Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Book Notes: Primo Levi by Ian Thomson

I first saw the name, "Primo Levi", in Berlin, in December 2003. The "Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe" in the centre of the city is the sort of place which leaves an impression on the visitor which perhaps never goes away. The thing which caught my eye there was this quote form Levi, which I photographed, and brought home. 

I was intrigued by the quote, and its solemn, bell-tolling sobering warning. It so succinctly, but powerfully explains the importance and power of memory, and the depths to which humanity can sink, that I chewed the simple statement over and over again. On my return home, I Googled "Primo Levi" to find out more about who had written these words. The result was that I read his book "The Drowned and The Saved", which turned out to be an attempt by a survivor, to explain, describe and reckon with the horror of Auschwitz. I struggled with the book, it made me tense, unhappy, agitated and insomniac; it affected me deeply, which I described at the time in this review. Despite that, I knew very little about the man behind the book, until now.

Ian Thomson has written an incredible account of the extraordinary life of Primo Levi. His portrait of Jewish-Italian life between the world wars, is fascinating and revealing. His descriptions of life under Mussolini are - like the whole book - meticulously researched. Italian Fascism was a nasty business, but lacked the savage brutality of the Nazism which overran it. Anti-semitism wasn't at the heart of Mussolini's Imperial ambition; indeed there seem to have been several Jewish-fascists in Italy before the war. As such, Levi was a free man in Italy for much of the war; only after the first fall of Mussolini, and his imposition as a puppet ruler by Hitler, and German occupation of the North, did wholesale exportation of Jewish people to the Polish death camps commence. Levi, was arrested along with his closest friends in a Anti-Nazi resistance unit, and deported to Auschwitz. A side-note to Levi's story is that of the Italian's who fought alongside the Nazi's in the disastrous invasion of Russia, and who limped home broken, and bewildered; a little-known element of WWII history.

Levi survived slavery in the Buna-Monowitz section of the Auschwitz, not being selected for murder because he was useful to the Nazis due to his training in industrial chemistry. As such he was given just enough nutrition to barely survive, and was part of the factory slave-labour force. As the Germans retreated westwards, away from the advancing Red Army, Levi was spared the death-marches, because he was so ill, he was left to die. Remarkably, he survived, and was eventually, repatriated to Italy by the victorious Soviet Red Army.

I was vaguely aware of much of this, but knew almost nothing of what happened next. Thomson, paints an amazing story of a remarkable man who was a husband and father, a secular Jew, an Italian, a mountaineer/Alpinist, an industrial chemist, a poet, an historian, a journalist, an essayist, a depressive, a public intellectual; a prize-winning author, and the unofficial chief interpreter and memorialiser of the death camps. 

Levi also emerges as a hugely complex figure, unhappy at home, and living under the shadow of his overbearing mother. Thomson charts his personal battles, his relationship struggles, and his battles with publishers, translators and publicists, and waves of debilitating depression which at times overwhelmed him. The story, despite its many triumphs and startling twists and turns, ends tragically as Levi took his own life, aged 67, not long after completing his definitive work on Auschwitz: The Drowned and The Saved.

Thomson discusses the various theories which have been suggested as to why this amazing life ended so grimly. He concludes that all the theories about PTSD or survivor guilt from the camps, don't do justice to the facts; that reducing the matter to a genetic predisposition to clinical depression is reductionist, and that there was also far more to Levi than simply domestic unhappiness or fear of the rise of neo-fascism. Rather, the dreadful end of the story was the result of the unknoweable combination of forces bearing down upon a shattered man.

Thomson's book is a large work, based on a massive amount of research, including interviews with the subject himself; and a vast array of his school-mates, colleagues, fellow-survivors, family members, and literary friends. Without lazy sentimentality, the triumphs and deep tragedies of this most important life are described. Tragically, of course, despite the complexities of the narrative, and the many strands to the story; the narrative of Levi's life never escapes the horror and evil of Auschwitz. It was there where so many of the people Levi loved perished and it was the grotesque debasement of humanity in the Nazi camps which marked him for life. Yet, it was also this deeply traumatic experience which made him a writer of international importance, and made him the definitive voice of remembrance; his life's greatest work.

This is not an easy read, but it is a very moving one. Thomson walks the reader through decades of Primo Levi's life, bringing him so alive in the reader's mind; that the final tragedy is keenly felt. 

