a casahistoria reading list - general interest history books  

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Michael Pye: The Edge of The World

Michael Pye's book has the sub-title: "How the North Sea made us who we are" and indeed it does make several interesting connections to show the significance of the North Sea in forming modern western society in the post Roman and medieval eras. Star placement is given to the Frisians, living on the margins of north-western Europe and dependent on the North Sea for transport and economic survival. Pye claims they made a major contribution by forcing society to look differently at the concept of money: at how they used money, instead of as barter or as a straight equivalent in precious metals, which required both buyer and seller to accept the abstract idea of value. Attention is also paid to the Hansa and how they developed the modern concept of economic community over nation or kingdom.

Pye also explores areas such the beguine communities of women in the low countries which reveal surprisingly modern ideas of female independence and control over their own destiny as well as the emergence of sumptuary and labour laws after the Black Death which he argues begin to stratify society more formally than before. However, interesting as these are, it is at times difficult to see the connection with the North Sea other than what is being cherry-picked for inclusion has originated in north-west Europe. This is perhaps clearest in the final chapter where much time is spent examining the Flanders-Burgundy connection of the late middle ages. Intriguing as it is to see how a Flemish culture flourished behind a Potemkin facade that disguised weakness for display, it is not clear how this fits the sub-title of the book. Ultimately the reader is left with the feeling that this is a well researched set of historical connections that is looking for a common thread to house them.

April ’15 (***)

 




 

Michael Jago: Clement Attlee: the Inevitable Prime Minister

Clement Attlee would appear to be having something of a revival in public view at the moment. He even appears on a series of T-shirts with the phrase "what would Clement do?" alongside an image of himself. What indeed? Attlee has become something of an unknown quantity for students. Less charismatic than his prime ministerial predecessor (Churchill) he led the British post war Labour government that changed the structure of British society and welfare arguably more than any other before or after. Michael Jago's biography begins to flesh out who Attlee was./strong>

Michael Jago's narrative soon makes clear what he was not. He was not from a poor background. He attended a good public school and joined the legal profession before the 1914 war broke out. He was not a radical socialist from the Trades Union wing of the left. He was modest, not extrovert, pushing himself to the front or that ambitious that he trampled on rivals to get ahead.

However it is clear from early on he was a respected leader able to win confidence from those he led. World War I saw him serve at Gallipoli and in France with honour and an officer who cared for his men. He had a social conscience, albeit initially rooted in the upper class concept of helping the poor and needy in a "lady bountiful" way but one which led him directly into social work in the East End of London and through that into Labour Party politics as the only way he could see to change the lot of those in need. He identified with his constituents. Initially not only did he live amongst them, his East End home was partly given over to party usage.

As he rose up through the Labour Party in the interwar period to eventually lead the party Jago portrays Attlee as principled (he came to resent what he saw as MacDonalds hypocrisy and opportunism) as well as hard-working and quietly efficient. Jago raises the question of whether the party leadership came to him through luck to be in the right place at the right time rather than ability. He then tends to leave this question hanging until the final chapters when he disregards it. Always quietly efficient and hardworking, but most of all generally trustworthy towards colleagues seems to explain his success.

Most enlightening to the café is Jago's portrayal of Attlee as Deputy PM to Churchill in the wartime coalition. He is shown as a loyal supporter of the PM, softening his harsher exclamations and working very publicly to keep support up. Touring the country, giving talks in factories, shipyards as well as in town halls Attlee became the face of the government, looking forward to a better future. This had been agreed by both main parties, but Attlee came over as the confident, well organised, hard working member of the top duo. The safer pair of hands for the peace.... His profile thus raised, this made the 1945 Labour victory more easily explained.

The post 1945 period is perhaps the less satisfying part of Jago's book. It is clear the Foreign Policy saw Attlee at his weakest. India and Palestine especially were disasters whose repercussions remain today. Equally it is clear that Attlee played the Atlantic relationship poorly. Truman was too easily ignored. He lacked Churchills ability to cajole, to compliment or simply to invest the time in maintaining close personal relations with the US leadership. Whilst Jago shows this well, the café would have liked to see more focus on the personal mechanics and relationships that drove through the post war welfare state. After all it is this that would seem to have been Attlees' real strength.

Overall however a work to be recommended. Attlee needs wider study as well as recognition. It is as if he has been able to maintain his own modesty over historians in the near 50 years after his death in 1967.

