Books, TV and Films, June 2020


6 June

After seeing a tweet from the great Steven Pinker a few days ago, I decided to reread Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace by Hans J Morgenthau.

It was a book that I used a lot at university. My own copy of it means a great deal to me. As I was constantly borrowing it from the library, I asked my parents to buy me a copy one Christmas way back when. This was long before Amazon and online shopping, of course. My parents would have been reluctant to go to a major city to visit an academic/university bookshop that might stock a copy, and so they ended up ordering a copy from a local bookshop. It arrived weeks later, beautifully bound but costing something like £25 — an awful lot of money for a book back then.

It is a classic of political science, not a work of history. Though half of my degree was in international relations, I consider myself a historian, certainly by inclination: I had originally chosen to do a joint degree with international relations because I was worried (with good reason at the time) that the history syllabuses would stop in or around 1945.

I quickly realised that I was far more comfortable with the contemporary history elements of the international relations course than with the analysis of contemporary systems and structures. Most of the books on the reading lists were American (like this one), and the pseudo-scientific, theoretical approach used to get on my nerves (I suppose that’s why it’s called political science … doh!). Sometimes it seems like they are just stating the obvious. Take this quote:

When we say that the United States is at present one of the two most powerful nations on earth, what we are actually saying is that if we compare the power of the United States with the power of all other nations … we find that the United States is more powerful than all others save one.

Hans J Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace

Well, blow me down.

13 June

I finished the Morgenthau book today. It was originally published in the late-1940s (as the Cold War was kicking off). It was groundbreaking and highly influential in its day, not just on university campuses but in political and diplomatic circles. It went through several editions over the years. My copy (the sixth — and final? — edition) was published after the author’s death, with updating done by a professional colleague.

Leaving aside discussion of the ‘realist’ perspective that Morgenthau adopts, two thoughts about the book come to mind.

It is a long book, No doubt the process of preparing a new edition requires a great deal of time and effort, but the ‘joins’ between the original and newer sections of the text are glaringly obvious. Some of this sixth edition, published in the mid-1980s, seems to be the original, unaltered text written in the 40s. Then there is the briefest of discussions of Nato and the ‘European Communities’, which clearly dates from the 50s. In the section on the United Nations, meanwhile, statistical information stops abruptly at 1965 — presumably when that portion of the book was last updated. Other parts of the book, on the other hand, talk in some detail about Reagan and developments in the 1980s. I’m not sure that I noticed it at the time but now it strikes me as rather unsatisfactory.

The main takeaway, however, is how much the international scene has changed. Even my sixth edition was published in a ‘bipolar’ world that assumed a global struggle for supremacy between the United States and the Soviet Union. China was an impoverished minor actor on the world stage, taking its first faltering steps on the road to industrialisation. The environment is mentioned occasionally — though nothing as specific as climate change — and, according to the index, there is just a single reference in the whole book to terrorism.

15 June

As a longtime history teacher, I am listening in some despair to the ‘statues’ debate that has erupted following the death of George Floyd in the USA and to the discussion that surrounds it about the teaching of history. I was troubled by two comments from activists quoted in the Guardian in the last few days:

That history [of the nineteenth-century imperialist Cecil Rhodes] will never be erased, it’s a lived reality for people in southern Africa, but it needs to be contextualised, it needs to be accurately represented and not glorified in the way it is today.

Decolonising the curriculum means providing an accurate portrayal of history …

I instinctively find phrases like “accurately represented” and “accurate portrayal” alarming. What worries me is that, other than those on the right with their own small-‘c’ conservative agenda, nobody seems to be picking this up. Before commenting further, I want to go back over a few things in my head, so I am rereading In Defence of History by Richard J Evans.

18 June

I am not quite sure why I thought the Evans book would be particularly helpful. It was written in 1997, primarily in response to the rise of postmodernism and the threat to what most people would think of as history. My main takeaway from the book is what utter drivel many of the so-called ‘intellectual historians’ and philosophers of history — people who focus on the theory and writing of history, not on the events of history itself — write. They do themselves no favours. Time and again they express their ideas in overblown, pretentious language, — or, as they might say, ‘at an appropriate level of abstraction’. It is as if they believe that writing in a way that is deliberately abstruse and impenetrable somehow proves how profound and worthy it is.

I suppose the book reinforces my conviction that there is no single, universally agreed, true story of the past ‘out there’ waiting to be told in the correct way. Talk of “an accurate portrayal of history” is therefore less than helpful. Accurate — according to whom? Who gets to decide?

23 June

I headed to my local Waterstones again today. If anybody is reading this years in the future, a visit to a bookshop is indeed noteworthy because all the shops have been shut for months due to the coronavirus pandemic and are only slowly, tentatively, reopening their doors.

I don’t have the second volume of Richard Evans’ history of Nazi Germany (I am working my way through the three volumes), so I thought I would go into the shop to buy it and show my support. Surprisingly, neither their large-ish Preston branch nor the smaller Wigan branch stocked any of the three volumes. Anyway, I ordered it and it arrived within two working days. Well done, them.

Mooching around the ‘buy one get one half-price’ tables, I picked up the latest Ian McEwan novel, Machines Like Us, and a book I have been itching to buy for some time: How to Be Right by James O’Brien. It feels like the perfect time to get a bit of clear thinking from O’Brien. The online clips from his radio phone-in show really are essential listening.

In a media world dominated by right-wing newspapers, loudmouth columnists and shock-jocks, O’Brien’s is a rare voice of the moderate centre-left. He is hated by those on the opposing side in our ever more visceral culture wars. Of course I am biased but he really does strike me as a voice of reason, with a refreshing willingness (in the book at least) on things like wearing a burqa in public to say: ‘I’m not sure’.

30 June

Well, the James O’Brien book was a quick read — just two days — though it is one I will doubtless dip into again and again. The paperback edition includes a short afterword and is another reminder of why I very rarely buy ‘current affairs’ books. It was written in April 2019 and is about Brexit. But the political landscape is changing so quickly that, already, it feels completely out of date. Much journalistic commentary — however insightful the writer — is inevitably contingent and quotidian, quickly superseded by events. Tomorrow’s chip paper. That’s why, though very tempted, I have resisted buying any of the books published about the Trump presidency.

That’s also why I no longer buy biographies of serving prime ministers or other new faces suddenly propelled into the limelight. I think the first one I ever bought was Hugo Young’s biography of Thatcher, One of Us, written I think in 1989. She was defenestrated a year later. Such books — another one I bought in the mid-’80s is Mrs Thatcher’s Revolution, written by another Guardian columnist of the time, Peter Jenkins (late husband of Polly Toynbee) — are best read now as historical texts, offering an insight into the mindset of the times in which they were written, rather than as reliable, in-depth accounts of what happened.

And finally this month, a quick mention of two films that I have just caught up with: Philomena and On Chesil Beach. Both absolutely delightful. Both unbearably sad. Both wonderfully acted. More thoughts on these and other things next month.

Books, TV and Films, May 2020


Wednesday 6 May

I finished two things today: Homeland on Channel 4 and the Rudolf Hess biography, Hess: The Führer’s Disciple.

I stayed up late to watch the final episodes of the final series of Homeland. Eight series in total — and what fantastic television it has been. It began way back in 2011, ten years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks with an ‘is he/isn’t he a terrorist’ plotline featuring Damian Lewis. Like all long-running dramas, it has suffered from a bit of a credibility problem as time passes and yet another apocalyptic crisis confronts the central characters. But it is well worth suspending disbelief and letting yourself be swept along.

As well as offering gripping drama and jaw-dropping twists and turns, Homeland has had a brilliant writing team with an uncanny ability to deliver a succession of stories foreshadowing the next ‘big thing’ in global politics — not just foreign and domestic terrorism, but also Russian interference, governmental overreach and abuse of power, and (in series eight) a fatally flawed US president.

Peter’s Padfield’s Hess biography, meanwhile, is easily the least enjoyable book I have read for some time, though it did improve as it went along. I wrote last month that it was a bad biography badly written. I was perhaps being a little unkind about the writing — but not about the biography itself. This is a bad book.

It doesn’t help that the biographical subject, Rudolf Hess, completely lacked personality and profile. That was his nature: Hitler’s yes-man, always in the shadows and utterly obedient. The first third of the book, covering the years to 1941, is frankly a waste of time. Hess was theoretically the Deputy Führer but either there is nothing to write about (which clearly isn’t the case for someone in such a prominent role) or Padfield has been unwilling to do the necessary spadework.

There are just two chapters covering the years 1933 to 1939. The first, called The Night of the Long Knives, barely mentions Hess at all. The second, The Deputy, is just 14 pages, much of which is actually about antisemitism.

It would surely have been better to have marketed the book around what it is actually about — Hess’s flight to England. On this, however, it is full of speculation, guesswork and conjecture. Padfield, presumably writing in 1990–91, frequently refers to government files closed until 2017 to excuse the lack of definitive answers to key questions about Hess’s actions. My edition includes a 30-page Afterword relating to these files (which he informs us were all opened — unexpectedly, one assumes — in 1991 and 1992). It opens with the words: “The expectations raised by this torrent of releases were … not met: there were no revelations …”. Ah, shame.

