies in the east? Or if the USA had never existed at all? Or if the United States ceased to exist? Not many writers have dared to even think about that last. The continuance and survival of the USA is not inevitable.

The travelogue in the first part of the book is deftly observed and humane. The second part, his analysis of world order as seen from San Diego, is more partisan and more complex to read and understand. In places I don’t agree with his analysis and in places it is arguably disingenuous.

Kaplan’s central premise is that the world needs the USA, and that the USA is an exceptional country with exceptional, even imperial, responsibilities on the world stage. He argues that the reasons for that derive from the physical geography of the American continent – there is no other like it. Similar conclusions are drawn, on a more general basis, by Tim Marshall in his excellent book “Prisoners of Geography”.

This is a book about America, for Americans, and America-phobes need not pick it up. Their view, in the end, is not sought. “Finding the Rockies” was very interesting, very readable, clear sighted and instructive – one of the best books I’ve read this year.

A bright shining lie, by Neil Sheehan

I cannot now recall who recommended this book to me. It might have been John Le Carre, but I think it more likely that it was Max Hastings, in his comprehensive account of the Vietnam War, which I brought after a visit to Ho Chi Minh City in 2019. The copy I bought – from the online Oxfam bookshop was as large and heavy a paperback book as ever I have had, and really could only be read when placed flat on a table or on your lap – too heavy to hold.

It is a biography of an American named John Paul Vann, and an account of the Vietnam War. It is lovely writing, a Pulitzer Prize winner, and very much in the journalistic style of Robert Kaplan, in that there is fascinating detail in the cracks and interstices of his account. One learns much, by literally, reading between the lines. At the start there is page after page just describing the pall-bearers at Vann’s funeral – but these pages contain timeless nuggets of news, gems of information about American political history.

The man who gave John Vann’s eulogy noted of him, “I’ve never known a more unsparingly critical and more uncompromisingly honest man”. Inspiring? We shall see. I personally am neither unsparingly critical nor uncompromisingly honest. Earlier, Sheehan writes of Vann that “he had no physical fear”. Being fearless is not the same as being courageous; being fearless, at least, is no virtue.

Sheehan writes – unsparingly critical perhaps – of the American military machine of those years, that after the victory of WWII, they had forgotten how to lose. And in the forgetting of that important lesson, they assured for themselves, defeat in Vietnam – to say nothing of Korea. The fool says, “I don’t do defeat” or “I don’t do failure”. But it is that very attitude that assures and guarantees failure. True success is found in that person who budgets for, bargains for, allows for and plans and prepares for failure. It’s not the failure that matters – it’s how you recover from it. “I get knocked down – but I get up again…”

In the section on “antecedents to the man” Sheehan provides as good a description of the American South as ever you will read. And in that description, he is describing a lost Britain – or more honestly, a lost Ireland and Scotland. Those who Britain rejected, after the Clearances, in the eighteenth century, went to the southern part of what is now the United States. The weak died on the way, or soon after they got there. The strong remained – and they had a wild streak, the wildness of Britain before the Victorians tamed it. Reading works like J.D Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” and Hampton Sides’ “Blood and Thunder” (about the American west, but describing the life of Davy Crockett) one can see this wildness, this untamed violence, not far beneath the surface.

We read about John Vann’s sexual indiscretions and moral darkness (and the root causes of that in the behaviours of his mother) in respect of his relationship to his wife, his children and to marriage. He kept two mistresses and was a serial philanderer. Yet, he was considered moral by his superiors, and by their – and his – lights, he was a moral man. It is interesting to read about the complete separation of Vann’s moral probity (or at least, ostensible moral probity) in the professional, military, space, from the squalor and degradation of his private life. Looking after your troops properly, dealing honestly and truthfully with your superiors – yet failing to look after your own family and lying to your spouse. It is the nuance, the ambiguity, that i find so fascinating. Particularly in this age, when so often, our leading men and women need to be perfect and seen to be perfect. Nuance and ambiguity seem to be not allowed. This is a pity, for no-one is perfect. All have sinned and fall short of the high standards required of us by the great God in heaven – never mind the double standards imposed by the newspapers and social media.

A remarkable and worthwhile read, though I did skip quite a lot of detail – some of it was tedious, some of it was fascinating. From the Battle of Ap Bac in 1963, through to the catastrophe that was the Tet Offensive and onto the Nixon years, it’s fair to repeat what the blurb says – if you read one book about Vietnam, make it this one. You’ll learn much else besides – about America, France and Vietnam; about WWII and about Korea; about human frailty and sin, and the indomitability of the human spirit. I read these big improving tomes because they inspire and encourage me – and we finish with a tip from a character called Weyand, who was a patron of John Paul Vann. How does a person get on? “Move up, move out, to the cutting edge”.

