Category Archives: History

At the beginning of the century there was a strong belief in positivism

Europeana, by Patrik Ouředník and translated by Gerald Turner

Some books, often the most interesting, defy easy categorisation. Patrik Ouředník’s Europeana is a history of the 20th Century, except it isn’t, or if it is it’s the most random and partial history I’ve ever read. It’s a novel too, except it isn’t because there’s no plot, no characters, nothing I would normally associate with fiction. Here’s how it opens:

The Americans who fell in Normandy in 1944 were tall men measuring 173 centimeters on average, and if they were laid head to foot they would measure 38 kilometers. The Germans were tall too, while the tallest of all were the Senegalese fusiliers in the First World War who measured 176 centimeters, and so they were sent into battle on the front lines in order to scare the Germans. It was said of the First World War that people in it fell like seeds and the Russian Communists later calculated how much fertilizer a square kilometer of corpses would yield and how much they would save on expensive foreign fertilizers if they used the corpses of traitors and criminals instead of manure. And the English invented the tank and the Germans invented gas, which was nknown as yperite because the Germans first used it near the town of Ypres, although apparently that was not true, and it was also called mustard because it stung the nose like Dijon mustard, and that was apparently true, and some soldiers who returned home after the war did not want to eat Dijon mustard again.


What follows is a 122 pages of history by association, history without causation. The opening sets the theme, one of war and waste and sheer absurdity. The tone is banal, matter of fact, and what I can’t reproduce here is that on each page a small quote or two is reproduced in tiny font in the margin. For the passage above it’s “the English invented the tank”, but so faint and hard to read I had to photograph it and enlarge it to quote it here. What’s the point? Why does the book pull out that line from all those above? Perhaps because in doing so it undermines the very concept that we can pick out what’s important, the idea that there’s a heirarchy to history.

Here’s a quote from the second and third pages:

Some historians subsequently said that the twentieth century actually started in 1914, when war broke out, because it was the first war in history in which so many countries took part, in which so many people died and in which airships and airplanes flew and bombarded the rear and towns and civilians, and submarines sank ships and artillery could lob shells ten or twelve kilometers. And the Germans invented gas and the English invented tanks and scientists discovered isotopes and the general theory of relativity, according to which nothing was metaphysical, but relative. And when the Senegalese fusiliers first saw an airplane they thought it was a tame bird and one of the Senegalese soldiers cut a lump of flesh from a dead horse and threw it as far as he could in order to lure it away. And the soldiers wore green and camouflage uniforms because they did not want the enemy to see them, which was modern at the time because in previous wars soldiers had worn brightly-colored uniforms in order to be visible from afar. And airships and airplanes flew through the sky and the horses were terribly frightened. And writers and poets endeavored to find ways of expressing it best and in 1916 they invented Dadaism because everything seemed crazy to them.

That paragraph continues for roughly another page, covering as it does so references to the Russian revolution, to nametags to identify dead soldiers, the numbers of dead on each side in World War 1 measured in kilometres, and the Spanish flu. The tiny and faint sidebar quote this time was “germans invented gas”.

So what’s going on here? At first I wasn’t sure, but as you read on themes start to emerge, patterns swirl out of the apparently random and unsupported factoids (and nothing here is referenced, nothing backed up).

The twentieth century to us now seems a century of grand narratives. Communism versus capitalism. The allies versus the axis. Democracy versus fascism. It’s a period in which we reinvent the concept of the self through psychoanalysis (a theory formed without any meaningful evidence that went on to dominate psychology and literature for decades, and that still lingers on despite the near total absence of any hard data supporting its claims).

New utopian philosophies emerge and briefly flourish, artistic movements come one after another in dizzying succession and new scientific developments from the pill to the internet to transgenic cows dazzle us. It would be easy to construct a narrative of progress if we wanted to. A clash of ideologies creating a furnace from which emerged ourselves, modern, scientific, democratic and free.

Of course it’s not that simple. We can only have that narrative if we choose to omit certain facts, if we elect not to dwell on where the desire for progress led us:

In 1910, the Americans devised a Eugenics Board, and in 1922, the Director of the American board sent the U.S. government a list of socially inadaptable citizens who should be sterilized in order to to preserve a healthy and fit society. […] And in Norway after the war they took away from unmarried mothers children whose fathers were German soldiers and sent them to mental hospitals. And lots of biologists and geneticists and psychiatrists and anthropologists believed that, alongside electricity, eugenics was modern science’s greatest contribution to mankind and just as electricity had transformed people’s material conditions and enabled the world to enter a new epoch, eugenics for its part would radically transform society’s biological base and enable the world to enter a new era. But some eugenicists said that sterilization served no purpose and calculated that it would take twenty-two generations to reduce the number of lunatics and psychopaths by 0.9%, and a further ninety generations before the proportion of lunatics and psychopaths in society stabilized at one in a hundred thousand. And they said it was necessary to find a quicker way of making mankind healthier.

Eugenics emerges as a key theme here. Ouředník returns to it over and over, looping back to the topic and as he does so he touches too on the twentieth century’s numerous genocides and the many mass-slaughters which may or may not be genocides depending on who you ask, but which whatever you call them still involved industrialised murder. The Communists, the Nazis, the Americans, they each wanted to create their own vision of the better society, and they each ran into the same problem. What to do with the people who didn’t fit their future? All too often the suggested answers started with preventing them from reproducing, and ended with concluding that a more immediate, a more final, solution was required.

Another key theme here, and a more controversial one, is the exploration of the Holocaust not as a unique event in history but rather as a particular example of what was if anything a marked historical trend. Not only not unique, but not even uncommon. The Jews, the Gypsies, the Armenians, each was singled out for massacre. The Albanians in what used to be Yugoslavia fared better, but not by much since they still had to face ethnic cleansing and deportation (in the 1930s and again of course in the 1990s, it’s not just Ouředník that repeats).

For Ouředník the impression is that eugenics, ethnic cleansing, concentration camps and genocide form a spectrum of responses across societies and philosophies. We collectively spent a century purging ourselves of people we decided didn’t fit in, didn’t belong to our future, our end of history. Our narrative may be one of progress, of freedom triumphing over tyranny, but our reality is one of partisan butchery carried out with ever greater efficiency. Narrative is dangerous, it involves editing and when the narrative is about who we are and who we want to be as a society what gets edited is people.

In places Ouředník’s approach becomes problematic. This isn’t history so he cites no sources, but in at least one place I spotted an error, he credits concentration camps to the Communists in 1918 but Britain was deploying them in Africa as far back as the 19th Century (a time and place that saw its own share of genocides).

That in itself didn’t particularly bother me, but then when he claimed that the World Jewish Council in 1985 issued a statement that the Nazi euthanasia of the Gypsies was not a genocide because it based on social rather than ethnic eugenic principles I found myself wondering if that was actually true – and I couldn’t find any trace of it on a web search. I also couldn’t find any reference to a World Jewish Council, it appears to be the World Jewish Congress (possibly a translator’s error though I admit, but generally this is an excellent translation).

I also found myself questioning whether the reference to the 1985 statement was fair. My quick websearch for example easily found a page on a site called the Virtual Jewish Library titled “Roma victims of the Holocaust” which directly compared the treatment of Jews and Gypsies as people selected for slaughter by virtue of their ethnicity. If the 1985 statement was made as described, it’s clearly just one view among several.

It might seem I’m focusing too much on this relatively narrow point, but earlier in the book Ouředník says “the Turks said that the Armenian genocide was not a real genocide, and most Jews agreed.” Did he survey them? Ouředník’s concern is clearly claims of uniqueness for an event he doesn’t regard as remotely being so, but I get distinctly uncomfortable when blanket comments are effectively ascribed to a race. We’ve seen where that kind of thinking can lead, and given that’s precisely one of the points of the book quite frankly Ouředník should know better.

That rather sour note aside, Europeana is blackly funny in its sheer absurdity, which is our absurdity. It darts about between ideas and incidents, bringing them to light as if they were items briefly picked up by a bored shopper rifling through the bargain bin of history. It was a century of innovation adapted in large part to ever better ways of killing people we labelled as somehow other than ourselves, and so far the 21st century isn’t looking any better. So it goes.

I owe my discovery of Europeana to John Self’s review at The Asylum, here. As ever, his take is well worth reading.


Filed under History, Novellas, Ouředník, Paul

Human nature was just so much infinitely malleable putty

City of Heavenly Tranquility, by Jasper Becker

I don’t like abandoning books. I used to take it as a point of pride in fact that I never abandoned them. Those days are long past. Now I don’t hope a bad book will turn into Tolstoy on page 205.

What’s frustrating about Jasper Becker’s City of Heavenly Tranquility is that it shouldn’t be a bad book. It’s a non-fiction study of Beijing, it’s history and how that history is being lost today in a wave of new construction. It’s written by Jasper Becker, who wrote Hungry Ghosts – an excellent account of the horrific mass famine created by Mao’s policies in the late ’50s and early ’60s. Becker knows his material and he can write. What went wrong?

