The Scramble for China by Robert Bickers (2011)

Bickers obviously knows a hell of a lot about western intervention in nineteenth-century China – or the story of the Foreign Devils in the Qing Empire 1832-1914, as the book’s sub-title puts it. Unfortunately, he attempts to convey this wealth of information in such a long-winded, round-the-houses manner, choked by a prose style which manages to combine academic jargon and whimsical archaism, that a lot of the time it’s difficult to tease out what he’s on about.

For example, the early chapters open with an unnamed ‘he’ doing something melodramatic and striking, thus creating an arresting opening – but take a page or more getting round to explaining who ‘he’ is, what ‘he’ is doing, where and when and why, thus leaving us in the dark.

They shouldered their way in. At Mr Lindsay’s order, Mr Simpson and Midshipman Stephens put their shoulders against the barred entrance to the Daotai’s quarters and heaved, twice. (Opening of chapter two)

Who? Where? When? Why? Patience, grasshopper. All will be revealed… eventually.

Was it a dream? Were his eyes deceiving him? He pressed forward through the crowd, the report goes, to get a better sight of the strangers, and “immediately began rubbing his eyes”. (Opening of chapter three)

Who? Where etc. Wait. Wait and see. Wait quite a while, in fact, for Bickers to make himself clear.

These teasing anecdotes, once finally explained, themselves take a while to be placed in the wider historical moment, which Bickers tends to explain both repetitively and obscurely. Quite regularly I didn’t know who he was referring to or when because the narrative jumped unpredictably between one set of characters and another, and (very frequently) back and forward over time. The only really consistent thing about his approach is his use of colourless academic phraseology and his scorn for the no-good imperialising westerners.

At first sight there appears to be a good deal of ‘background colour’ – the third chapter prides itself on going into great detail about the role of theatre and opera in Chinese society, from the professional heights of Peking Opera to the most amateur of local productions. Unfortunately, a lot of these purple passages, when you really look at them, merely state the obvious.

To give an example, the ‘he’ described in the opening of chapter three turns out to be a Chinese bystander who’s heard about two Europeans who have arrived out of the blue at Shanghai in – well, the date is lost in the yards of verbiage, I genuinely couldn’t figure it out – and who have blundered into a public opera production. This is Bickers’ cue to write pages about the Chinese opera and theatre tradition. Sounds fascinating, right? Alas, these pages are written thus:

But what was being staged depended on the occasion, and who was paying – the temple, a guild or a private patron. We cannot know, but we do know that the temple and the gathering so rudely interrupted by these bumptious foreign travellers were part of the fabric of Shanghai life and culture, in which were tightly interwoven the sojourning communities of commercial China, men from afar, whose trading activities were a key component of its wealth and importance. (p.59)

This one long sentence informs us that this big temple in Shanghai was part of Shanghai life and culture. Golly. Communities of sojourners (sojourner = ‘a person who resides temporarily in a place’) were – in case you hadn’t twigged – ‘men from afar’. OK. And that the trading activities of travelling merchants ‘were a key component of [Shanghai’s] wealth and importance’. ‘Tightly interwoven’ sounds impressive, doesn’t it? What does it mean, though?

I.e. when you take this grand-sounding sentence to pieces, it doesn’t tell you anything that wasn’t already fairly obvious. This is true for thousands of passages throughout the book: sound great, don’t tell you a thing.

Obscurity 

I’ve gone back and reread the opening pages of chapter three, twice, and I genuinely cannot actually work out when the action quoted above is taking place. You have to wait until three pages into the chapter before there is any reference to an actual date, and then it’s to two dates at once, one or both of which may refer back to a scene described in the previous chapter (I think), a reference which, in turn, required me to go back and double-check those dates.

In other words, this book requires quite a lot of double-checking and cross-referencing just to figure out when the thing is happening. Here’s the date reference I’m talking about:

Understanding what they were congregating for on this dreary October day in 1835 and had been watching on that wet June morning in 1832, and why at a temple, will help us develop a fuller picture of the China that first Lindsay and Gütlzaff, and then Medhurst and Stevens, were so intent on interrupting with their presence. (p.53)

This is what I mean by a round-the-houses manner. The opening of chapter three is deliberately obscure and teasing but… becomes no clearer as it goes on, in fact becomes in many ways more obscure and confusing as it goes on. All that really comes over is Bickers’s anti-British attitude (‘so intent on interrupting’) which is, indeed, the central thread of his account.

All this makes for a very frustrating read. Obviously Bickers knows masses about this subject – it is a tragedy for us readers that he can’t set it down in a straightforward, understandable manner.


The sound of his own voice

Complementing the obscure structuring of the book is the convoluted prose style.

1) Long paragraphs Bickers’ paragraphs routinely last an entire page and often longer, so on opening the book anywhere the reader is faced with a blank wall of words, with no way of breaking the text down into smaller, manageable units of meaning. I continually found myself losing the drift of a 2-page long paragraph, my eyes glazing over, suddenly snapping out of it and then having to go right back to the start to figure out what was happening.

2) Long sentences These mammoth paragraphs are indicative of the book’s general long-windedness. Bickers is reluctant to write a simple declarative sentence. He prefers long, swelling periods, dotted with commas to indicate the proliferation of subordinate clauses and – if possible – the insertion of one or two additional facts in parentheses, to make them as ornate and rhetorically over-wrought as possible.

You know those suitcases which are so over-stuffed you have to sit on them to try and get them closed? Bickers’ sentences are like that. And is this over-stuffing done in the name of presenting the facts clearly? Alas, no. Nine times out of ten it is to achieve an effect of style, a rhetorical repetition of phrases or artful alliteration, the deployment of irony or sarcasm – all techniques which are more suitable to a creative writer than to a historian.

And so, yet again, the Tianhou temple at Shanghai played host to parley, and the crude theatrics of private diplomacy, as Medhurst in particular stood, or rather aimed to sit, on his dignity as yet higher officials, the Customs superintendent (with a foreign cloak, he noted) and the district magistrate, came along in turn to sort things out, and found the foreign intruders rudely rebuffing the requirements of propriety when meeting officials of the great Qing. (p.52)

Note the attempts at humour – ‘or rather aimed to sit’. Note the insertion of a parenthesis, which itself contains two grammatical parts ‘(with a foreign cloak, he noted)’. Note the fondness for alliteration, for the sound of his own style – ‘rudely rebuffing the requirements’. Note that rather than describing or explaining the attitudes of the participants, Bickers prefers to convey them through irony verging on sarcasm – ‘the great Qing’.

Basically, this is a historian trying to write like a novelist.

3) Old fashioned Ironically for someone who is so determined to take a loftily modern, politically correct point of view of the old British Empire, Bickers’ prose, as well as being convoluted to the point of incomprehension, is also addicted to very old-fashioned locutions and vocabulary. Since I often couldn’t work out what he was on about, I found myself drawn to collecting his oddities and archaisms (= ‘a thing that is very old or old-fashioned, especially an archaic word or style of language’):

  • History was ever a public act, but it was also ever a private passion. (p.16)

Leaving aside the fact that this grand sounding period means less the more you think about it, there is the phrasing to savour – ‘ever’ to mean ‘always’? Really? In 1817 certainly. In 1917 maybe. But in 2017? Reading so many Victorian journals, tracts, articles has obviously infected Bickers’ style. But this is far from being a one-off oddity:

  • Lindsay was ever deadly serious, of course, and Medhurst too. (p.75)
  • There were private interactions, too, as there had ever been. (p.224)
  • Music was ever also a private pleasure, a private relief, a source of succour. (p.228)
  • Such confidence in the foreign ability to know China better than the Chinese themselves was to be oft rehearsed. (p.39). ‘Oft’?
  • All understood the law, he averred… (p.41) ‘Averred’?
  • All this fury and posture came to nought. (p.46)
  • The bells in Macao were quieted at the request of his physicians, but it all proved to no avail. (p.46)
  • Emigrants from Fujian, who had long sojourned in the city… (p.54)
  • The colonial consolidation and expansion of the emperor’s predecessors was largely foresworn… (p.66)
  • The Qing could but capitulate… (p.324)

Odd that Bickers is so loftily dismissive of the old imperialist bullies when he himself sounds so like a mutton-chopped lawyer out of Dickens:

  • The tension among the Company men in China persisted thereafter… (p.25)
  • … they aimed to get their complaints heard elsewhere along the coast and transmitted thereby to Peking… (p.26)
  • Scholars have begun in recent decades to look beyond the rhetoric of some schools of Chinese statecraft, particularly insofar as it articulated hostility to commerce.. (p.62)
  • Thereafter he held an intendant post in Zhejiang… (p.72)
  • Charles Elliott, by now the British superintendent of trade, rushed to Canton from Macao in cocked-hatted full dress uniform, evading the blockade and thereby deliberately adding himself to the hostaged fray. (p.78) ‘The hostaged fray’?
  • There were ‘mixed feelings’ from The Times, at the conclusion of a ‘miserable war’, and the ‘ill-gotten gains’ therefrom. (p.84)
  • Jardines had fourteen receiving ships by 1845, and usually ten thereafter… (p.92)
  • Like most of the early missionary community in China, he secured a post with the official British establishment during the war, and turned it into a secure position thereafter… (p.94)
  • In this way they rationalised their operations somewhat. (p.106)
  • Telegraph lines snaked their way thereafter to China. (p.164)
  • [The convicted murderer John Buckley] went quietly to his death, the site guarded by twenty-four policemen in case an attempt was made to rescue him, and he was not thereafter missed. (p.180)
  • For almost a quarter of a century thereafter the firm grew and diversified… (p.185)
  • Thomas Hanbury and his ilk were wedded to their interests in the Settlement at Shanghai… (p.189)
  • At least in Britain there was a Public Records Office, and in principle archives were transferred to public access, but nothing of that like existed in China. (p.376) — I don’t think I’ve ever read ‘like’ being used in this way before. ‘…nothing of that like…’ Surely you or I would write ‘but nothing like that existed in China’, but where would be the fun in that?

Alliteration Alliteration self evidently promotes sound and rhetoric over factual content and meaning.

  • Lindsay instantly resumed a pointed game of protocol and precedence. (p.21)
  • Their later frantic, frequent queries… (p.27)
  • It complained that the authorities in Canton were corrupt, capricious and cruel (p.28).
  • All wanted friendly and fruitful relations… (p.41)
  • They left that afternoon with a promise that a polite and properly formal response to their petition would follow. (p.41)
  • Instead they indulged in recondite debates about terms and texts. (p.73)
  • [Nathan Dunn’s exhibition of chonoiserie in London in December 1841] inspired catcalls and copycats… (p.88)
  • Such consular conveniences, compounded by confusions… (p.107)
  • [The Taiping rebels] fought fanatically and fiercely. (p.120)
  • … fifteen years’ worth of precedent and practice. (p.155)

Maybe Bickers is modelling himself on the lyrics of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. In at least one place he does in fact directly quote Gilbert & Sullivan – on page 78 referring to the ‘little list’ being used in negotiations with the Chinese, a phrase which is the focus of a well-known song from their operetta about Japan, The Mikado (1885) (in fact, Bickers likes the jokey reference so much, he makes it again on page 194).

Hendiadys and pairing Why use one word when you can use two – ideally alliterating or rhyming – to deliver that knockout rhetorical punch?

  • Confident, nonetheless, they memorialised now more readily and steadily. (p.370)
  • … ongoing debates and disagreements… (p.374)

Fancy-ancy just for the fun of playing with words:

  • These shows… brought curious orientals to accompany the oriental curiosities on display in London. (p.89)
  • As successive reports made their way back to Britain, and as the lobbyists worked their words… (p.80)
  • But abate it they could not, or abate it they would not… (p.113)
  • Nearly all foreigners could or would still only talk a pidgin English… (p.114)
  • The act of uprising – daring to stand and daring to fight… (p.120)
  • But he could not, or would not, pay them. (p.126)
  • Parkes had grown up as British China grew up. He had grown with conflict and he had grown accustomed to conflict. China was his adult life, his only life… (p.138)
  • The men were there to fight and fought there well. (p.162)
  • So Robert Hart had had his fill of life in the foothills of the China apocalypse, had seen how vacuum would follow and violence ensure if the Qing could not hold… (p.196)
  • This new Peking, the object of romantic contemplation, suggested a China that might be appreciated rather than caricatured, and savoured rather than savaged. (p.221)

Singular nouns or nouns without an article This a real addiction of Bickers’ style, it occurs throughout on every page and gives the prose a stilted, hieratic feel:

  • [Lindsay] was ready to perceive slight and note omission… (p.22)
  • Now Lindsay was sailing north without invitation… (p.24)
  • … he and his retinue had been denied audience… (p.24)

Shouldn’t that be, ‘denied an audience’? It’s not wrong, it’s just that denying many of these nouns an article turns them from specific instances or events into lofty-sounding abstractions – makes them and the sentences they appear in just that wafer-thin bit more stilted and precious than they need be. More portentous and pretentious, to adopt Bickers’ own manner.

  • The predictable regularity of the internationalised trading world was periodically upset, as in any port city, by human failing and misadventure… (36)
  • They knew so well many of the possibilities that lay beyond their reach by imperial order, and engaged in shrewd estimate and wild conjecture… (p.65)
  • Nor was [the emperor Daoguang] the despised feudal archaism of the Marxist history of communist-era China, which castigated the failures of the late-Qing monarchs to combat imperialism’s assault. (p.67)
  • Those Napier-ordered bombardments of the Canton forts were simply ‘minnows’ compared with the just desserts of Chinese obstruction and insult that were to be meted out by British warships. (p.77)
  • The British helped inform this comedy of error. (p.86)

As with the other elements of Bickers’ style it gives the impression of acuity and insight without providing any actual information. The proliferation of these rhetorical tricks explains why you can read whole page-long paragraphs, arrive exhausted at the end, and then wonder why you don’t appear to have learned or remembered anything.

  • The Canton RegisterCanton Courier, and the more ambitious and scholarly Chinese Repository, edited by Elijah Bridgman, the first American missionary to China, all conveyed up-to-date news, description and opinion across the seas. (p.36) Why not descriptions?
  • Every contact with Chinese officials was an occasion for slight. (p.44)
  • It administered each in the way which seemed best, or most pragmatic at the time, and given considerations of resource and capacity. (p.69) Why not ‘resources‘?
  • Bouts of fighting were interspersed with parleys and negotiations, and with defence of insecure occupations of Chinese islands… (p.81) Why not ‘the defence’?
  • Stronger still would be the accumulated body of printed and private report… (p.89)
  • … the consequent legal haziness of their operations generated much correspondence and dispute. (p.93)
  • But domestic crisis was no small matter when rumour swept around… (p.114)
  • If stray shots passed over there would be formal complaint and stern rebuke. (p.127)
  • European initiative needed Chinese resource. (p.156)
  • The Customs delivered increasing resource as foreign trade grew… (p.198)
  • The development of official banks of information and report by consul and commissioner… (p.218)

So Used as an emphasiser, and in an unusual position in the word order, in a very old-fashioned way:

  • Indeed it will help if we understand more about the temple itself, which so stood out on the Shanghai waterfront close by the Customs House and under the highest point on the city wall, and which so stands out in these two landmark accounts of foreign visits to the city…This way we can better understand the China of the early 1830s outside the narrow confines of the factories, the roads, Macao, that narrow semi-foreignised sliver of the Canton delta that so overfills accounts of the early Sino-foreign encounters. (p.53)

Indeed, it would have been better for the gentle reader of these rhetorical tricks which so embellish and so adorn the purple prose of this grandiloquent historianographer, if his exuberant verbosity had been somewhat reined in and replaced with useful and understandable factual content.

Presage Bickers likes this word.

  • The foreign traders, all of them, were to be held hostage for the drug, without fresh food, without their servants, worried that the commissioner’s little list… presaged individual arrests and possibly torture. (p.78)
  • The sight of the burning buildings… presaged some more years of violent Canton problems. (p.101)
  • All such minor disturbances of men and women could presage consular grief. (p.114)
  • An estimated 7 million people were affected by the floods and dyke-failures that presaged the great change [of the course of the Yellow River in 1851] (p.136)
  • This turn to antique China also presaged the opening of another front in the foreign campaign. (p.221)
  • Margary’s slaughter presaged another round in China’s despoliation… (p.260)
  • The new blockade was to presage a new phase in the campaign… (p.296)

The use of ‘presage’ is typical of Bickers’s preference for the orotund and bombastic as opposed to the plain and simple.

Inversions of normal sentence order which makes sentences sometimes difficult to understand.

  • Quickly to the Company’s aid came instead other parties and volunteers… (p.26)
  • What commercial bliss it was that hot Canton spring… (p.78)
  • Rare it was that ‘the preacher commences and ends his discourse without a single intervention’. (p.111)
  • Always in Peking, I think, someone will in fact have heard him. Always someone will have heard the young foreigner belting out song in the capital’s dry air. (p.229)
  • Always there were exceptions… (p.249)
  • Fearful too were Chinese residents and local authorities. (p.349)

Incomprehensible In fact the combination of all the above tricks and jackanapary makes some sentences simply incomprehensible.

  • And what was eventually left over, why, when the hullaballoo was over, and when Lin’s officers had spent three weeks in April and May overseeing the smashing of the balls of opium and their flushing out to sea at Humen, close by the Linten anchorage, then what a market there was for it, and what prices it could now fetch discreetly, much more discreetly, sold along the coast to friends disappointed by the diversion of the spring stock. (p.79)
  • Along the coast with the British Cantonese went nonetheless, or followed soon after. (p.101)
  • Gods of ignorance and bafflement reigned over the China theatre. (p.397)

Sojourners sojourning As mentioned above, a sojourner is ‘a person who resides temporarily in a place’. Lots of westerners came out to newly-opened-up China to make a quick fortune then go home; they are pretty obviously ‘sojourners’, if you choose to use this antique term. But lots of Chinese, both native and immigrants from the south-east Asian diaspora, also came to ‘sojourn’ in the new Crown colonies Britain had wrested from China. Hence there was a whole lot of sojourning going on, and the text doesn’t let us forget it:

  • Sojourners and settlers prefer familiarity to adaptation… (p.62)
  • [The Qing empire] was well used to dealing with sojourners from outside its formal domain… (p.69)
  • Cantonese migrants and sojourners were quick to see additional value in association with the British… (p.102)
  • Robert Fortune’s second sojourn in China… (p.105)
  • They [westerners] were sojourners, mostly… Their sojourns were not short. (p.117)
  • Shanghai itself fell on 7 September 1853 to a sojourner coup. (p.125)
  • The sojourner was mentally relocating, settling in, his sense of where he formally belonged shifting. (p.168)

Personification

  • Arrogant opium swaggered its way along to the newly opened ports. (p.92)

Not traditional history writing, is it?

Tired and jaded

It is an oddity of this book that Bickers’ tone is tired and jaded with the whole western adventure in China before it has even started. Very early on he starts using phrases like ‘once again’ and ‘yet again’, when in fact what he’s describing is happening for the first time. This quickly conveys to the reader that Bickers is frightfully bored with the oh-so-predictable cultural misunderstandings or western bullying or the absurd scenes of everyone standing on their dignity which he depicts.

  • At Shanghai as at Hong Kong, and in every foreign community, such sentiments… were to be expressed again and again… (p.134)
  • Again it all began in Canton… (p.136)
  • And here we are again at the closed gates of the city and at the closed door of the yamen… (p.146)
  • It was the old story, of China coast savviness about Chinese duplicity… (p.213)

This tone conveys the regrettable sense that Bickers feels blasé and superior to the events he’s describing and the poor saps enacting them. If only the human race had given Bickers something a bit more interesting and novel to write about! There’s a striking passage which introduces the First Opium War where he tells us how awfully over-familiar the whole thing is:

The course of events that followed are well known. How Lin Zexu was sent as a special commissioner to investigate the problem in Canton and to put a stop to the trade, how he made his way overland to the city and set about making his mark: all of this has been much narrated. (p.77)

Is it well known, though? Has it been much narrated? Do you know all about Lin Zhu and his overland trek and what happened next? I certainly didn’t. In fact, that’s why I’m reading a book about the scramble for China, precisely to learn about this history, not to be patronisingly told that I ought to know all about it all already.

This passage (there are plenty more in the same vein) crystallised my feeling that Bickers is far too close to his subject matter and makes a kind of rookie error in assuming that his readers share his specialised knowledge and are all as blasé and bored by it as he is.

But many of us have barely heard any of this story before and it is his responsibility to tell it to us. Alas, Bickers is so over-familiar with events that he has to resort to fancy prose and attitudinising to keep his own interest up. I, on the other hand, was hoping for a simple, reliable and clearly written account of the events of these hundred years in China.

Alas, I didn’t get it here. Bickers’ account of the First Opium War is confusing, but not as confusing and partial as his account of the Taiping Rebellion (1850-64) on pages 118 to…. well… his account just fizzles out somewhere ten pages later – which I was particularly looking forward to. As if determined to confuse, he begins his account of the Taiping Rebellion, one of the most epic events in world history, in mid-chapter, after some pages which give the impression they are going to be a description of the cosy lives of the China British. He introduces this vast historical subject with these words:

But then enter the younger brother of Jesus Christ who came to discomfort all their lives… (p.118)

If you didn’t know that the leader of the Taiping Rebellion was a religious visionary who really did think he was the brother of Christ, this opening would be incomprehensible. In fact, Bickers doesn’t give an account of the overall Taiping Rebellion at all – he is only interested in it insofar as a) it demonstrates and was arguably caused by, the destabilising presence of Europeans on China’s coasts and b) it impacted the British settlements at Canton and at newly colonised Shanghai (where, for example, in 1853, the British – from the protection of their walled settlement – could watch pitched battles between the Taiping army and the imperial Qing forces).

The accounts of the Taiping Rebellion in the books by John Keay and Jonathan Fenby are both much clearer and much more penetrating than in Bickers. These two historians clearly explain the causes and consequences of this truly epic conflict, possibly the largest civil war in all human history, anywhere, a titanic devastation which led to the loss of as many as 20 million Chinese lives, maybe more.

The same frivolous and off-hand approach characterises Bickers’s treatment of the contemporaneous but distinct Nian Rebellion (1851-68), given only a brief page here (p.135), fleetingly explained but not analysed in any depth.

The brief mention of the Crimean War (on pages 134 and 135) neither explains that conflict nor its geopolitical ramifications for the European powers in China. Bickers briefly points out that the war had a distinct Pacific element – a fascinating idea I’d never come across before – but then frustratingly drops the subject completely. This feels like a massive and fascinating topic completely ignored. So disappointing. I bought this book precisely to understand the geo-political implications and context and motives for the sequence of China-oriented wars of the nineteenth century, and that turns out to be the very last thing on Bickers’ mind.

This confusing melange of super-brief references to these huge and super-important wars then segues abruptly and, as usual, in a very offhand way, into a typically arse-over-tit account of the Second Opium War (1856-60).

So the foreigners placed their faith in the Qing, once they had warred with them, beaten them, and humiliated them. Again, it all began in Canton. (p.136)

Note the tired and jaded tone as he casually begins a confusing account which spools onto page 150, with a vivid but hard-to-follow explanation for the (scandalous) British burning of the Emperor’ Summer House. OK. But in the 14 or so pages which cover it, Bickers nowhere mentions that he is describing the Second Opium War – you have to know that already. He is so close to, and over-familiar with, his subject, he just assumes that we all know about this stuff already. But we don’t. That’s why we bought your bloody book in the first place.

Towards the end I was genuinely appalled when the only mention he makes of the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, the first war in modern times in which a non-European nation (Japan) thrashed a European one (Russia) is the following. (He’s explaining how, after the Boxer Rebellion was finally quelled, the European nations demanded reparations but, for the most part, didn’t seek to acquire new territory. Apart from Russia):

Russia failed to conform, though, and hung on in Manchuria with 200,000 troops. So the British and the Japanese opened up a new world of international politics by entering into a formal alliance in 1902, breaking with decades of British practice, and in 1904-5 the Japanese smashed Russian forces in Manchuria and Siberia, shocking the European world, and offering new hope for the colonised and threatened. (p.349)

The Russo-Japanese War doesn’t even get a sentence of its own, but is shoehorned into the second half of a sentence which starts in 1902 and ends in 1905. Wow.