10 May

Time for something a little less intense: another Poirot, Peril at End House. I wrote about the very first Poirot novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, last year. End House is the fifth in the series, published in 1932, 12 years after Styles.

One of the points I made about the Styles book is that Poirot didn’t yet strike me as the fully drawn character we know from TV and film. End House offers us a more recognisable Poirot, not least his enormous self-regard. I also commented on Agatha Christie’s use of language and the underlying attitudes and beliefs it reveals, particularly regarding race and class. In End House, a wealthy friend is described by the character Nick as follows: “He’s a Jew, of course, but a frightfully decent one.” Consider, too, this from Poirot himself on a suspect: the reaction of Ellen [a housekeeper] “might be due to natural pleasurable excitement of her class over deaths.”

I did smile at this comment from Poirot: “When you have eliminated other possibilities, you turn to the one that is left and say — since the other is not — this must be so …”. Now why does that sound familiar?

12 May

The central claim of the Padfield book is that Hitler knew in advance about (and therefore approved of) Hess’s flight to Britain in 1941, a highly controversial claim. The first thing I do when reading dodgy claims is to see what acknowledged experts have to say. Step forward Richard J Evans, professor of modern history at Oxford. The Third Reich at War states unequivocally that Hitler knew nothing of the flight in advance. Now who to believe?

Evans has published a trilogy on the Third Reich, about 2000 pages in total. It will be quite an undertaking but this seems like a good moment to tackle the complete trilogy, so I have started the first book, The Coming of the Third Reich, the one that I read when it came out in 2003.

16 May

Not sure why but I got the urge to watch Salem’s Lot, borrowed from a friend (it’s perhaps because I was reminiscing not too long ago about horror books from childhood days). I read a number of the early Stephen King books as a teenager — The Dead Zone, Carrie, The Shining. Salem’s Lot was one of them too, but it’s the TV dramatisation that really left a lasting impression.

I originally watched it when it was shown on the BBC, presumably some time around 1980, soon after it was made. It stars David Soul, who was a huge name at the time as one half of Starsky and Hutch. This is the full three-hour version (in two parts). I later saw that an abridged film-length version had been released on video. Utter vandalism! Avoid!

Watching it now, the special effects, fashions and so on obviously date it, but it’s a classic of its type and includes some really memorable moments: Danny Gluck scratching at the window; the first appearance of ‘Mr Barlow’ in the family kitchen. It is directed by Tobe Hooper, a Spielberg of the horror world who made his name with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

What’s striking is that so many of the actors are familiar, even if you can’t necessarily name them. Apart from Soul, there’s Bonnie Bedelia (Mrs McClane in the first two Die Hard films), Elisha Cook, yet again playing an unhinged-looking outsider and people like Geoffrey Lewis and George Dzunzda, who have been in just about everything. Just google the names.

Best of all is a memorable performance from James Mason as the vampire’s henchman: “You’ll enjoy Mr Barlow and he’ll enjoy you.” Great stuff.

Back, holy man! Back, shaman! Back, priest!

22 May

I’m making good progress with The Coming of the Third Reich. It’s a pleasure to read a historian like Richard Evans after the Padfield ‘biography’. To be clear, I have no problem with revisionist writers like Padfield, provided that what they write is well argued and supported by evidence. Evans was an expert witness in the famous Lipstadt trial of David Irving (the DD Guttenplan book The Holocaust on Trial is excellent, as is the recent film Denial with Timothy Spall as Irving).

Evans is opinionated, frank (read his obituary of Norman Stone) but also authoritative. Unlike with Padfield, the reader feels in safe hands, confident that the text distils knowledge and understanding built up over a lifetime of study — even if paragraph one of chapter one does state that fifty years elapsed between the creation of the German Empire in 1871 and Hitler’s accession to power in the early 1930s. Yikes!

Evans also writes exceptionally well, notwithstanding the occasional questionable phrase such as “rebarbatively abstruse” (I can’t actually remember who or what he said that about). More puzzling to someone who has read a considerable amount about the Nazis is his decision to render German titles into English: Hitler is referred to as ‘the Leader’ not ‘the Führer’; his book is ‘My Struggle’ not ‘Mein Kampf’ and newspapers have names like ‘The Stormer’ (instead of ‘Der Stürmer’) and the ‘Racial Observer’ (‘Völkischer Beobachter’). Odd.

27 May

Before writing about two horror films I wanted to re-read the original novels, both by Dennis Wheatley. I am in the middle of To the Devil a Daughter (hyphen sometimes included and sometimes not), having read The Devil Rides Out a few months ago. More to follow on the books and films, then. Here I will comment briefly on the writing.

To the Devil a Daughter was written in 1953, much later than The Devil Rides Out (which was published in the mid-30s). Wheatley seems to have toned down the ridiculous overuse of capital letters (though ‘Top Secret’ made me laugh), but that apart nothing much has changed across the decades. As with Agatha Christie, Wheatley’s general vocabulary and choice of idioms — “mumsie”, “no better than he should be”, “in the family way” — speaks volumes about his attitudes and assumptions: his worldview is privileged, hierarchical, male-dominated, white, Christian and at the reactionary end of the conservative spectrum.

Wheatley is clearly no fan of the postwar social-democratic settlement, seeing it as a naked attack on his world of privilege and entitlement. Rationing, for example, represents the overweening power of the state. Consider, too, this observation about taxation. They are voiced by a ‘baddie’, but there is every reason to suppose that the author is in sympathy with the line of argument:

Since … the Government has become only another name for the People, it really amounts to the idle and stupid stealing from those who work hard and show initiative.

He is vehemently anticommunist, of course: the Soviet Union (and communism in general) is the devil’s handiwork, a means by which Satan visits chaos and misrule on the world.

Books, TV and Films, April 2020

6 April

John Barton’s A History of the Bible: The Book and Its faith is proving an absolute treat. My interest in religion and belief systems has developed over the last decade or so, triggered — does this count as irony? — by reading Richard Dawkins. Anyway, last year I read the huge but hugely enjoyable A History of Christianity by Diarmaid MacCulloch. Professor Barton is another distinguished Oxford academic.

First of all, it was a pleasure to read — not just well written but also accessible. The contrast with the Michael Foot biography of HG Wells is telling. The Foot book required a great deal of background knowledge to make sense of it; Barton, on the other hand, goes out of his way to make his text accessible to the general reader.

Apart from its readability, this book is exactly what I look for when reading about something I don’t really know much about. Key words and concepts are clearly explained, even basics such as the meaning of ‘testament’, as in Old Testament. Important facts, ideas and arguments are covered succinctly, and revisited and reinforced.

Controversies and areas of disagreement (of which there are many) are set out before the reader. Barton does not shy away from telling us what he thinks, which I like. I turn the page confident that his conclusions and judgements are judiciously reached, and that I am being led along a tricky and complicated path by an expert guide.

9 April

Having planned in December to write something about the general election and the future of the Labour Party, I find that I have now written two blogposts about politics and still not really addressed what Labour ought to do next. Having read Mark Bevir’s book in January on the early years of British socialism and the ideas that were influential at the time when the Labour Party was founded, I have decided to re-read The Labour Party’s Political Thought: A History by Geoffrey Foote.

I bought the book at university, probably in 1986. I remember laughing about the front cover, which features photos of three men — Ernie Bevin, Tom Mann and Neil Kinnock. The photo of Kinnock, who was a new-ish Labour leader when the book was published, is twice the size of the other two, even though Kinnock only features in the final few pages.

I suppose there is an argument that it emphasises the connection between history and politics, but I can’t help thinking that’s it’s really a sales ploy by publishers to give history books an of-the-moment appeal.

13 April

It’s the Easter bank holiday weekend. Having just read John Barton’s history of the Bible, I am certainly noticing the many media references to biblical events, chiefly (of course) the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. It’s striking how often these events are written about as if they were established historical facts.

In the absence of live sport on TV, I am working through a backlog of unwatched films and dramas. I have just re-watched Elizabeth with Cate Blanchett as the eponymous queen, Dickie Attenborough as a well-intentioned but deeply conservative William Cecil, Christopher Eccleston stuck on fast-forward as a sinister Duke of Norfolk and a brilliant Geoffrey Rush as Francis Walsingham. I have just started watching Mary Queen of Scots, which stars the wonderful Saiarse Ronan (definitely had to look up that spelling) and I have the Elizabeth follow-up, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, still to come.

I mentioned Mary Queen of Scots and The Favourite (which I have also just watched) in a blogpost called Fake History and Film. It is quite astonishing the liberties taken with the historical record in all of these films. Elizabeth, in particular, seems to have cut up a chronology of historical events into individual pieces and randomly reassembled them — either that or just made things up (assuming that she wasn’t really in a long-term sexual relationship with Dudley). Quite astonishing.