City of Heavenly Tranquility is essentially a form of travel writing. Becker visits places, interviews people, writes what he finds and gives it a historical context. It’s not quite reportage, but nor is it intended merely to entertain. Becker’s core thesis is that historic Beijing is being wilfully destroyed by a Chinese bureaucracy that is utterly indifferent, even hostile, to the priceless heritage it is annihilating.

Imagine the outcry if, in less than a decade, London underwent a similar transformation. If the West End, Notting Hill, Knightsbridge, Holland Park and the City of London were to be levelled and replaced by giant residential and commercial blocks. If every landmark – Oxford Street, Piccadilly, Pall Mall, Regent Street, Covent Garden, the courtyards of the Temple, the alleys of Soho – were to disappear at once. Imagine the outcry if in less than a decade New York underwent a similar transformation. If Wall Street, Central Park, Greenwich Village, SoHo, the Bronx, the Upper East Side were to be levelled and replaced by giant new residential towers and commercial office blocks. If every landmark – Times Square, Madison Square Gardens, Radio City – were to disappear at once.

That’s an absolutely valid subject for a book. The Chinese authorities, and probably a fair few of the Chinese public, would have counterarguments but there’s nothing wrong with a healthy debate. The trouble then isn’t the concept. It’s the execution.

In the first chapter Becker describes how he is shown round a housing development intended for the new urban rich:

‘I like it, especially the fake fireplace. This is real luxury,’ I said politely. ‘Later, I will show you the landscaped garden, the vast lawn, the children’s playground, the European fountains, the stylish sculptures, the beautiful flowers, and the underground car park,’ she said.

It’s a well written passage. As the conversation progressed though I found myself wondering how true it was. Becker is shown round because he’s pretending to be a prospective buyer. He isn’t openly there as a journalist. That’s of course normal, but his text purports to be what was said. Did he take contemporaneous notes? Write it up immediately afterwards? Or has he reconstructed it, written essentially what was said, if not the precise words?

The line between reportage and fiction can be a slippery one. That though is a reason to take extra care and to be clear with readers how you’ve drawn that line. I wasn’t far into the book, but already I had concerns about the accuracy of what I was reading (I also thought quietly satirising the vulgarity of new money a bit easy, but that’s a far lesser point).

Becker has little time for modern China, which he sees as brutal, vulgar and undemocratic. Against the brash present he places the fruits of 5,000 years of civilisation. What’s being lost, for him, is immense. What’s being gained in return is tawdry. Here he puts the special nature of Beijing in perspective:

in Beijing the two great strands of Asian history are united: the settled urban civilization, steeped in Confucianism, and the wilder world of the Huns, the Mongols, the Manchus and other nomadic peoples who roamed the steppes of Asia, living in felt tents.

The problem with all this is the question of alternatives. It’s easy to deride rapid development and its costs. I stayed in a hutong (traditional alley area) and I’d be sorry to see them all go (most are already demolished to make way for new apartment complexes). That said, I don’t have to live in one full time. If I did I might be a bit less keen on history and a bit more on good plumbing.

It’s clear that China’s modernisation has a cost. It’s clear too that decisions have been taken which future, richer, inhabitants of Beijing will sorely regret. Popular protests against demolition of beloved sites or buildings are brushed aside. The beautiful is being cast aside for a needlessly ugly pragmatism. Still, it’s important to remember that this isn’t just a tourist destination. People have to live there.

Far from Beijing’s ugly pretensions to modernity, one felt a little freer and in such a haunt of ancient peace could savour an unchanging China fixed for ever in a romantic decay.

I like romantic decay as much as the next man. Probably more than many since I am on occasion of a somewhat melancholic bent (despite being generally cheerful, I guess I’m cheerfully melancholic). That said, a tourist’s romantic decay can be a resident’s slum. China isn’t a theme park.

Were my only issue with Becker’s thesis (much of which I was persuaded by, just not the naive romanticism of quotes like the one above) then I wouldn’t call this a bad book. A book isn’t bad because I don’t agree with it. The much greater problem is the inescapable whiff of cut-and-paste.

My suspicion, though only that, is that this book is a collation of magazine articles edited together into one work. A chapter would mention Mongol rule, then another would mention it again as if for the first time (which if each chapter were a standalone article it would be of course). A section would talk of how the Mongol khans hid their tombs so well that they were never found, and then another would introduce the same factoid again without recognition of the previous reference.

Equally the quality of the chapters varied widely. Some are marvellous. The description of the Ming court eunuchs and their conflicts with the mandarins were absolutely fascinating:

It was only natural that the mandarins felt contempt towards eunuchs, whose chief qualification was a willingness to submit to castration, while they had to pass very competitive examinations.

So good were these sections that if Becker decided to write a book about the Chinese imperial court generally I’d buy it in a heartbeat. The following is just one, slightly salacious, example:

The sexual practices of the imperial court make for the oddest reading. Court astrologers were employed in determining the optimum hours for sex, based on cycles for yin and yang, in the belief that with the right timing the result would be a boy. Then, after the second meal of the day, a eunuch would present the emperor with a silver tray with bamboo slips, each with the name of one of the concubines. The emperor would turn over the name of his choice and she would then be brought at the correct time, wrapped in a blanket. It was the duty of the eunuch standing in the alcove to shout after a decent interval, ‘Time is up’, followed by the advice: ‘Preserve your imperial body, Sire!’ If there was silence after the third call, then the eunuch would step in to carry the woman out, only pausing to ask if the emperor wished her to bear a child. If the answer was yes, then he would record all relevant details in a notebook.

Becker also writes persuasively about the crimes of Lord Elgin, who ordered the burning of the Summer Palace and so robbed the Chinese people and humanity generally of a great treasure. Elgin was a barbarian, and Becker is right to condemn him. In another section though you get journalistic filler like this:

Many of the men – more than thirty, some said – who had helped Howard Carter open Tutankhamun’s tomb had died in mysterious circumstances. Some believe they succumbed after inhaling deadly bacteria trapped in the Egyptian tombs: could that happen here in China?

Against which I wrote a one word comment (it was “bollocks”, kindle preserved my notes on that passage for posterity).

The end result is a book that has great things with it, but that isn’t the sum of its parts. There’s two or three different books here, and they sit poorly together. It was that along with the repetition that made me wonder if it was cobbled together from assorted articles, some good and some less so.

Ultimately the origin of the book doesn’t matter. What does is that I got so irritated by it that I stopped reading it. It’s been over a year now since that decision, and I don’t see it changing at this point. I’ve had a part draft of this review kicking around since February and since I had a free moment it seemed a good time to post this one up.

I read City of Heavenly Tranquility on my kindle, as mentioned above. The kindle edition is unfortunately extremely badly formatted, containing many errors such as “sturdyirongates” being written as one word. If you are interested in the parts about the Imperial court and the eunuchs I’d strongly advise getting a physical copy. Also, for the record, the quote I’ve used as the title of this piece is a view Becker ascribes to the bureacrats, not one he at all supports.


Filed under History

I threw myself upon Italy as if on the body of a woman

Venices, by Paul Morand

I recently purchased Against Venice, by Rene Debray (I’m reading it at the moment in fact). It’s a sort of diatribe against Venice, and more to the point against those who romanticise it. I love Venice, and I trust Pushkin Press and they published the Debray, how could I resist?

Before I bought the Debray, I had a look online for reviews, and the only one I found mentioned it was written in part in response to Venices, by Paul Morand. I’ll come back to that when I write up Against Venice, but the temptation of reading an argument and counter-argument was too much for me, and I bought Venices too.

Venices is also published by Pushkin Press, with an excellent translation by Euan Cameron. It was written back in 1971, when Morand was in his eighties, and it’s a rather melancholy work as a result. It’s a contemplation of his life, of the things he has seen and the people he knew – all of it tied to his recollections and experiences of Venice over the years. Venices then is not really about Venice, or at least is only in part about Venice. Rather, like Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s Wind, Sand and Stars it’s a sort of meditation. As Morand says:

Venice has not been my entire life, but she constitutes a few fragments of it that are otherwise disconnected; her tide marks fade away, mine do not.

The difficulty with this sort of work is it’s only as enjoyable, as interesting, as it’s well written (not true of all books, as Stephen King will attest). Debray, in his book, refers to Morand as “quicksilver”, which isn’t far off. Morand is often witty, clever, sometimes even rather beautiful if always a little detached. However, there are times when the prose seemed to me simply overwrought, when I grew tired of his constant namedropping, when he simply annoyed me. In the end, I enjoyed it, but not without reservations. Here’s the opening two paragraphs:

All of our lives are letters posted anonymously; my own bears three postmarks: Paris, London and Venice; fate, often unwittingly, though certainly not thoughtlessly, has decreed that I should have settled in these places.

Within her restricted space, Venice, situated as she is in the middle of nowhere, between the foetal waters and those of the Styx, encapsulates my journey on earth.