January ’15 (****)

 




 
Richard Fletcher: The Conversion Of Europe

Fletcher tells the story of how Europe was converted to Christianity from 300AD until the late 14th century. This means Fletcher looks at the emergence (or adoption?) of the Christian church as a political force and its spread across western continent. The early chapters, more dependent on almost-contemporary hagiographic writings of monks are perhaps the least interesting, their lack of recorded detail failing to provide a satisfactory factual narrative to base analysis upon. This though is no fault of the author - indeed by providing a comprehensive survey of the missions and missionaries (with their confusing names) he provides an accessible record of how the ideas and customs of the early western Christian church spread in Europe. His chapter on the construction of ritual, more abstract and less mired in the life stories of the succession of early missions is a great success. He demonstrates very clearly how ritual and religious custom and ceremony were a later fabrication drawing as much out of pagan practice and political expediency as divine origin. Little would appear to connect the conduct of the Catholic Church with early Christian groups it purported to descend from. This would not make a good read for a Roman Catholic fundamentalist.

Established western Christianity then faced threats from rival faiths, one old (from Europe's Jews), one new (from a youthful and energetic Islam, predominantly in Iberia) and then the family feud as the eastern Orthodox Church moved further away and became a direct competitor in the Slav lands of central and eastern Europe. Fletcher covers these threats well and shows how problems arising have continued to fester away into modern times.

The work shows that nothing was inevitable about the rise of western Christianity. It was as haphazard as it was inexorable. One area I would have liked to have seen emphasized and analysed more is the crucial "crossover" point at the start of the survey when Christianity moved into the political sphere and the symbiotic relationship appeared between politics and religion. Why was it considered an appropriate move by successive heads of government from late Roman times to Charlemagne? Just how cynical and pragmatic were Church leaders of this time? Answers may never be clear given the lack of evidence, but a little more detailed speculation would perhaps have been appropriate here.

Co-incidentally, whist reading the Fletcher I was re-reading the first of Asimov's Foundation trilogy for the first time in (too many) years and was struck by the similarity in the expansion of Hari Seldon's planet on the back of the pseudo religion that his psychohistory produced in the minds of the neighbours........

October '14 (****)
 




 
Andrew Wheatcroft: The Enemy at the Gate

Wheatcroft tells a story little written about by English speaking historians - the attempts by the Ottoman Turks to capture Vienna in the 16th and 17th centuries. The focus here is on the campaign which came closest to success, that of 1683. The most useful part of the work is in placing this attack in the context of Turkish advance westwards since the 15th century and in showing the reader new to the topic just how extensive this was. The duration of the Turkish presence in much of Hungary until the 18th century and the Hapsburg wars against the Turks which lasted until the end of that century were a surprise to me.

The 1683 siege is covered in much detail although as mentioned before in other reviews the quality of the maps in this ebook was poor and place names almost totally unreadable (when will publishers do something about this? Some now recognise the problem but their solution is to publish without any maps at all...) which made it difficult to always follow the progress of both the initial Turkish march on the capital and then the military configuration of those armies lifting the siege. However the detail of the narrative is clear.

Unfortunately, the focus tends to fade once the siege is lifted and the narrative becomes an outline of future campaigns and battles which I found somehow lacking in substance and unsatisfying. Part Three is more an essay on the nature of Austria's "Age of Heroes" (Heldenzeitalter) which followed the final succession of victories against the Ottomans. These included the hero of 1683, Charles of Lorraine, and Prince Eugene of Savoy the 18th century leader and enabled Vienna to construct a fantasy of military heroism and prowess that would last well into the 19th century (and even contribute to the hubris of 1914) and long after any repetition of victorious military campaigns was possible within the Empire. The Austrian historian Michael Hochedlinger is quoted as describing this 'belated great power', as having a 'splendid baroque surface, it perhaps had more of a trompe l'oeil and resembled a colossus on feet of clay, whose fate was always hanging by a thread'. The connections with 1683 are made but at times this final section feels more like an afterthought.

July '14 (***)
 





 
Wade Davis:
The Great War, Mallory And The Conquest Of Everest


To call Wade Davis's excellent  book on the British Everest Expeditions of 1921, 1922 and 1924 a work on mountaineering is to do it a disservice. It is an intelligently written and painstakingly researched story that weaves much more into the narrative than how three successive expeditions tackled Everest and failed.

Wade places these post World War 1 climbs into a very broad context: the world of the Edwardian gentleman Alpinist and their studied denial of professionalism (to the extent of resisting the use of oxygen on Everest as it was not quite "good form"); the emergence of the Bloomsbury milieu in which many of the mountaineers moved - its decadence as well as intellectualism; the religious beliefs and customs of Tibet as well as its 19th and 20th century troubled history with China and Britain's imperial meddling in the region; the need for a specific British success in a feat of exploration to redeem the country after 1918 and the failure to achieve that other great international trophy: the first to the South Pole. Each of these is covered in detail allowing for the mindset of the mountaineers and their hosts to be better understood - as well as their final failure.