A leading article in today’s Guardian talks of revisiting ideas from Labour’s past, mentioning ethical socialism, William Morris and RH Tawney. Just what I have been doing!

18 April

Just finished the Foote book on the Labour Party’s political thought. Two immediate thoughts.

Books on politics age very quickly. That’s why I don’t often buy them. This is mainly a history of political ideas, but the concluding chapter (written in 1985) deals with then-current political thinking. It has not aged well. Events and developments are all viewed through a Marxist lens, and so his critical analysis just seems woefully out of date from the perspective of 2020.

Like many on the hard left, the author can’t quite bring himself to believe that the majority of the British people don’t subscribe to his idea of socialism: “[o]nly by risking a short-term unpopularity through industrial action could the long-term reward of electoral office be obtained,” he writes, in the context of union militancy at around the time of the miners’ strike of 1984. Yuk.

The second thing to note — something that would have completely passed me by until a few years ago — is the poor quality of the proofreading and copy-editing. To be fair, it’s presumably a fact of life for many small, cash-strapped publishers. There are a number of noticeable typsetting errors. More annoyingly, there seems to be absolutely no consistency with regard to capital letters. Style guides vary, but at least be consistent!

Sentences like this one are not uncommon:

The Social Contract … was finally destroyed by the discontent of the union rank and file in the winter of discontent in 1978-9.

Out-and-out spelling mistakes — as opposed to typographical errors — are (as far as I am aware) relatively unusual in books. They get the benefit of the doubt with ‘legitimatist’ — it should probably be ‘legitimist’ — but I was astonished to see Bevan’s famous quote about Gaitskell written as “a dessicated [sic] calculating machine”.

22 April

I finished binge-watching War of the Worlds last night — the 2020 Anglo-French production shown on the Fox cable channel: eight episodes (each of about 45 minutes’ duration) over three days. Set in the present, it’s nothing like the book, I don’t think, except for the basic fact that it’s about an alien invasion. It was bleak and properly dystopian. I was enjoying the slow unfurling of the story and the time taken on character development until I realised by about episode 6 that it wasn’t unfurling anything like quickly enough to reach a conclusion. Sure enough, the final episode sets us up for a second series. How disappointing.

Time for another Sebastian Faulks novel — The Girl at the Lion d’Or. It was published in 1989, so is very early (his first, possibly). I read it ages ago but, to be honest, I can remember hardly anything about it. The character names vaguely ring a bell, as do some seemingly incidental details. I note that a reviewer quoted on the back cover recommends it to fans of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, another novel that I read a very long time ago (possibly in the mid-’80s) and can remember very little about.

27 April

I finished The Girl at the Lion d’Or yesterday. It’s only 250 pages and didn’t take long; I had no trouble reading more than my 10% minimum daily target.

It’s the first of three Faulks novels set in France in the first half of the twentieth century — this one takes place in the ’30s, the final decade of the Third Republic. Just like On Green Dolphin Street, which I read last month, the novel is beautifully crafted: it’s a love story, but so much more as well. Every character, every event (however seemingly incidental), every exchange, every detail helps paint a picture of France in the years leading up to its collapse and national humiliation in May and June 1940.

The terrible impact of the 1914-18 war, particularly the psychological scarring left on the wartime generation, looms large. People are politically rudderless, losing faith in democracy and receptive to extremist solutions; the Jews are convenient scapegoats for the nation’s ills. Hartmann’s old family home is perhaps a metaphor for the Third Republic itself, the cracks in its structure gradually growing larger and its foundations undermined by the troubled builders’ shoddy workmanship.

Wonderful. Alas, my current read, a biography of the Nazi Rudolf Hess — Hess: The Fuhrer’s Disciple by Peter Padfield — most certainly is not. I don’t like giving up on books unless they are impenetrable or really, really boring. This is just a bad biography badly written, so I will plough on, especially as there is much I don’t know about Hess after his flight (as in ‘plane journey’, not ‘escape’) to Britain in 1941.

Books, TV and Films, March 2020

3 March

Back to one of my favourite novelists — Sebastian Faulks. Birdsong is probably his best-known book, but my favourite is Human Traces, a brilliant mix of invention, imaginative reconstruction and exposition of developments in psychiatry and psychoanalysis.

I have reached for On Green Dolphin Street, not a novel I have read before. In fact, when I opened the book at page one, I knew nothing about it whatsoever, except that it was set in the United States some time after the Second World War.

It’s a great feeling, reading from one page to the next with no idea about who the characters are, how the story will develop or even what the book is actually about. Early indications are that it involves a clever, fast-tracked diplomat whose career has stalled and whose problems are slowly but surely grinding him down, and his relationship with his devoted wife, who appears to have a gaping emotional hole in her life.

One sentence has baffled me, and I can’t work out whether it’s an error. Mary, the wife, is conflicted:

She could not establish an order of preference between the two; as well ask her to distinguish between a tree and a cloud: no crude ranking could reflect the reality of either.

8 March

I’m two-thirds of the way through On Green Dolphin Street. It’s another Faulks treat. He is a master at conjuring up a sense of time and place — be it the trenches of the Western Front, Occupied France during the Second World War or, in this case, New York at the end of the ’50s and beginning of the ’60s. Faulks is also a wonderful crafter of stories, adding layer upon layer as he goes and weaving threads of context and background that combine to form a convincing picture of the characters and their lives.

All the signature Faulks traits are here: the background research is thorough, time and place compellingly drawn and the attention to detail remarkable. It’s a whirlwind tour of delis and diners, apartment blocks and shops, bars and nightclubs — all to a backdrop of jazz (On Green Dolphin Street is apparently a Miles Davis classic).

9 March

Wonderful. Just wonderful.

On Green Dolphin Street is much more than just a conventional love story. It explores the different types of loving relationships — the unconditional love between parent and child; that life-changing first love; the love that grows and develops between lifelong partners; passionate and erotically charged love; and love between two soul mates.

The busy, bustling, labryinthine streets of New York are wonderfully drawn. Faulks is perhaps using the city as a metaphor — both its bewildering complexity and its dazzling possibilities. The Second World War is also a lingering presence, casting its long shadow years after the war itself is formally at an end.

After briefly worrying that the ending was turning into a rerun of the final episode of Friends, I found the conclusion satisfactorily unsatisfactory. It was, after all, an impossible dilemma that Mary faced.

A must-read.

15 March

I am in the middle of recording yet another version of The War of the Worlds. I have always loved the original Gene Barry film from the ’50s, didn’t really like the Tom Cruise version and avoided the 2019 three-part BBC mini-series. This is a multi-parter and stars Gabriel Byrne. As with all multi-part dramas, I will watch it when all the episodes have been shown.

That reminded me that I haven’t actually read anything by HG Wells, except for the rather intimidating opening page of The Time Machine — at least, it seemed intimidating when I was a teenager. In the meantime, I have reached for H.G.: The History of Mr Wells by former Labour leader Michael Foot.

I have a lot of time for Foot. Whatever one thinks of his politics, he is a great writer and his two-volume biography of Nye Bevan was a big part of my formative years. The Wells book is something else — more a literary biography, perhaps even literary criticism, rather than a conventional biography. I am fairly certain, for example, that at no point does the book say what H.G. actually stands for. Another extraordinary feature of the book is the length of some of the extracts from Wells’ writing — an extract from The Passionate Friends, for example, stretches for nine pages.

19 March

I finished the HG Wells biography today. Two immediate thoughts.

Firstly, how little I knew about him. I was aware that he had written a number of sci-fi classics (I could probably have named about five) and, of course, I knew that he was a socialist. Little did I know of the prodigious output that he kept up throughout his life. Nor did I know anything of his rather colourful life, particularly his many sexual relationships.

Secondly, it has not been a particularly easy read, taking a great deal of knowledge for granted. I was on solid ground with the history and politics stuff, but the many, many literary references were often new to me and not always easy to follow. Making a regular appearance throughout the book were Wells’ literary hero Jonathan Swift — someone I definitely need to learn more about — and, to a lesser extent, other literary figures such as Lawrence Sterne, William Hazlitt, George Bernard Shaw, James Joyce and (of course) George Orwell.

In conclusion, this is certainly not a book for someone looking for an introduction to Wells’ work.

28 March

After struggling through the Wells biography, I was looking for something to really carry me away. The Righteous Men by Sam Bourne did not disappoint. It’s a long-ish read —560 pages or so. I more or less kept to my 10% daily target except for the end. A sure sign of a gripping read, I finished off the last 100 or so pages in a day.

Sam Bourne is the nom de plume of Jonathan Freedland, my favourite Guardian columnist. I read and enjoyed The Last Testament a few months ago. He has a new book out — To Kill a Man — but I like to be systematic so I went for this one, his debut novel, published in 2006.