That second paragraph is, for me, a précis of what can be infuriating about this kind of work. In what possible sense is Venice situated next to the waters of the Styx? Clearly, Morand is being poetic, but even so does this actually make any sort of sense? I’m not personally persuaded it does, and it’s not the only passage of that nature by any means.

Coupled with that, Morand uses on two separate occasions the repugnant phrase “the white race”, regretting the lack of a peace treaty between France and Germany in 1911 and later complaining of the loss of what he regards as the old pride that helped Europe fight the Turks. His view is that Europe is declining, that he is passing into old age but that the civilisation of which he formed part has preceded him, perhaps is already the grave. It is an ugly element, and given Morand’s service in the Vichy regime (the period following June 1939 until 1950 is noticeably absent from a text that otherwise largely proceeds in chronological order, year by year) and an apparent sympathy for fascism it makes him in some ways a rather uncomfortable travelling companion.

So, I’ve accused Morand of namedropping, occasional pretension, of racism and fascist sympathies, I should add that he’s also a huge snob and a man who while claiming his family not to be exceptional makes sure to include sufficient anecdotes to make it plain quite how refined, wealthy and connected they in fact were:

… occasionally, in the evening, I would hear [my father] say to my mother: “I’m going to the opera, in Mme Greffulhe’s box; put some money (he never counted in louis d’or, that was mundane) in my waistcoat pocket, in case she asks me to take her to supper at Paillard’s.”

On top of all that, he rarely fails to illustrate how brilliant he himself is, noting that as a child he learned nothing from school and scorned the classic authors, instead discovering for himself Shakespeare, Schopenhauer, Zola, Maupassant, Huysmans (and mentioning, by the by, that his father translated Hamlet for Sarah Bernhardt).

And yet, and yet. He has insight. He points out how much his schools did not attempt to teach, how vast some of the gaps they left were. Like him, I was not taught in school about Byzantium (I don’t think it was ever mentioned), or of China and the far east, I wasn’t taught economic geography or the history of art, my education like his and like that of most of us was patchwork and many of the gaps are essentially ideological. To include in an education a history of the Kings and Queens of England, but to leave out the history of the gold standard, is to make a political choice. Suddenly, Morand has me thinking.

As the book continues, it improves. Once Morand has established his background, he reaches the 1920s and his days with some of the brightest (and most fashionable) minds of Europe. He is not quite gossipy, but he is proud of what he sees as a flowering of greatness and is always happy to share details of who he spent those days with. His descriptions are well written, illuminating, often again exasperating (did Morand know nobody in trade? Of course not, he knew artists, actors, thinkers, the consequenceless rich), but his tone kept me reading. Morand sees himself as a forerunner of modern (1971) youth, an avant-garde of the teenage entitlement that was to follow, he rather approves of the young of the age he now finds himself in, with their insistence on the importance of leisure and their desire to live according to its own terms. All he truly objects to is their age, which he envies, and their occasional lack of manners.

Morand is conscious of quite how much history he’s seen, how much he’s lived through and seen fade away. To pass time with this book is to pass time with an elderly man, one in full command of his faculties who has lived through remarkable events and wishes to tell you of them. Not all he has to say is palatable, or even interesting, but this was real and it is fascinating to hear of it and to share the perspective of someone who has outlived his world. It is that awareness that gives the book its elegaic tone, Morand’s world died with the second world war and he knows that, he knows it’s not coming back. Worse, his prejudices make his present bleaker than perhaps it truly was, Europe today continues and isn’t doing too badly, for Morand it was finished. The final chapter ends with a description of Morand selecting his tomb, viewing the site and speaking of where he “shall lie, after this long accident that has been my life.” It is not an ending written by a man who continues to have hope in the future.

Still, there is no sense Morand resents those who follow him. He simply sees this as our world now, not his, he is saddened by the loss of what was but he does not blame us for being what we are (in the main, anyway, there is the odd bout of irritability – he is distinctly ambivalent on the changing role of women for example).

Structurally, Venices is an unusual work. Each chapter is simply a date and some observations. Sometimes a whole chapter consists of just one paragraph, sometimes it runs on for pages, at times he just brings the past to life as here just after the war:

On the quaysides, French officers were sampling long virginia cigarettes that were perforated with straws; in the Red Cross lorries, wounded Senegalese soldiers sitting side by side with Neapolitans in their hospital gowns mingled with bersaglieri, shorn of most of their feathers, with Austria prisoners of war, Tyroleans wearing grey-blue uniforms, and with carabinieri who had exchanged their cocked hats for a helmet rather like Colleone’s; Russian prisoners who had been returned by the Austrians were sweeping the docks with brooms made from leaves of maize; on walls, menacing posters ordered deserters from the Caporetto to rejoin the 4th Corps or risk being “shot in the back”.

At others, he comments directly on how he sees the world, as it was or as it is now:

These Leicas, these Zeiss; do people no longer have eyes?

And then, sometimes, he writes simply and beautifully about the city he loves above all others, as here:


An overcast October sky this morning; an opaline grey, the colour of old chandeliers, so fragile that they sell marabou feathers with which to dust them.

I was in Venice this weekend, and the sky was that colour. I looked up from the book, and it was there.

In an afterword, the art critic Olivier Berggruen describes Venices as leaving the reader with a sense of “melancholy, elegance and poise”. He’s right. What I would add is that on occasion Morand is also funny, generous, thoughtful and genuinely challenging. Yes, he’s an elderly racist and was a wartime collaborator, but he writes with unusual skill and much of what he says is worth hearing. I enjoyed this book, I often felt that I shouldn’t, but I did. I’m glad I read it.

I’ll be buying more Morand. I doubt I would have liked him, he was a bigot and a snob, and I doubt he particularly would have liked me, but for all that his book deserves its translation and its native acclaim and if you can separate the man from the work (peculiarly hard with a work of this nature, which is after all about the man) then it’s fair to say it’s a remarkable achievement. It’s beautiful, despite its many blemishes, and it is profoundly human. It’s just a shame that Morand lacks Saint-Exupery’s gift of seeing the humanity in everyone else, not just in one’s social equals.

Art does not make a man good, it is no guarantee of virtue in the artist, rather it is simply a good in itself. Venices is good art, even though Morand was not a good man.



Filed under French, History, Italy, Morand, Paul, Venice

The English are fond of scribbling on walls

A Visit to the Barbary Regencies in 1830 is an unusual book, unusual for me anyway. It is an excerpt from the diaries of Lord Grosvenor, originally published by him in this form, in which he details his visit to the Barbary regencies of Tripoli, Tunis and Algiers in the year 1830 (as the title rather suggests). It is 100 pages long, but has generous spacing and margins, making it a very quick read.

The difficulty with writing about diaries, is that by their nature they are a bit bitty. That’s the case here too, Grosvenor writes about what happens to him, there isn’t an overall narrative or theme to draw out. Accordingly, my main goal here is simply to illustrate the nature of the diaries and what makes them interesting. As a result, I’ve tried to bring out the feel of the diaries below, but haven’t attempted too much by way of analysis.

Anyway, I said above that this is a quick read, it’s also rather a fun read. Lord Grosvenor is an entertaining diarist, his experiences are interesting, and it’s a window to a world that is much more alien than we often give it credit. Grosvenor travels the region on board the Isis, a 50 gun frigate commanded by Captain T. Staines (no sniggering!). To anyone with the remotest fondness for Patrick O’Brian (which really should be everyone), it’s a reminder too of quite how good O’Brian is and quite how much he gets right.

Grosvenor’s trip takes place at a time of some tension, each of the regencies is technically independent but none try that indepence too strongly with the Sublime Porte. France is blockading Algiers, and military action once started might spill over to Algiers’ neighbours so making them understandably nervous.

It’s in the above context then that Lord Grosvenor writes his impressions of the landscapes passed, of the rulers and other figures he encounters, and of the various European dignitaries and travellers also at large in the region. Here, he describes the ruler of Tripoli:

The Pacha’s appearance, if not prepossessing, had at least the merit of novelty; the quantity of kohol with which he had stained his eyelids, making it scarcely possible to distinguish his features and the large silk tassel of his Bournouse, which fell over a small white turban upon his forehead, gave him a singular, but not very pleasing expression of countenance. His age may be from sixty to seventy; his figure is of a proper Tripolitan corpulency, and of this advantage he is so sensible, that he sat upon the very edge of the throne to ensure it’s not being lost upon us. But, however vain his Highness may be of his figure, he is still prouder of his pink silk stockings – mais hélas! il faut souffrir pour être beau. The European stocking-weavers (for Tripoli has none to boast of) not being yet sufficiently accustomed to the Barbary market, it became a matter of no small difficulty to procure a pair sufficiently elastic for the royal dimensions; and those his Highness now wore must have painfully impeded a free circulation.

Although apparently a fairly merciful fellow by local standards, it should be noted that one of his wives is fond of revenging herself on any disrespect by having the culprits strangled with a bowstring.

