The Difficult Relationship, by Richard Aldous

December 8, 2012 at 11:42 (Book Reviews, English History, Historical, Mediocre Books, Politics, Twentieth Century) (, , , , )

4/10

4/10

TheDifficultRelationshipThose readers who are not thoroughly tired of two-hundred page history books marketing themselves with sensationalist claims of the untold shocking story that will redefine the world – probably ought to be. At first glance, this book looks like more of the same. It’s not entirely true. But the title is subtle enough to provide a few misconceptions. A marriage (to borrow a metaphor often pasted onto the Reagan-Thatcher relationship) can be “difficult” because the couple are constantly at each other’s throats, or it can be “difficult” because they loyally and patiently endure difficult times, without ever turning on each other. Aldous does a rather good job playing with the two definitions, and seems to go back and forth between which one he prefers.

Predictably, he spends most of his time dwelling on the hardest parts of the relationship, but outside of the first few pages where he makes his initial case that Thatcher and Reagan were hardly wearing rose-tinted glasses he provides a very level and unambitious catalogue of the political crises that affected both leaders. Is this book weighted to emphasise the negative and entirely eclipse the positive? Of course it is. But not in a dishonest way. Any myopia is entirely appropriate to his context, and Aldous never claims to be giving a comprehensive view of events. He is simply doing what he promised, in laying out the difficulties faced by both parties; whether the difficulties were caused by differences in policy, differences in temperament, mutual misunderstandings, allies and enemies, or deliberate antagonism.

“For the first time it seemed in hours, Thatcher stopped talking. Even with her thick skin, impervious as she was to criticism or embarrassment, the prime minister understood that she had gone too far. Around the table, nobody moved as Reagan maintained eye contact.”

-The Difficult Relationship

Where this book falls slightly short is its failure to offer much in the way of complex explanations for what Aldous observes. Thatcher was angry with Reagan for his vacillating on the Falklands issue, for instance. That was due solely to Reagan’s concern for nurturing Argentina as an anti-communist bastion in the western hemisphere. So far, so good. But Aldous is content to accept this at face value. He rarely speculates, and while to his credit he does explain the agendas of certain figures like Shultz, this is done in a general axiomatic way, without any attempt to look deeper at the politics of 1980s America. Likewise, Thatcher is portrayed largely as mistress of her own destiny. Domestic troubles are occasionally noted when they impacted her transatlantic friendship, but for all intents and purposes both leaders are set in a vacuum that contains only each other, at their most intractable.

As noted above, this is the history that Aldous sets out to tell, and so he should not be judged harshly on what he omits. However, he slashes and ignores enough of real significance that it does begin to weigh against him in the end: and also, against his brash title. There is nothing groundbreaking or sensational in this book, and although he does highlight certain difficulties, they are rocky reefs in an otherwise navigable ocean. Of limited use to an historian, and even less use to those looking for an entry level guide to Anglo-American politics in the 1980s, this book is more of a general case study that might complement other books, but is just as likely to find itself repeating more thorough sources.

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King George III, by John Brooke

January 11, 2012 at 20:14 (Biography, Book Reviews, English History, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Politics) (, , , )

8/10

It is something of a rare pleasure to read biographies by serious historians and dedicated men of letters, rather than well-meaning amateurs, celebrity talking-heads, or journalists. What John Brooke lacks in shimmering prose or scandalous new theories, he more than makes up for in levelheadedness, clarity, and perspicacity. Like so many historians, he has very little time for theories that he does not subscribe to, and some of the juiciest and most entertaining passages of this book are taken up by Brooke’s withering scorn for the pop-psychologists of the twentieth century, the sensationalists of the nineteenth century, and the jingoists from all centuries.

“In the mythology of American history King George III is the would-be tyrant whose wicked plans were foiled by the courage and resistance of the American people. He is the scapegoat for the act of rebellion.”

-George III (John Brooke)

These moments aside, Brooke is methodical without being too dry, and has an aura of The Establishment about his writing, that creates a slightly artificial awe around the subject of his work, as well as lending him a voice of authority to match. He clearly has a great deal of affection for the entire band of miscreants of the eighteenth century–North, Fox, the Pitts, the Willises, the Prince Regent, Bute–and an even stronger affection for the King. While this could be seen as detrimental to a supposedly impartial review of the monarchy, Brooke makes the calculated decision to tell a chiefly personal biography, crossing occasionally into politics when the two areas overlap. Consequently, this book is most comprehensive when the King was most active (during the 1760s through to the 1780s), and includes only the barest treatment of William Pitt the Younger, Napoleon, or America’s turbulent relationship with Britain after the Revolution. This can often be vexing; Brooke is not a consistent author, and by caprice or by design distributes his attentions rather imperfectly. There are times when his portrait of George III is badly affected by his refusal to offer a glimpse at a wider context, and there are times when he drones just a little about a favourite politician with only tenuous links to the King.

