Frankopan, Peter: The Silk Roads

The proposer had read this book when it came out in 2015 and had won much praise and awards.  He considered it one of the best world histories ever written. There are many of these but they are mostly ‘one damn thing after another’ to quote AJP Taylor’s view of history. This one was much superior. It is a popular, accessible work but based on up-to-date academic research.

Peter Frankopan is a Croat by background. He is Professor of Global History at Oxford and Director of the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research. He has written a book on the First Crusade and has translated the diary of Anna Commenus.  He has worked on the history of the Mediterranean, Russia, Persia, Central Asia and Christian/Islam relations.

The major theme of the book as evidenced by the title is the importance of trade as a driver of history. War and religion have often been emphasized by historians.  Frankopan shows that trade and economic factors are often the most important drivers even when the justification is often religion or war. For example Frankopan emphasizes the importance of economic issues during the Crusades, including continued Christian /Islamic trading, and the important economic motives of Italian cities including the sack of Constantinople in 1204 by the Venetians.

His section on the Mongols was an excellent revision of the traditional view of the warlike Mongols emphasising how good they were as traders and administrators.

The book demonstrated that places on the Silk Roads were producers of goods as well dealers in trade.

That economics is a prime driver of history is not simple Marxism. It was a major theme of Scottish Enlightenment thinkers and writers such as Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson.

One of our number unable to be present had provided an excellent summary and analysis of the chapter on the C14th plague which we know as the Black Death. This is included as an annex to this note. In this context it is worth mentioning also Frankopan’s account of the devastating effects on the Roman/Byzantine Empire of the plague in the 540s when Justinian was making good progress to restore the whole Roman Empire. The role of climate change was recognised as a factor. The world was likely due another pandemic.

The book had another theme, namely that the British and Europeans have been too Eurocentric in their understanding of history.  The legacy of the study of Greek and Roman culture was a major cause. A recent survey showed that 2/3rds of historians in the UK researched only European history and many only British. This represented a decline from earlier times explained partly by the decline in study of languages.

As Frankopan shows, the coastal countries of Western Europe only became important after the discovery of America and the sea route to India ‘the greatest and most important events recorded in the history of mankind’ to quote Adam Smith, though perhaps he can also be accused of over Eurocentrism.

This mattered because the prevalent historical narrative influences present opinion. The extent of Anglo- centrism and Anglo-exceptionalism can be see most recently in the Brexit vote though the Brexiteers might not express it in those terms. An important message of the book was that the age of European and US dominance was ending and power returning to the countries of the Silk Roads. Global history needed to be taught, not just European.

There was general agreement that the book was a brilliant synthesis of material that filled in many gaps in the knowledge of members, even including those who had studied history. It was well written but covered so much material that it required steady careful reading. The statistics were impressive in scope and detail, e.g. on GDP in India compared to the West in C17th and oil production statistics in C20th.

Changes in goods sought after was well covered, from luxuries such as gold, silver and silk to oil. The quest for control of goods, eg oil in the last 150 years was well illustrated as a basis of conflict between Russia and Britain both in World War I and later. Future conflicts would likely continue to centre on natural resources, including energy and water, particularly as such resources were running out.

It was a remarkable analysis and synthesis of up-to-date academic research. Those members who had knowledge of various aspects of the history could find nothing with which to find fault. For example, although it was highly critical of the impact of European states, and later the USA, on other countries this was no longer a contentious but mainstream view. Man’s inhumanity to man was a constant theme throughout the historic period covered whichever group was in the ascendant.

The book was an important corrective to the prevailing Westerncentric history with which members had been taught. It was vital to understand the importance of the East over the centuries as Western dominance was giving way again to Eastern.

There were some criticisms of the book.

The maps were not very good given the wide-ranging subject area.

Initially the author stuck closely to his title but at times the Silk roads link became a little tenuous though he returned to the area in more recent times.

The role of women was insufficiently recognised. One of our members explained that business had traditionally been the province of Mongol women while the men were away fighting and he instanced a recent negotiation with a Mongolian business, of which he was aware, in which all the leading executives were female.

There was no acknowledgement of previous historians who had attempted a similar approach, e.g. Frederick Braudel’s ‘ Civilisation and Capitalism’, albeit with a narrower geographic and temporal focus.

Overall these were minor criticisms of what was an extremely impressive work.

Appendix: 

What an eye-opener! Written in beguilingly easy prose, this was endlessly interesting, despite the potentially weighty and academic nature of his subject.

I have learnt lots from it, particularly of course the importance of the East over the centuries. I was particularly struck by:

  • the material on European slavery,
  • the insights into the reality of the Crusades, which I understand is Frankopan’s original academic specialism,
  • the account of the development  of the Muslim Empire,
  • and the history of the Italian City States.

I guess this is popularising of solidly based academic studies, rather than original academic work, but there is nothing wrong with that.

I was intrigued by how he manages to hold my attention on subjects that would normally have me nodding after a few minutes. To study his writing techniques I looked more closely at a representative section, that on the Plague.

It starts with a well- turned surprise: “The most  important effect that the Mongol conquests had on the transformation of Europe, however,….[was] an outbreak of plague… The Mongols had not destroyed the world, but it seemed quite possible that the Black Death would.”

Then there is scientific analysis of how it spreads: “fleas vomiting bacilli into the bloodstream before feeding”.

Then there is the effect of climate change on flea numbers.

There follows a gruesome section about a Mongol army dying of plague in “thousands and thousands every day,” according to a commentator, but before withdrawing catapulting the corpses into the besieged city.

The trading highways now became lethal highways for transmitting the Black Death.