Some notes on the late Tom Bingham’s “The Rule of Law”

I bought this book some years ago in a bookshop near Westminster station, after an oddly encouraging and uplifting visit to Parliament, to have a tour round and tea with an MP (who will have to remain nameless). We won the tour and tea at a raffle at a village fete in the midlands.

“All persons and authorities within the state, whether public or private, should be bound by, and entitled to the benefit of, laws publicly made, taking effect (in general) in the future and publicly administered in the courts”

This, he argues, is the core principle of the rule of law – that is, that everyone is bound by and subject to, the same law, and everyone is entitled to the benefit of that same law. 

The law should be publicly known – that is, it can’t be secret or hidden.  You might need to be a lawyer to know it at all well – but the basic principles and the full text of the law should be freely available to all people at all times. The state and it’s agents can’t just make up crimes, offences or law as they go along. Nor can the law be kept secret: it should be known what is, and what is not, against the law.

The law should be dispensed or administered in courts of law that are public rather than in private. Trials should be held in public and reporters and interested parties should be allowed to witness what is happening. There should be no secret trials – though this principle can be challenged in certain circumstances such as national security, or when dealing with copyright matters, or in divorce courts.

The law applies in general to the future – what this means is, you can’t be prosecuted for something that was not against the law at the time of the alleged offence. The state can’t make something in the past retroactively against the law: you can’t – or oughtn’t –  criminalize the past. To me this is important, because doing just that – criminalizing or demonizing past behaviour –  has become a common practice in our society today.

Tom Bingham quotes someone called Dicey:

  • No person is punishable or can be lawfully made to suffer in body or goods unless there is a breach of the law established in the ordinary courts.

That is, everyone should be free from arbitrary or random treatment of any kind whatsoever, unless they have broken a law which was already known about at the time of the offence. You can’t just be imprisoned, or your property confiscated, because you offended someone powerful. That of course may well happen to you even here in the UK – but because there is generally respect for the rule of law, you would be able to bring the case to court. There are plenty of big important countries where doing that would be a waste of time or worse.

A side-effect of this principle is that you can’t be treated in an arbitrary way by anyone – much less the state or it’s representatives. If someone assaults you in the street, or someone refuses to trade with you because of your ethnicity, or someone breaks your windows or harasses your family – you can take them to court, because all these things are forbidden in law that is known and respected now.  

  • No-one is above the law – the law is above all persons and all authorities.

The same law applies to the Queen, the Prime Minister, captains of industry, the richest and most powerful in the land, as applies to those who sleep rough in the streets. This is another vital principle – that no-one is above the law. It can be quite hard to understand. King Charles I asked his Lord Chancellor to do something, and that man declined to do what the King asked, as it was against the law. The King replied that HE, as King, was above the law. The Lord Chancellor replied, “But I, Sire, am not”.  But if no-one is above the law, who then can make law?

  • The constitution springs from precedent and case law, not vice-versa.

This is subtle; it means to me that the law springs UPWARDS from the people, not DOWNWARD from the state. (This may be a peculiarity of English Common Law not applicable in Europe.) Who then, makes the law? An agreed body of elected people, representing the wider population, have the authority to make the law – a parliament. The authority to make law ultimately springs from the people who voted them in. This body is called the legislature. The law is administered, interpreted and applied by judges and magistrates – the judiciary. They do not enforce or execute the law – this is done by the executive. In the UK though the Monarch in theory has executive power, in practice the Executive is the Prime Minister and the Cabinet – informally known in the media as “the government”.

Habeus Corpus: This Latin expression means “have a body” and a “writ of habeus corpus” means a legal requirement to demonstrate in court whether you are or not holding any given person or persons, as a prisoner. The principle effectively prevents imprisonment without trial, and renders it very difficult for the state to cause people to just “disappear” overnight with no explanation (as in Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Russia and diverse other locations.)

Bingham argues that a writ of habeus corpus can be issued for someone arguably illegally committed to a mental hospital – “sectioned” as we say today. I argue that this is important, for having someone confined as insane or a danger to themselves and others under the Mental Health Act is an obvious way to imprison someone without trial.