The republican revolution which finally overthrew the Qing Dynasty – and ended 3,000 years of rule by emperors – in October 1911, is dealt with – including the accident which sparked it, the spread of revolt, the seizure of power by Sun Yat-Sen, the abdication of the emperor, and the handing over of power to general Yuan Shikai – this seismic event is dealt with in 10 sentences – half a page – and not returned to.

Thus does Bickers leap over hugely important geopolitical, strategic and military events in order to get back to lambasting western businessmen living in sin with their Chinese mistresses, making fortunes from the opium trade and lobbying for more access to Chinese markets.

This is a sociological essay about the British in China, not a history.

Academic jargon

By this stage the reader has realised that Bickers isn’t interested in giving a chronological account of what happened during China’s century of humiliation; he isn’t interested in analysing or explaining the complex geopolitics of a weakened China caught between coastal invaders like the British and, towards the end of the period, the Japanese – all overshadowed by the ever-present threat from the land-grabbing Russian empire in the west and north.

He isn’t even very interested in any of the other European nations – the French and Americans get only a few walk-on parts, while the Portuguese, Dutch or Germans are hardly mentioned at all.

Instead, what becomes clearer and clearer is that Bickers thinks he is giving a kind of cultural history of the British in China.

That’s a fine ambition but he doesn’t live up to it. There is nothing at all in the book about, say, Chinese art or poetry, nothing. What there is, is repeated references to the way the Chinese or British performed as if on a stage with each other, or the way Chinese artefacts (and people) were shipped off to London to be put on display in various public shows and the big European expositions of the later Victorian era, or the way the colonisers engaged in practices and policed sites and shaped public space, and so on. Instead of interesting stuff about Chinese culture, what Bickers gives us is a lot of Eurocentric academic jargon.

Over the past forty years or so, the mind-set and terminology of (mostly French) modern literary theory/history/sociology pioneered in the 1960s and 70s by, say, Roland Barthes or Michel Foucault, has congealed to form a higher entity called just Theory – an attitude and set of jargon which has spread out to infect study of all the humanities subjects at university.

I’m extremely familiar with this all-purpose semi-sociological terminology from the many art exhibitions I go to, where contemporary artists no longer make ‘art works’ – they engage with issues of gender and sexuality, or money and class or whatever, carrying forward projects which use strategies of this, that and the other, which taken together amount to their practice. What used to be called ‘works of art’ are now more often than not the sites of their engagement with some issue or other, where the artists subvert conventional narratives of whatever or challenge this, that or the other norm or convention.

This all-purpose academic jargon has a number of purposes. Firstly, like academic jargon down the ages, from the ancient world through the Middle Ages – it makes the author sound clever. Secondly, it makes it all sound very serious: no longer painting a picture or developing a photo, an artist is now engaged in their practice – like a serious professional, like an architect or a GP. Thirdly, it is all very active – none of that old bourgeois standing around in front of an easel, an artist now engages with, subverts, challenges and questions and interrogates and a whole load of other action words. All very exciting and edgy.

At the same time many of the words have a very clinical and scientific feel: not only the artist, but especially the art critic, is no longer subject to the wishy-washy whims of their bourgeois imagination, but gives the impression of applying rigorous scientific procedures: artists have ‘projects’ and ‘practices’ which are enacted in ‘sites’ and ‘spaces’. Anything like a sculpture or installation reorientates the ‘space’ around it, maybe reorders ‘spatial hierarchies’, probably ‘challenges’ accepted ‘narratives’ or what a work of art can be, and so on.

Another feature of Theory Language is that a little of it goes a long way: these terms have become remarkably all-purpose: you can apply them to almost any human activity and come out sounding serious, weighty and profound.

The only snag is that – although this kind of language, used sparingly, conveys a sense of power and thrust and importance and intellectual force,

a) it doesn’t, on closer examination, really tell you anything at all
b) used too much, it quickly turns into a vacuous jargon of empty slogans – just as the public very quickly got sick of Theresa May telling us she represented ‘strong and stable leadership’ (and turned out to represent the opposite) so an artist, or curator, or critic, or historian who goes on and on about ‘practice’ and ‘projects’ and ‘sites’ and ‘narratives’ in an effort to sound meaningful and scientific and precise – runs the risk of ending up like a cracked record playing the same meaningless jargon over and over again; far from subverting anything, this kind of jargon ends up reinforcing existing conventions about art writing. In fact, it is the new set of conventions.

Examples of academic jargon

Display is an important idea for Bickers. European merchants built big houses – he takes it as an example of ‘display’. They hosted lavishes dinner – more ‘display’. Chinese objects were sent back to London – where they were put on ‘display’. As if grouping these pretty everyday activities under a semi-scientific singular noun gives us all a special insight into human activity, grouping them all together somehow explains… something.

  • China was in this way [exhibitions of China bric-a-brac in London in the 1840s] being normalised as an object for such display and ethnographic and other curiosity. (p.89)
  • Such displaydisplay at table, architectural display – announced probity and confidence (to each other, to Chinese merchants), but it also spoke of vulgarity and extravagance. (p.99)
  • Admiration for the appearance of the Sikhs, the ‘colour’ they were felt and said to have brought to China, and to British display in China… (p.163)
  • What became the routine display of China at such forums was a key strand in the project that Hart was leading. (p.204)

Engage and engagement At a recent internet conference I attended there was a list of banned words; if you mentioned one you had to contribute to the swear box (all money coughed up was sent to a charity for refugees). ‘Engage’ and ‘engagement’ were top of the list. Why? Because they means everything and nothing; because they are empty buzzwords.

  • Farmers engaged in handicraft production. (p.64)
  • The ordered business of its routine engagement with the world at the treaty ports elsewhere was able to continue… (p.352)

Enterprises and projects

the British Empire didn’t carry out strategies or policies, apparently. It engaged in projects and enterprises.

  • At the heart of the official British China enterprise… (p.206)
  • The foreign China enterprise at Shanghai was actually truly a real-estate imperialism… (p.222)
  • They were men of commerce and outside what was formally recognised as British empire, and their enterprise was multi-national and often makeshift. They had no imperial project. (p.382)

Sites and spaces Both make pretty run-of-the-mill places sound important and exciting, and make it sound as if you’re saying something especially perceptive and insightful about them.

  • This book explores the world which created that final photograph and its many sites and fields of action. (p.14)
  • A popular temple was also a commercial and economic site… They were embedded in the daily public space of the city. (p.16)
  • The rural landscape was pocked with market sites. (p.65) — It is so much more emphatic and intellectually demanding than simply writing ‘markets’ or ‘market places’.
  • [Just outside harbour boundaries, opium] was stored, and there were established new sites for conflict and the low-level disorderliness that filled the consulate letter books. (p.93)
  • The new ports were like many of the other sites of power around the Indian Ocean. (p.105)
  • As the new roads and buildings grew up in the treaty ports they were to acquire new memorials, and new sites for commemoration and celebration. (p.112)
  • It might seem odd that we can find so much insistent quiet emphasis on the symbolic ordering of foreign space [the British insisted on having a grand ex-palace to be their legation in Beijing]. Partly this was a response to understandings of Chinese conceptions, a breaking out of spaces and sites allotted them for reasons they interpreted (rightly sometimes) as intentionally demeaning. But they had their own such practices already… (p.206)
  • Foreign observers chuckled at Chinese geomancy, at fengshui, even as they fashioned symbolic landscapes themselves, sacralising space, creating sites for pilgrimage, reflection and remembrance. (p.207)

In this last example Bickers is describing how the British built graveyards wherever they settled. Note how he goes out of his way to ridicule the British who, he claims, chuckled at Chinese geomancy but – at least according to Bickers’ confidently post-imperialist view – were themselves every bit as superstitious and irrational in their treatment of ‘space’ – i.e. building cemeteries. Ha ha ha, silly old British.

But as with almost everything Bickers writes, a moment’s reflection makes you question this casual criticism and superiority: geomancy or fengshui are to some extent optional practices; organising the hygienic and orderly burial of the dead are rather more of a necessity. But – and here’s my point – Bickers has conceived and written this sentence not to make a factual statement – but to score politically correct points over ‘the foreigners’.

  • Peking, resolutely, was different to all the other sites of the foreign presence, different in scale, meanings, history, experience and climate. (p.215)
  • the Inspectorate General was the site in time of an entirely novel private experiment of Hart’s. (p.227)
  • There were of course other sites of jubilee. (p.309)
  • China long remained a site of foreign male opportunity. (p.311)
  • Homes, memoirs show, now became sites for the assertion of the supremacy of the European woman over her servants… (p.313)
  • Real Chinatowns became fictionalised nests of opium dens and sites of the despoliation of white girls by Chinese men. (p.364)

Space

  • [Western music] served to mark space in new ways. (p.228)
  • So at Shanghai they ordered space, responding as quickly as they were able to the breathtaking speed with which opportunities were seized, innovations latched onto, loopholes explored. They also ordered Chinese use of public space, imposing new norms of behaviour, turning urination into a minor criminal category. They also attempted to order aspects of private space: the gambling house, the brothel, the household. (p.224)

On reflection, where Bickers writes ‘space’ he really means ‘behaviour – but ‘space’ sounds more abstract, intellectual and scientific. And, in his usual hurry to denigrate Europeans and the British at every turn, he turns the imposition of regulations like banning people pissing in the street into a bad thing. Maybe we should return to the days of men randomly urinating in the street? Similarly, maybe gambling houses and brothels shouldn’t have been regulated. Naughty, naughty Europeans with their silly imperialising laws.

Practice A super-useful word which can be applied to almost any human activity to make yourself sound impressively intellectual. For example, my postman for the most part engages in letter-delivery activities but has recently expanded his practice to encompass the manual transmission of parcels in the course of which he transitions from the public space of the pavement, governed by one code of conduct, to the private space of my porch, which has become a site for intrapersonal exchange and dialogue i.e. we have a bit of a chat whenever he knocks on the door to deliver a parcel.

Used in this pretentious way ‘practice’ has become a buzzword which lends your text the authority and the spurious pseudo-scientific precision of an anthropologist or ethnographer or sociologist. But like so many of these terms, it mostly just dresses up banality and the bleeding obvious.

  • Officials often had little time intellectually for popular religious practice. (p.61)
  • Buddhist in origin, but adopted far beyond Buddhist practices, [the festival] involved opera performances, processions and bonfires… (p.61)
  • But that containment [of foreign traders by the Chinese] was too restrictive, too contrary to emerging European interests and practices… (p.157)
  • As the concessions and settlements merged spatially with the rest of the developing cities, their autonomous judicial systems and practice routinely returned to deportation as a legal punishment. (p.160)
  • It was a queer affair, the extension of Tongzhi restoration practice to overseas diplomacy… Burlingame was carefully and explicitly instructed not to follow practices which might prompt reciprocal demands on Peking.. (p.212)
  • There were descriptions and assessments too of Chinese practice. (p.281)
  • North China farmers knew that into their brittle world had come new forces, with alien ideas and practices… (p.341)
  • And the practices of the new combined forces of Boxers, the Yihequan, ‘Boxers united in righteousness’, gave them mastery over foreign things… (p.342)
  • Foreign office archives practice was in theory quite clear. (p.375)

Lovely sentence this last one, don’t you think?

Network Not found so much in other Theory-mongers, this word makes you sound like you’re all across modern technology and the internet and the groovy, cool, multi-connected world.

  • [The Taiping Rebellion] was a revolt informed by the new intellectual currents from over the oceans which were at work in Chinese cities and in the networks of people, goods and ideas that flowed through them… (p.120)
  • The swiftness of the incorporation after 1860 of the new sites of treaty port China into these far wider networks shows just how interconnected it already was. (p.156)
  • Globalisation, international migration, the growth of British and other European empires and the networks that cut across and through them, all had a bearing on developments in China. (p.156)
  • China was already deeply embedded in new-fashioned networks… (p.157)
  • So the Inspectorate general became the centre of its own network of stations, as well as a node in wider networks – regional meteorology, the international round of display and representation… (p.204)
  • The growing presence, and relative ease of transmission of goods and people, locked China more and more closely into knowledge networks, not least geographical and scientific ones. (p.165)
  • By 24 October 1860, when allied troops paraded into the heart of the imperial capital escorting Elgin and Gros, two bands in the vanguard heralding their intrusion and the imminent treaty ceremony, China was already being fashioned steadily into new networks – of communications, of people, of ideas. (p.157)

‘New networks of communications, of people, of ideas’ – this is vacuous modern corporate jargon: it could be an excerpt from the press release for any big company, bank or government department – it has that hollow corporate ring, impressive, vibrant-sounding and absolutely empty of meaning.

Scripts and performance This is another classic piece of sociological jargon in which people are depicted as hollow puppets helplessly ‘performing’ ‘scripts’, putting on performances – which they called living and making decisions but which we – everso wise Posterity – can now see as ritualised and formulaic ‘performances’:

  • The China script for the performance of British power and identity in the treaty ports was borrowed from the Subcontinent. (p.162)
  • Many missionaries played at the local level the China game of compensation for injury and damage, property restitution and repair, and symbolic gesture – judgement and proclamation set in stone, or transfer of communally important sites as punishment… Some did so to show how powerful Church and mission were, how actively they could help; to reassure and protect existing converts, and to tempt others. Such action could also provide a stage for the rehearsal of the national honour script, the dignity of the nation residing in the person of the missionary and his flock. (p.249)
  • But as 3,000 troops and labourers disembarked at Langqiao Bay in May 1874, a more routine script was being rehearsed… (p.254)
  • His death was incorporated into the same empire script that he rehearsed as he travelled… (p.260)
  • The limits of this private enterprise imperialism, of the sweaty plans of Bland and his ilk were reached on the early Sunday of of 28 July 1913, when Bruce and his band blundered noisily into sleepy Zhabei, and nobody met them to play their scripted part in the local drama of Settlement expansion. (p.369)

Transgressions and subverting and challenging and interrogating etc. Sounds so exciting and edgy and revolutionary. But is all too often applied to really boring and obvious descriptions in an effort to jazz them up.

  • As guardians of order and peace they saw such large gatherings… as sites of transgressions of moral order. (p.61)

What he means is that prostitutes often plied their trade at big Chinese festivals. Who’d have thought? Pretty transgressive, eh?

Actually, there isn’t as much transgression here as I find in the commentary of art galleries; and only one or two mentions of another favourite of Literary Theory, ‘desire’, used as a kind of bland, all-purpose, catch-all term for sex in the widest sense. Although there are quite a few references to brothels and prostitutes – mainly, of course, pointing out how brothels and prostitutes followed western land grabs and settlements, thus proving what racist hypocrites Europeans were. Oh, and many of them took Chinese mistresses, as well. How vile and disgusting, only white men have ever taken mistresses, and only in China.

Prose like concrete

The direction of Bickers thought is always upwards towards sweeping generalisations. Converting a specific argument between a specific Chinese and English into the generic term ‘dispute’, or particular local laws and customs into the generic word ‘practice’, is always to leave the specific and colourful behind in the name of scientific-sounding but in reality vague and generalised concepts. Move in this direction enough and you are left with sentences which are so generalised they could be about anything, anywhere. It just makes long stretches of this book really, really boring.

Always there were exceptions, men and women horrified by this new world of local conflict and dispute that could unfold as people converted. But the mission enterprise was nonetheless mired from the start in such local dispute, at the same time as it was enmeshed with the wider foreign world in China through nationality, affinity, language, marriage, and wider kin networks. (p.249)

It’s like reading concrete. It’s like being stuck in a supermarket car park looking at thousands of shopping trolleys, all the same. Dispute, insult, practice, site, spatial integration, networks of communication, sites of display, imperial spaces, networks of engagement, circuits of empire, colonial display, imperial sites, the China project, the China enterprise, blah blah blah.

I should have been warned off by the reviewer on Amazon who said reading this book was like walking through thickening mud.

Some, such and many Bickers also has a peculiar way with the words ‘there’, ‘some’, ‘such’ and ‘many’: by peculiar I mean that I’ve read thousands of books, paying close attention to their style, and never come across anyone use those words so eccentrically and idiosyncratically. He is fond of ‘fray’ which recurs many times; and ‘odd’.  It is tempting to embark on an analysis of these short, common words for what they reveal about Bickers’ eccentric uses of them – but this review is long enough already.

  • Such permission was certainly given to some… (p.374)
  • Such fear held good there. (p.374)
  • Such memory is the product of hard state work. (p.392)

A simpler soul might write ‘this kind of’ permission or fear or memory – but Bickers is a sucker for rhetorical effects.

Bullying sanctimoniousness

It goes without saying that a modern white, middle-aged English academic will have completely absorbed the political correctness of their university context and so be extremely, comprehensively, sarcastically critical of the white, middle-aged Englishmen of the past. A modern politically correct academic could take no other attitude.

They are all racist imperialist saps; we, dear reader, are by contrast morally unimpeachable and live in an age of complete enlightenment. Thank goodness the modern West which Bickers is a part of doesn’t go around invading other countries and plunging them into decades of chaos and civil war; thank goodness the modern West doesn’t build encampments in foreign countries – Iraq, say, or Afghanistan – protected from angry natives by huge walls inside which the soldiers and civil servants of the occupying forces, blissfully uninterested in the local culture, are provided with all the pleasures of home.

Yes, the modern historian, embedded in this wonderful Western culture, is sooo superior to his great-great-great-great grandparents who did just the same in China or India. In an account of a speech the Prime Minister Lord Salisbury gave in 1898, Bickers makes sure to point out that it was infused with the outdated ideology of social Darwinism, that he spoke ‘complacently’ and that his imperialist audience ‘chortled’.

What’s ironic is that Bickers’ own account is drenched with the cultural ideology of our times – sanctimonious political correctness – and that he himself never loses an opportunity to ‘chortle’ at the inferiority of other people – in this case, our ancestors. Bickers displays exactly the same patronising tone towards people who can’t defend themselves, as he lambasts haughty imperialists for displaying towards their victims.

Bickers laughs at the British merchants and soldiers, the consuls and captains he depicts, for importing the comforts of home, for bringing in English plants and trees, for building Anglican churches, for ordering prints and paintings of reassuringly patriotic subjects to hang on their walls, and even sending for familiar foods, rather than the bewildering local cuisine.

They wanted and recreated the familiar. They wanted their cigar brought, and then their newspaper. So they made themselves at home on the Huangpu, the Min, Gulangyu island, the slopes of Hong Kong, as snug as they could manage, and read weeks-old news about the real world over the ocean in a fug of finest Havana. (p.117)

Silly selfish saps!

And in their insatiably imperialist lust for profit, Bickers points out that some British firms even sold guns and ammunition to the warring sides in the Taiping Rebellion! The horror of those racist imperialist profiteers! Luckily, we now live in a blessed and enlightened age, when the British government would never dream of selling arms and airplanes, guns and implements of torture to Third World regimes, to countries like Saudi Arabia, who use the planes we sell them to bomb civilians in Yemen. Never ever.

— To be perfectly clear: I find a lot of the historiography of the British Empire, generally written by guilty white liberal men who bend over backwards to be politically correct in every way, to be revoltingly smug, superior and sanctimonious. To assume that their responses to the problems those people living in the 1840s, 1850s, 1860s and so on faced – their motivations to travel where the opportunity was, to set up companies, to trade and make money, to seek a living and a career – were all somehow uniquely wicked, and only the British ever did this or displayed imperialistic behaviour – never displayed before or since by any other nation (including the countless Chinese merchants they traded and set up companies with, or the genuinely bestial Japanese Empire) – and to assume that these are all behaviours which we moderns, in our infinite wisdom, have completely outgrown.

In my opinion, every human being is born into struggle – against their biological destiny, their physical flaws, the illnesses and accidents we are all prone to, against the psychological damage of childhood and education, against the cultural and technological limits of their time and position and, above all, the crushing necessity to make a living, to earn a crust, to eat and drink and stay alive.

My opinion is the same as John Locke’s, that we do better to commiserate our common frailty and sinfulness with our fellow humans – to sympathise with other people, to understand their suffering and pain, to help and aid those who are alive, now, today – and to empathise with the tribulations of those who came before us, who struggled through their own challenges.

But people like historians of empire, who appoint themselves judge and jury over the past, who lump the entire population of Britain into one undifferentiated pile labelled IMPERIALISTS so they can sneer and ridicule and belittle our benighted ancestors, well they run the risk of themselves being lumped in with the Britain of our times, being judged by the same strict broad-brush approach which they apply to the past – and found wanting. Was Bickers not alive during the invasion of Iraq, the invasion of Afghanistan, the financial crash of 2008, the Brexit vote or, at its widest, the election of President Trump? In a hundred and fifty years time won’t he be lumped in with this violent, war-starting, financially ruinous era?

And – the most obvious crime of our age – he is living through the destruction of the planet’s life forms and the tipping point of global warming. In a hundred and fifty years time Bickers too – with his flying round the world and globetrotting, a privileged western academic who ‘travelled extensively, visiting many of the haunting sites scattered across China that feature in the book’ (as the blurb puts it) – will be lumped in with the stupid, blinkered generation who arrogantly took it as their prerogative, as their right, as their entitlement, to burn up fossil fuel, to heat up the atmosphere, and to permanently damage the planet – and all in order to write his sarcastic quips about his obscure forebears.

And, if anybody reads books a hundred and fifty years hence, this type of morally superior historian will be judged all the more harshly because they have forfeited the possibility of themselves being forgiven by the unremitting harshness, judgmentalism, superior and supercilious attitude which they apply so flippantly and casually to people who died 150 years ago, and who cannot speak in their own defence. ‘Judge not lest ye be judged,’ as a dead white man said long ago.

Seen from this perspective – of condemning the helpless dead – judgmental histories like Bickers’ are a form of bullying. And when I see any form of bullying happening right in front of me, although I may not like the victim very much, my instinct is to side with the underdog, with the person being subjected to relentless vilification by someone in power over them.

But the relentless patronising of the past is not only morally offensive, it’s also plain dumb. Repeatedly Bickers comes up with the revelation that these businessmen and traders and merchants and bankers were out to make a profit! That merchants and bankers came out from Britain to set up businesses, to trade, and to make money! God, the implication is – how grubby and tacky and awful, all this fussing about money and profits!

The implied contrast is with morally pure academics, swanning around the world paid for by government grants, unfurling their deathless prose for the benefit of lesser mortals who have to scheme and plan and graft, to set up businesses, borrow capital, employ staff, hire premises and equipment, do deals and live with the permanent risk of going bankrupt or having your offices, staff or family attacked by anti-western zealots. What losers they must be, eh!

Bickers describes how a lot of the China traders got very rich very quick which, it is implied, was a contemptible thing. What depraved wretches! Lucky for us that we live in an era of perfect equality, with no disparities of income and wealth, either here in perfectly governed Britain, or in contemporary not-at-all-capitalist China. Aren’t we so right to feel superior to the past and their despicable get-rich-quick mentality 🙂

Eurocentric

The final irony is that, despite all his fashionably anti-imperial attitudinising, this book is in fact written overwhelmingly from the white western point of view. To be precise, from the British and, by and large, English point of view. Chaps’ diaries are used to put chaps down. Chaps’ accounts of their adventures are used to criticise chaps’ racist attitudes. Chaps’ reports back to the East India Company or Parliament are used to chastise chaps’ crudely mercantile way of thinking.

Oh silly, silly Victorians who knew nothing about multicultural studies or LGBT rights, who thought only in terms of their own age, cultural and social norms. How blinkered some people can be! Could they not guess how they would be judged in 150 years time and reorient all their actions accordingly?

Also, a thorough account of ‘the scramble for China’ really ought to include not just the British but the French, Portuguese and Dutch, with large roles for the Russians and Germans, all of whom got in on the act, scrambling for their own treaty ports and concessions. But in this book there are hardly any accounts of other countries’ activities.

All in all, this book is emphatically not a historical account of the multi-national scramble for China – it is a cultural and sociological study of ‘the British in China 1832-1915′ and its title really should have conveyed that more accurately.

And above all – irony of irony – for such a politically correct writer, there are hardly any Chinese voices in the text. This may be for all kinds of structural reasons, such as that many of these encounters weren’t recorded on the Chinese side, or that the archives were lost in the various revolutions and rebellions. But the fact remains that this is yet another book about the white British empire, by a white British historian, which relies overwhelmingly on the efficient and detailed record-keeping of white Victorian imperialists – in order to twist and quote them out of context with the sole intention of proving what awful racist money-grubbing insensitive imperialists they were.

