Season of Blood: A Rwandan Journey by Fergal Keane (1995)

‘It should be an interesting few weeks, old boy.’
(The words of David, Fergal Keane’s tall, elegant, 60-year-old BBC producer, as they arrive at the border of Rwanda, page 42)

Fergal Keane, reporter and moral superstar

Keane is an award-winning BBC foreign correspondent and writer. This is a short 190-page book which recounts the journey undertaken by him, his 3-man BBC TV news crew, with a couple of South African security guys  (Glen and Tony) and two African drivers (Edward and Moses), as they crossed into north Rwanda from Uganda. It follows this team as they drove through the devastated countryside only weeks after it had been pacified by the invading Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), and saw for themselves the corpses produced by the Rwandan genocide (April to July 1994). They saw hundreds and then thousands of dead bodies, clogging rivers, littered across the countryside and packed into buildings, houses and churches in villages and towns.

However, although the book contains many descriptions of bodies hacked to pieces, of mothers trying to protect their children who had their skulls cleaved open by machetes, children’s bodies cut clean in two, and so on – a kind of Pompeii of corpses caught in all manner of strange, poignant and horrifying postures as the murderers did their work – the horror is mixed with another element which I couldn’t  help finding irritating at first and then broadly comic, which is Keane’s humourless self-importance.

Keane the sensitive reporter is front and centre of the entire account, which opens not with any African or Rwandan voices, stories, facts or history or events, but with pages and pages of Keane impressing on the reader how he is such a sensitive man that even now, a year after his journey, as he writes his book, he is still haunted by dreams and nightmares of what he saw; how he struggles to put it into words, how he struggles to make sense of the horror of mass killing and so on.

My dreams are the fruit of my journey down the dirt road to Nyarubuye. How do I write this, how do I do justice to what lies at the end of this road? As simply as possible. This is not a moment for fine words. (p.76)

But the fact that he even has to tell us that he is agonising about how to write it, how to describe the scene, and shares with us his heroic decision not to use ‘fine words’, this is all grandstanding, showboating, foregrounding his wonderful scrupulousness as a Man and as a Writer. He may claim not to use ‘fine words’ (although, in fact, he often does) but he certainly uses fine feelings.

He could have just described what he saw and been a simple, factual, objective observer. But Keane is incapable of keeping himself out of the picture and swamps everything with his first-hand impressions, all recounted in a lulling Irish brogue.

This self-promotion extends beyond himself to encompass his BBC news crew (producer, cameraman, soundman) and fixers (the two SA security men), describing them as the best in the world, top of their trade, ace professionals – sensitive (very sensitive), creative, reliable, hard working – a great bunch of guys!

These passages dwelling at length on what a caring, sensitive fellow Keane is, and what a fantastically hard-working but sensitive crew he was privileged to work with – made me smile and occasionally burst out laughing at their self-importance, their lack of self-awareness, their complete inappropriateness in what purports to be a record of one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century.

So Season of Blood can be broken down into three elements:

  1. The syrup-thick self-congratulation and oh-so-sensitive descriptions of how Keane felt, at the time and for months after the journey was over, which start and end the text and feature liberally throughout.
  2. The series of incidents which made up his actual journey across Rwanda: names of the people they met (generally from the RPF, sometimes the UN) who showed them sites of numerous atrocities where the bodies were still piled up in streets and fields, houses and churches, and interviews with (often very badly injured) survivors, and the genocidal Hutu authorities who dismissed it all as exaggeration and the inevitable casualties of war.
  3. Historical background – Keane’s solid reworking of the standard history I’ve read in all the other accounts.

1. A song for the sensitive

On the 1974 album ‘Monty Python Live at Drury Lane’, Neil Innes introduces his song ‘How sweet to be an idiot’ by whispering, ‘And now…a song for the sensitive’, to much laughter from those with a sense of humour. This phrase kept echoing round my head as I read the confessional parts of Keane’s text.

I thought New York journalist Philip Gourevitch had done a good job of showing how sensitive and deep he was in his 1998 book about the Rwandan Genocide, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda, but he is blown clean out of the water by BBC journalist-superstar and softly-spoken Irishman, Fergal Keane. Here is the opening paragraph of Keane’s Rwandan Journey, for best effect to be intoned in a mellifluous Irish accent, very quietly and very sensitively:

I do not know what dreams ask of us, what they come to collect. But they have come again and again recently, and I have no answers. I thought that after the bad nights of last summer the dead had abandoned me, had mouldered into memory. But the brothers and sisters, the mothers and fathers and children, all the great wailing families of the night are back, holding fast with their withering hands, demanding my attention. Understand first that I do not want your sympathy. The dreams are part of the baggage on this journey. I understood that from the outset. After all, four years in the South African townships had shown me something of the dark side, and I made the choice to go to Rwanda. Nobody forced or pressurised me. So when I tell you about the nights of dread, understand that they are only part of the big picture, the first step backward into the story of a journey that happened a year ago. (page 1)

Personally, I think it was very considerate of the Rwandan people to stage an epic bloodbath in order to provide Mr Keane with a splendid backdrop against which to display his sensitive soul, his simple but poetic prose, his knowledge of ‘the dark side’ (guffaw) and his fine moral scruples. Just recently I notice the arrival in the language of the phrase ‘humble-bragging’, which means:

the action of making an ostensibly modest or self-deprecating statement with the actual intention of drawing attention to something of which one is proud.

So when Fergal says he doesn’t want our sympathy, it was hell but he’ll be OK, no, no, he really doesn’t want our sympathy, not at all, really he doesn’t, the dreams, the dreams are sometimes hard to bear, but, shucks, he was just doing his job, no, no sympathy thank you — it’s hard not to burst out laughing at his self-important humble-bragging.

And not just him. He says there were many of ‘us’ who went there, many tip-top international journalists like Fergal. Some claim they don’t have bad dreams, but Fergal knows better. They, all of them, this band of brothers, this close-knit community of sensitive reporters, according to Fergal, they still ‘mourn the dead of Rwanda’. They still suffer at nights from that special feeling. What special feeling? Well:

How can I best describe it? It is a mixture of dread fascination, sorrow for what we learned and lost in the short few weeks of chaos, a mind weariness that feeds itself by replaying the old tapes over and over. We reach for the off switch but in the darkness cannot find it. (p.3)

Portentous and pretentious, humourless self-importance. Note the deliberately ‘poetic’ language. Given the choice between the ordinary functional word and the archaic, poetic equivalent, Fergal always plumps for the latter. He and his crew don’t get up at the start of the day; they ‘rise to start another day’ (p.44). The crooks they meet with in Nairobi are ‘rogues’ (p.48). The rains don’t prompt new growth, they ‘bring forth’ great tangles of vegetation, as if touched by the staff of Moses (p.49). David doesn’t start crying when he thinks about his daughter back home; he is ‘in the thrall of this fatherly emotion’ (p.35). Every page is blessed with a gem of pretentious and high-sounding diction.

And the journey itself is not just any hack’s trip to cover another grim African tragedy: it is a knight of the round table on a quest, it is a pilgrim’s progress, it is the odyssey of a Great Spirit, greater, finer, more sensitive than the humble likes of you and I.

My journey into Rwanda was about following the lines of blood and history; about sleeping with the smell of death, fear and hatred; about exhaustion and loss and tears and in some strange ways even love. For me to make sense of that journey, however, I cannot write in terms of facts alone. So bear with me when the road runs down into the valleys of the heart and mind and soul… (p.3)

What a wanker. And the Rwandans? The genocide? You want to know about them? Hang on, first there’s another fifty pages while we follow the road down into the valleys of Fergal’s heart and mind and soul…

Padding

So Keane comes over, fairly regularly, as a self-important so-and-so. But the emphasis on the personal nature of his text and the amount of time he spends describing his travelling companions may have a more banal cause. For he tells us early on that he only spent a few weeks in Rwanda (p.4) and later on that his brief trip started in early June 1994 (p.123).

This may explain why so much of the text describes his fine feelings, his doughty companions and the details of their itinerary rather than the history or politics of Rwanda. A lot of the preening might simply be padding for a book which barely stretches to 190 pages. In fact it’s only on page 48 of the 190 pages that he and his team cross into Rwanda and the journey proper begins. So the actual travelogue of Rwanda is barely 140 pages long. It’s an often intense but, ultimately, quite thin and superficial account.

Top chaps

Fergal went to Rwanda with a BBC team to make a film for Panorama and what a team he took with him! He is accompanied by one of the BBC’s most respected producers ‘whose bravery in dangerous situations was remarkable’; by a soundman who is also a novelist; by a cameraman who ‘mixed rugged good sense with extraordinary sensitivity’. Goodness! What special people Fergal surrounds himself with! What heroes! What legends!

And it takes one top chap to know another top chap. Thirty seconds on Fergal’s Wikipedia page tells us that Keane attended the Presentation Brothers College in Cork, a private, fee-paying Catholic school which is ranked the number one boys’ secondary school in Ireland. Maybe this is where his overweening sense of superiority comes from, his indestructible confidence in what are, in the end, pretty banal observations written in humble-bragging prose.

Rather snipingly, Fergal points out that most other TV journalists and crews are mercenary hacks who fly wherever the bodies piling up, knock out superficial stories about a situation they barely understand and then, as soon as the fighting stops, move on – the cynical, superficial hacks!

Where television is concerned, African news is generally only big news when it involves lots of dead bodies. The higher the mound, the greater the possibility that the world will, however briefly, send its camera teams and correspondents. Once the story has gone ‘stale’ i.e. there are no new bodies and the refugees are down to a trickle, the circus moves on. (p.7)

TV news is sensationalist and superficial!? This must be why the BBC pays its top correspondents the big bucks, for coming up with wonderful insights like this.

But then Saint Fergal goes out of his way to emphasise that he is not like all those other TV correspondents and his crew are not like all those other horrible mercenary crews. No, his crew includes a sound man who is also a novelist; and a cameraman who ‘mixed rugged good sense with extraordinary sensitivity’; and a producer ‘whose bravery in dangerous situations was remarkable’. And they work for the BBC so they must be the best! And they are fronted by a sensitive soul who still has dreams, all these months later, of the terrible things he saw but no, thank you, no, he doesn’t need your sympathy. Very kind, but he’s man enough to take it.

Admittedly, this band of heroes only flew into Rwanda when the story began to involve lots of bodies – exactly like the other crews he criticises. Admittedly, they only stayed for a few weeks – exactly like those other crews he criticises. Admittedly, his team also moved on once the story had gone stale –exactly like those other crews he criticises. But his crew did it in a specially sensitive and rugged and heroic way, in a noble BBC way, which completely separates them from all the other media riff-raff. This isn’t just any old reporter and his camera crew; this is an M&S reporter and his camera crew.

David the producer is tall, silver haired and works harder than anyone Fergal has ever met! He is steady as a rock, ‘not given to exaggeration or panic’, who arranges for them to meet an RPF minder. Whatever situation they find themselves in David can always fix it, with a few discreet words and a shrewd wink. What a top chap!

David never reveals his feelings because he’s that kind of steady, dignified, old-fashioned type of fellow. Right up until, one day barrelling along in their Land Rover, Fergal shares the Yeats poem, ‘Prayer For My Daughter,’ with him, at which point a quiet tear comes to David’s eye, as he thinks of his dear beloved daughter back home in Blighty (p.35). Poetry! Yeats! A quiet tear! Yes, what a fine and sensitive chaps he is, they all are!

Perhaps more than anything I admired his old-fashioned journalistic honesty. David believed in going to places and finding out what was happening, talking to as many sides as possible, and only then making up his mind. In this he was different from many producers who arrived with their own predetermined ideas of what the story should be and then sought out the voices to support their theories. He wasn’t a glamorous media figure, nor was he political in the sense of fighting internal battles within the BBC. Although it is hard to guess at the true motives of a colleague, I liked to think that David Harrison was moved ultimately by the oldest and most noble journalistic aspiration of all: to seek the truth and report it whatever the consequences. (p.67)

Shucks. Saint Fergal and noble David are travelling with old Africa hands Tony and Glenn. Tony is a short story writer and novelist who went to ‘one of Johannesburg’s top public schools’. He was his college rowing champion. Glenn, by contrast, worked his way up from a tough, deprived and petty criminal background, via a spell in the South Africa Defence Force, on to become ‘one of the best news cameramen in the country’ and ‘the most sensitive cameraman I have ever worked with’ (p.40). The sensitivity and camaraderie ooze out of this book like ectoplasm.

Carlsberg doesn’t make news crews but if they did…

Basically, Saint Fergal is trying to write a novel, except it is a novel full of hilariously portentous and symbolic moments (before they leave Kenya for Rwanda, a fellow journalist gets drunk in a hotel bar in Nairobi and ominously warns Keane that he is heading towards a realm of ‘spiritual damage’, p.43), featuring a cast of noble, high-minded chaps (top public school, best cameraman in the country, champion rower, noble producer etc) and written in a pretentious mash-up of late Victorian diction (‘we rose to begin our journey’ – that’s actually what he writes on page 44) and the Bible (‘The rains had brought forth a great tangle of vegetation’). The prose reads like the stained glass windows in the chapel of his elite Catholic boarding school – simple, over-coloured, larger than life, sentimental and repellently high-minded.

Buried in this short book is some excellent reportage, some vivid encounters and some stomach-churning scenes – but all swamped by a kind of rehashing of a Victorian, boys own adventure novel.

2. Rwandan history

Fergal tells the same outline history I’ve read in David van Reybrouck, Philip Gourevitch and Jason Stearns. Nobody really knows their origins, but eventually Rwandan society came to be split between three ethnic groups, the Hutu from the west (85%), the Tutsi from the north (15%) and smattering of the Twa, descendants of the pygmies who probably lived in the Rwanda-Burundi region first but are now marginalised.

In the mid-nineteenth century, when Europeans first arrived, they discovered a society where the Tutsi formed a cattle-rearing elite, ruled by a Tutsi king, who lorded it over the four-fifths of the population who were Hutu peasant farmers. The stereotype has it that the Tutsi are tall and thin, with thin lips, long noses and lighter skins, while the Hutu are shorter, stockier with more classical ‘Negro’ features – although, like all the other writers on the subject, Fergal emphasises that, after centuries of intermarriage, plenty of the population was impossible to assign to one group or the other.

The German colonisers in the 1890s, then the Belgians who were allotted Rwanda after Germany lost World War One, both these European colonisers sided with the aristocratic Tutsi. In the 1930s the previously fluid demarcation between the ethnic groups was destroyed when the Belgians issued identity cards which required you to specify which racial group you belonged to.

At this point Fergal does what Gourevitch does: he speeds over the history of ethnic tension between the two groups because he is concerned to make the genocide seem unique. In its scale it certainly was, and in the way it was very deliberately planned, managed and organised by Hutu extremists it certainly was, and in its aim at total extermination of the enemy, it was. And yet the insistence of both Gourevitch and Keane on making it sound exceptional is a little undermined by the facts. Because as both writers concede, there had been a long history of inter-communal violence before 1994, which continued well after 1994.

Thus when the Tutsi monarch Mwaami Rudahigwa died in 1959, the Hutus rose in rebellion against Tutsi rule and between ten and one hundred thousand Tutsis were massacred. The rivers were full of bodies. That’s a lot of people. It begins to undermine the claim of the genocide to complete uniqueness.

In neighbouring Burundi the Tutsi held on to power through the 1960s and, to forestall a Hutu revolt, in 1973 the Burundi army murdered nearly a quarter of a million Hutus. A quarter of a million. That’s a lot of people, isn’t it? Once you start reading Rwandan history you realise the genocide may have been unique in conception and ambition, but it is, at the same time, part of a continuum of massacres and pogroms which go back at least as far as independence if not before.

Gourevitch and Keane both come on as if the 1994 genocide was a one-off, uniquely wicked and evil event, and it is its perceived uniqueness which prompts in both writers a great deal of hand-wringing and virtue signalling. Why oh why did they…? What oh what made them…? How could anybody behave like this…? and so on.

But hang on – isn’t massacring 100,000 Tutsis in 1959 also a bit, you know, evil? And what about the murder of nearly a quarter of a million Hutus? Also, pretty violent and pretty evil, too.

Why aren’t there books about those massacres? Does a hundred thousand not register? Is quarter of a million not enough? Is it as simple as the fact that back then, in the 60s and 70s, there was less TV coverage, less satellite technology to flash footage round the worlds, that it was harder to travel to these remote countries, so the massacres didn’t get covered and so… they don’t count?

Keane goes on to explain that by 1990 the kleptocratic crony regime of Rwandan dictator Juvénal Habyarimana was so corrupt that it found it very convenient to use the century-old bogeyman of the Tutsi oppressor to stir up the Hutu masses in order to stay in power, where it could carry on happily creaming off aid money and World Bank loans into its personal Swiss bank accounts.

Keane totally supports the theory the Hutu president Habyarimana’s plane wasn’t shot down, killing all on board, by Tutsi wrong-doers but by extremists within his own Hutu government. Habyarimana’s sudden death allowed Hutu supremacists to seize power and within just one hour of the president’s death to start issuing orders to implement the plan for the total extermination of the entire Tutsi population of Rwanda (maybe 1.5 million people) which senior members of Hutu Power had been carefully working on for years.

I take the point that what sets the 1994 massacres apart was the entirely political nature of the genocide, and the existence of a detailed plan, and the use of all the levers of the state to mobilise people to the killing, and the fact that the stated ambition was total annihilation of the Tutsis…

But I feel uneasy that Keane, like Gourevitch, devotes two hundred pages and a lot of hand-wringing to the killing of 800,000 people, but skims over the murder of 250,000 people or 100,000 people in a sentence – as if their murders don’t matter so much because they weren’t massacred in such an organised way.

Are some campaigns of mass murder more important, more meaningful than others? Are the dead in one mass murder campaign less important than the dead in another one? The short answer appears to be yes.

3. What Fergal saw

Keane and his crew cross the border and are met with polite and intelligent RPF soldiers, part of the well-disciplined force which has driven the Hutu army from the country. David the noble producer had contacted the RPF from Belgium and so an army liaison officer, Lieutenant Frank Ndore, is waiting for them at the first checkpoint inside Rwanda. From here onwards, Frank will be their polite and helpful guide.

Frank takes them to meet Rose Kayitesi who’s switched from being a rebel fighter to setting up a refuge for 50 or so orphaned children aged 6 to 8 in an abandoned hotel (p.68). Some of them tell their stories, like the young girl who describes seeing her entire family hacked to death by the Interahamwe, herself is badly injured but left under a pile of corpses where she remains still till the attackers have left. Their guide, Frank explains why the Interahamwe were so keen to exterminate all children and hid in wait for them or silently listened out for whimpers and crying before moving in for the kill (p.71). Resulting in some children withdrawing, refusing to eat and dying of grief (p.72).

Fergal sees the river clogged with corpses (p.74). Many rivers were clogged with bodies. Lake Victoria became so polluted with corpses that Ugandan fishermen dragged them out and buried them to stop them killing off the fish (p.75).

Frank takes them to the town of Nyarubuye where some 3,000 people were hacked to pieces in and around the parish church (p.76). Lots of human bodies which have been hacked to death from every possible angle, displaying every possible wound.

They meet small groups of refugees on the road, clustering together for safety, each one generally the sole survivor of the massacre of their family, their village, their community.

The offices of the mayor of Rusomo have been converted into a makeshift hospital for survivors with terrible wounds. There is no medicine, no painkillers. The mayor or bourgmestre was Sylvestre Gacumbitsi and many of the poor Tutsis of the town turned to him for help as the atmosphere became tense on the buildup to the genocide. Not only did he turn them away, but a few days later he led Hutu death squads round the homes of Tutsis and directed the mass murder, using the identity cards he had in his filing cabinets in the office. Flora Mukampore only survived, badly cut and bleeding, because she hid under a pile of fresh corpses (p.89).

On the spur of the moment they decide to try and track down this genocidaire and mass murderer Sylvestre Gacumbitsi and so drive east, across the border into nearby Tanzania, and to one of the biggest refugee camps which sprang up as hundreds of thousands of terrified Hutus fled the advancing RPF, Benaco. The camp is a vast mudbath, organised into ‘roads’ between groups of tents made from tarpaulin supplied by the UN and aid agencies. They spend the night and then assiduous questioning does in fact lead them to Sylvestre Gacumbitsi. He is surrounded by young men with machetes who are carrying out his orders as he manages the distribution of rice to refugees from his canton. Keane questions him as hard as possible, putting to him the accusations of eye witness who saw him (Sylvestre Gacumbitsi) directing the killing. But the big man denies it, dismisses it all as Tutsi propaganda, and his surly followers mutter agreement.

In a flash Keane realises the génocidaires have brought their entire social system into the camps, recreated their networks of clientilism and patronage and intimidation. And the international community is going along with it, funding them, feeding them, allowing them to recreate the murderous militias (p.107).

Keane realises the international community which did sweet FA to prevent the genocide has been only too happy to jump into action when confronted with a huge refugee crisis. Setting up camps, flying in vast amounts of food, faces of happy aid workers helping happy refugees, this is what everyone wanted. Keane thinks well-armed Western soldiers could have easily identified leading génocidaires and arrested them. Their failure was a complete moral failure. The international community was ‘giving comfort to butchers’ (p.110).

That same night they drive back over the bridge by the Rusomo Falls into Rwanda. They see soldiers looting refugees. Reading this, it occurs to me that most of the world is like this. Bullies preying on smaller bullies who prey on the absolutely helpless.

Drunk Tanzanian soldiers try to stop them crossing the bridge and then to confiscate their camera, but like their fairy godmother Lieutenant Frank appears, and gets the RPF soldiers his side to pay the drunk Tanzanian soldiery a few hundred dollars and a tricky situation is defused. Really makes me want to go to Africa (p.113).

Lieutenant Frank organises a tour of the abandoned and ransacked presidential palace. (This is reminiscent of Michela Wrong in the abandoned and ransacked palace of Joseph Mobutu or Philip Gourevitch in the abandoned and ransacked palace ditto. It’s a kind of standard element or trope of ‘the overthrow of dictators’ journalism.)

They are staying at the UN offices along with all the other correspondents, journalists and news crews. They do tend to stick together. Keane is in Kigali when half the city was still in government hands and the RPF was shelling and mortaring its way into the government half. At short notice they are invited to visit a Red Cross hospital. To nobody’s surprise a hospital in a war zone is packed with terribly injured soldiers and civilians. He sees a small Tutsi boy whose arm has been cut off. Details like that, snapshots, say more than all Keane’s editorialising.

When they leave to drive back through roadblocks to the rebel side of Kigali, they are hustled into smuggling with them two European missionaries who have escaped from a mission up country because Brother Otto’s arm was wounded and he needed treatment. Nerve-racking moments as they smuggle the two missionaries out. Later, Keane hears their story. To seek out help they left behind a mission full of Tutsi children they had been protecting. The children knew it was coming. They asked to be locked in a room. A week later the militia came and slaughtered all 50 of them. Brother Henri tells Keane all this though tears.

That night they get drunk with their faithful guide Lieutenant Ndore who insists, like all the RPF they’ve met, that it’s not about ethnicity, it’s about power and politics. A political cabal and their clients had made personal fortunes creaming off the nation’s wealth and turning the civil service into a party machine (p.20). They wanted to carry on doing so under the dictatorship and so didn’t want to be forced to accept a multi-party, multi-ethnic constitution which the ‘international community’ was forcing Habyarimana to accept.

Without political power the whole system of patronage and clientelism would collapse. (p.23)

The politics of ethnicity

Throughout the book Keane repeats the same notion, which is that the genocide may have been defined in terms of ethnicity but it was at bottom politically motivated. It took expression in ethnic cleansing but it was about one group, one party, the extreme wing of the president’s MRND party and its extended clients, clinging on to power and consolidating its power for ever.

Keane’s insistence can be interpreted several different ways: one is that he is sticking to a humanistic conviction that ethnicity isn’t the be-all and end-all because this optimistic conviction allows him to hope that ethnicity can be overcome and so that the genuinely multi-ethnic state which the RFP promises can be brought into existence.

But it is possible to devise a kind of reverse interpretation of the same set of facts, which is: what if, in many countries, ethnicity is politics? In the 25 years since Keane wrote this book ethnicity hasn’t disappeared as a defining factor in political cultures around the world, it has grown, particularly in the last decade. All round the world we have seen the rise of nationalist leaders waving their national flag and liable to attack minorities: the BJP demonising Muslims in India; the military junta in Myanmar ethnically cleansing the Rohingya; China brutally clamping down on the Xinjiang Muslims. And anti-immigrant rhetoric becoming widespread across the West.

Keane’s book was written before any of this happened but, at various points, it emphasises that these kinds of divisions between ethnicities are not inevitable but are always stirred up by politicians with essentially political motivations i.e. using ethnic differences in order to stir up their base and remain in power. And in the money.

Back to the journey

Anyway, back in the narrative, it’s time to say goodbye to the helpful, intelligent Lieutenant Ndore and so Fergal gives him the edition of Yeats he’s been carrying round, as a thank you present (p.141).

He writes a half-page note about visiting the Amohoro stadium which the UN forces managed to secure and where they protected thousands of terrified refugees.

And the second half of the same page records a visit to the Milles Collines Hotel, also guarded by a small contingent of UN soldiers, where hundreds of refugees live in terror that the Interahamwe lounging at the roadblocked entrance will one day simply walk in and hack everyone to pieces, the hotel which was to become famous because of the movie, Hotel Rwanda (p.142).

Keane and his crew are assigned a new RPF minder named Ernest to replace Lieutenant Frank, but he is a kid, unreliable and always wants to sleep. He is to guide them on the route south into Burundi. They get into their Land Rovers and drive to the town of Kabuga, which saw heavy fighting. Every building is damaged, bodies, not just of humans. A dead cow is wedged into a doorway (p.145).

Ernest then tells them he knows the route to the border with Burundi and sets them off down a road which gets smaller and more jungley until they pass two wrecked vehicles and realise the road is landmined. As this is sinking in, they see two figures ahead burying something and hurriedly turn round and drive all the way back to Kabuga.

After recovering back in Kabuga, they set off south again, this time by a different route. Hours of nervous tension driving through jungle with one of the crew’s two Land Rovers making bad sounds as if it’s about to break down. They arrive at the village of Zaza, held by the RPF, who are guarding several hundred Hutu prisoners. Keane quotes an African Rights report which estimates 800 people were murdered in the commune of Zaza, and quotes one woman survivor who watched the children being hacked to death and was, again, buried under a pile of bodies, covered in blood and so thought dead by the attackers (p.154).

It is a nerve-racking night, given a few rooms in an abandoned house by the RPF officer, who commands just 15 men to hold a remote village filled with 300 or more Hutu prisoners, while everyone knows the Interahamwe are out there in the jungle.

Next day, 12 June 1994, they finally make it to the Burundi border and are checked through by drunk Tutsi Burundi soldiers. They say goodbye to the two Ugandan drivers, Edward and Moses, who have to turn round and drive the length of the country and back across the northern border, into Uganda, before it gets dark.

They are met by Rizu Hamid, a South African born Asian who’s worked as Fergal’s fixer in South Africa. She is, of course, ‘tough and dedicated’. He is awestruck by her ability to smooth talk even the most difficult, dangerous soldiers at roadblocks (p.167). But then, everyone Fergus works with is an epitome. Rizu has arranged for a young government soldier named Sergeant Patrice to be their minder as they penetrate into the government-held area to meet and interview, well, murderers.

After a series of nerve-wracking encounters at no fewer than 30 roadblocks, they arrive in Butari and put up in a basic hotel. David and Fergal interview the Rector and Vice-Rector of Butare University. Like others they’ve already met, this couple are far from stupid, but believe the government’s line entirely: that the nation was under threat from the RPF’s 1990 invasion, that war was the only way to defend themselves, that the RPF seek to reassert Tutsi paramountcy and restore Hutu serfdom of pre-1959.

Next day they go to interview the town prefect, Sylvan Nsabimana. They ask him about the fate of the last few hundred Tutsi left alive in the whole region who are being held in a camp right outside the prefect’s office. Nsabimana is all reassurance and tells them that, in fact, he is planning to evacuate the children to nearby Burundi, the following day.