At least one of the ‘puffs’ — the endorsement quotes on the front and/or back cover — compares him to Dan Brown. Having only seen the films, I can’t comment on Brown’s writing, but he will do well to match Bourne/Freedland, whose books are pacy, gripping and superbly crafted. In The Righteous Men, a mass of what the reader assumes to be minor detail, there to add colour or to flesh out a character’s backstory, is liberally sprinkled throughout the opening pages, only to take on huge significance as the plot unfolds.

Both of the Sam Bourne books I have so far read have had religion at the heart of the plot. Each has been exceptionally well-researched, delving into ancient beliefs and traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Each one raises interesting and important questions about the nature of religious faith and about religious fanaticism. I will say no more!

The Righteous Men has certainly whetted my appetite for my next read, John Barton’s highly acclaimed A History of the Bible.

Books, TV and Films, February 2020

3 February 2020

I finished A Divided Spy by Thomas Kell the other day. That means I managed to read four books in January, putting me comfortably ahead of my target. A nice balance, too, of fiction and non-fiction, academic and non-academic, challenging and ‘lighter’ reads etc.

Reading Peter Ackroyd’s Dominion brought me back to thinking about the development of socialism and the origins of the Labour Party. I am re-reading The Making of British Socialism by Mark Bevir, a book I first read perhaps five years ago, possibly more.

It’s a tough book to get into, not really one for the general reader. It’s essentially a collection of academic papers pulled together into some kind of coherent whole. It is essentially a history of ideas but, as I say, written for an academic audience, with its talk of “retrieving alternative socialist pasts” and “narrating those pasts”. I gulped when I saw the sub-heading ‘Theory’, not really my thing when it comes to history. Welcome to “aggregate concepts”, “naive empiricism”, “reification” and so on.

8 February 2020

The Making of British Socialism is proving an interesting challenge. It’s extremely repetitive in places — almost certainly due to its origins as a series of academic papers — which was annoying at first until I realised that the repetition was actually helping with the reinforcement of key ideas and aiding understanding.

The first couple of chapters were tough-going, with lots of terms and concepts unexplained. To take just one example, it assumed an understanding of the distinctions between popular radicalism, liberal radicalism and Tory radicalism.

As the book goes on, however, each of the key political ideas and concepts is being carefully unpicked, explained and analysed. One or two things still left me none the wiser — the discussion of German idealism, for example (nothing new there) — but most of the chapters have been rewarding and enlightening.

On a separate note, the BBC’s latest Agatha Christie adaptation — The Pale Horse (based on her novel of 1961) — starts tomorrow. A must-watch.

13 February 2020

I finally finished the origins of British socialism book — a couple of days behind schedule. It’s been a busy few days, and I have found it difficult to keep to my 10% target.

It was definitely worth re-reading. At a time when politics is in a mess and the future direction of the Labour Party — even its very survival — up in the air, it was a useful exercise going back to the core ideas and values that animated progressives in the left’s early days. I particularly enjoyed reading about the ideas of the ethical socialists, who eschewed a class-based analysis, and economics and politics more generally, in favour of an approach based on spiritual renewal. Call it naive and impossible to achieve, but it’s a compelling vision of what the ideal society might be like.

One of the cable film channels showed To the Devil a Daughter last Friday, a 1976 film based on a Dennis Wheatley novel. It’s a somewhat controversial film for a number of reasons, and Wheatley disowned it. It’s rarely shown, certainly far less often than The Devil Rides Out, which I count as one of my all-time favourite films. I was meaning to re-read one of these two books before writing a blogpost on the subject, so this has sealed it. My next read.

16 February 2020

Blimey. I thought Agatha Christie’s writing was dated, but Wheatley takes it to another level. The Devil Rides Out was first published in 1934. Like Christie’s Poirot, we’re mixing exclusively with the rich and privileged. Much of the characters’ wealth is obviously inherited, though Simon and Rex’s considerable incomes appear to be from finance and banking. Simon, we are told early on, is no longer living at his club. Max, meanwhile, is the Duke de Richleau’s ‘man’ — in other words, his butler. Indeed, butlers, maids, chauffeurs, cooks and nannies are an intrinsic part of this world. Globetrotting, too, is the norm: Rex, for example, has happened to notice a beautiful stranger called Tanith, who becomes central to the plot, in Budapest, New York and Biarritz in recent times.

The biggest shock is the use of language and the underlying attitudes it reveals. The meaning of words changes over time, of course, but it surely isn’t just poor writing craft that makes the use of the word ‘queer’ five times in the opening five pages seem alarming.

In Wheatley’s descriptions of the sinister guests at Simon’s party (it turns out they’re all satanists), the juxtaposition of each individual’s racial background with a list of their unpleasant characteristics is unfortunate to say the very least — the “grave-faced Chinaman … whose slit eyes betrayed a cold, merciless nature”; “a red-faced Teuton, who suffered the deformity of a hare lip”; a “fat, oily-looking Babu”.

To modern sensibilities, the most extraordinarily inappropriate exchange, however, goes as follows:

[Duke]: … he reminded me in a most unpleasant way of the Bogey Man with whom I used to be threatened in my infancy

[Rex]: Why, is he a black?

I kid you not.

20 February 2020

I read about 80 pages of The Devil Rides Out last night — staying up late, as is becoming a habit with exciting novels, to finish the story.

The book improves considerably as it goes on. The well-known pentacle scene — when Mocata sends various manifestations of evil to claim back Simon — is excellently written and genuinely unsettling even for the modern reader. Up to this point, the later film roughly follows the book, but the final third is completely reimagined — presumably on cost grounds.

The Eatons’ daughter has been kidnapped by the satanists and is to be offered as a sacrifice in a black mass. In the film, the location of the mass is close by and easily accessible. In the book, on the other hand, our heroes are forced to traverse the continent of Europe. Handily, Richard Eaton has an aeroplane parked at the bottom of the garden. Cue breathless flights to Paris and then to an inhospitable mountain range in Greece for the final showdown between good and evil.

21 February 2020

With the sad news of the death of philosopher Sir Roger Scruton, it felt right to pick out something of his as my next read. I have always found Scruton a curiously compelling figure. My politics are very different from his, though he is far from being an unthinking flag-waver for the right wing of the Conservative Party. His conservatism is grounded in his philosophical beliefs; unlike many on the right nowadays, he takes the ‘conserve’ of conservatism literally. He also writes beautifully.

25 February 2020

I actually plumped for a book about Sir Roger Scruton rather than one written by him, though quotes from his many writings are used extensively. Roger Scruton: The Philosopher on Dover Beach by Mark Dooley analyses Scruton’s core ideas. Dooley is a fully paid-up Scrutonian, so there’s little in the way of critical engagement. Rather, the book serves as a useful introduction. It’s rather a slight book — 180 pages, including extensive end-notes — and hardly the “major study” promised on the dust jacket.

Organised into five chapters, it takes the reader through Scruton’s thinking on matters such as aesthetics, sexuality, religion and culture. Dooley returns repeatedly to notions of the Lebenswelt (our ‘lived experience’), the sacred, home and community, and belonging. He pays particular attention to where Scruton’s views clash with other thinkers, especially those on the left.

A useful read, helping me understand Scruton’s thinking better — and one that makes me want to search out more of Scruton’s output.

By the way, there was an excellent obituary of the historian Zara Steiner in The Guardian the other day, written by Sir Richard Evans. I first came across her when my professor recommended her Britain and the Origins of the First World War to me for my dissertation at university.

Evans is great. His recent obituary of Norman Stone was absolutely brutal. Ouch!

Books, TV and Films, January 2020

1 January 2020

New year — new decade — new resolution … a reading log or diary. Let’s see how this goes. Also thinking of setting myself a target of a book every ten days, equating to 36 books over the year. That means reading 10% of each book every day — a tall order for anything over about 300 pages. Seriously toying with the idea of cancelling my Guardian subscription (it takes me about two hours to read it).

I am starting the new year with a new read (or rather, re-read): Citizens to Lords by Ellen Meiskins Wood.

I finished my Christmas treat — The Burning Chambers by Kate Mosse — a few days ago and ended the year with a few Sherlock Holmes short stories (inspired by a comment during the election campaign by John Crace in The Guardian).

I now have only the very final Holmes short story to go — The Adventure of the Retired Colourman. I read almost the complete set of Conan Doyle Holmes books last year, most of them before watching the relevant ‘Jeremy Brett’ dramatisation. I may go back and re-read the short stories again this year — easy to dip into for half an hour or so. There are 56 of them.

The first episode of the latest Dracula dramatisation is on BBC1 tonight; it involves Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, so should be excellent. That’s reminded me: I must get round to reading Frankenstein this year.

2 January 2020

Last night, I read the very final Holmes short story, The Adventure of the Retired Colourman — so a milestone of sorts. I don’t know whether I have a memory of the TV adaptation or whether it’s a growing familiarity with Conan Doyle’s style, but I guessed the significance of a few of the plot ingredients like the newly painted house and the telegram from the vicarage. Having said that, I was convinced that the mysterious spectator outside the house was Holmes in disguise.