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Book Notes: Uncommon Ground, A word-lover's guide to the British landscape by Dominic Tyler

This book is an absolute delight. Quirky, unusual and written with a wry, witty ease of touch, the text is accompanied by lovely photos. The contents of the book are unusual. Great Britain is divided up into eight sections, from "The Highlands", to "The Fenlands", not along political, but along geomorphological ones. Each chapter, dedicated to one of these landscapes, begins with a short essay about Tyler's trip to the area. Anecdotes, memories and sharp observations are all assembled into these utterly charming introductions. The main focus of these chapters however are words; words that people have devised to capture, describe and relay to others. an aspect of the landscape, its effect on them - or indeed their effect on it.

Each special landscape word which Tyler identifies, is given a lovely photo, a grid reference, and a page of explanation. These notes delve into history, geography, cartography, and linguistics and humour; and are uniformly informative and sometimes quite funny too. Tyler writes with an almost palpable love for landscapes, whether they are rugged highland Strasrugi, clinging to a wild Corrie on some remote Stob; or a Sunpol, Daddock or Pistyl by a low-lying Copse. (For definitions and explanations you should buy the book!)

Some words such as MeanderBealach or Tor, I already knew from hillwalking days, others such as Dumbledore, I only knew as words; and had no idea of their origins. Other words I found for the first time, but felt as if I should have known. Moonglade is the shiny trail of light reflected from the water beneath a bright moon; Epilimnion is the warm layer of water at the surface of a loch;  Holloway is a sunken lane, which only subsequently gave its name to a road, a prison and countless families. Tombolo is an island connected to the shore at low tide; clear, hard ice covering rocks has a name too: Verglas.

Tyler's little etymologies are fascinating in what they reveal about man's interaction with the natural world too. The Holloway, begins as footpath erosion, to which a stream may add erosive power, which gains water-seeking vegetation on it's banks. It is the result of land-and-man in dynamic interaction, which humans then name, and which in turn became a human sur-name. This act of naming things is important. Tyler recounts his time in the low-lying wetlands of East Anglia amongst the Crikes, Carr's and Loblolly's, and encourages us to think of such places as Stagnal, not stagnant. Here he met a naturalist called Mark Cocker who told him that, "Names are the absolute fundament of relationship because if you don't have a name for something you can' build on that relationship". (p211). Fascinating then, that in the biblical creation story (which Tyler doesn't actually mention until his comparison of the Inuit words for snow with the English words for Mud on p222); the first humans are pictured as being commissioned with the task of 'naming' the creatures, in other words not just performing elementary classification; but beginning meaningful interaction with the natural world.

I love words, and I love the varieties of the British landscape. From cycling across the chalky downlands of the south, to striding over the ridges of the Highlands in later years; I have sought whenever possible to immerse myself in these landscapes. I have also found that the many days I have spent alone in the outdoors have yielded many more vivid memories of it, as my senses are sharper and less distracted than when in company. Don't misunderstand me, some of the best days I have had in the hills have been with others, just that these are not the times when I have felt the landscape as intently as I have when confronting it alone. I love words too, and seem to spend inordinate amounts of time consuming those of others, and producing my own. Dominic Tyler's book about landscape and words, was almost guaranteed to resonate with me.

I once tried to coin a new word to describe a certain mountain experience, (not that anyone noticed). I didn't really mind, but I found it helpful to put a word to a certain feeling, and try to use this to relay that to others. Tyler's book does this again, and again, not by inventing new words, but unearthing, and explaining the richness of words that sometimes have lain unused in quiet backwaters of the country for too long. The natural world really is a wonderful thing to behold, to study, to photograph and to classify in order to discuss. Tyler doesn't really ever get to discussing why this is the case; for him it is simply assumed to be important. For me, it is a spiritual experience, but perhaps not in the contemporary definition of that phrase. Such terminology usually suggests some pantheistic, or Gaia-ish connection to either the sum or the parts of the created realm. But that's not what I mean. Rather, my sense is that this great painting, speaks of a great artist; who has assembled us before His canvas and asked us to define, describe, appreciate, photograph and enjoy His work, as a clue in the search for Him. The heavens indeed declare the Glory of God! I remember once the celebrity atheist Ricky Gervais talking about the awe one senses before the natural realm, and said he defied any believer to sense any more awe than he did as an atheist. The trouble is that Christians never make that claim. I have climbed mountains with believers, sceptics, agnostics, atheists and the disinterested; and we all have stood in awe of the great landscapes of Scotland. We have all reached for words and cameras to capture the moment and the emotion, the time and the place. No, the Christian claim is not that they experience greater awe in these moments; rather it is that the Christian explanation for the awe we all  experience is more credible; that a mountain is not merely a meaningless pile of molecules, but is actually a work of art. Likewise, the desire to photograph, classify and relay this to others - as Tyler does so wonderfully in this book -suggests that we too are not merely molecules; but have some deep connection to the original artist; and that this book delights because it resonates so profoundly with the imago dei.