Reasonableness

A side-effect of the rule of law is that where the law is concerned, there can be no black and white, nor absolute right and wrong. Two people can be take opposite views and yet both be right.  There can be no sacred cows. Bingham writes:

  • Two reasonable persons can perfectly reasonably come to opposite conclusions on the same set of facts without forfeiting their title to be regarded as reasonable
  • Not every reasonable exercise of judgement is right
  • Not every mistaken exercise of judgement is unreasonable

An “inescapable consequence”, he  goes on, “of living in a state governed by the rule of law” is that judges can and will challenge the (legality of) decisions made by the government and (sometimes) they will be successful in those challenges. He notes “there are countries where all judicial decisions find favour with the powers that be” but none of us would wish to live in such places.

Terrorism

He quotes Cicero: SALUS POPULI SUPREMA EST LEX which is translated into English as, “the security of the people is the supreme law”.  He notes John Selden (1584-1654) who said “there is no thing in the world more abused than this [Cicero’s] sentence.” As Bingham himself notes, it was Benjamin Franklin who said “he who would put security before liberty deserves neither”.

I take Selden’s view and Franklin’s view: Cicero was quite wrong. If you’ve done nothing wrong, you have MUCH to fear. Be afraid: be very afraid.

Bingham writes “we cannot commend our society to others by departing from the fundamental standards which make it worthy of recommendation”.

As with much of these Bingham quotes, it is well to say it out loud several times, keep it on your tongue and savour the taste and sound. He says that by relaxing or removing those hard-won civil liberties, we become no better than the terrorists themselves. We cannot and ought not “fight fire with fire”.

All of this seems particularly apposite at present when in the last nine months, in defence of the NHS, we have tossed aside civil liberties that date back centuries. I could wish that in the next 10-15 years we will see the Coronavirus Act 2020 repealed, but I don’t see it as likely. Far from it: I foresee a time when negative public criticism of the restrictions on our civil liberties – designed as they are with the best of intentions – may be treated as public order offences.

The year of the lockdown – in books

I’ve read more books in 2020 than I have read for many years. You might think that NOT commuting means I have less time for reading, but the data clearly do not bear that out. I have finished 57 books during the year. Three of them I started during 2019. As of Boxing Day I am still reading five or six books and will not finish any of them in the year.

Of the 57, 16 were re-reads. 43 books I read in physical copy, the remainder on a Kindle.

Emily St John Mandel’s account of a young actress caught up in an apocalyptic plague – “Station Eleven” – was my first of the year, followed quickly by Adrian Tchaikovsky’s “Dogs of War”, which was about a world in which bio-engineered war-animals rebel against their corporate masters. The “collected intelligence” of a swarm of artificial bees was of particular interest in that story. Later in the year I read another high-concept novel about war, Adam Robert’s “New Model Army”, which is unusual and shocking in having descriptions of front-line warfare ravaging modern urban Britain – fighter aircraft strafing Guildford town centre, kind of thing. Some very thought-provoking ideas about direct on-line democracy there, too. Continuing the sci-fi line, I read Stephen Baxter’s “The Massacre of mankind”, being a sequel to H.G Well’s “War of the worlds”. My daughter recommended Margaret Attwood’s very readable apocalypse “Oryx and Crake”, which I perhaps oughtn’t have read during the fevered atmosphere of the first lockdown. I finally got around to reading Chinese author’s Cixin Liu’s “The three body problem”, which I didn’t find as exciting or as innovative as his earlier short stories. Of course I’m aware of the controversy relating to his views on who controls parts of central Asia, which we’ve become aware of since filming of this book was proposed. I was challenged – having had it on the shelf for years – by Ursula Le Guin’s “The left hand of darkness”. I read three Frank Herbert novels. “The dragon in the sea”, “Hellstroms Hive”, and “Dune”. A master story-teller, he. Apart from re-reading a few Heinleins (and Vernor Vinge’s startling “A fire upon the deep”), the final great sci-fi novel of the year was Robert Forward’s startling “Dragons Egg”, featuring a race of people living on a neutron star, and what happens when they encounter humankind.
Big hitters for me this year in the non-fiction space were Austin Kleon (“Steal like an artist” and “Show your work”). Kleon has written a series of short, entertaining books that encourage creativity. I’ve read American journalist Robert Kaplan. I started with his “To the ends of the earth” and “Eastwards to Tartary” and his very instructive book about the middle east, “The Arabists”. Staying in the middle east, I finally sourced a copy of Michael Elkins’ “Forged in fury”, about the creation of the State of Israel. Not a work I’d recommend to anti-zionists. I re-read Tristam Hunt on the English Civil War, I read Beevor on the Ardennes offensive. I read the engaging Andrew Marr on the history of Britain, and finished John Keay’s long and complex account of the history of China. I got through Yuval Noah Harari’s “21 questions for the 21st century” though it took me nearly a full year, and I read an inspiring account of Captain Cook’s life by my namesake Richard Hough. Anthony Beevor tells us, in his account of the Battle of the Bulge, about a certain Sergeant Salinger, who managed to write short stories whilst in the winter trenches in the Ardennes – this was before his big break with “The Catcher in the Rye”.
I re-read Tom Bingham on the Rule of Law, re-read HMS Ulysses, and read a life of Rasputin by Alex de Jonge. Remaining on the Russian side, I read P.S Nazaroff’s “Hunted through central Asia”, and Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The life of a dog”, an anti-soviet allegory whose writing – though not it’s publication – pre-dates “Animal Farm” by 20 years. The Soviets forbade it’s publication; this short and little known work did not appear until the 1960’s.
I’m still reading the official TED guide to public speaking as the year ends. I’m reading Gustav Herling’s GULAG memoir “A world apart”, Sashi Tharoor’s somewhat bitter and twisted “Inglorious empire”, and Muhammed Asaf’s “The road to Mecca”.
Reading should be a pleasure; it should be a distraction. It should entertain and it should inform. One might fall back on old favourites in times of stress. One might also, when feeling strong, test oneself with harder, more challenging material. I leave you with John Martin’s “A raid over Berlin”, an uplifting account of an RAF bomber command flyer’s time as a POW in WWII. Happy new year!