Definitely up to Conan Doyle’s usual standard, and so much more enjoyable as a read than the first Poirot novel, which I read last year. Kate Mosse was singing Agathe Christie’s praises on Twitter; she’s just re-read the Miss Marple books over Christmas. I must read more Poirot to see if the quality improves.

5 January 2020

Enjoying Citizens to Lords, a history of political thought in ancient and medieval times. Putting the political angle aside for a moment, it’s always enjoyable to read a Marxist writer who writes fluently and intelligibly. That’s one of the reasons why I always enjoy reading Ralph Miliband and Eric Hobsbawm. I first read it about four years ago, but I am finding it much easier to grasp this time around, having in the meantime read some reader-friendly introductions to the history of philosophy, particularly the brilliant The Dream of Reason by Anthony Gottlieb.

Richard Dawkins (a fan of audio books, which have never appealed to me) tweeted the other day about listening to Paperweight by Stephen Fry. He sang the praises of a Holmes short story that Stephen wrote. I must read that; his novels Making History and The Stars’ Tennis Balls are right up there for me.

10 January 2020

I finished Citizens to Lords yesterday, having managed to keep to my 10%-a-day target. So much packed into its 236 pages. Yes, it’s written from a Marxist perspective but it’s very readable, accessible (as long as you have a working knowledge of political theory and Ancient Greek philosophical ideas), erudite and compelling, with something illuminating on every page. Looking forward to reading the companion volume, Liberty and Property, at some point in the coming weeks and months.

Listening to a couple of James Bond dramas on BBC Sounds — what a discovery … the dramas, not the app! — has led me back to A Colder War by Charles Cumming. It’s the second of his Thomas Kell trilogy; I really enjoyed the first one, A Foreign Country, last year.

15 January 2020

The morning after the night before. I stayed up late to finish A Colder War. A gripping read; thoroughly enjoyable. It got to about 10pm and decision time: stay up and read a bit more, stay up until I finish it, or leave it until tomorrow. It was a no-brainer in the end. Fiction can get you like that: I felt exactly the same way reading Stephen King’s 11.22.63 a few years ago. I am determined to read more page-turning fiction this year.

I discovered Charles Cumming through The Trinity Six, a novel about a supposed sixth member of the Cambridge spy ring. A Colder War is set in the same fictional landscape as his earlier A Foreign Country and features an out-in-the-cold SIS spy called Thomas Kell.

It’s not as well written as Le Carré — what is? — and I felt myself giving him the benefit of the doubt after reading things like “Giles, a man so boring that he was dubbed ‘The Coma’ in the corridors of Vauxhall Cross”. But the writing is generally much better than that, and the structuring, plotting and sense of place are all excellent. Plus, there’s tons of spycraft to enjoy. The extended description of a surveillance operation through London is brilliantly told.

20 January 2020

Thoroughly enjoying Dominion, Volume V of Peter Ackroyd’s The History of England series, this one covering the period from 1815 to 1900. I actually read two thirds of it when I first bought it but then put it to one side, probably to read something ‘essential’ that was newly published. Can’t remember what.

I originally bought Volume I — Foundations — from a shop specialising in remaindered books. I wanted something accessible, as my knowledge of early history is woeful. This is broad-brush history, written by someone with highly developed literary sensibilities: line one of page one refers to Vanity Fair and there are also references to Byron, Southey, Dickens and Wilde within the first few pages.

There are no footnotes or end-notes and the historian in me squirms somewhat when encountering sweeping generalisations like: “They [the English people] differed from their predecessors and their successors with their implicit faith in the human will.” But it is wonderfully written and a joy to read.

25 January 2020

I finished Dominion today. Ackroyd is simply remarkable: his output is prodigious and ranges widely across disciplines, though London is never very far away from his thoughts.

He writes wonderful prose — the pen-portraits, in particular, are often engagingly drawn with an eye for amusing, often absurd, detail. Sometimes, however, his style simply doesn’t suit a work of serious history: “[Disraeli] could have flattered his way out of a condemned cell and stolen the axe.” Ugh.

On the other hand, there are echoes of the great AJP Taylor in sentences like: “The conflict did not assist or make any military reputations, and the war itself had emanated from the fear of an attack which was never contemplated and a threat which barely existed.” Therein, I suppose, lies the problem: it’s a wonderful read but is it good history — reasoned, balanced, nuanced?

One wonders, too, whether age is finally catching up with him. His daily routine apparently involves — certainly until recently; he may have finally slowed down — working on three projects at the same time, twelve-hour working days ending with copious amounts of alcohol, seven-day working weeks.

Something surely has to give. This is an annoyingly London-centric history, presumably reworking previously researched material and quoting, sometimes at considerable length, from primary sources. In a book of this size, every word counts: key people, events and developments merit no more than a chapter, maybe a page, perhaps only a paragraph or two. And yet Ackroyd devotes two full pages quoting at length from an 1894 book about the Golden Jubilee of 1887 — its focus, no surprise, the people of South London.

Anyway, I await the final volume with interest. Meanwhile, time for the third in the Thomas Kell spy trilogy by Charles Cumming.

30 January 2020

One month in and my new year reading resolution is going well. I am managing to keep to my 10%-a-day target … exceeding it, in fact. That’s partly because I chose medium-sized books this month rather than doorstoppers. It has also helped that my two fiction choices this month — both by Charles Cumming — have been page-turners.

A Divided Spy is the last of the Thomas Kell trilogy by Charles Cumming. I read about 100 pages a couple of days ago. It was about 8pm and the thought did cross my mind: 150 pages or so to go … do I pull an all-nighter? A daft idea, but a sign of a thoroughly enjoyable book.

Hercule Poirot’s First Case

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie (1920)

After revisiting the very final David Suchet TV adaptations on ITV3 fairly recently, I chanced upon a four-novel Poirot omnibus — actually two omnibuses, eight novels in total — in a local charity shop. Serendipity. Time to acquaint myself for the first time with Poirot in print.

Though a random selection — the novels are not sequential and, beyond the obvious, there is no linking theme — one omnibus did at least begin with The Mysterious Affair at Styles, the very first book of the Poirot series. That matters — a lot. A desire for completeness, perhaps. Begin at the beginning: Book One, Volume I, Series One, Episode One. It feels rude not to.

First, a little background. The detective novel was already an established and lucrative publishing phenomenon by the end of the nineteenth century. Edgar Allen Poe and Wilkie Collins are sometimes cited as pioneers of the genre — Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue was published in 1841 and Collins’s The Moonstone in 1868 — and characters such as Sherlock Holmes, Raffles and Father Brown were familiar to readers by the time Poirot first appeared in 1920. As literacy rates soared, the detective novel fed a growing popular appetite for sensational, lightweight (in more than one sense) reading.

The historian AJP Taylor described Agatha Christie, who was writing mainly in the so-called ‘golden age’ of detective fiction between the wars, as “the acknowledged queen in this art”. Having sampled so little of Christie’s writing (though plenty of film and television adaptations of her work), it seems prudent to heed the wise counsel of the incomparable Sherlock Holmes, who famously cautioned against rushing to judgement:

“It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence. It biases the judgement.”

Sherlock Holmes in A Study in Scarlet (1887)

I will therefore go no further than the tentative but tame and unsurprising observation that The Mysterious Affair at Styles seems entirely typical of the genre at that time: the country-house setting; the simmering family tensions and jealousies, with legacy disputes the default motive for murder; the long list of likely suspects. Christie’s directness and economy of style are remarkable, a counterblast, perhaps, to the weighty, sprawling novels so typical of the nineteenth century — Dickens, Elliot, Hugo. Indeed, the entire Styles novel took just six hours to read.

There is little attempt at literary craftmanship — no descriptive digressions immersing the reader in location and atmosphere, no cleverly interwoven sub-plots or carefully constructed layers of meaning. The murder plot is (almost) all. Detail is provided insofar as it serves the needs of the plot, principally to widen the net of suspicion and usually to misdirect the reader — all the better to build suspense before the Big Reveal. Equally striking (to this reader, at least) is the poverty of language employed by Christie: I lost count of the number of times, for example, she refers to Hastings’s “lively curiosity”.

Consider the opening chapter, ‘I Go to Styles’ — the ‘I’ being Captain Hastings, who, like Holmes’s Watson, is our narrator and a casualty of war. In ten whirlwind pages, we are introduced to the Cavendish family, family friend Evie, and Cynthia, a foster child of sorts. Though the murder is yet to occur, the soon-to-be victim is obvious, as are at least three likely suspects: the husband, the brooding, troubled brother and a “sinister” (Hastings’s word) doctor, who happens (luckily for us) to be an expert in poisons. Indeed. the efficacy of poison as a modus operandi for dispatching someone is matter-of-factly discussed over afternoon tea. Poirot’s little grey cells will not be required to work out how the murder was committed.