Saturday, February 17, 2018


Clahnaben from the Fettercairn to Banchory Road.

Kinnoull in the Snow

Film Notes: Ida

I've seen a few films recently, most of which were okay, some of which were overrated, none of which I thought were worthy of a review. Then yesterday I saw 'Ida'. I had bought the disk a long time ago, but somehow with time being short, it never made it to the top of the pile; until now. If I had known how good it was, I would have watched it an age ago.

The story (without too many plot-spoilers), concerns a young Polish girl who is about to take her vows and become a nun. Convent life has been all she has known, as she was an orphan, brought up by the sisters. The opening scenes see young Ida, at work in the practical and ceremonial rigours of the convent. The plot centres around Ida's farewell visit to her family - in this case her sole known relative, an aunt. The aunt is deeply opposed to Ida's religion, and in fact has been a member of the Stalinist hierarchy running postwar Poland. Her aunt's scepticism does not trouble Ida, so much as the discovery that she was orphaned because her parents were murdered during the Nazi occupation of Poland; and that she had a historic Jewish identity, to compete with her experienced Roman Catholic one. The story involves Ida's discovery of her past and navigating, (in the company of her disturbing aunt) the pleasures available outside the confines of the cloistered life; however it centres on her personal struggle to work out her identity. Central to this, is the decision she faces about whether to take her vows and "marry" Jesus, as a nun - or to become joined to the outside world.

The setting in the early Soviet-era in Poland are amazingly created, the gritty black and white filming adds a retro-feel which when combined leaves the viewer wondering if this is actually a recent film- or is in fact decades old. It is visually stunning. The other thing about the direction which is so striking is that it is never hurried, the characters are allowed to breathe, and the studies of the faces of the central protagonists are unnervingly powerful. In one scene for instance, the viewer is being asked to understand that while every other nun and novice is totally compliant; Ida is beginning to ask questions. This is conveyed not through an obvious-but-cheesy dialogue, but through a study of faces. Every head remains fixed in concentration in their prayer book; except Ida, who risks a brief glimpse up: a picture worth a thousand or more words. 

Agata Trzebuchowska is quite remarkable in her performance as the young Polish-Jewish-Catholic girl, for which she quite rightly garnered a host of awards. Amazingly it seems as if Ida has been her only film credit. Agata Kulesza plays the aunt, "Red Wanda", and is also first-rate too; as she plays a woman haunted by the past, lost in the present, and spiralling downwards into her future.

Together, the filming, directing and acting create a film which is gripping, moving, dark, and thoughtful.

Of course, the tension between what makes us who we are: nature or nurture, is in full view in this film. The protagonist here seems to have the final vote, and will have to chose between chapel and synagogue, priest and rabbi, nurture or nature. As neither a Catholic nor a Jew, I felt like a neutral, outside observer to this inner struggle. There is also though the added dynamic of secular hedonism adding a third option which adds a nice complexity to the story, which I could relate to in terms of its power to lure one away from identity and values 

The media seems to be fascinated today with the question of identity, found in programmes like Who Do You Think You Are? in which celebrities unearth their ancestry. Genealogy hunting and family-tree recording has never been more popular either. All the while geneticists and psychologists debate whose field most fully explains human behaviour. Some people find discovering their ancestry profoundly revealing, and they find a sense of place, and belonging. To others, it is an utter irrelevance, what matters to them is the present alone. The comedian Mark Steel has a wonderful stand-up show entitled "Who Do I Think I Am?", in which he speaks (with his customary wit and irreverence), about tracing his biological parents; and seeing if there are any traces of his genes in his personality; or whether who he had turned out to be is modelled more closely on his adoptive parents. The results are fascinating, and well worth a listen. The BBC iPlayer sometimes has this show on it, it is not up presently, but maybe again at some point. In short though, he seems very much the child of his adopted parents except for a few alarming traits which seems to have been, in part at least, genetic. He seems happy to acknowledge these, but on the question of identity, doesn't seem to rest on his genetic history at all - bizarre and surprising as it turned out to be (another spoiler I shall spare you).