In other words, through the academic jargon and preening rhetoric, there is little in the facts and nothing in the attitude which are either new or interesting. The Scramble for China conforms entirely and dully to the politically correct dogmas of our time.

Extended example

The Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901) was just one of several native Chinese uprisings which overlapped with, or promoted reprisals from, the European powers to create a terrifying vortex of violence right at the end of the nineteenth century. What you’d hope for from a long (400-page) historical account of the period might be an attempt to disentangle these events, to patiently explain and analyse them. Bickers does the opposite.

War was fought across Manchuria, as Russian forces razed Amur river cities, and smashed their way south into Manchuria and north out of Port Arthur. It was fought in Tianjin, the foreign concessions besieged by Boxer bands and the Qing army. It was fought all the hot dusty way to Peking, as a multinational force of foreign troops slogged their way to the capital and relieved the besieged legations and Christian cathedrals. War was fought in Shanxi province, as German and British columns tramped to Taiyun, slaughtering opposition on the way… War was fought between Boxers and Christians, between Qing armies with Boxer allies, and the ‘Eight Power’ allied expeditionary force. It was fought by British marines and Japanese infantry, as well as by Sikhs, Bengalis, Black Americans, Annamese, Algerians and a British regiment of Chinese from Weihaiwei… It was a cruel war: a war between states, a civil war, a fight for personal survival… (p.346)

My critique is simple: every one of these incidents (the battles and campaigns) and ideas (for example, the very mixed nature of the armies) ought to receive extended treatment so that the reader can understand these key events and these important issue better; can learn something.

Instead, this vast tangle of events and ideas is made subordinate to Bickers’ addiction to fancy rhetoric, to the single flashy rhetorical trick of starting a lot of sentences with ‘war was fought’ or ‘it was fought’. Sure, the repetition rams home the idea that there was a whole lot of fighting going on; but the most basic elementary entry-level journalistic questions – who, what, where, when, why and how? are ignored – not in the name of some compelling insight or new thesis – but in the name of grand-standing rhetoric.

Bickers is more interested in describing the way news of these events back home was chaotic and often fabricated, how reports were made up by European journalists or editors, along with staged photographs and how some of the very first newsreel footage in the new technology of moving pictures was also generally faked and rigged.

Golly! News is fabricated and created by fallible and/or profit-seeking papers, magazines and media outlets! Wow! Yes indeedy, Bickers is here to tell us that coverage of far-away wars is often sensationalist and inaccurate.

There was a dearth of authenticity in this much-faked war, characterised and impelled as it was by forgery and wild rumour (p.355)

To read Bickers you’d think this must be the only war in history characterised by ‘forgery and wild rumour’ – as opposed to the obvious fact that, as the saying coined a century ago puts it, the very first casualty of war is truth.– This is a truism. A cliché. A threadbare, bleedingobvious commonplace taught to every GCSE schoolchild. Why am I reading it in a book written by a professor of history as if it is a dazzling new discovery?

My contention is that Bickers knows an awesome amount about this period, but fails to report it clearly or accurately, preferring to corral it all into either a) huge paragraphs designed to show off his rhetorical prowess, or b) long sections filled with tedious academic jargon which, upon a closer reading, always turn out to be obvious and banal.

To adopt Bickers’ own sociological terminology, this book is history ‘recruited’ and ‘refashioned’ for personal ‘display’ and ‘aggrandisement’.

This example is far from unique. A few pages later he does the same thing again. In among the chaos of the turn-of-the-century conflicts there was a lot of looting and pillaging (as, I believe, has occasionally happened in other wars) – but do we gets details, context, causes or consequences, useful facts and analysis to help us understand and remember each of the distinct outbreaks and incidents? Nope. We get another set-piece of booming rhetoric:

They looted at Tianjin; they looted at Peking; they looted everywhere in between, and far out into the northern provinces. They looted for days, for weeks, for months. They looted arsenals, granaries, mints and palaces. They looted the instruments from the old Jesuit Observatory. They looted salt stocks and Tianjin, and treasure from pawnshops. They looted houses and hovels. They looted tombs. They took furs, silks, paintings, jades and porcelains. They looted gold-plate from the roofs of temples. They took books and statues. What they did not like or could not take they trampled underfoot, tore, burned or wrecked. (p.350)

OK, I get it – there was a lot of looting. But who, what, where, when, why and how? Not in this book, you won’t find these basic questions answered.


Conclusion

This long book is a struggle to read. The average person-in-a-hurry could pick up pretty much all they need to know in half an hour by reading these Wikipedia articles.

What this 400-page book gives you which Wikipedia doesn’t, is vast amounts of anthropological-ethnographic-sociological jargon, almost entirely about the Western, and specifically British, individuals involved in the opening up and colonising of China.

There are brief descriptions of festivals or temples, a bit about Peking architecture, many scattered details about relevant places and events though generally delivered in a confusing way – but little or nothing about Chinese art or poetry, history or attitudes, culture or politics – and nothing you can really grasp or learn from about the big wars in Victorian China and their geopolitical implications. And that was the main reason why I bought this book.

Instead, there are lengthy sociological disquisitions about the spread of Christianity through missionary activity (chapter 8), the rise of the Chinese Customs Authority under the legendary Ulsterman Robert Hart (chapter 7), a lengthy account of how Hart’s Customs helped organise a comprehensive network of lighthouses along China’s coast in the 1870s and 80s, which leads on to the western gathering of data generally, about the meteorology of the coast or of Chinese diseases (chapter 9).

Sounds interesting, doesn’t it? But because it is all couched in the limited and stereotyped jargon of ‘practices’ and ‘networks’ and ‘sites of insult’ and ‘imperial enterprise’ etc, and because Bickers never drops his anti-British sentiment (lighthouses were – shockingly -built to make imperial trade safe and guarantee profits! meteorological data designed to help imperialist shipping! medical reports to help the racist westerners better able to exploit etc) it isn’t. It ends up all sounding the same. He manages to make a riveting period of history sound really boring.

Last thoughts

For my £15 I had to wade through hundreds of pages of preening prose and abuse being thrown at long-dead profit-hungry, racist imperialists – but did ultimately emerge with two newish (to me) thoughts:

  1. The China British were always a sort of spin-off of British India, using the same slang, building the same sort of houses, treating the locals, especially their servants and mistresses, with the same appalling and often violent condescension. And the Forward Party of China colonists really thought they could hoodwink and bully the British government back home into supporting an incremental takeover of China through piecemeal wars and ‘punitive actions’ – raucously calling for more and more belligerent intervention. This, after all, was all how we slowly acquired India. Hmmm. Interesting.
  2. Right at the end of the book Bickers describes how he has himself been subjected to harangues and lectures by modern young Chinese criticising him personally for being British and therefore to blame for the ‘century of humiliation’. What is interesting is that these young people have absolutely no experience of any of the events they cite (the violence of 1842, 1860 or 1901). But this story – how their country was subjected to a hundred years of imperialist conquest, a hundred years of victimhood – has been drummed into them by the Chinese state. Why? Bickers explains that, after the Chinese government violently repressed the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, and arrested and imprisoned the reform-minded leaders who let it all get out of hand, they then undertook a sweeping review of Chinese education designed to emphasise the uniquely nation-saving achievements of the Chinese communist party and why all Chinese should be forever grateful to it. In order to boost its role as the goody in the story, the communists emphasised the irredeemable baddyness of all foreigners, of Western Imperialism, be it British, French or Russian, and also to lump in the decades of abuse from Japan as somehow permitted and encouraged by those imperialist farangs.

It is fascinating to learn that the anti-western feeling of many of China’s young educated people is more powerful and passionate today than it has ever been – and that it is encouraged by state-sponsored history books, courses and teachers.

The final chapter of Bickers’ book is thirty pages devoted to a rather boring description of how archives and records were rescued from China during the 20th century, and how a patchwork of researchers has set about writing more accurate and unjingoistic accounts of western, and especially British, imperialism in China. Fair enough.

The irony is that they are doing so at the same time as China’s authorities are also sponsoring a highly tendentious anti-western narrative. Bickers worries that this could lead to quite dangerous results:

A globalised China is not new; but a powerful global China is unprecedented. That provides new food for thought, especially as Chinese youth come out into the world equipped for instinctive indignation at China’s past humiliations and what they feel to be contemporary echoes of those. The awkward confidence that such sensitivity engenders in them might make for all of us a very awkward world. (Final words of the text – p.399)

Worrying, eh?

And this leads onto a final thought of mine, which isn’t in the book at all – that we live in an age of Victimhood, of ever-multiplying victim narratives competing to be heard. The Jews have a well-established Holocaust narrative which is now enshrined in Holocaust Memorial Day (January 27). Black History Month has been going since 1970 in the States, 1987 in the UK. Since as far back as 1909 there’s been an International Women’s Day, now held on 8 March. These are state-sanctioned days or periods solemnly commemorating what are, at heart, victim narratives.

But away from these official victim narratives, the sense of being victimised and humiliated proliferates in the modern world – the entire Arab world, for example, blames Europeans and especially the British for allowing Israel to be founded, for giving their countries stupid arbitrary borders, for interfering and undermining their nations in any number of 20th century coups and invasions, and for continuing to kill Muslims in Iraq or Afghanistan or Syria – victim narratives which can be compiled into recruiting literature for al-Qaeda or ISIS.

I’m not passing judgement on any of these or the numerous other narratives of victimhood of our time – just pointing out the fact that the last pages of Bickers’ book make a riveting contrast to the previous 400. For the first 400 he gives hundreds of quotations from bombastic, jingoistic, imperialistic, often overtly racist, patronising and violently confident China pioneers, settlers and apologists all boasting about their power and might and supremacy. Right at the end of the book there is a loud screeching of brakes as you are suddenly dumped into the 21st century and find yourself surrounded by voices all clamouring to show off their weakness, to show you their wounds and their suffering, all competing to show you how vulnerable and abused and humiliated they have been.

Read newspapers and magazines from 1911 and they’re all about power, might and conquest; read newspapers and magazines from 2011 (when this book was published) and it’s a wall of helplessness, victimhood and suffering.


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Other reviews about the history of China or the Far East

A Closer Look: Techniques of Painting by Jo Kirby (2011)

This is a superbly informative, crisply written and lavishly illustrated little book. It’s one of a series of slender volumes (this one is 93 pages long) in the National Gallery’s A Closer Look series. To quote the blurb,

Techniques of Painting aims to help readers develop a painterly eye by learning to recognize different materials and methods of application and to appreciate how these features contribute to how a painting looks.’

It ranges far and wide to find examples from the National Gallery’s vast collection of over 2,300 paintings. Almost all the 94 illustrations are in good quality colour, with well-chosen close-ups from works both familiar and strange, to illustrate precise aspects of the craft of painting. Although there are examples from the gods of later centuries – van Dyck, Rubens, Gainsborough, Lawrence, van Gogh and Monet – the book tends to focus interest in, and encourage a better understanding of, earlier painters, especially of the early Italian Renaissance.

Thus you come to appreciate the extraordinary skill and craft which went into creating, for example, both the floor carpet and the individual halos – made from gilt which is then elaborately stippled and decorated – in Nardo Di Cione’s Three Saints (1365).

Nardo Di Cione's Three Saints (1365)

Three Saints (1365) by Nardo Di Cione

I learned that:

  • Paint is made of two ingredients, the pigment which gives colour and the binding medium which allows it to be applied with brushes (of various size, shape and density). These latter include egg tempera, oil, flue and gum.
  • Egg tempera dries rapidly. It tends to be applied in fine parallel strokes. Most Renaissance painters up till about 1480 used egg tempera.
  • The use of oil as a binding medium was pioneered by painters in northern Europe. It is more versatile. Oil can be built up by repeated layers, creating areas of solid thickly applied colour, or thinned to create sketchy dry strokes.
  • The thing a painting is painted onto is called the support. Until the early sixteenth century, most paintings were painted onto wood panels. For larger panels, multiple planks of wood would be battened together. Canvas began to be used in north Italy, around Venice and Verona, in the early 1500s, and only slowly spread to north Europe. The most popular wood in Italy was poplar, in northern Europe it was oak.
  • Supports are primed for painting. Wood supports were sanded smooth. Sometimes fine canvas or parchment was glued onto it. Then a ‘ground’ for painting was created. A layer of white calcium sulphate, known as gypsum, mixed with animal glue was applied, dried and sanded flat. The Italian for gypsum is ‘gesso’ and this became the generic name for all white grounds. For expensive paintings a coarse gesso was applied and dried before a much finer one, gesso sottile, was applied. A handbook of the time recommends no fewer than eight coats be applied. Part of the reason for this care was when gold leaf was applied to earlier Renaissance paintings, any flaw showed – hence the need for absolute flatness. As the use of gilt declined, gessos became less perfect. In northern Europe natural chalk was used, in glue solution. Then a priming layer was applied to prevent the oil pigment being absorbed, generally oil with light pigments.
  • Canvas, no matter how tightly stretched, is more a more coarse surface than prepared board, and springy. These factors encourage a looser handling of the paint. Linen, hemp, silk and wool cloth were all used as supports. Cotton became available in the nineteenth century. Van Gogh and Gauguin painted a series onto part of a roll of jute cloth Gauguin bought. To be usable canvas had to be stretched onto a wooden framework called a strainer. Canvas on its own would absorb some of the binding medium, giving the painting a more matt appearance. To prevent this canvas also was primed or prepared, a process called sizing.
  • For both canvas and wood panels, the primer or ground could be any colour – over time the tendency was for darker grounds to be used. The pre-Raphaelites returned to using bright white grounds and this is one factor in the astonishingly brilliant colouring of their paintings.
  • Copper plate was a fairly popular support for paintings in the 17th century.
  • Paper has always been used for pencil and pen sketches; in the 19th century it became used as the support for watercolours.
  • Fresco is the Italian word for ‘fresh’ and also the name for the technique whereby pigments are mixed with water and applied to lime plaster which has been freshly laid over walls or ceilings. As the plaster dries the pigment binds into it. Some colours reacted badly with lime, namely the blue pigment azurite, which explains why frescos are generally light and creamy in colour. These alkali-resistant pigments could be applied later, mixed with egg, in a process called a secco. But they were less bound into the actual plaster and so have tended to flake off and disappear over the centuries. Fresco was popular in hot dry Italy and not very popular in the damp north of Europe.
The Virgin and Child Enthroned, with Four Angels (1495) by Quinten Massys

The Virgin and Child Enthroned, with Four Angels (1495) by Quinten Massys

The book shows a close-up of the hem of the Virgin’s cloak to show the extraordinary care and subtlety with which the realistic patchiness of the sheen on the gold lining was achieved, and then the detail of each pearl, complete with individual spot of light, and shadow cast on the cloth. The closer you look, the more you marvel.

Terms of art

  • Maestà (Italian for ‘majesty’) – a type of religious subject for a painting, namely a representation of the Madonna and Child in which the Madonna is enthroned in majesty as Queen of Heaven, surrounded by a court of saints and angels. An example is the Maestà painted by Duccio in the cathedral at Siena (1308-1311).
  • Predella – a separate frame of smaller paintings running along the bottom of an altarpiece. In medieval and Renaissance altarpieces, where the main panel consisted of a scene with large static figures, the predella usually contains a set of small-scale narrative paintings depicting events from the life of the dedicatee, whether the Life of Christ, the Life of the Virgin or a saint. Typically, three to five small scenes, in a horizontal format. An example is this Altarpiece by Carlo Crivelli, complete with predella showing four scenes from the Passion of Christ.

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Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan, 1979-89 by Rodric Braithwaite (2011)

Sir Rodric Quentin Braithwaite, GCMG, Bedales School and Christ’s College, Cambridge, was born in 1932, so he’s 86 now and was 79 when this book was published. From 1988 to 1992 he was ambassador in Moscow, first of all to the Soviet Union and then to the Russian Federation. Subsequently, he became chairman of the UK Joint Intelligence Committee from 1992 to 1993.

Braithwaite was in Moscow during most of the Soviet War in Afghanistan (1979-89), knew many of the people involved on the Russian side, and saw at first hand the impact it had on Soviet society and politics. He also knows his way around the Russian archives, which allows him to carefully weigh the evidence of precisely who said what, when, and why, at key moments of the story.

Afghanistan is not really a country

Afghan is more a territory carved out by competing empires and squabbled over by a kaleidoscope of violently opposing interests. This has resulted in an almost unceasing sequence of coups, revolutions, civil wars and local uprisings.

The people of Afghanistan are divided by race into Pashtuns [40% of the population], Tajiks [27%], Uzbeks [9%], Hazaras [9%] and other lesser ethnic groupings. Each of these is subdivided into clans defined often by accidents of geography, as so often in mountainous regions. And each clan is further divided into often mutually hostile families. All are ruled by an ethic of fierce pride, martial valour, honour, and hospitality, mediated by the institution of the blood feud. At all levels, from the local to the central, politics and loyalties are defined by conflicts and deals between these same groups, and even between individual families. There is thus little sense of a national entity on which to build a functioning unitary state. (p.12)

Probably the most important paragraph in the book.

Fighting, feuding violence is the Afghan way of life

It is entirely typical that the communist party of Afghanistan – the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) – which arose out of the new university set up with the help of the Soviets in the 1960s, immediately split into two violently opposed factions – Parcham (Banner) with its main support in the cities, and Khalq (People) with its main support from the peasants in the countryside.

This was the trigger to the invasion since it wasn’t the communist coup in 1978 which got the Russians involved, it was the inability of the Afghan communist party’s two leading figures, Nur Muhammad Taraki and Hafizullah Amin, to get along together, which gave the murderous communist regime its fatal instability.

The Russians are drawn in against their will

The Russians had a long-established relationship with Afghanistan, stretching back to the 1920s, well before the end of the British Empire and the independence of neighbouring Pakistan (with which Afghanistan has had a very troubled relationship).

Trade deals and support were offered throughout the century and up into the 1970s. The Soviets helped support the small and fractious communist party, continually trying to get the two factions to stop their feuding.

When the Afghan communists seized power in spring 1978 the Russians were obviously gratified, but worried by the violence of the coup itself and then by the tremendous bloodshed the PDPA unleashed on their backward country. (After executing his rival in September 1979, Amin published a list of 12,000 people the regime had liquidated since coming to power 18 months previously. Up to the time of the Soviet invasion, the communists executed an estimated 27,000 in Kabul prison alone (p.76), maybe 50,000 in the country as a whole. All in order to build the socialist utopia. It was a holocaust.)

The first chapter lays out in detail the opinions of Head of the KGB Yuri Andropov, General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, Foreign Secretary Andrei Gromyko, Defence Minister Dmitri Ustinov, as well as other senior Soviet politicians and the military, that intervention in Afghanistan would likely be a disaster.

Instead, the Soviet leadership encouraged the Taraki regime to ‘broaden its support base’ to include industrial workers and the urban bourgeoisie. Braithwaite shows how out of touch the Moscow Politburo was – since Afghanistan had no industrial workers and only a tiny urban, middle class.

Both Russian and Afghan communists completely underestimated the scale and depth of the opposition they faced from the overwhelmingly rural peasant population who cleaved to a deeply conservative, primitive Islamic faith and time-honoured cultural practices. Braithwaite opens the book with the general uprising against the communist regime in March in the city of Herat. It appears to have been a spontaneous outbreak of revolt at the harshness of communist rule but also at the imposition on the tribal culture of the blasphemous practices of infidel atheists. In one incident, peasants in an outlying village, infuriated by the diktat to force their daughters to school, rose up, killed the Communists, killed all the girls, and marched on Herat, there to join other insurrectionaries.

The war begins

Despite all these analyses of the risk, the uprising in Herat in spring 1979 forced the Russians to get more involved, not least because the Kabul regime was begging them for help through the Kabul embassy. Reluctantly Moscow found itself sending advisers, arms and other support to put down the rebellion.

In the first third of the book Braithwaite details the fateful sequence of events, mainly driven by the poisonous rivalry between communist bosses Nur Muhammad Taraki and Hafizullah Amin, by which the Russians stepped into the quagmire. On several visits to Moscow President Taraki was guaranteed his personal safety, so that when Amin’s men kidnapped and murdered him in September 1979, Moscow leaders took it personally. Amin declared himself president and immediately instituted a rule then even more bloodthirsty than Taraki’s, with the immediate arrest, torture and execution of the former leader’s supporters and dependents, and stepping up the persecution of recalcitrants around the country.

In addition to fearing chaos on their southern border, the Russian leadership heard rumours that Amin would take Afghanistan over into the American camp – or might even have been a CIA agent! The broader background to all this was that the policy of détente with the USA – which had characterised the early 1970s – as fading, as the Americans developed and deployed a new generation of missiles, Congress refused to ratify a previous weapon reduction treaty, and the general atmosphere became more confrontational.

All these arguments began to crystallise into the decision to intervene quickly in Afghanistan to topple the unreliable and maverick Amin and replace him with a reliable Soviet stooge to secure the Soviet Union’s southern border.

It took until December for Moscow to have enough troops on the ground in Afghanistan (where there were already plenty of military advisors). They then undertook the operation to take Kabul, laying siege to all the key ministries, storming the Presidential Palace and – inevitably – killing Amin. Braithwaite describes these events in detail, with precise maps of the city centre and opposing forces.

The Soviet-Afghan War

Maybe the biggest surprise of the book is how featureless the war was. The Russians installed their own man as president, Babrak Karmal and then deployed troops to all the major cities. Immediately they faced resistance which never went away and slowly ramped up in terms of organisation and violence. The mujahideen were never a unified force – the opposite, they were highly fragmented into as many as fifty different bands of various sizes. Only slowly did they coalesce into seven distinct ‘armies’ or groups, but still very much divided along geographic, ethnic, religious and tribal lines.

The war aims of both parties were simple: The mujahideen needed to cut off the Soviet supply lines from Soviet Tajikistan to the north via a couple of well-travelled roads – so they deployed mines and roadside bombs along them and staged periodic attacks on Russian convoys. The Russians needed to cut off mujahideen supplies coming from the south, across the border with Pakistan. The Soviets developed the technique of travelling in large convoys protected by helicopter gunships; the mujahideen made use of remote passes known only to them and travelled in small groups and mostly at night.

And so both sides failed in their war aims. In fact, as Braithwaite points out, the Russians never lost a major engagement and never lost a single post or stronghold or city in the entire war.

But, like the Americans in Vietnam, they learned the hard way that victory in a guerrilla war depends not on hardware, or firepower, or manpower – it depends solely on Endurance, which means the resolve of a country and its civilian population to put up with an unending stream of casualties. If the American war in Vietnam started in 1965 it only took 3 years for opposition to peak in 1968, forcing the president not to seek re-election and his successor (Richard Nixon) to win an election campaigning to end the war. In Afghanistan the casualties weren’t so severe and there weren’t the large-scale engagements of Vietnam (nothing like the battles for Khe Sanh or Hue, no nationwide Tet Offensive), but Soviet soldiers began dying almost from day one and carried on at the rate of 150 to 200 per month.

In a tightly censored society there was nothing like the same groundswell of opposition as in America, but sooner or later every town and city became aware of the coffins returning and the steady trickle of burials of young men. While the soldiers on the ground had a growing sense of futility. Braithwaite describes several massive operations to clear out the Pandsher Valley in the east of the country of the mujahideen under the leadership of the charismatic Ahmad Shah Massoud. The Russians sent in over 10,000 troops, accompanied by tanks and helicopters only to find – the insurgents had melted away into the mountains. There were some small firefights, some losses, some ‘wins’. Then, after a tactful period, the Soviets withdrew their forces and the mujahideen reoccupied the valley, and began to use it once again as a base to attack isolated strongholds and Soviet convoys. This happened year after year and bred a sense of futility even in quite senior officers.