However the central piece of context is that of the Great War. With one exception (Irvine) all the climbers were frontline officers who survived the war. As the narrative unfolds Wade looks at each in turn outlining their war and how its horrors impacted on each one. Their stories are told in stark and brutal detail. It is clear that at war's end they carried the burden of what they had seen and who they had lost. Their response to life, danger and death was clearly conditioned by the temporary and fragile nature of their wartime experience. All of this background takes time to present (in the 600 pages or so we don't start on the first expedition until the late 200's) but is not only essential to the unfolding drama but presented in a skilful way that is easy to read.

The second part of the book looks at each of the three expeditions in turn showing how gradually the climbers reached higher up Everest until the summit was less than 1000 feet away and ends with the death of Mallory and Irvine on their final attempt (by now using oxygen) to reach the summit. The emotions provided by the book are complex. At times it is difficult to empathise with the main characters. The imperial attitude towards bearers and sherpas (despite a few occasions of considerable bravery to protect then) will leave an unpleasant taste to modern readers. The carriage by bearers across much Tibet of items clearly not crucial to an expedition - bottles of vintage champagne from private personal cellars and tins of foix gras - again is symptomatic of a bygone age of privilege. One word used frequently by Wade in describing team members at different times is "lassitude".

Yet this remains a story of determination as well as personal strength and bravery. The final, 1924 expedition shows this most of all. Probably one of the key factors in reducing the strength of the climbers for the one last attempt was the energy devoted to climbing up to a top camp to bring back, and so save their lives, four sherpas who had broken away from the main descent team and returned to the higher camp where they would otherwise die of exposure. Faced by the worst weather for many years repeated attempts are made to conquer Everest. Each in turn fails leaving the bearers exhausted (many walked out, two died) and the sahibs close to physical collapse (frost-bite, snow blindness, altitude sickness and physically weakened). Yet, despite apparently having his own misgivings, Mallory decides on one final attempt at the summit with Irvine and both head up alone from the top camp but do not return.

The irony that dawns on the reader during this final expedition is that the climbers are in fact reliving that Great War experience. It is a "campaign", repeated offensives are launched to push just a few yards further up the mountain, often followed by retreat and retrenchment. The sherpas are formed into "assault groups" to set up forward posts. Hardship, injury and danger from the unknown is a constant. Even the arguments over whether to use oxygen or not echoed the British wartime debate over whether to use modern technology to help break out of the stalemate. It is this that in the final analysis makes this such a sad work. Here were the survivors of a generation that suffered terribly during the Great War. Their attempts on Everest can perhaps be seen in part as a response to this. Having lived so closely with death and disfigurement for so long they took greater risks than otherwise might have been the case and were more dogged in the face of possible failure.

Although unlikely, Mallory may have made the summit, dying on the way back. The discovery of his body in 1999 does little to prove or disprove this. It is perhaps fitting though, that like so many of his wartime comrades his precise fate will never be known.

Dec'13 (*****)
 



 
Norman Davies: Vanished Kingdoms

At first glance on a bookshop shelf (especially in an airport lounge!) this is a pretty intimidating tome - over 800 pages all in. However it is far from that once you start to read it. Davies has selected 15 European kingdoms/states that have vanished in recent and not so recent times and looks at how they came about and then disappeared. Some lasted only a day (Rusyn, March 15th 1939) others spanned many centuries. The most recent (and obvious) state included is the USSR (1924-1991), which Davies admits provided the idea for the book in the first place, but the range includes post Roman Tolosa (Toulouse....) (418-507) in what is now southern France, Alt Clud (5th-12th centuries) of Scotland's Dumbarton Rock close to where the café first went to school and Borussia (1230-1945) the origin of Prussia. The final section "How States Die" tries to draw some of the strands together from the 15 surveys.

Each Kingdom is described carefully and in several instances their origins are just as interesting (if not more so) than the events of their demise. Éire is a case in point. Davies adopts an interdisciplinary approach to show how national identity and desire for statehood closely followed the emergence (and hot-housing) of a cultural identity, almost where one did not previously exist. This theme is repeated in several other of the stories. An intriguing use is also made of linguistics (especially with the kingdoms originating more deeply in the past) to survey patterns of settlement, expansion and identity.


