Archive for the ‘History’ Category

33612876440_84da454bc6_oIf you’ve lived through a period of unfettered market forces like Thatcher’s Britain then you’ll know all about the bankruptcy of that ideology and the social misery it unleashed.

Here in the American oligarchy of 2017 the same failed economic dogma holds sway: get government out of the way and let businesses get on with the business of making money. All boats rise on a tide of wealth creation, right?

Except, of course, they don’t. We’ve seen wealth flow into fewer and fewer hands, the ‘trickle down’ theory exposed for what it is and economic polarity widen to unprecedented levels.

The American Dream, exalting a meritocracy in which anyone can make it if they work hard enough, has become a nightmare; just ask any one of the 43m citizens living in poverty, or those living in “food Insecure” households (feedingamerica.org).

The amnesia of the book’s title references political memory loss about the period and the conditions that created America’s greatest prosperity, 1945 through to the 1970s.

During that time the mixed economy delivered the steepest increases in income, wealth, education, health, longevity, opportunity and security the country has ever seen.

Hacker and Pierson demolish the idea that small government is good government and show with sober, statistical analysis that it is an essential partner in capitalist enterprises.

Their examination of the country’s recent history shows the foundations for prosperity came from public investment in education, science, technology and transport.

Government, done right, serves societal needs, not just shareholder value. It intrudes on rampant capitalism with regulations in areas such as pollution, safety and health.

That these kinds of argument need to be restated given the boom and bust scandals of recent times is profoundly depressing.

Anti-government economic fundamentalists are more of a threat to America’s future than any of the inflated menaces of Moslem terrorism, illegal immigration and democratic socialism.

wallaceAmerican Dreamer: A Life of Henry A Wallace –  John C Culver, John Hyde

It’s fascinating to wonder what the world might have been like had Henry Wallace become president of the United States.

No Cold War perhaps, no arms race with the Russians, no domino theories to defend against global Communism, no Korean War nor Bay of Pigs debacles, no need to engage in the disastrous Vietnam War. No segregation. There’d certainly be no need for a wall between the US and Mexico.

Wallace was undone in a shameful night of chicanery at the 1944 Democratic Convention which opened the door for Harry Truman to get the VP ticket and, ultimately, the keys to the White House.

Until then, Wallace’s progressive ideas had saved US agriculture from the boom-and-bust of unfettered market forces and his wider philosophies helped shape FDR’s New Deal.

Fully two years before WW2 was won, while serving as Roosevelt’s vice-president, Wallace was thinking deeply about the peace.

How would the US switch from a military economy while maintaining full employment, how would it raise standards of education and improve health care, what kind of world would be built in the aftermath and what role should America play?

In 1941, Time magazine publisher Henry Luce envisioned a post-war “American century” in which the US could “exert…the full impact of our influence, for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit.”

Wallace responded with his “century of the common man” speech in which colonialism would end and there would be neither military nor economic imperialism.

By 1944 he was prophetically warning against the dangers of American Fascism, writing in the New York Times:

“The American fascists are most easily recognized by their deliberate perversion of truth and fact. Their newspapers and propaganda carefully cultivate every fissure of disunity… They claim to be super-patriots, but they would destroy every liberty guaranteed by the Constitution. They demand free enterprise, but are the spokesmen for monopoly and vested interest. Their final objective toward which all their deceit is directed is to capture political power so that, using the power of the state and the power of the market simultaneously, they may keep the common man in eternal subjection.”

Widening an existing rift in the Democratic Party, the pejoratively dubbed ‘Dreamer’ was becoming a problem and the conservative, pro-business wing wanted him out.

They persuaded FDR, unwell and still consumed by the war, to ignore progressive advisers and to allow Truman to go up against Wallace as the VP candidate. And even though Wallace won the first ballot he didn’t have enough votes to secure the nomination.

From there, the party machinery went to work, deals were done, Wallace was crushed and when FDR died in April, 1945, the little-known, little-regarded senator from Missouri took the helm.

33745643431_5b4a5133cf_oGrape, Olive, Pig

Matt Goulden serves up hearty slices of life in Spain fusing foodie passions with history, curiosity and the joy of discovery.

The book is part travelogue, part chef worship, part love affair and it’s zested with deep respect for what is now his adopted homeland.

