Category Archives: book reviews

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.

21 lessons for the 21st century, by Yuval Noah Harari

If you can’t afford to waste time, you will never find the truth”. When you think about that, it’s either nonsense, or it’s the deepest profundity. Yuval Noah Harari’s book contains a handful of similar memorable quotes – another is “the problem with evil is that in real life, it is not necessarily ugly. It can look very beautiful”.

Overall I found this work rather negative, much harder to read than his excellent “Sapiens”, reviewed here. Today we rightly go to some length not to notice or to judge the characteristics, background or ethnicity of people. It really ought not matter, and of course it doesn’t. Now, with some writers you have little idea who they are, or what their politics are. The author is invisible; the story, the writing, is all. John le Carre is one such. But Yuval Noah Harari is not. The reality is that when reading him, it is impossible to ignore the fact that he is gay, very secular, and a Jewish left-leaning university professor. He seems to have a very low view of the human race, which may be partly understandable, but it is not a view I share. I have no time for that depressing but popular school of thought that sees humankind as a Bad Thing.

An important point he does make is that this is not a timeless age, these are very changeable times. He notes that a man in 1020 A.D would have been able to predict, with a reasonable degree of confidence, that things in 1060 A.D would be pretty much the same. That would be true through much of human history perhaps, until the 20th century. Then the pace of change really does start to pick up. Exactly why that was, would be the subject of more debate still.

Harari argues that today, in 2020, NO-ONE really knows what 2060 will look like – and this was written before COVID-19. How much less now? I can’t even see what the state of civil society will be in six months from now, much less forty years. In 1920 you might have dared to predict 1960 with some degree of success. But he suggests that to dare to predict 2060 would be pointless. (Actually, there are a number of writers and philosophers who do make just such predictions, though Yuval Noah Harari, as someone working in this area of thought, seems oddly unfamiliar with their work.)

He argues that the central skill that our young people need today, is not (only) the traditional “three R’s” or even STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths), but the ability to deal with change. And that our schools – us in effect, we elders – have failed to deliver this. Resilience – the ability to adapt, to be open to change. To recreate oneself, to re-engineer who and what we are. As someone once said to me, “the jobs of the future are the jobs of the imagination”. How do we recreate ourselves, not once, but again and again and again over the course of a career? How do we earn a crust in a world we can’t even imagine now?

But for all Harari noting that the pace of change may be accelerating, it is worth recalling that developing technology rendered it ever thus. There are not many fletchers, thatchers, archers, or ostlers around today. When trains were invented in the mid-19th century, coachmen, coach drivers, owners of coaching inns and so forth fought long and hard to restrict or prevent the spread of railways. They knew – they knew! Their jobs were going to disappear. But new jobs emerged. New trades became necessary. Harari argues that new jobs will cease to emerge as technology develops and as machine learning and AI improves, but again, I don’t share that view.

Dealing with constant change is just one of a number of important themes and ideas emerging in Yuval Noah Harari’s book covering some of the great philosophical questions of our time. Overall, his analysis of dramatic and unknowable change for the next 40 years, is somewhat despondent and a little overstated. Rather like George Orwell does in “1984“, he underestimates the power of cynicism, inertia and idleness, to say nothing of snobbishness, pride and vested interest. It’s a bit like when classic mid-20th century science-fiction predicted that we’d be on Mars by the end of the century. It never happened – not because we couldn’t, but because we didn’t. We couldn’t be bothered, or because other matters (the Vietnam War for example) were more important.

But one premise does keep me thinking: what if you were ruined tomorrow? What if – as Harari wonders – everything changes and your livelihood completely disappears? What are the steps to reinventing yourself? How do we deal with ultimate change? We’re all going to die eventually, so ultimate change really ought not, at least for Christians, be too hard to deal with. But the post-Christian mind, or the un-Christian mind, has less training to deal with that, perhaps. How do you deal with constant change in life? Not once but again and again and again?