With fifteen states to cover there is a little inconsistency evident in treatment. Some surveys become overlong and involved. Aragon (1137-1714), whilst one of the more interesting histories outlined could have been better edited. Dynastic history is key to its growth and decline but too many pages are devoted to the detail of genealogy, encouraging skim reading. Conversely I would have preferred to see more space being devoted to Byzantion (330-1453) which with 16 sides has received only two more than the one day Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine (March 1939). Most kingdoms are otherwise treated to 50-80 pages of study. There are also some clear omissions, perhaps most notably, Venice (perhaps as it was a Republic? But other non-kingdoms are included...).


It appears the researching for these outline histories is exemplary - the footnotes are clearly set out and easy to use which is essential when brief histories like these produce sweeping historical assessments whose origins need to be clear. As a result the footnote section at the end reads like a "Who's Who" of specialist historians on the country concerned. Pleasingly, maps are plentiful (74 in total plus a further 14 lists of figures/family trees) - always a good sign of thorough study - and essential here, where names and frontiers are often new to the reader. Over eighty colour plates helped to develop the individual histories. On a practical note, I was reading the hardback edition which holds all of this well together. I am less sure how paperback binding would survive the to and fro of map/image/footnote referencing that a reader might subject the book to.

There is no need to read chapter by chapter or even in Davies' sequence. Chapter size is manageable to allow for dipping into whenever a spare hour is available This is an eminently readable and valuable addition to the post Roman history of Europe and does a service in reminding the reader of a completely, or as in the title, half-forgotten Europe. Let's hope there is a follow-up sequel!!  March '13 (*****)

Other reviews of Vanished Kingdoms:

The Guardian
The Literary Review 
Times Higher Education


Wall Street Journal: An Interview with Davies 


 





Thomas Penn: Winter King

Penn's telling of the story of Henry VII turns the focus on one of the lesser known Tudors. Surprising, given that as "Winter King" clearly shows, it was Henry VII who established law and order after decades of unruly noble wars and founded the dynasty that was to govern for over 100 years.

The Wars of the Roses had led to chaos and instability for much of the 15th century, Henry Tudor brought this to an end. He signifies the move from medieval monarchy to the age of new centralist government. Penn shows in great detail how this was achieved. The continual preoccupation with usurpers and the variety of ways (some surprising) used to neutralize them; the obsession with ensuring financial independence – so much so that by the end of his reign Henry was considered one of the wealthiest monarchs in Europe, a wealth his son Henry VIII would soon squander after his accession; and the way Henry combined the two using a system of fines and bonds to keep his potentially disruptive nobility in check.

Where "Winter King" excels is in the detail it provides about the individuals who surrounded Henry. The work of his councillors and officials, always tightly monitored by the King are shown in depth. Not just the best known such as Empson and Dudley but Bray, Fox and the many others who worked for him. Catherine of Aragon figures prominently in the narrative of diplomatic dealings. Wife first of the eldest son Arthur, then a pawn in (prolonged) negotiation to marry his second son Henry after Arthur's death. Henry VII though remains central. After the confusion that preceeded his accession, Henry micro manages policy and ministers to maintain tight control. In this Penn's portrait of Henry is in line with that presented by recent scholarship and the main thrust of his argument is that the king presided over a proto-Machiavellian polity, dominated by fear and suspicion, and one in which good government was too often subjugated to the demands of his own greed and paranoia.

Penn makes an intriguing point about Henry's accumulation of wealth in that he ascribes a significant part to England's growing role in the alum trade, used in the textile industry. Due to papal monopoly of alum England carved itself a role importing and re exporting to mainland Europe to circumvent the monopoly in a 15th century version of how multinationals today move capital about between nations to avoid national taxation in any particular one country.

Where I have concerns with "Winter King" is paradoxically due to its strengths. A focus on the work of those individuals around the monarch has been at the cost of policy overview. I longed at time to see how what I was reading fitted into the general policy development of Henry VII. It was like looking very closely at the workings of the wheels and springs of a particularly delicate clock, but never really looking at the time shown on the clockface. Neither is space devoted to showing how much the framework in which Henry VII and his officials operated was dependant on the administrative procedures introduced earlier by Edward IV. This is perhaps a consequence of Penn perhaps attempting to write a story allowing more popular access rather than an academic history. Nonetheless, Penn does the non-specialist a service in introducing the key elements of a reign that set the tone for the next century and a half.

Jan 201
3 (***)

Other Reviews:
Guardian (by Blair Worden), Reviews in History (David Grummitt),
The Economist
 







 
Jonathan Steinberg:  Bismarck, A Life

When I first opened Steinberg's biography and started to read my heart fell. It did not appear to be a conventional biography, but one hung around extracts from Bismarck's contemporaries. Like the worst of today's history books for students it appeared to be "history by gobbet", preselected for the reader. Yet first impression can be deceptive and Steinberg's approach of supporting (and often forming) the narrative and analysis by generous selections from the writings of those around the German Chancellor proves very effective and illuminating whilst not denying the general thrust of Steinberg's arguments. 