Still, such are the hazards of courtly life in what Lord Grosvenor refers to as the Orient. It is fair to say that this is not the happiest period in the history of the Ottoman and post-Ottoman world, there is a palpable sense of decline, these cities are rich outposts now divorced from what was once one of the most powerful empires on Earth and their relationship with the European powers is now far from an equal one.

Just as life on shore has its diversions, so too does life on ship. The following passage could, once again, have come straight from the pages of an O’Brian novel:

Sir T. Staines had orders to take on board any extraordinary animals that Col. Warrington might wish to send to England, and was much dismayed upon finding no less than four ostriches, two antelopes, three Fezzan sheep, three blue cranes, besides several stuffed birds, waiting to be embarked. He was constrained to make immediate preparations for their accommodation; and they were all brought safely on board, except one ostrich, which, in its struggles up the ship’s side, injured itself so much, that it was thought better to leave it behind.

Later a possibly imaginary lioness must also be contended with. This is of course the great age of natural history. Amateur scientists and collectors travel the world to find rare creatures unknown to European experience, and then kill, stuff and mount them.

Generally, Lord Grosvenor is simply a passenger. On occasion, however, he himself is of some assistance in the voyage:

Upon the aide-de-camp’s return I was called in to act as interpreter, his knowledge of English and Sir T.’s of French, being just sufficient to create a serious misunderstanding.

The issue there at hand being that Captain Staines has orders to check in at Algiers, and the French have orders that nobody shall be allowed to make port there. A misunderstanding, in these circumstances, could have very serious repercussions indeed.

Later there are more reminders of the belligerence of the time, France is not the only nation to be engaged in these waters:

We passed the Austrian squadron, consisting of one double bank frigate, two corvettes and two brigs, lying off Algesiras. They are by way of blockading the port of Tangeir, and bombarding the Emperor of Morocco, with whom Austria is at issue; but their navy is of the most contemptible description, and the campaign will therefore end as is has begun, at Algesiras.

Although dismissive of the Austrians, the attitude to the French is very different and far more respectful. An Algerian plan to destroy a French force using 150,000 local tribesmen is expected to meet with little success, however legion the tribesmen may be it is expected they will be no match for French discipline and artillery.

Grosvenor speaks too of the difficulties of pre-steam travel (obviously not in those terms though). The Isis is at times carried perilously close to shore, or near to shallow waters. There are storms and seasickness, quarantine and as ever in the golden age of sail the wind is of utmost importance:

Had we remained but twelve more hours at Gibraltar, we should have missed the wind which only just carried us through, and perhaps have been prisoners for a month.

Prisoners there merely meaning delayed, not literal imprisonment.

The book comes with prints of the original engravings that accompanied it, not in the highest quality here of reproduction but interesting for all that, and with two appendices which formed part of the original work and which add some supplemental detail about Captain Staines and about some subsequent military events, respectively. Here Lord Grosvenor explains how Captain Staines lost his arm back in 1807:

Poor Sir T. Staines was dreadfully wounded in this engagement; and, his surgeon being killed, he was forced to apply the assistant to amputate his arm at the socket. Perceiving that the young man was very nervous at being called upon to perform so perilous an operation, Sir T., with the utmost presence of mind, raised himself from his bed, and told him in a confidential manner, that although he much lamented the surgeon’s death, he yet, upon this critical occasion, felt greatly relieved at not being necessarily under his care, having much greater reliance on the skill of his assistant. Thus encouraged, the young man proceeded and performed the operation with great success.

Later, Sir T. loses much of the use of his other arm in a duel, yet remains in good spirits. Extraordinary. No wonder they won an empire.

A visit to the Barbary Regencies in 1830


Filed under History, North Africa

The East! The East!

Mark Mazower’s The Balkans, subtitled “From the End of Byzantium to the Present Day”, is a 176 page (including detailed guide to further reading and index) overview of the history of the Balkans over the past 550 years or so. It is a masterpiece of concision that sheds light on a complex and fractured history, while at the same time passionately arguing for a view of the Balkans rooted in European reality rather than easy mythology. To Mazower’s credit, heavy reference is made to primary sources, resulting in a book usefully illustrated with quotes from travellers to the Balkans and the people themselves.

Mazower examines, in surprising detail given the limited space he allows himself, the conditions of the Balkans under Ottoman rule, the perceptions in the West of the Christian subjects of the Sublime Porte and the implications our concepts of Orientalism had on our understanding of Balkan territory. He also addresses how, following the fall of the Ottoman Empire, old divisions based on religion came to be replaced with imported concepts of nationalism – with ultimately horrifying results (though, as he is at pains to point out, results echoed in many other parts of Europe).

Mazower investigates too the root causes of the relative lack of development in the Balkans, focusing (among other factors) on the lack of major navigable rivers and the presence of geographic barriers to the development of rail networks, which coupled with membership of a declining and backward-gazing empire during the key years of the nineteenth century led to the region missing out on much of the development experienced further West.

Coupled with late industrialisation were slow patterns of urbanisation, with a relatively late continuation of the peasantry as dominant social group. That, in turn, led to generations of Western travellers romanticising a peasant population onto which they projected their own ideologies.

In other words, the emergence in the Balkans of urban populations at a level close to the European norm, with its characteristic pattern of small families, high consumption, industry and services, is entirely a product of the last five or six generations. Until well into this century, the peasant predominated, for few people lived in the towns, and few of those who did lacked close ties to the land.

Looking at the peasants dressed in their picturesque costumes, foreign visitors were struck by the persistance of what they regarded as an antiquated life form. ‘In most ways the native seems to have changed little since Biblical days,’ wrote two British students of Macedonia in 1921, ‘so that it may almost be said that in observing the modern Macedonia one is studying the type amongst whom St. Paul preached and travelled.’ Their view that ‘the primitiveness of the native peasantry is their most marked feature’, was one shared implicitly both by travel writers and by postwar modernisation theorists and social anthropologists. Ethnographers, enthralled by the nineteenth-century romantic view of peasants as the respository of national tradition, charted what they took to be the pagan origins of their beliefs, ornaments and customs; American classicists heard in the oral epic poetry of Serbican guslar players the direct descendants of Homer.

On that last note, Ismail Kadare’s novel The File on H uses the 1930s efforts of American academics to study then contemporary epic poetry to explore issues of censorship and surveillance in Hoxha’s Albania as well as to discuss the nature of oral traditions. Ismail Kadare is a superb writer, and I recommend The File on H (and equally Broken April, which deals in blood feuds, the Albanian code known as the Kadun and more broadly on how to live with knowledge of mortality) unreservedly.

Returning to The Balkans, Mazower is also excellent on the role of Orthodox Christianity in the region, how it was preserved in part by the fact of Ottoman conquest from the threat of the Catholic powers. Under the Ottomans, there was a spread (despite growing and eventually endemic corruption) of an Orthodox world within the Ottoman world – “a world of Balkan orthodoxy whose horizons stretched from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea, from Northern Italy to Russia.”

Key here is how under the Ottomans communities were generally governed by members of their own faith. The Orthodox were ruled by in the main the Orthodox, though close contact and intermingling with Moslems and Jews often led to a pragmatic blurring of faiths…

We read, for example, of a sixteenth-century Istanbul man who vowed in the midst of a dangerous fever that if he recovered he would give up his taste in young boys. Cured, he thought better of it, but hesitated to break his vow. Having been advised by the ulema of Istanbul that he could not wriggle out of an oath once made, he sought the advice of the rabbis of Salonika to see if they could find a loop-hole. (They suggested he try women).

This promiscuity of faiths matters because for Mazower it puts the lie to Samuel Huntington’s famous concept of the ‘clash of civilisations’, which “situated the Balkans on one of the global fault-lines of this clash.” Mazower is clear that whatever the future may hold, Huntington’s thesis is in no way true of the past, that there was a cross-traffic of conversions, practices, beliefs and traditions – and a degree of cohabitation – that have no reflection in a Huntingtonian world.

Continuing the remarkable combination of brevity and precision that characterises this book, Mazower lucidly explains the background to and causes of World War I in around six pages, a tremendous feat in my view. Naturally there is a loss of detail, but in a title coming in at just 176 pages any topic is necessarily just an introduction. That he sheds light on the conflict at all, I consider no small achievement.

In dealing with the twentieth century, Mazower deals also of course with more recent history, and with the bloody internal conflicts and ethnic cleansing that have characterised it. For Mazower, the concept of there being a “peculiar propensity to violence among the people of the region” is a myth, he is at pains to place Balkan conflicts in the context of wider European conflicts and to show a pattern of massacres over our joint history.

Writing off Balkan violence as primeval and unmodern has become one way for the West to keep the desired distance from it. Yet, in fact, ethnic cleansing is not a specifically Balkan phenomenon. It took place through much of central and eastern Europe during and immediately after Hitler’s war: more than fifty forced population movements took place in the 1940s, involving the death and transplantation of millions of Germans, Poles, Ukranians and many others. The roots of its ferocity lie not in Balkan mentalities but in the nature of a civil war waged with the technological resources of the modern era. Unlike national wars, civil wars do not unify society – in the way, for instance, the Second World War helped unify British society. On th econtrary, they exacerbate latent tensions and differences, and are fought out amid a total breakdown of social and governmental institutions.