The Massacre of Mankind, by Stephen Baxter

Stephen Baxter, one of the most prominent sci-fi writers around today, has written a sequel to H. G Wells’ “The War of the Worlds“. I confess I never read Wells’ original, but like most people of my generation I’m familiar with the story. Jeff Wayne’s concept album has played it’s part in that familiarity of course; “Forever Autumn” remains one of my favourite songs. A couple of years ago my wife and I went to see the stage show live in London – a real experience. It’s a story that touches every human heart.

I’m no real fan of H.G Wells, whilst acknowledging him as the outstanding futurist of his generation and one of the grandfathers, as it were, of the science fiction genre as we understand it today. I did read one of his short stories – written in Edwardian England more than a decade before the Great War and the invention of the tank – in which he describes great metal wheeled “landships”. It’s pleasing to read Baxter gives them more than a passing nod in this sequel.

The story, written in the same laconic narrative style as H.G Wells, recounts a second invastion of Earth by the Martians, in 1920. It’s readable and a page-turner, but I will reveal no more about it other than recommending it highly.

But here is where I enthuse about Stephen Baxter’s work, for alternative history is his real forte. He manages to challenge the idea that what happened in our past was immutable and things could only have been that way. The Martians invaded in 1907: they were foiled in their attempt by deadly pathogens. But as a direct consequence England and the British Empire never joined what his characters refer to as the “Schlieffen War” in 1914. In his history, there was no Great War, there was no Russian Revolution. The Bolsheviks were all defeated and tossed into prison.

The theme of “what might have been?” has entertained thinkers for all of history. What if Alexander the Great had lived? What if he had not recovered from a dreadful war injury he received when he was younger still? What if Henry VII’s oldest son had not died as a youth, leaving the throne open for his brother who became Henry VIII? What if the Nazis had successfully invaded?

Stephen Baxter in a number of his works, covers the the space-age era in this kind of detail. In “Voyage” he argues that humankind might have gone on from the Moon to visit Mars in the 1980’s – we could have; we just didn’t, for whatever reason. In “Titan” he sees an expedition to circum-Saturn space using Apollo-era technology, whilst Earth collapses into war, recrimination and apocalypse. In his short story “Sheena 5“, genetically-modified intelligent squid are sent to the asteroids to explore on behalf of humankind, because sending people is too expensive. They were betrayed: they were supposed to be unable to breed, but they could, and they did. Aggressive, intelligent, and capable of hard thinking, they return to Earth decades later as a space-faring species, to find humankind again mired in war, recrimination and apocalypse.

In “War birds” we see an alternative twentieth century far worse than our own, far worse than the worst nightmares of those who look down their nose at Donald Trump. The title refers to NASA’s space shuttles, which are seen and used almost entirely as fighter/bombers. We see Nixon rehabilitated; Tehran destroyed by an American atom bomb. A nuclear rocket blows up, rather like Challenger did in 1986, smearing radioactive material across the Florida sky. Reagan’s response is to start a nuclear war and destroy the Soviet Union. It gets worse…Stephen Baxter is willing to imagine the unimaginable in a quite relaxed and very English understated way. In his novel “Moonseed” (which does end on a positive note, though not before the Earth has been destroyed with billions dead) someone notes (after Arthur’s Seat becomes an active volcano) that “Edinburgh is Olympus Mons now”.

Reflections on a decade of reading

To early morning prayers on the first Saturday of this new month, this year, this new decade: outside, squirrels and magpies go about their winter business. As the day dawns, the exquisite light cheapens and becomes more banal, less delicate.

And now a look back at some of my reading over the last ten years. I have – at least according to my own records – read 491 books. Of those books, 349 I read for the first time: the rest, were books I have read before, sometimes once, sometimes more often. Tolkien’s “The Silmarillion” and C.S Lewis’ “Mere Christianity” top the re-read list, followed closely by Tolkien’s “The Children of Hurin” and R.A Heinlein’s “The cat who walks through walls” and “Friday”. Did I re-read any non-fiction? Why yes! I read twice these last ten years, Sebastian Junger’s “War” and Jon E. Lewis’s “The Making of the American West“. Also, Anthony Beevor’s account of the Spanish Civil War, and N.A.M Roger’s history of the Royal Navy, “The Safeguard of the Sea“.