He takes us to the coast of Cadiz in the hunt for endangered Bluefin tuna, a village near Salamanca for ritual slaughter of acorn-fed pigs and to the freezing waters of Galicia for the perilous business of barnacle gathering.

Each of the chapters is a self-contained essay, a stage-by-stage gourmand route map to the heart of the nation’s soul, with stories told through the eyes of shepherds and slaughterhouse workers.

The drama of the almadraba, the ancient method of netting tuna, is Hemmingway-esque and one of the best.

The excitement of what’s about to unfold is tinged with superstition and fear: Will the catch measure up? Will the marine gods be kind? These are the brooding thoughts running through the mind of Antonio Gonzales as he “takes a fisherman’s breakfast of cigarettes and silence”.

It’s the descriptive passages around the events and characters we meet where the book is best, lifting it above a mere tasting menu of food indulgences.

Where it’s not so good are the parts of overblown prose like this description of a meal:

“Adria has long said that he’s not in the business of giving pleasure; he cooks in order to produce emotion. And there was no shortage in the range of feelings he pulled out of us that night. Like a hallucinogenic experience, we cycled through stages of nervous energy and quiet contemplation, inexplicable nostalgia and intense, childlike joy. If I really look back at my romantic life, it can be boiled down to one simple objective: to find the best dining partner possible. And here she was”.

The book is rife with similar passages that would be better served up in Private Eye’s Pseuds Corner and as my rapid and greedy consumption continued I began to experience symptoms over over-indulgence, there was just too much of it.

For that reason it slipped down in my rating which is a shame because, like a curate’s egg, it’s very good in parts though probably best savored in individual chapters rather than gutsed-down at a single sitting.

navyLife in Nelson’s Navy – Dudley Pope

You’ll get more than a whiff of sea air in this richly detailed telling of what life was really like in the “Wooden Walls” of England.

How about inhaling the funk of several hundred men and – yes – women, unwashed for months, living alongside livestock, and crammed into extremely confined quarters.

Fourteen inches were width allocations for hammocks. Floor to ceiling deck heights for hands could be as little as 4ft 10in.

As for toilet arrangements, these were, thankfully, neglected areas in Hollywood’s tales of swashbuckling heroes on the high seas.

Not so for Pope who explains how ‘heads’ in the bows were over-the-side, exposed-to-the-elements affairs. In heavy swells and chilly seas it was constipation that kept the surgeon busy.

The detail is both encyclopedic and entertaining but it’s the context that makes this such an enlightening read.

We’ve all read or seen stories about the floggings, the weevils, the press gangs and the brutality of life at sea; while they are largely true they neglect the context of the times and have to be seen as part of a bigger picture.

Only a small proportion of men were conscripted into the navy: for London the quota was 5,700 out of a population of 750,000. Pope sets that against WWII conscription rates in which every able-bodied man was called up unless they could prove their civilian job was essential war work.

Life was violent and harsh at sea, but life was harsh and violent on land too. This was a time when there was no police system and only a small standing army was retained lest it threatened overthrow of government.

Corruption and nepotism was evident in all areas of the navy – just as it was throughout the country – and disease was rife too.

It’s in the area of plague and pestilence that soldiers and sailors really suffered, especially those dispatched to the tropics where typhus, yellow fever, and fevers and agues took a heavy toll.

In the 20-plus years of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars the navy lost 1,875 men in a series of battles compared with more than 72,000 who succumbed to disease or died in accidents on board.

I still like reading yarns and seeing movies about the days of sail, but it’s also good to have a grasp of the grim and not-so-glamorous reality too.

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Will in the World – Stephen Greenblatt

Is there anything new to say about Shakespeare? After reading this piercingly smart assessment on how Shakespeare became Shakespeare I’d say emphatically: Yes!

Amid a void of verifiable information on the topic, an industry in academic analysis has flourished, some good, some weak, but all of it built on flimsy foundations and topped with much speculation.

The perceptiveness of this book comes from the author’s skillful and intelligent construction of arguments that give glimpses into the enigma of the Bard and his genius.

Greenblatt layers intimate knowledge of the plays with a scholarly understanding of the context in which they were written – lines, passages, scenes and whole plays come alive with new meaning.