Keane presses him on the murders, on the genocide but, like every government official they meet, Nsabimana repeats the government line that there was no genocide, that the government was protecting the country against attack by the RPF, who intend to restore their oppressive rule. If confronted with examples of actual killings he gives the stock answer that, alas and alack, casualties happen in time of war.

The next day Fergal, Rizu, David and the rest attach themselves to the convoy of lorries carrying Tutsi children to freedom in Burundi. A whole series of nerve-racking roadblocks, which Nsabimana himself negotiates their way through and then, finally, they cross the border and Keane’s Rwandan journey is at an end.

Thoughts

How long did Fergal’s Journey last in total, then? Two weeks? Three weeks? Less than two weeks? Not long and he didn’t really get to talk to that many people, 20 to 30 maximum. Compare and contrast with Philip Gourevitch who visited Rwanda for a total of something like nine months and gives the impression of having spoken to hundreds of people.

Keane’s book is shorter but it is much more intense. The descriptions of his anxiety in long trips through the jungle and his terror at roadblocks manned by drunken soldiery are very vivid. And his first-hand account of seeing the actual bodies piled up in streets and fields and offices and churches is powerful. Almost powerful enough to make you forget the preening opening of the book.

For all his feeble inability to really grasp the genocide, Philip Gourevitch’s book is a lot better. It has far more history and context than Keane’s and he includes testimony and interviews from far more people, including lots of UN officials and, crucially, the brains behind the RPF, Paul Kagame.

And Gourevitch also continues the story on past the genocide itself, for quite a few years, up till 1998, so he gives a far better sense of the ongoing political importance of the huge refugee camps in Zaire, and how they came to trigger the first Congo War – a depth of perspective which is necessarily missing from Keane’s account which, in essence, boils down to vivid reportage of a hurried, stressful 2-week visit to the country in June 1994, smack bang in the middle of its combined civil war and genocide.

He didn’t have to go

The very force of Keane’s candidly described terror keeps prompting the same thought. He undergoes ordeals of tension and stress, bursts out swearing at the drivers, has to get drunk at night to obliterate the sights he’s seen or take sleeping pills. He thinks forlornly of his family. He wishes he were back home. The rector of Butare university invites him to his house to watch Ireland play in the World Cup, in New York, and Keane desperately, desperately wishes he was there.

Well OK, the reader thinks: so go, then. Leave. Hire a taxi, get driven clean out of the danger zone, catch a plane home, be with your family. Tell the BBC you’d like to be the Westminster correspondent. Or work on Strictly Come Dancing. If you don’t like it so much, if it means you end up seeing too many corpses, meeting too many evil people, having too many nightmares, here’s an idea – quit being a foreign correspondent and go home.

No-one is forcing him to repeatedly travel into war zones and risk getting casually murdered by drunk soldiers at a roadblock in the middle of nowhere. This is the choice he has made.

When he keeps telling us how wretched and awful and terrifying and lonely and damaging it is to be in such terrifying zones and see so many corpses and confront so much evil, the reader thinks: well, don’t do it, then. But don’t willingly and voluntarily choose this line of work, hustle for the job, undertake the assignments – then bleat about how horrible it all is and expect my sympathy.

The shameful record of the Americans

The US administration of Bill Clinton did its best to ignore the genocide. America (and Belgium) insisted on reducing the UN presence from 2,500 to 250 on the eve of the genocide, guaranteeing the UN could not intervene, and reinforcing that with a mandate which stipulated no military intervention. Even when they could see Tutsis being hacked down from their offices. ‘Never again must we…. All it requires for evil to flourish is good men to do nothing…We must never forget the victims of the Holocaust… blah blah blah.’ Bullshit.

Once alerted to the killings, the Americans deliberately delayed sending what UN troops remained a consignment of arms and armoured cars, insisting on charging full market rate to the UN which the UN couldn’t afford (p.123).

On President Bill Clinton’s orders the Americans refused at every level of government to use the word ‘genocide, for in that case it would be legally obligated to intervene and America did not want to intervene.

When the victims of a genocide were being murdered in front of their eyes, the Americans did everything in their power to avoid giving any help. Beyond shameful.

French support for the genocidal regime

The French continued to support the genocidal Hutu regime partly because they spoke French, and opposed the Tutsi RPF which ended the genocide at the time and for years afterwards, partly because they spoke English. Seriously.

The French had long supported Habyarimana and had no wish to see him driven from power by the rebels. The pro-Habyarimana faction in Paris was led by François Mitterand’s son Jean-Christophe, who saw Rwanda as part of a Francophone Africa under threat from the encroachments of the English-speaking nations to the north and east i.e. Uganda and Tanzania. Among Jean-Christophe’s gifts to the Rwandan president was the personal jet which was shot out of the sky on 6 April. The implication of this friendship was clear: if the price for maintaining some degree of French influence was the preservation of despots and kleptocrats, then Paris was always more than willing to pay.

In contrast to Habyarimana the leaders of the RPF were largely English-speaking. The long years of exile in Uganda had forced them to abandon the French language. For their part the French maintained a military mission and a sizeable detachment of intelligence officers in Rwanda. With their contacts inside the army and at every level of government and the state media, Paris could not have been ignorant of the genocidal intentions of many of the senior officers and officials. For the French to suggest otherwise would be a lamentable comment on the abilities of their own intelligence services and diplomats. (p.26)

As part of a sustained effort to discredit the invading RPF and continue support for the genocidal Hutu Power regime, a French security agent claimed he had the black box from Habyarimana’s shot-down jet which proves it was the RPF who fired the missiles. But he provided no actual evidence and soon disappears from view (p.117).

[President Habyarimana’s] brother-in-law Protais Zigiranyirazo was up to his neck in the trade in endangered species. Protais was a founder member of the Zero Network and an original shareholder in Radio Milles Collines. A book David has brought with him on our journey, Murder in the Mist, alleges that Protais was involved in the murder of American naturalist Dian Fossey because of her attempts to save the gorillas of the Rwandan rain forest. To date he has not even issued a rebuttal, much less attempted to sue the author. Protais is currently enjoying the sanctuary provided by the government of France, along with his sister Agathe and several other family members. It is not likely that they will see the [presidential] palace again, but they have the security of foreign bank accounts and the sympathy of the Quai d’Orsay (French Foreign Ministry) to console them in exile. I can see what sickens Frank. (pages 119 to 120)

That last sentence refers to the way the entire RFP up to its leader Paul Kagame were sickened at the absolute inaction of the ‘international community’ to prevent the genocide. The inaction was led by America which blocked every attempt to intervene, and France, which energetically supported the genocidal regime, gave it arms and weapons even as the genocide was taking place and set up safe havens in the west of the country for genocidal Hutus fleeing the advancing RPF. At the RPF rolled through the country and brought the genocide to an end, the French government flew the genocidal regime’s leaders to safety in Paris, where they’ve been leading lives of luxury ever since, right up to the present day, 2021. What’s not to despise?

Mistaking genres

Lastly, maybe my negative reaction to Keane’s book is my fault. Maybe I’m being dim. Maybe I’m getting my genres mixed up. Maybe I’m expecting the objectivity of a history from a text which, right from the start, declares it is going to be an entirely subjective account. Only right at the end of the book did it occur to me that this kind of subjective journalism is maybe a variety of confessional literature.

When Keane writes at length about the nightmares he’s suffered ever since his Rwanda trip, about his drinking, about how scared he was at numerous points, about how he lost his temper with the driver and came to loathe their irresponsible RPF guide Albert, how much he missed his wife and how much he wished he could just go home – I found all this tediously subjective, but maybe I’m being an idiot for expecting anything else. It is titled a journey and clearly states right from the start that it is going to be a highly subjective account of one man’s experiences and feelings of a nightmare situation.

And, after all, maybe Keane’s prolonged descriptions of his feelings and psychological struggles are a deliberate strategy to take you with him right into the belly of the beast, to make you feel the fear and see the bodies, designed to be an immersive experience which combines historical background and political analysis with stomach-churning descriptions of what it was like.

I still didn’t like this book, but maybe my allergic reaction is my fault because I was continually judging it by the wrong criteria, assessing a work of confessional journalism as if it was a factual history. Anyway, I’ve given you enough evidence to make up your own mind.

Credit

Season of Blood: A Rwandan Journey by Fergal Keane was published in 1995 by Viking. All references are to the 1996 Penguin paperback edition.


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Industry and Empire: From 1750 to the Present Day by Eric Hobsbawm (1968)

Eric Hobsbawm (1917 to 2012) was one of Britain’s leading Marxist historians. Of Jewish parentage he spent his boyhood in Vienna and Berlin during the rise of the Nazis. With Hitler’s accession to power in 1933, the family moved to Britain in 1933, although his Wikipedia page is at pains to point out that, because his father was originally from London’s East End, he had always had British citizenship. Hobsbawm excelled at school and went to Cambridge where he joined the communist party in 1936.

Twenty-two when the Second World War broke out, Hobsbawm served in the Royal Engineers and the Army Educational Corps, though he was prevented from serving overseas due to his communist beliefs. In 1947 he got his first job as a lecturer in history at Birkbeck College, University of London, the start of a long and very successful career as a historian, which included stints teaching in America at Stanford and MIT.

As a Marxist Hobsbawm had a special interest in what he called the ‘dual revolutions’ i.e. the political revolution in France in 1789 and the parallel industrial revolution in Britain. His most famous books are the trilogy describing what he himself termed ‘the long 19th century’, i.e. from the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 to the Great War in 1914. These three books are:

  • The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789–1848 (1962)
  • The Age of Capital: 1848–1875 (1975)
  • The Age of Empire: 1875–1914 (1987)

A series he completed with a fourth volume, his account of the ‘short’ 20th century, The Age of Extremes (1994).

Industry and Empire was commissioned by the high-minded Pelican books back in the mid-1960s, as the third and concluding volume in a series about economic history (part 1 being The Medieval Economy and Society by M.M. Postan, part 2 Reformation to Industrial Revolution by Hobsbawm’s fellow Marxist historian, Christopher Hill).

I read it as a student and had a vague memory of finding it rather boring, but on rereading I found it riveting. Setting out to cover such a huge period of just over 200 years means that individual chapters are relatively brief at around 20 pages long and highly focused on their subjects.

State of England 1750

Arguably the most interesting section is the opening 50 pages where Hobsbawm sets the scene for the industrial revolution which is to come, describing the state of England (the book focuses overwhelmingly on England with only occasional remarks about the other three nations of the UK) around 1750, and making a number of interesting observations.

The most interesting is that, although England was ruled by an oligarchy of a relatively small number of mighty families – maybe as few as 200 – who owned most of the land, the key thing about them was that they were a post-revolutionary elite (p.32). Their equivalents in France or the German or Italian states were genuinely hidebound reactionaries obsessed with aping the accoutrements and etiquette of kings and princes. By sharp contrast England’s elite had survived not one but two revolutions (the execution of Charles I in 1649, then the Glorious Revolution of 1688). As a result they did not submit to their monarch but had reached a position of constitutional ascendancy over their king in the form of a dominating Parliament. They were powerful and independent.

Above all, England’s elite were devoted to commerce and profit. One of the motive forces of the civil war of the 1640s had been King Charles’s insistence on granting monopolies of trade to favoured courtiers and spurning genuine entrepreneurs who came to form a powerful bloc against him. But all that had been sorted out a century ago. Now this politically independent oligarchy was interested in trade and profit of all sorts.

But these were only one of the many differences which distinguished 1750s England from the continent. Foreign visitors also remarked on the well-tended, well-organised state of the land and the thoroughness of its agriculture. They commented on the flourishing of trade: England was noted as a very business-like nation, with well-developed markets for domestic goods of all kinds.

Multiple origins of the Industrial Revolution

Hobsbawm points out that the industrial revolution is one of the most over-determined and over-explained events in history. He amusingly rattles off a list of reasons which have been given by countless historians over the years for why the industrial revolution first occurred in Britain, for why Britain was for several generations the unique workshop of the world and pioneer of revolutionary new ways of working, new industrial machinery, new ways of producing and distributing goods. Historians have attributed it to:

  • Protestantism and the Protestant work ethic
  • the ‘scientific revolution’ of the 1660s
  • Britain’s political maturity compared with Europe (i.e. the Glorious Revolution)
  • the availability of large sources of coal
  • the presence of numerous fast-flowing streams to provide water power
  • a run of good harvests in mid-18th century
  • Britain’s better road and canal infrastructure

And many more. The list is on page 37.

Hobsbawm’s explanation – colonies and colonial trade

Hobsbawm lists all these putative causes in order to dismiss them and attribute Britain’s primariness to one reason. The first wave of the industrial revolution was based on the mass processing of raw cotton into textiles. 100% of Britain’s cotton was imported from the slave plantations of the American South and a huge percentage of it was then exported to foreign markets, in Africa and then to India where, in time, the authorities found it necessary to stifle the native cloth-making trade in order to preserve the profits of Lancashire factory owners. The facts are astonishing: Between 1750 and 1770 Britain’s cotton exports multiplied ten times over (p.57). In the post-Napoleonic decades something like one half of the value of all British exports consisted or cotton products, and at their peak (in the 1830s), raw cotton made up twenty per cent of total net imports (p.69). So the industrial revolution in Britain was driven by innovations in textile manufacturing and these utterly relied on the web of international trade, on importing raw materials from America and then exporting them in huge quantities to captive markets in British colonies.

Cotton manufacture, the first to be industrialised, was essentially tied to overseas trade. (p.48)

If Britain had had to rely on a) domestic sources of raw materials and b) its domestic market to sell the finished product to, although the native population was growing during the 1700s it wasn’t growing that fast. What provided the crucial incentive to the cloth manufacturers of Lancashire to invest and innovate was the certainty of a vast overseas market for manufactured cloth in the British Empire, which was finally made safe for British control after the Seven Years War (1756 to 1763).

Britain had established itself as master of the world’s seas as a result of the Seven Years War and already had a thriving trade infrastructure at ports like Glasgow, Liverpool, Bristol and London. What kick-started things, in Hobsbawm’s view, was the opening up of overseas markets. It was the ability to send ships full of cloth products to India and other colonial markets, to make large profits and then reinvest the profits in further innovations that led a generation of Lancashire entrepreneurs to experiment with new devices and machines and ways of working.

So, Hobsbawm’s thesis rests on a set of linked propositions, that:

  • Britain had a uniquely warlike series of governments through the 18th century (pp.49 to 50)
  • Britain was able to rely on a far more advanced and sizeable navy than its nearest rival, France, which was always distracted by wars on the continent and so preferred to spend resources on its army, thus, in effect, handing rule of the oceans over to Britain
  • in the mid-1700s a series of foreign wars conquered all of north America, most of the Caribbean and India for Britain
  • and it was the complex web of international trading thus established by its a) warlike government and b) its world-dominating navy which provided the economic framework which motivated the technological and business innovations which led to the Industrial Revolution (pages 48 to 51)

This vast and growing circulation of goods…provided a limitless horizon of sales and profit for merchant and manufacturer. And it was the British – who by their policy and force as much as by their enterprise and inventive skill – captured these markets. (p.54)

And again:

Behind our industrial revolution there lies this concentration on the colonial and underdeveloped markets overseas, the successful battle to deny them to anyone else…the exchange of overseas primary products for British manufactures was to be the foundation of our international economy. (p.54)

And:

The Industrial Revolution was generated in these decades – after the 1740s, when this massive but slow growth in the domestic economies combined with the rapid – after 1750 extremely rapid – expansion of the international economy; and it occurred in the country which seized its international opportunities to corner a major share of the overseas market. (p.54)

1. Manufacturers in a pre-industrial country, in agriculture and artisans in trade, have to wait fairly passively on market requirements. But an aggressive foreign policy which seizes territory overseas creates new markets, potentially huge markets with massive opportunities for rapid and massive expansion (p.42).

2. Hobsbawm makes the interesting point that it wasn’t the inventions per se that accelerated and automated cotton manufacture. The level of engineering skill required to start the industrial revolution was very low. Most of the technology and ideas already existed or had been lying around for decades (pages 59 to 60). It was the guarantee of tasty profits by exporting finished goods to captive colonial markets which gave individual entrepreneurs the certainty of profit and so the incentive to experiment and innovate. One factory owner’s innovation was copied by all his rivals, and so an ever-accelerating cycle of innovation was created.

All the other conditions historians have suggested (listed above) were present and many were important contributors. But it was the spur of guaranteed profits abroad which, in Hobsbawm’s opinion, provided the vital spark.

Is British industrialisation a model for the developing world?

It is an odd feature of the book that Hobsbawm has barely articulated his thesis before he is worrying about the plight of the developing world. He keeps asking, particularly in the opening ‘Origins’ chapters, whether Britain’s experience of industrialisation could be a model for the newly industrialising and newly independent post-colonial nations of the 1960s to emulate?

The short answer is an emphatic No and in answering it, Hobsbawm makes clearer than ever the uniqueness of Britain’s history. Britain was unique in being able to fumble its way towards industrialisation slowly and piecemeal and on a very small scale, one factory owner here trying out a new machine, another, there, devising a more efficient way of organising his factory hands and so on.

There was no ‘barrier to entry’ into the industrialised state for Britain because it was the first nation ever to do so, and so had the luxury of making it up as it went along. It started from 0. A little bit of tinkering could produce surprising rewards. There were no leaps but a series of pragmatic steps. And there was no competition and no pressure from anyone else.

Obviously, 150 years later, any nation trying to industrialise in the 1960s (or now) is in a totally different situation in at least two obvious ways: the shift from non-industrial to modern industrial production now represents an enormous leap. The technology and scale and infrastructure required for industrialisation is huge and can only begin to be achieved by dint of enormous planning (to create a co-ordinated energy and transport and distribution infrastructure) and huge investment, money which by definition a non-industrialised country does not have, and so has to go cap-in-hand to international banks which themselves dictate all kinds of terms and conditions.

Above all, a newly industrialising nation will be entering a very crowded marketplace where over a hundred nations are already fighting tooth and claw to maintain competitive advantage in a multitude of areas and practices, not least trade and tariff and tax and financial arrangements which a country with few financial resources will find difficult to match.

At first I found Hobsbawm’s adversions to this question of whether Britain’s history and example could be useful to developing nations a modish digression (it occurs on pages 38, 39, 61 to 62 and many more). But in fact placing British history in this contemporary frame turns out to be very thought-provoking. It not only sheds light on the challenges developing nations face, still, today – but also highlights the huge advantage Britain enjoyed back in the later 18th century by virtue of being the pioneer.

Because it industrialised and developed a transport infrastructure and financial systems first, Britain could afford to do them pretty badly and still triumph. Nobody, nowadays, could industrialise as amateurishly as Britain did.

To contemporaries who didn’t understand economics (pretty much everyone) the transformation and inexorable rise of Britain seemed inexplicable, miraculous, and it was this that gave rise to the simplistic, non-economic, cultural explanations for Britain’s success – all those explanations which foreground the anti-authoritarian, Protestant spirit of free enquiry, the independence of thought and action guaranteed by the Glorious Revolution, the nonconformist values of thrift and discipline and hard work espoused by dissenting tradesmen and factory owners excluded from politics or the professions by the Test Acts and so forced to make their way in the world through business, innovation and investment. And so on.

All these are aspects of the truth but are, ultimately, non-economists’ ways of trying to explain economics. And Hobsbawm is first and foremost an economic historian and proposing a Marxist thesis – Britain’s industrial primacy was based on a) her aggressive control of the seas and b) the huge and complex web of transoceanic trading arrangements which linked foreign suppliers with endless marketing opportunities in her foreign colonies.

The second industrial revolution

The second industrial revolution is the term commonly applied to the second wave of industrialisation associated with the rise of the new capital goods industries of coal, iron and steel, generally credited with starting in the 1840s.

Hobsbawm pauses to consider the teasing counter-factual notion that the industrial revolution based on textiles alone might conceivably have fizzled out in the 1830s, for the 15 years after the end of the Napoleonic Wars saw a catastrophic depression with much rural poverty. If nothing new had come along, it is conceivable that industrial development might have stalled or even stopped and the world remained at the level of having highly efficient machines to turn out cloth and no more.

But the railways came along. Hobsbawm explains that the great railway ‘mania’ of the 1840s was the result of the huge accumulation of capital derived from textiles looking for something to invest in (p.112). This explains the hysterical tone of wild investment and speculative mania which surrounded the early railways, and the irrationality of many of the lines which were opened with great fanfare only to go bust within years. To quote Wikipedia:

The mania reached its zenith in 1846, when 263 Acts of Parliament setting up new railway companies were passed, with the proposed routes totalling 9,500 miles (15,300 km). About a third of the railways authorised were never built — the companies either collapsed due to poor financial planning, were bought out by larger competitors before they could build their line, or turned out to be fraudulent enterprises to channel investors’ money into other businesses.

Between 1830 and 1850 6,000 miles of railways were opened in Britain (p.110) soaking up an investment of £240 million of capital (p.112), most of them during the intensest period of railway mania in between 1844 and 1846. By way of comparison, the total mileage of the modern UK railway network is around 11,000 miles.

Social historians dwell on the immense cultural changes the coming of the railways created. I remember being struck as a student when I learned that the standardisation of time and clocks across the UK required for railway timetables to work, was a huge innovation which dragged even the remotest locations into a modern, synchronised timeframe. If you visit any of the seaside towns of Britain you’ll discover their fortunes were transformed with the coming of the railways which allowed large numbers of visitors to travel cheaply to the coast, causing a building boom in hotels. And so on.

But as an economic historian, Hobsbawm makes the more obvious point that the building of all these railways required a vast expansion in the production of iron and then, quickly, of the more durable material, steel.

The railways acted as an immense spur to technical innovations in all aspects of metal manufacture, which in turn created a huge increase in demand for the coal to fuel all this industrial production, which in its turn created a need for quicker, more cost-effective bulk transportation, and so commercial motivation for yet more railways, and for trains which were more powerful, more cost effective, and so on. Innovation in one field spurred innovation all down the line.

British investors were able to invest because the act of investing in business speculations was itself a fast-growing area of business activity, creating cadres of stockbrokers and financial lawyers, jobs which didn’t exist 50 years earlier.

And this matrix of industries and professions spread abroad, with a huge growth of British investment in foreign companies, especially in the USA and South America. Profits from these foreign holdings gave rise to an entirely new class of rentiers, people able to afford a moneyed middle-class lifestyle without doing a day’s work, solely off the profit of shrewd investments.

By 1870 Britain had about 170,000 people of rank and property, living lives of luxury without any visible occupation. Hobsbawm emphasises that most of them were women (p.119). These were the ladies of independent means swanning off to spa resorts in Switzerland or villas in Italy who festoon the pages of late Victorian and Edwardian novels, like the Italophiles of E.M. Foster, like the continent-trotting Aunt Mary in Somerset Maugham’s novel Mrs Craddock. These comfortably-off parasites were still living a wonderful life between the wars, floating around Tuscany vapouring about Art and Life, as documented in the early novels of Aldous Huxley, living lives of luxury off the sweat and labour of working men in three continents.

Competitors and the long decline

The scale and speed of development, particularly of the second wave of the industrial revolution, with entire cities mushrooming into existence stuffed with factories, and a country swiftly criss-crossed by the loud, noisy new technology of the railways, awed contemporaries and again and again gave rise to essays and books and speeches extolling the miraculous qualities of the British nation.

It was only when competitor nations such as America and Germany began to harness the new technologies of the second industrial revolution, the ones which rotated around the production of coal, iron and the new material of steel, taking and improving techniques in the area of metal and machine production which rotated around the great boom in railways from the 1840s onwards, that the shortcomings of British production methods and efficiency began, very slowly, to be revealed.

The entire developed world entered a prolonged agricultural depression in the 1870s which lasted a decade or more (different historians give different start and end points but contemporaries thought it lasted from about 1873 into the 1890s) and when Britain emerged from this depression in the 1890s, she had been decisively overtaken in all measures of industrial production by Germany and America.

Between 1890 and 1895 both the USA and Germany passed Britain in the production of steel. During the ‘Great Depression’ Britain ceased to be ‘the workshop of the world’ and became merely one if its three greatest industrial powers; and, in some crucial respects, the weakest of them. (p.127)

The wealth pouring in from protected imperial trade with an empire was now vastly bigger than it had been in 1750 and so hid our industrial shortcomings from the unintelligent (which included most of the ruling class) and the Daily Mail-reading middle classes. But even the rousing jingoism of Kipling the imperialist poet and Joseph Chamberlain the imperialist politician during the 1890s couldn’t conceal Britain’s relative decline. The pomp and circumstance of the turn of the century was a fool’s paradise.

After the middle of the nineteenth century [the British cotton trade] found its staple outlet in India and the Far East. The British cotton industry was certainly in its time the best in the world, but it ended as it had begun by relying not on its competitive superiority but on a monopoly of the colonial, and underdeveloped markets which the British Empire, the British Navy and British commercial supremacy gave it. (p.58)

While the Germans and Americans developed new ways of organising industrial concerns, with huge cartels and monopolies, developed ever-better methods of mass production, invested heavily in technical education and pioneered new ways of selling high quality products to their domestic markets, Britain was still expending its time and energy expanding its already huge empire and trying to create a global imperial market with preferential treatment of what slowly came to be seen as inferior British goods. This remained the case into the period between the wars and even into the 1940s and 50s.

Imperialism, which reached its peak of rivalry and competition in the 1890s and 1900s, concealed the deep structural reasons for Britain’s long decline, which were already well established by 1900 (p.131).


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A Monarchy Transformed: Britain 1603-1714 by Mark Kishlansky (1996)

Mark Kishlansky (1948 – 2015) was an American historian of seventeenth-century British politics. He was the Frank Baird, Jr. Professor of History at Harvard University, editor of the Journal of British Studies from 1984 to 1991, and editor-in-chief of History Compass from 2003 to 2009.

Kishlansky wrote half a dozen or so books and lots of articles about Stuart Britain and so was invited to write Volume Six of the Penguin History of England covering that period, under the general editorship of historian David Cannadine.

I think of the history of Britain in the 17th century as consisting of four parts:

  1. The first two Stuarts (Kings James I & Charles I) 1603 – 1642
  2. The Civil Wars and Protectorate (Oliver Cromwell) 1642 – 1660
  3. The Restoration (Kings Charles II & James II) 1660 – 1688
  4. The Glorious Revolution and Whig monarchs (William & Mary, then Queen Anne) 1688 – 1714

Although obviously you can go by monarch:

  1. James I (1603-25)
  2. Charles I (1625-42)
  3. Wars of the three kingdoms (1637-53)
  4. Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell (1653-1660)
  5. Charles II (1660-1685)
  6. James II and the Glorious Revolution (1685-88)
  7. William & Mary (1688-1702)

I appreciate that this is an English perspective, and Kishlansky is the first to acknowledge his history tends to focus on England, by far the largest and most powerful of the three kingdoms of Britain. The histories of Scotland and Ireland over the same period shadowed the English timeline but – obviously – had significant events, personnel and continuities of their own. From the start Kishlansky acknowledges he doesn’t have space to give these separate histories the space they deserve.

Why is the history of seventeenth century Britain so attractive and exciting?

The seventeenth century has a good claim to being the most important, the most interesting and maybe the most exciting century in English history because of the sweeping changes that affected every level of society. In 1600 England was still a late-medieval society; in 1700 it was an early modern society and in many ways the most advanced country on earth.