I read two books called “On writing” – one – most excellent work – by Stephen King; the other, by George Orwell. I’ve read every one of Alan Furst’s dozen delicately written European spy novels set generally at the outbreak of World War II.

Alex Scarrow’s “Last light” was an apocalypse based around the end of electricity – how thin is the barrier that keeps the rule of law in place? How quickly could a person – or a society – somehow stumble through that barrier, and find themselves trampled to death by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse coming at a fast gallop in the other direction? In Scarrow’s book – about 48 hours. The Prime Minister fumbles a vital question in a press conference on a Monday morning. Wednesday afternoon, a policeman is shot dead at a motorway roadblock – and so the die-back begins. It was reminiscent of Nevil Shute’s propaganda piece “What happened to the Corbetts“, which was a fictional account written in the late 1930’s, of the bombing and destruction of the city of Southampton by an unknown enemy.

I had a re-read of Antony Beever’s masterful account of the Spanish Civil War – a book I enjoy reading, as he deals very lightly with the grey areas, the nuance and complexity of that conflict. I read a paper copy of the collected short stories of Arthur C. Clarke – always a pleasure to re-read the story of the Master, or the story of Grant and McNeil marooned on their freighter between Earth and Venus – with only enough air for one. I read and re-read Bill Bryson’s book “Mother tongue” about our great language. I was particularly impressed with “The man who went into the west“, being a biography of that sublime and yet oddly disquieting English poet, R.S Thomas. A clergyman who hid from his parishioners, a most peculiar and perhaps unlovable man, and yet, what poetry:

 The priest would come
and pull on the hoarse bell nobody
heard, and enter that place
of darkness, sour with the mould
of the years. And the spider would run
from the chalice, and the wine lie
there for a time, cold and unwanted
by all but he, while the candles
guttered as the wind picked
at the roof.

I read a number of China Mieville novels, and was most impressed by “Embassytown“, a story where the human ambassadors to a race of beings who speak with two mouths, have to be telepathic identical twins trained from birth. A very strange story – but fundamentally, all about language and communication. I read a couple of the memoirs of the late Clive James – what a writer, what a great guy. There are and have been few role models in my life, but God knows I’d regard him as one. Inspiring to me because he came from nothing. In “Unreliable memoirs” he writes of small boys throwing stones at an old lady, and compares it with Kristallnacht, noting that “the difference between mischief and murder is no greater than the law allows“.

I went through a Dennis Wheatley phase, once his material became available on Kindle, and relived some of the stories I first read in my early twenties. Evan Connell’s “Son of the morning star” was a biography of General Custer – and hence, of the development of the American west. That is a particular historical interest of mine. F.A Hayek wrote “The Road to serfdom” – a destruction of the errors of socialism – and perhaps the most influential book I’ve read this last ten years. Though oddly, it did not stand up (or has not yet done so) to re-reading.

I went through a Bond period and re-read much of Fleming’s original 007 stories. Great, spare writing. I also read a good few of Iain Banks space-opera novels, and also his de facto autobiography called “Raw Spirit” which I found encouraging. I read some of Keith Laumer’s science fiction stories, and Lord Moran’s excellent “The anatomy of courage” which every single one of us ought read. I read the journal of the Lewis and Clark expedition- that was long and tedious in places, but rivetting and exciting in others. Neal Stephenson’s work was a blessing to me – particularly “Cryptonomicon” and “The System of the World“. Nevil Shute’s “In the wet” I’d also highly recommend. I’ve mentioned elsewhere the radical and strange voting system he proposes in that story.

Who else is there to mention? Kipling, perhaps. I went through a Kipling phase after one of my daughters spent time at Simla, and later, lived for a year or so near New Delhi. “Plain tales from the hills” demonstrates that astute observer of the human condition in his best form. “Kim” I would put on the list of books everyone ought to read. Two interesting things about Kipling’s “Kim”: 1) it is available extensively in translation throughout India – but it is not available in Urdu and hence not available at all in Pakistan – where much of the story is set. I leave the reader to draw his or her own conclusions about that. 2) It is not so much the startng point of the Scout movement – that would be B.P’s “Scouting for Boys” – as the grandfather or underlying source material for Scouting. You want to understand what Scouting is about? Read “Kim”.