Styles is a world apart: it is a gentrified world of privilege and entitlement, of property and inherited wealth, of starched-collar formality and strict etiquette. Women are referred to throughout as ‘Mrs’ or ‘Miss’. John Cavendish refers to his mother not as ‘mother’, ‘mum’ or even ‘mummy’ — but as ‘mater’. Endless summer days are spent lounging around the pool, playing tennis or going for long walks.

The landscape is sketched from the pages of William Blake. The industrial revolution, the most tumultuous and transformative event in our history, has by-passed this particular corner of England’s green and pleasant land. There is little or no factory-based work, no pollution, no cramped, stifling urban life. The few labourers we encounter are rough and ready but nonetheless deferential to their social superiors, like the gardener who doffs his cap on entering the boudoir. The servants, respectful and loyal, know their place and freely accept this ‘natural’ order of things, though (helpfully) they do like to listen at doors as their masters and mistresses bicker.

Set (and in fact written) during the First World War, the novel describes a world on which the sun was slowly setting, of course. Despite the trappings of privilege, the younger women are gainfully employed in war-related work: John’s wife works as a farmhand and Cynthia is a VAD, working in a dispensary — perfect for the poisonous plot! These details — and Hastings’s convalescence — notwithstanding, the war screams its absence. Like industrialisation, even total war cannot sully this pastoral idyll. The faithful parlourmaid Dorcas, described by Hastings as “a fine specimen … of the old-fashioned servant that is so fast dying out”, bemoans at one point the presence of a female gardener wearing breeches — surely the end of civilisation as we know it.

Novels are invaluable as windows into the attitudes, values and social mores of the time — and into peculiarities of speech and language. People ‘ejaculate’ and have ‘a queer way’. Cheerful people are ‘gay’. Women are ‘handsome’. Unpleasant men are ‘bounders’ and ‘rascally’. Bad things are ‘damnable’.

Less quaint is the unmistakeable whiff of casual racism and xenophobia. At least one of the comic-book suspects will invariably be sinister, somehow foreign-looking and ‘alien’ – a word that Hastings actually uses. Inglethorp, the main suspect, has an enormous black beard. Dr Bauerstein, an expert in poisons, is “a Polish Jew”. The supposedly sluttish temptress Mrs Raikes is a “gipsy” girl. It is worth noting that the 1990 television adaptation omits Dr Bauerstein completely, and Mrs Raikes becomes merely a farmer’s wife.

An obsession with race was central to Nazi ideology, ending in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Less well known, perhaps, is the fact that concerns about the mental and physical health of the population also preoccupied inter-war Britain. The question of how to improve the racial ‘stock’ was not confined to the outer fringes of political debate; genetics, eugenics, sterilization and birth control were high up the agenda. Indeed, the historian Richard Overy has written:

“…the high point of the British eugenics movement, and of eugenics internationally, came in the years between the two world wars.”

Richard Overy, The Morbid Age

In a society rigidly defined by class, social snobbery is not hard to uncover, but the language of everyday discourse often betrays this wider obsession with racial hygiene and race improvement. For example, the overwhelming importance of maintaining the proverbial stiff upper lip even in the face of calamity — the death of Mrs Inglethorp — is expressed thus:

“Decorum and good breeding naturally enjoined that our demeanour should be much as usual…”

Captain Hastings, Chapter V

An absence of backbone, on the other hand, merits Hastings’s disdain:

“Never, I thought, had his indecision of character been more apparent.”

Captain Hastings, Chapter III

Lest we think this is merely the sneering of a snobbish Hastings, consider Poirot’s comment on an argument involving Lucy Cavendish:

“It was an astonishing thing for a woman of her breeding to do.”

Hercule Poirot, Chapter V

Later, reflecting upon the actions of Evie Howard, he comments thus:

“There is nothing weak-minded or degenerate about Miss Howard. She is an excellent specimen of well balanced English beef and brawn. She is sanity itself.”

Hercule Poirot, Chapter VIII

The cast of supporting characters are mere cardboard cut-outs; only the two principals — Hastings and Poirot himself — are given space to breathe and come alive. His friends might well have described Hastings as a ‘good sort’ — loyal, trustworthy and thoroughly decent. A true Englishman, they would doubtless have said. Confronted with a damsel in distress — a woman he has in fact known for barely a day — he impulsively proposes marriage. Like Nigel Bruce’s Watson, he is rather credulous and dim-witted. Fancying himself as something of a private detective, he is initially dismissive of Poirot’s thought-processes and obscure lines of questioning. Similar to the Holmes-Watson relationship, ‘the master’ sometimes treats ‘the assistant’ rudely, dismissively and thoughtlessly, only to offer profuse apologies later.

“We must be so intelligent that he does not suspect us of being intelligent at all…There, mon ami, you will be of great assistance to me.”

Poirot to Hastings, Chapter VIII

Hastings interprets this remark as a compliment, a recognition of his “true worth”. As with the earlier Holmes stories, the assistant-as-narrator device allows the novelist to engage in obfuscation and misdirection, withholding reveals in order to build mystery and suspense.

And what of Poirot himself? A Belgian refugee from his war-torn homeland, he is conveniently living with other compatriots in the village that Hastings (who knew him before the war) happens to be visiting. He is meticulous and particular, to be sure, but perhaps not yet quite the fully-drawn dandy portrayed by Suchet, Ustinov and Finney, and certainly not the athletic swashbuckler depicted in Kenneth Branagh’s recent film. Of the John Malkovitch portrayal, I offer no comment.

Holmes felt so strongly about the dangers of leaping to judgement that he later reiterated the point almost word for word:

“It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”

Sherlock Holmes in A Scandal in Bohemia (1892)

So my quest to uncover the original Poirot will go on. The omnibuses contain several other novels in addition to this first adventure. A reservation on the Orient Express awaits, as does an evening of bridge (Cards on the Table) and a visit to End House to confront the peril that lies therein. John Buchan’s thirty-nine steps are also yet to be climbed, and, going further back in time, the multi-layered, Benedictine world of Umberto Eco is long overdue a revisit. Yet the lure of Baker Street — the pipe, the violin, Mrs Hudson’s cooking — is impossible to ignore for long. The game is afoot.

Enlightenment Now: Book Review

We live in dark times. The forces of irrationalism and anti-progressivism are on the rise across the world – fascism, populism, nativism, authoritarianism, racism, religious fundamentalism. Enlightenment Now is thus a profoundly welcome book, a worldview diametrically opposed to that offered by populists, demagogues and religious fanatics. It is a bible for progressives and a rallying cry for moderate, secular liberal democracy.

Diogenes

Enlightenment Now by Stephen Pinker (2018 edition)

I agree with Bill.

Gates, that is. Bill Gates. The front cover of the paperback edition of Enlightenment Now boasts a striking quote from the co-founder of Microsoft, multi-billionaire and philanthropist: “My new favourite book of all time”. Hyperbole? Well, perhaps, but Enlightenment Now is good, very good — an absolute must-read for progressives in these benighted times.

Steven Pinker Enlightenment Now review Darren Waterworth

Steven Pinker first appeared on my radar about six years ago when I took a chance on The Better Angels of Our Nature, the ‘other’ book in a Waterstones ‘Buy one, get one half-price’ offer. Something of a punt in the dark, this impulse purchase demonstrated the influence the high-street chain exerts through its store layout choices and promotional campaigns. Would I have selected the book in any other circumstances? Almost certainly not. Knowing nothing of the author (of whom, more below), the book was shouting ‘trendy’ (to be clear, that’s a bad thing), but I was intrigued by its self-stylisation as “a history of violence and humanity” as well as its breathtaking ambition. It wasn’t always like this.

By way of background, a mea culpa: I plead guilty to years of appalling narrow-mindedness. From sixth-form days way back when, my reading interests extended little further than modern British and European history and politics. One shelf after another filled up with books drawn from a narrow circle of academic historians, political biographers, politicians, broadsheet journalists — or some combination of the above, people like Michael Foot. Hidebound by conservatism, I indulged year after year in comfort reading, to the extent even of skipping the arts and culture surveys to be found in most general histories.

The rigid compartmentalisation condemned in CP Snow’s Two Cultures (which Pinker references) — the one scientific, the other literary — ensured that I neglected even to entertain the notion that a science-grounded book could be read for pleasure. This was less intellectual snobbery (Snow’s charge) and more the absence of three key intellectual attributes on my part: a solid grasp of basic science and mathematics, confidence and — most important of all — curiosity. Reluctant to sail beyond the near horizon, seasickness struck whenever I dared venture out of sight of the calm, comforting shores of modern political history.

Steven Pinker Enlightenment Now review Darren Waterworth

My own enlightenment — if that is not too grand a word — came achingly slowly, beginning with the occasional history of some earlier time or place; my interest in Marxism led me to the English Civil War, for example. Peter Ackroyd’s felicitous prose was a sure guide through the byways of early England, having chanced upon the initial volume of his planned six-volume history from a shop specialising in remaindered books (volume five came out recently). The Shield of Achilles by Phillip Bobbitt was a challenging but rewarding introduction to multi-disciplinary writing. By the time I picked up Peter Watson’s Ideas: A History about ten years ago, I was sold: an ambitious, sprawling ‘intellectual history’ of just about everything — from the beginnings of civilisation, language, religion and writing to the turn of the twentieth century and Freud, Nietzsche and modernism. Watson’s A Terrible Beauty is equally good on modern times.