Social changes

  • business the modern business world was created, with the founding of the Bank of England and Lloyds insurance, cheques, banknotes and milled coins were invented; the Stock Exchange was founded and the National Debt, a financial device which allowed the British government to raise large sums for wars and colonial settlement; excise and land taxes provided reliable sources of revenue for the government
  • empire the British Empire was defined with the growth of colonies in North America and India
  • feudal forms of government withered and medieval practices such as torture and the demonisation of witchcraft and heresy died out
  • media newspapers were invented and went from weekly to daily editions
  • new consumer products domestic consumption was transformed by the arrival of new products including tobacco, sugar, rum, gin, port, champagne, tea, coffee and Cheddar cheese
  • the scientific revolution biology, chemistry and physics trace their origins to discoveries made in the 1600s – Francis Bacon laid the intellectual foundations for the scientific method; William Harvey discovered the circulation of the blood; Robert Boyle posited the existence of chemical elements, invented perfected the air pump and created the first vacuum; Isaac Newton discovered his laws of thermodynamics, the composition of light, the laws of gravity; William Napier invented logarithms; William Oughtred invented the multiplication sign in maths; Edmund Halley identified the comet which bears his name, Robert Hooke invented the microscope, the quadrant, and the marine barometer; the Royal College of Physicians published the first pharmacopeia listing the properties of drugs; Peter Chamberlen invented the forceps; the Royal Society (for the sciences) was founded in 1660
  • sport the first cricket and gold clubs were founded; Izaak Walton codified knowledge about fishing in The Compleat Angler; Charles II inaugurated yacht racing at Cowes and Queen Anne founded Royal Ascot
  • architecture Inigo Jones, Sir Christopher Wren, Nicholas Hawksmoor and John Vanbrugh created wonderful stately homes and public buildings e.g. Jones laid out the Covent Garden piazza which remains an attraction in London to this day and Wren designed the new St Paul’s cathedral which became a symbol of London
  • philosophy the political upheavals produced two masterworks of political philosophy, the Leviathan of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, which are still studied and applied in a way most previous philosophy isn’t
  • non conformists despite repeated attempts to ban them, Puritan sects who refused to ‘conform’ to the Restoration settlement of the Church of England were grudgingly accepted and went on to become a permanent and fertile element of British society – the Quakers, Baptists and Presbyterians

Political upheaval

At the centre of the century sits the great 20-year upheaval, the civil wars or British wars or Great Rebellion or the Wars of Three Kingdoms, fought between the armies of parliament and the armies of King Charles I, with significant interventions by armies of Scotland and Ireland, which eventually led to the execution of the king, the abolition of the House of Lords and the disestablishment of the Church of England – achievements which still form a core of the radical agenda to this day. These revolutionary changes were- followed by a series of constitutional experiments under the aegis of the military dictator Oliver Cromwell, which radicalised and politicised an entire generation.

Soon after Cromwell’s death in 1658, his regime began to collapse and elements of it arranged for the Restoration of King Charles II, who returned but under a new, more constitutional monarchy, restrained by laws and conventions guaranteeing the liberties of British subjects and well aware of the mistakes which led to the overthrow of his father.

But none of this stopped his overtly Roman Catholic brother, who succeeded him as James II in 1685, making a string of mistakes which collectively alienated the Protestant grandees of the land who conspired to overthrow him and replace him with the reliably Protestant Prince William of Orange. James was forced to flee, William was invited to become King of England and to rule according to a new, clearly defined constitution or Bill of Rights, which guaranteed all kinds of liberties including of speech and assembly.

All of these upheavals meant that by 1700 England had the most advanced, liberal and open society in Europe, maybe in the world, had experimented with a wide variety of political reforms and constitutions, and developed one which seemed most practical and workable – which was to become the envy of liberals in neighbouring France, and the basis of the more thoroughly worked-out Constitution devised by the founders of the American republic in the 1780s.

Studying the 17th century combines the intellectual excitement of watching these constitutional and political developments unfold, alongside the more visceral excitement of following the dramatic twists and turns in the long civil wars – and then following the slow-burning problems which led to the second great upheaval, the overthrow of James II. There is tremendous pleasure to be had from getting to know the lead characters in both stories and understanding their motives and psychologies.

Key features of 17th century England

The first two chapters of Mark Kishlansky’s book set out the social and political situation in Britain in 1600. These include:

Britain was a comprehensively patriarchal society. The king ruled the country and his word meant life or death. Le Roy le veult – the King wishes it – was the medieval French phrase still used to ratify statutes into law. The monarch made all political, legal, administrative and religious appointments – lords, ministers, bishops, judges and magistrates owed their position to him. In every locality, knights of the shires, justices of the peace administered the king’s laws. The peerage was very finely gradated and jealously policed. Status was everything.

And this hierarchy was echoed in families which were run by the male head of the household who had complete power over his wife and children, a patriarchal household structure endorsed by the examples in the Bible. Women might have as many as 9 pregnancies, of which 6 went to term and three died in infancy, with a further three children dying in infancy.

The family was primarily a unit of production, with all family members down to small children having specified tasks in the often backbreaking toil involved in agricultural work, caring for livestock, foraging for edibles in woods and fields, producing clothes and shoes. Hard physical labour was the unavoidable lot of almost the entire population.

Marriages were a vital way of passing on land and thus wealth, as well as family names and lineages. Most marriages were arranged to achieve these ends. The top responsibility of both spouses were the rights and responsibilities of marriage i.e. a wife obeyed her husband and a husband cherished and supported his wife. It was thought that ‘love’ would grow as a result of carrying out these duties, but wasn’t a necessary component.

Geography 80% of the population in 1600 worked on the land. Britain can be divided into two geographical zones:

1. The North and West The uplands of the north-west, including Scotland and Wales, whose thin soils encouraged livestock supplemented by a thin diet of oats and barley. Settlements here were scattered and people arranged themselves by kin, in Scotland by clans. Lords owned vast estates and preserved an old-fashioned medieval idea of hospitality and patronage.

Poor harvests had a catastrophic impact. A run of bad harvests in the 1690s led to mass emigration from Scotland to America, and also to the closer ‘plantations’ in Ulster.

It was at this point that Scottish Presbyterians became the majority community in the province. Whereas in the 1660s, they made up some 20% of Ulster’s population… by 1720 they were an absolute majority in Ulster, with up to 50,000 having arrived during the period 1690-1710. (Wikipedia)

2. The south and east of Britain was more densely populated, with villages and towns instead of scattered homesteads. Agriculture was more diverse and productive. Where you have more people – in towns and cities – ties of kinship become weaker and people assess each other less by ‘family’ than by achievements, social standing and wealth.

The North prided itself on its older, more traditional values. The South prided itself on being more productive and competitive.

Population The population of England rose from 4 million in 1600 to 5 million in 1700. There were maybe 600 ‘towns’ with populations of around 1,000. Big provincial capitals like Norwich, Exeter or Bristol (with pops from 10,000 to 30,000) were exceptions.

London was unlike anywhere else in Britain, with a population of 200,000 in 1600 growing to around 600,000 by 1700. It was home to the Court, government with its Houses of Lords and Commons, all the main law courts, and the financial and mercantile hub of the nation (Royal Exchange, Royal Mint, later the Bank of England and Stock Exchange). The centre of publishing and the new science, literature, the arts and theatre. By 1700 London was the largest city in the Western world. Edinburgh, the second largest city in Britain, had a paltry 40,000 population.

Inflation Rising population led to a squeeze on food since agricultural production couldn’t keep pace. This resulted in continuous inflation with foodstuffs becoming more expensive throughout the century, which reduced living standards in the countryside and contributed to periods of near famine. On the other hand, the gentry who managed to hang onto or increase their landholdings saw an unprecedented rise in their income. The rise of this class led to the development of local and regional markets and to the marketisation of agriculture. Those who did well spent lavishly, building manors and grand houses, cutting a fine figure in their coaches, sending the sons to university or the army, educating their daughters in order to attract wealthy husbands.

Vagrancy The change in working patterns on the land, plus the rising population, led to a big increase in vagrancy, which the authorities tackled with varying degrees of savagery, including branding on the face with a V for Vagrant. Contemporary theorists blamed overpopulation for poverty, vagrancy and rising crime. One solution was to encourage the excess population to settle plantations in sparsely populated Ireland or emigrate to New England. There were moral panics about rising alcoholism, and sex outside marriage.

Puritans Leading the charge to control immoral behaviour were the Puritans, a negative word applied to a range of people who believed that the Church of England needed to be further reformed in order to reach the state of purity achieved by Calvinists on the continent. Their aims included:

  • abolition of the 26 bishops (who were appointed by the king) and their replacement by Elders elected by congregations
  • reforms of theology and practice – getting rid of images, candles, carvings etc inside churches, getting rid of elaborate ceremonies, bells and incense and other ‘Roman’ superstitions
  • reducing the number of sacraments to the only two practiced by Jesus in the New Testament
  • adult baptism replacing infant baptism

Banning Closely connected was the impulse to crack down on all ungodly behaviour e.g. alcohol (close pubs), immorality (close theatres), licentiousness (ban most books except the Bible), lewd behaviour (force women to wear modest outfits, keep their eyes on the ground), ban festivals, ban Christmas, and so on.

Trans-shipping The key driver of Britain’s economic wealth was shipping and more precisely trans-shipping – where goods were brought in from one source before being transhipped on elsewhere. The size of Britain’s merchant fleet more than tripled and the sized of the cargo ships increased tenfold. London’s wealth was based on the trans-shipping trade.

The end of consensus politics

The second of Kishlansky’s introductory chapters describes in detail the political and administrative system in early 17th century Britain. It is fascinating about a) the complexity of the system b) its highly personal orientation about the person the monarch. It’s far too complicated to summarise here but a few key themes emerge:

Consensus Decisions at every level were reached by consensus. To give an example, when a new Parliament was called by the king, the justices of the peace in a county met at a session where, usually, two candidates put themselves forward and the assembled JPs discussed and chose one. Only very rarely were they forced back on the expedient of consulting local householders i.e. actually having a vote on the matter.

Kishlansky explains how this principle of consensus applied in lots of other areas of administration and politics, for example in discussions in Parliament about acts proposed by the king and which needed to be agreed by both Commons and Lords.

He then goes on to launch what is – for me at any rate – a new and massive idea: that the entire 17th century can be seen as the slow and very painful progression from a political model of consensus to an adversarial model.

The entire sequence of civil war, dictatorship, restoration and overthrow can be interpreted as a series of attempts to reach a consensus by excluding your opponents. King Charles prorogued Parliament to get his way, then tried to arrest its leading members. Cromwell, notoriously, was forced to continually remodel and eventually handpick a Parliament which would agree to do his bidding. After the Restoration Charles II tried to exclude both Catholics and non-conforming Protestants from the body politic, imposing an oath of allegiance in order to preserve the model of consensus sought by his grandfather and father.

the point is that all these attempts to purify the body politic in order to achieve consensus failed.

The advent of William of Orange and the Bill of Rights in 1689 can be seen as not so much defining liberties and freedoms but as finally accepting the new reality, that political consensus was no longer possible and only a well-managed adversarial system could work in a modern mixed society.

Religion What made consensus increasingly impossible? Religion. The reformation of Roman Catholicism which began in 1517, and continued throughout the 16th century meant that, by the 1620s, British society was no longer one culturally and religiously unified community, but included irreducible minorities of Catholics and new-style Calvinist Puritans. Both sides in what became the civil wars tried to preserve the old-fashioned consensus by excluding what they saw as disruptive elements who prevented consensus agreements being reached i.e. the Royalists tried to exclude the Parliamentarians, the Parliamentarians tried to exclude the Royalists, both of them tried to exclude Catholics, the Puritans once in power tried to exclude the Anglicans and so on.

But the consensus model was based on the notion that, deep down, all participants shared the same religious, cultural and social values. Once they had ceased to do that the model was doomed.

Seen from this point of view the entire history of the 17th century was the slow, bloody, and very reluctant acceptance that the old model was dead and that an entirely new model was required in which political elites simply had to accept the long-term existence of sincere and loyal but completely different opinions from their own.

Political parties It is no accident that it was after the Glorious Revolution that the seeds of what became political parties first began to emerge. Under the consensus model they weren’t needed; grandees and royal ministers and so on managed affairs so that most of them agreed or acquiesced on the big decisions. Political parties only become necessary or possible once it had become widely accepted that consensus was no longer possible and that one side or another in a debate over policy would simply lose and would have to put up with losing.

So Kishlansky’s long and fascinating introduction leads up to this insight – that the succession of rebellions and civil wars across the three kingdoms, the instability of the Restoration and then the overthrow of James II were all necessary to utterly and finally discredit the old late-medieval notion of political decision-making by consensus, and to usher in the new world of political decision-making by votes, by parties, by lobbying, by organising, by arguing and taking your arguments to a broader political nation i.e. the electorate.

In large part the English Revolution resulted from the inability of the consensual political system to accommodate principled dissension. (p.63)

At a deep level, the adoption of democracy means the abandonment of attempts to repress a society into agreement. On this view, the core meaning of democracy isn’t the paraphernalia about voting, that’s secondary. In its essence democracy means accepting other people’s right to disagree, sincerely and deeply, with what you hold to be profoundly true. Crafting a system which allows people to think differently and speak differently and live differently, without fear or intimidation.


Related links

Alliance: The Inside Story of How Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill Won One War and Began Another by Jonathan Fenby (2006)

‘In politics one should be guided by the calculation of forces.’ (Stalin at Potsdam)

Alliance is a thorough, insightful and gripping account of the wartime meetings between ‘the Big Three’ Allied leaders – Roosevelt and Churchill and Stalin – which determined the course of the Second World War and set the stage for the Cold War which followed it.

In actual fact the three leaders in question only met face to face on two occasions:

  1. Tehran 28 November-1 December 1943
  2. Yalta, 4-11 February 1945

The third great power conference, Potsdam July 1945, took place after Roosevelt’s death (12 April 1945) and with his successor, former vice-president Harry Truman

There were quite a few meetings between just Roosevelt and Churchill:

  1. Placentia Bay, Canada – 8 to 11 August 1941 – resulting in the Atlantic Charter
  2. First Washington Conference (codename: Arcadia), Washington DC, 22 December 1941 to 14 January 1942
  3. Second Washington Conference, 19 to 25 June 1942
  4. Casablanca, 14 to 24 January 1943 – Roosevelt’s first mention of the policy of ‘unconditional surrender’
  5. First Quebec Conference – 17 to 24 August 1943 (codename: Quadrant)
  6. Third Washington Conference (codename: Trident), 12 to 25 May 1943
  7. First Cairo Conference (codename: Sextant) November 22 to 26, 1943, outlined the Allied position against Japan during World War II and made decisions about postwar Asia
  8. Second Cairo Conference, December 4 to 6, 1943
  9. Second Quebec Conference (codename: Octagon) September 12 to 16, 1944 – Churchill strongly disapproved of the Morgenthau Plan, but had to support it in exchange for $6 billion of Lend-Lease aid to Britain

I hadn’t realised that Churchill flew to Moscow not once, but twice, for one-on-one meetings with Stalin – which had some very rocky moments.

  1. Second Moscow Conference (codename: Bracelet) 12 to 17 August 1942 – Churchill stayed in State Villa No. 7 and, when he told Stalin Britain would not be launching a second front any time soon, Stalin became insulting, asking why the British were so frightened of the Germans. Churchill responded with details of Operation Torch – Anglo-American landings in North Africa designed to open up the Mediterranean, and increased bombing of German cities.
  2. Fourth Moscow Conference (codename: Tolstoy) 9 to 19 October 1944 – this was the meeting where Churchill and Stalin discussed percentages of influence in post-war European nations: Russia 90% in Romania, UK 90% in Greece, Yugoslavia 50/50, and so on.

(The First and Third Moscow conferences were meetings of foreign ministers only i.e. not directly including Churchill or Stalin.)

These top-level meetings are colourful and interesting, and Fenby covers them in minute detail, giving a blow-by-blow account of what was discussed at each of the conference sessions, on each of the days, but nonetheless, the actual conferences are like the tips of the iceberg. Nine-tenths of the book is about the exchanges of messages between the Big Three leaders, by cable and telegram and phone calls, the texts of various speeches and declarations, and the complex matrix of diplomatic missions and exchanges which took place at a lower level, with special envoys shuttling between the three countries, meeting their opposite numbers or conveying messages from one to the other.

Since almost everyone concerned seems to have left diaries of these meetings, plus the vast official record and countless press announcements, Fenby is able to quote liberally from all these sources in order to recreate the complex web of communications which defined the ever-shifting diplomatic relations between the three powers.

The book sticks closely to a chronological account of all the meetings and messages and slowly I began to realise it might more accurately described as a diplomatic history of the alliance. Or a History of Allied Diplomacy During World War Two. And I came to realise the book can be enjoyed on a number of levels:

Character studies of the Big Three

The opening chapter is a kind of prelude, giving vivid pen portraits of the Big Three leaders:

Winston Spencer Churchill, Prime Minister of Great Britain

The stories about Churchill are often funny and loveable. We learn that he liked to go to bed in silk pyjamas. If he had no meetings he stayed in bed till noon, reading all the papers. Time and again eye-witnesses describe him as an over-grown schoolboy, insisting on swimming naked off the coast on a trip to visit Roosevelt, on another occasion arriving at an American military display dressed in a romper suit with his topee brim turned up so that one reporter thought he looked like a small boy going down to the beach to dig a hole in the sand. En route to Yalta, Churchill’s daughter, Sarah, described him as looking like ‘a poor hot pink baby about to cry’ (p.351). After the Yalta conference ended, he ‘walked from room to room, genial and sprightly, like a boy let out of school’ (p.380). Unlike the two other leaders he appeared to have no sex drive whatsoever.

Winston Churchill and a baby in a pram

Spot the baby

Churchill drank like a fish – sherry for breakfast, wine with lunch, champagne, wine and brandy with dinner.

On a striking number of occasions he was naked – swimming in pools naked, on one occasion padding round the bomber flying him back from Moscow naked from the waist down, appearing half-naked in front of the Moscow ambassador (who, memorably, drew a sketch of the naked British PM), and once – allegedly – when staying at the White House, being caught by Roosevelt emerging naked from the bath and, unabashed, declaring, ‘The Prime Minister of Great Britain has nothing to conceal from the President of the United States.’

Driven to the newly liberated area around Remagen, Churchill, surrounded by photographers, was caught short and unzipped to have a pee, telling the gentleman of the press that this particular moment of their great victory was not to be recorded. In his diary Brooke records that he will never forget ‘the childish grin of intense satisfaction that spread over his face’ (quoted page 388). He comes across as the ultimate naughty schoolboy.

Churchill was also given to flights of schoolboy sentimentality; he easily broke into tears, especially about loyal and trusty servants.

  • ‘I love that man’, he told his daughter Sarah, about Roosevelt, with tears in his eyes. (p.224)
  • Telling Moran that night of the [Polish diplomatic leader’s] request to be dropped into his homeland [to die fighting the Nazis rather than acquiesce in a diplomatic sell-out to the Russians], Churchill had tears in his eyes. (p.330)

And, of course, reams of magniloquent speech emerged effortlessly from his well-stocked mind. All us Brits have been brought up on the key moments from his wartime speeches. But as the book goes on, you come to realise this could also be a weakness. I watched his ‘historic’ address to both Houses of Congress on YouTube and realised that, if the spell drops for a moment, it is possible to see Churchill as a pompous old windbag. During the Tehran Conference, at the end of 1943, Roosevelt is reported as tiring of Churchill’s relentless verbosity (p.236).

And old and tired – one eye-witness memorably described him as a tired old man who kept going by sheer will power alone. But the windbag element opens the door to understanding the strong anti-British feeling which was present at all levels of the American administration and society, and steadily increased as the war progressed. In a telling phrase, Fenby says that by the time of Yalta, Britain was much the most junior partner of the alliance and Churchill knew it. ‘Britain had lost its aura of 1940’ (p.353).

Franklin Delaware Roosevelt, President of the United States

It is quite a surprise to read so many of the senior staff who worked with Roosevelt describing him as a heartless SOB – that’s not at all how he comes over in the Pathé newsreels where he’s always laughing and joshing, but the eye-witnesses are 100% consistent.

The laughing and joshing is connected to another of Roosevelt’s characteristics, which was his conviction that he could talk round anyone with banter and good humour. This partly explains his relationship with Stalin. a) Roosevelt, being an optimistic, can-do American, couldn’t really conceive the depths of evil which Stalin represented. b) Roosevelt believed he could manage Stalin as he had managed so many apparently tough opponents in his long political career.

‘I know you will not mind my being brutally frank with you when I tell you that I think I can personally handle Stalin better than your Foreign Office or my State Department.’ (Roosevelt to Churchill)

What he thought he could do was to outwit Stalin as he had done with so many interlocutors. (Walter Lippmann, political commentator)

During the course of 1943 Roosevelt and Hopkins and their entourage became steadily more pro-Stalin and inclined to cold shoulder Churchill. Fenby records that some, more realistic, American diplomats resigned in protest at their boss’s wishful thinking about Soviet intentions and readiness to brush the show trials, gulags and famines under the carpet.

Franklin D. Roosevelt smiling from a car with cigarette holder in handf

Roosevelt trusted Stalin more than Churchill

Josef Stalin

It’s sometimes difficult to believe that a man as monstrous as Stalin ever lived and breathed and walked, let alone shook hands with the other two, made jokes and delivered gracious toasts. All the eye-witness accounts confirm that he was extremely practical and factual. He had three demands and he made them right from the start:

  • for Britain and America to send more arms and munitions to help the Red Army fighting the Germans
  • for Britain and America to open a second front as soon as possible i.e. invade France
  • after the war to have a guaranteed security zone or buffer comprising Poland and the Baltic states in Europe (the situation in China/Manchuria was more complicated but Stalin’s basic principle was easily applied here, too: he supported whichever solution gave Russia maximum security)

Uncle Joe often had a twinkle in his eye and charmed most of his guests. Only occasionally did the psychopath emerge. At one of the many drinks receptions and dinners accompanying the meetings, a Russian general was showing Kerr how to handle one of their tommy guns, when Stalin seized it and said, ‘Let me show you how a real politician behaves’, and made a mock gesture of machine gunning everyone else in the room. At Yalta, Roosevelt asked Stalin who the quiet man with the pince-nez was. Stalin saw the president was gesturing towards Beria and laughed, ‘Oh that’s our Himmler’ (p.369). When Churchill explained to Stalin that he might lose the upcoming British general election, as he was only the leader of a particular party, Stalin replied, ‘One party is much better’ (p.377).

Joseph Stalin sitting at a desk writing on documents, pipe in mouth

How many people was Stalin responsible for killing?

Character studies of their many subordinates

But the book is by no means only about the Big Three. There’s a also a huge amount of highly enjoyable gossip about the cohorts of advisers and diplomats and military men the Big Leaders were surrounded by. Here are quick sketches of some of them:

The Brits

  • Major Arthur Birse – Churchill’s Russian translator
  • Field Marshal Alan Brooke – Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS) and, as chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, was the foremost military advisor to Winston Churchill. He was nicknamed ‘Shrapnel’. In the 1950s his diaries were published which contained scathing criticisms of senior figures of the war, including Churchill. Brooke admired Stalin for his quick grasp of strategy and military reality – but still thought him a cold-hearted, mass murderer. He was a keen birdwatcher.
  • Sir Alexander Montagu George Cadogan, Permanent Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs from 1938 to 1946, kept extensive diaries which were later published.
  • Field Marshal Sir John Dill, May 1940 to December 1941 Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS) and in Washington, Senior British Representative on the Combined Chiefs of Staff. Though much admired by Americans as senior as George Marshall, Churchill did not like him, nicknamed him Dilly-Dally, and replaced him with Alan Brooke.
  • Anthony Eden, Foreign Secretary from 1940 to 1945 – Churchill’s loyal lieutenant, principled, vain, self-centred
  • Edward Wood, Lord Halifax from 1941 to 1946 British Ambassador in Washington
  • Sir Archibald Clark Kerr – ambassador to China from 1938 to 1942, where he won the respect of Chiang Kai-shek; then ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1942 to 1946 where his tough approach and broken nose earned him the nickname, ‘the Partisan’.

The Americans

  • Averell Harriman – inherited $100 million from his father and was chosen to manage the massive Lend-Lease programme. US ambassador to the Soviet Union from October 1943 to January 1944. Had an affair with Winston Churchill’s son’s wife.
  • Harry Hopkins – gangling son of an Iowa saddle-maker who ended up becoming instrumental in Roosevelt’s New Deal scheme, and moved into the White House to become Roosevelt’s adviser throughout the war.
  • George Marshall – supremely capable Chief of Staff of the US Army, September 1939 to November 1945.
  • Cordell Hull – the longest-serving U.S. Secretary of State, 1933 to 1944, at daggers drawn with his junior, Sumner Welles, who he eventually got fired in 1943. Hull was the underlying architect of the United Nations. Eden described him as ‘the old man’. Cadogan referred to him as ‘the old lunatic’.
  • Sumner Welles – Under secretary of state 1937 to 1943: ‘the age of imperialism is ended’. Hull hated Welles and got him sacked when stories of his gay lifestyle began to leak to the press.
  • Henry L. Stimson – Secretary of War (1940 to 1945), principled grand old man in his 70s, he vehemently opposed the Morgenthau Plan, and kept a diary full of insights.

Americans in China

  • General Joseph Stilwell – in charge of some Chinese Nationalist forces, adviser to Chiang Kai-shek, supervisor of American lend-Lease to the Nationalists. Known as ‘Vinegar Joe’ he despised the British in India and Burma from the start, but came to loathe Chiang as he came to understand how Chiang’s policies ignored ideas like efficiency and were entirely based on paying bribes to, and keeping in place, administrators and senior soldiers who supported him. This explained the Nationalists’ woeful record at fighting. Stilwell took to referring to him as the Peanut (because of the shape of Chiang’s shaven skull).
  • Claire Chennault – retired from the US Air Force in 1937, Chennault went to China to work as freelance adviser to the Chinese Air Force. After Japan invaded Manchuria Chennault found himself becoming Chiang Kai-shek’s chief air adviser, training Chinese Air Force pilots, and setting up the so-called Flying Tigers.

Roosevelt wanted to replace Stilwell who, by 1943, hated the Chinese with a passion. But his Chief of Staff refused to accept the obvious replacement, Chennault, because he was outside the formal command structure and was far too close to Chiang. So nothing was done, one of several reasons why American policy in China was allowed to drift…

The Russians

  • Vyacheslav Molotov– USSR Foreign Minister. Molotov is a pseudonym like Stalin, it means ‘hammer’. According to witnesses Molotov was completely inflexible, unbending, unyielding.
  • Ivan Maisky – USSR Ambassador to Britain 1932 to 1943.
  • Maxim Litvinov – Soviet ambassador to Washington 1941 to 1943.

The French

  • Charles de Gaulle – leader of the Free French. A relatively junior officer in the French Army, de Gaulle escaped the German invasion and on 18 June made a radio appeal from London to the French to resist the occupiers. He was a legend in his own mind, remplis with a particularly Gallic form of arrogance and hauteur, and eventually managed to convince the French nation of his historic uniqueness. But it is very funny to read how powerless he was in the context of the Great Powers, and how he was routinely ignored by all sides as irrelevant. Churchill was, in fact, generally respectful – we had fought side by side the French during the German invasion of 1940. I’d forgotten that Roosevelt hated de Gaulle with a passion. He was convinced de Gaulle was a dictator-in-waiting in exactly the same mould as Mussolini.

The Americans dislike the Free French

Even after the United States declared war on Germany (11 December 1941), it was only the beginning of what turned into a very long haul. Fenby quotes Charles de Gaulle who, on hearing the news of Pearl Harbour, declared (with typically French brio/arrogance) that the war was won, it was only a matter of time. Obviously almost everyone who was going to die over that matter of time was going to be Russian, American and British. It is heart-warming to read how much Roosevelt and the Americans disliked the Free French under de Gaulle. At Yalta, Roosevelt said the Americans would only give the French a sector of Germany to run ‘out of kindness’. Stalin concurred. Both men obeyed the well-known dictum:

Bad-mouthing the French always has its appeal. (p.358)

De Gaulle was furious at not being invited to the Yalta Conference – despite the fact that the three participants gifted France control of a sector of post-war Germany which they had done nothing to ear. In a typically high-handed gesture, de Gaulle cancelled a post-conference meeting that had been arranged with Roosevelt. The president really lost his temper and drafted a flaming reply criticising not only de Gaulle but the entire French nation until his translator, career diplomat Charles ‘Chip’ Bohlen agreed that de Gaulle was ‘one of the biggest sons of bitches who ever straddled a pot’. This amused Roosevelt who calmed down and set his diplomats to working on a much toned-down reply.

Like a novel

So this 400-page book is a bit like a 19th century novel. You are formally introduced to each new character, with pen portraits, other people’s descriptions, titbits about their private lives and professional achievements. Then settle in to watch the cast assemble, disperse, meet, take notes, observe each other and generally interact. By half-way through, when Fenby describes a meeting involving Eden, Hopkins, you have a good idea of what they all looked like, where they were coming from, and what to expect.

Big ideas

So much for the gossip, but there’s also plenty of through-provoking stuff about the geopolitics.