In Ida, the film comes to a series of conclusions, ultimately Ida decides which of the paths before her is the right one. The ruins of the past are laid to rest, her sampling of the different options available to her is made, and she walks into her future.

Ida is an exceptionally thought-provoking film; and it is a thing of great beauty to watch too. The real test of a film, though, is whether the characterisation is strong enough that the viewer is drawn in enough to actually care what happens to them. Agata Trzebuchowska's Ida, is so well drawn that I for one, felt stirred by her plight, sorrow at the discoveries she makes, and the losses she endures - and fascinated by her choices. What lingers in my mind, are the striking black and white images of postwar Poland, of the Convent, the grave-side, the disintegrating Aunt, and the minimal but powerful expressions on Ida's face. 

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Book Notes: Living With the Living Dead - The Wisdom of the Zombie Apocalypse by Greg Garrett

When Oxford University Press sent me a review copy of Greg Garrett's book, Living With The Living Dead, which claims amongst other things to demonstrate the cultural and theological importance of the Zombie Movie genre; I was sceptical. In the course of over two-hundred pages of analysis, Garrett removed some - but not all of my initial prejudice against his project! 

Garrett writes from a broadly Christian perspective, and yet is an enormous fan of Zombie movies, which he seems to remember in dreadful detail. This will be a struggle for many Christians from the outset. I once knew a man who literally had the words of Philippians 4:8 stuck across the top of his television. Anything which failed to pass 'St' Paul's injunction to restrict ones' thought-life to "whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy"; would be summarily switched off. The Zombies would be stopped in their tracks.. While few Christians would be that overt in their self-censorship, millions would quietly avoid (18) certificate films in general, and horror in particular. When we read that one film in Garrett's analysis is "like taking a bath in every monstrous thing humans could do if they could" (p196); it's not hard to see why that would be the case. While the opposite error might be to simply glory in the naive, the trite, the banal and the kitsch; what are we to do with a book that asks us to take seriously, and learn from the foul, gross, menacing and repulsive? Perhaps we should initially be concerned that in order to watch as many of these films as this author has done; a degree of desensitisation must have occurred, simply to cope with the repulsion, and distance himself from it. That alone might be cause enough problems to offset the positives which Garrett is keen to examine in these movies.

Garrett argues that the Zombie Apocalypse movie isn't simply gratuitous in its horror, but clever in that it is an extrapolation from  genuine fears and worries in an insecure world. As such, it might be over the top in comparison with real life - but yet resonates with its audience in a deeper way than simply scaring them like a celluloid roller-coaster. As such, he seems to speak in terms of the almost cathartic nature of watching films which expose our deepest fears and process them; the best of which  (he says), do so with nobility, hope, goodness, community and triumph. In an enormous number of case-studies (and frankly the book was too long!), Garrett shows the way in which the surviving characters have to make moral choices in the face of impending doom at the hands of Zombies, Night-Walkers or Rampaging Viruses - all of which are physical embodiments of evil. Many are faced with dilemmas which play the need for personal survival against caring for and preserving others - and are therefore explorations of the basic moral dilemma; against the most extreme of backdrops. Likewise, bands of non-Zombies, whose humanity remains intact, in many movies struggle to work together, but yet find identity and meaning in their community - themes which have obvious resonance with Christian anthropology. Indeed Garrett spends a good amount of time in a major diversion into discussing the Christian understanding of community stretching back to the monastic tradition. Some Zombie movies go even further, he argues, and demonstrate the essence of love, to give 'ones life for ones friends', and that even in the face of monstrous evil and complete breakdown of society. This is all reasonable enough, well argued, and painstakingly illustrated from Zombie (and other apocalyptic) films, books, TV series and comics.

What is less persuasive is his tentative efforts to draw parallels between the apocalyptic nature of these contemporary cultural phenomena and the biblical apocalyptic texts. Some of the alarming apocalyptic writings in the prophets, the gospels and of course in The Revelation, make us see the world as we know it as rather fragile, transient even. That this has a secular parallel in the zombie apocalypse, is a point well made. Likewise his point that a contemporary youth on Netflicks, imagining a dehumanising viral plague sweeping across Europe; is not a world away from a youngster of a previous era quaking while trying to imagine what the 'abomination that causes desolation', or the 'great beast' might mean; is well put. So too, are there parallels between the post-apocalyptic re-birth of the world in some of the more hopeful Zombie stories, and some forms of end-times tribulation theories. However the links drawn here are only suggested, not fully explored; and troublingly, I suspect for Garrett, would work better if he subscribed to the more extreme 'end-timer' dispensationalist theology. 'Left Behind' might be theologically suspect, but it might suggest some further cultural links to explore around his subject.