Bismarck was undoubtedly a political genius, perhaps the most accomplished of all 19th century politicians. In less than 10 years he unites Germany, fights victorious wars against Denmark, Austria and France and designs a political structure for the new German Reich that not only protects his vital interests of Junker conservatism and the Prussian monarchy but also introduces universal male suffrage in German's first parliament, the Reichstag, and later sees the setting up of insurance schemes for the masses. 

However, this is no sycophantic work. Bismarck may have been politically successful but his methods, later known as "realpolitik", with the end justifying the means, were ruthless and showed little respect for others. Disraeli described how treated his ministers as Don Juan his lovers "first he cajoles them and when he catches them lets them go without caring what happened to them". He was happy using Liberals against Catholics, Catholics against Liberals, all against Socialists whilst stealing key ideas from Socialists to undermine support for everyone else. Ultimately, after setting up the Reichstag he was willing to deconstruct it to protect his own position. Which was? Underlying all was his desire to maintain the dominance, social as well as political of his own narrow Junker class of landed aristocracy against the "ism's" of the modernising world: Liberalism, Catholicism, Socialism and industrialism. Steinberg also attempts to establish his role in the growing anti-semitism of 19th century Germany. Much evidence is provided, although Bismarck's realpolitik ensured he was happy to work with Jews as well as criticise them. Perhaps more needs to be indicated here of the emergence of anti-semitism at the time in Germany, not just as regards the Chancellor. Bismarck's views were symptomatic rather than causal in this. 

The work is valuable in other ways. Steinberg rightly draws attention to Bismarcks political enemy, Windthorst, leader of the Catholic Centre Party and an ignored early German democrat. He also makes it very clear how Bismarcks power was not absolute. He was the servant of the Prussian King and German (chiefly the old and aging) Kaiser William I. His consent was needed for Bismarck's policies and required deft handling by the Chancellor. Bismarck's genius was in his ability to manage this whilst introducing policies considered dangerously revolutionary by the conservative regime he purported to represent. Personally, Bismarck is seen as someone with few friends, easily embittered, manipulative of those he had and willing to resort to emotional blackmail. He also appears to have enjoyed ill-health, removing himself from the political arena when convenient to do so. 

Bismarck's alliances, like domestic policies were complex - so much so it is made evident that only he would be able to manage them and ensure Great power equilibrium - and even for him this was growing harder as time went on. The reader eventually realises how this system could lead to the disaster of 1914 in less capable hands, and this is what happens with his departure after the accession of the far less able William II. 

This is no book for someone seeking an introduction to the Bismarckian period. In places the complex nature of the Chancellor's policies and actions can make for a less than linear narrative, but for the student wishing to delve deeper this work is to be commended and is well worth reading. The approach is refreshing, thought provoking, and dare I say it, a page turner, especially in the crucial 1866-71 period.
Sept '12 (*****)


(See also 
The full text of Steinberg's interview with History Today editor Paul Lay.) 


Further reviews:

The Guardian by David Blackbourn
The Literary Review by Tim Blanning
Reviews in History by Dr Matthew Jefferies (detailed & especially useful)
  
 
 


 
Janie Hampton:
Austerity Olympics, When the Games Came to London in 1948


I have just finished reading "the Austerity Olympics" by Janine Hampton to get me in the mood for the upcoming London event! Hampton tells the story of the last time the Olympics were held in London – in 1948, when austerity was somewhat more apparent than it is today. She tells the story of its selection, financing and the events themselves, recalling the stories of the key figures to emerge including Emil Zatopek, Fanny Blankers-Koen and the French concert pianist Micheline Ostermeyer who won both the shot put and the discus – only to have someone steal her medals.

Implicit throughout the account are comparisons with today. Austerity certainly was a genuine element of the Games though. The stadium, the Empire Wembley, was a converted greyhound track, athletes were put up in dormitories in school halls and colleges across London, most competitors had to buy their own uniforms (British male athletes were given two pairs of Y Fronts by the manufactures!
Not sure if female athletes got these too…), even bringing their own towels, and cheques from competing nations were a crucial part of the business plan (it appears all paid up except for Argentina, one of the largest teams competing but whose cheque bounced). Sponsorship was beginning to appear, albeit nothing like today. Coca-Cola had the right to sell within the Games area, Craven A Cigarettes, Guinness and Brylcreem hair cream, were other "partners".