I find it fascinating, reading about any war, to learn how war aims change and evolve during a prolonged conflict. History – the passage of time – simplifies everything to black and white, whereas at the time, the leaders of the allied powers were working amid a blizzard of conflicting aims and goals, on at least four levels:

  • the leaders of the big three nations (USA, Britain, USSR) disagreed among themselves, and as the war progressed, frequently changed their minds
  • their advisers often strongly disagreed with their leaders, and also amongst themselves
  • in the democracies, the opposition political parties and voices in the press and other commentators often strongly disagreed with government policy
  • and underlying all this human froth was the deep, enduring reality of geography and the geopolitical priorities which that entails

It makes for a fascinating maze, a kind of four-dimensional chess, which Fenby confidently steers us through, often with a wry smile on his face.

Stalin wanted arms and Russian security

To take the last one first, Stalin knew what he wanted and he largely got it. It is bracing to read the eye-witness accounts of the western diplomats who met and admired him. They knew he was a dictator, some were repelled by his history of brutality, but all admired the clarity and conviction of his thinking. When the war was over, Stalin wanted to ensure he had SECURITY in the West and the East. From the get-go he wanted to ensure a geographical buffer to protect Russia from any further attack from East or West. His methods were brutal and disregarded all humanitarian values, but he had the advantage of being absolutely clear about his aims. And he achieved them. In 1942 he asked for control of the Baltic states and Poland to provide his buffer, and this request caused quite a serious rift between Britain (who wanted to agree in order to pen Russia in) and America (who rejected all plans, pacts and alliances, and was committed to giving every nation its ‘freedom’). In the event, Stalin extended his buffer zone half-way across Europe to take half of Germany.

And in the Far East, as I’ve just read in Fenby’s excellent history of China, this simple priority – security – explains why Stalin initially allied with the right-wing Kuomintang against Mao’s communists. Stalin would deal with whoever seemed able to provide security to the USSR, and the Kuomintang were, in 1945 anyway, the strongest power in China, once the Japanese had surrendered.

But Stalin had two more-immediate concerns which he hammered away at repeatedly:

  1. More arms – he wanted the allies to send him much, much more arms and munitions to help the Red Army fight the Germans who – be it remembered – advanced up to the outskirts of Moscow, up to the river Don and deep into the Caucasus.
  2. Second Front – he wanted Britain and America to invade France as soon as possible, a demand he kept up in every conversation and exchange throughout all of 1942 and 1943 and into 1944.

Winston Churchill wanted to preserve the British Empire

This threw up all kinds of problems around the current and future economic and political organisation of the British Empire which took up a lot of Churchill’s time and energy and that of the other conservative politicians around him – concerns about the preferential trading system within the Empire and Commonwealth, which now seems as remote as the Corn Laws – as well as the responsibility of trying to secure and police an extremely farflung set of territories, which beset the British chiefs of staff.

In the end, it was a failure. Fresh in my mind is J.G. Ballard’s eye-witness account in his three autobiographies of the seismic impact the loss of Singapore (15 February 1942) had on the British Empire in the East. It lost face forever. It was seen as defeatable. Everyone realised its days were numbered. In the event, Britain gave independence to India in 1947 just two years after the war ended, and over the next fifteen years the rest of the British Empire unravelled.

And all this – the collapse of the British Empire – comes to seem increasingly obvious when you read this book and see how utterly, helplessly dependent the British government and empire and, Churchill personally, were on the Americans – and then to read in detail, with extended quotes, Roosevelt’s cast-iron opposition to the British Empire.

Arguably, Churchill deluded himself about American intentions. Rather like Kipling, he deludedly saw the young United States coming under the tutelage of the wise and mature British Empire to organise a post-war world in which both would exercise the White Man’s Burden to tutor the native peoples of the world to democracy and statecraft.

Churchill thought the Anglo nations would need to be united in order to contain a Soviet Union which he early on realised would try to extend its influence deep into Europe. Whereas Churchill was rudely dismissive of China, which had displayed nothing but weakness under its despotic but inefficient Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek. (Stalin, it is interesting to note, was just as dismissive of Chiang’s regime and insisted he not be invited to the Big Three meeting at Tehran.)

Roosevelt wanted a post-imperial world of free nations

If Stalin’s central and inflexible obsession was about gaining SECURITY for Russia, America’s was the idealistic notion that, when the war ended, all the old empires and old alliances and old European ideas about ‘balances of power’ – the kind of complex alliances which had triggered the First World War and failed to avoid the Second – would be abandoned for all time and be replaced by a comity of free nations engaged in free trade under the aegis of global governing bodies (the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund). In this world order about four major states would be the top players – US, Britain, USSR, China – and Britain would be one, but only one, among many.

Churchill thought the Brits and the Americans were fighting to overthrow the tyrannies of Germany and Japan, and hoped that afterwards extended American power would mesh with a rejuvenated British Empire to promote Anglo-Saxon ideas of law and justice. But the Americans disagreed: they saw themselves as overthrowing all the European empires and establishing principles of democracy and free trade throughout the world. Roosevelt is repeatedly quoted telling trusted advisers (specially Harry Hopkins, and also Roosevelt’s son, Elliott) that Churchill was wilfully misunderstanding him.

‘I can’t believe that we can fight a war against fascist slavery, and at the same time not work to free people all over the world from a backward colonial policy? The peace cannot include any continued despotism… Equality of peoples involves the utmost freedom of competitive trade.’ (Roosevelt to Churchill)

‘I’ve tried to make it clear to Winston – and the others – that, while we’re their allies and in it to victory by their side, they must never get the idea that we’re in it just to help them hang on to the archaic, medieval Empire ideas… Great Britain signed [sic] the Atlantic Charter. I hope they realise the United States Government means to make them live up to it.’ (Roosevelt to his son, Elliott)

The Morgenthau Plan

One of the key issues to emerge during 1944 was how to treat Germany after the war. Fenby goes into great detail about the Morgenthau Plan named after Henry Morgenthau, US Secretary of the Treasury, which planned to hammer Germany, permanently dividing it into smaller states and stripping it of all industrial capacity, denuding the Ruhr industrial heartland, and returning it to a pastoral, agricultural society for the foreseeable future.

Fenby brings out how some of the vengefulness of the plan stemmed from the Jewish ethnicity of Morgenthau and his even more extreme deputy, Harry Dexter White, who was also Jewish. (This was widely recognised at the time:  Secretary of State Henry Stimson described the Morgenthau Plan as ‘Semitism gone wild for vengeance’ and ‘a crime against civilisation’.) As both men learned more about the Holocaust (initially a top secret known only to the administration) it didn’t soften their determination to destroy Germany. Morgenthau estimated his model of a deindustrialised Germany would support about 60% of the current population; the other 40% would starve to death. Roosevelt told his cabinet that Germany should only be allowed only a ‘subsistence level’ of food. If a lot of Germans starved to death – tough.

By contrast, Churchill, when he was presented with the Morgenthau Plan at the Second Quebec Conference in September 1944, was extremely reluctant to agree with it and fought to water down its provisions. This was because Churchill could already see, with a clarity the Morgenthau backers (including Roosevelt) lacked, that the immediate post-war problem would not be Germany but Russia, which was gearing up to conquer half of Europe.

Completely contrary to the Morgenthau Plan, Churchill correctly predicted that a revitalised and economically strong Germany would be vital a) to resist Russian encroachment b) to revive the European economy as a whole.

There was another, more pressing aspect to the Morgenthau Plan. When details were leaked to the press in September 1944, it had a damaging impact on the war effort.

  1. Goebbels leapt on it, making much of the Jewish heritage of its author, and was able to depict it as evidence of the global Jewish conspiracy against Germany which he and Hitler had been warning about for a generation (p.319).
  2. More significantly, US military figures as senior as George Marshall claimed the plan significantly stiffened German opposition, and directly led to the deaths of American soldiers. Roosevelt’s son-in-law Lieutenant-Colonel John Boettiger worked in the War Department and claimed the Morgenthau Plan was ‘worth thirty divisions to the Germans’.

In the longer term, the Morgenthau ideas of reducing German industrial output and deliberately impoverishing the German population turned out to be impractical and counter-productive. During the years of the Occupation, from summer 1945 onwards, it became clear that Germany was the economic and industrial heartland of Europe and that impeding its recovery would condemn the entire continent to poverty. Plus, preventing the Germans from producing their own goods threw the burden of supplying even the basic necessities of life onto the American forces on the ground, who quickly realised how impractical this was.

Just a year after the war, the Morgenthau Policy was comprehensively overthrown in a famous speech titled Restatement of Policy on Germany delivered by James F. Byrnes, US Secretary of State, in Stuttgart on September 6, 1946, which became known as the ‘Speech of Hope’.

After the war it became known that Harry Dexter White, although never himself a communist, had been passing classified information to the Soviet Union, enough for him to be given a codename by his Soviet ‘handlers’. Called before the House Unamerican Activities committee in 1948, White denied being a communist. Shortly after testifying he had a heart attack and a few days later died, aged just 55, apparently of an overdose.

And so White’s enthusiastic support of the Morgenthau Plan could be reinterpreted as aiding the Soviets by ensuring Germany was rendered utterly powerless after the war. A great deal of debate still surrounds White’s role. Stepping back, you can see how the story of the Morgenthau Plan crystallises the complex, overlapping nexuses of geopolitics, economics, ethnicity and conflicts between the supposed Allies, and the conflicts within the administration of the most powerful of the three powers, the United States.

Sick men

All three were sick men. Several eye-witnesses testify how sick Churchill was and how he only kept himself going by sheer willpower. But the facade crumbled after the Tehran Conference. Churchill was exhausted when he flew back from Persia to Cairo, and by the time he’d taken an onward flight to Tunis to meet General Eisenhower, he was almost too weak to walk, and, upon arrival, was confined to a villa where doctors discovered he had pneumonia. Churchill’s fever worsened and then he had a heart attack. His personal physician thought he was going to die.

It is amazing that, with rest and injections of the new-fangled drug penicillin, he not only made a full recovery, but after a week was full of energy, firing off messages to the Cabinet in London, to Stalin and Roosevelt and worrying about the next stage of the military campaign to take Italy. And little short of mind-boggling that he went on to live for another 21 years.

And of course Roosevelt also was a very ill man. In March 1944, shortly after his 62nd birthday, he underwent testing at Bethesda Hospital and was found to have high blood pressure, atherosclerosis, coronary artery disease causing angina pectoris, and congestive heart failure. Fenby explains Roosevelt had a cluster of symptoms nowadays referred to as post-polio syndrome (p.280). He went to the estate of a rich friend in South Carolina and ended up staying four weeks, sleeping a lot, cutting down on his chain-smoking and trying to drink less booze. But he never regained his former ‘pep’.

The most revealing symptom of this – and typical of Fenby’s semi-humorous, gossipy touch – was that the President stopped tinkering with his beloved stamp collection, up till then his favourite way of unwinding last thing at night. His personal physician, Admiral Ross McIntire, created a daily schedule that banned business guests for lunch and incorporated two hours of rest each day. But when he returned to Washington, witnesses testify that from that point onwards he was a good deal more flippant and ill-informed. At meetings he lacked focus, increasingly telling rambling anecdotes about his forebears. Churchill thought him no longer the man he had been.

Choosing the vice-president

It beggars belief that this crippled and deeply ill man determined to run for president a record-breaking fourth time and spent a lot of 1944 criss-crossing his huge nation making election speeches. The election was held on 7 November 1944 and Roosevelt won 53.4% of the popular vote and 432 out of the 531 electoral votes. He had campaigned in favour of a strong United Nations, so his victory symbolised support for the nation’s future participation in the international community (unlike the isolationism which swept America at the end of the First World War).

Roosevelt wanted to retain his vice-president, Henry Wallace. A contingent of the Democratic party wanted the Southern Democrat Harry Byrd. Roosevelt was persuaded to nominate a compromise candidate, Harry S Truman from Missouri. Did many people at the time realise what a momentous choice this would turn out to be?

And am I the only person who noticed that all three contenders for the vice-presidency were named Harry?

One way of thinking about the Yalta Conference in February 1945, is that Stalin dragged a very ill man half-way round the world and then, backed by his henchman Molotov, was able to run rings round him. Roosevelt no longer seemed to take in information, or push for solid agreements. His doctor thought his brain was going and gave him only months to live.

Roosevelt clings to Stalin till the last moment

I hadn’t realised the extent to which the Roosevelt administration became so utterly pro-Soviet, and increasingly anti-British. All discussions about helping Britain after the war with loans were tempered by concern that Britain would rise to become a major economic rival of the US. It came as a big surprise to Roosevelt and his economic advisers when Churchill bluntly told them that Britain was broke, and would go bankrupt without major economic assistance (p.305)

In the last hundred pages Roosevelt’s administration starts gearing up for the presidential campaign of 1944, and for the first time you really hear about his Republican opponents, and suddenly realise that there was a great deal of domestic opposition throughout Roosevelt’s presidency to everything he stood for – from Republicans who opposed the state socialism of the New Deal, to isolationists who fought tooth and nail to keep America out of the war, and then to an array of political figures and commentators who accused Roosevelt’s Democrats of being far too supportive to the Communist mass-murderer, Stalin, and not supportive enough of the right-wing Nationalist government of China under Chiang Kai-shek. Reading this book, it’s easy to sympathise with these last two points.

In this context Fenby goes into detail of the diplomatic toing and froing surrounding the Warsaw Rising – not the fighting itself, but the increasingly desperate attempts of the Polish government in exile to get the Allies to support the rising, the repeated requests made by Roosevelt and Churchill to Stalin to get the Red Army – which had halted its advance only 50 kilometres from the Polish capital – to intervene, or to get permission to land and fly Western planes from Ukrainian airfields to drop supplies to the Polish resistance.

All of which Stalin refused and stonewalled. It suited him to have the entire Free Polish Resistance massacred by the Germans, clearing the way for the puppet communist government which he planned to put in place. Afterwards the Americans and Churchill fell in with Stalin’s obvious lies that it was military shortages which prevented the Red Army from intervening. Only the tough-minded George Kennan felt the West should have had a full-fledged showdown with Russia about it.

Same with the Katyn Massacre – in which some 22,000 Polish military officers and intelligentsia were executed by the Soviet Union, specifically the NKVD (the Soviet secret police) in April and May 1940. The Nazis discovered the burial site and publicised it in 1943, but Stalin resolutely denied all responsibility and claimed it was a Nazi atrocity – and Britain and America, once again, went along with his lies, for the sake of alliance unity.

The Cold War

Maybe it was appropriate that Roosevelt died just as the war ended. Every day made it plainer that the Soviets were going to ignore all promises and do whatever it took to impose communist governments across Eastern Europe, most notably in Poland whose governance was a running sore between the three ‘allies’ from the start of 1945. Right to the end Roosevelt hoped that, if he ignored this or that broken promise or atrocity by Stalin, the dictator would adhere to the main agreements.

Maybe it was appropriate that Roosevelt died and a new, simpler but arguably tougher man took over, Harry Truman, who was plunged into managing the future of the world as the greatest war in history came to a close. Truman had no idea relations with Moscow had become so rocky. And he hadn’t been told about the atom bomb. Can you imagine the awesome burden which suddenly landed on his shoulders!

In some ways the last 20 pages of the book are the most interesting: with the war in Europe over, Churchill – as Roosevelt predicted – became yesterday’s man. An exhausted Britain looked to the future and elected the Labour government with a landslide in July 1945. Roosevelt was dead and Truman replaced him as president with a completely new remit, sacking former advisers (for example, briskly dismissing Morgenthau while Roosevelt’s most loyal adviser, Harry Hopkins, retired), very much his own man from the start. The Labour Party leader Clement Attlee replaced Churchill. And on August 6 the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. On 14 August Japan surrendered, bringing the world war to an end.

A new era had dawned – but Fenby’s highly detailed, fascinating and gripping account helps the reader understand how the outlines of what became known as the Cold War had been established long before the shooting stopped.


Related links

Related history books

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Holocaust literature

Masculinities: Liberation through Photography @ the Barbican

Barbican Art does things big – exhaustively and exhaustingly BIG. To quote the press release:

Masculinities: Liberation through Photography is a major group exhibition that explores how masculinity is experienced, performed, coded and socially constructed as expressed and documented through photography and film from the 1960s to the present day.

The exhibition brings together over 300 works by over 50 pioneering international artists, photographers and filmmakers such as Richard Avedon, Peter Hujar, Isaac Julien, Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Robert Mapplethorpe, Annette Messager and Catherine Opie to show how photography and film have been central to the way masculinities are imagined and understood in contemporary culture.

300 works! I wonder if anyone’s ever done a study of the optimum number of works which should be included in an exhibition. Or the optimum number of contributors.

The Piranesi exhibition I went to last week contained 60 images and that was too many to process: I ended up studying about ten of the best. But 300 images! And over 50 contributors! Each with a long and detailed explanatory wall label explaining their career and motivation and the genesis and point of their particular exhibit.

It’s less like an exhibition than a degree course!

Untitled from the series Soldiers (1999) by Adi Nes. Courtesy Adi Nes & Praz-Delavallade Paris, Los Angeles

A degree course in Gender Studies. because Masculinities: Liberation through Photography tends to confirm my sense that, for many modern artists and for most modern art curators, gender and sexual identity are the only important subjects in the world. Thus, according to Jane Alison, Head of Visual Arts, Barbican:

‘In the wake of the #MeToo movement and the resurgence of feminist and men’s rights activism, traditional notions of masculinity have become the subject of fierce debate. This exhibition could not be more relevant and will certainly spark conversations surrounding our understanding of masculinity.’

In fact quoting this much makes me think it might be most effective simply to quote the entire press release, so you can see exactly where the Barbican Art curators are coming from, without any editorial comment by me. So here it is:

With ideas around masculinity undergoing a global crisis and terms such as ‘toxic’ and ‘fragile’ masculinity filling endless column inches, the exhibition surveys the representation of masculinity in all its myriad forms, rife with contradiction and complexity. Presented across six sections by over 50 international artists to explore the expansive nature of the subject, the exhibition touches on themes of queer identity, the black body, power and patriarchy, female perceptions of men, heteronormative hypermasculine stereotypes, fatherhood and family. The works in the show present masculinity as an unfixed performative identity shaped by cultural and social forces.

Seeking to disrupt and destabilise the myths surrounding modern masculinity, highlights include the work of artists who have consistently challenged stereotypical representations of hegemonic masculinity, including Collier Schorr, Adi Nes, Akram Zaatari and Sam Contis, whose series Deep Springs, 2018 draws on the mythology of the American West and the rugged cowboy. Contis spent four years immersed in an all-male liberal arts college north of Death Valley meditating on the
intimacy and violence that coexists in male-only spaces.

Untitled (Neck), 2015 by Sam Contis © Sam Contis

Complicating the conventional image of the fighter, Thomas Dworzak’s acclaimed series Taliban consists of portraits found in photographic studios in Kandahar following the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, these vibrant portraits depict Taliban fighters posing hand in hand in front of painted backdrops, using guns and flowers as props with kohl carefully applied to their eyes.

Taliban portrait. Kandahar, Afghanistan by Thomas Dworzak (2002) © Collection T. Dworzak/Magnum Photos

Trans masculine artist Cassils’ series Time Lapse, 2011, documents the radical transformation of their body through the use of steroids and a rigorous training programme reflecting on ideas of masculinity without men.

Elsewhere, artists Jeremy Deller, Robert Mapplethorpe and Rineke Dijkstra dismantle preconceptions of subjects such as the wrestler, the bodybuilder and the athlete and offer an alternative view of these hyper-masculinised stereotypes.

The exhibition examines patriarchy and the unequal power relations between gender, class and race. Karen Knorr’s series Gentlemen, 1981-83, comprised of 26 black and white photographs taken inside men-only private members’ clubs in central London and accompanied by texts drawn from snatched conversations, parliamentary records and contemporary news reports, invites viewers to reflect on notions of class, race and the exclusion of women from spaces of power during Margaret Thatcher’s premiership.

“Newspapers are no longer ironed, Coins no longer boiled So far have Standards fallen” from the series Gentlemen, by Karen Knorr (1981-83) © Karen Knorr

Toxic masculinity is further explored in Andrew Moisey’s 2018 photobook The American Fraternity: An Illustrated Ritual Manual which weaves together archival photographs of former US Presidents and Supreme Court Justices who all belonged to the fraternity system, alongside images depicting the initiation ceremonies and parties that characterise these male-only organisations.

With the rise of the Gay Liberation Movement through the 1960s followed by the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s, the exhibition showcases artists such as Peter Hujar and David Wojnarowiz, who increasingly began to disrupt traditional representations of gender and sexuality.

Hal Fischer’s critical photo-text series Gay Semiotics, 1977, classified styles and types of gay men in San Francisco and Sunil Gupta’s street photographs captured the performance of gay public life as played out on New York’s Christopher Street, the site of the 1969 Stonewall Uprising.

Street Fashion: Jock from the series Gay Semiotics, 1977/2016 by Hal Fischer. Courtesy of the artist and Project Native Informant London

Other artists exploring the performative aspects of queer identity include Catherine Opie’s seminal series Being and Having, 1991, showing her close friends in the West Coast’s LGBTQ+ community sporting false moustaches, tattoos and other stereotypical masculine accessories.

Bo from Being and Having by Catherine Opie (1991) © Catherine Opie, Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles; Thomas Dane Gallery, London; and Soloman R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

Elle Pérez’s luminous and tender photographs explore the representation of gender non-conformity and vulnerability, whilst Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s fragmented portraits explore the studio as a site of homoerotic desire.

During the 1970s women artists from the second wave feminist movement objectified male sexuality in a bid to subvert and expose the invasive and uncomfortable nature of the male gaze. In the exhibition, Laurie Anderson’s seminal work Fully Automated Nikon (Object/Objection/Objectivity), 1973, documents the men who cat-called her as she walked through New York’s Lower East Side, while Annette Messager’s series The Approaches (1972) covertly captures men’s trousered crotches with a long-lens camera.

German artist Marianne Wex’s encyclopaedic project Let’s Take Back Our Space: ‘Female’ and ‘Male’ Body Language as a Result of Patriarchal Structures (1977) presents a detailed analysis of male and female body language, and Australian indigenous artist Tracey Moffatt’s awkwardly humorous film Heaven (1997) portrays male surfers changing in and out of their wet suits…

Thus the press release for this huge exhibition. I’ve quoted it at length so you can:

  • get an overview of the exhibition’s contents
  • get a sense of the thinking behind the exhibition
  • get familiar with the dated sociological jargon which is used throughout – ‘interrogate’, ‘challenge’, ‘disrupt’, ‘heteronormative’, ‘male gaze’, ‘patriarchy’

So you can see the curators’ point of view and intentions before I start critiquing them.


The complete irrelevance of any of these ‘masculinities’ to my own life and experience

Almost none of the art or artists in this exhibition bore any relation to my experiences as a boy, teenager, young man, adult man, working man, husband, and then father of my own son. I thought it was quite an achievement to feature so much work by so many artists claiming to speak for or about ‘masculinity’ or men, but which managed to touch on so little of my own personal life experiences of ‘masculinity’.

I took photos of the wall captions as I went round the exhibition and so, as a sample, here are the subjects of the first 15 or so displays, with the exact subject matter of the sets of photographs highlighted in bold:

  1. Taliban warriors by Thomas Dworzak
  2. Beirut fighters by Fouad Elkoury
  3. Israeli soldiers by Adi Nes
  4. a video of a close-up of the trousers of a man who urinates in his pants and trousers, so you see the wet patch spreading by Knut Asadam (Pissing by Knut Asdam)
  5. American, German and British soldiers by Wolfgang Tillmans
  6. American cowboys by Collier Schorr
  7. a film by Isaac Julien about American cowboys, The Long Road to Mazatlan
  8. American photographer Sam Contis’s photos of a liberal arts college in the mid-West
  9. American photographer Catherine Opie’s photos of American footballers
  10. American artist Andy Warhol’s movies of male fashion models
  11. American photographer Herb Ritt’s photos of buff Hollywood garage attendants
  12. American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s photos of Arnold Schwarzenegger and female bodybuilder Lisa Lyon
  13. Akram Zaatari’s photos of Middle Eastern weightlifters
  14. 100 black and white photos of himself wearing y-fronts taken from all angles by Canadian transmasculine performance artist and bodybuilder Cassils
  15. a series of photos by a British photographer of London Fire Brigade firefighters at work and in the showers

Men I know

Down the road from me lives my neighbour Nigel. He regularly goes folk dancing with his wife. At weekends they go for long cycle rides in the country. I helped him with a bit of guerrilla gardening last autumn when we planted daffodils on a patch of waste ground at the end of our road, which are now flowering. Nigel tended one of the allotments at the end of our road, and we’d have lengthy chats about the best plants I could put in my back garden to encourage more birds and butterflies.

Occasionally, we see old Richard go slouching along the road to his allotment where he tends his bee hives and chain smokes. A few years ago he was in the papers, in a photo showing him wearing full beekeeping rig and handing a letter into Number 10 asking for more government help to protect bees.

I shared a house with two friends in my last year at university who did science subjects: Nowadays Tony works for the Worldwide Fund For Nature trying to save the rainforests, and David is a microbiologist who helps develop micro-devices which can be installed within the human body to secrete medicine at regular or required intervals, for example in diabetics.

My boyhood friend Jonathan runs a puppet theatre for schools. Tom works for a seaman’s charity in the East End. Adam works for The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in Scotland, monitoring bird populations, nesting habits, tagging birds to follow their migration patterns.

My son is studying biology at university. He’s considering doing a PhD into plant biology with a view to developing more sustainable crops. We play chess when he comes home at the holidays, although I’m always nagging him for frittering away so much of his time playing online video games.

These are ‘masculinities’, aren’t they? These are ways of being male? At least I think Nigel and Richard and Tom and Jonathan and Tony and David, Adam and Luke and I are men. Aren’t we?

But there was nobody like us in this exhibition, what you could call ‘normal’ people. Not a hint of men who like birdwatching, or gardening, or keeping bees, or study plant science, or like folk dancing, or are helping the environment.

Instead this exhibition’s view of masculinity is almost deliriously narrow: alternating between ridiculous American stereotypes of huge steroid-grown athletes or shouting fraternity members, and equally stereotyped images of flamboyant, make-up wearing gays working in nightclubs or part of the uber-gay communities of downtown New York or San Francisco’s Castro district. It is an exhibition of extremes and stereotypes.

Rusty, 2008 by Catherine Opie © Catherine Opie, Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles and Thomas Dane Gallery, London

Paul, who I worked with for all those years in TV, wasn’t camp or flamboyant, he was just a guy who liked a beer and a laugh and happened to be gay. As was his boyfriend. As was Edwin, the Viking-looking giant with a beard who I worked with at a government agency, who also just happened to be gay, it was no big deal, and really hated the way everyone expected him to conform to ‘gay’ stereotypes.

Exactly the kind of dated gay stereotypes which exhibitions like this promote and propagate.

Slavish worship of American culture

Once again I find it weirdly unself-aware that an exhibition which so smugly uses words like ‘transgressive’, ‘interrogate’, ‘disrupt’ and ‘subvert’ about its exhibits, is itself so completely and slavishly in thrall to American photographers and American subject matter and so utterly kowtows to the cultural dominance of The Greatest City in the World (if you’re an art curator) – which is, of course, New York.

The Barbican is in London. Which is in England. Not in New York or San Francisco. And yet only one of the first fifteen or so of the featured photographers was British, and I can only remember two or three other Brits among the remaining 35 or so exhibitors.

The art élite

So by about half way through the exhibition it had dawned on me that there is a very strong political element to this show, just not the one the curators intend. It is that:

Once again an exhibition about gender and race and identity proves beyond doubt the existence of a transnational art élite, made up of international-minded, jet-setting artists and photographers and film-makers, and their entourage of agents and gallery curators, who have more in common with each other than they do with the rest of the populations of their host countries.

What I mean is that the curators and critics who’ve selected the works and written the catalogue of a show like this have much more in common with their counterparts in the art worlds of New York or Berlin or Shanghai than they do with the men or women in the streets of their own cities. They speak the same art language, use the same art theory buzz words and jargon, all agree on the wonderfulness of New York, and all share the same supremely woke and politically correct attitudes to LGBT+ and transgender and BAME rights which, the exhibition strongly implies, are the most important political or social issues anywhere in the world.