As an history of its period, this work is incomplete; as a portrait of a man, it is decidedly myopic. But for all its faults, it is a fine introductory biography, and does not delve too far from the path of received knowledge. A useful book to have in one’s library, and a valuable arrow in the quiver for defending the facts about one of history’s most misconstrued characters.

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A Journey, by Tony Blair

December 4, 2011 at 13:33 (Biography, Book Reviews, English History, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Politics, Twentieth Century) (, , , , )

7/10

One of the first things that everyone in the world either loved or utterly loathed about Tony Blair was his hokey, jokey, everyman persona: which was either just that, a carefully and cynically constructed persona; or else a genuine dislike for the airs of power and tradition, and a refreshing and frank openness hitherto unseen in politics. Whether genuine or not, this book is written in a voice that matches Blair’s manner immaculately. Presumably, this has garnered it praise and poison in equal amounts; but that is the first thing any reader will notice. Stiff and awkward, like an older person talking to a teenager about the fashions and bands of five years ago; inoffensive and dreadful jokes that will be laughed at for their daring in being told at all; the confident aside whispered knowingly after any particularly salient point; ready and good-natured self-effacement throughout. Whether Blair penned this biography entirely on his own (he is certainly a capable enough communicator) or worked with a ghostwriter, the very essence of his personality was captured acutely. Whatever else that means, it suggests that this book is written much better than it seems at first glance. It is difficult to write (or act, or paint) well; it is considerably harder to do so–not badly–but just noticeably worse than you are capable of.

“Hadn’t we fought a great campaign? Hadn’t we impaled our enemies on our bayonet, like ripe fruit? Hadn’t our strategies, like something derived from destiny, scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts?”

-A Journey

Weighing in at nearly 700 pages, it is remarkable that Blair covered only his career as leader of the Labour party. There are a few scanty passages about his early life, a handful of reminiscences of his legal career (when germane to the political story) and a little about the ’80s under Neil Kinnock; otherwise almost the entire tome is strictly business, and strictly focused on his tenure as (brief) leader of the Opposition, and of the country. This allows a rare comment to be made. Rare to be said about any biography or history. Blair covers his material comprehensively, and without any area of omission. It is honestly difficult to conceive what of his political career might have been unfairly or unnaturally truncated. Some of his comments are brief (terse, even); but even with these he cannot be said to have left anything out.

His treatment of colleagues and competitors, enemies and acquaintances, and all manner of human beings in between, was always going to be a key talking point about this book. One can almost imagine feverish teams of newspaper hacks hunched up outside Waterstones in the early hours of release day, taking a chapter each and scraping each last ounce of nuance from Blair’s every word, his every pronouncement and judgement of every character, searching for scandalous rivalry or sour grapes. He is a gentleman throughout–although sometimes a snide gentleman with a great deal of subtext. When the time comes to censure someone, he employs like clockwork a patronising, “so-and-so is an excellent and peerless MP, but has an unfortunate tendency to shortsightedness, and doesn’t understand the way the Civil Service works.” Or some variation of the formula. Rupert Murdoch and Ed Balls in particular come in for a regular savaging, but Blair always attempts to justify himself, and never in this book is there an unpleasant taste of bitterness or bile. Seldom, anyway.

“Ed Balls was and is immensely capable intellectually, and also has some of the essential prerequisites for leadership: he has guts, and he can take decisions. But he suffers from the bane of all left-leaning intellectuals. As I have remarked elsewhere, these guys never ‘get’ aspiration…truly muddled and ultimately damaging…”

-A Journey

As far as his honesty goes, an odd curiosity is his clear and conscious attempt to prove that, while he is certainly a master of persuasion, and incredibly good with words, there is more to it than that. A great deal of the effort in this book is given to bolstering his verisimilitude as a politician, and therefore as a writer. If his chief intention is to be believable, then he works like a Trojan, and puts every argument to work in his favour. He parries countless thrusts at his personal and political integrity, and does so with masterful flourish and disarming frankness. While this does not, of course, prove his character or nature (the devil can quote scripture to suit his purpose), it does at the very least provide a challenge to the reader. Listen to what he has to say, and weigh his words with an open mind. His strong insistence that he relies on more than just showmanship and “spin” is powerfully backed up by his record, and together his facts and his rhetoric make for a heady mixture.