We may add the former astronaut Stephen Baxter. Whilst no crackerjack conspiracy theorist, he suggests that NASA exists not to faciliate human space flight but to prevent it – we could have gone to Mars in the 1980’s. I recommend “Flood” and “Ark” and especially “Moonseed” with a character whose immortal line is – after Arthur’s Seat becomes once again an active volcano – “Edinburgh is Olympus Mons now”. Also the learned Doctor Theodore Dalrymple. Never less than a pleasure – such works as “The politics and culture of decline” and “The Wilder shores of Marx”.

Tom Bingham wrote “The rule of law”, a helpful book on a vital concept. It is a book I bought and read after an oddly encouraging visit to Parliament which my wife and I won in a raffle. Up for re-reading in these interesting times, is that one. The leather-faced explorer the late Wilfred Thesiger was one of a series of Arabist explorers of the last 150 years. He was effectively guilty of opening the flood gates and allowing the desecration by oil companies of the Rubal Khali or Empty Quarter of Arabia. But he writes wonderfully of the (now doubtless long-vanished) desert Bedu. Read his autobiography “My life and travels“. Read “Arabian Sands“.

Much that perhaps ought to be included has been omitted. But I just read a book called “Steal like an artist” by Austin Kleon, and he notes that the future, in the present world where we are swamped by easily available data and information, belongs to those who know what to leave out. It was perhaps ever thus…and on that note, I bid you good day.

Nick Hough <nick@houghlife.com>Fri, 3 Jan, 18:46

Arctic

I watched an Icelandic film, called “Arctic”. There were two characters, and possibly twenty words spoken in the film. It was a remarkable movie about how humans deal with adversity and challenge. Not only the physical adversity and challenge associated with being lost in the Arctic and having to survive, but also the deeper issues of emotional adversity and life challenges.

How ARE we prepared? Our hero has a coat, hat and gloves – equipment for survival in harsh conditions. This is what the safety professionals call PPE – personal protective equipment. PPE guards and protects your physical health. Is our emotional and mental health likewise well guarded?

Our hero has things to hand – matches, a knife, a torch perhaps – as do I when I go camping. But how easily are those things to hand? Can you lay hands on your torch or your knife or your matches when you need them? In the dark, for example? That’s the difference between a good and bad experience of camping – but in the situation our hero finds himself, it could mean the difference between life or death.

Our hero has mental and emotional strength. He is not above weakness, and we see it in the film, but it is this inner strength that carries him through in the end, not his winter clothing or his tools, or even his physical stamina or his knowledge, though that all helps.

This was as moving a short film as ever I’ve watched, though I did watch it during a long-haul flight when I was very tired. It is a film about prevailing in adversity; it is a film about digging deep into ourselves, about persistence, about never, ever, ever giving up. As a piece of film-making, I found it refreshingly understated – much of the pain and much of the pushing through the pain, was implicit and off-camera.

It is of necessity a human story. One reads in the introduction to Nicholas Monserrat’s classic war novel “The Cruel Sea” – another deeply human story – that the sea itself is a character in the tale. Not here: the Arctic is merely the setting for this human story. The other day I read one of those opinion pieces in a left-wing newspaper where the author argues that the human race is a two legged plague” on our planet, and that the human race is inherently A Bad Thing. Expressing myself without use of coarse language, it is a view I profoundly disagree with. It is the most ungodly view imaginable.

This film shows the opposite, that individual people, men and women, do matter, they are of worth, they are all potentially capable of true greatness. One man carries a gravely injured woman hundreds of miles to save her life, at grave risk to his own life. To do so he has to dig deep into himself, into a part of himself he perhaps did not even know existed. He has to confront his own selfishness, and conquer it. I was especially moved by two scenes; one, where he defends himself and the injured woman from a hungry polar bear, and then breaks down in tears of stress and exhaustion once the bear has been scared off. The other, is when he thinks the woman has died, or is about to die, and he composes himself to abandon her – but she was not dead, and he was mortified with himself that he ever thought to abandon her.