They liberally throw around words like ‘elite’ and criticise pretty much all white men for their ‘privilege’. It obviously doesn’t occur to them that being part of the jetsetting, international circuit of artists and art curators is also to belong to a privileged élite.

As a small symbol of this, after having read a host of wall labels castigating élite, men-only, members-only clubs and fraternities – which had the result of hyper-sensitising me to the the wickedness of these restrictive organisations – I couldn’t help smiling when I read on the Barbican website about an ‘exclusive Members’ talk’ which is available to Barbican members only.

Preaching to the converted

And so when I watched the curator of the exhibition speaking to the assembled journalists, critics and reviewers about #MeToo and toxic masculinity, and watched the approving nods and murmurs of her audience, I realised she was praising the values and priorities of the art world and its ferociously politically correct denizens, to exactly the kinds of journalists and critics who inhabit that world and attend these kinds of launches. And it crossed my mind that I had rarely in my life seen a purer example of ‘preaching to the choir’ and reinforcing entrenched groupthink.

Horseshoe Buckle, 1962 by Karlheinz Weinberger © Karlheinz Weinberger

Initial summary

To summarise so far:

  • It felt to me that the exhibition is wildly, almost hallucinatorily partial, misleading and inaccurate about its purported subject matter – masculinity. It simply ignores and neglects almost everything I think about when I think about my own and other men’s masculinity.
  • But what it undoubtedly is, is a handy survey of the deeply entrenched anti-heterosexual, anti-male, anti-white, pro-feminist, pro-black, pro-queer attitudes which now dominate universities, colleges, the art world and art galleries. So the exhibition has this additional layer of interest which is as a fascinating sociological specimen of the current attitudes and terminology of the über-woke.

I’m not against or opposed to those positions and views, in fact I broadly support them (pro-feminism, pro-LGBT+, anti-racism etc). I’m just modestly suggesting that there’s more to the world of men than this polemical and extremely limited exhibition – either American footballers or street queens of New York – gets anywhere near suggesting. In fact there is much more to culture, and politics, and the world, than a relentless obsession with ‘gender’.

Highlights

Having got all that off my chest, you may be surprised to learn that I really enjoyed this exhibition. There’s so much stuff on show they can’t help having lots of really good and interesting art here, and – as usual with the Barbican – it is presented in a series of beautifully designed and arranged spaces. So:

I loved Herb Ritts‘ pinup-style black-and-white photos of incredibly buff and sexy (male) garage hands, stripped to the waist.

What’s not to love about Robert Mapplethorpe‘s photos of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lisa Lyon in their bodybuilding prime?

I really liked Akram Zaatari‘s photos of Middle Eastern weightlifters: he found a trove of badly degraded, faded, marked and damaged photos, then blew them up to wall size, warts and all. The weightlifters are dressed in loose loincloths, a world away from the slick professionalism of Schwarzenegger et al, and then further removed by the spotty blotchy finish of the damaged negatives. I like all art which shows the marks of industrial processes, decay, found objects, Arte Povera etc, art which records its own struggle to emerge from a world of chaos and war.

Bodybuilders Printed From A Damaged Negative by Akram Zaatari (2011)

I liked the work of German feminist photographer Marianne Wex. In the 1970s she made a whole set of collages where she cut out magazine images of men sitting with their legs wide apart and juxtaposed these with magazine images of women sitting primly with their legs tight together. This was funny for all sorts of reason, but also had multiple levels of nostalgia: for the black and white world of 1960s and 70s magazines (and fashions – look at the hair and the flares on the men).

There was a room on the ground floor which I nicknamed ‘The Grid Room’ which contained three massive sets of images laid out as grids, and which I liked simply because I like big grids and matrices, geometric and mathematical designs, in the same way as I like Carl Andre’s bricks. The grids are:

1. German-American photographer Karen Knorr’s series Gentlemen, 1981-83, consists of 26 black-and-white photographs taken inside men-only, private members’ clubs in central London and accompanied by texts drawn from conversations Knorr claims to have overheard.

a) they’re strikingly composed and arranged photos
b) the overheard conversations are amusingly arrogant and pompous, if a little too pat to be totally plausible
c) but what makes this funniest of all is that Knorr is surprised that the inhabitants of expensive, members-only private clubs will be a bit, you know, pompous

2. Back in the 1990s Polish-American photographer Piotr Uklański created a vast, super-wall-sized collage of A4-sized publicity photos of Hollywood actors dressed as Nazis from a host of movies.

It is 18 columns by 9 rows, which means it shows the images of 162 actors playing Nazi. The wall label suggested that the work is an indictment of Hollywood and its trivialisation of atrocity and, in the context of this exhibition, it is also meant to be an indictment of ‘toxic masculinity’ and the hyper-masculinity promoted by the Nazis.

But look at it. It isn’t really either of those things. What it obviously is, is an invitation to identify the actors and the movies they’re in, lots of fun in a Where’s Wally kind of way. Can you spot Clint Eastwood from Where Eagles Dare, Lee Marvin in The Dirty Dozen, Leonard Nimoy from the spisode of Star Trek where they beam down to some planet which is having a Nazi phase?

And then, for me, any serious intention was undermined when I noticed that two of the belong to Monty Python actors Michael Palin and Eric Idle dressed as Nazis (6 rows down, 10 and 11 across). And when I noticed the face of Norman Wisdom (from his 1959 movie, The Square Peg, where Norman is asked to impersonate a Nazi general he happens to look like), I couldn’t help bursting out laughing.

(Having googled this artwork and studied the results, I realise that Uklański changes the arrangement of the photos from site to site, with the order of the faces different in each iteration. The version below gives you an immediate impression of the work’s overall impact – imagine this spread across an entire wall, a big art gallery wall – but in this version Norman’s photo, alas, is absent.)

The Nazis by Piotr Uklanski (1998)

3. The third big grid is a set of 69 black-and-white photos taken by American photographer Richard Avedon and ironically titled The Family, each one depicting key politicians, military men, lawmakers and captains of industry who held the reins of power in America in the Bicentennial year of 1976.

The overt aim is to shock and appal the modern social justice warrior with the fact that almost all the movers and shakers are white men (though I did, in fact, count six women in the grid and two or three black people). But it just didn’t seem too much of a surprise to me that nearly fifty years ago the make-up of the ruling class was different from now or, to put it another way, over the past fifty years the representation of women and black people at the highest levels of American power have changed and improved.

Anyway, any political message was, for me, eclipsed by the hazy memories of the 1970s which these photos evoked – the era when Gerald Ford hastily replaced that excellent American president, Richard Nixon and when Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize (1973). There’s a youthful Jimmy Carter (elected Prez in 1977), a serious-faced Ronald Reagan (another most excellent American President), and gorgeously handsome Teddy Kennedy, for so long the poster boy for liberal Democrats.

Americana

As you can see from the three works in The Grid Room, even when I was trying to overlook it, I couldn’t help noticing the American subject matter or the American provenance of most of the photographers.

The America worship continues into the next room, which is devoted to the American tradition of the college fraternity, and the secret initiation rituals they apparently hold.

Thus artist Richard Mosse made a film by asking members of an American fraternity house to have a shouting competition, with the young student who could shout loudest and longest winning a keg of beer. Having contrived this artificial situation in which he films the faces of young American men shouting their heads off till they’re red in the face, Mosse then described his film as ‘a performance of masculinity and elite, white male rage’.

Is it, though? I’d have thought it was a highly contrived set-up, Mosse bribing the men to act out a certain kind of behaviour which he then turned round and criticised using his modish sociological jargon.

Also note how the word ‘white’ in sentences like that is slowly becoming a term of abuse. Mosse is, of course, himself ‘white’, but he’s the OK sort of ‘white’. He’s artist white.

Next to it is a work by American photographer Andrew Moisey, who spent seven years studying college fraternities and putting together The American Fraternity: An Illustrated Ritual Manual. This, you won’t be very surprised to learn,

explores the relationship between hegemonic masculinity and the toxic culture of American fraternities.

Toxic men. Toxic masculinity. White male rage.

The gay American photographer Duane Michals is represented by a series of photos depicting a grandfather and grandson with an eerie, surrealist vibe.

There’s a sequence of photos by American-based Indian photographer Sunil Gupta, who recorded New York’s gay scene in the 1970s.

Untitled 22 from the series Christopher Street, 1976 by Sunil Gupta © Sunil Gupta. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2019

Reclaiming the black body

Upstairs, in the section devoted to Reclaiming the Black Body, there’s a series by American photographer Kalen Na’il Roach which are described as explorations of ‘the construction of the African-American family and the absent father’.

Nearby is a set of brilliant photos by black American photographer Rotimi Fani-Kayode, who arranged human bodies in all manner of creative and interesting poses, all shot as clear and crisply as anything by Robert Mapplethorpe. There was a really beautiful, crystal clear and vivid and intimidating and erotic photo of a black man holding a pair of large scissors against his thigh, wow.

Untitled, 1985 by Rotimi Fani-Kayode © Rotimi Fani-Kayode

Queering masculinity

There’s an entire section of the exhibition devoted to gay masculinity titled Queering Masculinity. Among many others, this contains a set of photos by American photographer George Dureau, ‘a prominent figure in the queer and non-conformist communities in New Orleans’s French Quarter’, which included some disturbing images of a handsome young man with a hippy hairdo who had had both legs amputated right at the top of the thighs, images which didn’t make me think about masculinity at all, but about disability.

A corner is given to the technicolour experimental underground film Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965) by rebel film-maker Kenneth Anger, which explores the fetishist role of hot rod cars among young American men, and whose soundtrack – Dream Lover by Bobby Darin – wafted gently through the galleries as the visitors sauntered around, looking at these collections of cool, gay and black American photography.

And also upstairs was a fabulous series of black and white shots by American photographer David Wojnarowicz, who got his friends to wear a face mask of French poet Arthur Rimbaud and pose in unlikely locations around New York.

And there’s work by Peter Hujar, ‘a leading figure in New York‘s downtown cultural scene throughout the 1970s’ who photographed its various gay subcultures.

David Brintzenhofe Applying Makeup (II) 1982 by Peter Hujar © 1987 The Peter Hujar Archive LLC; Courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York and Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

There’s photos by Paul Mpagi Sepuya, an American photographer from who explores ‘the studio and darkroom as a site of homoerotic desire’.

And photos by Elle Pérez from America which are concerned with ‘the artist’s relationship with their own body, their queerness and how their sexual, gender and cultural identities intersect and coalesce through photography’.

While ‘in her meticulously staged photos, American artist Deanna Lawson (b.1979) explores black intimacy, family, sexuality and spirituality.’

Then there’s American avant-garde artist, composer, musician and film director Laurie Anderson who is represented by her 1973 work Fully Automated Nikon (Object/Objection/Objectivity) which records the men who cat-called her as she walked through New York’s Lower East Side.

One of my favourite sections was black American Hank Willis Thomas’s ironic and funny collages, Unbranded: Reflections In Black by Corporate America which cut and paste together tacky old adverts featuring black people from the 70s, 80s and 90s. As the wall label explains:

Thomas sheds light on how corporate America continues to reproduce problematic notions of race, sexuality, class and gender through the white male gaze.

(Note: ‘the white male gaze’. The male gaze is bad enough but, God, it’s twice as bad when it’s the white male gaze. Just as male rage is bad, but white male rage, my God, that’s unforgiveable. You don’t have to read many of these wall labels to realise that everything is so much worse when it’s white.)

There are photographers and artists from other countries – from the Lebanon, Cameroon, Holland, Ghana, Norway and so on. Even, mirabile dictu, some British artists. But in every room there are American artists and wherever you look there are images of New York or San Francisco or Los Angeles, while an American pop song drifts over the images of American cowboys and American bodybuilders and New York gays.

It is a very America-dominated exhibition.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the woke, LGBT+-friendly, feminist, anti-patriarchal and anti-white curators are willing to disrupt, subvert, interrogate and question every received opinion, stereotype and shibboleth about the world today except for one – except for America’s stranglehold on global art and photography, except for America’s cultural imperialism, which goes unquestioned and uncommented-on.

Before this form of imperialism, British art curators bow down and worship.

Second summary

Well, if you’re a white man and you enjoy the experience of being made to feel like a privileged, white racist, elitist, misogynist, homophobic, transphobic, sexist pig by lots of righteous black, gay and women photographers, this exhibition will be right up your street.

But having said all that, I did, ultimately, and despite everything, really enjoy it. In fact I might go back for seconds. There is a huge amount of visually interesting and varied work in it and, as I’ve explained – to take the whole thing on a completely different level – it is a fascinating sociological study of up-to-date, woke and politically correct attitudes and sociological terminology.

And also because the picture of Norman Wisdom dressed as a Nazi was so utterly unexpected, so surreally incongruous among the rest of the po-faced, super-serious and angry feminist rhetoric that I was still smiling broadly as I walked out the door.

Norman Wisdom as General-major Otto Schreiber in the hit movie, The Square Peg (1959), subverting seriousness


Dated

Not only does the exhibition mostly deal in types and stereotypes, but so many of them are really dated.

The concept of the male gaze was invented in a 1975 essay by film critic film critic Laura Mulvey. Not one but two quotes from it are printed in large letters across the walls of feminist section of the exhibition, rather like the Ten Commandments used to be in a church.

Karlheinz Weinberger’s photos of leather-clad rebels date from the early 1960s.

Kenneth Anger’s film Kustom Kar Kommandos is from 1965.

Annette Messager’s series The Approaches is from 1972.

Laurie Anderson’s piece is from 1973.

Richard Avedon’s set, The Family, was shot in 1976.

Sunil Gupta’s street photographs of gay New Yorkers are from the mid-1970s

Hal Fischer’s amusing photos of gay street fashion are from 1977.

Marianne Wex’s project ‘Let’s Take Back Our Space: ‘Female’ and ‘Male’ Body Language as a Result of Patriarchal Structures’ dates from 1977.

David Wojnarowicz’s briliant series ‘Rimbaud in New York’ was taken between 1977 and 1979.

Andy Warhol’s film about Male Models is from 1979.

Hank Willis Thomas’s funny collages use magazine photos from the 70s and 80s

Karen Knorr’s series about knobs at posh clubs were shot from 1981 to 1983.

Herb Ritts photos of stunning hunky men date from 1984.

Now of course a lot of the other pieces are from more recently, from the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s, and I am deliberately cherry-picking my evidence, but you get my point.

If the whole issue of gender and masculinity is as hot and urgent and topical as the curators insist, why are they going back to the 1960s and 1970s to illustrate it? My answer would be that, although many of its details have been subsequently elaborated and extended, the basis of the curators (and most of the artists’) liberate worldview date back to the late 60s and early 70s, the era which saw the real breakthroughs for modern feminism, gay rights, and a more ambitious form of black civil rights.

In other words, when you go to a contemporary exhibition of feminist art or gay art or lesbian art or politically motivated black art, you are in fact tapping into movements which have been around for about fifty years. This what gives them a curiously dated, almost nostalgic feeling. The artists and the curators may try to dress these tried-and-tested approaches up in the latest buzzwords or drum up some fake outrage by mentioning the magic words ‘Donald Trump’, but I remember going to exhibitions by gay and lesbian and feminist and black artists in the 1980s, and 1990s, and 2000s, and 2010s which all said more or less what this one does: Blacks are oppressed, women are oppressed, gays and lesbians are oppressed.

For an exhibition which is claiming to address one of the burning issues of our time it seemed curiously… dated. All these carefully printed photographs and films, how very retro, how very 1970s they seem. It’s as if the internet, digital art and social media have never happened. I described the exhibition to my daughter (18, feminist, studied sociology, instagram and social media addict) and she said it sounded boring and preachy.


Counting the countries of origin

It’s good to count. Actually counting and analysing the data about almost any subject almost always proves your subjective impressions to be wrong, because all of our unconscious biases are so strong.

Thus when I looked up the countries of origin of all the photographers represented in this exhibition, I realised the raw facts prove me wrong in thinking that most of the exhibitors are American. Out of 54 exhibitors, some 23 were born in the States and another 3 or 4 emigrated there, so the number of ‘American’ photographers is only just about half of those included.

This exercise also highlighted the true range of other nationalities represented, which I had tended to underestimate. There are, for example, seven Brits, double the number I initially remembered.

However, these figures don’t quite tell the full story, since a number of contributors might not be from the USA, but are represented by their images of the USA. Thus Sunil Gupta is from India but is represented by a suite of photos from 1970s New York (as well as a second series of photos about gay life in India).

Isaac Julien is a British artist but is represented by two movies, one about American cowboys and one – a big one which has one of the Barbican’s entire alcoves devoted to it – a black-and-white movie set in a glamorous American cocktail bar, and set to evocative American cocktail jazz.

To really establish the facts on this one issue of American influence, I suppose you’d have to itemise every single one of the images or films on show and indicate whether they were American in origin or subject matter – which is a little beyond the scope of the present review, and possibly a little mad.

Here’s the complete list of photographers represented in this exhibition with their country of origin, which can be roughly summarised as: the exhibition includes as many American, American-based, or America-covering photographers as those from the rest of the world put together.

  1. Bas Jan Ader (Dutch)
  2. Laurie Anderson (USA)
  3. Kenneth Anger (USA)
  4. Liz Johnson Artur (Ghanaian-Russian)
  5. Knut Åsdam (Norway)
  6. Richard Avedon (USA)
  7. Aneta Bartos (Polish-American)
  8. Richard Billingham (UK)
  9. Cassils (Canada)
  10. Sam Contis (USA)
  11. John Coplans (UK emigrated to USA)
  12. Jeremy Deller (UK)
  13. Rineke Dijkstra (Holland)
  14. George Dureau (USA)
  15. Thomas Dworzak (Germany)
  16. Hans Eijkelboom (Holland)
  17. Fouad Elkoury (Lebanon)
  18. Hal Fischer (USA)
  19. Samuel Fosso (Cameroon)
  20. Anna Fox (UK)
  21. Masahisa Fukase (Japan)
  22. Sunil Gupta (India)
  23. Kiluanji Kia Henda (Angola)
  24. Peter Hujar (USA)
  25. Isaac Julien (UK)
  26. Rotimi Fani-Kayode (Nigeria)
  27. Karen Knorr (German-American)
  28. Deana Lawson (USA)
  29. Hilary Lloyd (UK)
  30. Robert Mapplethorpe (USA)
  31. Peter Marlow (UK)
  32. Ana Mendieta (Cuba, moved to New York)
  33. Annette Messager (France)
  34. Duane Michals (USA)
  35. Tracey Moffatt (Australia)
  36. Andrew Moisey (USA)
  37. Richard Mosse (Ireland)
  38. Adi Nes (Israeli)
  39. Catherine Opie (USA)
  40. Elle Pérez (USA)
  41. Herb Ritts (USA)
  42. Kalen Na’il Roach (USA)
  43. Paul Mpagi Sepuya (USA)
  44. Collier Schorr (USA)
  45. Clare Strand (UK)
  46. Mikhael Subotzky (South Africa)
  47. Larry Sultan (USA)
  48. Wolfgang Tillmans (Germany)
  49. Hank Willis Thomas (USA)
  50. Piotr Uklański (Polish-American)
  51. Andy Warhol (USA)
  52. Karlheinz Weinberger (Switzerland)
  53. Marianne Wex (Germany)
  54. David Wojnarowicz (USA)

Third summary – why American influence is so malign

The reliance on exaggerated American stereotypes of masculinity explains why the exhibition simply omits the vast majority of male experience

American attitudes to masculinity – American images of masculinity – are grossly exaggerated, hyper-commercialised, and do not represent the experience of masculinity of men from other countries.

(Possibly they don’t even represent the experience of most men in America itself: just on the curators’ favourite subject of ethnic minorities, about 18% of Americans are Latino, compared to only 12% or so who are black. But I don’t think I saw any images of Latinos, or the names of any Latino photographers or artists anywhere in the show. To adopt the curators’ own values of diversity: Why not?)

So one way to sum up this exhibition (it’s so huge I’m aware that there are, potentially, lots of ways to do this – a feminist take, a view which focused more on the gay or black or non-western perspectives) is to posit that the Americanness of half the exhibition, photos and photographers – and the overall sense you have of the exhibition’s cultural narrowness and exaggeration – are intimately connected.

Reading my way carefully around the exhibition reminded me all over again – as hundreds of documentaries and articles and news reports have over the past few decades –

  1. just how polarised American society has become
  2. how a great deal of this polarisation is in the realm of culture
  3. and how exhibitions like this tend to emphasise, exaggerate and exacerbate that atmosphere of poisonous polarisation

The relentless criticism of toxic masculinity and the male gaze and manspreading and men-only organisations, along with the continual suggestion that being white is a crime, have their ultimate source in the turbo-charged feminism, political correctness and woke culture of American universities, art schools and liberal media.

My point is that the the poisonous cultural politics of America are deeply rooted in the extremes images of masculinity which America developed since the Second World War – and that these extremes, along with the anger and vilification they prompt on both sides of the political and cultural divide – are just not applicable outside America.

Does Norway have a massive film industry devoted to promoting impossibly buff and hunky images of super-tough men? Is French culture dominated by the ideal of the gunslinging cowboy? Is Czech sporting life dominated by huge, testosterone-charged American footballers? In 1950s did Greek husbands throw open the doors to their suburban houses and shout, ‘Hi honey, I’m home!’

No. Since the war many European countries, led by France, have vehemently resisted the bubblegum stereotypes and crass vulgarity of American culture. The American example just doesn’t apply to Swiss watchmakers and French winegrowers and Greek hotel owners and Italian waiters.

Obviously accusations of patriarchy and sexism and toxic masculinity and the male gaze and white anger can be, and routinely are, levelled at all men in any Western society, but my suggestion is that the level of anger and rancour which politically correct and woke culture have reached in America is unique.

America has morphed during my lifetime into a violently aggressive and angry society which stands apart from all other industrialised countries (look at the levels of gun crime, or the number of its citizens which America locks up, 2.2 million adults, more than all the other OECD nations put together).

The anger of American liberals against Trump has to be witnessed to be believed, but so does the anger of American conservatives and the mid-West against the tide of immigrants and liberals who they think are ruining their country. America has become a swamp of hatreds, and it is an American civil war, it is not mine.

And here’s my point – an exhibition which defines ‘masculinity’ very heavily through the lens of such an unhealthy, sick and decadent society is giving a wildly twisted, biased, partial and inaccurate impression of what the word ‘masculine’ even means because it is deriving it very heavily from a culture which is tearing itself apart. We are not all American footballers or New York gay pioneers.

So although only half the exhibition is made up of American photographers and American subjects, nonetheless the poisonous rhetoric of the American cultural civil war (‘toxic masculinity’, ‘white rage’, ‘the male gaze’) infects the conception, selection and discourse of the exhibition so thoroughly from start to finish, that it helps explain why the vast majority of much more humdrum, down-to-earth types of non-American, everyday masculinity – the kinds you or I encounter among our families and friends and at work, the kind I experience when I help Nigel plant the daffodil bulbs in the waste ground at the end of our road – are so utterly absent from this blinkered and biased exhibition.


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Barbican

And concerts

Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Award 2019

This is an exhibition of the 55 or so portrait photos which were shortlisted for this year’s Taylor Wessing photographic portrait exhibition.

The organisers received 3,700 photographic portraits from 1,611 photographers in seventy countries around the world, whittled it down to these 55, and then, a month ago, the first, second and third prize winners were announced.

As usual, there’s a large number of good, and some exceptional, photographic portraits. As usual, I have some familiar gripes, namely:

1. American cultural dominance

Why are so many – 25 of the show’s 55 photos, nearly half the total – from America? And not just from America, but specifically New York?

1. Take the series of young black women snapped on the streets of Brooklyn by Amy Touchette. Apparently Amy moved to the neighbourhood in 2015, and took to walking the same route every day in the same clothes to get to know the area, and slowly uncovering the relationships among the large Afro-American community. Fair enough. But there are other cities in the world beside New York.

Keilah and Snaquana by Amy Touchette, from the series Personal Ties: Portraits of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, 2018 © Amy Touchette

2. Each year the exhibition includes In Focus display of works by a featured photographer, and this year this consists of seven photos by Ethan James Green. To paraphrase the blurb:

Green’s first monograph ‘Young New York’ was published by Aperture in March 2019. These striking black and white portraits were made between 2014-2018, focusing on the artist’s friends and community, many taken in Corlears Red Hook Park on the Lower East Side. His new series of portraits sees him continue to work with his own generation this time photographing couples. Green mixes personal projects with work as a high profile fashion photographer working for magazines including Arena Homme +, i-D, LOVE, Self Service, Vanity Fair, Vogue, Vogue Homme, Vogue Italia, Vogue Paris, Wand WSJ. Magazine.

His work looks like this:

Nico and Dara by Ethan James Green, 2019 © Ethan James Green

And you can see a gallery of all eight of the features photos here:

I’m afraid I got a bit grumpy about this. I feel like I’ve seen hundreds of thousands of photos just like this, photos of fashionably thin, fashionably multiracial and fashionably street yoof. All these photos need is the GAP or FCUK logo at the bottom and they could be appearing on any hoarding anywhere in the Western world. I feel that, yet again, I am being sold an American product.

By contrast there were no photos at all from China, Indonesia, Pakistan, Brazil, Nigeria – to list the half dozen most populous countries in the world. Presumably this is because photographers in those countries just haven’t heard of this competition, but it feels like a big gap for a prize which claims to be global in scope.

Imagine how interesting it would have been to have had an In Focus slot for a Chinese photographer who’d been snapping the protesters old and young in Hong Kong! Or faces from famine-stricken Zimbabwe, or from collapsing Venezuela, or from the riots in Iran, or…

But no. Instead – yet another fashionable New York photographer shooting New York’s fashionably diverse, fashionably thin, fashionable street people, in between doing spreads for oh-so-fashionable Vanity Fair and Vogue

2. Gender and sexuality

Second big beef was about the disproportionate attention paid to every modern gallery curator’s favourite subject – gender and sexuality. The aforementioned New Yorker Ethan James Green turns out, with staggering unoriginality, to be interested in ‘gender and sexuality’, but the exhibition also includes:

– Seamus Ryan’s portrait of Captain Hannah Graf, the highest-serving transgender woman serving in the British Army

– the Australian Tristan Still’s photo of a transgender person named Raynen who refers to themselves as ‘they’

– Reme Campos’s series Portraits of Transgender Teenagers

– Dominick Sheldon’s series dealing with gender and identity. British-born Sheldon (b.1984) took these portraits over several days as part of a series ‘dealing with gender and personal constructs of identity’ in the hijra communities of New Delhi. Hijra has particular cultural overtones and is used to describe gender identities – including transgender. Sheldon (big sigh) now lives in New York.

Nodi by Dominick Sheldon, from the series New Delhi, 2019 © Dominick Sheldon

Not a million miles away from the series made by Olivia Arthur (British, born 1980) documenting ‘the suppressed LGBT+ sexualities of India, specifically in the port city of Mumbai’ which I saw at the Science Museum in February of last year.

I suppose this photo is from India. But why did it have to be taken by a Brit? Once upon a time we sent our imperial administrators to run India. Now we send our photographers to document their sexual outsiders.

3. Ethnic Minorities

Alongside gender, race and ethnicity is the other obvious, predictable and inevitable ‘issue’ much beloved of art curators – race and ethnicity. Thus the exhibition includes several series concerned with blacks – or People of Colour or Afro-Americans, such as the Amy Touchette series, above.

There’s also a rather touching series by American (of course) photographer Rory Doyle (b.1983) of African-American cowboys. Doyle moved to Mississippi in 2009 and came across the cowboys (and, presumably, cowgirls and cowpersons) who’d followed that lifestyle for generations. After all, up to a quarter of the people who worked in the Old West were black (person of colour, African-American), and his series depicting the community also won the Sony World Photography Awards. Good to see it go to an American.

Young Riders by Rory Doyle, from the series Delta Hill Riders, 2018 © Rory Doyle

Back in the sub-continent, there was a series by Jook Oosterhof (Dutch, based in Amsterdam) who was commissioned by a magazine to go and photograph child brides in Bangladesh, where a high proportion of girls are married before they’re 18, and a significant number before they’re 15. The series was made in co-operation with a Dutch charity called Girls Not Brides. There were five photos from the series. The idea is that the girls are veiled a) to hide their identities b) to symbolise the way they are muted and muzzled in a patriarchal society.