This was not altogether a particularly pleasant book to read (the depth with which Blair deals with every shade of issue, from foreign policy to economics, education to the media) makes that a foregone conclusion. And despite how genuine his charming everyman persona might or might not be, it grows tiresome after a while (his parenthetical, “Blimey, I thought to myself,” coming off as particularly cloying). Nevertheless, this is a powerful and persuasive book, and if not a pleasure to begin then certainly a pleasure to reflect on and digest.

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The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, by Piers Brendon

July 24, 2011 at 12:31 (Book Reviews, English History, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Nineteenth Century, Politics, Second World War, Twentieth Century) (, , , , , )

9/10

Piers Brendon writes with the sort of jocular and sardonic style that has become the form for modern histories; always gently mocking all that is positive in his chosen study, and phlegmatically acknowledging all that is negative, all the while maintaining a carefully constructed distance so as not to be sullied by the riff-raff he describes. This permits him astonishing liberties in both damning and lauding, but is a little frustrating due to the difficulty of pinning him down to an honest opinion: these he gives sparingly and reservedly.

While this book is an overview and a glossed account of some two hundred years of global history: in spite of–or even because of his title, Brendon spends very little time at all in the British Isles, and omits almost in their entirety such crucial subjects as the industrial revolution, the repeal of the corn laws, the liberalisation of the British Parliament and even the fierce battles of Disraeli and Gladstone for control of Bristish destiny. All of these subjects are admitted only insofar as they relate to Empire, and then only as they relate directly.

“They included Scottish Highlanders, bag-piped and red-coated, bonneted, plumed and kilted, who were variously thought to be women, eunuchs and demons with a keen appetite for ‘curried black babies.’ Certainly they were a terrifying array, once complimented by General Havelock for holding their fire until ‘you saw the colour of your enemy’s mustachios.'”

-The Decline and Fall of the British Empire

Despite this selectiveness and despite his massive scope, Brendon manages to treat several intricate colonial stories with surprising detail. There are the ubiquitous anecdotes and personal recollections and slanders, following modern history’s trend of focusing a little myopically on the “common people” (whoever they were) at the expense of wars and acts and personages; but Brendon allows himself enough space and time to pause on occasion to actually question the causes and reasons for some very singular events. Seldom does he allow himself to give a definitive answer, but at least he ventures so far as to offer out definitive questions.

With prose both lyrical and perversely vernacular, this is not the sort of book where any committed reader will find himself bogged down in a syntactically murderous discussion of dusty manuscript or appalling old civil servants and their historical meddling. It is thrilling in parts, but not gratuitously so, and has a depth that is unexpected in such a casual treatment of such a vast subject. The book’s greatest omission is its apparent failure to contextualise its history, or to link its chronology in a dynamic way to the evolution of global politics and society: however, this omission is apparent only at the first glance, and only because of the sheer mass of material presented, which outweighs the clear comparative commentary that Brendon provides. This is not a flawless work, and it is certainly not the last word on the subject; but it is a pleasing introduction written with a fluent pen and a surprising amount of insight and detail.

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At the Edge of the World, by Simon Schama

November 21, 2010 at 20:55 (Ancient, Book Reviews, Bronze Age, English History, Highly Rated Books, Historical) (, , , )

8/10

This is certainly one of Simon Schama’s more populist efforts, and it is instantly clear to the reader that he is performing a careful (and not always successful) balancing act, between accessibility and something that he can put his name on while maintaining his professional reputation. It helps to have watched Schama deliver his incredibly melodramatic discourses on television; he writes exactly how he talks, and if he is informal or chatty then it is because the intended conclusion of this project is less a revolutionary approach towards the understanding of British History, and more a friendly afternoon chat about that same history. Informal, yes; but Schama has a firm hand on the reins, and does not wax too lyrical, or fall too much in love with his own prose.