What I found most interesting about the book through, and most persuasive, was the opening section. Here, Garrett examines the explosion of Zombie Apocalyptic products, and their consumption in contemporary Western Society. He states, for example, that the 'Zombie Apocalypse has become the dominant nightmare image of our day', (p16), with unimaginable numbers of film purchases every day, and tens of thousands of separate Zombie related product lines on Amazon alone. He presents a battery of evidence to support his claim too. What's interesting is why he thinks there is such a widespread, and deep fascination with something as horrible as the everyday story of your friends, neighbours and loved ones becoming deranged monsters intent upon the consumption of human flesh! 

His answers are many, and nuanced, but well worth a read. He notes, for example, that after 9/11 there was a huge surge in the consumption of Zombie related stories and products. Zombie narratives then feed, on insecurity, social upheaval and threats to the social order. In fact, they are a good barometer of insecurity, and fear. Consumption of Zombie narratives also - and this is rather troubling - seem to spike when a population receives significant numbers of incoming migrants. The incessant march of the Zombie, the wave after wave of the living dead, wrecking all in their path, must reveal (albeit in exaggerated form) a deep level of fear about the cultural threat of 'foreigners', Foreigners, or 'aliens' are of course, human  - but not like us. They don't speak like 'us', dress like 'us', or share our cultural norms. To some, they apparently arrive in waves of faceless invaders; and a loss of power, control and security to the native population.

Likewise, the Zombie narrative asks us to question what it means to truly be human. Can the essence of humanity be lost, or is it inherent to anyone carrying human DNA? Can a robot ever be considered to be part human, if it is programmed to look, feel and sound like a human - or might it march Zombie like through our culture? The dilemma of whether the surviving human can legitimately kill the Zombified loved-one, who is recognisable but not what they were, opens up all kinds of fascinating ethical debates from the history of slavery in the USA where slaves at one time counted as 'three-fifths of a person' in population census's; to the status of a person with advanced dementia who looks the same, but yet is not what they were. It doesn't give answers to these questions, and doesn't actually offer much of a framework for getting to an answer - but the questions raised are important nevertheless.

Most profoundly of all however, there is the lurking fear that in the middle of mindless Western consumption, it is not the other who is being Zombified, and having its humanity diminished, but oneself. While the consumer of a Zombie film will instinctively identify with the survivor character, perhaps, suggests Garrett, we have a greater fear that in our consumption-at-all-costs lifestyle, our trampling on each other in the market economy, and radical individualism, we have actively depleted our own humanity; or at least failed to embrace its fullness. Several movies explore this by having Zombies in all their blank, empty, hollowness, shopping in shiny American Malls, unable to think, only to consume. Again it begs deep-seated questions about the purpose of life. If the ancient answer that the chief end of man was to glorify God and enjoy Him forever, gave way to 'I think therefore I am', if what we have now is just 'I consume therefore I am'; then we are just as well to be scared at the sight of the hollow, empty stare of the Zombie, which looks uncomfortably mirror-like. Likewise the Marxist concept of Alienation has some resonances here, with the way in which technology has made so many jobs de-skilled and repetitive; we fear the Zombie, because he is un-creative and mindlessly programmed to act. Again, contemporary life uncomfortably mirrors horror.

Garrett finally sees the good moral message of the Zombie Apocalypse as being one in which, despite the real and often unspeakable horrors of the world-gone-wrong in which we live, where cultural, environmental, nuclear, political or viral catastrophes threaten; we still have agency, still have humanity, and can still chose to fight for the good. (212). That's fine, but I couldn't help wondering if what was needed next was an explanation of how the Christian message offers hope, meaning, vitality and life-affirming wholeness to the alienated, the insecure, the bleak and the worried. That would have been a more robust and compelling conclusion - especially for the millions of consumers of these stories he identified.

Did Garrett succeed in turning me into an appreciator of gory, horror apocalyptic movies, TV-series, and the like? Absolutely not. I still think they are ghastly, and if I never see another one, I won't be one bit sorry!