Mazower reminds the reader more than once that ethnic cleansing is not unique to the Balkans, quoting also in this light Hitler’s comment ‘Who now remembers the Armenians?’. This refers of course to the 1915-1916 massacres of hundreds of thousands (perhaps more) Armenians by the Ottomans – still controversial today.

For Mazower, the difficulty with understanding the Balkans lies not in its history being unusually complex or fractious, but rather in the perceptions we have built up of it as somewhere Easternised, alien. Its long existence under Ottoman rule and the widespread nineteenth (and indeed more recent) view that Europe is synonymous with Christendom have resulted in its being seen as outside our culture and history, apart from us. But of course, as with Turkey itself, any attempt to separate the Balkans from the rest of Europe is based on fantasy, there is no clear line to be found.

The disconcerting inter-penetration of Europe and Asia, West and East, finds its way into most descriptions of the Balkans in modern times. Europe is seen as a civilising force, a missle embedding itself in the passive matter of the Orient. Travellers routinely comment on signs of ‘European’ life such as houses with glass windows, cabarets, or hotels with billiard rooms. Balkan cities are usually described as having a European facade behind which hides an oriental – meaning picturesque but dirty, smelly, wooden and unplanned – reality. Railways are European, cart tracks are not; technology is definitely European, but not religious observance. The social fabric is almost always divided into a modernising surface and a traditional substance. Oriental realities – the power of religion, the prevalence of agrarian poverty – are assumed to be phenomena which have not changed for centuries. By the end of the nineteenth century, as numerous accounts testify, it was virtually impossible for Western travellers – esposed to the heady delights and sensual Orientalism of writers such as Pierre Lodi – not to see the Balkans in this way.

Mazower’s book is excellent, a fascinating introduction to the region and its history and one that shed for me considerable light on both. I learnt much that I did not previously know, and was inspired to read further (I have a copy of Misha Glenny’s much longer book of the same name and of Mazower’s history of Salonika, now known as Thessaloniki). This is a tremendous work of popular history which carries the depth of its understanding on light and easily read prose.


The Balkans. My copy had a better cover than that, showing a bomb-thrower being taken into custody in Sarajevo in 1914. The cover linked to for me is redolent of the Orientalism Mazower is so keen to dispel, which is a bit of a shame in some respects.


Filed under History

I have had a great love for the Sahara

Wind, Sand and Stars, by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Antoine de Saint-Exupery is a French author, best known for his 1942 children’s bestseller titled “The Little Prince”.

As well as The Little Prince however, Saint-Expupery also wrote a number of serious novels and a memoir based on his experiences as a pilot with a French operated North African air mail service. Wind, Sand and Stars is that memoir, and is one of the works I took with me on my recent holiday to Libya.

Memoir however is a tricky word in this case, really Wind, Sand and Stars (referred to just as Wind, going forward) is a work of humanist philosophy, of poetry and a meditation on what it is to be human and on our obligations one to the other. It is not a work of recollection intended simply to tell us what happened in a particular period of the writer’s life.

Wind was originally written in French, with the title Terre des Hommes. I read the William Rees translation in the Penguin Modern Classics edition. I am not familiar with the original French, but the English in this version is easy to read, skilfully applied and captures a real sense of poetry and vision. The Penguin edition also comes with an excellent introduction by Mr Rees, in which he explains details of Saint-Exupery’s life and other works and explains the differences between his translation and an earlier US translation published while Saint-Exupery was alive. Essentially, the Penguin edition is far closer to the French original, the US version was changed to meet assumed US tastes and so lost the tightness of the original prose (the Penguin edition is a concise 119 pages).

The Penguin translation also restores the original foreword, bizarrely omitted from the US edition, where Saint-Exupery explains the importance of a man testing himself against nature and the world so that he may better know himself, and going on to explain further his purpose in writing the book as follows:

In my mind’s eye I still have the image of my first night flight in Argentina. It was a dark night, with only occasional scattered lights glittering like stars on the plain.
Each one, in that ocean of shadows, was a sign of the miracle of consciousness. In one home people were reading, or thinking, or sharing confidences. In another, perhaps, they were searching through space, wearying themselves with the mathematics of the Andromeda nebula. In another they were making love. These small flames shone far apart in the landscape, demanding their fuel. Even the most unassuming of them, the flame of the poet, the teacher or the carpenter. But among these living stars, how many closed windows, how many extinct stars, how many sleeping men…
We must surely seek unity. We must surely seek to communicate with some of those fires burning far apart in the landscape.

As the book progresses, Saint-Exupery tells tales of his colleagues in the night mail, heroes as he sees them, men who guide their planes through the night sky each time knowing it may be for the final time. The planes these men fly are unreliable, open cockpitted, prone to mechanical error. Navigational aids are few, it is not unusual for men not to return from a flight (and indeed Saint-Exupery later died while flying, which perhaps is how he would have wanted it).

Saint-Exupery speaks of Henri Guillamet, a friend and colleague to whom he dedicates the book and who on crashing in the High Andes endured extraordinary hardship in order to survive, spurred on not by thoughts of his own survival but by fear of the grief his death would cause his wife. Another colleague pioneers new routes, each time testing himself against the unknown and a very real risk of death. He talks of a French Sergeant in a desert outpost which never sees enemies, and to whom the arrival of a pilot is as the arrival of rain after a long drought. He speaks then, in large part, both of loneliness and of the heroism of those who continue despite it. Loneliness, for Saint-Exupery, is unavoidable – we are each locked in our own heads and he is unsympathetic to those who choose lives of bourgois comfort and avoid facing the realities of existence as he sees them.

What does it mean, Guillaumet, if your days and nights of service are passed in the checking of gauges, in balancing your craft by gyroscope, in sounding the breath of your engines, in urging on fifteen tons of metal withou your shoulders: The problems confronting you are ultimately the problems of all men, and you share the nobility of the mountain-dweller with whom you are on a direct and equal footing. Like a poet, you are a connoisseur of the first signs of dawn. From deep in the chasms of troubled nights, you have willed so often the coming of that pale flower, that gleam of light which rises from the dark lands of the east. Soemtiems that miraculous spring has unfrozen slowly before your very eyes, and healed you when you thought that you were dying.
Your use of a scientific instrument has not made a dry technician of you. It seems to me that those who are alarmed by too many of our technical advances are confusing ends and means. The man who struggles in the hope of material gain alone indeed harvests nothing worth living for. But the machine is not an end in itself; it is an implement. As the plough is an implement.

For Saint-Exupery then, technology does not diminish man, the world itself certainly does not. We are only diminished by ourselves. His is a romantic vision, it is a vision which owes something to the works of such French writers as Chateaubriand (who I recommend only from historical interest I’m afraid, though others love him), it is fundamentally a poetic and mystical vision, but refreshingly it is not an anti-scientific one.

Saint-Exupery talks a number of times of this self-diminution, most affectingly in a passage about two young girls he encounters while staying at a remote farmhouse, run down and with vipers nesting under the table. The reference to nineteen in the following passage is a reference to his own sisters’ habit in youth of grading male visitors out of twenty.

I am dreaming, today. All that is very far away. What has become of those two fairies? Married, probably. But will that have changed them? The passage from girlhood to womanhood is such a serious thing. What do they do in their new homes? What has happened to their relationship with wild grasses and with snakes? They were in touch with something universal. But the day comes when the woman awakes within the girl, with the dreams of awarding a ‘nineteen’ at last. That nineteen is a burden on the heart. Then some fool presents himself. For the first time those sharp eyes deceive themselves, and light him in beautiful colours. If the fool speaks in verse, he is taken for a poet. Surely he understands the pitted floor, surely he loves mongooses, surely he is gratified by the intimacy of the viper swaying around his legs beneath the table. He receives a heart which is a wild garden, he who loves only trim parklands. And the fool takes the princess away into slavery.

For Saint-Exupery then we are things of glory, reduced to the prosaic by circumstance and the mundane. For him, we do this to ourselves and to each other, his work is in large part an argument for the importance of humanity as a thing of value. We, as human beings, matter.

Where Wind excels then, it not just in its poetic and evocative language or in its deep love of the empty landscapes of the desert and the sky, but in its recognition of the importance of human life and of human consciousness. Wind is painfully aware that each of us is a world, inviolate and unvisitable, ultimately unknowable. There is no sense in this work of a beneficient providence, of the ability of the metaphysical to sustain us, instead all we have is each other and in this Saint-Exupery sees a moral imperative.