Voices from the Soviet-Afghan

One of the distinctive features of Braithwaite’s book is the deliberate effort to include the testimony of a huge range of participants. He has gone out of his way to include letters, diaries and interviews with the widest possible range of participants – not only soldiers, from generals down to foot soldiers, sergeants and quartermasters, but lots from doctors and nurses, political commissars, the numerous advisers who worked in Afghanistan including agricultural, scientific and medical advisers, interpreters and security guards, intelligence officers and helicopter pilots, tank drivers and sappers, engineers and youth advisers – with lots of women featured from all walks of life – mujahideen leaders and fighters…

It’s like those ‘Lost voices from….’ series about the Great War or WW2, except we very rarely hear the voices of a cross-section of ordinary Russians. This aspect alone makes this a fascinating and valuable book.

In fact, although it refers to the fighting in the relevant places, there’s a case for saying this is more a social history of the war which pays attention to the experiences of a large cast of characters.

For example, there’s a long and detailed section about the physical process of gathering the remains of killed Russian soldiers, with eye-witness accounts from the morgue of how body parts were scooped into lead caskets by very drunk morgue assistants, on the shipping home and then on the generally bad reception any soldier accompanying a dead colleague’s body to his home was likely to get from his grieving relatives. Thorough explanations are given of the process of the draft which the Soviet authorities introduced, again with interviews from soldiers involved. And there is a fascinating section about the small number of Russian soldiers who went over to the side of the mujahideen, taking Muslim names and sometimes wives. Where possible Braithwaite follows the entire careers of some of these defectors and their colourful adventures, right up to the time of writing (2010) 20 years later.

It feels like no aspect of the war is left unexamined, making this read like a very rounded, comprehensive account.

Phases of the Soviet-Afghan war

  1. December 1979-February 1980 – the initial invasion and overthrow of Amin.
  2. March 1980-April 1985 – the mujahideen improved their guerrilla tactics of hit and run attacks, the Russians learned how to protect convoys and strongholds better. 9,175 Soviet soldiers killed: average of 148 per month.
  3. May 1985-December 1986 – Mikhael Gorbachev became General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in March 1985. He immediately ordered his generals to find ways to wind down the war and offensive operations were scaled back. Still, 2,745 soldiers were killed, average of 137 a month.
  4. November 1986-February 1989 – The Soviets replaced Babrak Karmal with Mohammad Najibullah Ahmadzai who was instructed to initiate a policy of National Reconciliation. The Soviet withdrawal took place in two phases – between May and August 1988, and November 1988 to February 1989, when the last tanks were filmed trundling back over the ‘Friendship Bridge’ into Uzbekistan.

The end of the Soviet-Afghan war

The Soviets didn’t lose a single battle or control of a single town or city but they lost the war. The last section of Braithwaite’s book describes the long drawn out process of negotiating a withdrawal, started by the new Mikhail Gorbachev almost as soon as he came to power in March 1985, but which took an inordinate period of time to square with interested parties like Ronald Reagan’s America, Pakistan, the Najibullah regime in Kabul, and the United Nations who were called on to supervise the withdrawal.

In total some 14,500 Russians died, while anywhere between 1.5 and 2 million Afghans were killed with up to 5 million fleeing as refugees outside their country.

But, as Braithwaite points out, this must be compared to the slaughter of Afghan by Afghan in the civil war which broke out, or came into the open, after the Soviets left. By 1996 some 40,000 inhabitants of Kabul alone were estimated to have died in the fighting.

Soldier-bards

I had no idea that the war led to the flourishing of songs composed by the soldiers themselves, many of whom took guitars or harmonicas – handily portable instruments – with them. Braithwaite refers to them as ‘bards’ and many of the songs became very well known, not only among the veterans – who are known as the Afgantsy (plural of Afganets). Here’s a well-known example, ‘Black Tulip’ by Alexander Rozenbaum. Quite a lot different from the Rolling Stones or Jimi Hendrix which were the soundtrack to Vietnam.


Modern Afghan history – thirty years of war

At one point Braithwaite makes the simple but powerful point that the Soviet war was in fact an intervention in an ongoing Afghan civil war. The communist ‘revolution’ (coup) was itself a result of the fractured nature of Afghan society, was characterised by extreme violence against its opponents which promoted uprisings and revolt. I.e. the Soviets walked into an existing civil war situation and, long before they left, the various mujahideen organisations were positioning themselves for the civil war which was to continue after the last Soviet left. Only the rise of the Taliban which was formed around 1994 as a reaction to the endless warring of the corrupt mujahideen warlords, eventually brought the civil war to an end, with the Taliban installed as the de facto rulers of the country by 1996.

So the civil war could be said to have lasted from 1978 to 1996 with a nine-year intervention by the Russians.

Of course, the Taliban government was then overthrown in 2001 by the Americans who invaded and installed their man in power, President Hamid Karzai, hoping that free and fair ‘elections’ would rally the population to a peaceful democracy. Lols.

But the Taliban regrouped and began a deep insurgency against American and allied forces. It is during the 2000s that the British were assigned peace-keeping duties in Helmand Province in south-west Afghanistan, with some 454 deaths to date. As and when the UN forces withdraw, it is an open question whether Afghanistan will return to civil war or whether the Taliban will return to power.


Timeline

1. 20th century background

1901 1 October Habibullah Khan, son of Abdur Rahman, becomes emir of Afghanistan.
1919 20 February Habibullah is assassinated. His son Amanullah Khan declares himself King of Afghanistan.
1919
May – Third Anglo-Afghan War: Amanullah leads a surprise attack against the British.
19 August – Afghan Foreign Minister Mahmud Tarzi negotiates the Treaty of Rawalpindi with the British at Rawalpindi.
1929 Amanullah forced to abdicate in favor of Habibullah Kalakani in the face of a popular uprising. Former General Mohammed Nadir Shah takes control of Afghanistan.
1933 8 November Nadir is assassinated. His son, Mohammed Zahir Shah, proclaimed King.
1964 A new constitution ratified which institutes a democratic legislature.
1965 1 January The Marxist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) holds its first congress.
1973 17 July Mohammed Daoud Khan declares himself President in a coup against the king, Mohammed Zahir Shah.

2. Build-up to war

1978
27 April the ‘Saur Revolution’ – Military units loyal to the communist PDPA assault the Afghan Presidential Palace, killing President Mohammed Daoud Khan and his family.
1 May The ‘Saur Revolution’ – The PDPA instals its leader, Nur Muhammad Taraki, as President of Afghanistan. Once in power, the communists…

started a massive reign of terror: landowners, mullahs, dissident officers, professional people, even members of the Communist Party itself, were arrested, tortured, and shot in large numbers. (p.6)

July – A rebellion against the new Afghan government begins with an uprising in Nuristan Province.
5 December – Treaty signed which permits deployment of the Soviet military at the Afghan government’s request.
1979
March – rebellion against communist rule in Herat.
14 September – President Nur Muhammad Taraki murdered by supporters of Prime Minister Hafizullah Amin. Braithwaite describes in detail how he was abducted, separated from his wife, and smothered with a pillow (p.73). The murder of a man they promised to safeguard spurs the Soviet leadership to plan to replace Amin.
24 December – The Soviet army invades Afghanistan to overthrow the very unpopular Amin regime and restore a more friendly client ruler.
27 December – Operation Storm-333: Soviet troops storm major governmental, military and media buildings in Kabul, including the Tajbeg Palace, and execute Prime Minister Amin. The Russians instal Babrak Karmal as president.

—The Soviet occupation turns into a war and lasts nine years and 56 days—

1988 14 April – The Soviet government sign the Geneva Accords, which include a timetable for withdrawing their armed forces.
1989 15 February – Last Soviet troops leave the country. Civil war breaks out immediately between rival mujahideen groups.

3. Post-Soviet civil war

1992 24 April – Warring Afghan political parties sign The Peshawar Accord which creates the Islamic State of Afghanistan and proclaim Sibghatullah Mojaddedi its interim President. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezbi Islami, with the support of neighbouring Pakistan, begin a massive bombardment against the Islamic State in the capital Kabul.
28 June – As agreed in The Peshawar Accord, Jamiat-e Islami leader Burhanuddin Rabbani takes over as President.
1994 August – The Taliban government begins to form in a small village between Lashkar Gah and Kandahar.
1995
January – The Taliban, with Pakistani support, initiate a military campaign against the Islamic State of Afghanistan and its capital Kabul.
13 March – The Taliban torture and kill Abdul Ali Mazari, leader of the minority (and Shia) Hazara people.
1996
26 September – Start of another civil war in Afghanistan, which lasts until the U.S. invasion in 2001. The forces of the Islamic State retreat to northern Afghanistan.
27 September – The Taliban conquer Kabul and declare the establishment of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Former President Mohammad Najibullah, who had been living under United Nations protection in Kabul, is tortured, castrated and executed by Taliban forces.
1998
August – The Taliban capture Mazar-e Sharif, forcing Abdul Rashid Dostum into exile.
20 August – Operation Infinite Reach: Cruise missiles fired by the United States Navy into four militant training camps in the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

4. 9/11 and after

2001
9 September – Resistance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud killed in a suicide bomb attack by two Arabs disguised as French news reporters.
20 September – After the September 11 attacks in the United States, U.S. President George W. Bush demands the Taliban government hand over al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and close terrorist training camps in the country.
21 September – The Taliban refuse Bush’s ultimatum for lack of evidence connecting bin Laden to 9/11 attacks.
7 October – Operation Enduring Freedom The United States and the United Kingdom begin an aerial bombing campaign against al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
5 December – The UN Security Council authorize the creation of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to help maintain security in Afghanistan and assist the new administration of Hamid Karzai.
20 December – International Conference on Afghanistan in Germany: Hamid Karzai chosen as head of the Afghan Interim Administration.
2002 July Loya jirga – Hamid Karzai appointed as President of the Afghan Transitional Administration.
2003 14 December Loya jirga – A 502-delegate loya jirga held to consider a new Afghan constitution.
2004 9 October – Hamid Karzai elected President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan after winning the Afghan presidential election.
2005 Taliban insurgency begins after a Pakistani decision to station around 80,000 soldiers next to the porous Durand Line border with Afghanistan.
2006 1 March – George W. Bush and wife visited Afghanistan to inaugurate the renovated Embassy of the United States in Kabul.
2007
13 May – Skirmishes between Afghan and Pakistani troops.
U.S. President Barack Obama sends an additional 33,000 U.S. soldiers to Afghanistan, with the total international troops reaching 150,000.
2011
– After the assassination of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, many high-profile Afghan officials are assassinated, including Mohammed Daud Daud, Ahmed Wali Karzai, Jan Mohammad Khan, Ghulam Haider Hamidi, and Burhanuddin Rabbani.
– Afghanistan National Front created by Tajik leader Ahmad Zia Massoud, Hazara leader Mohammad Mohaqiq and Uzbek leader Abdul Rashid Dostum.

Related links

The Global Seven Years War by Daniel A. Baugh (2011)

(This long book is part of the Routledge ‘Modern Wars in Perspective’ series. Since some of the wars date back to 1460 you have to query the definition of ‘modern’.)

Although an American, the author, Daniel A. Baugh, is a distinguished historian of the British Royal Navy from the Restoration to the mid-Victorian era. In many ways this book is the summit of his career.

Baugh was born in 1931 so was 80 years old when this book was published. This may partly explain why it is so very readable. Baugh was brought up in a more leisurely, less technocratic age and his prose is relaxed and amiable, devoid of modern academic jargon and in many places has a sweet, human touch. Though long, the book is a pleasure to read from start to finish.

Baugh’s naval background

Also, Baugh himself served in the American navy. This gives his accounts of the naval battles a special authority, but more particularly underpins his accounts of naval and military discipline. When Admiral Byng’s flotilla fails to prevent the French seizing Minorca (May 1756) or when General Braddock’s forces are massacred in woods beside the river Monongahela (9 July 1755) Baugh not only describes the events but gives thorough explanations of the mistakes the commanders made, what they should have done differently, and continues on to explain in detail why this or that action was rewarded or blamed, according to the military code of the day.

It’s one of the learnings of the book that praise and blame was so immediate and extreme; a general or admiral who won a battle might be knighted (as the admiral George Pocock was, for his aggressive engagements with the cowardly French fleet off the Indian coast) whereas losers might pay the ultimate price – Admiral Byng, court martialled and executed by the British for losing Minorca; Thomas Arthur, comte de Lally, tried and executed by the French for losing their main base in India, Pondicherry, or Charles François Emmanuel Nadeau du Treil, governor of Guadeloupe, forced to surrender it to superior British forces, for which he was sent to prison for twenty years.

There was obviously a lot at stake for each nation-state in major battles – it is a revelation to learn how much was at stake for the military leaders on the ground.

A big complex war

Including the index, this book weighs in at a hefty 736 pages. It claims to deal mainly with the global aspect of the Seven Years War i.e. the fighting between France and Britain in North America, India, the West Indies, with two campaigns late in the war against Spain, in Cuba and the Philippines – and the war in Europe is specifically addressed by a sister book in the same series, The Seven Years War In Europe by Franz A.J. Szabo, itself a weighty 530-page tome.

But in fact Baugh does devote substantial space to the European war. He has to, because his aim is to give a comprehensive overview of the strategy of the two protagonists of the global war – France and Britain – an aim which involves detailed consideration of the key personnel on both sides. These were, on the French side, King Louis XV, his mistress and adviser Madame de Pompadour and their Foreign Minister, the duc de Choiseul – and on the English side, King George II, the Duke of Newcastle and ‘the Great Commoner’ as he was nicknamed, William Pitt. And the global strategy of both sides was inextricably linked with their strategy on the continent; the one just doesn’t make sense without the other.

Therefore this book has much, much more about the war in Europe than the two other books I’d read on the subject to date, 1759 by Frank McLynn and Battle For Empire by Tom Pocock, and is vastly better for it. In fact, it’s the first account I’ve read that really makes sense of the whole war.

Understanding in depth

The Pocock and McLynn books emphasised that everyone suspected hostilities would break out again after the cessation of the War of Austrian Succession in 1748, but only Baugh’s book explains why that was.

The treaty which concluded that war – the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle – was drawn up in a hurry, as both sides were exhausted and running into unsustainable debt. It left many issues about who owned what unresolved, kicking them into the long grass by declaring they’d be sorted out by a ‘Boundary Commission’. But this commission never really got established with the result that conflict on the frontier between French and British North America festered on and, although the British were handed back Madras (in south-east India) in the Treaty, the lack of clarity about Indian affairs also made conflict there inevitable.

The Diplomatic Revolution

Thus (for example) Baugh’s account is the first one which fully explained to me the importance of the abrupt reversal of a century of tradition which took place when Louis XV surprised Europe by suddenly allying France with Austria in the so-called Diplomatic Revolution. They had been enemies for decades.

It happened because in the 1740-48 war Prussia had seized the Hapsburg territory of Silesia and Austria wanted it back. So Prussia was scared of an Austrian attack. Now France wanted to terrorise and/or seize Hanover, the north German principality which was still ruled by George II of England, in order to wrest maximum concessions from Britain when the war ended. If France attacked Hanover, Prussia would see that as a threat to its hegemony over northern Germany. So Britain could see that it would be in her interests to pay King Frederick of Prussia to defend Hanover for her.

And thus a constellation of interests crystallised into the alliances which dominated the war: France and Austria (and Russia, which threatened Prussia’s eastern front) allied against Prussia – who was herself supported by money, and then by troops, sentPhi from England.

Map of the territories involved in the Seven Years War

Map of the territories involved in the Seven Years War

Bargaining chips

The biggest single thing that comes over from reading this long enjoyable account is that warfare was just an aspect of Diplomacy. Nobody expected to fight a war to the complete unconditional surrender of the enemy (as in 20th century wars). Battles were fought to capture strategically important cities or islands or territory, with more than half an eye on the final and inevitable peace negotiations, where they would be used simply as bargaining chips.

Thus the French captured Minorca not because it had any economic or strategic usefulness, but solely to use as a chip in the endlessly complex game of diplomacy which gripped all the nations of Europe: first, they thought they could use it to bribe Spain into entering the war on the French side; when Spain refused, Minorca became just another bargaining chip to be played in the negotiations which led up to the Peace of Paris in 1763. Sure enough, it was handed back to Britain in exchange for the (far more valuable) West Indies islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique. (It is striking to learn that little Guadeloupe produced more sugar than all the British islands combined, worth about £6 million a year.)

Similarly, thousands of British soldiers and sailors died in the twin campaigns to capture Havana in Cuba and Manila in the Philippines, so it is disconcerting to the modern reader to find out the British government never intended to keep either of them, but just wanted them as bargaining chips with Spain in the final settlement. And, sure enough, shamefully, both ports were simply handed back to Spain, a mockery of the immense suffering of the soldiers and sailors on both sides who perished.

At every point, from before the war even began, statesmen of all the European nations were engaged in playing this game at multiple levels not least because, as Baugh, again, amply shows, the government of each nation was itself made up of sharply conflicting visions, strategies and goals.

Thus, in Britain, King George II was understandably obsessed with his hereditary territory of Hanover in Germany, and so detested William Pitt who had built a parliamentary career on criticising the government’s attachment to a distant and unimportant bit of Europe while ignoring the colonies which were vital to its commerce and economy. Following Henry Pelham’s death, George’s other ministers had to work hard to persuade the king to take Pitt into the government – he was widely admitted to be the most capable parliamentarian of his time – and Pitt proved to be a strategist of genius, but they never got on. When the old king died in 1760 and was replaced by his grandson, George III, Pitt’s days were numbered, and so all the other countries of Europe knew a change of British policy was inevitable.

Much the same level of back-stabbing and politicking took place at the top of the French government, except it’s obvious from Baugh’s account how much more limited and limiting the French setup was: King Louis XV didn’t want to be bothered with details, he was in thrall to his former mistress-turned-confidente Madame de Pompadour, and all their ministers had to tread carefully not to cross her strong opinions.

And no-one in the French government was prepared to face up to the acute financial crisis the war created – Baugh shows the king and Pompadour repeatedly not wanting to be bothered with petty details of money – in their minds, France had a God-given right to be top dog in Europe. But this was to lead to financial ruin, specifically to a financial collapse prompted by the loss of Quebec to the British in 1759.

Both Pocock and McLynn give lively accounts of the battle for Quebec (both probably better, more vivid, than Baugh’s) – but only Baugh goes on to explain in detail how the military and strategic loss led to a cataclysmic financial crash in which virtually all the French government’s paper credit became worthless, scores of bankers and contractors to the army and navy went bankrupt and the king and nobility were reduced to sending their silver plate to the mint to be melted down to create coins to keep the economy going (pp.447-452).

So the actions of generals in Canada could have seismic impacts on their home governments of Europe, which in turn affected how all the other players in the game assessed their ally/enemy, and adjusted their diplomatic and military plans accordingly. It’s like reading about a true life and vastly complex combination of the board games ‘Risk’ and ‘Monopoly’.

Unpopular bargaining

Some of these bargaining chip exchanges were very unpopular. American colonial forces had been involved in a bitter 46-day siege of Louisbourg, the main French port on Cape Breton Island which protected the mouth of the long St Lawrence Waterway, in 1745. There was widespread resentment when statesmen in faraway England simply handed the port and island back to the French in exchange for Madras at the peace in 1748. (I was amused to learn that Aix-la-Chapelle was so unpopular in France that it gave rise to a popular expression, bête comme la paix = as stupid as the peace.) Apparently, being treated by pawns in this giant game was one (of the many) grievances which slowly bubbled under among the men who went on to spark the American Revolution.

So it was only reading Baugh’s book that made me realise quite why a renewed outbreak of war was inevitable and made sense of the way statesmen on both sides spent the intervening years calculating how their countries could best benefit from another war, and drawing up and debating various strategies.

The rise of William Pitt

I now understand much better that the cautious Duke of Newcastle owed his place as prime minister to the king because of his steady adherence to the cause of Hanover’s safety but how, when Newcastle’s man in the Commons, Leader of the House Henry Pelham died in 1754, he needed someone who could command authority in the Commons but also fall in with his policies. William Pitt fulfilled the first criterion but had publicly criticised the government for its adherence to Hanover-based policies (thus incurring the undying enmity of George II). So when Newcastle promoted him to secretary of state and took him into the small wartime cabinet he knew he was recruiting a man entirely devoted to pursuing Britain’s overseas interests in America and India (and the West Indies). But the gamble paid off.

It is one of the many merits of this book, and the reason why it’s so long, that Baugh takes you right into the heart of these continual political debates and discussions among the most senior statesmen, quoting letters, diaries and journals to show how strategic thinking about each theatre of war changed and evolved, but how the statesmen also had to keep an eye on how things would play out both among the public at large, and in the clamorous House of Commons, and how they’d be taken by the continental-minded king, and how they might be used against them as weapons by the uneasily jostling members of the cabinet itself.

Baugh’s account reveals the layer upon layer upon layer of power politics and Machiavellian manoeuvring which underpinned every event in the long war; it makes for a fascinating and gripping read.

Specific things

I learned some specific things from this book:

  • The Seven Years War actually lasted eight years, since Baugh shows that hostilities broke out in early summer 1755. Quite a lot of naval and land battles took place before war was formally declared the following year.
  • Privateering – It is astonishing how lawless the sea and land were. Before the war proper is declared, in 1755, the British started simply intercepting legitimate French merchant ships, sailing them to English ports, stealing them and their cargo and putting the crews in prison. Some 400 ships were sequestered like this and some 10,000 seamen imprisoned. Whenever any army appeared anywhere it thought it had the right at the very least to plunder the surrounding countryside (in Europe as much as India) and sometimes ravage it (burn crops, food, stores, towns and villages) in order to deprive its enemy forces of food or shelter. Baugh mentions these continual acts of piracy and devastation in passing, but the modern reader is appalled at the sheer scale of wanton destruction.
  • Silhouette – Étienne de Silhouette tried to sort out France’s pitiful finances and his name became synonymous with penny-pinching. Around that time a fashion for cutting out black outlines of people became fashionable as a stylish and cheap alternative to painted portraits. In derision these were given the insulting name of ‘silhouettes’ which has stuck to this day.
  • The Watershed principle – France claimed that if any of its explorers had named a river they automatically owned all the territory encompassed by all the tributaries right up to each tributary’s watershed. Hence the its territory of Louisiana looked like a balloon on the map since it covered every single tributary of the massive Mississippi.
  • Wilderness warfare – handy term for the style of fighting required in the vast virgin forests of Eastern America.

Maps

There are 17 maps in this long book, and all are better, clearer and more detailed than those in Pocock or McLynn – but it still isn’t nearly enough. A book like this needs 100 maps. When Baugh says that Frederick II launched his surprise attack on Saxony in August 1756, seizing Dresden before marching on to besiege Prague and fighting a big battle at Lobositz in Bohemia on 1 October … there is no map of this at all; no map showing the borders of Prussia, Saxony or Austria; no map showing the route of Frederick’s army or the location of Lobositz. Why not? I had to google them all. Why? You can never have too many maps.

The Treaty of Paris February 1763

The wars I’m familiar with (especially the first and second world wars) have generated vast mountains of analysis devoted to explicating their beginnings. Apparently, the great controversy about the Seven Years War was how it ended. The French had been thrashed to a standstill, unable to supply their army in Germany (which kept being defeated), defeated in India and Canada and driven out of the disputed Ohio territories, then losing the key islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique; the Austrians were fought to a standstill and had to accept they could never regain Silesia and, when the Empress Elizabeth died and was replaced by the pro-Frederick Peter III they realised they had to quit; while the Spanish failed in their attempt to invade Portugal and then lost Havana and Manila to the British, who destroyed a fifth of their fleet and kept the French fleet locked up impotently in its ports.

Tentative moves to peace began in 1760 but the conflict dragged on for two more years of almost unalloyed British victories and the extraordinarily complex machinations not only between the main nations’ ministers and ambassadors, but also disagreements within governments, especially within the British government, take Baugh over 100 pages of describe. This is a little difficult to follow and then a little hard to care about. The main points that come over are:

  1. Given the hopelessness of their position, credit must go to France’s duc de Choiseul who managed to wring significant concessions out of Britain.
  2. How? It is difficult not to feel contempt for the Earl of Bute – who replaced the meticulous and visionary Pitt as Prime Minister on the accession of George III – and was devoted to achieving peace as quickly as possible regardless of the cost, strategic, financial or reputational. Both Bute and the king lied to Parliament and their own cabinet colleagues, continually reassuring and coaxing the (heavily beaten) French and in the event handing over completely unnecessary concessions in India and Newfoundland.