Jesmin, 16 years by Jouk Oosterhof, from the series Invisible, In Focus: Child Brides in Bangladesh, 2018 © Jouk Oosterhof

As with Dominick Sheldon going to New Delhi I wondered why rich white Europeans have to go and help people in developing countries.

Other themes

Stepping away from my grumpiness about American cultural domination and modern art’s obsession with gender and race, a number of other themes do emerge and are represented in the exhibition.

Poverty

Having been an old-style socialist, I tend to think that poverty, lack of work or money or food, the way so many people are on zero hours jobs, or work for minimum pay or need to have two or even three jobs to make ends meet, or the way visits to food banks have tripled in the last three years, for me, the spread of poverty is a much more pressing issue than gender fluidity.

Anyway, this explains why I heartily endorsed the fact that First Prize in the competition was awarded to Pat Martin for two works from his portrait series of his late mother, Goldie (Mother). These pictures capture the authentic look of the fat, ugly, uneducated, troubled, working class poor who you rarely see represented in any medium, but which I see all round me every day in the streets of inner-city Streatham or toxic Harlseden.

Gail and Beaux by Pat Martin, from the series Goldie (Mother), 2018 © Pat Martin

Martin is (inevitably) American (big sigh), from Los Angeles which makes a change, I suppose, from New York.

For him, the series represented a way of trying to engage with a mother who had many issues, not least substance abuse. It is, in other words, a deeply personal project. But for those of us who don’t know him or his mum, they are just more images bobbing along the vast tide of imagery we are bombarded with every day. But they stick out because a) the subject matter is so rarely seen b) they are genuinely well composed and shot portraits.

The Eccentric

Martin Parr has revived the appetite for the quirks and peculiarities of English life and this photo – standing by itself, maybe because it didn’t have enough gender or race in it – is very much in the Martin Parr tradition – very brightly coloured, hyper-real and BIG photos of rather nostalgic locations or activities. In this instance the Hubbock family snapped in their Ford Cortina, taken by Garrod Kirkwood at Whitley Bay in England (not America).

The Hubbucks by Garrod Kirkwood, from the series England, 2018 © Garrod Kirkwood

Outsiders

If you go to galleries as regularly as I do, you get used to gallery curators thinking about ‘outsiders’ in the very narrow and over-familiar terms of LGBT+ or transgender people, or ethnic minorities.

It was a refreshing change to see images of genuinely under-represented outsiders – in this case, people with Down’s Syndrome. One in every 1000 babies born in the UK will have Down’s syndrome and there are approximately 40,000 people in the UK with the condition. As far as I could tell there were not one but two series depicting Downs Syndrome people in the show, one titled Meeting Sofie by Snezhana von Büdingen, and another set of three photos from The Rite by Evelyn Natalia Bencicova. She looks happy. The pictures made me happy, reminded me of a very vivacious woman with Down’s Syndrome who I danced the night away with at my best friend’s wedding many years ago.

Ellie by Evelyn Natalia Bencicova, from the series The Rite, 2019 © Evelyn Natalia Bencicova

Striking

Head and shoulders the most striking image in the exhibition, and so no surprise that it’s been used for much of the publicity, is this luminous portrait of her mother, Eha, by Sirli Raitma (b.1975) in Estonia. She began the series, dressing her mother in different outfits, arranging striking poses, as a way of distracting her from her late-life depression.

Eha (04) by Sirli Raitma, from the series Eha: Portraits of my mother, 2019 © Sirli Raitma

Old age

And that brings me to the last theme I’d like to highlight, which was that – balancing the large number of teenagers on the streets of New York (or, in Los Angeles in Shaq by Aline Simpson, or the streets of Dakar by Jermaine Francis from Birmingham) – balancing the teenage cool of a lot of the images, was an equal number of images of old age.

Raitma’s are probably the most striking, composed and beautiful – but there were other studies, more troubled and pensive, by the likes of:

  • Enda Bowe – Ron, a knackered old man lying back in an armchair
  • the grey-haired couple Mordechai and Aryeh by Oded Wagenstein
  • a confused-looking white-haired old man on the street by Alex Llopis Cardona
  • a glimpse of an old, old lady through a half-open door by Piotr Karpinski
  • a very old, very sick old person lying in what looks like a hospital bed by Maria Konstanse Bruun
  • a photo of an old Australian geezer who broke his neck falling down the stairs by Chris Hoare

Or this lady, who looks a little out on the edge, Mara, as photographed by Kovi Konowiecki (b.1992) whose series, Driftwood was shot in and around Riverside County, California. America. Obvz.

Mara by Kovi Konowiecki from the series Driftwood, 2019 © Kovi Konowiecki

Most of the images seemed to me to be of teenagers or the elderly, which is odd as the average age in the UK is 40 and the USA 38. Maybe street kids are just very available and very photogenic – and the elderly often fall into the category of the artist’s own parents, or are accessible in care homes and hospitals.

Whereas the age groups in between, everyone from 30 to 60, young- and middle-aged parents, are just too busy holding down a job and looking after the kids, to find the time to be photographed. Maybe that explains their slightly uncanny absence from this selection of images, and the exhibition’s tendency to over-represent the poles of youth and age.

Making connections

Anyway, 55 excellent photographic portraits + the eight In Focus ones by Ethan James Green. A body of work picked almost at random, but which – as indicated – I, for one, immediately began to see themes and connections in.

I dare say other visitors might find themes and threads which I didn’t pick up on. One of the pleasures of any exhibition is dillying and dallying, making up your itinerary and having your own thoughts. Exhibitions are, after all, meant to be enjoyable as well as educational, fun as well as yet another channel for being bombarded by socially-approved messages about Diversity and Inclusion.

So other visitors might not notice the American domination or the gender and sexuality themes, and focus on something completely different. Or may just be struck by a few individual pieces here and there, since each photo is accompanied by thorough wall labels describing the photographer and their work and the issues or ideas they’re addressing.

So maybe others will respond to the project by Chris Hoare who, inspired by the old cliché describing Australia as ‘The Lucky Country’ set out to find and photograph people who had experienced extremes of either good or bad luck (such as the man who broke his neck falling downstairs).

Or the photos of  laughing or earnestly posing schoolboys taken by Vikram Kushwah in his native India. or the young Sumo wrestler training in the Terelj National Park shot by Catherine Hyland (another Brit journeying to far-off locations).

Go, and make your own mind up.


Related links

Just some recent exhibitions featuring transgender people

Reviews of other National Portrait Gallery exhibitions

After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires 1400 – 2000 by John Darwin (2007)

Empires exist to accumulate power on an extensive scale…
(After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires 1400 – 2000 page 483)

Questions

Why did the nations of Western Europe rise through the 18th and 19th centuries to create empires which stretched around the world, how did they manage to subjugate ancient nations like China and Japan, to turn vast India into a colonial possession, to carve up Africa between them?

How did white European cultures come to dominate not only the territories and peoples who they colonised, but to create the modern mindset – a vast mental framework which encompasses capitalist economics, science and technology and engineering, which dominates the world right down to the present day?

Why did the maritime states of Europe (Britain, France, the Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese) end up either settling from scratch the relatively empty places of the world (America, Australia), or bringing all the other cultures of the world (the Ottoman Empire, Hindu India, Confucian China and Shinto Japan) under their domination?

Answers

For at least two hundred years politicians, historians, economists and all kinds of academics and theoreticians have been writing books trying to explain ‘the rise of the West’.

Some attribute it to the superiority of the Protestant religion (some explicitly said it was God’s plan). Some that it was something to do with the highly fragmented nature of Europe, full of squabbling nations vying to outdo each other, and that this rivalry spilled out into unceasing competition for trade, at first across the Atlantic, then along new routes to India and the Far East, eventually encompassing the entire globe.

Some credit the Scientific Revolution, with its proliferation of new technologies from compasses to cannons, an unprecedented explosion of discoveries and inventions. Some credit the slave trade and the enormous profits made from working to death millions and millions of African slaves which fuelled the industrial revolution and paid for the armies which subjugated India.

Lenin thought it was the unique way European capitalism had first perfected techniques to exploit the proletariat in the home countries and then applied the same techniques to subjugate less advanced nations, and that the process would inevitably lead to a global capitalist war once the whole world was colonised.

John Darwin

So John Darwin’s book, which sets out to answer all these questions and many more, is hardly a pioneering work; it is following an extremely well-trodden path. BUT it does so in a way which feels wonderfully new, refreshing and exciting. This is a brilliant book. If you were only going to read one book about imperialism, this is probably The One.

For at least three reasons:

1. Darwin appears to have mastered the enormous revisionist literature generated over the past thirty years or more, which rubbishes any idea of innate European superiority, which looks for far more subtle and persuasive reasons – so that reading this book means you can feel yourself reaping the benefits of hundreds of other more detailed & specific studies. He is not himself oppressively politically correct, but he is on the right side of all the modern trends in historical thought (i.e. is aware of feminist, BAME and post-colonial studies).

2. Darwin pays a lot more attention than is usual to all the other cultures which co-existed alongside Europe for so long (Islam, the Ottoman Empire, the Mughal Empire, the Safavid Empire, the Chinese Empire, Japan, all are treated in fascinating detail and given almost as much space as Europe, more, in the earlier chapters) so that reading this book you learn an immense amount about the history of these other cultures over the same period.

3. Above all, Darwin paints a far more believable and plausible picture than the traditional legend of one smooth, consistent and inevitable ‘Rise of the West’. On the contrary, in Darwin’s version:

the passage from Tamerlane’s times to our own has been far more contested, confused and chance-ridden than the legend suggests – an obvious enough point. But [this book places] Europe (and the West) in a much larger context: amid the empire-, state- and culture-building projects of other parts of Eurasia. Only thus, it is argued, can the course, nature, scale and limits of Europe’s expansion be properly grasped, and the jumbled origins of our contemporary world become a little clearer.

‘Jumbled origins’, my God yes. And what a jumble!

Why start with Tamerlane?

Tamerlane the Eurasian conqueror died in 1405. Darwin takes his death as marking the end of an epoch, an era inaugurated by the vast wave of conquest led across central Asia by Genghis Khan starting around 1200, an era in which one ruler could, potentially, aspire to rule the entire Eurasian landmass.

When Tamerlane was born the ‘known world’ still stretched from China in the East, across central Asia, through the Middle East, along the north African shore and including Europe. Domination of all of China, central Asia, northern India, the Middle East and Europe was, at least in theory, possible, had been achieved by Genghis Khan and his successors, and was the dream which had inspired Tamerlane.

Map of the Mongol Empire created by Genghis Khan

But by the death of Tamerlane the political situation across Eurasia had changed. The growth in organisation, power and sophistication of the Ottoman Empire, the Mamluk state in Egypt and Syria, the Muslim sultanate in north India and above all the resilience of the new Ming dynasty in China, meant this kind of ‘global’ domination was no longer possible. For centuries nomadic tribes had ravaged through Eurasia (before the Mongols it had been the Turks who emerged out of Asia to seize the Middle East and found the Ottoman Dynasty). Now that era was ending.

It was no longer possible to rule the sown from the steppe (p.5)

Moreover, within a few decades of Tamerlane’s demise, Portuguese mariners had begun to explore westwards, first on a small scale colonising the Azores and Canary Islands, but with the long-term result that the Eurasian landmass would never again constitute the ‘entire world’.

What was different about European empires?

Empires are the oldest and most widespread form of government. They are by far the commonest way that human societies have organised themselves: the Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Persians, the Greek and Roman Empires, the Aztec Empire, the Inca Empire, the Mali Empire, Great Zimbabwe, the Chinese empire, the Nguyễn empire in Vietnam, the Japanese Empire, the Ottoman empire, the Mughal empire, the Russian empire, the Austro-Hungarian empire, to name just a few.

Given this elementary fact about history, why do the west European empires come in for such fierce criticism these days?

Because, Darwin explains, they were qualitatively different.

  1. Because they affected far more parts of the world across far more widespread areas than ever before, and so ‘the constituency of the aggrieved’ is simply larger – much larger – than ever before.
  2. Because they were much more systematic in their rapaciousness. The worst example was surely the Belgian Empire in the Congo, European imperialism stripped of all pretence and exposed as naked greed backed up by appalling brutality. But arguably all the European empires mulcted their colonies of raw materials, treasures and of people more efficiently (brutally) than any others in history.

The result is that it is going to take some time, maybe a lot of time, for the trauma of the impact of the European empires to die down and become what Darwin calls ‘the past’ i.e. the realm of shadowy past events which we don’t think of as affecting us any more.

The imperial legacy is going to affect lots of people, in lots of post-colonial nations, for a long time to come, and they are not going to let us in the old European colonial countries forget it.

Structure

After Tamerlane is divided into nine chapters:

  1. Orientations
  2. Eurasia and the Age of Discovery
  3. The Early Modern Equilibrium (1750s – 1800)
  4. The Eurasian Revolution (1800 – 1830)
  5. The Race Against Time (1830 – 1880)
  6. The Limits of Empire (1880 – 1914)
  7. Towards The Crisis of The World (1914 – 42)
  8. Empire Denied (1945 – 2000)
  9. Tamerlane’s Shadow

A flood of insights

It sounds like reviewer hyperbole but there really is a burst of insights on every page of this book.

It’s awe-inspiring, dazzling, how Darwin can take the elements of tremendously well-known stories (Columbus and the discovery of America, or the Portuguese finding a sea route to India, the first trading stations on the coasts of India or the unequal treaties imposed on China, or the real consequences of the American Revolution) and present them from an entirely new perspective. Again and again on every page he unveils insight after insight. For example:

American

Take the fact – which I knew but had never seen stated so baldly – that the American War of Independence wasn’t about ‘liberty’, it was about land. In the aftermath of the Seven Years War (1756 – 63) the British government had banned the colonists from migrating across the Appalachians into the Mississippi valley (so as to protect the Native Americans and because policing this huge area would be ruinously expensive). The colonists simply wanted to overthrow these restrictions and, as soon as the War of Independence was over (i.e. after the British gave up struggling to retain the rebel colonies in 1783), the rebels set about opening the floodgates to colonising westward.

India

Victorian apologists claimed the British were able to colonise huge India relatively easily because of the superiority of British organisation and energy compared with Oriental sloth and backwardness. In actual fact, Darwin explains it was in part the opposite: it was because the Indians had a relatively advanced agrarian economy, with good routes of communication, business hubs and merchants – an open and well-organised economy, which the British just barged their way into (p.264).

(This reminds me of the case made in The Penguin History of Latin America by Edwin Williamson that Cortés was able to conquer the Aztec and Pissarro the Incas, not because the Indians were backward but precisely because they were the most advanced, centralised and well organised states in Central and South America. The Spanish just installed themselves at the top of a well-ordered and effective administrative system. Against genuinely backward people, like the tribes who lived in the arid Arizona desert or the swamps of Florida or hid in the impenetrable Amazon jungle, the Spanish were helpless, because there was no one emperor to take hostage, or huge administrative bureaucracy to take over – which explains why those areas remained uncolonised for centuries.)

Cultural conservatism

Until about 1830 there was still a theoretical possibility that a resurgent Ottoman or Persian empire, China or Japan, might have reorganised and repelled European colonisers. But a decisive factor which in the end prevented them was the intrinsic conservatism of these cultures. For example, both Chinese and Muslim culture venerated wisdom set down by a wise man (Mohammed, Confucius) at least a millennium earlier, and teachers, professors, civil servants were promoted insofar as they endorsed and parroted these conservative values. At key moments, when they could have adopted more forward-looking ideologies of change, all the other Eurasian cultures plumped for conservatism and sticking to the Old.

Thus, even as it dawned on both China and Japan that they needed to react to the encroachments of the Europeans in the mid-nineteenth century, both countries did so by undertaking not innovations but what they called restorations – the T’ung-chih (‘Union for Order’) restoration in China and the Meiji (‘Enlightened rule’) restoration in Japan (p.270). (Darwin’s description of the background and enactment of both these restorations is riveting.)

The Western concept of Time

Darwin has a fascinating passage about how the Europeans developed a completely new theory of Time (p.208). It was the exploration of America which did this (p.209) because here Europeans encountered, traded and warred with Stone Age people who used bows and arrows and (to start with) had no horses or wheeled vehicles and had never developed anything like a technology. This led European intellectuals to reflect that maybe these people came from an earlier phase of historical development, to develop the new notion that maybe societies evolve and develop and change.

European thinkers quickly invented numerous ‘systems’ suggesting the various ‘stages of development’ which societies progressed through, from the X Age to the Y Age and then on to the Z Age – but they all agreed that the native Americans (and even more so, the Australian aborigines when they were discovered in the 1760s) represented the very earliest stages of society, and that, by contrast, Western society had evolved through all the intervening stages to reach its present state of highly evolved ‘perfection’.

Once you have created mental models like this, it is easy to categorise all the other cultures you encounter (Ottomans, Hindus, China, Japan, Siam, Annamite etc) as somewhere lower or backward on these paths or stages of development.

And being at the top of the tree, why, naturally that gave white Europeans the right to intervene, invade, conquer and administer all the other people of the world in order to ‘raise’ them to the same wonderful level of civilisation as themselves.

18th and 19th

I’ve always been a bit puzzled by the way that, if you read accounts of the European empires, there is this huge difference between the rather amateurish 18th century and the fiercely efficient 19th century. Darwin explains why: in the eighteenth century there were still multiple European players in the imperial game: France was the strongest power on the continent, but she was balanced out by Prussia, Austria and also Spain and Portugal and the Dutch. France’s position as top dog in Europe was admittedly damaged by the Seven Years War but it wasn’t this, it was the Napoleonic Wars which in the end abolished the 18th century balance of power in Europe. Britain emerged from the Napoleonic Wars as the new top dog, with a navy which could beat all-comers, which had hammered the French at the Battle of the Nile and Trafalgar, and which now ruled the waves.

The nineteenth century feels different because Britain’s world-encompassing dominance was different in kind from any empire which ever preceded it.

The absence of Africa

If I have one quibble it’s that I’d like to have learned more about Africa. I take the point that his book is focused on Eurasia and the Eurasian empires (and I did learn a huge amount about Persia, the Moghul empire, China and Japan) and that all sub-Saharan Africa was cut off from Eurasia by the Sahara, but still… it feels like an omission.

And a woke reader might well object to the relative rareness of Darwin’s references to the African slave trade. He refers to it a few times, but his interest is not there; it’s in identifying exactly where Europe was like or unlike the rival empires of Eurasia, in culture and science and social organisation and economics. That’s his focus.

The expansion of the Russian empire

If Africa is disappointingly absent, an unexpected emphasis is placed in each chapter on the imperial growth of Russia. I knew next to nothing about this. A quick surf on Amazon suggests that almost all the books you can get about the Russian ’empire’ are about the fall of the Romanovs and the Bolshevik Revolution and then Lenin or Stalin’s creation of a Bolshevik empire which expanded into Eastern Europe after the war. That’s to say it’s almost all about twentieth century Russia (with the exception of a crop of ad hoc biographies of Peter the Great or Catherine the Great).

So it was thrilling to read Darwin give what amounts to a sustained account and explanation of the growth of the Kingdom of Muscovy from the 1400s onwards, describing how it expanded west (against Poland, the Baltic states, Sweden), south towards the Black Sea, south-west into the Balkans – but most of all how Russian power was steadily expanded East across the vast inhospitable tundra of Siberia until Russian power reached the Pacific.

It is odd, isn’t it, bizarre, uncanny, that a nation that likes to think of itself as ‘European’ has a huge coastline on the Pacific Ocean and to this day squabbles about the ownership of small islands with Japan!

The process of Russian expansion involved just as much conquering of the ‘primitive’ tribal peoples who hunted and trapped in the huge landmass of Siberia as the conquest of, say, Canada or America, but you never read about it, do you? Can you name any of the many native tribes the Russians fought and conquered? No. Are there any books about the Settling of the East as there are thousands and thousands about the conquest of the American West? Nope. It is a historical black hole.

But Darwin’s account of the growth of the Russian Empire is not only interesting as filling in what – for me at any rate – is a big hole in my knowledge. It is also fascinating because of the role Russian expansion played again and again in the game of Eurasian Risk which his book describes. At key moments Russian pressure from the North distracted the attention of the Ottoman Empire from making more offensive thrusts into Europe (the Ottomans famously encroached right up to the walls of Vienna in 1526 and then again in 1683).

When the Russians finally achieved one of their territorial goals and seized the Crimea in 1783, as a result of the Russo-Turkish War, it had the effect, Darwin explains, of cracking the Ottoman Empire open ‘like an oyster’. For centuries the Black Sea had been an Ottoman lake and a cheaply defensible frontier. Now, at a stroke, it became a massive vulnerability which needed costly defence (p.175).

And suddenly, seeing it all from the Russian perspective, this sheds new light on the timeworn story of the decline of the Ottoman Empire which I only know about from the later 19th century and from the British perspective. For Darwin the role of Russian expansionism was vital not only in itself, but for the hemming in and attritional impact it had on the other Eurasian empires – undermining the Ottomans, making the Chinese paranoid because Russian expansion around its northern borders added to China’s sense of being encircled and endangered, a sense that contributed even more to its risk-averse policy of doubling down on its traditional cultural and political and economic traditions, and refusing to see anything of merit in the Westerners’ technology or crude diplomacy. A policy which eventually led to the Chinese empire’s complete collapse in 1911.

And of course the Russians actually went to war with imperial Japan in 1905.

Numbered lists

Darwin likes making numbered lists. There’s one on almost every page. They rarely go higher than three. Here are some examples to give a flavour of his careful, forensic and yet thrillingly insightful way of explaining things.

The 18th century geopolitical equilibrium

The geopolitical revolution which ended the long equilibrium of the 18th century had three major effects:

  1. The North American interior and the new lands in the Pacific would soon become huge extensions of European territory, the ‘new Europes’.
  2. As a result of the Napoleonic war, the mercantile ‘zoning’ system which had reflected the delicate balance of power among European powers was swept away and replaced with almost complete control of the world’s oceans by the British Navy.
  3. Darwin gives a detailed description of why Mughal control of North India was disrupted by invasions by conquerors from the north, first Iran then Afghanistan, who weakened central Indian power at just the moment the British started expanding from their base in Bengal. Complex geopolitical interactions.

The so-called stagnation of the other Eurasian powers can be characterised by:

  1. In both China and the Islamic world classical, literary cultures dominated the intellectual and administrative elites – the test of intellectual acumen was fitting all new observations into the existing mindset, prizes went to those who could do so with the least disruption possible.
  2. Cultural and intellectual authority was vested in scribal elites backed up by political power, both valuing stasis.
  3. Both China and the Islamic world were profoundly indifferent and incurious about the outside world.

The knowledge revolution

Compare and contrast the East’s incuriosity with the ‘West’, which underwent a cognitive and scientific revolution in which merit went to the most disruptive inventors of new theories and technologies, and where Darwin describes an almost obsessive fascination with maps. This was supercharged by Captain Cook’s three huge expeditions around the Pacific, resulting in books and maps which were widely bought and discussed, and which formed the basis of the trade routes which followed in his wake, and then the transportation of large numbers of convicts to populate Australia’s big empty spaces (about 164,000 convicts were transported to the Australian colonies between 1788 and 1868).

Traumatic impact of the Napoleonic Wars

I hadn’t quite realised that the Napoleonic Wars had such a traumatising effect on the governments of the main European powers who emerged in its aftermath: Britain, France, Prussia, Austria and Russia. Very broadly speaking there was peace between the European powers between the 1830s and 1880s. Of course there was the Crimean War (Britain, France and Turkey containing Russia’s imperial expansion), war between Austria and Prussia (1866) and the Franco-Prussian War. But all these were contained by the system, were mostly of short duration and never threatened to unravel into the kind of general conflict which ravaged Europe under Napoleon.

Thus, from the imperial point of view, the long peace had four results:

  1. The Royal Navy’s policing of all trade routes across the Atlantic and between Europe and Asia kept trade routes open throughout the era and kept costs down for everyone.
  2. The balance of power which the European powers maintained among themselves discouraged intervention in either North or South America and allowed America to develop economically as if it had no enemies – a rare occurrence for any nation in history.
  3. The post-Napoleonic balance of power in Europe encouraged everyone to tread carefully in their imperial rivalries.
  4. Geo-political stability in Europe allowed the growth across the continent of something like a European ideology. This was ‘liberalism’ – a nexus of beliefs involving the need for old-style autocratic power to be tempered by the advice of representatives of the new middle class, and the importance of that middle class in the new technologies and economics unleashed by the industrial revolution and in founding and administering the growing colonies abroad.

Emigration

Emigration from Europe to the New World was a trickle in the 1830s but had become a flood by the 1850s. Between 1850 and 1880 over eight million people left Europe, mostly for America.

  1. This mass emigration relieved the Old World of its rural overcrowding and transferred people to an environment where they could be much more productive.
  2. Many of the emigrants were in fact skilled artisans. Moving to an exceptionally benign environment, a vast empty continent rich in resources, turbo-charged the American economy with the result that by the 1880s it was the largest in the world.

Fast

His chapter The Race Against Time brings out a whole area, an entire concept, I’ve never come across before, which is that part of the reason European colonisation was successful was it was so fast. Not just that Western advances in military technology – the lightning advances in ships and artillery and guns – ran far ahead of anything the other empires could come up with – but that the entire package of international finance, trade routes, complex webs sending raw materials back home and re-exporting manufactured goods, the sudden flinging of railways all across the world’s landmasses, the erection of telegraphs to flash knowledge of markets, prices of goods, or political turmoil back from colonies to the European centre – all of this happened too quickly for the rival empires (Ottoman, Japan, China etc) to stand any chance of catching up.

Gold rushes

This sense of leaping, hurtling speed was turbo-charged by literal gold rushes, whether in the American West in the 1840s or in South Africa where it was first gold then diamonds. Suddenly tens of thousands of white men turned up, quickly followed by townships full of traders and artisans, then the railway, the telegraph, the sheriffs with their guns – all far faster than any native American or South African cultures could hope to match or even understand.

Shallow

And this leads onto another massive idea which reverberates through the rest of the book and which really changed my understanding. This is that, as the spread of empire became faster and faster, reaching a kind of hysterical speed in the so-called Scramble For Africa in the 1880s (the phrase was, apparently, coined by the London Times in 1884) it meant that there was something increasingly shallow about its rule, especially in Africa.

The Scramble for Africa

Darwin says that most radical woke historians take the quick division of Africa in the 1880s and 1890s as a kind of epitome of European imperialism, but that it was in fact the opposite, and extremely unrepresentative of the development of the European imperialisms.

The Scramble happened very quickly, markedly unlike the piecemeal conquest of Central, Southern of North America, or India, which took centuries.

The Scramble took place with almost no conflict between the European powers – in fact they agreed to partitions and drew up lines in a very equable way at the Congress of Berlin in 1885. Other colonies (from the Incas to India) were colonised because there were organised civilisations which could be co-opted, whereas a distinctive feature about Africa (‘historians broadly agree about one vital fact’ p.314) was that people were in short supply. Africa was undermanned or underpeopled. There were few organised states or kingdoms because there simply wasn’t the density of population which lends itself to trading routes, settled farmers and merchants – all the groups who can be taxed to create a king and aristocracy.

Africans hadn’t progressed to centralised states as humans had in Eurasia or central America because there weren’t enough of them. Hence the poverty and the lack of resistance which most of the conquerors encountered in most of Africa.

In fact the result of all this was that most of the European governments weren’t that keen on colonising Africa. It was going to cost a lot of money and there weren’t the obvious revenue streams that they had found in a well-established economy like India.

What drove the Scramble for Africa more than anything else was adventurers on the ground – dreamers and fantasists and ambitious army officers and business men and empire builders who kept on taking unilateral action which then pitched the home government into a quandary – deny their adventurers and pass up the opportunity to win territory to a rival, or reluctantly support them and get enmeshed in all kinds of messy responsibilities.

For example, in the mid-1880s a huge swathe of West Africa between the desert and the forest was seized by a buccaneering group of French marine officers under Commandant Louis Archinard, and their black rank and file. In a few years these adventurers brought some two million square miles into France’s empire. The government back in Paris felt compelled to back them up which meant sending out more troops, police and so on, which would cost money.