Technology was in its infancy. The running was on a state of the art track made up of closely compacted cinders – starting blocks were needed for the first time as it was too hard to dig a toehold in. A camera system developed to sort out the winners when greyhounds raced was adapted to provide a photo finish for races too close to call visually. 'Gender checking' was introduced in 1948, which involved a doctor 'looking into the underpants of competitors to check for sexual abnormalities', The games were televised for a couple of hours each day and TV's were installed in the main competitor centres so they could watch the key events. Results were typed onto a stencil and duplicates given out to journalists each day. Four phones were made available for international calls…..

Another key shadow over the Games was the Second World War. Germany and Japan were excluded (the official reason being because "there was no address yet to send an invitation to", Italy was accepted only as it changed sides at the end of the conflict. The key coach for the British Gymnastic team was a German prisoner of war, Helmut Bantz, a prewar leading German gymnast. Military camps were also used as accommodation. Competitors waiting to enter the arena for the opening ceremony sat in nearby bomb sites until their turn came to march in, and when they did come in the Olympic salute was not given, resembling as it did the Nazi salute of the Third Reich. It could be said that Britain's offer to stage the Olympics was due to an old fashioned notion (arrogance?) of noblesse oblige – a feeling that Britain had "led the road to wartime victory, now it would do the same for peace".

Yet the world was changing. Competitors from the US, Argentina and Australia were better fed, clothed and perhaps displayed greater self confidence as teams than that of Britain. More significantly the British government of the day had more pressing issues than Games – the Olympics coincided with the Berlin Blockade, the first major conflict of the Cold War.

"The Austerity Olympics" is a sound narrative of the London Games. Hampton tells her story clearly and easily, providing an interesting account of the day to day impact of the Olympics. However, despite a "what happened next" final chapter, anyone seeking a deeper historical critique of the Games and their context will be disappointed. Equally there is too much focus on material provided by English speakers, with a need for more emphasis on the experience of competitors outside the world that was Great Britain, its Dominions, Colonies and English speaking allies. Perhaps though in this, the book is just repeating the prejudices of the time, but surely one we should be moving on from today, even when reporting its past.
July '12 (***)


Other Reviews of the book:
History Today
Daily Telegraph (By the present London Mayor)
The Guardian

 


Hywel Williams: Charlemagne, Emperor of the West

Not a usual topic to be reviewed here, but I started this book by Hywel Williams when I recently visited Aachen, and picked it up again over the holidays to finish.

As a one book survey of the topic, Williams has a lot to commend to it. It provides an examination of the way that the Emperor Charlemagne, King of the Franks, (born c. 742, died 814) acquired and then governed the largest single conglomeration of territories to come under the authority of a single sovereign in western Europe since the fall of the Roman Empire, including present day France, Germany, Benelux, the Alps, northern Italy, and lands of the western Danube basin. In fact much of what is now the Eurozone. With that in mind he was able to establish not just legal but also fiscal obedience within his lands, creating a single currency that was valued outside his lands as well (Brussels today perhaps looks back enviously....). Charlemagne also oversaw a cultural revival. Education was expanded (not excluding girls either), and manuscript production was greatly expanded. He revived the latin language and imposed it on the learned, clerical and administrative aspects of his Empire. The script used was rediscovered later in the Renaissance and became the basis of the font used for the first printing presses.

Williams spends much time ensuring the reader sees Charlemagne within a historical context, tracing in depth developments from the end of the Roman Empire and looking beyond Charlemagne to the creation of present nation states from the 11th centuries onwards. Charlemagne is clearly seen as signalling an end to the period of Roman collapse and ushering in the start of the medieval restructuring of Europe. The Papacy acknowledges this and enters into the historic Holy alliance that is to last for several centuries - with the annointing of a western Holy (Roman) Emperor in return for protection from both attack by neighbours and the advances of the eastern Christian church in Byzantium.

Yet creating this context is also the weakest aspect of the book. At times the past context appears to be more central than Charlemagne himself. Nor is it always presented as a before and after narrative but tends to follow the area under study and the overall chronological structure can flow back and forwards, at times infuriating.