This is further illustrated by an episode where Saint-Exupery frees a slave (the Libyans of the time still kept such) who unlike most has not become reconciled to his lot. Saint-Exupery buys his contract, releases it and gifts the freed man with money to establish himself. When the man spends the money buying gifts for children he does not know, Saint-Exupery understands it is because he must reestablish himself as a man, as one to whom people can be grateful and have affection, in order to rid himself of the burden of his own consciousness of his slavery. A great compassion flows through these passages, again romanticised (the man may simply have been very foolish in how he used the money in reality, but this is a work of poetry, not realism) but affecting for all that. Saint-Exupery speaks too of how the slaves, when old and exhausted, are simply abandoned to lie down in the sand and die. Of one such dying old man, he says:

It was not his suffering that pained me. He hardly seemed to be suffering. But in the death of a man an unknown world is dying, and I wondered what images were sinking into oblivion with him. What Senegalese plantations, what white Moroccan towns were vanishing. I had no way of knowing whether within that black shape the last light was flickering on paltry concernsL the tea to be brewed, the animals to be taken to the well… whether a slave’s soul was fading into sleep or whether, revived by a tide of memories, mankind lay dying in all his glory. The hard bone of his skull was to my eyes like the old treasure chest. What coloured silks, what images of festivals, what obsolete and pointless vestiges had survived his shipwreck in the desert. I could not know. The chest lay there; it was fastened and it was heavy. I could not know which place in the world was disintegrating within that man through the immense sleep of his final days, disintegrating in that consciousness and in that flesh which little by little was reverting to root and darkness.

I found this a hugely powerful passage. Saint-Exupery here captures the sheer tragedy of any human death, of every human death. Each of us lost, no matter how humble we may be, is the loss of a world. Saint-Exupery sees some comfort in the works we leave behind us, children, contributions to society or to knowledge, the tragedy with the slave is by making him such his masters left him unable to leave behind that which would have given his life meaning and so with his death his world dies alongside him.

Only when we ecome aware of the part we play, even the most unobtrusive part, will we be happy. Only then will we live in peace and die in peace, for what gives meaning to life gives meaning to death.

The book progresses through a series of exploits, crashes, daring flights, encounters with the Libyans and Arabs. Its most gripping section however is a description of an incident where Saint-Exupery and his navigator crashed in the Sahara desert while off course. Without supplies, the two men struggled through the desert, experiencing hallucinations, terrible thirst, eventually blinding patches of light appearing in their vision as they neared death. Only a chance encounter with a bedouin saved them, and of this terrible ordeal Saint-Exupery again makes poetry.

I have had a great love for the Sahara. I have spent nights in rebel territory, and have woken in that vast golden expanse shaped by the wind like the swell of the sea. I have waited for rescue, sleeping under my wing, but it was not like this.

This section of the book has great power, it is a tale of survival in terrible circumstances, but not reduced to a macho boy’s own adventure as so many such tales are. Rather, things go wrong, men nearly die, and instead of marvelling at their stoicism we instead explore the thoughts of a man facing his own death. Saint-Exupery speaks again of the importance of life as a thing in itself, and of how life is worth living whether we believe ourselves to have thirty years left or just thirty hours. To be alive, for Saint-Exupery, is in part its own reward.

Were I to wish to criticise this work, I would note how romanticised it is, Guillaumet is hardly drawn as a full human being but rather as a heroic or even mythic figure, others are similarly images of nobility and sacrifice. But such a criticism rather misses the point, as I have said above, this is not a work of realism. It is not reportage. Rather, it is an argument that human life has value, even though it is fragile and easily lost.

At the close, Saint-Exupery speaks of his horror at how many of us are forced by circumstance or society to be less than human. He travels in a train with Polish workers and their families, all sleeping. The children are beautiful, unspoiled. The adults though have had the grace beaten from them through years of poverty and hard toil. Born human, they have had the fruits of their humanity denied to them, instead bought off with cheap entertainments and denied what Saint-Exupery would (perhaps idealistically) grant to all. I will give the final words to Saint-Exupery:

Too many men are left sleeping.


Filed under French, History, North Africa, Saint-Exupery, Antoine de

A to the K

AK47, The Story of the People’s Gun, is a work of social history and reportage by journalist Michael Hodges. It charts the rise of the AK 47 from it’s creation in the post WWII Soviet Union to its present status as – according to Hodge’s thesis – one of the most ubiquitous weapons on Earth and a global brand of near unparalleled power.

Structurally, the book takes the form of a short introduction followed by eight chapters, each of which details part of the gun’s history through the eyes of someone whose story helps illustrate that history. The chapters break down roughly as follows: 1: a visit to Izhevsk, where the gun was originally manufactured, with a detour to the London launch of Kalashnikov vodka; 2: a history of how the gun was developed and an interview with General Kalashnikov himself; 3: a discussion of its use in Vietnam and how for a while it came to be viewed as weapon of freedom fighters, even in much of the West; 4: a trip to Palestine and a discussion of how the West came to see the gun as an instrument of terror; 5: takes us to Africa and to the use of child soldiers; 6: talks of how the Kalashnikov came to be used as a marketing tool for recruiting Islamic terrorists in London and elsewhere; 7: shows its use in Iraq, both by insurgents and the police; and 8: shows how it came to be ubiquitous even in in New Orleans and in the inner cities of the USA.

At its best, Hodge’s work is both fascinating and thought provoking. He charts the progress of the gun from popular weapon of liberation to simultaneous joint symbol of global terrorism and (depending on your perspective) armed resistance and is alert to the issues of perspective which can lead to one person regarding the weapon as a symbol of fear and cruelty while another views it as a symbol of manliness and independence. He is excellent on the societal role of the gun and how that has evolved, and happily (for my interest at least) spends relatively little time on the technical aspects of the weapon.

Relatively little time, but not no time. Hodges explains that the AK47 owes its success to its extraordinary reliability and simplicity of manufacture (and, therefore, of repair). The gun operates where others do not, after being dragged through mud, clogged with sand, immersed in water and given minimal maintenance. It works where Western issued weapons fail, and this reliability makes it perfect for use in the developing world where repair facilities are few and conditions often harsh. The AK47 allows a minimally trained child to lay down withering volumes of automatic fire from a weapon which can have received treatment which would render the bulk of contemporary firearms wholly inoperable. It is in that sense, as well as in the social sense Hodges goes on to discuss, that it is the people’s gun.

The first half of this work is much weaker in my view than the second. The trip to Izhevsk I felt only mildly interesting, although the interview with the General was valuable in providing historical context. The chapter on Vietnam, with its account of how an incident in which a Viet Cong soldier fired his AK47 at a B52 became a propaganda story about how a B52 was downed by AK fire, is fascinating, but much of it is not really relevant to the overall story the book is telling. The chapter about Palestine, unfortunately, lost my interest to such a degree that I put the book aside and only came back to it two months later out of a vague desire to push through and see if it improved.

It did, the remaining chapters build in power and interest, and if like me you struggle somewhat with those earlier sections that struggle is rewarded and pushing through is justified.

The difficulty with the Palestine section is that Hodges chooses to explore the issues relating to that conflict through the story of a French photojournalist. Where Hodges writes about Palestine, he is both chilling and effective, the story of the French journalist however simply left me cold and I found it hard to care about a man who seemed not so much a participant in events as a sort of tourist taking photos as much for personal aesthetic reward as for distribution to the wider world.

This chapter does contain some sections with real power, as quoted below, but I had to force myself through it in order to reach the far better chapters that followed.

At the entrance to the cul-de-sac a teenager chewing pistachio nuts sat on a white plastic garden chair outside the local Fatah office. He was an extremely serious youth, and to emphasise it he placed an AK across his lap. Pierre greeted him solemnly every time he passed. The youth would nod back, but seldom smiled. He spent much of his time looking at the sky waiting for an Israeli missile attack.

[Later, after the office “was destroyed by a rocket that killed the young guard”.]

When Pierre got to the office there was no sign of the youth’s body, but the plastic chair was still outside alongside his AK. In the wrecked interior of the building he could only find a burnt toilet brush and some papers to indicate that it had ever contained people. Pierre photographed the wreckage and sold the picture to an American agency. In 2001 pictures of burning buildings still sold well.

Once the book hits the half way mark though, it begins to really hit its stride. Hodges explores how the gun has come to be used in Sub-Saharan Africa, describing how in Mozambique and Angola, anti-colonial guerillas used to name their sons Kalash in honour of it, and how Mozambique came on independence to feature a Kalashnikov on its national flag (at least two nations have Kalashnikov’s on their flag to my knowledge, one of those rather chillingly with a bayonet attached). He tells the story of Sudanese child soldiers, sent over minefields before regular troops on the basis they were more likely to get through (being lighter) and detailing one disastrous battle the aftermath of which involved children committing suicide with their AKs due to thirst and hunger. He talks of Bob Geldof’s shameful decision to ban African acts from Live8 and this section of the book manages to be both a successful work of reportage and yet to be angry with what it has to tell (but then, perhaps a degree of anger is necessary for this form of reportage).