Meanwhile, modern communications had been invented, the era of mass media had arrived, and the adventuring soldiers and privateers had friends and boosters in the popular press who could be counted on to write leading articles about ‘the white man’s burden’ and the torch of civilisation and ask: ‘Isn’t the government going to defend our brave boys?’, until reluctant democratic governments were forced to cough up support. Modern-day liberals often forget that imperialism was wildly popular. It often wasn’t imperialist or rapacious governments or the ruling class which prompted conquest, but popular sentiment, jingoism, which couldn’t be ignored in modern democracies.

Darwin on every page, describes and explains the deep economic, trade and financial structures which the West put in place during the nineteenth century and which eventually underpinned an unstoppable steamroller of annexation, protectorates, short colonial wars and long-term occupation.

The Congress of Berlin

The Congress of Berlin helped to formalise the carving up of Africa, and so it has come to be thought of as evil and iniquitous, particularly by BAME and woke historians. But once again Darwin makes you stop and think when he compares the success of the congress at reaching peaceful agreements between the squabbling European powers – and what happened in 1914 over a flare-up in the Balkans.

If only Bismarck had been around in 1914 to suggest that, instead of rapidly mobilising to confront each other, the powers of Europe had once again been invited for tea and cake at the Reichstag to discuss their differences like gentlemen and come to an equable agreement.

Seen from this perspective, the Berlin Congress is not so much an evil colonialist conspiracy, but an extremely successful event which avoided any wars between the European powers for nearly thirty years. Africa was going to be colonised anyway because human events have a logic of their own: the success was in doing so without sparking a European conflagration.

The Scramble for China

The Scramble for China is not as well known as its African counterpart,  the competition to gain ‘treaty ports’ on the Chinese coast, impose unfair trading terms on the Chinese and so on.

As usual, though, Darwin comes at it from a much wider angle and makes one massive point I hadn’t registered before, which is that Russia very much wanted to seize the northern part of China to add to its far eastern domains; Russia really wanted to carve China up, but Britain didn’t. And if Britain, the greatest trading, economic and naval power in the world, wasn’t onside, then it wouldn’t happen. There wasn’t a genuine Scramble for China because Britain didn’t want one.

Why not? Darwin quotes a Foreign Office official simply saying, ‘We don’t want another India.’ One enormous third world country to try and administer with its hundreds of ethnic groups and parties growing more restive by the year, was quite enough.

Also, by the turn of the century, the Brits had become paranoid about Russia’s intentions to conquer Afghanistan and march into North India. If they partitioned China with Russia, that would mean policing an even longer frontier even further way against an aggressive imperialist power ready to pounce the moment our guard was down.

Summary

This is an absolutely brilliant book. I don’t think I’ve ever come across so many dazzling insights and revelations and entirely new ways of thinking about a time-worn subject in one volume.

This is the book to give anyone who’s interested not just in ‘the rise of the West’ but how the whole concept of ‘the West’ emerged, for a fascinating description not just of the European empires but of all the empires across Eurasia – Ottoman, Persian, Moghul, Chinese and Japanese – and how history – at this level – consists of the endless juggling for power of these enduring power blocs, the endless and endlessly

complex history of empire-, state- and culture-building. (p.490)

And of course it all leads up to where we are today: a resurgent Russia flexing its muscles in Ukraine and Crimea; China wielding its vast economic power and brutally oppressing its colonial subjects in Tibet and Xinkiang, while buying land, resources and influence across Africa. And both Russia and China using social media and the internet in ways we don’t yet fully understand in order to undermine the West.

And Turkey, keen as its rulers of all colours have been since the Ottoman days, to keep the Kurds down. And Iran, as its rulers have done for a thousand years, continually seeking new ways to extend its influence around the Gulf, across Syria and to the Mediterranean, in eternal rivalry with the Arab world which, in our time, means Saudi Arabia, against whom Iran is fighting a proxy war in the Yemen.

Darwin’s books really drives home the way the faces and the ideologies may change, but the fundamental geopolitical realities endure, and with them the crudeness and brutality of the tools each empire employs.

If you let ‘morality’, especially modern woke morality, interfere with your analysis of this level of geopolitics, you will understand nothing. At this level it always has and always will be about power and influence, dominating trade and ensuring raw resources, and behind it all the never-ending quest for ‘security’.

At this level, it isn’t about following narrow, English notions of morality. Getting hung up on that only gets in the way of grasping the utterly amoral forces at play everywhere in the world today, just as they’ve always been.

Darwin stands up for intelligence and insight, for careful analysis and, above all, for a realistic grasp of human nature and human society – deeply, profoundly flawed and sometimes pitiful and wretched though both routinely are. He takes an adult view. It is absolutely thrilling and a privilege to be at his side as he explains and analysis this enormous history with such confidence and with so many brilliant ideas and insights.


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Imperial fiction

Inspired by the east: how the Islamic world influenced western art @ the British Museum

European explorers

As John Darwin’s brilliant history of Eurasian empires, After Tamerlane, makes clear, quite a few things distinguished European culture from the culture of the other Eurasian empires (i.e. the Ottoman Empire, the Safavid Empire in Persia, the Moghul Empire in northern India, the Chinese Empire and the Japanese Empire) in the centuries after the death of Tamerlane the Great in 1405.

Just two of them were a readiness, on the part of the Europeans, to travel and explore, and an endless curiosity which led to almost obsessive collecting and categorising and curating and exhibiting.

No Chinese explorers visited Europe during the 19th century and were so dazzled by its history and architecture and art that they made copious sketches and drawings, took photographs, bought up every quaint European curio they could get their hands on, and carried them all back to China to catalogue and categorise and trigger an artistic renaissance.

That kind of thing just didn’t happen because few Chinese travelled abroad. Very few wanted to, or had the means to, and anyway it was frowned upon because every educated Chinese knew that the Celestial Empire was the centre of the universe, the possessor of a perfect culture, which didn’t need or want to know anything at all about the outside world, overrun as it was by cultureless barbarians.

And Darwin shows how this complacent and self-centred attitude was echoed by the cultural and political elites of Japan, Moghul India, the Safavid Empire and the sprawling Ottoman Empire, for centuries.

No, the wandering, exploring, collecting bug seems to have affected Europeans on a completely different scale from any of the world’s other civilisations.

Thus it was that from the 1500s onwards a steadily increasing stream of travellers, explorers, soldiers and sailors, archaeologists and artists travelled all over the Muslim lands lining the North African coast and the Middle East – territory nominally under the control of the extensive Ottoman Empire – to explore and describe and paint and buy and plunder.

Inspired by the East

This ambitious exhibition delves into one aspect of this huge European enterprise by looking at the long and complex history of cultural interchanges between the Islamic Middle East and Europe from about 1500 onwards.

Not surprisingly several of the earliest objects are swords and helmets since the single most important fact about Islam is that it was a conqueror’s religion, spread by highly organised and zealous Arabs as they exploded out of Arabia in the 7th and 8th centuries to seize the Christian Middle East and North African coastline.

Gilt-Copper helmet, Turkey (about 1650) © Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

The Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman dynasty which began its rise to prominence in the 1200s was itself just the last in a line of dynasties which had vied for leadership of the Muslim world since the birth of Islam in the 630s.

The Ottoman Turks rose to dominate the area we call the Middle East during the period 1300 to 1453 (the year when the Ottomans seized Christian Constantinople and made it into their capital, Istanbul). I’ve reviewed several books about the decline of the Byzantine Empire as it came under relentless pressure from successive Muslim rulers, until its eventual fall to the Ottomans.

The Ottoman heyday is usually dated from the year of the fall of Byzantium – 1453 – to around 1600, during which they extended their power across all of North Africa and deep into Europe. It’s salutary to remember that twice the Ottoman army besieged Vienna, in 1526 and 1683, and was only just defeated both times i.e. they could have penetrated even further into Christian Europe.

As it was, throughout this period the Ottomans ruled the extensive territory of former Christian Europe which we call the Balkans, as well as Christian Greece and Christian subjects in numerous Mediterranean islands.

Mainly Victorian

A handful of pieces and a few wall labels in the exhibition gesture towards this long and complex early history of Ottoman rise and conquest and domination, including the striking portrait of Sultan Bayezid I by a painter from the school of Veronese, which has been used as the poster for the show.

A Portrait of Sultan Bayezid I by a member of the School of Veronese (c. 1580) © Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

But the exhibition really focuses on works from the much later period of the 19th and early 20th centuries, partly for the simple reason that the period 1800 to the outbreak of the Second World War saw a steadily increasing number of European travellers to North Africa and the Middle East.

Some of this was simply a function of continually improving transport, sailing ships giving way to steamships, the steady spread of railways, the industrial revolution creating a new leisured class, especially in Britain and France, who wanted to see the world, helped along by firms like Thomas Cook which launched its first cruises in the 1870s.

Many devout Victorians, such as the Pre-Raphaelite artist William Holman Hunt, wanted to tour the Holy Land and see for themselves the places where Our Lord had stood. Flocks of visitors drew and sketched and painted watercolours and oils and bought all manner of souvenirs, carpets and clothes, tiles and glasswork. By the time of the Great Exhibition of 1851 the British public was highly aware of the extremely diverse and colourful cultures of the peoples it ruled over.

But the thesis of this exhibition is that the Islamic culture of the Ottoman Empire bore a uniquely close and fractious relationship with Europe, was the predominant colonial and foreign cultural ‘Other’ for Europe throughout the period – a kind of backward cousin, a slothful and declining ‘Orient’ against which we could measure our ever-growing knowledge, technology and power. And that a huge number of craftsmen and artists and metalworkers and glassblowers and designers and artists and architects were particularly dazzled and influenced and inspired by Islamic and Middle Eastern art and culture.

So this exhibition, Inspired by the East, aims to bring together a wealth of artifacts to show a) some of the original Islamic arts and crafts from the era and b) the impact Islamic architecture, designs and patterns had on European craftsmen, artists and designers through a large selection of European objects.

Enamelled glass lamp made by Philippe-Joseph Brocard, France (about 1877)

Thus the exhibition includes wonderful, ornate and beautiful examples from a whole range of media and crafts such as:

  • tiles
  • glasswork
  • ceramics
  • metalwork
  • jewellery
  • clothing
  • architecture
  • design

I was interested to learn there was a genre called ‘costume books’ which simply showed the costumes of all the new races and peoples Europeans had discovered as they expanded and explored from the 1500s onwards and which, of course, featured books devoted to the clothes and garments of the Middle East.

I learned that all kinds of products by Islamic artisans were prized in the West from early on, such as Egyptian metalwork and Persian ceramics. During the 19th century Western craftsmen could use developing technology to reproduce much of this work. The exhibition includes Arab-inspired ceramics by Théodore Deck, a leading French ceramicist who in the late nineteenth century created a range of pieces directly inspired by Islamic originals.

Nearby is a section devoted to Owen Jones, one of the most influential tastemakers of the Victorian era. His pioneering studies on colour theory, geometry and form still inspire designers to this day. Jones was an architect, designer and design theorist and was Superintendent of Works for the 1851 Great Exhibition. His masterpiece was Grammar of Ornament, a huge and lavish folio displaying stunning patterns, motifs and ornaments in 112 illustrated plates, many of which featured Islamic decorations and motifs. Some of the Islamic plates from the book are on display here.

But but but… I was struck by several obvious problems.

Number one was that most of the works on display are by Europeans. They are not original works by the Islamic craftsmen and artists who are so praised. They are European copies, displayed with the intention of showing how widespread the impact of Islamic styles and motifs was on the European arts. If you’re looking for a world of authentically Islamic arts and crafts you’d do better to go the V&A.

Number two was that, despite the beauty of individual works, it became difficult to avoid a sense of scrappiness, a sense that the curators are trying to cover a lot of ground, in fact an enormous subject – the impact of the Muslim world on the art and culture of the West – with a surprisingly small range of exhibits.

Take my home area, history: A few helmets and a sword are accompanied by a paragraph or two about the extent of the Ottoman Empire – but this, the military rise and dominance of the Ottoman Empire, is a huge, a vast subject, which I felt was barely scratched and whose omission made the entire show feel one-sided i.e. presented only the Europeans as aggressive colonialists whereas, as I’ve explained, it was the Muslims who originally conquered half the Christian Mediterranean.

Similarly, the friend I went with is mad about Islamic tiles so was pleased to see a display of half a dozen beautiful and ornate tiles – but disappointed that they turned out to be made by a Victorian British manufacturer using Islamic motifs – and that that was it when it came to tiles.

Islamic architecture is distinctive and beautiful and exists over half the world, but it was dealt with via just a few British buildings which used Islamic motifs, such as the well-known artist Lord Leighton’s famous house in West London which he had modelled inside to recreate some of the rooms from the Alhambra in Spain, namely ‘the Arab Hall’. Leighton had the place covered in Islamic tiles designed by William de Morgan. There are photos of the interior and a lovely wooden model but… is that it?

The single most dominant impression was made by the paintings, a few scattered in the early sections but then leading up to a huge wall displaying about 20 classic, late-Victorian, Orientalist paintings.

In the Madrasa by Ludwig Deutsch (1890) © Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

Orientalism

This brings us to the several meanings of ‘Orientalism’, a word and idea which are raised early in the exhibition and then referenced throughout.

1. The word Orientalism was originally, during the 19th century and first half of the 20th, a value-neutral term applied to all or any scholars, linguists, archaeologists or artists who specialised in ‘the Orient’, a vague expression generally taken to be Islamic North Africa and Middle East but sometimes stretching to include India. It survives in this neutral sense in many places to this day, for example in the name of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

2. However, the term underwent a revolutionary change in 1978 when the Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said published his academic study Orientalism. In this book Said subjected the so-called ‘scholarly’ works of 19th century Orientalist academics to in-depth analysis in order to support one big radical idea: that almost all the supposedly scholarly and academic books and ideas produced by European scholars about the Orient were the witting or unwitting handmaids of Western Imperialism.

Almost all the nineteenth-century Orientalists declared the Ottoman Empire corrupt and stagnant, Islam itself incapable of change. The people living there were stereotyped as somehow more primitive, dressing in loose but colourful clothing, slothful and lazy and corrupt.

Probably the most notable idea was the fascination the institution of the harem had for repressed Westerners who projected all kinds of sexual fantasies onto Oriental woman and painted no end of soft porn depictions of the sultan and his slaves and concubines and slave auctions and so on.

So powerful was Said’s critique that it spread and prospered in the academy, becoming the new orthodoxy and casting a critical shadow back over everything written or painted about the Middle East in the previous 200 years or more. Since its publication almost everything any European said, wrote or painted about the Ottoman Empire has been reappraised to appear in a much more sinister light, either furthering malicious racist stereotypes, aiding in imperial exploitation, or the shameless appropriation of a weaker culture’s art and designs.

Schizophrenia

Now the woke young curators of this exhibition are fully paid-up subscribers to Said’s unforgiving views about Western exploitation of the Middle East. This isn’t a guess on my part. They quote page one of Orientalism in the very opening wall label which introduces the exhibition:

The Orient is not only adjacent to Europe; it is also the place of Europe’s greatest and richest and oldest colonies, the source of its civilizations and languages, its cultural contestant… The Orient is an integral part of European material civilization and culture.

And every other wall label takes pains to remind us that the plate or vase or tile or translation of The 1001 Nights or any other cultural product which we’re looking at and which references Islam may well seem beautiful to us but, tut tut, we should be aware that it was part of the wicked European fashion to appropriate Islamic patterns for vases or the exploitative trend for mock Moorish architecture, or the thieving use of Arabic script in picture frames and so on.

And that behind all of this detail, all of these individual examples of cultural appropriation, lies the huge looming shadow of Western Imperialism!

Four tiles by William De Morgan & Co, Britain (1888-1897)

Cumulatively, these hectoring labels and panels created, for me at any rate, a strange sense of schizophrenia. In one and the same wall label the curators might both praise the craftmanship of a western tile maker or architect – and yet accuse them of being part of the general movement of cultural appropriation. Praise and damn almost in the same breath.

As so often in modern exhibitions, I began to feel that I got more visual and aesthetic enjoyment if I just stopped reading the hectoring labels – felt less harangued and nagged to feel guilty about things which happened 150 years before I was even born.

Orientalist painting

It’s probably in painting that the Orientalist issue is most obvious, or most familiar to most of us because the antique shops of the West are awash with third-rate late-Victorian depictions of the Arab world, of mosques, old men in long gowns with even longer beards, camels crossing the desert, Oriental markets, scantily dressed concubines and so on.

Said’s idea is that, although these images are fairly harmless looked at individually, taken together they become condescending, sexist and racist, depicting a fantasy world of harems and sultans, long-gowned scholars in picturesque mosques, colourful markets or the desert at dawn – all of which, taken together, creates a patronising distortion of the complex realities of the many peoples and tribes and ethnic groups and nations scattered across North Africa and the Middle East.

Moreover, taken together, they all tend in the same direction, promoting an ideology claiming that all these cultures and peoples might well be noble and beautiful, but were also backward and in decline, and therefore needed to be taken in hand, taken over, guided and ruled by us, the enlightened West.

At Prayer by Ludwig Deutsch (1923)

The big wall hanging of twenty or so massive Orientalist paintings which I mentioned earlier are obviously meant to represent a kind of ‘Wall of Shame’. Tut tut, we are encouraged to think: look at all these stereotypical markets and mosques and rugs and carpets. Look how oppressive they are.

However, I just didn’t feel the moral outrage I think the curators intend us to feel. The real impact of hanging so many Orientalist paintings next to each other was, in my opinion, to make you feel a bit sick, as if you’d been let loose in a sweetshop and eaten everything in sight. They are self-consciously opulent and gorgeous to the point of absurdity.

Another, more objective result of examining so many of these over-ripe productions was that, pace Said, most of them are not from the imperial nineteenth century, nor, surprisingly, were many of them produced by the classic imperialist powers who carved up the Middle East between them, France and Britain.

At least half of them were from the twentieth century, many from after the Great War (the two above are from 1913 and 1923). And quite a few were by either German or American painters, not by the cultural Anglo-French cultural appropriators. Neither the Germans nor the Americans had any colonial presence in the Middle East till well after the Great War and even then, not very much.

Orientalism or Romanticism?

As I read yet another wall label pointing out how the Orientalist painters fantasised and romanticised and embellished lots of the subjects they painted, as if this was a shockingly immoral and exploitative thing to do, a simple thought occurred to me: Didn’t all 19th century artists?

There are thousands and thousands of Victorian genre paintings which romanticise and glamorise all kinds of subjects, from their own working classes (cf the exhibition of cheesy paintings of Victorian children I saw earlier this year at the Guildhall) to windswept Hebridean crofters.

In other words, wasn’t the entire artistic movement of Romanticism about, well, stereotypically romantic subject matter – about mountains and storms at sea and heroic adventures and tormented heroes and shy maidens with heaving bosoms who needed rescuing from dragons (I’m thinking of the amazing late-Victorian fantasies of Edward Burne-Jones as recently displayed at Tate Britain).

The same exaggerated depiction of popular conceptions of subjects was applied to everything – I bet medieval knights weren’t as manly and knightly as they appear in Victorian paintings, that Highland crofters weren’t as proud and noble, or our brave soldiers quite as manly and beautifully kitted out, as they appear in those big hearty late-Victorian paintings.

Don’t all Victorian paintings depict extravagant stereotypes in lush and glamorous colours? In other words, there is nothing particular or exceptional about this hyper-romantic style being applied to ‘Oriental’ subjects: it was applied to countless other subjects as well.

The Guard by Antonio María Fabrés y Costa (1889)

The harem

I was especially looking forward to the section about the harem, not because I was expecting to be particularly titillated but because I was anticipating the orgy of outraged feminism it would prompt in the commentary.

After all, one of the most obvious and much-repeated claims of anti-orientalist, politically correct literary critics, feminists and curators is that Western white men used the Ottoman institution of the harem to concoct a vast number of soft porn, erotic fantasies which bore no relation to reality at all, but merely satisfied the gloating gaze of fat, rich, white, male collectors.

So the most astonishing single thing about this exhibition about Western depictions of the Orient is the complete absence of even one decent painting showing a classic, late-Victorian harem scene. Not one.

I thought I must have missed a room somewhere and went back through the exhibition to check, but eventually realised that the little collection of five or so chaste drawings and one painting – none of which show a nude woman, all of them very restrained – is all they have! 

There’s a tiny photo of one of the classic nude-in-a-Turkish-bath paintings by Ingres, but any actual huge, beautiful and sexy harem scenes by him or Eugène Delacroix or John Frederick Lewis or any number of their followers and copyers… nothing! None!

I think I could go to my nearest antiques shop and find more cheesy old Victorian paintings of scantily-clad maidens in a supposed harem than there were in this exhibition. It is an astonishing gap. The big oil painting I mentioned is of a fully-clothed woman who could be more or less anywhere.

Off to one side there is one little drawing of a woman playing a musical instrument by a French artist we are assured, by the conscientious curators, was a notorious Orientalist – though it could hardly be less offensive. Does this image strike you as being offensively racist and sexist, stereotyping the Orient and providing visual underpinning for Western imperialism? It doesn’t, to me.

Study of a girl playing a stringed instrument by Jean Léon Gérôme (1886)

In fact it raises a related politico-aesthetic question, because the curators point out that the artists, Jean Léon Gérôme, was well known for his meticulous sketches and drawings he made preparatory to making an oil painting. Which made me reflect: I n what way can these artists be accused of peddling lazy stereotypes if they were carefully and meticulously depicting what they saw, what was actually in front of them?

The sex object bites back (or photographs itself wearing clothes)

The absolute of real killer harem scenes is all the more puzzling because it is meant to set up the final part of the exhibition, which is devoted to contemporary works by modern Muslim women artists.

The curators have chosen to interpret these contemporary Muslim women artists as responding to the despicable tradition of Western Orientalism. They are ‘speaking back to Orientalist representations of the east’. They are ‘subverting and undermining works by earlier European and North American artists’.

But alas the curators’ plan doesn’t really work because we have not seen any of the sexy, sexist Orientalist representations of the east which these contemporary artists are kicking back against. We pretty much have to imagine them, or remember them from other exhibitions or books.

In fact I thought all four of the women artists on display here were very good, very very good, in their way better than the rest of the exhibition. Best of the four was a triptych of images by Lalla Essaydi, part of a large series of works titled Women of Morocco.

In them Essaydi or her models adopt the poses of the scantily-clad women draped around in famous Orientalist paintings, only here the women are chastely and Islamically dressed and – and this is the distinctive thing from a visual point of view – both they, their clothes and the studio backcloths are covered in Islamic script. I thought it was a brilliant idea, brilliantly executed, to produce really vibrant and exciting images.

Les Femmes du Maroc by Lalla Essaydi (2005) © Lalla Esaydi

Conclusion

Inspired by the East feels, in the end, like a rather thin exhibition.

Firstly, it claims to be a look at the interaction between East and West, so you’d expect it to be divided into two parts; How East affected West and how West affected East.

As noted, there’s plenty of examples of the way Westerners appropriated Eastern designs and motifs and patterns, architecture and design (although this felt like a much larger subject which really deserved to be investigated in much greater depth – All over London are buildings which incorporate Islamic motifs; if you add in tiling and ceramics and metalwork you have a huge subject).

But as to West affecting East, this section felt very skimpy indeed, with just one small room showing a couple of photo albums by pioneering photographers in Istanbul and a map or two. Is that it?

Secondly, there is the big shadow of Edward Said and his embittering theory of Orientalism threaded throughout the show, the premise that all depictions of the Middle East and all forms of appropriation of its culture were handmaidens to the wicked, Western imperial exploitation of the area.

But this rather harsh and inflexible approach militates against the more nuanced vibe of the ‘cultural interactions’ parts of the show. One minute the curators are praising Western craftsmen; the next they are berating the subtle cultural imperialism of copying Islamic designs.

Hence my comment about the unsettling schizophrenia I thought the show suffered from.

3. And when I got to the section on the harem and realised how tragically thin it was, it suddenly crystallised for me how skimpy the rest of the exhibition feels. It feels like it’s trying to address two or three really big issues and not quite doing any of them quite properly.

Alhambra vase, Spain 1800–1899 © Islamic Arts Museum, Malaysia

Writing versus art

I read Orientalism at university four or five years after it was published, when it still had ‘the shock of the new’, before it settled down to become the new orthodoxy taught to each new generation of humanities and art students.

And Said’s book is almost entirely concerned with Orientalist writing – with the supposedly factual works of Orientalist ‘scholars’ (who he systematically debunks) and with the Western literary writers who perpetuated stereotypes about the Exotic East (Byron, Nerval, Flaubert just for starters).

A lot of this kind of writing was produced in the nineteenth century and so Said had a rich vein to draw on, and was able to show how the supposedly ‘scholarly’ writing, and the literary works, easily morphed into official, governing and imperial writing, could be co-opted into government reports and assessments, how anthropological studies could be quoted in business cases for invading Egypt, say, or Iraq.

But it is much harder to divine a particularly patronising, racist or imperialist motive behind a set of porcelain which just happens to use an Islamic motif, or in picture frames which use Arabic script as decoration, or in glassware which incorporates Islamic patterns.

It’s easier to imagine that they were just one among the millions of other ranges of pottery and ceramics and frames produced during the consumer boom of the nineteenth century, which cannibalised motifs and patterns from all available sources – from India and China and Japan to name just a few – if it produced something which would sell.

To see most of the objects in this exhibition as part of an enormous explosion of art and crafts products which catered for the burgeoning middles classes as, to some extent, they still do today.

So my last thought is that maybe the bittiness and thinness of the exhibition is owing to the fact that the curators are trying to illustrate a basically literary theory with works of art and museum objects. And not nearly enough of them to really round out the argument.

Whatever the reason, for me this exhibition contained an entertaining pot-pourri of lovely objects, but didn’t really hang together either as history, or as a sustained exploration of the themes it purports to address.

Promotional video

Curators

  • Julia Tugwell
  • Olivia Threlkeld

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Sir Stamford Raffles: collecting in Southeast Asia 1811-1824 @ the British Museum

As it is in just one room upstairs at the back of the British Museum, and is FREE, I thought this would be a relatively light and small exhibition to enjoy, but I was wrong. It’s a surprisingly packed exhibition which gives a panoramic view of Indonesian, and particularly Javanese, culture – at least through the eyes of one of its earliest European collectors.

Puppet of the comic character Sabda Palon, one of Damarwulan’s servants (Central Java, probably Surakarta, 1700s) © Trustees of the British Museum

Stamford Raffles, a potted biography

Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781 – 1826) started working for the East India Company when he was 14, and spent most of his life as an East India Company official in Southeast Asia. In 1811 he was appointed Lieutenant-Governor of Java when the British seized it from the Dutch, but in 1815, when we gave it back to the Dutch at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, he was forced to stand down and returned to England.

Raffles arrived back in Britain with a substantial collection, almost 450 puppets, over 700 coins, more than 350 drawings, over 130 masks, more than 120 small metal sculptures and five small stone sculptures. His collection quickly became the talk of academic London and Raffles settled down to write what became a massive two-volume History of Java. On its publication in 1817 he dedicated it to the Prince Regent and was rewarded with a knighthood. That’s how to make friends and influence people!

Portrait of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles by James Thompson (1824)

In 1817 Raffles went back out East when he was chosen to be Lieutenant-Governor of Bengkulu (Bencoolen), in southwest Sumatra, where he served until 1824. It was during this period that he took advantage of a succession dispute between local rulers to seize the small village of Singapore, as the perfect location for a trading post for the British East India Company half way between India and China.

This ‘foundation’ of Singapore took place in 1819, and this explains why this exhibition has been mounted – indirectly to mark the bicentennary of what went on to become one of the most vibrant commercial cities in the world.

Post-imperial reappraisal

But, as you might expect of any leading figure in the British Empire, Raffles is nowadays frowned on by academics, by historians and curators (not to mention the inhabitants of Java and Indonesia, or those who are interested enough in their history to have heard of him).

Raffles has become, in other words, a controversial figure, one of thousands of similar controversial imperial figures, once revered in their European homelands for deeds of derring-do and seizing territory from foreigners – now undergoing reappraisal from academics and curators who are, because of their positions, more than usually aware of the need for respect and diversity in our modern multicultural societies.