People matter: individuals matter. We are immensely capable, very important and inherently able to do great, noble things. Evil does exist, of course, and we must confront it in ourselves – we find it most of all, I think, in selfishness, in the belief in the primacy of MY NEEDS. At one level, it is quite biologically natural to put OUR NEEDS ahead of everyone else’s needs, MY needs ahead of yours. But in a healthy childhood the individual is shown how to subvert selfishness and self-centredness, and put others first. It keeps popping up of course, all our lives through. In some folk, more strongly than others. And we have to keep it under control.

Here in “Arctic” our hero has to keep control of the urge to give up…in all cases, we can control that urge. We can persist, and achieve remarkable, incredible greatness. But do we? We can.

Collapse, by Jared Diamond

“The past”, writes Jared Diamond, “offers us a rich database from which we can learn, in order that we may keep on succeeding”. This is powerful truth and it is one of the reasons why I keep a journal. R.A Heinlein writes of people uninterested in their historical background that “a generation without a past is a generation without a future“. George Orwell tells us, more bluntly, that “he who controls the past, controls the future“. All of this points to the fact that we can and should learn from the past, as individuals and collectively, as a society or a culture. Jared Diamond’s book bring us lessons on how societies and cultures collapsed, or survived, and draws some broad conclusions for our time.

Starting with a perhaps counter-intuitive look at the potential problems faced by modern Montana, he goes on to look at a number of cultures the collapses of which we may all be aware of, and examines in some detail why those societies failed. The Anazazi Indians of the American southwest; the Maya. The island settlements in the Pacific – Easter Island. The Norse settlements in Greenland and on the North American continent.

He then moves on from consideration of those collapsed ancient societies, to consider some modern cultures which may or may not be facing collapse: Why are some in great shape, why are some in crisis? Papua New Guinea. Modern Australia. Haiti and the Dominican Republic – two widely differing cultures on the same island. If there is any conclusion to be drawn here, it is that there is no sound-bite solution, no quick or straightforward answer, but instead, case-by-case complexity and nuance.

The Anazazi in Chaco Canyon grew crops in multiple locations and then distributed it, ostensibly (but probably not) equally. In describing this he artlessly demolishes command economics or the economics of state-sponsored redistribution of wealth. The risk of redistribution is that “it required a complex political and social system to integrate activities between different sites”, and “lots of people ended up starving to death when that complex system collapsed”. This is an inherent problem with command economics: when a planned economy goes wrong, thousands or even millions of people end up starving to death – as in Bengal in 1770 in the days of the East India Company, as under Stalin in the Ukraine in the 1930’s, and as in Ethiopia in the 1980’s. When a market economy goes wrong, there may be widespread malnutrition, but there won’t be mass starvation. It’d be interesting to see how many people actually starved during the Great Depression – but you may be sure it won’t be many.

Moving onto some success stories, he spends some time discussing an area he does know something about, the Highlands of Papua New Guinea. Here we have a culture that has embraced innovation, a culture that has found it necessary to abandon conservatism or resistance to change. Conservatism though, he argues, comes from being on the edge, facing a survival situation. We dare not change things, if changing things pushes us over the edge to destruction. And yet, the adaptable highland tribal people of PNG have done just that – embraced change, done things differently, and not only survived but have prospered. In contrast he notes that the Norse settlements in Greenland ultimately failed (though climate change was also a causal factor) because of conservatism – what worked in Norway, should work in Greenland: but it didn’t. The differences were subtle and complex, and were difficult to understand or comprehend given the knowledge and technology of the time.

Is “progress” sustainable at all? He notes that Inuit hunter-gatherers lasted 500 years in Greenland. But aboriginal hunter-gatherers in Australia lasted 40,000 years. What’s the difference? Is “progress” itself a bad thing? Me personally, I don’t think it is. I don’t think a culture that doesn’t change or grow is healthy at all. That’s as true for hunter-gatherers as it was for the more advanced Roman state which remained at broadly the same technical level for a thousand years. Underlying all of this discussion is the importance of engaged, enthusiastic and committed citizens, insightful and courageous leaders, and a willingness to look at the bigger picture and think about the long term.