From there, Hodges visits the Finsbury Park Mosque and speaks with young men who have gone to terrorist training camps in Pakistan. They describe how they are trained with AKs, but the gun’s use is as a symbol, a recruitment tool, when the only weapon these young men are ever likely to use is their own bodies with explosives strapped to them. For these young men, the AK is an emblem of resistance to the West, training with it and the mere holding of it are gestures rich with significance for them, it’s utility to those who control the camps being more as an icon than as an actual weapon. Hodges also here describes how Pakistan and Afghanistan came to be flooded with AKs, in part through Western foreign policy designed to that end, and how that has come back to haunt us in the form of largely inaccessible territories filled with terrorist training camps, heavily armed militias and ungovernable tribal factions.

Moving to Iraq, Hodges develops the theme of the AK as symbol, describing the Iraqi custom of firing AKs into the air at weddings and celebrations and the disastrous consequences that custom has had when combined with nervous US forces with little understanding of local practice. He talks of how Iraqi police saw off the butts of the rifles so they can hold them pistol style, a habit which is thought to make the wielder look cooler but which also makes the gun hopelessly inaccurate. He talks of the pitiable faith of the Iraqi insurgents in the weapon, who treating it as a form of modern Ghost Shirt will stand in open ground firing upon armoured cars which they cannot possibly damage and of the devastating response that tends to follow and the collateral damage that can ensue.

During that long Sadr city night I’d listened uncomfortably to the ping-ping-ping that an AK round makes when it hits a steel door, but I had never been in real danger. The Bradley I drove in had been near impregnable. Only fools would attack it with AK47s, yet as I watched the al-Mahdi army fighters had come out to attempt it with almost transcendental arrogance. Across Iraq the resistance in its many forms, the militias and even the police force didn’t just fire their AKs but wielded them in the air, as if the very iconic nature of the semi-automatic rifle had entered into the men themselves. The Americans had killed five, just as they had killed as many as twenty fighters on other nights, but as the young gunner told me when we got back to War-Eagle and he pulled himself wearily out of his hatch, ‘Doesn’t seem to matter how many I kill – they keep on coming back, night after night, firing AKs at us.’
I had seen the AK become more than a gun. In Iraq, as in Vietnam, the AK47 operates as a symbol of resistance to the United States, although in Iraq the symbolism of the AK sometimes seems to be of superior importance to its mechanical abilities. The Viet Cong did not knowingly raise up their AK47s as a signifier of their fight, but Iraqi resistance fighters do so regularly. America’s occupation has become one of the most effective marketing campaigns that the Kalashnikov has ever benefitted from. As long as American forces stay, be it for five or ten years, each day enhances the gun’s image, each Bradley mission into the heart of Sadr city confirms its potency and the threat it poses to those who wield power in the world. In Iraq the Kalashnikov has finally become, to the long-lasting detriment of the country and misery of its inhabitants, the people’s gun.

Finally, Hodges goes to the US, to discuss how the AK became commonplace on the streets of American cities and how following Hurricane Katrina it was once again used as a weapon by dispossessed people who considered themselves as waging a war of resistance against an occupying power, in this case their own government.

Hodges’ story then is of how a gun became a symbol, and more than that how it became a brand. His argument is that the brand itself has power, beyond its mere use as a weapon, and that today it is one of the most potent brands the world possesses even though few think it that way. His case is largely persuasive, his reports from London, Africa, Iraq and the US solid works of reportage (and in that context I mean solid as a complement). Although I found the first half of the book wanting, I will look with interest at Michael Hodges’ future reports.


Filed under History, Politics, Reportage

Castile has made Spain, and Castile has destroyed it

Imperial Spain is a history of the rise and decline of Imperial Spain between the years 1469 and 1716. It opens with the union of the Crowns of Castile and Aragon, and ends with the final abolition of the Crown of Aragon and of the historic rights and privileges enjoyed by the people therein, an abolition the effects of which still resound in Spanish politics to this day. From another perspective, it starts with the creation of Spain as more than a geographical concept, and ends with the further creation of Spain as a unified state.

Imperial Spain was originally published by JH Elliott in 1963, the Penguin edition which I read was a reprint dated to 1990 and is I believe still the current version. Despite its age, it is widely regarded as a classic work in relation to the history of imperial Spain and JH Elliott (who held chairs at King’s College London, Oxford and Cambridge) is a very highly regarded academic who specialises in this period and culture.

It is an academic work, rather than a popular history. That said, it is designed as a general overview of the period, covering near 250 years in a little over 400 pages (including afternotes), and so is easily accessible to the lay reader (such as me). Elliott has a clear style, some might even say dry, which requires some attention but which is ultimately a pleasure to read provided you are able to give his work the attention it merits.

And it does merit attention, this is a sweeping work which provides a good grounding in the origins, successes and ultimate failures of imperial Spain and which in doing so sheds much light on trends that continue to remain relevant in modern Spain. Elliott brings a number of key figures to life, explains clearly and simply that which we know enough about to be able to explain but refrains from speculation where evidence is lacking. Elliott is quite happy to confess that we do not know how or why a certain thing happened, or to note that other later historians will need to elucidate some detail which was at the time of writing closed to him. It is partly this humility, this willingness to confess ignorance, which gave me as a reader confidence where he did speak to events. Elliott is a scholar quite aware of the limitations of his knowledge, but it would be an error to conclude from this that his knowledge is not both wide and deep.

In many ways this is very traditional historical writing, Elliott creates no imagined dialogues or internal monologues, he sticks to that which we know or can deduce. Personally, I prefer my history as Dragnet would have liked it, and therefore Elliott’s approach is one that I find both refreshing and reassuring. Elliott does not disguise the truth that history is a moveable feast, with the explanation that convinces one generation failing to convince another, he makes arguments but is at pains to let the reader know when a thing is known for certain and when it is his conclusion and as such challengeable by later academics (as he challenges some earlier ones).

The history of imperial Spain is essentially the history of the creative tension between the centre and the periphery of the Spanish state, such as there was. If there is one central theme to Elliott’s work, it is that. At the time of the union of Castile and Aragon in the persons of Isabella and Ferdinand, these were utterly disparate cultures. Castile was an autocratic and militarised nation, crude and emerging from the long struggle of the Reconquista. The Crown of Aragon by contrast was a decentralised federation of trading states, Aragon, Catalonia and Valencia, of which Catalonia was the dominant. It was this union, of a large militaristic state with a much smaller but far more commercial federalised kingdom, which gave imperial Spain its unique character, its years of glory and ultimately its undoing.

The nature of the Crown of is best captured in an apocryphal oath sworn by its people to their king (the oath captures the spirit of the time, but was likely coined much later):

“We who are as good as you swear to you who are no better than we, to accept you as our king and sovereign lord, provided you observe all our liberties and laws, but if not, not.”

As Elliott goes on to say:

“Consequently, the medieval empire of the Crown of Aragon was far from being an authoritarian empire, ruled with an iron hand from Barcelona. On the contrary, it was a loose federation of territories, each with its own laws and institutions, and each voting independently the subsidies requested by its king.”

Accordingly, the monarch of Castile had direct powers of taxation over his kingdom and was able to levy troops from within it as needed. The monarch of the Crown of Aragon had only such powers of taxation and troop raising as the constitutional bodies of the different principalities within the kingdom were willing to vote him. When the two crowns were unified by the marriage of Isabella and Ferdinand, the rights of the people of the Crown of Aragon were preserved and therefore each kingdom continued to operate under wholly different legal systems under which the rights of the monarch in later centuries would be far greater in respect of the central element of his realm (Castile) than they would be in respect of the peripheries (Aragon, Catalonia and Valencia).

As Elliott puts it:

“The new Spain was therefore a plural, not a unitary, state, and consisted of a series of separate patrimonies governed in accordance with their own distinctive laws. The Spain of the Catholic Kings continued to be Castile and Aragon, Catalonia and Valencia. Moreoever, the existing legal and political structure of these various states remained largely unaltered.”

Equally important as this tension between centre and periphery, between military state and commercial federation, was the role of hidalguia, the concept of the hidalgo. The hidalgo was a nobleman, and as such exempt from many taxes by Castillian law, to be an hidalgo was to be a man of honour, a man not subject to the burdens of an often punitive system of taxation. The highest nobility ranked above the hidalgo, he is closer to a Knight or Chevalier than anything more elevated, but the exemption from fiscal duties was of real value and given the widespread poverty of much of the people of Castille (including a great many hidalgos) the ability to pass down the status of hidalgo to one’s heirs was often the only meaningful beqeauthal that a man could make.

The hidalgo was ideally a man of arms, a warrior. He did not earn his living by the sweat of his brow, he gained riches through conquest rather than work. His honour was everything to him, more important than life itself. The status of hidalgo was however, for much of imperial Spanish history, purchasable, and as such a man could were he successful purchase his family’s way into the nobility and so exempt them from the need to pay taxes going forward. This combination, of honourable warriors disdainful of labour but exempt from taxation, was to drive much of Castile’s desire for conquest and its inability to pay its way as its empire expanded.