Monday, February 12, 2018

Ben Gulabin

Ben Gulabin is a great little hill, a charming Perthshire Corbett. It does look enormous and rather daunting when it fills the horizon for Northbound drivers on the Perth-to-Braemar A93. In fact, the high starting point, a mile or so beyond the snow-gates at the Spittal of Glenshee, and its relatively low height, make it a pretty straightforward outing - even in Winter conditions. 

The starting point is at an obvious gate, where a track forks away from the main road, and ascends the a little of the lower slopes of Ben Gulabin, while curving between the main mountain and the adjacent Creagan Bheithe. 

The track continues between the two hills and out towards Carn a Gheoidh, and the route to the summit involves a 90' turn to the left from the track, and into the hill. Without snow, there is probably a path; today under snow cover there was just the feint clue of some faded boot prints to indicate the best route up. The OS map has a ruin by the path marked, which would give a clue as to where to turn, but as this ruin is now flat with the ground, it is not actually visible from the track. The key thing is to ensure that you walk beyond the steep gully in the hillside before starting the ascent. 

The ascent up the side of the hill is a bit steep, and in snow and ice crampons were a necessity. The track seems to terminate at the low point on the ridge between the two tops. The lower one to the left, would have been worth visiting on a clear day - however as I had walked up into the clouds I turned right along the broad ridge, and picked my way over some bouldery outcrops, trying to avoid the worst depths of the snow, to the summit. The only other walkers I saw all day, on the lower reaches of the track, were in snow-shoes, and there were times when I envied their ability to stay on top of the soggy stuff! My only other company was a series of enormous mountain hares, leaping about on the hillside, in their white fur.

I took the opportunity to try out my new Winter jacket, (which my family had bought be for my birthday last week). It was SO good that on the climb I cooked inside its thermal layers! It was only when I stopped on the top that I realised just how cold the air temperature actually was, and layered up for the descent  - following my footsteps back down the mountain to the waiting car - and home.

iPhone photos!

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Book Notes: The Many Days, Selected Poems of Norman MacCaig

I first stumbled across the delightful poetry of Norman MacCaig via Andrew Greig's wonderful book, "At The Loch of The Green Corrie". In fact, I first heard MacCaig's name when Grieg was interviewed for some afternoon bookish programme on Radio 4, and was intrigued. The story there is that MacCaig in his last days sent the younger poet on a enigmatic Highland quest to be completed after the former's demise. The physical journey depicted, forms the arc of a series of moving stories around the theme of friendship. There are a few poems in that book form MacCaig, such as the following:

It was several years later that I stumbled across a little bookshop in Edinburgh, of which I had never heard. Nestling there among the volumes of left-wing causes, biographies of Che and Trotsky, pro-Palestinian publications, Queer Theory, and Nuclear Disarmament; a found a slim volume of the selected poems of MacCaig. It was not what I expected to emerge from the shop clutching; but it seemed a most appropriate thing to take into a grey, rainy Edinburgh afternoon.

MacCaig's poems are mostly short, and not buried beneath dense, unintelligible metaphors and obscure literary illusions. Some of them are deceptively simple. One or two, seem rather routine, until he drops in a killer a line with such force that it delights (when he describes nature), or feels like a punch in the stomach (when he exhibits grief and loss). That so many of his poems are based around, and inspired by places I know and love such as Edinburgh and Assynt, only makes them better. That he could look down and be inspired by the tiny elements of the natural world (a frog in a pool), as by the grandeur of Suilven or Stac Pollaidh is also rather special.

Whether in gentle and wry observational mood, in the throes of grief, or in the company of Highland crofters, MacCaigs little verses have a unique charm, which sometimes seems to cut right to the heart of the matter. 

Sunday, January 07, 2018

Book Notes: The Last Mughal: The Fall of Delhi 1857

What could be a better way to start off a new year's reading than with an epic history from the pen of William Dalrymple? As with his other works such as The Return of a King (The Battle for Afghanistan), and From the Holy Mountain, Dalrymple researches like an academic, but writes with the flourish of a novelist; meaning that even these long books are un-put-down-able page-turners.

This one concerns the Indian Mutiny in Delhi of 1857, in which the Indian armies of the British 'East India Company' turned against their 'masters' and rallied to the standard of the last Mughal King, at the Red Fort. The octogenarian king proved to be a reluctant revolutionary, who was more inclined to poetic and mystic Sufism than leading an army. Chaos, and wholesale slaughter of the colonial population ensued, from the series of ill-disciplined armies who flocked to the city. Trade faltered, starvation set in, and anarchy erupted while the surviving  British fled to plot their revenge. Revenge when it came was severe; the invasion of the city by British forces was accompanied by an orgy of violence, mass murder and cruelty on a massive and appalling scale. With the Royal family along with countless thousands of their subjects slaughtered, the King with his immediate family was sent into exile, the end of a 350 year dynasty.