Diamond draws some thought-provoking conclusions, some of which are truism, to a degree; others, less obvious and more challenging to me. He suggests that we need to challenge our deeply held core beliefs – some of them are compatible with the survival of society; some of them, have to be given up in order to survive. As true for individuals as for cultures.

More challenging though, “in all politically complex human societies in which people encounter other individuals with whom they have no ties of family or clan relationship, government regulation has arisen precisely because it was found to be necessary for the enforcement of moral principles”. This is about what he calls the “tragedy of the commons” – people in general do not behave in a way that prospers the common good, but in a way that prospers them as individuals. But there is always a “commons”; we need the common good. Therefore – though it break my heart to write it – I have to acknowledge that it IS the job of the State to make men moral.

In the end, Diamond is hopeful. He argues that (in our market economy) it is the PUBLIC – the customers – and not the State, and not businesses or corporations, who have the ultimate power to change the behaviour of businesses and ensure we move forward in a sustainable way.

Lexicon, by Max Barry

I saw this title on a shelf in a second-hand bookshop in Aberdeen, and I was drawn to it on the instant. “Words are weapons” went the blurb. Never a truer word even if written by Marketing. “Sticks and stones can break my bones…words can kill“, it went on. Words can create; they can build people up and raise hope. Words can destroy; they can ruin people and remove all hope. This is true metaphorically; it is a fundamental fact and a powerful truth in the spiritual and emotional world. In this book “Lexicon” it is also literally and actually true.

I testify to the power of words. A teacher once said of me, “That Hough’s an oaf. A clever oaf, but an oaf nevertheless”. That was said between teachers in the staff room; some years later, when I was an adult, another teacher told me the story. It were fair to say I wish he hadn’t bothered. Those words, spoken about me nearly forty years ago, could define me to this day – almost like a curse. They could be my epitaph.

I have since met the Lord Jesus Christ, and He has spoken a better word over me. “You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you” – John 15:3. Jesus is, as the writer to the Hebrews notes, the minister of sprinkled blood that “speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Hebrews 12:24). We know of spells, curses and blessings, and of strange unbreakable injunctions – the “geas”. In Dennis Wheatley’s stories we read that eleven words of eleven syllables, spoken with due preparation, will bring forth a dread demon. In C. S Lewis’s “The Magician’s Nephew” we read of the Deplorable Word, a word uttered by the witch Jadis on the planet Charn. A word so terrible, that merely speaking it, destroys all life. In Frank Herbert’s “Dune” we read of sound being used as a terrible weapon – the “weirding way”.

And the list of spells, words of power, curses and dark magic goes on through all literature. There are manifold examples of words used in power, dreadful negative power, destructive power. Max Barry has written such a tale here. The story is of pursuit of a “bareword”, a word so potentially destructive, that every time in history one has appeared, it has wrought catastrophic, end-of-days levels of destruction and chaos. In his story, a shadowy department in Washington DC is peopled by agents who are able to persuade people to their will by words alone. Sometimes through everyday persuasion, other times, though what are in effect, spells: the use of strange and sonorous words of power in lost and unknown languages, to compel people to obey.

The idea that words have power is fascinating and compelling. The pen IS mightier than the sword. The tongue, as St James writes, can set the whole course of our life on fire. The idea that words can create and destroy goes back to creation. The world itself, even light itself, was spoken into being by God. God said Fiat Lux let there be light. And this point is crucial: …and there was light.

Today, more than ever, we need to use words to bring light, to do good, to build up and encourage others. Today words are used to great destructive effect; social media acts as an echo chamber for empty words, and as a magnifier of whipped up hatred and divisiveness. It is vital that our words – for as we have seen, words can be uniquely powerful – are for good and not for ill. They should build up and not tear down. They should encourage and not discourage. If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. It’s actually worse than that: we can actually cause immense damage through careless words, negative words, thoughtless words. We should write and speak in love. Let our words be powerful, let them be few, and let them be for good.