Ten years later the French would be conspiring how to support the American Revolutionaries and subvert British interest yet again (1775-83), a dedicated enmity which would blossom after the French Revolution (1789) into the twenty year war against Republican and then Napoleonic France (1794-1815). With hindsight Bute’s craven appeasement of France looks unforgiveable.


Credit

The Global Seven Years War by Daniel Baugh was published by Pearson Education Ltd in 2011. All quotes and references are to the 2014 Routledge paperback edition.

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The Origin of Our Species by Chris Stringer (2011)

This is a very demanding and scholarly book. In the last thirty years major leaps forward in DNA science, the technology of dating fossils, our ability to CT scan and analyse old bones and skulls right down to atomic level and other impressive techniques, as well as a steady stream of new finds of the remains of our prehistoric ancestors, have hugely deepened and complicated our knowledge of human ancestry, of the lineage which stretches back 6 million years to when our ancestors split from the ancestors of modern apes. It’s a massive, complicated and ever-changing field of knowledge.

As the blurb on the back points out, Chris Stringer has been closely involved in much of the crucial research into the origins of humankind and sets out in this book to explain all the latest research, techniques, discoveries and theories in the area, which he does comprehensively and thoroughly.

However, the patchiness of the evidence, the changing results given by evolving techniques, the legacy of sharply conflicting theories and interpretations etc, take a lot of explaining and putting into context. As well as the actual finds and the science we use to interpret them, the book slowly opens up a jungle of differences and debate between archaeologists, paleo-anthropologists, psychologists, DNA researchers, ancient historians and so on, at numerous levels, from large-scale over-arching theories to the interpretation of almost every single find and specimen.

Chapter by chapter, Stringer introduces us to all the evidence and all the techniques and all the controversies – but it is a lot to take in. It doesn’t help that the same theories, techniques and finds recur in different chapters, but in the context of different approaches or discussion of different theories or ideas. You need your wits about you. It’s a book to be read at least twice.

Two theories of human origins

In 1988 Stringer co-wrote an article titled Genetic and Fossil Evidence for the Origin of Modern Humans. This sketched out the two main theories about human origins: Recent African Origin (RAO) and Multiregional Evolution.

1. The multi-regional theory dates from the 1930s and believes that Homo erectus (himself descended from Homo habilis and a distinct species by about 2 million years ago) spread out from Africa over 1 million years ago, settling across Eurasia and Africa, and it was these scattered populations who all transitioned to modern man, Homo sapiens, although with variations which explain the different appearance of modern ‘races’.

2. Recent African Origin (also known as the ‘Out of Africa’ theory) agrees that Homo erectus spread across Eurasia by around 1 million years ago (the original or ‘Out of Africa 1’ scenario), but then postulates the separate development of ‘modern’ man (Homo sapiens) around 100,000 years ago, probably in East Africa. These modern humans also spread out beyond Africa (in so-called ‘Out of Africa 2’), superseding (overwhelming, conquering, killing?) their more primitive cousins wherever the two came into contact.

But a) there are numerous other theories which conflict with both the above, starting with an ‘Assimilationist’ theory, e.g. that Homo sapiens bred with Homo erectus rather than wiping them out; and b) almost every year brings new discoveries which throw up new puzzles and complicate the picture. Also c) Homo sapiens himself seems to have undergone a sudden burst of technological, cultural and social complexity around 50,000 years ago, when better tools, cave art, necklaces etc suddenly appear in the fossil record. It was this new, improved Homo sapiens who appears in Europe from 35,000 years ago. How does that fit into the timeline?

Neanderthal Man In Europe a distinct branch of humans was named Neanderthal Man (after the first specimen whose skull and bones were found in the Neander Valley in Germany in 1856). Neanderthal bodies were bigger, more muscly than ours, they had significantly larger brain cases (as Stringer humorously points out, in brains as with other things, size is not everything) but their most notable feature was really thick, heavy, threatening brow ridges over the eye sockets. Neanderthals are generally considered a distinct species, Homo neanderthalensis, and are thought to be descended from a more primitive species, Homo heidelbergensis, itself a branch of Homo erectus. Nenaderthal man became distinct from Heidelberg man around 600,000 years ago. (Typically, some paleoanthropologists disagree with the whole notion of defining these different specimens as distinct species, and consider Neanderthals and all the other ‘types’ which have been found in the past 150 years to be subspecies of Homo sapiens – thus Neanderthals would be Homo sapiens neanderthalensis).

One of the most intriguing questions remains what it was when I was a boy: We have evidence that modern man (often called Cro-Magnon Man in his European incarnation, after the cave in south-west France where the first specimen was found in 1868) and Neanderthal man both inhabited Europe at the same period, around 40,000 years ago (the Neanderthals having been around in Europe for hundreds of thousands of years, modern man being a new thing, fresh out of Africa). Shortly after the arrival of modern man, records of Neanderthals come to an end; there are no specimens more recent than 30,000 years ago.

So, did we wipe Neanderthals out? Archaeologist Nicolas Teyssandier has noted the period of overlap of the last Neanderthals and the first Moderns is characterised by a profusion of different types of spear tip – was there a stone age arms race? Or did ‘we’ interbreed with Neanderthals to become a cross-breed, Neanderthal records stopping because they had been ‘assimilated’ into our line – so that each of us has a little Neanderthal blood in us? Or did Neanderthals die out due to climate or other changes which they were too dim to adapt to, but which we with our super-smart brains managed to survive? The theories have become more intricate as new DNA evidence has emerged – but to this day, no-one knows.

Homo sapiens (left) Homo neanderthalensis (right)

Homo sapiens (left) Homo neanderthalensis (right)

Homo heidelbergensis This is another distinct form of human, that lived in Africa, Europe and western Asia between 600,000 and 200,000 years ago (and named after the first specimen, discovered in 1907 near the German town of Heidelberg). Some paleoanthropologists think that a population of heidelbergensis migrated into Europe and western Asia between 400,000 and 300,000 years ago and evolved into Neanderthal man. A later branch of the same family had evolved into Homo sapiens in Africa by around 130,000 years ago and then also spread into south-west Asia and Europe where, for 100,000 years, both related species lived alongside each other.

Periods

The Pleistocene period is said to date from 2.5 million years ago (Ma) to 12,000 years ago.

The Stone Age or Paleolithic period period lasted roughly 3.4 million years and ended between 8700 BC and 2000 BC, with the advent of metalworking (the date varying according to location, since different human groups developed metal work at different dates).

The Lower Paleolithic Period is 2,500,000 to 200,000 years ago. The Middle Paleolithic is the era during which the Neanderthals lived in Europe and the Near East, c. 300,000–28,000 years ago. The Upper Paleolithic dates from 50,000 to 10,000 years ago in Europe, ending with the end of the Pleistocene Era and onset of the Holocene Era at the end of the last ice age.

The Holocene Era is marked by the end of the ice ages around 13,000 years ago, followed swiftly (in the Fertile Crescent of modern Iraq) by the birth of agriculture, in what Jared Diamond calls ‘the Neolithic Revolution’. This saw humans transition from a life of hunting and gathering to one of agriculture and settlement, a transition whose causes and implicatoins Diamond deals with at length in his classic book, Guns, Germs and Steel.

Dating technologies

The modern technology used to date fossils and ancient remains is now bewilderingly complex and dauntingly sophisticated. Here are some terms; if you’re interested, you’ll have to google them for full accounts.

  • ABOX Acid Base Oxidation-Stepped Combustion pretreatment methods for dating charcoal thought to be over 30,000 years old
  • AMS accelerator mass spectrometry – a technique for measuring long-lived radionuclides that occur naturally in our environment
  • CT computerised tomography X-ray scan
  • ESR electronic spin resonance, method of dating
  • OSL – optically stimulated luminescence
  • TL thermoluminscence dating technique

New words and acronyms

I’m a humanities graduate, not a scientist; I get pleasure from new words and from new concepts (even ones I don’t fully understand).

  • Allen’s Law – animals in cold climates have low surface-to-volume ratios; animals in hot climates, the reverse.
  • atlatl – a spear thrower.
  • Biological Species Concept – the notion that species are defined as groups which can interbreed
  • burins – engraving tools.
  • CI Campanian Ignimbrite – debris from a huge volcanic explosion which took place in Campania, central Italy, 39,000 years ago.
  • Doggerland – the area of land that connected Britain to mainland Europe during and after the last Ice Age until it was flooded by rising sea levels around 6,500–6,200 BC.
  • Dunbar’s Number – after researching primate brain size against the size of their social groups British anthropologist Robin Dunbar estimated that humans can only form meaningful relationships with a maximum of 148 (generally rounded up to 150) other individuals.
  • EQ – encephalisation quotient, the ratio of brain volume to body mass.
  • glottology – the history or science of language.
  • Heinrich Event – brief but severe cold events when icebergs break off from northern ice caps and float south chilling the ocean and surrounding lands (pp.93-94)
  • microtephra – dust from a volcanic explosion which is invisible to the eye.
  • morphometrics – measuring shapes.
  • sapropels – dark layers of sediment laid down where the Nile reaches the Mediterranean.
  • survivorship – the proportion of a population surviving to a given age.
  • tang – edge or shoulder of a triangular stone point used to mount it as a projectile on a wooden handle.
  • varves – annually deposited layers in the bottom of deep lakes.

Snippets

  • Anthropologist Grover Krantz strapped on a fake thick protruding ‘brow ridge’ from a Homo erectus skull, and wore it for months (!) to see what advantages it brought. He discovered that it kept his hair out of his eyes, shielded his eyes from the sun – and scared the daylights out of people he met on dark nights. Stringer takes this last point seriously, saying the heavy brows of our ancestors possibly accentuated their stare, giving them an aggressive attitude which helped them intimidate other males and woo females, in the struggle for existence. (p.32)
  • Apparently, there are rumours in the paleoanthropology world that either the Americans or the Russians or both, in the 1940s and 50s, experimented by injecting human sperm into female chimps, bringing the resulting creatures to birth and experimenting on them. (p.33)
  • Male baboons gently fondle each other’s scrotums as a sign of friendship and trust – a defeated chimpanzee makes submissive noises and holds out its hand to the victor – if accepted the victor will embrace and kiss the supplicant, if rejected, he’ll bite it. (p.131)
  • Fire dates to around 1.6 million years ago in Africa, 800,000 years ago in Israel, 400,000 years ago in Britain. (p.140)
  • The Grandmother Hypothesis developed by James O’Connell and Kristen Hawkes proposes that human evolution favoured older women who lived on after the menopause (something which doesn’t happen in primates) who can help their daughters with child-rearing and food-gathering. (p.141)

Conclusion

The ninth and final chapter presents a conclusion of sorts – which is that, having extensively reviewed the current evidence, Stringer has modified his lifelong adherence to the Recent African Origin thesis in several ways:

  1. The one that surprised me the most has to do with the size of the communities we’re talking about. Up-to-date genetic evidence suggests that the groups which left Africa and moved out to populate Arabia and around the Indian coast, might have numbered in the hundreds. Even within Africa the various species may at any one time have only numbered in the thousands. (‘The long-term effective size of the ancestral population for modern humans might have been only about 10,000 breeding individuals’, p.175, whereas the number of breeding Neanderthal females in Europe might have been as little as 3,500). Given these numbers, the extinction of the Neanderthals is changed from being some kind of war of extermination (as it is sometimes painted) into the dwindling and going defunct of already tiny scattered communities (and the most attractive interpretation Stringer gives for this is the notion that Neanderthals were just bigger, heavier and needed more food than the lighter, nimbler Home sapiens – maybe in the unstable climatic situation in Europe 30,000 to 40,000 years ago, small and clever was simply more adaptable).
  2. The last two chapters bring together evidence which Stringer says can be interpreted, in light of these small numbers, to suggest a new hypothesis – that there were, at any given time, multiple human species living in Africa (he repeats several times that modern-day Africans show vastly more genetic diversity than any other continent – modern DNA evidence suggesting that the populations of Asia, the Far East, the Americas, Australia derive from very small bands of ancestors populations with the genetic diversity of modern populations dropping the further you go from the African source). In other words, the linear model of one species evolving into another species has been replaced by a much more complex scene of multiple species or sub-species flourishing in different places at different times. ‘100,000 years ago Africa may have comprised a collection of separate sub-groups’ (p.244). The evidence now suggests ‘that Africa contained archaic-looking people in some areas when, and even long after, the first modern-looking humans had appeared’ (p.255). In other words, the multiregion theory could be true within Africa, where multiple species, sub-species, varieties and groups of humans evolved along separate lines, developing widely different levels of tools, some isolated, some inter-breeding and leaving behind a patchwork of random relics to puzzle and confuse 21st century paleoanthropologists trying to create one continuous narrative.
  3. A recurrent problem in this new, more complex picture is that ‘superior’ technologies or skills seem sometimes, in some areas, to be replaced by inferior ones. Stringer uses the analogy of fires or beacons flaring up in the immense darkness of Africa for a millennium or so, then going out. Why? The brief answer, as with so much paleoanthropology, is that no-one knows. Climate change? Genetic drift? Drought, famine, conflict? But the stops and starts certainly fit with the newish idea of much greater diversity, variation, and contingency in our evolution than had previously been suspected.
  4. All of which brings Stringer to modify his initial RAO thesis: maybe there wasn’t one, but multiple out-of-Africa events. To me, as a layman, this doesn’t seem that surprising. Pre-human species didn’t have maps: they didn’t know they were ‘leaving’ Africa; they were just roaming, hunting and gathering wherever food could be found. It makes more sense to think there would have been multiple ‘exits’ from Africa. If our theories only posited two until recently, that could be because the archaeological record is so thin and patchy as not to spot the others – or it could be that numerous other ‘exit’ populations went extinct leaving no fossil or genetic trace. We think the exit event which led to us is important because it led to us; but it might have been just one among many, and its survival down to pure chance.
  5. And this leads to perhaps the most unsettling thought, which is all these theories tend to undermine our specialness. Even within scientific communities there has been a consensus that Homo sapiens is special because ‘we’ ended up inventing agriculture, cities, religion, states, navies, trains, rockets and all the rest of it – and therefore a tendency to try and identify the reason for that specialness and the moment when that specialness took hold. (Stringer thinks something happened around 50,000 years ago to change human behaviour, nudging it towards greater inventiveness – climate, size of social groups, who knows; but there are scores of other theories – he mentions the ‘Broad Spectrum Revolution’ theory proposed by Lewis Binford and Kent Flannery, a coming-together of climate, population size and innovation which they date to 20,000 years ago). But what if we’re not that special. What if Neanderthal man or some of the more obscure relics, such as Homo floriensis (the so-called ‘Hobbit’, a short version of modern humans found only in East Asia) or other sub-species and hominins as yet undiscovered, had just as much potential to develop and ‘succeed’ – but existed in such small populations that fairly limited events (drought, volcanic eruption, sudden chilling in an ice age) wiped them out and happened, just happened, to leave the field open to us? What if ‘we’ are only here by the merest luck or fluke but – with the arrogance typical of our species – have taken this as giving us an entirely spurious specialness, giving us the right to lord it over the earth and all the other species, when in fact our lucky ancestors just happened to be in the right place at the right time, or not to be in the wrong place at the wrong time…

Credit

The Origin of Our Species by Chris Stringer was published by Allen Lane in 2011. All quotes and references are to the 2012 Penguin paperback edition.

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A Man of Parts by David Lodge (2011)

At forty-five she [Violet Hunt] had already lost the beauty for which she had been admired in her younger years, and painted heavily to disguise a poor complexion, but her body was still slim and limber, able to adopt any attitude in bed he suggested, and to demonstrate a few that were new to him. Her years with Crawfurd had made her shamelessly versatile in the art of love, and she did not hesitate to use her mouth and tongue to arouse him for an encore when they had time to indulge in one. ‘Now I know why Henry James calls you the Great Devourer,’ he said, watching her complacently as she performed this service. (p.255)

Wells’s significance

This is a big book (559 pages), a long, thorough and absorbing historical novel about the science fiction pioneer, novelist, journalist, political thinker and social ‘prophet’, H.G. Wells. Wells’s impact on his time was huge, difficult for us now to recapture. In his 1941 essay about him, George Orwell wrote:

‘It would be no more than justice to give his name to the twenty-five years between the ‘nineties and the War. For it was he who largely wove their intellectual texture’ (quoted p.513)

The novel

It’s very similar in conception and design to Lodge’s previous historical novel which was about Henry James, Author, Author. Like that book, A Man of Parts opens with our hero at the end of his life, reviewing its events and meaning. Through the spring and summer of 1944 Wells is holed up in his house in Hanover Terrace, one of the rows of smart houses built by the architect John Nash on the edge of Regents Park in the 1820s. Refusing to be cowed by Hitler’s V1 or V2 rockets now dropping on London, Wells – or H.G. as everyone calls him – insists on sitting out the war in the capital, attended by a few servants and cooks, visited by former lovers like Rebecca West and Moura Budberg, and by his sons ‘Gip’ and Anthony.

[She] however agreed nonchalantly, stepped out of her drawers, lay down on the coat he spread on the springy bracken, and opened her knees to him. (p.219)

Visitors often find him tucked up in a bath chair mumbling to himself. Lodge deploys various narrative devices in the novel, mostly third-person narrator, but long stretches take the form of Wells interviewing himself – his young thrusting journalist persona quizzing the old, super-annuated man of letters – the youngster’s aggressive questions in bold, the old man’s often defensive answers in indented paragraphs.

She fell into them instantly, and he felt the soft, warm pressure of her breasts through his thin summer jacket as she clung to him. (p.209)

Sex

Given that Wells was a self-taught polymath with a vivid interest in the scientific and social developments which took place during his adult life – essentially the 1880s through to the Great War – it is disappointing that Lodge chooses to make the central concern of this long rumination on Wells’s life and achievements his SEX LIFE.

They embraced and lay in each other’s arms, exploring and gently stroking each other’s bodies like blind people. ‘Is that your…?’ Amber whispered. ‘That is my erect penis,’ he said, ‘a column of blood, one of the marvels of nature, a miracle of hydraulic engineering.’ ‘It’s enormous,’ she said. ‘Will it hurt me when you…?’ ‘It may hurt a little the first time,’ he said. ‘I don’t mind anyway,’ she said. ‘I want it inside me. I want you inside me.’ (p.292)

It’s true that SEX – the persistent urge to seduce as many women as possible – dominated his life, led him to have over a hundred sexual partners, to be unfaithful to all his wives and lovers, to break with his comrades in the Fabian movement, and to be publicly shamed and humiliated on more than one occasion. His last meaningful lover, Rebecca West, spoke bitterly about Wells’s ‘sex-obsession’ (p.397).

He could see she was excited by this badinage and soon they were entwined on the bed in vigorous and joyful intercourse. (p.391)

Certainly the book contains some accounts of his political interventions:

  • his difficult relationships with the stuffy old Fabian Society (which he joined in February 1903) led by Sidney and Beatrice Webb and George Bernard Shaw
  • his involvement writing propaganda during the Great War

and occasionally refers to the science behind some of his novels:

  • there is a particularly interesting page on his meeting with an aeronautical engineer involved in early airplane flight which inspired The War In The Air (John William Dunne, p.247)

but the overwhelming theme of the book is his relentless pursuit of female flesh and the countless sexual encounters which Lodge depicts with his characteristic, unnervingly clinical detachment.

They sat down together on the sofa and began to kiss and fondle each other, getting more and more exited. Soon he had her blouse undone and his lips on an exposed breast, while his hand was under her skirt and between her thighs. Rebecca began to moan and heave her pelvis against the pressure of his forefinger. ‘Take me, have me!’ she whimpered. (p.427)

The turbulent political climate during the Edwardian Era, the crisis over Irish Independence, the clash between House of Commons and House of Lords over the Liberal budget, the campaigns against poverty, any reference at all to the vast British Empire? Barely mentioned, if at all. Instead the central revelation of the book is that Wells had an unusually large penis, something which comes as a surprise – painful or delightful – to the numerous women he beds and bonks.

‘My, you’ve got a big one for a little chap,’ the woman said, as she lay back on the bed and spread her knees. (p.80)

Wells’s wives

Wells married his cousin, Isabel Mary Wells, in 1891 but she never showed the slightest pleasure in sex, regarding it as a male conspiracy against women. When he fell in love with one of  his students in 1894, he and Isabel agreed to separate and Wells went on to marry the student, Amy Catherine Robbins, in 1895. But then, although Amy worshipped his mind, she also turned out to be less than imaginative or enthusiastic about sex. Instead Wells developed the habit of getting sexual satisfaction wherever he could. He he is taking one of the maids.

The sight of her standing there, demurely bloused from the waist up, wantonly déshabillé below, inflamed him further and he knelt to pull down her drawers and bury his face in her belly. She laughed as he did so – laughed! Isabel never laughed when he made love to her; nor, for that matter, did she speak or move. This girl raised her hips to meet his thrusts and cried aloud, ‘Oh! Lovely lovely lovely!’ as she reached the climax of her pleasure, doubling his own. (p.84)

Wells gave Amy the nickname ‘Jane’ and Jane she remained until her death in 1927. Jane was passionately in love with the older, brilliantly clever and charismatic writer but she also, alas, wasn’t that interested in sex and so the novel chronicles the evolution of their relationship towards an ‘open marriage’ i.e. Wells agreed to tell her all about his numerous affairs and Jane agreed to accept them, maintaining hearth and home and a secure base from which the predatory author could go on the prowl.

After which there was nothing to do but take Dusa to Eccleston Square in a brougham and quell his jealousy and his doubts by possessing her with as much violent passion as she could bear. In the cab he whispered to into her ear exactly what he intended to do, and felt her trembling with a mixture of excitement and fear. She fought him with spirit, and afterwards they kissed each other’s scratches and bite marks tenderly, and cuddled like babes. She was a girl in a thousand. (p.316)

Sensible though this set-up sounds, it didn’t prevent all kinds of complications and unhappiness, especially when the 40-something and world-famous author had a succession of affairs with women young enough to be his daughter – and their parents found out. This was the case with Rosamund Bland (daughter of the children’s author E. Nesbit), with Amber Reeves, a precociously brilliant student at Cambridge, the daughter of a Fabian Society colleague, and most fierily with Rebecca West (real name Cicely Isabel Fairfield). They were all around 20 when the affairs began, meaning the book is full of descriptions of taut young naked bodies and lingers over the moments when they lose their virginities.

Amber was wonderful. In the daylight that filtered through the thin curtains her body was as delectable as it had promised to be under his blind touch in Spade House, shapely but lithe, with a delta of dense black pubic hair that set off her milk-white skin. She gave a cry that mingled pain and pleasure as he penetrated her, and when he had spent she wanted immediately to do it again. (p.292)

Scores of pages are devoted to the time and money it took to set up these lovers in country cottages and hotel rooms and loaned apartments and London flats, so they can be readily accessible to Wells’s outsize member.

They met perhaps half a dozen times in the cottage that summer, and on the last occasion she forgot to worry about whether she was doing it right and came to a genuine, uncontrollable climax, crying out in surprise and joy. (p.217)

These women’s impressive busts, their limber figures, their handling of Wells’s large member, their copulations furious, tender, loving, innocent, depraved, in cheap hotels, rented rooms or holiday cottages, provide the main current and theme of the book in a welter of orgasmic gasps and spurts, and the text pays obsessive attention to the curves and shapes of almost every female character. Take young Rosamund Bland and her bust:

Rosamund was an attractive and outgoing girl, with a well-developed figure for her age (p.158)… Rosamund, now eighteen and a striking young woman, with a pretty face and a buxom figure (p.168)… wearing a straw hat and a loose blue muslin dress with a neckline that showed her remarkable bosom to advantage… (p.177)

It’s a relief when the book tears itself away from Wells’s groin to deal with some of the other aspects of his life and other aspects there are. The book is stuffed with biographical information distilled from the many works by and about Wells which Lodge references in the five-page acknowledgement. In fact, by half way through I wished it had an Index, as in a standard biography or textbook – which the book itself resembles for long stretches – to help you refer back to the many anecdotes about George Bernard Shaw or Joseph Conrad or Henry James or E. Nesbit or any of the other notable figures who appear in the account conversing, dining, debating and, if they’re women, subject to Wells’s ever-ready urge to copulate.