Elliott tells us that at the time of the union of the crowns the Crown of Aragon was exhausted, its drive flagging. Castile by contrast was a young and vibrant country. The combination therefore brought together centuries of commercial and international experience with a large, young and militaristic state. That combination proved the perfect one from which to create an empire, and in the golden age of the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella that empire fell to them in the form of Spain’s American possessions.

Elliott quotes Bernal Diaz del Castillo, companion to Cortés, in relation to the conquest of the Americas as follows:

“We came here to serve God and the king, and also to get rich.”

And get rich they did, Elliott takes us through the creation of the golden age of Ferdinand and Isabella, illustrates its successes but also its failings, in an even handed assessment of their achievements. They broke the power of the great nobility, but expelled the Jews and with them much commercial drive and experience. They united the crowns, but not the peoples. They reformed the Church in answer to widespread corruption, but founded the Inquisition with consequences that were much later to prove very damaging. Overall though, their achievements outweighed their failures, this was Spain’s golden age, as Elliott notes:

“Out of their long experience, the Aragonese could provide the administrative methods which would give the new monarchy its institutional form. The Castillians, for their part, were to provide the dynamism which would impel the new state forward. … The Spain of the Catholic Kings is essentially Castile: a Castile, overflowing with creative energy, which seemed suddenly to have discovered itself.”

Elliott writes at length about the humanist reforms of the golden age and of its cultural richness. He is detailed in his description of the new bureacracies which were to prove so critical to administering the most far flung empire the world had then ever known, and in how that empire was financed. Indeed, in general Elliott concentrates on matters of bureacracy, finance, culture and faith, and while he places wars and conquests in their wider context he does not dwell on them overly. This is a history of Spain, not of its adventures or possessions.

Elliott takes us past the death of Isabella, the reign of Ferdinand alone and the constant tensions experienced between the powers of the monarchs and the rights of the peripheries. He takes us to the Habsburg succession, and the civil war it sparked, the consequences of which were to ripple down through Spanish history for generations. He talks of the spread of the ideas of Erasmus, and years later of the suppression of those same ideas by the Inquisition. He talks of Spain’s sense of mission, of manifest destiny, and of where that was to lead them.

With the coming of the Habsburg’s, Spain became part of a larger empire, and another strand emerges in Elliott’s narrative. The conflict between the desire of each part of the Spanish state to see its king and have him spend time in their lands, and the needs of an emperor whose domains extended far beyond Spain’s borders. As Elliott says:

“To the Aragonese, Charles was King of Aragon; to the Castillians, King of Castile; to the Flemings, Count of Flanders; and if they occasionally allowed themselves a certain feeling of pride that their King was also the ruler of many other territories, this was generally outweighed by annoyance at the demands made upon him by those territories, to the consequent neglect of their own particular interests.”

Or as a Seventeenth century jurist quoted by Elliott put it:

“the kingdoms must be ruled and governed as if the king who holds them all together were king only of each one of them”.

Habsburg Spain then, and the larger empire of which it formed part, was golden age Spain writ large, with those same tensions of centre and periphery continuing and the same tensions of differing legal and constitutional settlements coexisting under a common monarch, whose territory extended far further than it could ever be possible to personally oversee.

Under the Habsburgs, Elliott shows us how the bureaucracy continues to expand, filling the need created by this large and heterogenous state. He also shows however how the combination of hidalguia and the rights of the periphery acted to increasingly concentrate the tax burden on the merchant and labouring classes of Castile. The hidalgos and greater nobility were exempt from taxation, the principalities of the Crown of Aragon unwilling to vote against their own fiscal interests in the support of what they regarded as unnecessary overseas adventures. Increasingly then, the tax burden fell on just one part of the population, and as it did so Spain grew poorer and the impetus on achieving success to use it to purchase the status of hidalgo rather than reinvesting the fruits of that success grew stronger. Habsburg Spain grew more powerful, but increasingly the costs of that power were borne by fewer people each of whom was over time being taxed more and more heavily.

Worse yet, in order to meet the growing deficits, the Emperor had to turn to forms of deficit financing which to a modern reader appear eerily familiar. Lucrative government bonds were issued, creating a whole class within society of people able to live purely on their investments without the need themselves to generate real wealth from trade or industry. Vast loans were taken out with foreign bankers, the government mortgaged its future to pay for the glory and always pressing needs of the present. More and more government income was pre-hypothecated to servicing debt, such that as the treasure fleets arrived their wealth flowed out to bankers and investors barely filling the government’s coffers, so causing the need for more debt and more taxes on those in Castile who were not exempted from paying them. This was a society fuelled by debt, in which financial investments were of greater value than commerce or manufacturing, in the longer term this was not to prove a successful strategy for the Spanish state.

This problem of debt financing replacing real investment continued for the remainder of imperial Spain’s history, and Elliott quotes one Gonzales de Cerrigo as follows:

“Money is not true wealth. … [Wealth is being] dissipated on thin air – on papers, contracts, censos, and letters of exchange, on cash and silver, and gold – instead of being expended on things that could yield profits and attract riches from outside to augment the riches within. And thus there is no money, gold or silver in Spain because there is so much; and it is not rich, because of all its riches…”

As the complex system of wealth creation through financial instruments began to unravel, so too did the Spanish hegemony, and in the absence of a strong underlying real economy (as a modern politician would put it), it was a decline that attempted later reforms were wholly unable to reverse.

Together with these financial crises, Elliott also introduces us to such concepts as limpieza de sangre, purity of blood. A highly politicised law to prevent men with Jewish blood serving in government, which acted to promote the fortunes of those of lower birth whose families were less likely than those of the nobility to have interbred with the rich conversos – descendants of Jewish families that had converted to Christianity rather than be expelled from Spain. The doctrine of purity of blood gave men locked out of traditional sources of honour – family history and lineage – a weapon with which to challenge the dominance of their social superiors. Elliott is excellent on this type of highly politicised intrigue, showing who developments served and why they were pursued. This doctrine damaged the power of the nobility badly, and formed part of the closing of Spain to foreign influences that marked its period of decline from the 1620s onwards.

Elliott also takes us, where facts are known, deep within court intrigues such as the murder of royal secretary Escobedo in 1578 and the destruction of his murderer and the faction of which he was part in the following year. The Habsburgs, after Charles, proved ill-suited to rulership and so Spain became awash with conspiracies, factions, power struggles and men seeking to exercise the powers of the throne by influencing those who sat upon it.

The brief glory and extended decline of imperial Spain gave birth to its two greatest artists, Velasquez and Cervantes, each of whom straddled both periods and so were keenly aware of the contrasts between the two ages. They saw Castile increasingly divided between the super-rich and the very poor, as the middle classes were taxed out of existence and the peasantry increasingly chose to abandon their farms in the hopes of a less precarious existence in the cities (the existence of price caps but not price floors on agricultural products did not help this process). Increasingly church or state (including military) service was the means to survival, commerce or industry viewed with contempt as a fool’s choice. The interests of the rich and the masses became unaligned, with predictably disastrous effects.

By the 1680s the French envoy to Madrid was commenting that one could see Spain’s power diminishing from year to year. The decline was irreversible, the failure to create a unified state, the succession of weak monarchs, the massive national debt, these had acted together to cripple the Spanish imperium. Elliott however shines particularly here in pointing out how much that is obvious to us today would not have been obvious then, and how many of the choices faced by the more talented within the Spanish state were invidious ones permitting of no wholly positive outcome. He notes that they were faced with then unprecedented internal racial and religious diversity, with an empire of geographical scope that the technologies of the time were quite unequal to managing, the later closing of their borders to foreign ideas and the increasing religious dogmatism were attempts to maintain a state in the face of challenges never before experienced and which perhaps at that time were incapable of solution.

Elliott does not, however, exempt individuals from sharing blame. Vested interests prevent reforms, collectively the ruling classes experience a loss of nerve which leads to them protecting their own interests while the ship of state slowly sinks around them. Spain’s failure for Elliott is a mix of the unavoidable, and of the mediocrity of an entire generation of its elites as they do nothing to ward off the collapse that even then many were plainly foreseeing.

Elliott takes us through the reform attempts, shows us the men who sought to reverse the tide of decline and why they failed. He brings to life the courts of the later kings, each more disastrous than the last, and shows how the triumph and tragedy of the Spanish state was reflected in the work of its greatest artists as a people tried to understand how they had moved from seeming invincibility to the apparent withdrawal from them of the blessings of God. This is a detailed work, as this blog entry probably shows, and I have barely touched on its contents. It is a work filled with compassion for a people who failed and knew they were failing, but who had poor choices before them and who along the way created glories of art that remain with us and created an empire the likes of which the world had not before known.

This is a fascinating work of history, a tremendous starting point for an investigation of this period, and is a work of considerable scholarship which remains both humble and compassionate and which avoids confusing what we know now with that which they knew then. Having read it, I feel I have a far better understanding of Spain’s imperial past than I had before, and I fully expect in future to deepen my reading based on the understanding Elliott has given me.

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