With five millennia covered in 500 pages, this was never going to be a comprehensive history of anything, but it is a very digestible overview, and beautifully presented. Schama does have a marked reluctance to simply brush over interesting historical characters or events that he considers either irrelevant to the flow of history, or else exhaustively covered in standard school textbooks. This over-editorialising is occasionally tiresome, but certainly serves the purpose of directing the deluge of centuries into an orderly course. He does well in presenting a critical view of history rather than just telling a story, and his sudden delvings into individual and historically unimportant case studies are almost always included to illustrate a point he has already documented in macrocosm first. The book (and the series to which it belongs) is a little too unwieldy to be laid out as a coffee-table book, but is an excellent resource for any amateur historian looking for a useful reference, and fills a comfortable spot on even the scholar’s shelf.

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The Great Fire of London, by Stephen Porter

October 29, 2010 at 18:02 (Book Reviews, English History, Highly Rated Books, Historical) (, , , , )

8/10

It is always fun to see a book begin extremely pompously and pontifically, only to make a hilarious mistake, and I did enjoy how Porter began by referring magnificently to “the thirteenth book of Revelation”. I settled in for a long (or not so long) list of sonorously muddled history and grandiloquent mondegreens, and found instead an intelligent and exciting history of the Great Fire of London that was stunningly complete, considering the minute size of this book.

Porter might not be able to find 666 in his Bible, but he is certainly on top of 1666, and although his sources are oft-repeated this cannot be his fault, and his textual criticism is second to none. It seems unfair to criticise a book simply for being short, especially when it seems to cover its subject matter perfectly adequately in its brevity, and yet it must be noted that this is perhaps the shortest serious history book I have ever seen, much less read. Despite this, Porter has provided us with that rare jewel in reading history; an economic event that is not lost in the historian’s obfustication with numbers and figures, and yet not whitewashed with rude approximations.

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Ecclesiastical History of the English People, by Bede

September 19, 2010 at 17:54 (Book Reviews, English History, Historical, Mediocre Books, Theology) (, , , , )

6/10

The Venerable Bede (“old Bede-y eyes” to his friends) presented a vastly different Britain in his historica than might have been expected. Of course, if we wanted Caesars and Boudiccas, an Artos, an Ambrosius, a sprinkling of Vortigerns and Aelles…well, we might be better advised to look elsewhere. Gildas, perhaps. Of course, this is a history of the English people, not of the British Isles, and so Bede remains throughout a thorough jingoist, touching briefly or not at all on the early Dark Age and Roman periods, brushing over those events outside of Ængland that do not directly affect his litany of kings and saints. Much more interesting are the border disputes of Mercia, or the murderous ways of certain heathen usurpers of petty fiefdoms than any real attempt at a wide scope of English history.

Also of difficulty for any reader (even a Christian reader) is Bede’s peculiar preoccupation with a handful of relatively minor issues of dogma that he comments on from the very advent of Christianity in England through to the final paragraphs of the book. The placement of Easter and the correct tonsuring of priests appear to be the most weighty theological issues confronting his church, and he is very anxious to scan through history and comment pedantically whenever he considers these issues to crop up. This can become tiresome, but is indicative of his real and lasting concern that orthodoxy might be threatened (even in the most pithy ways) and that the authority structure of the Church might be damaged. This fundamentalism is evident throughout.

The most touching moment comes during one of many panegyrics for one of many anonymous saints, one Etheldreda. As Bede stands agog gazing up at this magnificent woman, making his usual respectful comments about the great lady’s life and acts, he stammers briefly like a thirteen-year-old and shyly mumbles that he–he–well, he wrote a poem about her. It’s…well, it’s not very good…but, well, you’re really–um–nice?

Even the crusty old sage with the inkstained hands gives us a glimpse of his blushing face, and reminds us that between fierce kings with Viking names and martyrs who starved themselves to death in earnest penitence, the 700s was populated by real people.

In honour of Bede’s high school poetry dedication slipped beneath the pages of his history like a love note crumpled hurriedly into a maths textbook, the reviewer here includes his own imagined reply from Etheldreda to Bede. Like Bede’s original, it is also an accrostic:

In humble chasteness send I this note
Response to thee, upon whom I dote
Expound your sweetness, dearest Bede
And many sweeter poems to read
Little letters that you call hymns
Lengthy lists of your kindly whims
You’re really nice and a very good monk
Lying alone in your lonely monk bunk
I don’t really like that you use the word ‘breast’
Kind of makes me get nervous, but let me confess
Every time that you write I want us to be togedda
You, Venerable Bede, and me, Etheldreda
Of course, this can’t happen, we both have our vows
Unless in the next world the good Lord allows!

xxx Dreddy

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