I credit the incomparable Richard Dawkins with curing my myopia, enabling me to see that the scientific community is equally capable of writing in an elegant and arresting manner. The God Delusion combined an impressive knowledge of religion and ethics with science, history and philosophy. Now I read the likes of Climbing Mount Improbable and The Ancestor’s Tale for pleasure, even if the science quickly passes over my head (though Dawkins’s more recent The Magic of Reality — written for young people but great for buffoons like me — is a splendid introduction to the mysteries of the scientific world). A Damascene conversion of sorts.

Better Angels, then, chimed with my new-found interest in culture and ideas, principally science, philosophy and religion, and sprawling thematic histories. It delivered in spades. A Harvard professor, Pinker’s field is cognitive science, which (as best as I can narrow it down) involves the study of the use of language, the workings of the brain and psychology, the mind and human nature. But Pinker’s writing is a polymathic tour-de-force: he seems equally at ease with history, philosophy, political science, linguistics and statistics. He writes with utter believability, supporting his arguments with a staggering array of empirical evidence, regularly citing up-to-date research and effortlessly deploying pithy quotes from thinkers old and new.

His recent Enlightenment Now picks up the same central argument as Better Angels that — notwithstanding your everyday impressions and assumptions — the world is in fact becoming a better place. Not perfect, note, but better. Not the smallest achievement of the book is the reproduction of 88 graphs, carrying data on everything from calorie intake and childhood stunting to retirement, life satisfaction and loneliness, in order to demonstrate in visual form his core argument about human progress.

At first read, his thesis feels counter-intuitive and simply wrong, at odds with the news that confronts us every single day (he has a convincing theory about this too, of course). Just in the last few days, for example, we have read of an appalling massacre in Sri Lanka, of civil war in Libya, of unrest in Algeria and Sudan, of continuing austerity, cuts and rising debt, of rising knife crime, of air pollution, of species extinction and of other climate-change perils. A typical newsweek, in other words.

The sceptic might choose to start with Pinker’s thought experiment. Ask yourself when in history you would want to be born, assuming that you had no control over where in the world you were born, your economic and social circumstances, your gender, your skin colour, the state of your mental and physical health and so on. The answer, he says, is an emphatic one: you would want to be born now.

Pinker focuses not on the ephemeral, the quotidian or the blip — the stuff of the daily headlines — but on longer-term patterns and trends. The core of the book is a demonstration of his belief that human progress is an empirical hypothesis that can be tested. In one scintillating chapter after another, he does exactly that, examining everything from personal safety and war to education, health, longevity and so on.

Pinker is clear-sighted about the enemies of progress: intuition, religious faith and scripture, authority and unquestioned obedience. Too often, we deny the very fact of progress, and he outlines a variety of fallacies and cognitive biases — the availability heuristic, confirmation bias, negativity bias and so on — to which we are all prone. This is gripping stuff, our all-too-human flaws and failings. We are often unreasoning and irrational, generalising from anecdotes, seeking to confirm prior beliefs, reasoning from stereotypes, ignoring evidence that disconfirms and so on. Nevertheless, his case is that, since the Enlightenment two hundred years ago, we have used reason and science to improve our knowledge and understanding, to overcome our cognitive weaknesses and thereby enhance human flourishing.

He rejects the idea of any kind of ‘Grand Plan’, a cosmic force of God, nature or history propelling us inexorably forward. Progress has been hard-won and must not be taken for granted. We have learned to use the tools of reason to combat unreason and irrationality: free speech and open criticism, fact checking, empirical testing and sober, logical analysis. Pinker is a champion of science and scientific reasoning, and of humanism, the belief that the ultimate moral purpose is to enhance the flourishing of individual human beings (as opposed to the tribe, race, faith etc). He argues that forces of cosmopolitanism — education, art, mobility, urbanisation — have helped develop what he calls our ‘circle of sympathy’, our sense of compassion, our ability to empathise and our concern for the welfare of others. I remember a similar point being made about the rise of the novel in the eighteenth century by, I think, Sebastian Faulks.

Pinker is difficult to categorise. It would certainly be far too simplistic to pigeon-hole him as a ‘lefty liberal’. He believes in the efficacy of free trade, market-based economics and free enterprise (though not of unregulated, red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalism), detests ‘political correctness’ — something else that he believes inhibits progress by feeding the false narrative of populists and anti-progressives — and espouses a variety of policy positions anathema to many on the left. He is sanguine about developments in artificial intelligence, adopts a moderate position on climate change (in a nutshell, we have serious problems but it’s not all doom and gloom, and extreme solutions are not the answer) and supports nuclear power and genetic modification of crops.

We live in dark times. The forces of irrationalism and anti-progressivism are on the rise across the world: fascism, populism, nativism, authoritarianism, racism, religious fundamentalism. Enlightenment Now is thus a profoundly welcome book, a worldview diametrically opposed to that offered by populists, demagogues and religious fanatics. It is a bible for progressives and a rallying cry for moderate, secular liberal democracy. Michael Gove famously claimed during the 2016 Brexit referendum that “the people in this country have had enough of experts”. Pinker loudly and proudly proclaims the value of learning and of experts. He offers hope, but it is hope grounded not in faith but in reason and in evidence, welcome sustenance for even the most Panglossian of optimists.

Ralph Miliband Biography Review

A strength of the book is that, throughout, the reader senses that judgements made are balanced and fair, sympathetic to the man but not blinkered to his mistakes, failures and personal foibles — not least a tendency to irascibility and impatience towards others as well as moments of self-doubt and, on occasion, fierce self-criticism.

Ralph Miliband and the Politics of the New Left by Michael Newman

Twenty years on, I can still vividly recall scanning the shelves of the university library — me, an eager second-year history/politics undergraduate — in search of a Marxist critique of fascism and happening across a book by Nicos Poulantzas. Three hours, one much-thumbed dictionary, two headache tablets and five pages later, I gave up. My next encounter with the World of Marx was Professor David McLellan’s 1973 biography of Marx himself: well researched and worthy, to be sure, but dense and daunting for the uninitiated. Finding Ralph Miliband was something of a revelation, therefore, for here was a academic — what’s more, an avowedly Marxist academic — with both the ability and the willingness to elucidate Marxist ideas in an accessible way.

Miliband’s most influential book — The State in Capitalist Society — transformed the political sciences in the 1970s and provoked a famous debate with the aforementioned Poulantzas, in part concerning the role and importance of abstract theorising. Poulantzas championed an ultra-theoretical school of Marxism that shunned empiricism and seemed to glory in abstruse theorisation. For these ‘Althusserians’, Marxism had its own discourse, purposely distinct from much of the terminology and assumptions of ‘bourgeois’ debate and thus intelligible only to those who could decode its arcane meanings. Miliband, on the other hand, always sought to test even the most basic of assumptions within the Marxist tradition with reference to the ‘real world’. Moreover, Marxism was much more than a theory for Miliband: it was a guide to action.

As Michael Newman’s book shows, Miliband was an academic, a teacher but, above all, a committed socialist, happiest when he felt he was contributing to the advancement of the left. Thus, in Parliamentary Socialism — the book that secured his international reputation in 1962 — by analysing the reasons for the Labour Party’s failure to implement ‘socialism’, he was implicitly offering a guide to future action. Apart from a brief flirtation with the Bevanites in the 1950s and the Bennite left in the 1980s, Miliband kept his distance from the Labour Party, highly sceptical as he was of its efficacy as an agent of socialist change. He spent his adult life in the ultimately fruitless search for a suitable vehicle to secure a political breakthrough, wedded to the belief that only a class-based political party could do so.

Born in 1924 into a Jewish home, Miliband’s political consciousness was awakened by the Nazi menace in the late-1930s. Though the death camps cast a dark shadow over his childhood and youth, Miliband was one of a number of European refugees who escaped the clutches of the Nazis, finding sanctuary in Britain and going on to form the nucleus of a radical intelligentsia that helped shape the cultural, academic and — to an extent — political landscape of the 1960s and early-70s. Indeed, Miliband lived through a remarkable, if turbulent and ultimately unsuccessful, period for the left. This book is in part, therefore, also a history of the British left from the twin crises caused by de-Stalinisation and the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 through the upheavals of 1968 to the challenge of Thatcherism and the collapse of Soviet-type communism.

In writing the book, Newman had access to family, friends and Miliband’s own letters and papers, including a diary and notes made in 1983 for a planned but never completed autobiography. Newman uses this impressive selection of primary source material to paint a convincing portrait of the ‘private’ man as well as the more familiar public figure. His style is — like Miliband’s own — both accessible and, on the whole, eminently readable. A strength of the book is that, throughout, the reader senses that judgements made are balanced and fair, sympathetic to the man but not blinkered to his mistakes, failures and personal foibles, not least a tendency to irascibility and impatience towards others as well as moments of self-doubt and, on occasion, fierce self-criticism.