Dalrymple's purpose in writing is not however to simply tell and epic, and dreadful story. While in one sense it is simply worthwhile to record the historical facts, and to closely observe extreme human behaviour, this book aspires to far more. Dalrymple himself is a Scot, who has lived half his life in Delhi, and is a passionate multi-culturalist, who consistently celebrates tolerance and plurality; and resists exclusivism from any quarter. 

For him, this book is a lament for a lost gentleness and respectful pluralism. His description of the Mughal dynasty is one of a Hindu-Muslim culture which together were a centre for learning, culture, poetry, art, architecture and a form of tolerance which was profound and pre-dates twentieth century notions of liberalism. By the time this book opens in the early 1850s, the Mughal's had little but symbolic authority, with little power or wealth; but that symbolic role stood for something important, the loss of which drives Dalrymple's ire.

The social backdrop onto which he paints the narrative of the ghastly massacres of 1857 is one of a rising intolerance from both Indians and British perspectives. The usual Marxist historical analysis is rejected here, because Dalrymple allows ideas, and not only economics to be primary drivers of history in his account; which is to be welcomed. That is not to negate the effect of economics whatsoever, just to allow some other factors to be significant too. The brooding conflict, in Dalrymple's eyes comes therefore not only from economic resistance to Colonialism, but to Indian ideological resistance to the imposition of Christianity in the sub-Continent. Likewise, the incursion of militant Wahhabism (and similar) theology into Indian Islam is blamed for the loss of the co-operative, inter-cultural model, in favour of violent resistance. Dalrymple sets up a conflict between rising Victorian Evangelicalism and Wahhabi-inspired Islam; into which the largely Hindu armies were brought because of their historic allegiance to the Mughal King. The final lament is for the loss of that old Delhi, and the hardening of attitudes, which he tracks from the fall of Delhi to the Madrasas which ultimately spawned Al Qaeda. The British villains of the cultural catastrophe include the British East India Company, whose policy of forcing the Sepoys to consume beef and pork fat in the loading of the new Enfield Rifles (the caps had to be bitten off and the new bevelled barrels required fatty lubricant); alienated Hindu's and Muslims alike - and sparked the rebellion with the fear that their religious customs were to be abolished by force, and Christianity imposed. Then there was Padre Jennings the fundamentalist Christian leader in Delhi, whose missionary methods were so confrontational that when wedded with his love of Colonial power and disdain for other cultures, gave every reason for such fears amongst his opponents.

Dalrymple's thesis is largely compelling, and one cannot help but instinctively recoil from his descriptions of the slaughter of small English children or from the senseless hangings and gang rapes of Indians by the British. Likewise, this historical study in the vital necessity of cultural respect, and tolerance is as profound today as it ever was. British Liberal, Tim Farron's recent speech on genuine LIberalism from a faith-perspective is perhaps a fine recent example of what this looks like. I think though, in a couple of passages, Dalrymple over-states his case against all of evangelicalism. Take for example p484 in which he offers a mixed assessment of the last Mughal King, and then says:

"He is certainly a strikingly liberal and likeable figure when compared to the Victorian Evangelicals whose insensitivity, arrogance and blindness did much to bring the Uprising of 1857 down upon their own heads and those of the people and court in Delhi, engulfing all of Northern India in religious war of terrible violence."

My suspicion is that this goes a bit beyond the evidence which he has marshalled, and that for all his brilliance as a writer and commentator, Dalrymple's personal antipathy for that particular creed has somewhat got the better of him. It might have been better, and more in keeping with his general thesis of cultural openness to have explored what went wrong with the likes of Padre Jennings violent religiosity, when coupled with the power of the East India Company, who had been the key opponents of Christian missions in India for decades prior to the 1850s. Likewise, older Evangelicalism in India like that represented by William Carey, had not been liberal in their theology, but had embraced indigenous languages, customs and culture in a way which would have perplexed the likes of Jennings. It certainly did not promote, use or cause violent revolt! Perhaps the evangelicalism which Dalrymple so universally pans, was a more varied and less monolithic entity than he suggests?