They were truly two in one flesh at last, with no membrane of rubber between them. Amber gave a great shout when she climaxed, and afterwards, as she lay limply in his arms, she said: ‘I’m sure I’ve conceived.’ (p.323)

Wells’s books

One of the interview sections describes Well’s early life as the son of a hard-up couple – a gardener and domestic servant – who worked at a grand country house in Sussex, Up Park, and his early apprenticeship to a chemist in nearby Midhurst and in a draper’s shop in Southsea – experiences which shaped his sense of society’s unfairness, fuelled his political beliefs and gave his enemies countless opportunities to belittle his humble social origins.

At that moment, euphoric with the success of his speech, adrenaline still coursing through his veins, nothing would have pleased him more than to discharge his excitement in a bout of passionate copulation with Rosamund. (p.231)

Luck, innate talent and hard work won Wells a scholarship to the Normal School of Science (later the Royal College of Science in South Kensington, now part of Imperial College London).

She [Countess Elizabeth von Arnim] was petite, with a neat figure that curved in and out at the right places in spite of all her childbearing… ‘Au revoir,’ she smiled, and walked away towards the turnstiles, her neat rounded rear swaying under her tailored coat. (p.385)

The meat of the third-person narrative kicks in after Wells has found fame with his early scientific romances – the clutch of works in the mid and late 1890s which virtually invented modern science fiction – The Time MachineThe War of The WorldsThe Invisible Man – and these, along with his prolific journalism, have established him as an author. It is 1902 and Wells has designed a house with all modern conveniences (insisting on a lavatory for each bedroom) – Spade House overlooking Sandgate, near Folkestone on the south coast.

‘I never felt such sensations before,’ she sighed after a gratifying orgasm. ‘And I never realised a man could go on for so long.’ (p.388)

From 1902 onwards the novel – like a critical biography – namechecks every one of Wells’s works, frequently stopping in its tracks to describe the germination and writing of each book, with a summary of the plot and, a few pages later, a page or so of the contemporary reviews.

  • The Sea Lady, 1902 (summary pp.145-148)
  • Kipps, 1905 (summary p.162)
  • A Modern Utopia, 1905 (summary pp.163-164)
  • In the Days of the Comet, 1906 (summary p.176, pp.202-204)
  • The War in the Air, 1908 (origins p.247)
  • Tono-Bungay, 1909 (summary p.246, reviews pp.317-8)
  • Ann Veronica, 1909 (summary pp.300-305, reviews p.355)
  • The History of Mr Polly, 1910 (summary p.375)
  • The New Machiavelli, 1911 (summary p.p.376-80)
  • Marriage, 1912 (summary p.387, reviews p.395, Rebecca’s review p.396)
  • The Passionate Friends, 1913 (summary p.407-8, reviews p.423)
  • The World Set Free, 1914 (summary p.408, reviews p.441)
  • Mr Britling Sees It Through, 1916 (summary p.408, reviews p.441, p.464, 472-6)
  • Boon, 1915 (summary p.472)
  • The Research Magnificent, 1915 (summary p.476)
  • The Secret Places of the Heart, 1922 (p.496)

I knew already that Wells’s novels moved sharply away from the classic sci-fi stories of his initial success at the turn of the century and that he frittered his energies away writing long novels dramatising his own life and the social issues of the day, which are a lot less remembered these days.

It was interesting to read that even Wells himself referred to some of these as ‘prig’ novels, in which the hero is taller and handsomer than their author, and possessed of various high-minded ideals which are blocked, or encouraged, by the great love of his life etc. No surprise that they’re little read today.

Free Love and feminism

What interests me in Wells’s novels is the visionary power of the sci-fi stories, the cheeky humour of the comedies, and the social criticism of Edwardian England scattered throughout.

Amber he had always thought of as an athlete of sex, a kind of Atalanta, clean-limbed, agile, pagan, whereas there was something feral about Rebecca when she was stripped and hungry for love. Her body was less classically beautiful than Amber’s, but it was sensual, with a full bust, small waist, broad hips and a generously curved bottom. She had a luxuriant bush of pubic hair. (p.428)

What interests Lodge is the theme of personal relations. In novel after novel from 1902 onwards Wells worried away at the problems of the relations between men and women, the problem which dominated his own private life. These find their focus in the new ideas of ‘Free Love’ which were (apparently) much discussed at the turn of the century. And it’s this issue of Free Love which really bedevils his life, features again and again in his novels, and dominates this book.

They spent their days hiking through the foothills and pin woods, taking a simple picnic with them in their rucksacks, and making love after their lunch on mattresses of pine needles covered with their clothes. Little E enjoyed sex in the open air as much as himself, and relished the sensation of sun and breeze on her naked skin. (p.394)

The aim of Free Love movement appears to have been to free the practice of love and sex from the imprisonment of marriage, seen as a patriarchal male institution. Some Free Lovers wanted to abolish marriage altogether, as did many feminists. Most insisted that men and women should be free to love who and where and when and how they wanted, untrammelled by the restrictions of (a patriarchal) society.

She would crouch on the bed, naked, like a panther couchant, with her head up, following him with her eyes as he, naked too, prowled round the room, emitting low-pitched growls, and then he would suddenly pounce, and locked together they would roll about on the bed, or on the floor, licking, biting and digging their claws into each other before he mated with her and they came to a noisy climax. (p.433)

In this respect one of the interesting revelations of the book is just how many of the women of the era thought of themselves as feminists, or hold feminist beliefs. It was of course the heyday of the Suffragette Movement, itself split into extreme and moderate wings. All the educated women Wells encounters have views about the Suffragettes, and about the issue of ‘the New Woman’, and Free Love, many very fierce and passionate advocates of women’s liberation and the overthrow of tyrannical patriarchy, and a surprising number of them have or will write their own novels on the subject.

Their sexual life remained as exciting as ever, and as her belly swelled it became more comfortable as well as conducive to their private fantasy to come to climax in the natural position of feline copulation, Rebecca crouched under him as he covered her from behind, with her head buried in a pillow to muffle her yowls. (p.441)

But if this issue – how to be free to love wherever you will and to have sex with whomever you want – dominates Wells’s life and writings, and conversations with umpteen intelligent women – Beatrice Webb, Edith Nesbit, Rosamund Bland, Amber Reeves, Elizabeth von Arnem, Viola Hunt, Rebecca West – what the book shows us happening in practice is that the person who is free to love is the man in the situation – Wells – and that the people who suffer again and again are his women lovers, all of whom – once the affairs are revealed:

a) suffer intense social stigma and shaming (starting most intensely in their own homes, with their furious parents)
b) get pregnant – Wells impregnated Amber Reeves, Dorothy Richards and Rebecca West
c) and so end up as second-best mistresses, shacked up in love nests with their love children, feeling increasingly lonely and isolated, while Wells continued to enjoy all the advantages of married life, socialising and entertaining, provided with clean shirts and regular meals, by the ever-uxorious Jane

No matter how hard he protests that they seduced him, took advantage of him, waylaid and wanted him, there’s no avoiding the strong feeling that Wells lived his life selfishly, taking his pleasure where he wanted, and leaving a trail of damaged lives and embittered women behind him.

Wells and James

Henry James was the subject of Lodge’s long historical novel before this one, and there is a pleasing element of overlap in the books because the two authors knew each other and were in regular correspondence right up to the end of James’s life (1916). They could not have been more different as men and as writers: Wells the unstoppable sex machine contrasted with James a lifelong celibate; and Wells with his ‘instrumental’ view that the novel should do something, promote an idea or explore an issue or share a vision of the world and its future

To me literature like architecture is a means, it has a use. (p.469)

compared to James’s well-matured view that the aim of the artist is to raise the tone of the culture through the presentation of finished works.

‘The job of the artist is to enlighten and enrich the collective consciousness by the exercise of his imagination in his chosen medium.’ (p.223)

They eventually fell out after James published a sustained attack on Well and Arnold Bennett, grouped together with John Galsworthy as the representatives of ‘The Younger Generation’ (p.442) and Wells replied by including a lengthy satire of James’s ponderous manner in his wide-ranging satire on the literary scene, Boon. The latter represented a final break in an unlikely relationship, which Wells came to regret.

Enough of men

As I write it’s not clear whether this will be Lodge’s final novel. It certainly represents a climax of many themes in his work, the two leading ones being:

  • teaching, the factual presentation of literature
  • sex, all his books are full of clinically described erections and couplings

What’s missing from it is the agonising over Roman Catholic theology which flavours most of his novels. And although I emerged from these 560 pages just about managing to like still Wells as much as I had before, the reader’s super-saturation in the Male Gaze – the controlling, shaping, sexually predatory way of eyeing up every single female as a potential sexual conquest – has made me heartily sick of male writers, male comedy writers in particular. Kingsley Amis, David Lodge, Howard Jacobson, their novels show a relentless obsession with sex and a relentlessly objectifying, exploitative and abusive view of women which has come to sicken me.

She [Moura Budberg] had the softest skin he had ever encountered. She murmured incomprehensible but exciting Russian words and phrases as she reached her climax and he released the pent seed of three weeks’ abstinence into the sheath he had prudently brought with him from England. (p.493)

When I put down the book I knew I was meant to feel moved by the picture of the old lecher hunkered down in his World War Two eyrie which Lodge leaves us with.

In fact I was much more intrigued by the women mentioned in the text: the women who experienced a dose of Free Love with Wells before going on to become authors and creators in their own right – Rebecca West, Dorothy Richardson, Violet Hunt, Amber Reeves – women who tried to crack open the masculine domination of literature (and everything else) and strove to create new ways of writing and thinking and expressing themselves, free of the tyranny of male concupiscence, the type of lecherous gaze which, alas, dominates this book.

Hedwig Verena opened the front door, dressed in a filmy tea gown and little else, and led him immediately upstairs to the bedroom. (p.503)

[Odette Keun] had a supple, slender body and she was like a monkey on heat as a lover. (p.509)

So I’m grateful to Lodge for opening such a big window on Wells and his time and also for introducing me to a number of interesting and new (to me) women writers.


Credit

A Man of Parts by David Lodge was published by Harvill Secker in 2011. All quotes and references are to the 2012 Vintage paperback edition.

Related links

David Lodge’s novels

1960 – The Picturegoers – An ensemble piece following the lives of various characters in the fictional London suburb of Brickley, all linked by their attendance at their local cinema, the Palladium, as they fall in and out of love, practice various degrees of Catholicism and worry about sex.
1962 – Ginger, You’re Barmy – Jonathan Browne is fresh from gaining a First in English when he is plunged into National Service among brutal proles and cruel NCOs in a windswept barracks in Yorkshire. Onto this amiable backdrop is nailed a melodramatic story about his friend at university, Mike the ginger-haired renegade of the title, attacking a cruel NCO, being imprisoned, being spring by the IRA, and then forced to return to make a raid on the barracks which Jonathan, by freakish coincidence, ends up foiling.
1965 – The British Museum Is Falling Down – a day in the life of young academic Adam Appleby, unhappy Catholic father of three, who spends a day at the BM failing to do any research and finds himself embroiled in more and more comic complexities, all the time panic-stricken that his wife might be pregnant for an unbearable fourth time.
1970 – Out of the Shelter – the boyhood and teenage years of Timothy Young, child of very ordinary suburban London parents, who is a toddler during the Blitz, a boy at the end of the war, and a teenager when he goes to stay with his older sister in post-war Germany, where he makes all kinds of discoveries about war and peace and life and love.
1975 – Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses – It is January 1969 and two English Literature professors are swapping jobs for a term: down-trodden Englishman Philip Swallow is heading for the Californian delights of Euphoria State University, and lit crit superstar Morris Zapp is heading towards rundown rainy Rummidge University. How will they cope with the resulting culture shocks? A hilariously knowing romp, a sophisticated comedy classic.
1980 – How Far Can You Go? – The stories of ten young Catholic students in the 1950s, following their adventures as they mature during the 1960s and 70s, with extensive commentary about the sweeping changes to Catholic dogma during this period, and lots and lots of clinical descriptions of sex, in a surprisingly flat and unentertaining novel.
1984 – Small World: An Academic Romance – a brilliantly conceived comedy of manners satirising the world of modern literary scholarship with its cast of jetsetting, globe-trotting, back-stabbing, vaultingly ambitious and goatishly lecherous academics, led by the protagonists of Changing Places, but with a whole lot more characters added, all travelling, questing and falling in and out of love in the artfully contrived and very funny modern-day equivalent of a medieval romance. (A pilgrimage novel)
1988 – Nice Work – feminist literary academic Robyn Penrose reluctantly takes part in the university’s scheme to shadow figures from local industry, being assigned to the equally reluctant Vic Wilcox, Managing Director of J. Pringle and Sons, a local metal-working factory. Initially antagonistic, they open each other’s eyes to new worlds, rather inevitably, fall in love, but then go beyond that to reach a more mature and realistic friendship.
1991 – Paradise News – Agnostic priest Bernard Walsh is rung up by his dying aunt Ursula who lives in Honolulu (she married an American during the war) asking him to come visit her and bring his father (her brother). Thus begins a ‘holiday’ in ‘paradise’ in which old family secrets are disinterred, old wounds healed, and new life begins. (A pilgrimage novel)
1995 – Therapy – Successful TV scriptwriter Laurence Passmore has it all – hit show, sexy wife, grown-up kids flown the nest, big house, flash car – but is still obscurely unhappy, a problem which turns into a plight when his wife abruptly sues for divorce and he seeks refuge in the past as his life falls apart. (A pilgrimage novel)
2001 – Thinks… – At the (fictional) University of Gloucester, clever, lecherous, married cognitive scientist Ralph Messenger seduces bereaved novelist Helen Reed, in a story sprinkled with lectures on artificial intelligence which feel as if they’ve been cut & pasted from the popular science books of the 1990s.
2004 – Author, Author – A long and fascinating account of Henry James’s life from the mid-1880s to the mid-1890s as he attempted to branch out from writing novels and short stories with a sustained attempt to write plays for the stage, which proved, in the end, to be a humiliating failure – all told in a book which is saturated with interesting stories and gossip from the era.
2008 – Deaf Sentence – A return to the ‘contemporary’ novel, in which Desmond Bates is a retired professor of linguistics struggling with his growing deafness and difficult family, a fractious second wife, a senile father and a dangerously predatory American PhD student, an initially humdrum tale which moves towards some surprisingly dark and harrowing scenes.
2011 – A Man of Parts – A very long novel in which science fiction pioneer, novelist, political columnist and all-purpose social ‘prophet’, H.G. Wells, looks back over his life and recounts in squelchy detail his many, many sexual conquests.

The Fear Index by Robert Harris (2011)

As most of you will be aware, the Chicago Board of Exchange operates what is known as the S and P 500 Volatility Index, or VIX. this has been running, in one form or another, for seventeen years. It’s a ticker, for want of a better word, tracking the price of options – calls and puts – on stocks traded in the S and P 500. If you want the math, it’s calculated as the square root of the par variance swap rate for a thirty-day term, quoted as an annualised variance. If you don’t want the math, let’s just say that what it does is show the implied volatility of the market for the coming month. It goes up and down minute by minute. The higher the index, the greater the uncertainty in the market, so traders call it “the fear index”.’ (p.115)

This is a very good, very intelligent novel, but the least satisfying of Harris’s five thrillers. Of course there’s a plot, but the plot is spread out among a number of characters – about four main ones; it includes a number of flashbacks and memories to earlier events, which pad out, slow or stop the momentum; and above all, it is heavily themed in a way I didn’t find totally convincing.

The plot

Multi-millionaire American banker Dr Alex Hoffmann is woken in the middle of the night in the high-security, $60- million home he recently bought near the shore of Lake Geneva, to realise there’s an intruder in his house. Someone has got past the 9-foot fence, the locked gates and through the password-protected door, to rummage around in the razor sharp knives in his kitchen. This is where Alex disturbs him. Next thing he knows, he is coming round as the police and his distraught wife revive him. He was clobbered with a fire extinguisher and, as well as a lot of blood, has lost some mental function so that he’s struggling to remember what happened.

He is taken to hospital where he has a CAT scan. This reveals no major damage but the consultant points out a number of white dots on the scan: could be tiny blood leaks but could be other things, for example early signs of dementia. Scared, Hoffmann refuses a follow-up MRI scan and also refuses advice to stay in hospital for 24 hours. He has a busy day ahead of him, and so does the reader, for the events of this 390-page novel take place over the course of one frantic day.

Hoffmann goes to work, meets up with his partner Hugo Quarrel and then plays a key part in his company’s presentation to, and then lunch with, a group of seriously rich investors in his fund. But the day is interrupted by a number of quirks and oddities:

The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals

Someone has sent him a first edition of Charles Darwin’s classic book, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), and put the bookmark of the seller in the section about fear, which is full of explanations of the evolutionary origins of fear, and also Victorian photos of human specimens exhibiting fear. But who? He asks his wife, he asks his partner – they both say it wasn’t them. Finally he phones the bookseller, in Belgium, and is nonplussed to be told that he bought the book for himself, via email, and using an account in the Cayman Islands. What?

The figure of fear

In the taxi from the hospital, Hoffmann is shocked to see the man who attacked him in his house sitting at the back of a passing tram, a thin, older man with a ponytail of grey hair. Not only is his shock renewed, but the sighting confirms his impression that the man looks like one of the illustrations from the Darwin book! What is going on?

Gabby’s exhibition

Later that morning he attends the opening of an art exhibition devoted to the works of his beautiful English wife, Gabby. Hoffmann is nervous as he doesn’t really like people, let alone large groups of rich people all bitching at cocktail parties. But he’s not as nervous as Gabby, who’s first proper show this is. The works are all based on one technological idea: MRI scans show the inside of the body, the brain, organic bodies, as layers. Gabby had the idea of printing each successive layer of selected MRI scans onto thin sheets of glass which she suspends above each other, creating a sliced 3D image. She’s done images of a human brain, a body, a foetus, each sliced into glass wafers.

But, for the purposes of the story, the point of this long scene is that the gallery owner, at its climax, goes round and sticks a red sticker on each work indicating that it’s been sold. Everyone expected some to go (Gabby was nervous that none would be sold), but all of them? It is unlikely, improbable, and even embarrassing. It makes it look like a stitch-up and, importantly, means that none of Geneva’s great and good, all elaborately invited to the show, even have a chance to buy one.

Puzzled and, in some cases, insulted, well before the gallery owner has finished placing the stickers, the crowd has begun to drift away. Gabby is furious and has a stand-up row with Hoffmann, convinced that he bought them in a cack-handed attempt to be ‘romantic’ or ‘generous’, but in fact humiliating her in front of ‘everyone who is anyone’. He swears he didn’t, but she runs off, furious.

Gana’s worries

Upset and confused, Hoffmann takes a cab back to the shiny offices of Hoffmann Investment Technologies just in time for the scheduled presentation to the assembled investors. The core of the presentation is Hoffmann’s explanation of the algorithm his company uses to assess the market. Named VIXAL-4, it is tasked with identifying signs of anxiety or fear in market sentiment, and then ‘shorting’, ie selling stocks or other securities or commodities in advance of acquiring them, with the aim of making a profit when the price falls. (Before the presentation, his small management team, particularly the Risk Manager, Gana Rajamani, try to buttonhole Hoffmann with their fears that the VIXAL program is buying too many shorted stocks, thus going beyond acceptable defined risk thresholds, but he brushes them aside.)

Hoffmann’s presentation

Hoffmann’s presentation is, in a way, the author’s message, as he gives a brisk summary of philosophical thinking about humankind, which emphasises risk, fear and anxiety. Anyone who can master and control this emotion, can control the world. VIXAL-4 is only an algorithm but it is the smartest yet created for identifying risk and fear, and then co-ordinating buying activity, in anticipation of market falls in value and prices.

Fear then murder

As the presentation draws to a climax Hoffmann sees out the window, at a bus stop opposite, the thin, pony-tailed man who attacked him. He interrupts his presentation to bolt out the door, run down the stairs, out into the street and follow the man as he disappears down an alleyway. He chases through narrowing streets until he realises he is in the seedy brothel district, and is astonished to get a text giving an address. When he tentatively gets to the address, and climbs the stairs and opens the door, he is, sure enough, greeted by the lank, grey-haired assailant, who immediately tries to attack him. There is a prolonged and gruesome struggle, with the assailant repeatedly attacking, until Hoffmann, overcome by fear and anger, throttles him to death. He ties shoe laces round his neck and hangs the corpse from a wardrobe door in a feeble attempt to dress the murder up as a suicide. Then he turns on the laptop the man had – and is horrified to read extensive extracts around the idea of a willing victim searching for someone to murder them via the internet – and to emails which appear to have been sent by him directly to the attacker, asking him to kill him. Like the Darwin book he never ordered. Like Gabby’s artworks he never bought.

The conspiracy

By this stage I think it is a slow reader who hasn’t realised that the computer programme is out of control and is clearly mimicking Hoffmann’s behaviour – or putting into action his deepest wishes. Hoffmann, being slower on the uptake than the reader, thinks that someone is out to get him – a real person or rival is trying to frame him or drive him crazy.

Walton’s story

This hypothesis is reinforced by a separate plotline concerning a former colleague of Hoffmann’s at CERN the physics research institute where Hoffmann originally worked. Out of the blue this man, Professor Robert Walton, turned up at the exhibition of Gabby’s art works. Hoffmann denies he invited him but Walton claims he emailed him personally. Now the distraught Gabby takes Walton up on an open invitation to visit him at CERN.

Here she gets the visitors’ tour and some history of CERN, dedicated to unravelling the mystery of the smallest sub-atomic particles etc. For the purposes of the novel, though, she hears Hoffmann’s backstory for the first time: namely, that he was recruited in the mid-1990s as a keen young PhD student, and immediately applied himself to devising programs to handle the vast trillions of data points which the experiments were producing. He developed a computer program which was capable of identifying which data was significant, and learning from its experience. As you might expect, the program began to spread beyond its initial host computers, learning by experience how to overcome firewalls and jump into other systems, until the CERN authorities eventually shut it down and terminated Hoffmann’s line of work. He had worked 20 hour days for months and, unable to accept that his baby was being destroyed, had a massive nervous breakdown and was sacked from CERN.

Good God, Gabby thinks. Is Hoffmann now in the grip of another mental collapse? Has part of his mind done all the mystery acts – ordered the Darwin book, bought all Gabby’s art, and so on – while the conscious part of his mind is completely unaware, and even denies it?

Hoffmann’s therapist

Craziness is confirmed as a possibility when we follow Hoffmann to another part of the city where he reluctantly knocks on the door of the psychotherapist who treated him when he had a nervous breakdown 6 years earlier. Dishevelled, bleeding from his head wound and bruised from the savage fight in the seedy hotel room, Hoffmann presents a threatening appearance which he doesn’t improve by, after initial polite conversation with the lady psychiatrist, pushing her out of the way so he can access her records on him. There he is horrified to find that, in their most secret confidential sessions, he spoke of his deep desire to end it all by being murdered in exactly the same words which were used in the emails to his mystery attacker. Someone must have hacked into the psychotherapist’s records, cut and pasted his words, and gone trawling the internet for an assassin. My God, someone really wants to kill him. Hoffmann hears the psychotherapist’s staff calling the police, and barges his way out of the building and into a cab.

Who put them under surveillance?

When Hoffmann arrives back at the HIT offices, looking terrible and sounding like he really is having a nervous breakdown, he has a brainwave. The screensaver on the attacker’s laptop shows him, Hoffmann, leaning back in his plush expensive chair in his office. Suddenly he realises it was taken from a spot directly above him in the ceiling. Appearing utterly frenzied and mad to his terrified partner, Hugo, Hoffmann stands on a chair and rips down the fire alarm unit in the ceiling and, concealed within it, finds a webcam. Now he thinks about it there’s one of these in every room in the building and – my God! – at his luxury home.

Hoffmann calls in their highly paid security consultant, Maurice Genoud, who astonishes Hoffmann and Quarry (though not, by this stage, the reader) by revealing that he, Hoffmann, ordered him to instal these webcams in every room in the office and at his home. No, he never did, Hoffmann shouts furiously. At which point Genoud brings in his laptop and calmly shows him the series of emails he, Hoffmann, sent him, Genoud, with detailed instructions for their installation. Not only that, but the emails give detailed requests for security to be set up at the new ‘server farm’ in a remote industrial estate on the outskirts of Geneva. What? This is the first time Hoffmann or Quarry have heard about this place.