A demon, Buta Kimul, Cirebon, Western Java, late 1700s-early 1800s

The Raffles collection

Anyway, the exhibition explains that Raffles was an avid collector of objects from the region, particularly from Java but also from China, Sumatra (now part of Indonesia), India, Burma (Myanmar) and Siam (Thailand). He had the true collector mentality, he was fascinated with bargaining and bartering for obscure objects, and then categorising them and arranging them.

Eventually he accumulated some 2,000 objects which provide us with a vital record of the art and court cultures of Java from approximately the 7th century to the early 19th century.

This exhibition presents the cream of Raffles’s personal collection and adds some loan objects from the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore, seen here in the UK for the first time. So it’s a collaborative exhibition and will transfer to the Singapore museum next year.

The exhibition is divided up into quite a few sub-sections, each devoted to a specific type of artefact. These include:

  • Hindu and antiquities
  • bronze Buddhas and bodhisattvas
  • protective amulets
  • theatrical puppets
  • theatrical masks
  • musical instruments
  • stone sculptures
  • metal sculptures

In all there are 130 objects, many of them very beautiful. I think the curator was wise to begin with a dramatic display of theatrical face masks and stick puppets from across Java, since these are by far the most colourful and attractive objects.

Javanese theatre masks

We learn that Java and the nearby islands were home to a combination of Hindu and Buddhist beliefs, until Islam arrived around 1400. This explains the number of Hindu and Buddhist statues on display.

It also explains another particular thread of Raffles’s collection, which was the organised visits he paid to a series of famous Hindu and Buddhist archaeological sites. Each of these is given its own section in the display cabinets, with a label explaining its location (and a map), a photo of the modern site, and then examples of drawings made at the locations. Often these drawings are not by him; he bought them off Dutch antiquarians who had visited and sketched the various sites.

To be honest, I found these worthy but a bit boring – one for the specialist in the religious architecture of medieval Java, maybe.

Pair of drawings showing a temple covered in foliage (right), and as imagined in a complete state (left), with commentary by G. P. Baker. H. C. Cornelius (1774–c.1833), around 1807

The curator makes the interesting point that what’s interesting about many of these drawings is the way they have been ‘beautified’ i.e. touched up to appeal to the late-eighteenth century taste for ruins, especially ruined temples, churches etc. Most of the buildings remain today and don’t look remotely as weathered and picturesque as these stylish drawings.

Raffles’ colonial motivation

Raffles had an ulterior motive for making such an extensive collection. The British had seized Java from the Dutch when the latter allied with Napoleon during the Napoleonic Wars. However, we gave it back to the Dutch with the peace of 1815, but Raffles thought this was a mistake. He thought Indonesia ought to be a British colony. According to the curator this was based not only on straightforward mercantile considerations, but also on a particular view of history.

Raffles subscribed to one of the many theories of history floating around during the Enlightenment, in his case the view that civilisations rise and fall in a continual ebbing and flowing.

He thought the impressive ruins which he visited, and the highly crafted artifacts which he bought, showed that Java had once had a great civilisation… and could do so once again, if carefully tutored and supported by a benevolent patron, namely the British.

Therefore Raffles made his extensive collection, at least in part, to persuade his British masters that the island was worth taking over as a British protectorate. Same goes for the enormous two-volume History of Java which contains a monumental survey and history of the island state. In it Raffles provides a comprehensive ethnographic description of the island’s society, describing its economy, trade, languages and dialects, and religious and social customs, together with a detailed history of the island, including a discussion of the introduction of Islam.

He was a true collector and early ethnographer, but also a man of his time and a thorough colonialist. This exhibition is a truly fascinating insight, less into the man, than into the history of the place whose artifacts and objects he collected so assiduously.

Finally, from the whole collection of masks and puppets and statues and swords and ceramics and drawings, I thought by far the most winning object was one of the ‘additional’ objects on loan to the exhibition and not actually collected by Raffles himself, but from a much later generation – this wonderfully intricate model ship made entirely out of cloves!

Model boat from the Maluku islands, made of cloves and fibre, late 19th century

Curator

Alexandra Green


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

Alex’s Adventures In Numberland by Alex Bellos (2010)

Alexander Bellos (born in 1969) is a British writer and broadcaster. He is the author of books about Brazil and mathematics, as well as having a column in The Guardian newspaper. After adventures in Brazil (see his Wikipedia page) he returned to England in 2007 and wrote this, his first book. It spent four months in the Sunday Times bestseller list and led on to five more popular maths books.

It’s a hugely enjoyable read for three reasons:

  1. Bellos immediately establishes a candid, open, good bloke persona, sharing stories from his early job as a reporter on the Brighton Argus, telling some colourful anecdotes about his time in Brazil and then being surprisingly open about the way that, when he moved back to Britain, he had no idea what to do. The tone of the book is immediately modern, accessible and friendly.
  2. However this doesn’t mean he is verbose. The opposite. The book is packed with fascinating information. Every single paragraph, almost every sentence contains a fact or insight which makes you sit up and marvel. It is stufffed with good things.
  3. Lastly, although its central theme is mathematics, it approaches this through a wealth of information from the humanities. There is as much history and psychology and anthropology and cultural studies and philosophy as there is actual maths, and these are all subjects which the average humanities graduate can immediately relate to and assimilate.

Chapter Zero – A Head for Numbers

Alex meets Pierre Pica, a linguist who’s studied the Munduruku people of the Amazon and discovered they have little or no sense of numbers. They only have names for numbers up to five. Also, they cluster numbers together logarithmically i.e. the higher the number, the closer together they clustered them. Same thing is done by kindergarten children who only slowly learn that numbers are evenly spaced, in a linear way.

This may be because small children and the Munduruku don’t count so much as estimate using the ratios between numbers.

It may also be because above a certain number (five) Stone Age man needed to make quick estimates along the lines of, Are there more wild animals / members of the other gang, than us?

Another possibility is that distance appears to us to be logarithmic due to perspective: the first fifty yards we see in close detail, the next fifty yards not so detailed, beyond 100 yards looking smaller, and so on.

It appears that we have to be actively taught when young to overcome our logarithmic instincts, and to apply the rule that each successive whole number is an equal distance from its predecessor and successor i.e. the rational numbers lies along a straight line at regular intervals.

More proof that the logarithmic approach is the deep, hard-wired one is the way most of us revert to its perspective when considering big numbers. As John Allen Paulos laments, people make no end of fuss about discrepancies between 2 or 3 or 4 – but are often merrily oblivious to the difference between a million or a billion, let alone a trillion. For most of us these numbers are just ‘big’.

He goes on to describe experiments done on chimpanzees, monkeys and lions which appear to show that animals have the ability to estimate numbers. And then onto experiments with small babies which appear to show that as soon as they can focus on the outside world, babies can detect changes in number of objects.

And it appears that we also have a further number skill, that guesstimating things – the journey takes 30 or 40 minutes, there were twenty or thirty people at the party, you get a hundred, maybe hundred and fifty peas in a sack. When it comes to these figures almost all of us give rough estimates.

To summarise:

  • we are sensitive to small numbers, acutely so of 1, 2, 3, 4, less so of 5, 6, 7, 8, 9
  • left to our own devices we think logarithmically about larger numbers i.e lose the sense of distinction between them, clump them together
  • we have a good ability to guesstimate medium size numbers – 30, 40, 100

But it was only with the invention of notation, a way of writing numbers down, that we were able to create the linear system of counting (where every number is 1 larger than its predecessor, laid out in a straight line, at regular intervals).

And that this cultural invention enabled human beings to transcend our vague guesstimating abilities, and laid the basis for the systematic manipulation of the world which followed

Chapter One – The Counter Culture

The probable origins of counting lie in stock taking in the early agricultural revolution some 8,000 years ago.

We nowadays count using a number base 10 i.e. the decimal system. But other bases have their virtues, especially base 12. It has more factors i.e. is easier to divide: 12 can be divided neatly by 2, 3, 4 and 6. A quarter of 10 is 2.5 but of 12 is 3. A third of 10 is 3.333 but of 12 is 4. Striking that a version of the duodecimal system (pounds, shillings and pence) hung on in Britain till we finally went metric in the 1970s. There is even a Duodecimal Society of America which still actively campaigns for the superiority of a base 12 counting scheme.

Bellos describes a bewildering variety of other counting systems and bases. In 1716 King Charles XII of Sweden asked Emmanuel Swedenborg to devise a new counting system with a base of 64. The Arara in the Amazon count in pairs, the Renaissance author Luca Paccioli was just one of hundreds who have devised finger-based systems of counting – indeed, the widespread use of base 10 probably stems from the fact that we have ten fingers and toes.

He describes a complicated Chinese system where every part of the hand and fingers has a value which allows you to count up to nearly a billion – on one hand!

The Yupno system which attributes a different value for parts of the body up to its highest number, 33, represented by the penis.

Diagram showing numbers attributed to parts of the body by the Yupno tribe

Diagram showing numbers attributed to parts of the body by the Yupno tribe

There’s another point to make about his whole approach which comes out if we compare him with the popular maths books by John Allen Paulos which I’ve just read.

Paulos clearly sees the need to leaven his explanations of comparative probability and Arrow’s Theorem and so on with lighter material and so his strategy is to chuck into his text things which interest him: corny jokes, anecdotes about baseball, casual random digressions which occur to him in mid-flow. But al his examples clearly 1. emanate from Paulos’s own interests and hobby horses (especially baseball) and 2. they are tacked onto the subjects being discussed.

Bellos, also, has grasped that the general reader needs to be spoonfed maths via generous helpings of other, more easily digestible material. But Bellos’s choice of material arises naturally from the topic under discussion. The humour emerges naturally and easily from the subject matter instead of being tacked on in the form of bad jokes.

You feel yourself in the hands of a master storyteller who has all sorts of wonderful things to explain to you.

In fourth millennium BC, an early counting system was created by pressing a reed into soft clay. By 2700 BC the Sumerians were using cuneiform. And they had number symbols for 1, 10, 60 and 3,600 – a mix of decimal and sexagesimal systems.

Why the Sumerians grouped their numbers in 60s has been described as one of the greatest unresolved mysteries in the history of arithmetic. (p.58)

Measuring in 60s was inherited by the Babylonians, the Egyptians and the Greeks and is why we still measure hours in 60 minutes and the divisions of a circle by 360 degrees.

I didn’t know that after the French Revolution, when the National Convention introduced the decimal system of weights and measures, it also tried to decimalise time, introducing a new system whereby every day would be divided into ten hours, each of a hundred minutes, each divided into 100 seconds. Thus there were a very neat 10 x 100 x 100 = 100,000 seconds in a day. But it failed. An hour of 60 minutes turns out to be a deeply useful division of time, intuitively measurable, and a reasonable amount of time to spend on tasks. The reform was quietly dropped after six months, although revolutionary decimal clocks still exist.

Studies consistently show that Chinese children find it easier to count than European children. This may be because of our system of notation, or the structure of number names. Instead of eleven or twelve, Chinese, Japanese and Koreans say the equivalent of ten one, ten two. 21 and 22 become two ten one and two ten two. It has been shown that this makes it a lot simpler and more intuitive to do basic addition and subtraction.

Bellos goes on to describe the various systems of abacuses which have developed in different cultures, before explaining the phenomenal popularity of abacus counting, abacus clubs, and abacus championships in Japan which helps kids develop the ability to perform anzan, using the mental image of an abacus to help its practitioners to sums at phenomenal speed.

Chapter Two – Behold!

The mystical sense of the deep meaning of numbers, from Pythagoras with his vegetarian religious cult of numbers in 4th century BC Athens to Jerome Carter who advises leading rap stars about the numerological significance of their names.

Euclid and the elegant and pure way he deduced mathematical theorems from a handful of basic axioms.

A description of the basic Platonic shapes leads into the nature of tessalating tiles, and the Arab pioneering of abstract design. The complex designs of the Sierpinski carpet and the Menger sponge. And then the complex and sophisticated world of origami, which has its traditionalists, its pioneers and surprising applications to various fields of advanced science, introducing us to the American guru of modern origami, Robert Lang, and the Japanese rebel, Kazuo Haga, father of Haga’s Theorem.

Chapter Three – Something About Nothing

A bombardment of information about the counting systems of ancient Hindus, Buddhists, about number symbols in Sanskrit, Hebrew, Greek and Latin. How the concept of zero was slowly evolved in India and moved to the Muslim world with the result that the symbols we use nowadays are known as the Arabic numerals.

A digression into ‘a set of arithmetical tricks known as Vedic Mathematics ‘ devised by a young Indian swami at the start of the twentieth century, Bharati Krishna Tirthaji, based on a series of 16 aphorisms which he found in the ancient holy texts known as the Vedas.

Shankaracharya is a commonly used title of heads of monasteries called mathas in the Advaita Vedanta tradition. Tirthaji was the Shankaracharya of the monastery at Puri. Bellos goes to visit the current Shankaracharya who explains the closeness, in fact the identity, of mathematics and Hindu spirituality.

Chapter Four – Life of Pi

An entire chapter about pi which turns out not only to be a fundamental aspect of calculating radiuses and diameters and volumes of circles and cubes, but also to have a long history of mathematicians vying with each other to work out its value to as many decimal places as possible (we currently know the value of pi to 2.7 trillion decimal places) and the surprising history of people who have set records reciting the value if pi.

Thus, in 2006, retired Japanese engineer Akira Haraguchi set a world record for reciting the value of pi to the first 100,000 decimal places from memory! It took 16 hours with five minute beaks every two hours to eat rice balls and drink some water.

There are several types or classes of numbers:

  • natural numbers – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7…
  • integers – all the natural numbers, but including the negative ones as well – …-3, -2, -1, 0, 1, 2, 3…
  • fractions
  • which are also called rational numbers
  • numbers which cannot be written as fractions are called irrational numbers
  • transcendent numbers – ‘a transcendental number is an irrational number that cannot be described by an equation with a finite number of terms’

The qualities of the heptagonal 50p coin and the related qualities of the Reuleux triangle.

Chapter Five – The x-factor

The origin of algebra (in Arab mathematicians).

Bellos makes the big historical point that for the Greeks (Pythagoras, Plato, Euclid) maths was geometric. They thought of maths as being about shapes – circles, triangles, squares and so on. These shapes had hidden properties which maths revealed, thus giving – the Pythagoreans thought – insight into the secret deeper values of the world.

It is only with the introduction of algebra in the 17th century (Bellos attributes its widespread adoption to Descartes’s Method in the 1640s) that it is possible to fly free of shapes into whole new worlds of abstract numbers and formulae.

Logarithms turn the difficult operation of multiplication into the simpler operation of addition. If X x Y = Z, then log X + log Y = log Z. They were invented by a Scottish laird John Napier, and publicised in a huge book of logarithmic tables published in 1614. Englishman Henry Briggs established logarithms to base 10 in 1628. In 1620 Englishman Edmund Gunter marked logarithms on a ruler. Later in the 1620s Englishman William Oughtred placed two logarithmic rulers next to each other to create the slide rule.

Three hundred years of dominance by the slide rule was brought to a screeching halt by the launch of the first pocket calculator in 1972.

Quadratic equations are equations with an x and an x², e.g. 3x² + 2x – 4 = 0. ‘Quadratics have become so crucial to the understanding of the world, that it is no exaggeration to say that they underpin modern science’ (p.200).

Chapter Six – Playtime

Number games. The origin of Sudoku, which is Japanese for ‘the number must appear only once’. There are some 5 billion ways for numbers to be arranged in a table of nine cells so that the sum of any row or column is the same.

There have, apparently, only been four international puzzle crazes with a mathematical slant – the tangram, the Fifteen puzzle, Rubik’s cube and Sudoku – and Bellos describes the origin and nature and solutions to all four. More than 300 million cubes have seen sold since Ernö Rubik came up with the idea in 1974. Bellos gives us the latest records set in the hyper-competitive sport of speedcubing: the current record of restoring a copletely scrambled cube to order (i.e. all the faces of one colour) is 7.08 seconds, a record held by Erik Akkersdijk, a 19-year-old Dutch student.

A visit to the annual Gathering for Gardner, honouring Martin Gardner, one of the greatest popularisers of mathematical games and puzzles who Bellos visits. The origin of the ambigram, and the computer game Tetris.

Chapter Seven – Secrets of Succession

The joy of sequences. Prime numbers.

The fundamental theorem of arithmetic – In number theory, the fundamental theorem of arithmetic, also called the unique factorization theorem or the unique-prime-factorization theorem, states that every integer greater than 1 either is a prime number itself or can be represented as the product of prime numbers.

The Goldbach conjecture – one of the oldest and best-known unsolved problems in number theory and all of mathematics. It states that, Every even integer greater than 2 can be expressed as the sum of two primes. The conjecture has been shown to hold for all integers less than 4 × 1018, but remains unproven despite considerable effort.

Neil Sloane’s idea of persistence – The number of steps it takes to get to a single digit by multiplying all the digits of the preceding number to obtain a second number, then multiplying all the digits of that number to get a third number, and so on until you get down to a single digit. 88 has a persistence of three.

88 → 8 x 8 = 64 → 6 x 4 = 24 → 2 x 4 = 8

John Horton Conway’s idea of the powertrain – For any number abcd its powertrain goes to abcd, in the case of numbers with an odd number of digits the final one has no power, abcde’s powertrain is abcde.

The Recamán sequence Subtract if you can, unless a) it would result in a negative number or b) the number is already in the sequence. The result is:

0, 1, 3, 6, 2, 7, 13, 20, 12, 21, 11….

Gijswijt’s sequence a self-describing sequence where each term counts the maximum number of repeated blocks of numbers in the sequence immediately preceding that term.

1, 1, 2, 1, 1, 2, 2, 2, 3, 1, 1, 2, 1, 1, 2, 2, 2, 3, 2, 1, …

Perfect number A perfect number is any number that is equal to the sum of its factors. Thus 6 – its factors (the numbers which divided into it) are 1, 2 and 3. Which also add up to (are the sum of) 6. The next perfect number is 28 because its factors – 1, 2, 4, 7, 14 – add up to 28. And so on.

Amicable numbers A number is amicable if the sum of the factors of the first number equals the second number, and if the sum of the factors of the second number equals the first. The factors of 220 are 1, 2, 4, 5, 10, 11, 20, 22, 44, 55 and 110. Added together these make 284. The factors of 284 are 1, 2, 4, 71 and 142. Added together they make 220!

Sociable numbers In 1918 Paul Poulet invented the term sociable numbers. ‘The members of aliquot cycles of length greater than 2 are often called sociable numbers. The smallest two such cycles have length 5 and 28’

Mersenne’s prime A prime number which can be written in the form 2n – 1 a prime number that is one less than a power of two. That is, it is a prime number of the form Mn = 2n − 1 for some integer n. The exponents n which give Mersenne primes are 2, 3, 5, 7, 13, 17, 19, 31, … and the resulting Mersenne primes are 3, 7, 31, 127, 8191, 131071, 524287, 2147483647, …

These and every other sequence ever created by humankind are documented on The On-Line Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences (OEIS), also cited simply as Sloane’s. This is an online database of integer sequences, created and maintained by Neil Sloane while a researcher at AT&T Labs.

Chapter Eight – Gold Finger

The golden section a number found by dividing a line into two parts so that the longer part divided by the smaller part is also equal to the whole length divided by the longer part.

Phi The number is often symbolized using phi, after the 21st letter of the Greek alphabet. In an equation form:

a/b = (a+b)/a = 1.6180339887498948420 …

As with pi (the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter), the digits go on and on, theoretically into infinity. Phi is usually rounded off to 1.618.

The Fibonnaci sequence Each number in the sequence is the sum of the two numbers that precede it. So the sequence goes: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, and so on. The mathematical equation describing it is Xn+2= Xn+1 + Xn.

as the basis of seeds in flowerheads, arrangement of leaves round a stem, design of nautilus shell and much more.

Chapter Nine – Chance Is A Fine Thing

A chapter about probability and gambling.

Impossibility has a value 0, certainty a value 1, everything else is in between. Probabilities can be expressed as fractions e.g. 1/6 chance of rolling a 6 on a die, or as percentages, 16.6%, or as decimals, 0.16…

The probability is something not happening is 1 minus the probability of that thing happening.

Probability was defined and given mathematical form in 17th century. One contribution was the questions the Chevalier de Méré asked the mathematical prodigy Blaise Pascal. Pascal corresponded with his friend, Pierre de Fermat, and they worked out the bases of probability theory.

Expected value is what you can expect to get out of a bet. Bellos takes us on a tour of the usual suspects – rolling dice, tossing coins, and roulette (invented in France).

Payback percentage if you bet £10 at craps, you can expect – over time – to receive an average of about £9.86 back. In other words craps has a payback percentage of 98.6 percent. European roulette has a payback percentage of 97.3 percent. American roulette, 94.7 percent. On other words, gambling is a fancy way of giving your money away. A miserly slot machine has a payback percentage of 85%. The National Lottery has a payback percentage of 50%.

The law of large numbers The more you play a game of chance, the more likely the results will approach the statistical probability. Toss a coin three times, you might get three heads. Toss a coin a thousand times, the chances are you will get very close the statistical probability of 50% heads.

The law of very large numbers With a large enough sample, outrageous coincidences become likely.

The gambler’s fallacy The mistaken belief that, if something happens more frequently than normal during a given period, it will happen less frequently in the future (or vice versa). In other words, that a random process becomes less random, and more predictable, the more it is repeated.

The birthday paradox The probability that, in a set of n randomly chosen people, some pair of them will have the same birthday. By the pigeonhole principle, the probability reaches 100% when the number of people reaches 367 (since there are only 366 possible birthdays, including February 29). However, 99.9% probability is reached with just 70 people, and 50% probability with 23 people. (These conclusions are based on the assumption that each day of the year (excluding February 29) is equally probable for a birthday.) In other words you only need a group of 23 people to have an evens chance that two of them share a birthday.

The drunkard’s walk

The difficulty of attaining true randomness and the human addiction to finding meaning in anything.

The distinction between playing strategy (best strategy to win a game) and betting strategy (best strategy to maximise your winnings), not always the same.

Chapter Ten – Situation Normal

Carl Friedrich Gauss, the bell curve, normal distribution aka Gaussian distribution. Normal or Gaurrian distribution results in a bell curve. Bellos describes the invention and refinement of the bell curve (he explains that ‘the long tail’ results from a mathematician who envisioned a thin bell curve as looking like two kangaroos facing each other with their long tails heading off in opposite directions). And why

Regression to the mean – if the outcome of an event is determined at least in part by random factors, then an extreme event will probably be followed by one that is less extreme. And recent devastating analyses which show how startlingly random sports achievements are, from leading baseball hitters to Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski’s analysis of the form of the England soccer team.

Chapter Eleven – The End of the Line

Two breakthroughs which paved the way for modern i.e. 20th century, maths: the invention of non-Euclidean geometry, specifically the concept of hyperbolic geometry. To picture this draw a triangle on a Pringle. it is recognisably a triangle but all its angles do not add up to 180°, therefore it defies, escapes, eludes all the rule of Euclidean geometry, which were designed for flat 2D surfaces.

Bellos introduces us to Daina Taimina, a maths prof at Cornell University, who invented a way of crocheting hyperbolic surfaces. The result looks curly, like curly kale or the surface of coral.

Anyway, the breakaway from flat 2-D Euclidean space led to theories about curved geometry, either convex like a sphere, or hyperbolic like the pringle. It was this notion of curved space, which paved the way for Einstein’s breakthrough ideas in the early 20th century.

The second big breakthrough was Georg Cantor’s discovery that you can have many different types of infinity. Until Cantor the mathematical tradition from the ancient Greeks to Galileo and Newton had fought shy of infinity which threatened to disrupt so many formulae.

Cantor’s breakthrough was to stop thinking about numbers, and instead think of sets. This is demonstrated through the paradoxes of Hilbert’s Hotel. You need to buckle your safety belt to understand it.

Thoughts

This is easily the best book about maths I’ve ever read. It gives you a panoramic history of the subject which starts with innumerate cavemen and takes us to the edge of Einstein’s great discoveries. But Bellos adds to it all kinds of levels and abilities.

He is engaging and candid and funny. He is fantastically authoritative, taking us gently into forests of daunting mathematical theory without placing a foot wrong. He’s a great explainer. He knows a good story when he sees one, and how to tell it engagingly. And in every chapter there is a ‘human angle’ as he describes his own personal meetings and interviews with many of the (living) key players in the world of contemporary maths, games and puzzles.

Like the Ian Stewart book but on a vastly bigger scale, Bellos makes you feel what it is like to be a mathematician, not just interested in nature’s patterns (the basis of Stewart’s book, Nature’s Numbers) but in the beauty of mathematical theories and discoveries for their own sakes. (This comes over very strongly in chapter seven with its description of some of the weirdest and wackiest number sequences dreamed up by the human mind.) I’ve often read scientists describing the beauty of mathematical theories, but Bellos’s book really helps you develop a feel for this kind of beauty.

For me, I think three broad conclusions emerged:

1. Most mathematicians are in it for the fun. Setting yourself, and solving, mathematical puzzles is obviously extremely rewarding. Maths includes the vast territory of puzzles and games, such as the Sudoku and so on he describes in chapter six. Obviously it has all sorts of real-world application in physics, engineering and so on, but Bellos’s book really brings over that a true understanding of maths begins in puzzles, games and patterns, and often remains there for a lifetime. Like everything else maths is no highly professionalised the property of tenured professors in universities; and yet even to this day – as throughout its history – contributions can be made by enthusiastic amateurs.

2. As he points out repeatedly, many insights which started out as the hobby horses of obsessives, or arcane breakthroughs on the borders of our understanding, and which have been airily dismissed by the professionals, often end up being useful, having applications no-one dreamed of. Either they help unravel aspects of the physical universe undreamed of when they were discovered, or have been useful to human artificers. Thus the development of random number sequences seemed utterly pointless in the 19th century, but now underlies much internet security.

On a profounder note, Bellos expresses the eerie, mystical sense many mathematicians have that it seems so strange, so pregnant with meaning, that so many of these arcane numbers end up explaining aspects of the world their inventors knew nothing of. Ian Stewart has an admirably pragmatic explanation for this: he speculates that nature uses everything it can find in order to build efficient life forms. Or, to be less teleological, over the past 3 and a half billion years, every combination of useful patterns has been tried out. Given this length of time, and the incalculable variety of life forms which have evolved on this planet, it would be strange if every number system conceivable by one of those life forms – humankind – had not been tried out at one time or another.

3. My third conclusion is that, despite John Allen Paulos’s and Bellos’s insistence, I do not live in a world ever-more bombarded by maths. I don’t gamble on anything, and I don’t follow sports – the two biggest popular areas where maths is important – and the third is the twin areas of surveys and opinion polls (55% of Americans believe in alien abductions etc etc) and the daily blizzard of reports (for example, I see in today’s paper that the ‘Number of primary school children at referral units soars’).

I register their existence but they don’t impact on me for the simple reason that I don’t believe any of them. In 1992 every opinion poll said John Major would lose the general election, but he won with a thumping majority. Since then I haven’t believed any poll about anything. For example almost all the opinion polls predicted a win for Remain in the Brexit vote. Why does any sane person believe opinion polls?

And ‘new and shocking’ reports come out at the rate of a dozen a day and, on closer examination, lots of them turn out to be recycled information, or much much more mundane releases of data sets from which journalists are paid to draw the most shocking and extreme conclusions. Some may be of fleeting interest but once you really grasp that the people reporting them to you are paid to exaggerate and horrify, you soon learn to ignore them.

If you reject or ignore these areas – sport, gambling and the news (made up of rehashed opinion polls, surveys and reports) – then unless you’re in a profession which actively requires the sophisticated manipulation of figures, I’d speculate that most of the rest of us barely come into contact with numbers from one day to the next.

I think that’s the answer to Paulos and Bellos when they are in their ‘why aren’t more people mathematically numerate?’ mode. It’s because maths is difficult, and counter-intuitive, and hard to understand and follow, it is a lot of work, it does make your head ache. Even trying to solve a simple binomial equation hurt my brain.

But I think the biggest reason that ‘we’ are so innumerate is simply that – beautiful, elegant, satisfying and thought-provoking though maths may be to the professionals – maths is more or less irrelevant to most of our day to day lives, most of the time.


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