Overall, non-specialists looking to discover more about Charlemagne will find this of much value. It is comprehensive and opens up new areas of interest to the general reader. November '11 (***)
 
 


Mark Urban:
The Man Who Broke Napoleon's Codes: The Story of George Scovell


Although this does what it says on the tin and tells the story of how Scovell broke the Napoleonic codes during the Peninsular Wars, the key thread is that of the campaigns rather than the code-breaking (presumably because this is not an Enigma type process, rather it relied on the interpreting of a few, albeit vital coded letters and how these contributed to Wellington's eventual victory. Knowing too little of the Iberian theatre this suited me as it would a general reader (it also has excellent maps), but anyone seeking an in depth look at Napoleonic cipher breaking will be disappointed.
July '10 (***)



 



Simon Pugh: We Danced All Night

Simon Pugh's social history of Britain between the First and Second World Wars is an excellent text for the period. Well set out into themed chapters from dietary habits through to sexuality and gender, with excursions into areas as diverse as monarchy, empire, divorce and aviation his book gives readers a thorough understanding of the period. Essentially an advanced text book it reads well and easily, lending itself to dipping in and out to read specific chapters in isolation – very good if you have an essay on interwar society….However reading all the chapters does reveal several interesting aspects of the period. One is the increasing demise of Scotland (suffering over twice the loss of life of any other region of Great Britain in the War then hit economically very hard by the decline of its heavy industry). More significantly, Pugh argues that far from being the period of economic depression, doom and gloom that it is usually portrayed as, outside depressed areas like Scotland the years were ones of growing prosperity which saw the emergence of much of modern consumerist Britain: aspirations of property owning, the increasing desire for consumer durables, and the restructuring of the economy on services based in the south rather than the traditional heavy industries of the north. Pugh even suggests the second World War is then perceived by society as an obstruction to all of this – hence the widespread desire from very early on in the war to seek an outcome that will broaden this process across society when war ends through a welfare state and greater planned economic development. March '10  (****)
 



 
Randall E. Stross
Planet Google: How One Company is Transforming Our Lives


A good read if you want to find out about the nuts & bolts of Google's growth although this does tend to be short on broader critical analysis. A key point to emerge is Google's focus right from the start on supersizing their resources efficiently so that they have the raw computing power for later developments. Google seems to have an insatiable apetite for feeding its machines data to collate - hence the desire to feed them books, picturs, maps - even if the nature of their future use is unsure (or not fully thought through). Unsung success - google translator which is indeed getting better.  
Dec '09 (***)
 





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Michael Burleigh:  Blood and Rage

Initially I was attracted to this work as it promised an interlinking survey of terrorism ( a pretty disparate topic) from the mid 19th century to the present.It is soon clear that there is nothing new in our current preoccupation with bombings, even suicide bombings, and acts of political or religious terror. Burleigh starts with the Irish Fenians of the 19thcentury (bomb factories, innocent deaths, deaths of bombers, pre-emptive arrests and "hard" questioning by the authorities – it was all there in the past too ) then progresses (regresses?) through Russian bombers, anarchists onto the 20th century terrorist groups: Israeli, Palestinian, Irish, Basque, the European Red Brigades. The final (largest) section encompasses contemporary Islamist terror groups.Some is done well. Burleigh is best on the more focused sections where he can follow a linear history: Fenians, Basques & Israeli terrorism as well as the final section on contemporary Islamist terror movements. Elsewhere (anarchism especially) exposition is at times over complex and confusing. I felt even a timeline would cope better with the huge amount of chronology and undeveloped personalities and events offered. Perhaps its scope is over ambitious. It may have been better to break it down into a couple of volumes (and so also include the latin American movements of the 1970's: tightly linked in many ways to the Red Brigades/RAF but a curious and large omission, even if admitted to by the author in the introduction).At its best this a very good survey despite being openly opinionated, (increasingly so as chapters near the present). It could also do without the authors own explicit "solutions" at the end – many of these are certainly valid but are largely implicitly clear to the perceptive reader and do not require reinforcement. Perhaps more for research and dipping into rather than reading from cover to cover, this remains a valid and accessible addition to the topic.  June '09 (***)
 



David Kynaston: Austerity Britain:  A World to Build

A mixture of Vox Pop (through the reports of the innovative Mass Observation reports of the time & diarists - often the self selecting celebs of then and now) and analysis. Very comprehensive - this covers 1945-47 only - but at times perhaps too much so, leading to a desire to skim in places. I found the analysis chapters more interesting than the ones populated by witness quotes. Most intriguing was the chapter on the ideas behind state nationalisation - I had not realised the degree to which this was seen as a top down model with no real consideration given to the value or necessity of any employer participation. In most cases existing managers were kept in control. (One other point: did it always rain then? By chance the photos mostly appear to have been taken on damp, dark rainy days. As if the time was not depressing enough...)
Nov '08 (***)
 

 