VIXAL-4

In the background during all of this, the quants, the market analysts, are getting more concerned about the wild positions VIXAL-4 is committing the company to. In particular, it has withdrawn all the ‘hedges’ ie the safe bets, which are meant to balance out the speculative profitable bets. Their Risk Manager, Gana Rajamani, chooses this moment to insist that they close VIXAL-4 down. Responding to this clamour, Hoffmann reluctantly walks into the room containing all the servers and turns off the power. The computers go off. There is silence in the computer room. But when he walks back into the main office Quarry and the quants are still waiting for him to do it. They haven’t noticed any change. VIXAL-4 is trading more furiously than ever. The industrial estate! What if a parallel system has been set up there?

Gana is murdered

Gana begins further criticism of the programme which merely prompts Hoffmann to launch a tirade against his priggish cowardice, and Quarry, the hatchet man, to sack Gana on the spot. Gana clears his desk, walks to the lift, whose doors ping open, he steps through them and – disappears. Disappears? The lift wasn’t there; he stepped into empty space!

Any sci-fi fan will by now be completely sure that the computer program has taken over. It heard Gana threaten it and, like Hal in 2001 A Space Odyssey, and all the other rogue computers in thousands of sci-fi stories, it is now defending itself from attack.

Hoffmann runs down to the basement, prises part the elevator doors with a car jack and, sure enough, discovers Gana’s body splatted on the bottom of the elevator shaft. Not only that but, as in a thousand horror movies, the shaft door slam shut and the elevator begins descending towards him at top speed. It is only by holding the thick steel jack vertically, that Hoffmann halts the elevator’s descent and survives in the foot or so of space beneath it and the floor. Then it goes back up and he is able to prise open the lift shaft doors and escape.

Fiery climax

Now his mission is clear: to stop VIXAL-4 which has clearly acquired a mind of its own. He hijacks a car from a bemused Austrian businessman and drives at top speed out to the grim industrial suburb of Zimeysa. On the way he stops at a gas station to buy five petrol containers, rags and matches. Yes he is planning to blow it up. By now Leclerc the Swiss policeman who had been called in to respond to the original mugging of Hoffmann at his home, and was told by his boss to stay with the case, has also found the murder scene in the seedy hotel, been called by the irate psychotherapist and arrived at the offices of Hoffmann Investment to find it in turmoil. And then to discover what is left of Gana’s body at the bottom of the lift shaft. Reports of a wild-eyed man buying petrol at the gas station alert him, Quarry and Gabby to Hoffmann’s destination and Hoffmann has barely passed the installation’s security barriers and passwords before a whole posse of police cars and fire engines appear at the gates.

Briefly, Hoffmann explores the strange intricate installation the program has designed for itself, pouring petrol as he goes. Gabby and Quarry get as far as the door and beg him to leave but, with one last adoring look at his baby, Hoffmann flicks the cigarette lighter and WHOOMPF! it all goes up in flames. there are a terrifying few pages as Hoffmann finds himself running through the maze of rooms and compartments before emerging onto the roof as a human torch and plummeting to the ground below.

Epilogue

However:

a) Hoffmann survives, for in the final pages we are told he is in hospital, swathed in bandages and burn cream.

b) When Quarry finally makes it back to the Hoffmann Investment Technologies office in the evening of what has been a very long day – he discovers the quants all still sitting looking at their screens, even though it’s past 8pm. Why? Because VIXAL-4 is still trading. Hoffmann blew up the remote computer centre but — the programme has obviously installed itself somewhere else, in the cloud, throughout the internet, everywhere. And not only is it still functioning, it is still making huge profits for the company. After is initial shock, Quarry leans back in his chair. The police will charge Hoffmann with various misdeeds. They know he went mad and tried to destroy a computer centre. But they don’t know why. Maybe Quarry should relax and let the programme carry on making him a billionaire. Perhaps, after all, this is the future, and it is unstoppable!

The characters

Dr Alex Hoffmann An American, Hoffman came to Switzerland in the 1990s to work at CERN on the Large Hadron Collider. He worked there for 6 years designing programs to manage the vast amount of data generated by the Collider, but got into trouble with the authorities for creating an artificial intelligence programme which threatened to run out of control. A chance meeting with Hugo Quarrel, just as CERN were closing down his project, persuaded Hoffmann that he could apply the same technique – devising an algorithm which would learn which data was significant – to analysing money and risk. He’s not really interested in money – or people – except as expressions of data and behaviour.

Gabby the modern artist. This makes it rather unlikely that he should therefore have hooked up with the astonishingly beautiful Gabby, an Englishwoman who did an art degree in Manchester. She, for her part, is uncomfortable with his astonishing, obscene wealth. A memorable incident in their relationship was when he bought a whole tank of lobsters in an up-market restaurant purely to release them back into the sea. During their blazing row at the art gallery, she reveals that she hates the vast house he has only just bought and moved them into.

Hoffmann’s business partner Hugo Quarry, gladhanding and pressing the flesh but Hoffmann and his investment algorithms are the heart of Hoffmann Investment Technologies – with its swish ten-story paperless office and 60 quants or quantitative analysts aka quants (p.72) working silently at their computer screens, on an average annual salary of half a million each (p.73)

The Swiss detective Jean-Philippe Leclerc is called to the scene of the break-in at Hoffmann’s mansion. Already tired at the end of a shift, looking a bit rumpled in his dirty raincoat, he is not happy when his boss rings him and tells him to stay with the case and shadow Hoffmann, in other words to pull a double shift. Harris has to have Leclerc do this, in order to have him cover the events of the next 24 hours, to slowly uncover the trail of murder and mayhem which Hoffmann is leaving behind him, and to be in at the climax at the exploding computer centre.

The theme of fear

  • Fear is the emotion referred to in the Darwin book
  • Each chapter opens with a quote, generally from one of Darwin’s books, some about the topic of fear and anxiety in animals, later on about the way the process of evolution itself is unstoppable
  • Hoffmann becomes a walking record of anxieties and paranoia:
    • he thinks the intruder is going to kidnap or harm Gabby, or kidnap her
    • he is told he might have dementia, triggering anxiety
    • he gives a long cerebral explanation of fear as the key factor of international trading markets
    • he and his partner become genuinely fearful at VIXAL-4’s irrational behaviour
    • he is fearful of whoever sent him the book
    • he is fearful of whoever bought all Gabby’s artworks
    • during the fight with the attacker, he resorts to basic animal-fear, fight or flight blind fury.
  • The VIX index is the fear index. Fear stalks the financial markets, in an all-too-predictable way.

The word fear is frequently repeated throughout the text, as if simple repetition will somehow instal it at the heart of the fiction. But although the final 50 pages or so are every bit as nailbiting and intense as Harris’s other thrillers, somehow all these different people all having different sorts of fear diffuses the effect.

The more Harris explicitly mentions fear of this, that or the other, the more we feel we’re being coerced or hassled into accepting a thesis and not responding imaginatively to a fully worked-out work of fiction.

A miscellany

Interesting though each one of them is individually, it feels like the book is grappling with too many issues:

  • the threat of artificial intelligence (or autonomous machine reasoning, AMR, as Hoffmann prefers to call it, p.49) running out of control
  • the computerisation of the world’s stock exchanges vastly increasing the risk of irrational crashes
  • the dark side of the internet putting in touch people who murder and who want to be murdered
  • hyper modern art ie the MRI scans on glass

as well as lengthy sections explaining Hoffmann’s work at CERN and the Large Hadron Collider and modern particle physics.

It is a tribute to Harris’s grasp and ability as a writer that he manages to pull so many disparate threads together into one coherent narrative. Nevertheless, the plot goes on hold too many times while we are subjected to another factual briefing about computerisation or artificial intelligence or the amount of data generated by CERN or the speed of stock market transactions or any of a score of other interesting but distracting topics.

The book still has some slick and fancy turns of phrase:

A tram rattled to a halt and opened its doors, spilling out passengers along its entire length, as if a knife had been passed from end to end, gutting it. (p.76)

But nowhere near as many or as atmospheric as in its predecessor, The Ghost. And too many of its sentence read like this:

Evolution remains a self-interested process, and even the interests of confined digital organisms may conflict with our own. (p.309)

They’re interesting in themselves, and necessary to explain the book’s multiple scientific issues. But they make it read at many points more like a Wikipedia article than a novel. Despite its gripping and thrilling climax, for me the majority of the book felt like it consisted of too many disparate elements, which the actual story struggled to pull together, and which were too resolutely factual and documentary to really come to life.

Plus, at a bucket level, the whole book relies on us caring what happens to an American banker. And who, in our day and age, is going to do that? Probably the majority of its readers actively want him to come to a sticky end.


Credit

The Fear Index by Robert Harris was published by Hutchinson in 2011. All quotes and references are to the 2012 Arrow Books paperback edition.

Related links

Robert Harris’s thrillers

1992 Fatherland – Berlin 1964. Germany won the Second World War. Xavier March is a cop in Berlin, capital of the huge German Empire. The discovery of a corpse in a lake leads him on an increasingly nail-biting investigation into the dark heart of the Nazi regime and its most infamous secret which, in this terrifying parallel universe, has been completely buried.
1995 Enigma – Bletchley Park 1943, where a motley collection of maths, computer and coding geniuses are trying to crack the Germans’ Enigma codes. The hero – weedy geek Tom Jericho – discovers that the gorgeous, sexy woman who seduced him and then as casually dumped him a month later, is in fact a spy, stealing top secret intercepts from the base for her Polish lover. Or is she?
1998 Archangel – Dr Christopher ‘Fluke’ Kelso, a populist historian of contemporary Russia, stumbles across one of the secrets of the century – that the great dictator Josef Stalin had a son, brought up by communist fanatics in the forests of the frozen north, who is now ready to return to claim his rightful position as the ‘Great Leader’ and restore Russia to her former glory.
2007 The Ghost – The gripping story is told in the first person by an unnamed narrator, a ghost writer called in to complete the memoirs of former UK Prime Minister Adam Lang (a thinly disguised portrait of Tony Blair) after the previous writer died mysteriously. Marooned with the politico and his staff in a remote mansion on the coast of New England, the ghost writer slowly uncovers a shattering conspiracy.
2011 The Fear Index A series of bizarre incidents plague American physics professor-turned-multi-billionaire hedge fund manager, Alex Hoffmann. Slowly it becomes clear they are all related to the launch of the latest version of his artificial intelligence program – VIXEL-4 – designed to identify and manage anxiety and fear on the financial markets, but which has gone significantly, bewilderingly, beyond its money-making remit.
2013 An Officer and a Spy

Civilization: The West and the Rest by Niall Ferguson (2011)

The problem of why civilisations fall is too important to be left to the purveyors of scissors-and-paste history. It is truly a practical problem of our time, and this book is intended to be a woodsman’s guide to it. (Preface p.xxii)

Ferguson doesn’t shy away from the big subjects, in fact he enjoys storming the big subjects – the Origins of the Great War, why the British Empire was a Good Thing, the Future of America, a Complete History of Money, a Complete History of the 20th Century. It is no coincidence that the last four of these books were written to accompany four blockbusting TV series, TV being a medium which favours striking stories and bold statements, contrarian points of view and press release-friendly controversy.

This is Ferguson’s fifth book-of-the-TV-series, created after the crash of 2008 revealed the weakness at the heart of the western financial system and events in Iraq showed the limitations of US military power, while, on the other hand, China continued its inexorable economic rise, flanked by the fast-growing economies of Brazil, Russia etc (all as of 2011). In light of these setbacks, Ferguson asks, ‘Has the West had it?’ (rather tritely echoing scores, probably hundreds, of intellectuals who’ve asked the same question for at least a century, the heavyweight champion of millennial pessimism being Oswald Spengler, author of the famous Decline of the West, 1922).

So, if the era of western dominance over the world is coming to an end, what did it consist of in the first place? What gave the West its edge?

What caused the rise of the West?

The problem with tackling the Big Subjects is that a lot of people have been there before you. In his introduction Ferguson himself refers to an impressive number of ‘reasons’ given by his numerous predecessors on this subject:

  1. Europe was made of small fiercely competitive nations fertile in innovations, unlike the large stagnant empires of the Ottomans or the Chinese.
  2. Eurasia is a long east-west land mass of similar climate in which agricultural innovation, animal rearing and agricultural techniques could spread and develop, unlike the geographically more extreme and divided Americas, Africa, Asia or Australasia.
  3. The five most useful, domesticatable animals (the cow, horse, sheep, goat, and pig) are all descendants of species endemic to Eurasia, no comparable animals being available in the other continents, for either food or labour, with the possible exception of the llama.
  4. Double entry book keeping.
  5. Capitalism, a good thing, a dynamic system for creating innovation.
  6. Capitalism, a bad thing, based on the exploitation of the European working class.
  7. Imperialism, a dreadful thing, based on the exploitation of colonial peoples.
  8. Slavery, the worst thing of all – the European slave trade which carried 15 million Africans across the Atlantic generated the profits which fuelled the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions.
  9. Democracy.
  10. Western property law, especially English Common Law which made the creation of corporations and the protection of creditors easier than continental law codes.
  11. Western banking and finance systems, the banks and bonds described at such length in The Ascent of Money.
  12. The Agricultural Revolution.
  13. The Industrial Revolution.
  14. The Scientific Revolution.
  15. The Military Revolution.
  16. Prolonged exposure to infectious diseases eg smallpox, created immunity in Europeans but decimated non-European populations wherever we took it with us (malaria being the glaring exception, which itself blocked European colonisation of Africa for a long time).
  17. The higher protein content of Eurasian plant species compared with Indian, African or Asian food crops.
  18. The racial or genetic superiority of whites.
  19. The nation state.
  20. Christianity.
  21. Catholicism.
  22. Protestantism and the Protestant work ethic.
  23. Manifest Destiny ie God wanted America to win.
  24. The West didn’t rise, in fact the East (Ottomans, China, Japan) sank! China banned ocean voyages in the 1430s. Japan adopted a policy of complete seclusion (sakoku) in 1640. The Ottoman Empire rejected western science and banned research after the 1700s.

Previous writers on the subject

Ferguson’s introduction references some of the many books, articles and other TV series which have tackled this ‘age-old subject’. In fact there’s a strong sense of déjà vu about the whole project. Maybe it’s a Law of History that every fifteen years or so another super-confident historian will present another blockbusting TV series describing the rise of Western Civilisation (just as it is a Law of History TV that every ten years there must be a new drama or doc series about the Tudors, or that whenever you turn on the History channel it’s in the middle of a documentary about the war). A sample of his predecessors and competitors would include:

  1. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber (1905)
  2. The Civilizing Process by Norbert Elias (1939)
  3. The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community by William Hardy McNeill (1963)
  4. Civilisation BBC TV series and book presented by Kenneth Clark (1969)
  5. The European Miracle: Environments, Economies and Geopolitics in the History of Europe and Asia by Eric Jones (1981)
  6. The Triumph of the West: The Origin, Rise, and Legacy of Western Civilization presented by John Roberts (1985)
  7. The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000 by Paul Kennedy (1987)
  8. The Military Revolution: Military Innovation and the Rise of the West, 1500–1800 by Geoffrey Parker (1988)
  9. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order by Samuel Huntington (1996)
  10. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond, book 1997, TV series 2005
  11. The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some are So Rich and Some So Poor by David Landes (1998)
  12. The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy by Kenneth Pomeranz (2000)
  13. The Rise of the Great Powers (2006) 12-part Chinese TV series
  14. A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World by Gregory Clark (2007)
  15. Why Europe? The Rise of the West in World History, 1500-1850 by Jack Goldstone (2009)
  16. The Origins of Political Order by Francis Fukuyama (2011)
  17. How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization by Thomas E. Woods Jr. and Cardinal Antonio Cañizares (2012)
  18. A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History by Nicholas Wade (2014)
  19. How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph by Rodney Stark (2015)
  20. Why Did Europe Conquer the World? by Philip T. Hoffman (2015)
  21. The Gunpowder Age: China, Military Innovation, and the Rise of the West in World History by Tonio Andrade (2016)

Ferguson’s reasons

No shortage of writers ‘in this space’, then; no shortage of theories and reasons. Ferguson gives his list of reasons under six broad headings/programmes/chapters:

1. Competition

In the 14th century Europe contained some 1,000 polities all jostling, competing and fighting each other. Rulers encouraged ocean exploration as a way to get advantage over their rivals. Monopoly companies were invented under royal patronage to fund the exploring and pay dividends to investors. Unremitting warfare led to military innovations. Also to more efficient ways to tax subjects and to finance loans, leading to the development of government bonds and royal, then national debts, then national banks. The clock.

2. Science

The Reformation broke the tyrannical grip of the Catholic Church over secular knowledge. The printing press disseminated Luther’s revolutionary theology, then an increasing number of Protestant heresies. (Ferguson tells the striking story that when a German town tried to ban a translation of the Koran, Luther went into print to defend it – so that people could read & judge for themselves, p.63) The printing press also disseminated scientific discoveries and exchange between scholars so that the Royal Society was founded in England by 1662. As late as 1683 the Turkish army threatened to capture Vienna. However, reinforcements from Poland won the day for Christendom and the Turk was repelled. From that date stems the decline of the Ottoman Empire.

The meat of the chapter is a comparison between the impressively enlightened and intelligent ruler of Prussia, Frederick the Great (ruled 1740 to 1786), who encouraged the arts and sciences and used scientific discoveries to create a massive army, and contemporary Turkish rulers who were intimidated by their mullahs and religious intolerance to shut down scientific academies and societies, condemning Turkey to fall permanently behind western discoveries.

3. Property

North America was colonised by the British, with a well-established belief in the rights of property as the basis for representative legislatures, and therefore the promise to all settlers who cultivated their land that they could own it, along with – after all the turmoil of the civil wars – the knowledge that freedom of belief is the most practical arrangement and, there being no gold or silver or minerals, the harsh fact that everyone had to work hard to cultivate a livelihood.

South America was colonised by the Spanish, ruled from afar by a divinely appointed monarch, policed by the Catholic Church and its rigid mind police enforced by torture and the Inquisition, and which granted vast tracts of land to a handful of conquerors who used the indigenous people as slave labour to dig up an endless supply of silver.

Ferguson compares & contrasts their evolution over the following 400 years, but we all know which of the two parts of the continent became the world’s leading military, financial and cultural superpower, and which disintegrated into chronically unstable statelets, condemned to cycles of ‘revolution’ alternating with harsh dictatorship.

4. Medicine

There hadn’t been that much science in the science section – Ferguson records the dates of publication of major theories and sketches their importance in a general way, but doesn’t really explain the detail.

The same tendency to digress from the ostensible subject happens here, for this section about ‘medicine’ begins with a long account of the French Revolution, its causes and consequences, with a nod to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s book The Social Contract, credit given to Edmund Burke for predicting the violence the revolution would bring, an analysis of the numbers of casualties in Napoleon’s military campaigns, the effect of spreading the Napoleonic Code of Law into the lands he conquered, a thumbnail sketch of Carl von Clausewitz being swept up in the wars as a boy and young man, which provided the background to his classic book On War. It goes on to describe the French revolution of 1830 and then the wave of European revolutions of 1848 which did not, however, spread to Britain, despite the unrest of the Chartist agitation, because of the British authorities’ deployment of army, police and special forces.

No mention of medicine at all so far.

There’s a further analysis of the nature of the French Empire in the Caribbean and Africa, with its distinctive mission civilisatrice, which led to the education and promotion of a number of black Africans to positions of real power between the wars, and references to the colonial education of the men who would lead the Vietnamese liberation struggle in the 1950s.

There is what you think is a detour into an account of the way the Germans ran their colonies of South-West Africa (Namibia) ie a deliberate genocide of the native inhabitants, which segues into a digression about the Great War and the way France co-opted African soldiers to fight in the trenches. There is evidence of the French military’s cynical racism in deliberately sending Senegalese troops over the top to soak up German bullets and shells and to save French skins, before the chapter sinks into the disgusting combination of eugenic theory, racist propaganda and genocidal policy which was the Nazi Third Reich.

On a few scattered pages some of the medical breakthroughs which allowed Europeans to survive in the Tropics are mentioned, along with the pioneers in the field: Louis Pasteur, Robert Koch, Alexandre Yersin – but this is overwhelmingly a chapter about the French and German empires in Africa in the decades before the Great War and then the collapse of western ‘civilisation’ into unprecedented barbarism in the 1920s, 30s and 40s.

In a way it’s a riposte to the many critics who criticise Ferguson for (allegedly) glossing over the racism and brutality of the British Empire, or of American foreign policy, in his earlier books. Here he lets us have it with both barrels and is unsparing of the homicidal, genocidal and utterly revolting racism at the core of the French, but particularly the German, imperial projects. I learned hardly anything about the achievements of western medicine in these 54 pages, but I ended the chapter feeling physically sick by the brutality of empire, and particularly disgusted by Germany, all over again.

5. Consumption

Another rambling chapter which focuses on dress, what people wear, then goes back to namecheck the main technological innovations of the British Industrial Revolution, before zeroing in on its core activity of cotton and textile manufacturing. We follow the spread of automated textile manufacture around the world, before arriving at Japan, whose leaders made a concerted attempt to westernise all aspects of their culture from the 1860s onwards (even, I was amazed to learn, considering replacing the Japanese language itself with English). Soon Japanese cotton factories were putting Indian fabric manufacturers out of business. And in 1904 the Japs prompted a war with Russia which the Japanese shocked the world by winning. And then – we are back at the Great War again, as we were in the previous chapter.

The problem with history at this level, meta-history, the history of grand perspectives and sweeping vistas, is that at this very high level in fact only a handful of things have happened: the Reformation, the Scientific Revolution, the Financial Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the rise of the British and other European Empires, Napoleon, the 19th century, the Scramble for Africa, the Great War, the rise of fascism and Bolshevism, the Second World War, the Holocaust, the rise of America, the Cold War, the collapse of communism. Er. That’s it.

So the risk of writing meta-history is that you find yourself writing about the same subjects again and again. This thought was unavoidable as I found myself reading yet another account of the Great War which, after all, was the central subject of Ferguson’s book The Pity of War, the catalyst for decline in Empire, plays an important role in the rise of America in Colossus, and is of course a big feature in his history of the twentieth century, The War of The World. And here it is again, featuring large in two consecutive chapters of this book.

The earlier trot through the technical innovations of the Industrial Revolution had led to a digression about Marx and Engels and their theory of communism. Ferguson briskly summarises it, then just as briskly rubbishes it: the central claim that capital will be concentrated into a small and smaller number of hands until it becomes inevitable that the immiserated proletariat will rise up and create the communist utopia turns out to be rot. One way the capitalist countries side-stepped the communist scenario was by making their populations into consumers – by realising that it’s actually a good idea to pay people a living wage because then they can buy things; in fact if you pay them quite a good wage, they can buy lots of things, the things you’re selling, and your business will flourish. Thus, instead of heading for inevitable collapse, capitalism headed towards a kind of equilibrium where people are paid enough to buy all the consumer products capitalism produces. Shopping heaven. The future is not a communist utopia, it is a world full of vast shopping malls (as we can indeed see in every country which ‘develops’).

And so the chapter brings together its various strands ends with an account of the failure of communism which emphasises the inability of its centralised planning to produce consumer goods. Nuclear weapons and tanks, yes, by the tens of thousands; blue jeans and pop groups, no. Characteristically, Ferguson develops his theme via a (very interesting) account of the rise of the Singer sewing machine and the founding of Levi jeans – complete with the etymology of ‘denim’ (de Nîmes, the French city) and ‘jean’ (from Genoa, apparently).

In fact it is the immense number of fascinating facts, digressions and sidelights, which help explain why the book is so long despite its relatively simple thesis. For example, the central thread of this final section is the role played in the collapse of communism by the centrally planned system’s inability to make basic consumer goods – decent cars, fridges, TVs, clothes. Nonetheless, Ferguson finds time to tell us about the origin, concerts and then arrest of the subversive Czech pop group, The Plastic People of the Universe, and how it was these arrests which led to the setting up of Charter 77, the human rights organisation which was to become a thorn in the side of the communist authorities, and among whose founder members was the future president of the Czech republic, Václav Havel. Fascinating fact number 3,417!