While we have to accept that we’ll never fully know the man, the gift of this book lets us draw nearer to him, enriching our grasp of the events that shaped his talent and enhancing our appreciation of a body of literary work that has no equal.

dillenA Stratford Story: Including The Dillen and Mary, After the Queen

Imagine warming yourself round a log fire, flames flickering, sap hissing, wood spitting and being carried off to another world on the rustic dialect of a withered little man with a gleam in his eye and the gift of the gab.

George Hewins is The Dillen, the runt of the litter, a born storyteller who lived in such straightened circumstances that he and his wife had to share a bed with his mother-in-law yet still managed to conceive eight children.

The story of his hardscrabble life in my home town, Stratford-on-Avon, Warwickshire, covers the period between 1878 and the 1920s and is derived from a series of audio recordings made by his grandson’s wife, Angela Hewins, over a three-year period.

As she says, she’s added some h’s and omitted some repetitions but the grammar, the contractions and the speech patterns are still there and if you’re familiar with the Stratford accent, you can almost hear George speaking.

It’s this, George’s voice, George’s perspective, that give power to the narrative. It’s part oral history, part social history, and part memoir of poverty by someone who lived it, not just witnessed it. Above all it’s a thoroughly absorbing read.

From the off George relates how perilous his start in life was, how an old chap had told him of a man called Womack: “‘E sold your mother some medicine to get rid o’ you.”

Womack was “an ordinary working chap who made up pills and medicines for folks as couldn’t afford the doctor or chemist.”

George’s mother Emmie, then 18 and unmarried, was sent to him by her lover Tom Farr and “as soon as she’d took a couple o’ swigs of Womack’s medicine Emmie stopped fretting. She knowed it would work, like a spell, make the babby vanish; that’s what Tom said and he was always right.”

Not this time he wasn’t. He didn’t hang around and nor did Emmie, leaving George to be brought up by his mother’s aunt Cal.

What follows is a life of grinding poverty. George and his family live from hand to mouth. Work is scarce, wages are depressed and earnings sporadic. Rent arrears and eviction are ever-present fears surpassed only by the terrifying awfulness of the workhouse, the last port of the utterly destitute, where even dignity is taken.

It’s grim, for sure, but in the telling it’s not depressing. George the raconteur laces his tale with bawdy anecdotes and black humor. The story of how Tommy Taters got his nickname had me laughing out loud and George even manages to make light of a war wound he suffered after going over the top in 1917.

Caught in No Man’s Land, wounded in the hip by a shell burst, his officer also injured, George tells how a German came up behind them: “They was coming from behind! Captain Edwards saw him and shot him with his revolver, shot him from where he lay. He fell dead on me. But not afore he’d stuck his bayonet in my arse.”

George lost his ‘crown jewels’ in that encounter but not his sense of humor. His cheerful optimism lifts the book from being a bleak plod through the worst of times to an important record of life among those on the bottom rung of society, an authentic voice that is seldom captured.


The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey Oregon trail

You can go a long way with enthusiasm: Two thousand miles in the case of journalist, historian and adventurer Rinker Buck.

His covered wagon epic following in the wheel ruts of America’s 19th Century pioneers is an absorbing mix of trail tales, mule-wrangling and brotherly clashes.

Where Rink is measured and cautious, his younger sibling Nick is gung-ho and excitable. Where Rink is mannered and polite, Nick is brash and vulgar. It’s the bickering between them that provides much of the color.

There’s plenty of humor, too, in the characters of the mules where only one is reliably steady. The second beast exhibits the airs of a prom queen and the third a skittishness bordering on crazy.

They’re a handful for sure and potential dangers are ever present. Items as innocuous expansion joints on a bridge, or a plastic bag snagged on wire and snapping in the breeze, risk spooking the animals with risky consequences for the four-ton rig.

The history of the trail is richly fascinating and it’s here where the book is at its best.

Far from the migration being a deliberate movement, Rink paints details of the varied reasons for joining the exodus: a country riven with clashes between ethnic populations for jobs and space, bitter religious denominational spats and an economy lurching from boom to bust.

Flooding the West with pioneers also suited the purpose of Congress in overwhelming Britain’s lucrative but thinly-staffed fur-trading empire managed by the Hudson Bay Company. And, of course, there was gold fever.