“The divided country” by Michael Anthony

I was given a copy of this book by a family friend. She may have bought her copy direct from the author, for we read in the endpapers that Michael Anthony lives at Melbourne in Derbyshire, only miles from where our friends live in the big-sky country of the Trent Valley. The cover of the paperback has a drawing of a little African girl drawing the title of the book on the wall.

I had no expectations other than the recommendation of my friend, which was enough. I was not disappointed. The author covers a tremendous amount of ground. The action moves from Ulster during the Troubles, to South Africa in the time of apartheid, and on through to the modern era. We move from seeing things from the viewpoint of the Catholic Irish in Ulster, to seeing the position of native black and coloured Africans in the rural Transvaal, during the time of apartheid. SPOILER ALERT: Feel free to stop here if you don’t want the plot revealing!

The author is a former special forces soldier and will have seen and done much. Experience always illuminates good writing. We start, following a rough Belfast childhood, with the IRA’s guerilla war in the cold, damp darkness of Ulster in the 1970’s. Very “Harry’s Game” – there’s even a Catholic priest working toward the spiritual and practical support of the IRA. On that note, this would make an excellent film.

The action moves from the Emerald Isle to the Transvaal – a place not unlike Ulster in that it was fast stuck in the deep-rooted hatred, bigotry and intransigence of a Protestant overlordship. The story continues, skipping lightly over years, until suddenly, something dramatic happens. Then, there is a moment when you hear the sound of “lock and load” and you think the book is going to descend into traditional “lone wolf military hero takes on the baddies and wins” territory – as have a hundred lesser books and films.

But it never happens! Interestingly, the author puts some words into the mouth of a senior IRA officer, describing our hero thus: “he does not operate within the parameters of predictability”. I paused at that point to stare into space: do I act within “the parameters of predictability”? Am I predictable? Of course I am. For me and for most of us, it is no weakness to be predictable. But for the professional guerilla soldier, being predictable is death. For such people, to be unpredictable is an essential strength. Michael Anthony’s novel has this strength. It take unpredictable turns. The author does not always “operate within the parameters of predictability”.

From a moment of wild violence, to a court room drama – our hero ends up in prison. And you think, he’ll be out soon. But again, this is not a predictable book. It does not become a prison memoir, and he is not released. In the turn of a page, nineteen years have passed and our hero is a white-haired old man whose life has been spent in hard labour. I’ve not even mentioned the little girl on the cover of the book yet! She plays a central role. I will say this and no more: I mentioned “Harry’s Game” earlier; in Gerald Seymour novels, the hero always dies before the end…

The book covers the indomitability of the human spirit and shows human courage unto death. We see the deep-rooted nastiness and hatred that can arise when things turn sour for generations without end, even for centuries – as in Ireland, as in South Africa, as in the Balkans and elsewhere. Whilst this was an excellent and captivating read, in the end, I thought the author kept redemption and reconciliation under tight control. I think redemption needs letting loose – it cannot be kept in or caged.