H.W. Brands: The Age of Gold: The Story of an Obsession That Swept the World

Brands provides a well detailed account of the California Gold rush of 1848-9, placing it in its national (and international) as well as Californian context. Especially valuable are the descriptions of the journeys taken by the argonauts (the hopeful gold prospectors) by sea (round the Horn, across the Pacific, through the Panama isthmus) and by land across the plains, deserts, Rockies & Sierras. Some of the dangers encountered are new to me - for example the high mortality rate from cholera as the wagons moved west. The destructive impact of the western migrants on the buffalo herds so vital to the Indian tribes is also made clear. Unfortunately, the 491 pages of small, dense type would have benefited from tighter editing. The post Gold Rush period especially seems to take on a life of its own (which perhaps should have been a separate book) but loses focus as a consequence of trying to cover too much. Brands' previous book, the Reckless Decade, on late 19th century US was more concise and all the better focused for being so. August '08. (***)

 

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Charles McKean:  Battle for the North: The Tay and Forth Bridges and the 19th-Century Railway Wars

Outlines the late 19th century railway rivalry between the Caledonian and North British railway companies that produced the two famous rail bridges over the Tay and Forth. Well detailed but perhaps too focused on the minutiae of the boardroom disputes that lay behind the first Tay Bridge. Conversely it does Bouch a service in highlighting the role of fatigue in bringing down his Tay Bridge. Probably best read by someone with more than a nodding acquaintance to Jute era Dundee. Knowing Dundee I found this of interest, but the lay reader might not. A health warning is perhaps needed on the jacket. One last point. Good to see so many illustrations, but the maps are terrible.

March '08 (**)

 


Ben Elton: Blind Faith

Set in a flooded, overcrowded and globally warmed future this is a cutting, clever, satire on present face-booked, celeb and fame obsessed society from the writer of Black Adder. I do not usually include Eltons on this list, (with one exception) but this one is a worthwhile addition. A quick read and amusing but thought provoking. In addition to Elton's usually socially perceptive concepts, this one has the added advantage of having a worthwhile ending and less of the gratuitous sex, rock 'n roll.....

Feb '08 (****)

 

 

Ronald Wright: A short history of progress

This is a concise primer for all who want to see just how fragile human life & society really is. Wright shows clearly just how brief our “civilised” existence has been and also how easily it could end. He does this by looking at key previous civilisations: Sumer, Rome, China, Mayan America and Easter Island. Clear, sobering lessons are drawn out for us to be learned if we are not to over-farm, pollute or destroy the present. He concludes with an Argentine saying: “Each night God cleans up the mess the Argentines make by day” but makes it clear that we are now at the point where God alone cannot clean up our mess. We can help ourselves, but only if we act now. Excellent detailed footnotes develop the brevity of the presented arguments – and provide suggestions to a variety of further background reading. This should be a compulsory matriculation present for all school leavers……

Oct ´06 (*****)

 


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J.G. Ballard: Kingdom Come

An intriguing premise as always with Ballard - in this case his previous preoccupations with group psychology and behaviour focus this time on suburban shopping mall society. He creates a scenario plausible in contemporary England where motorways grid up at weekends as people go off to shop en masse in huge shopping centres. Unfortunately the plot is flawed by a rather confused portrayal of the central character. Worth a read, but not Ballard's best.

Dec '06 (**)

 

 

William Golding: The Inheritors

This fifty year old follow-up to Lord of the Flies stands up well. Uses the clever device of being (largely) seen in the first person through the eyes of the slow, but well meaning neandertals as they make catastrophic first contact with our less personable and more agressive ancestors, homo sapiens. At times this methodology makes for a difficult read but the story of this first genocide as homo sapiens searched for expansion and power is just as true today as it was in the post Nazi world, unfortunately.

Nov '06 (***)

 

Carlos Ruiz Zafon: The Shadow of the Wind

An enjoyable read. Has a touch of Susskind's Perfume about it as this neo-gothic story within a story unfolds in dark post civil war Barcelona. Ideally needs to be read fairly swiftly as the characters are numerous and the twists keep coming. The English translation is worth remarking upon – flowing and with a good turn of phrase (“the heavens were weeping” to describe rain at a funeral). I do not know if the translation is accurate, but it reads as if it were not one….

Oct '06 (***)

 

S D Levitt & S J Dubner: Freakonomics

This amusing & interesting read reminded me of the best of my Economics lessons so many years ago. We did little to no maths but much on the quirky reasoning behind many Economics theories and their outcomes. (our grades were not good, but they probably were the lessons I learned most from.) This book is full of these - it applies Economics reasoning to modern social issues. I liked the connection between the Ku Klux Klan's demise & Superman. Everyone who is not yet a parent and wants to be one later should read chapters 5 & 6 before they are. If you are already one it is too late to read them.... A little too US focussed perhaps and at times lends itself to speed reading (!) but a worthwhile read. Oct '06 (***)

 



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