There are some great anecdotes about how the early pioneers were scammed by merchants into oversupplying their wagons. Heavyweight items dumped within the first few miles were recovered by traders and sold again to the next gullible group.

Animals abandoned in the morning by one wagon train were shot and eaten in the evening by members of the one that followed, using utensils that had also been left behind.

Pollution, disease and death were constant companions of the 400,000 or so who made the journey. The Hollywood version would have you believe most were killed by marauding Indians, but filthy water, questionable hygiene and dysentery took the highest toll. And native people, lacking immunity to diseases brought in by the settlers, were cut down as well.

Rink isn’t shy about confronting myths of old, or those being created now, reserving especial odium for the Mormons’ renaming of Devil’s Gate to Martin’s Cove as part of the church’s “parable of noble suffering”.

There are instances where the book descends into mawkish, Waltonesque territory that I could have done without. This is where Rink sheds wagonloads of Catholic guilt about not being at his dying father’s bedside, of always being a disappointment to him and of his own general feelings of inadequacy.

However, movie executives will, I’m sure, be champing at the bit for a family friendly version of this modern-day glimpse into How The West Was Really Won.

20288812572_b85c321e3e_mShadowplay: The hidden beliefs and coded politics of William Shakespeare

Shakespeare can be tough to decipher at the best of times and now there’s another layer of complexity to think about.

Fortunately, code-breaking author Clare Asquith is an excellent interpreter and fashions a page-turning thriller from a tangled web of period politics.

Why did the Bard quit writing and return to Stratford at the height of his powers? Is it credible to think that the greatest playwright of the age would have nothing to say about the turbulent times in which he lived? What did Shakespeare believe in and to whom did his sympathies lie?

The answers to these questions don’t come easy. The concealed messages and ambiguities have eluded scholars for more than 400 years and modern day academic skeptics abound.

It’s the breadth and depth of Asquith’s research in support of her conclusions that make the book so compelling. Little is known about the man, but her painstaking and rigorous inquiries give great insight into neglected areas of an already well documented era.

Shakespeare was living in a virtual police state, an England where political beliefs weren’t just cerebral debating points: Where you stood on an issue, what you said and what you did had consequences – and the wrong answers could cost you dear.

Coded messages

Was your ultimate allegiance to the church or state, monarch or to God? Were you Catholic or Protestant, Jesuit or Puritan? Where did you go? Who did you see? What did you do? Where did your loyalties lie?

Walsingham’s spy network was constantly on alert for plots from abroad and dissidence from within. An allegation, a rumor, a betrayal, any whiff of insurrection could lead to dispossession, torture and a grisly execution.

It’s within this context that Asquith unravels the coded messages that have become even more opaque through the passage of time.

Few of Shakespeare’s contemporaries are read today and, as she explains, the sophisticated elite then were better versed in the classics than many modern theatregoers; they were attuned to allegories, allusions and hidden meanings.

One court dramatist of the time described his play as a Trojan horse: an elaborate gift concealing an unpalatable message.

The subversive genius of Shakespeare was to get his message through to a Catholic audience while concealing the true meaning from the rest. This was a dangerous tightrope to be on and one he walked for many years until, it seems, he had a major fall from grace.

THEY’DSC_0093RE museum pieces now. Badged, chromed, finned, gas-guzzling monsters that had their heyday more than half a century ago.

Silky curves, streamlined tails and rocket motifs sold the notion of cars taking journeys to the future.

Symbols of speed, agility and aggression advertised what was under the hood. Sleek styling and ornamentation offered distinctive personality – and form always trumped function if it looked good.

There’s a n13552617634_1140f44a5b_mostalgic pull towards vehicles like these. The open road with the wind in your hair is all very well……but there are no airbags or power-steering and you can forget sat-nav and the million-and-one other improvements that come as standard on modern vehicle.

Not to mention their dire fuel economy. Think about it. Would you really like a gas guzzler that does only 6-7 mpg? You would? Me too, though in another half century these vehicles may come to symbolize a shallow, destructive culture – if they don’t already.

The LeMay muse13567411383_56369cfd8d_mum is a pistonhead’s dream and even if you don’t count yourself as one of those there’s plenty to absorb.

The history of the car is part of all our lives and with 350 examples on display the context of their evolution is brilliantly told.