In its introduction and conclusion the book has a clear, strong message – the West triumphed over the rest for the six interlinked reasons Ferguson has identified. But the actual body of the text wanders all over the place, inadvertently bringing in a host of other aspects of western culture, or wandering completely off the ostensible subject either back to his home territory of pure history, especially of empires and wars, or onto the kind of cultural trivia beloved of Grand Vista historians, suddenly treating us to a list of the most popular Hollywood movies of the early 1930s, or a paragraph explaining why jazz hit its peak with Duke Ellington’s big band sound.

Ferguson is always crisp, well written and entertaining, but this book more than any of the others is characterised by digressions and divagations.

6. Work

Ferguson explains the theory of Max Weber, one of the founders of sociology, famous for his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), which linked the rise of capitalism to the habits of discipline and hard work associated with Protestant North Europe. But barely has he dealt out lots of facts and figures about production and GDP in Western countries over past centuries, than he is going on to point out that religious belief and practice have now, alas, collapsed in the West, undermined by the consumerism he delineated in the previous chapter. This is also demonstrated by several pages of statistics about church attendance and surveys on the importance of religion in Western people’s lives: not much, is the general conclusion. One aspect of this galloping consumerism was the high levels of public and private indebtedness which underlay the financial crisis of 2008. Compare and contrast with the countries of the East, which work hard and save hard, facts which Ferguson demonstrates with a raft more stats and graphs.

— This is all true but again I have a powerful sense of déjà vu. The rise of China and the strange symbiosis we have seen in our time whereby the Chinese government has bought US treasury bonds in vast amounts and thus funded the Americans’ consumer splurge but leading to America’s vast indebtedness over the past twenty years, these were mentioned in Colossus and The Ascent of Money and now again here. In fact, it was back in 2006 that Ferguson coined the word ‘Chimerica’ to describe the unlikely partnership of China and America, along with economist Moritz Schularic. These repetitions of the same themes suggest that Ferguson has a strong and engaged view about the geo-politics and economics of the modern world and that his forays into history, entertaining and insightful as they are, are really primarily designed to shed light on the contemporary world situation, which everything swings back to.

In the final pages Ferguson discusses Islamic fundamentalism, Islamic terrorism and the rate of growth of Muslim communities in the West. He links this to the relatively quick collapse of the Roman Empire in the 400s AD, suggesting that something like the cocktail of factors we are experiencing – mass refugees, ideological terrorism, and the growth of a fifth column within – might lead quite quickly to ‘the collapse of the West’.

Which brings him, finally, to the whole theory of ‘cycles of civilisation’.

Conclusion: cycles of civilisation

Many historians who take the long view have come to believe that civilisations pass through a set pattern of rise and fall, which can be be broken down into recognisable stages. Ferguson usefully lists some of these theorists and their ‘stages’:

  1. Thomas Cole (American painter, 1801-48) set of five paintings called The Course of Empire, consisting of: The savage state; the pastoral state; the consummation of empire; destruction; desolation.
  2. Polybius (classical historian, 200-118 BC): monarchy, kingship, tyranny, aristocracy, oligarchy, democracy, ochlocracy (mob rule).
  3. Giambattista Vico (1668-1744): divine; heroic; human.
  4. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831): thesis; antithesis; synthesis.
  5. Karl Marx (1818-83): savagery; feudalism; capitalism; communism.
  6. Arnold Toynbee (1852-83): challenge; response by creative minorities; civilisational suicide.
  7. Pitrim Sorokin (1889-1968): ideational; sensate; idealistic.
  8. Carroll Quigley (1910-77): mixture; gestation; expansion; conflict; universal empire; decay; invasion.
  9. Paul Kennedy (b.1945): rise and fall determined by growth rate of industrial base against cost of imperial over-stretch.
  10. Jared Diamond (b.1937): civilisations rise in different ways, but all collapse because they exhaust their environmental base, be it water, cultivable soil etc.

Ferguson fails to give the biggest historical narrative of all, the Christian one, which probably underlies most of these models – God knows how many times I’ve read that one of the intellectual advantages of Christianity over the pagan world was that it offered a fully-worked out and coherent History of the Universe, with a Beginning, a Middle and an End, and a coherent purpose to everything, and that the switch from the pagan worldview to the Christian worldview was a decisive step forward in rationality, in the ability to contextualise and interpret events. Christianity’s key stages being, broadly: Creation, Old Testament, coming of Jesus, 2,000 years of history, Second Coming, the Millennium.

Ferguson also misses a trick by not even mentioning the vast swampy jungle of conspiracy theories believed by the semi-literate, which attribute historical change not to his objective cycles, but to the machinations of a long list of ‘sinister forces’, be they the heretics, the Protestants, the Jews, the Freemasons, the Illuminati, the French, the commies, the banks, and so on.

As with the 26 reasons for the Rise of the West, or the 21 books giving different explanations for it (listed above), once again you have the impression that an awful lot of learned ink has spilt on these matters with little or no solid conclusion. If history were a science we would know by now which of these fanciful theories was true, or remotely true, or true enough to be useful. But history isn’t a science – it is and always has been a form of higher entertainment.

It seems to me that both end-of-the-world theories and cycles-of-civilisation theories are the result of two fundamental aspects of human psychology:

  1. End of the world, decline and fall stories are popular in all ages because we know we are going to die, and we don’t want to die alone. We want to feel the entire world is part of our own personal decay, is going to hell in a hand-basket, and will expire just about the time we ourselves do. Paradoxically, this is reassuring because it makes us feel we are not alone. It is a way of denying the basic truth which is, ‘You know what? The world will carry on without you exactly as before; your relatives will walk away from the funeral moaning about the weather and the traffic and the government. Nothing will be changed by your death.’
  2. The proliferation of cycle theories is down to another basic trait: the obsessive need to explain everything, even where we have no evidence or understanding. Human beings anthropomorphise everything, from our pets to the weather to accidents and coincidences, there is nothing we can’t twist and distort into having a meaning and a purpose and a relationship to us, no matter how purposeless – or heedless of our little lives – the universe really is.

These psychological motivations underlie the Ferguson’s book and all the other books and theories he refers to, and explain the pleasures the book provides, even when it is straining a little to make complete sense.

For Ferguson himself is very candid about the intellectual problems which dog every step of his project: He explains that to call some things ‘civilisations’ is problematic – people obviously live and have lived in vast collectivities, but Ferguson’s early pages show us the struggle historians have in defining a ‘civilisation’. And then, that these things we can loosely define as ‘civilisations’ appear to rise and fall seems to be broadly true, but trying to decipher precise reasons or patterns may sometimes be useful, but sometimes be more misleading than helpful.

Therefore, to assert that you and you alone have discerned the ‘true reasons’ for these vast historical processes is a breath-takingly egotistical claim. Looking back over previous theorists Ferguson struggles to avoid a tone of irony and amusement at their presumption and their ignorance. At which point the reader might well say, ‘Well, what makes us think that we have the secrets to these historical processes which all previous thinkers on the matter have got so wildly wrong?’ Ferguson’s previous books have shown us how wrong, wrong, wrong economists have been about most aspects of economics; why should we believe the vaguer discipline of history is anything other than wrong, wrong, wrong about these vast metahistorical events as well?

For us readers who enjoy reading these Big Vista histories, there is pleasure, an almost childish pleasure, to be taken in reducing the lives of so many hundreds of millions, indeed billions of people, to simplistic catch-phrases and three-part or four-part or seven-part schemas. ‘Oh I know all about the fall of the Mayan empire,’ you may say, putting the book down. But you have some names and dates and theories; you don’t really know anything. And such ‘knowledge’ as these books provide, doesn’t change anything. Chinese geopolitical strategy will unfold regardless of what Ferguson writes or I think.

These books are forms of higher entertainment and Ferguson’s quality as a good value entertainer is evident on every page, in every sequence of his TV documentaries, in his magazine articles and his numerous robust TV interviews. His discourse bristles with intelligence, facts, graphs and statistics, good stories, wide-ranging geographic and historical and intellectual insights.

The fall of the American empire

But it is fascinating how this vast armoury of information and intelligence boils down to so little practical result. In the 30-page conclusion, he pulls all the preceding evidence together to argue that the previous major empires we know about collapsed suddenly (Rome, Spain, Ming China, Ottoman, British, let alone the German and Japanese or, in our time, the USSR – poof! – gone in two years). He points out the predictions of various economists that US indebtedness is set to grow to worrying levels, worryingly soon, whereas China’s growth rate could see it overtake the US as the world’s leading economy in 2020 / 2030 / 2040 (pick an expert, pick a date).

And then, borrowing extensively from the last thirty years of research in biology, zoology and physics (real sciences), he shows how complex systems in precarious equilibrium can be suddenly collapsed by apparently trivial incidents, small additions of energy or information. What if ‘civilisations’ are like that?

So the conclusion of the book, with all its thousands of facts, statistics, fascinating insights, ideas, stories and anecdotes, is that at some point in the future an apparently trivial chain of events could trigger a collapse in the US economy, put a permanent end to its global hegemony and usher in a new post-American age. And maybe China, having learned all the West can teach it, will emerge as the world’s number one power. Who can say? Maybe it will. Maybe it won’t.


Credit

Civilization: The West and the Rest by Niall Ferguson was published in 2011 by Allen Lane books. All references are to the 2012 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Bibliography

1995 Paper and Iron: Hamburg Business and German Politics in the Era of Inflation, 1897–1927
1998 The Pity of War
1998 The World’s Banker: The History of the House of Rothschild
1999 Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals
2001 The Cash Nexus: Money and Power in the Modern World, 1700–2000
2003 Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World*
2004 Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire*
2005 1914
2006 The War of the World: History’s Age of Hatred*
2008 The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World*
2010 High Financier: The Lives and Times of Siegmund Warburg
2011 Civilization: The West and the Rest*
2013 The Great Degeneration
2015 Kissinger: 1923–1968: The Idealist

* Book of the TV series

P.S. Known unknowns

It is nice to learn that there are still some imponderable mysteries in history: history’s mysteries.

  • ‘We do not know for certain who designed the first water clock.’ (p.27)
  • Why did the Chinese emperor ban ocean sailing in the 1430s? ‘We may never be sure.’ (p.32)
  • ‘We cannot be sure exactly why the Central Asian threat receded from Europe after Timur.’ (p.37)

A Dance With Dragons 1: Dreams and Dust by George RR Martin (2011)

The night was rank with the smell of man.

The warg stopped beneath a tree and sniffed, his grey-brown fur dappled by shadow. A sigh of piney wind brought the man-scent to him, over fainter smells that spoke of fox and hare, seal and stag, even wolf. Those were man-smells too, the warg knew; the stink of old skins, dead and sour, near drowned beneath the stronger scents of smoke and blood and rot. Only man stripped the skins from the other beasts and wore their hides and hair. (page 1)

This, the fifth volume of George RR Martin’s epic fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire, starts with a wonderful prologue, a vivid description of a warg, a man who can enter the bodies and experience the keen sensations of animals, who is both lying shivering in a snow-covered shelter in the far North of Westeros, but also inhabiting the body of a wolf hunting with his pack, hunting fleeing, ailing humans. I’ve never read anything describing this situation and rarely read anything so vivid and powerful and cold and tangy. Chapters of writing this good are one of the reasons GRRM fans adore him.

‘Dreams and Dust’ – as GRRM explains in the preface – doesn’t exactly follow the ‘previous’ novel, ‘A Feast for Crows’. It runs in parallel with it. The series is now so complex and unwieldy, he has so many plotlines unravelling in all directions, that one volume simply can’t contain them all, so he needed two running in tandem.

So – ‘A Feast for Crows’ covered the ongoing adventures in the kingdom of Dorne (Lord Doran Martell), on the Ice Wall (Jon Snow and King Stannis Baratheon), among the Ironborn Vikings (Asha, Victarion and Euron Greyjoy), in the Riverlands (Jaime Lannister raises the siege of Riverrun), in the Vale of Arryn (Petyr Littlefinger strengthens his grip and cultivates the runaway Sansa Stark), with Samwell Tarly (accompanying the aged maester Aemon on the long sea route to the Citadel) and in King’s Landing (where Cersei Lannister’s paranoid incompetence brings disaster).

Whereas ‘Dreams and Dust’ covers the same period of time, but follows a different set of characters:

  • The ironical dwarf Tyrion Lannister, on the run from murdering his father Lord Tywin, is in Essos where the same magister Illyrion who sent Daenerys on her adventures, despatches him on a boat with a mystery crew down the vast river Rhoyne, introducing a whole new landscape, new peoples and languages and perils. The strange abandoned cities their boat passes silently in the fog are wonderfully evocative…
Charles Dance as the masterful Lord Tywin Lannister in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Charles Dance as the masterful Lord Tywin Lannister in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

  • Daenerys Targaryen, supposedly progressing west along the coast of Essos with her three dragons and aiming to reclaim the Iron Throne lost when her father was murdered by the Lannisters. But she has become embroiled and delayed. After liberating the slaves in two of the great cities around Slavers Bay – Astapor and Yunkai – only to see them descend into anarchy, the kindhearted Daenerys has not only liberated the slaves of Meereen but is determined to rule them and their city peacefully and justly. This turns out to be harder than she thought as an insurgency of resentful former rulers takes to murdering the men and women she’s freed, as gruesomely as possible. Meanwhile her dragons have now grown so large that they are killing sheep and cattle and Daenerys is having to compensate angry farmers and, eventually, is forced to chain them in a dungeon…
  • Once upon a time the idea that Daenerys was reborn in Khal Drogo’s funeral pyre along with real live dragons was mysterious and strange; her travels across the desert and the growing dragons threatened she’d bring a revolution to Westeros. but by the end of Dreams and Dust this storyline has fizzled out, losing all its energy; Daenerys confronting yet another roomful of angry citizens is as fantastical as watching Boris Johnson on TV. I speedread her last few chapters just to see if anything happened. And nothing did…
Photo of Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen arguing with her loyal servant Ser Jorah Mormont (Ian Glen) in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen arguing with her loyal servant Ser Jorah Mormont (Ian Glen) in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

  • Crippled 11 year old Bran Stark, carried by the gentle giant retard Hodor, continues his quest north of the Ice Wall, along with the two crannogchildren, Meera and Jojeen. They are guided by an improbably friendly Other, Coldhands, further and further into the snow in quest of the owner of the third eye, a prophet, one of the last surviving children of the forest, the almost exterminated aboriginal inhabitants of Westeros. I found it increasingly hard to remember why these children persisted in driving deeper into the freezing north at risk of their lives, though the intensity of their suffering is certainly harrowing and vivid…
Photo of Kristian Nairn as the giant simpleton Hodor, tasked with carrying the crippled boy Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright) in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Kristian Nairn as the giant simpleton Hodor, tasked with carrying the crippled boy Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright) in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

  • The Merchant’s Man turns out to be Quentin, the son of Lord Martell of Dorne, who has been despatched to the Free Cities to meet Daenerys and recruit her dragons for the cause of Dorne. Which is ironic because we know the mystery crew of Tyrion’s ship down the Rhoyne turn out to be  escorting the supposedly dead Prince Aegon Targaryen on his mission to raise sellswords and form an alliance with Daenerys to reclaim his rightful throne in Westeros. Everyone is after Daenerys’s dragons, except Daenerys who is frightened to use them.
  • Meanwhile, a thousand miles north, gorgeous pouting Jon Snow takes to his duties as Lord Commander of the Night Watch, pitifully undermanned as they seek to guard and protect the 700 foot-high Ice Wall from the next wave of attackers who will either be wildlings – free humans – or the terrifying Others, blue-eyed black-skinned zombies. He has to cope with mutterings among the older Watchmen on the one hand and on the other manage King Stannis Baratheon and his prophetess Lady Melisandre, who came North with his army to destroy the first wildling invasion. This threatened invasion, led by the renegade Watchan Mance Rayder, created an atmosphere of brooding menace throughout the 2nd, 3rd and 4th books, giving a real sense that the invasion of these supernatural forces would sweep away the vicious scheming factions let loose by the War of Five Kings. However, their sudden and absolute defeat by Stannis’s army evaporated that threat and, in my opinion, has taken some of the pleasure out of the books… Martin tries to revive the sense of brooding threat over the Wall but, having seen how the first attack was swiftly crushed, it is gone, there is no threat, the tension has vanished…
Photo of Kit Harington as the bastard Jon Snow, raised to power as Lord of the Night's Watch, in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Kit Harington as the bastard Jon Snow, raised to power as Lord of the Night’s Watch, in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

  • Davos Seaworth, long-suffering servant of King Stannis, is despatched by sea to win over the harsh lords of the eastern islands, namely Lord Wyman Manderly of White Harbour. There he suffers bitter failure, discovering Lord Manderly’s castle full of Freys, the vast extended family who own the Twin Towers castle in the Riverlands and who killed the self-proclaimed king of the North, Rob Stark, and massacred his army during the so-called Red Wedding. And so Manderley, afraid for the life of his son, held hostage by the Lannisters in King’s Landing. rejects Davos’s offer of alliance with King Stannis and it is difficult, again, to see where this storyline is heading…
  • Reek is the dungeon name of the raddled wreckage of Theon Greyjoy who we first met happily playing with the Stark children in Winterfell in volume one. In teenage competition with his clever sister Asha, he led a small troop to capture Winterfell, left almost empty by Robb Stark as he went campaigning in the North. But in his naivety, Theon was taken prisoner by the psychotic Ramsay Bolton who stormed into Winterfell, murdered everyone, burned the castle to the ground, dragged Theon back to his fortress of Dreadfort. Here Ramsay throws Theon into prison, flays him, tortures him, and reduces him to a shattered wreck of a stammering, shaking, filthy grey-haired dog. This is a particularly disturbing narrative thread, and goes a long way to justify accusations that, as Martin has run out of plot, he has resorted to ever more disgusting sadism. The scene where the terrified Reek is ordered to deflower the terrified young girl given to Ramsay in marriage, is particularly repellent; it describes the systematic humiliation of a naked 15 year old girl by a psychotic killer.
Photo of Alfie Allen as the very ill-fated Theon Greyjoy in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Alfie Allen as the very ill-fated Theon Greyjoy in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

The chapters are named after: Tyrion (9 chapters), Jon 8, Daenerys 7, Davos 4, Reek 3, Bran 2, The Lost Lord 2, The Merchant’s Man, The Windblown, The Wayward Bride, Melisandre, The Prince of Winterfell, The Watcher.

Martin continues to write blistering scenes, to vividly depict fights, feasts, treacheries and betrayals, moments of fear and panic or quiet, soulful moments, in a crisp clear style:

Jon stepped out into the night. The sky was full of stars, and the wind was gusting along the wall. Even the moon looked cold; there were goosebumps all across its face. Then the first gust caught him, slicing through his layers of wool and leather to set his teeth to chattering. He stalked across the yard, into the teeth of that wind. His cloak flapped loudly from his shoulders. Ghost came after. Where am I going? What am I doing? Castle Black was still and silent, its halls and towers dark. My seat, Jon reflected. My hall, my home, my command. A ruin. (page 442)

He can write the mysterious, incantatory chapter where Bran finally meets the lost prophet and begins his spiritual journey:

The moon was a crescent, thin and sharp as the blade of a knife. The pale sun rose and set and rose again. Red leaves whispered in the wind. Dark clouds filled the skies and turned to storms. Lightning flashed and thunder rumbled, and dead men with black hands and bright blue eyes shuffled shuffled round a cleft in the hillside but could not enter. Under the hill, the broken boy sat upon a weirwood throne, listening to whispers in the dark as ravens walked up and down  his arms. (page 521)

Hundreds of pages show his writing at its immersive, imaginative and compelling best. But I enjoyed this least of the six books I’ve read. My son said the last two are the worst. The woman I’ve been swapping notes with at work about the series just wants to hurry up and finish. For me the mystery, the suspense and the threat which made the earlier books so thrilling has evaporated to be replaced by an increasing and depressing reliance on foulmouthed brutality:

“”I would sell my mother for a bit of breeze,” said Gerris, as they rolled through the dockside throngs. “It’s as moist as the Maiden’s cunt, and still shy of noon. I hate this city.” (page 101)

“We’re the Windblown and we fuck the goddess Slaughter up the arse.” (page 107)

“Does your dwarf ride as well as he pisses?” (page 131)

“Can Salladhor Saan eat the king’s word? Can he quench his thirst with parchment and waxy seals? Can he tumble promises into a feather bed and fuck them till they squeal?” (page 144)

The dwarf watched Lemore slip into the water. The sight always made him hard. There was something wonderfully wicked about the thought of peeling the septa out of those chaste white robes and spreading her legs. (page 210)

As the drums reached a crescendo, three of the girls leapt above the flames, spinning in the air. The male dancers caught them about the waists and slid them down onto their members. Dany watched as the women arched their backs and coiled their legs around their partners while the flutes wept and the men thrust in time to the music. (page 237)

The wine was strong and sour and required no translation. “I suppose I shall have to settle for your cunt.”… “Cut off my head and take it to King’s Landing,” Tyrion urged her… She did not understand that either, so he shoved her legs apart, crawled between them, and took her once more. That much she could comprehend, at least. (page 338)

“Before you came Meereen was dying. Our rulers were old men with withered cocks  and crones whose puckered cunts were dry as dust.” (page 347)

“You look awful, even for a man’s been dead a dozen years. Blue hair, is it? When harry said you’d be turning up, I almost shit myself. And Haldon, you icy cunt, good to see you too. Still have that stick up your arse?” (page 361)

Too heavy even to stand unassisted, he could not hold his water, so he always smelled of piss… But he was said to be the richest man in Yunkai, and he had a passion for grotesques: his slaves included a boy with the legs and hooves of a goat, a bearded woman, a two-headed monster from Mantarys, and a hermaphrodite who warmed his bed at night. “Cock and cunny both,” Dick Straw told them. “The Whale used to own a giant too, liked to watch him fuck his slave girls…” (page 336)

He pushed her back onto Glover’s bed, kissed her hard, and tore off her tunic to let her breasts spill out. When she tried to knee him in the groin, he twisted away and forced her legs apart with his knees. “I’ll have you now.”… She was sopping wet when he entered her. “Damn you,” she said. “Damn you damn you damn you.” He sucked her nipples till she cried out half in pain and half in pleasure. Her cunt became the world. (page 390)

Her last foe was a northman with an axe, a big man bald and bearded, clad in a byrnie of patched and rusted mail that could only mean he was a chief or champion. He was not pleased to find himself fighting a woman. “Cunt!” he roared each time he struck at her, his spittle dampening her cheeks. “Cunt! Cunt!” (page 406)

Behind them some sailor was bellowing loudly. “”They call this ale? Fuck. A monkey could piss better ale.” “And you would drink it,” another voice replied. (page 428)

“I said we could not abandon her in Volantis. That does not mean I want to fuck her.” (page 509)

The dwarf lingered in the galley after supper, celebrating his survival by sharing a few tots of black tar rum with the ship’s cook, a great greasy loutish Volantene who spoke only one word of the Common Tongue (fuck)… (page 515)

“Lady Arya. Get on the bed. Yes, against the pillows, that’s a good wife. Now spread your legs. Let us see your cunt.” The girl obeyed wordless. Theon took a step back against the door. Lord Ramsay say beside his bride, slid his finger along her inner thigh, then jammed two fingers up inside her. The girl let out a gasp of pain. “You’re dry as an old bone.” Ramsay pulled his hand free and slapped her face. (page 582)

These books have a vast wealth of compelling writing and gripping storylines, a whole convincingly imagined alternative worldful. But I, too, feel like I’ve been slapped in the face, and just a few too many times.

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Check out George RR Martin’s blog and his website.

Westeros.org links through to scores of other GoT websites, as well as hosting hundreds of FAQs about the series.

The photos of characters are from the HBO TV dramatisation of the books. Series 1 is out on dvd. Series 2 transmitted last year and was released on dvd in March. Series 3 will start transmitting on Sky Atlantic on Monday 1 April.

All quotes copyright George RR Martin.

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