This though is brilliant writing. Just as his book on the 19th Century British invasion of Afghanistan opened my eyes to a whole area of history about which I was appallingly ignorant, so here he opens a window into a world about which I know little. The Indian Mutiny is something I have heard referenced, but now know about thanks to Dalrymple's vast amount of research through the discovered original sources in a multiplicity of languages, across continents. His massive grasp of the course of events set against their cultural backdrop enables the reader not just to know but understand what happened, and why it matters. Better still, his vivid prose means that the book is so captivating, and leaves impressions on the mind that are like visual memories.  

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Book Notes: Days of Rage, America's Radical Underground, The FBI and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence by Bryan Burrough

Bryan Burrough's "Days of Rage" tells the stories of the radical terrorist groups which emerged from the tumult of the 1960s, each of which took their grievances against the USA and or capitalism to violent extremes. As the hippie ideal descended into disillusionment and despair, disparate groups emerged who no longer saw a future in love, peace, weed, free love and dropping out; but instead actively sought revolution.

The book chronicles the rise and fall of a plethora of these groups, notably the Weather Underground, which emerged from the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), went underground and tried to provoke a popular uprising through a bombing campaign. Others like the Black Liberation Army came from the Black Panthers, the Simbionese Liberation Army - of Patty Hearst infamy, the FALN, The Family etc. Whether inspired by Marx or Mao, by the end of the Civil Rights Movement, by Puerto Rican Independence, or an ill defined rage; Burrough's described each group, their main characters, main actions, factions and eccentricities - and how each of them ground to a halt. Some fell apart in drug-fuelled acrimony, some fled the country, others re-emerged into normal life, others were busted by the FBI. 

Prior to reading this book I had been aware that groups such as the BLA existed, and the career of Eldridge Cleaver and so forth occur throughout the civil rights literature. The Weather Underground, likewise are referenced, as much for their excesses and sexual proclivities in 70s literature, as for their low-grade bombing campaigns. Burrough fills in all the gaps though, describing in great detail how these groups developed, hid, gained explosives and struggled to survive. Interestingly while much of the mainstream literature seems to reference these groups as if they were fierce, ruthless and brilliant; this inside account portrays most of them as desperate, amateur, deluded, fanatical and often inept. As such he adds a great deal to understanding much of the background to these frayed ends of the sixties cultural revolution.

The problem with the book though is that it is rather heavy on description, and rather light on analysis. Intricate details of bombing-runs by Weather Underground, or FALN are described, as they are of the characters, their safe-houses, cars, physical appearance and cars. We learn about the autumn leaves blowing around the bank under surveillance for an armed robbery, for example. So too, details of the construction of home-made bombs by each group's specialist. What is fascinating is how this information was shared amongst various groups, a kind of family tree of violence. Burrough is fascinated with the internal life and dynamic of each group, some of which were as complex as those within the Rumours era Fleetwood Mac! This eye for detail is sometimes a bit much, however the fact that he records the details of so many of the victims of the attacks made by radicals is a welcome reminder that these groups frequently murdered the innocent who were not anonymous representations of the state, but real people with lives, families, children, etc.

What is lacking though, is much analysis of the ideologies which drove these groups. While the book regularly speaks of the seizure of radical literature by the FBI, little is said of the content. So too there is a fascination with the detail and progression of car chases and raids, but not much with the process by which these people were radicalised. Neither is there much comparison between the different groups to establish common patterns of causation, not much of mapping the progress of these violent ideas onto any wider sociological interpretation of currents in wider American society. The reader is left to judge for themselves whether these people were ideologues who used crime as a means to an end, or criminals who used political dogma to legitimise their criminality. Given Burough's enormous amount of factual research and remarkable access to sources, this is something of a disappointment. Burrough certainly makes it plain, that while he had access to sources, he had little sympathy for them.

All in all, this is a good read, because it tells a series of little-known, but significant stories; based on excellent research. The limitations of the book all them from the fact that is is written in the style of a newspaper scoop, rather than with a historians desire to analyse and understand. The story is told - and told very well indeed- but the questions behind the story, are not addressed. Actually, that is an overstatement.... huge numbers of questions are asked and answered at a practical level such as how could (for example Dohrn and the Weather Underground) live undetected for so long and how could they re-emerge without facing prosecution; how did they build bombs, select targets and deliver them? What is not examined is why America produced so many such groups in the early 1970s, and why the people that joined them did so, compared to others (eg in their university classes at Berkeley) who did not. Likewise, why these groups developed as they did, and not in other ways is left undeveloped as is the question of why America seemed to stop producing violent leftist groups in the 1980s.