On the other hand, given the breadth of Miliband’s interests and concerns, judicious editing might have resulted in a more balanced book. Several extracts from Miliband’s work are quoted verbatim and at excessive length. Elsewhere, 13 pages are devoted to ‘the troubles’ at the LSE in 1968 and an entire chapter to his involvement in a campaign for academic freedom. This particular reader frankly hoped for less description and rather more in the way of reflection on matters such as Miliband’s position on academic freedom (which was somewhat inconsistent), his widening disagreements with others on the New Left vis-à-vis the nature and role of the working class by the 1980s and the wisdom of his wish to see a Marxist party of a non-dogmatic nature filling the void between the Labour Party and the Leninist CPGB (which he held in little short of contempt). Tightly written summaries of Miliband’s ideas and actions and relevant narrative would have given Newman more space for his own analysis, commentary and judgements.

This review relates to the edition published in 2002 by Merlin Press. It was uploaded to Amazon in 2004.

The Bibliophile’s Curse

I am, for good or ill, a relatively slow reader so these classics from my younger days come with an opportunity cost attached: each one is a significant investment in time, to be read at the expense of something perhaps equally worthy. The list is long and getting longer as time passes… I have succumbed to the bibliophile’s curse: the terrifying realisation that there will actually never be enough time to finish the ‘to do’ list.

First things first: I don’t read enough fiction. It’s not that I don’t try. I do, I really do. Disregarding Christopher Hitchens’ witty riposte to the old adage that everyone has a book inside them (actually said by Hitchens in relation to autobiographies and memoirs, it seems), I am not immune to the urge to write fiction: it is the middle-of-the-back itch that remains unscratched. So I know that I really ought to be immersing myself in the form. After all, isn’t the experts’ advice always the same: read, read and read some more?

Besides, who needs a reason to pick up a novel? I love words. I am in awe of skilful writing, regardless of genre. I enjoy a good story well told, and I delight in piecing together well-crafted, meandering, multi-layered plots. And yet, for all my good intentions, a familiar pattern invariably repeats, like a Newtonian law of reading: barely have I negotiated the opening chapters of a novel before the gravitational pull of non-fiction, usually something historical, political and/or biographical, becomes irresistible.

I hold learned and literary types in ridiculously high esteem, if for no other reason than their assumed ability to handle the question: what should I read next? An adjustment to my work-life balance two years ago created significant additional reading time: a wonderful opportunity but also a source of frustration, as bookish retirees the world over have doubtless discovered. So many intriguing literary avenues along which to wander for the first time; so many interesting new titles to explore, even down the relatively well-trodden paths of modern and contemporary history.

It started here: probably the first history book I ever bought.

At the same time, there are books upon books shouting out to be re-read. Perhaps I didn’t really appreciate or grasp them first time around. Maybe they are just so bloody good. They are here now, sitting impatiently on the shelves around me, vying for my attention. I am, for good or ill, a relatively slow reader, so these classics from my younger days come with an opportunity cost attached: each one is a significant investment in time, to be read at the expense of something perhaps equally worthy. The list is long and getting longer as time passes: to pick a random selection, Volume III of Bullock’s biography of Ernie Bevin (900 pages), Bullock’s earlier biography of Hitler (800 pages), Michael Foot’s two-volume biography of Aneurin Bevan (1100 pages) and Kenneth O Morgan’s history of the Attlee government (a mere 500 pages). I have succumbed to the bibliophile’s curse: the terrifying realisation that there will actually never be enough time to finish the ‘to do’ list.

A word about my reading habits. I read every day and usually have three texts (one of which is the daily newspaper) on the go. The ‘classic’ slot kick-starts a typical day, the theory being that my mind is at its freshest first thing in the morning. Hatched as a way of negotiating War and Peace, the plan was then to tackle Dickens in chronological order, having been drawn in by David Copperfield. However, after The Pickwick Papers I was immediately sidetracked by Tess of the D’Urbervilles (terrific) and The Rainbow (a real struggle). Now this pre-breakfast window is used for anything I consider too intense or ‘high-brow’ to be my main read of the day. For the last three months, I have been working through Leszek Kolakowski’s three-volume Main Currents of Marxism. My ‘main’ read — picked up at various points of the day — alternates between non-fiction and fiction, probably on something like a — crikey — 5:1 ratio.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy reading fiction, popular as well as so-called ‘middle-brow’. Opening Stephen King’s 11. 22. 63 was like being transported back (sorry) to my teenage years, lapping up King classics such as Carrie, The Shining and Salem’s Lot for the first time. Gripping, all of them – or so it felt to my fourteen-year-old self. To experience the frisson that comes with not wanting to put a book down — rushing home from wherever, desperate to discover what happens next, recklessly staying up late to devour another chapter. To suffer the exquisite torture of reading a book that is almost literally unputdownable, at once exciting and excruciating. It’s the best kind of legal high, recommended for young and old alike.

It was the horror genre that weaned me away from football and music magazines and hooked me instead on reading books for pleasure. Back in the late ‘70s, virtually all horror films were certified ‘X’ (re-labelled as ‘18’ in 1982). This was before home video so, as a teenager, they were off-limits at the cinema. But no such restriction existed on books; the horror section of Wigan’s main bookshop quickly became a regular stop-off during Saturday-afternoon trawls of the town’s record shops. Stephen King was an early favourite, though I eventually tired of his formulaic writing style, as were James Herbert and even Dennis Wheatley from a different era. William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist scared the shit out of me. Impossible to see at the cinema, of course, but nobody even lifted a disapproving eyebrow at the bookshop. Speaking of Wheatley, black magic films, as opposed to gory horror, were more likely to be shown on television. I consider The Devil Rides Out as the acme, Christopher Lee as the noble white knight playing wonderfully against type.

And so to The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason. Why this particular book — and why now?

Cover quotes from The Independent and The Observer, plus the accompanying back-page blurb, did their job in piquing my interest, though references to The Da Vinci Code were mildly off-putting and any combination of words — usually involving ‘effortlessly’ or ‘seamlessly’ — about weaving together past and present must qualify as a cliché by now. Anyway, Kate Mosse has since set the back-and-forth-in-time bar dizzyingly high with Labyrinth. The Rule of Four has a modern-day Princeton University setting but links back to Renaissance Italy.

Although modern history has always been my passion, I have strayed with increasing confidence over recent years from the familiar world of twentieth-century politics. Well-researched historical fiction is an accessible and enticing way into other historical worlds and, if the writing itch is ever scratched, my novel will likely be — at least in part — historical. As an aside, Jim Naughtie’s recent Meet the Author interview with Alison Weir was illuminating. An acclaimed (Tudor) historian who inhabits both writing worlds — fiction and non-fiction — it was fascinating to hear her discuss the different disciplines and methodologies involved.

Magical, in more ways than one. But, at 1000 pages, have I time to read it again?

Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies hold my attention far better than a David Starkey tome, though this may merely reflect my low opinion of acerbic, odious, right-wing historians. The depictions of nineteenth-century England in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and The Essex Serpent are enchanting. Simon Sebag Montefiore’s One Night in Winter (set in the Soviet Union) stands out, as does more or less everything — past or present — by Robert Harris. There’s Sebastian Faulks, of course. Human Traces may well be my favourite novel: dense, complex and challenging, it perfectly captures the intellectual temper of the times. I also have a particular penchant for time-travel stories, whatever the medium: Stephen Fry’s Making History and Ben Elton’s Time and Time Again are bona fide page-turners.

Having first engaged with John Le Carré aged seventeen via Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, I am drawn to the puzzles, politics and moral ambiguities of the espionage world. The plot of The Rule of Four revolves around a historical mystery – more precisely, a secret hidden within an arcane Renaissance text. Mainstream television usually leaves me cold but I make time for well-written mysteries and detective dramas – the likes of Inspector Morse (plus sequel and prequel), Poirot and Jonathan Creek. The recent Maigret reboot on ITV, with Rowan Atkinson as the title character, is terrific. Lucy Mangan in The Guardian dismissed the pilot as plodding and wooden (‘leaden’, to be precise), but I found it to be deliciously dark and broody.

A prized possession: this cost me £2.95 in 1981.

I am also a Holmesian of sorts. Watching re-runs of Jeremy Brett’s Holmes a couple of years ago found me reaching again for my dog-eared collection of the original Conan Doyle stories. The Name of the Rose is another satisfyingly dense and intricate novel (complete with a sprinkling of Sherlock Holmes references) that thoroughly merits a re-read. Umberto Eco was, of course, a polymath — an expert in semiotics and aesthetics as well as medieval history and much else besides. In other words, a learned and literary type. My kind of writer.

And so, back to Elizabeth I by Anne Somerset. I am currently on page 204. What’s next on the ‘to do’ list, I wonder…