So many died in England that the Pope granted a plenary indulgence for confession of sins.

A contemporary source reckons scarcely a tenth of the population survived.

It reaches Mecca despite the Prophet promising plague would never reach the holy cities of Islam.

Another quote comes from a source, about dogs tearing at the corpses piled up against the mosques.

Taxpayers in one region of Egypt fell from 6,000 to 116.

Boccaccio claims 100,000 lost their lives in Florence.

There was a sense of impending apocalypse – raining frogs, snakes and lizards – giant hailstones killing people by the dozen.

Avoid sex and every fleshly lust with women urged a Swedish priest. Women must wear less revealing clothes said an English priest, as they were wearing short garments that “failed to conceal their arses or their private parts”.

Jews were considered to be the cause in Germany and vicious pogroms carried out.

An estimate suggests around 25 million dead out of a 75 million population.

Scientific work on other plagues suggests the key determinant is not the density of human population but the density of the rat population.

But – another surprise for the reader – the plague turned out to be the catalyst for profound social and economic change. The transformation provided an important pillar in the rise of the West. the shortage of labour empowered the peasantry against the propertied classes. Demand for luxury goods soared with wider spread of wealth and younger demographic, and European textile trade takes off.

Research on skeletal remains in graveyards shows that a rise in wealth led to better diet and health. The post- plague life expectancy was much higher.

Women got the chance to become wage earners, and marry later – check out the quote from advice to women by female Dutch poet. There was a developing work ethic in Northern Europe to counteract geographical position.

Hence, in this appendix, are quoted the main elements of this relatively short section  simply to demonstrate the tremendous range and skill of Frankopan. He blends scientific and economic analysis with striking contemporary quotations from literary, religious and other sources, all within a strong, compelling and very well informed narrative. Finally, he is always happy to spice things up with a liberal sprinkling of sex and violence!

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Harris, Robert: Conclave

HEADLINE: great entertainment and a page-turner……but not to be taken seriously.

SPOILER ALERT: Reader beware! If you read further, key elements of the plot will be revealed.

Someone rash enough to be walking the chilly streets of Edinburgh late on a dark January evening might have been surprised to see white smoke suddenly emerging from a chimney. What could it be? Surely not some sort of imitation papal conclave?

Perhaps venturing nearer, the sounds of uproarious conversation and laughter would make this seem less likely, and peering through a chink of the curtains at the huddle of decidedly un-Cardinal-like figures and the litter of bottles the walker would turn and go on his or her way, with the mystery unsolved.

But they would have been closer to the truth than they realised. For it was the Monthly Book Group in full swing, and they had just reached a consensus, recorded above, on “Conclave”, the 2016 novel by Robert Harris. This takes as its apparently unpromising theme of the election of a new Pope.

Coming from a modest background, Harris read English at Cambridge, and rose to become President of the Union and editor of “Varsity”. He then joined the BBC to work on current affairs, moving at 30 to become political editor of the Observer. This background in English, current affairs and journalism may help to explain his development into a very gifted writer, particularly of historical novels. He has an outstanding ability for gripping story-telling combined with an ability to absorb research and produce books at great speed.

Everyone enjoyed the book and found it a real page-turner. But everyone had reservations of various kinds, and was disappointed when they compared the book with “An Officer and a Spy” (discussed October 2014).

One reader suggested that Harris was less good when freewheeling in pure fiction, and much better when constrained to follow historical fact as in his novels about Cicero or Dreyfus. As is common in the creative process, constraint can paradoxically liberate the imagination.

We were impressed by the volume of research into the arcane Conclave processes that Harris had carried out, and the access he had gained in the Vatican and elsewhere to help him do this. However, many – though not all – felt that the book was slowed down by the need he seemed to feel to incorporate so much research. We also wondered if C.P. Snow’s “The Masters”, about the election of a new master at a Cambridge College, had been an influence on Harris.

All the action happened within a Conclave shut off from the world, creating a similar enclosed feel to an Agatha Christie detective novel, so often set in a remote country house, or to a play with only one set. Indeed, rather like a detective novel, it had a formulaic feel, as the reader was sucked into the plot by wondering which candidate would win the Papacy as each vote unfolded, and as there was a succession of twists as front-runner after front-runner was unseated by an unsavoury revelation.

Many of the main characters, essentially the papal candidates coming from different continents, were pretty one-dimensional, and not far from burlesque or caricature. They were portrayed with fairly gentle satire.

Part of the fun is that many of the candidates are absolutely desperate to become Pope. They pursue that objective by using the dark arts of politicians, and, in one case, the type of bribery more commonly associated with FIFA. Our discussion coincided with the newspaper report of a psychological study that showed that those rising to the top of large organisations tended to have psychopathic (distinctly unchristian!) character traits.

But at the same time we are allowed inside the mind of Cardinal Lomeli, the Pope’s Dean and chief administrator who is running the Conclave. We observe much of the action through Lomeli’s stream of consciousness.

Lomeli is a well-drawn character, suffering from a crisis of faith yet still religious, determined to do the right thing, without personal ambition, and believing that God may want him to play a role in finding the right Pope. There is a fine passage in which Lomeli goes past the painting of the Last Judgement feeling like one of the damned himself – this is the sort of thing that lifts Harris above run of the mill thriller writers. And Lomeli is also allowed a line in ironic wit:

Once God explained all mysteries. Now He has been usurped by conspiracy theorists. They are the heretics of the age...”

who had the advantage of seeming to be American without the disadvantage of actually being one…

In the United Kingdom – that godless isle of apostasy, where the whole affair was being treated as a horse race – the Ladbrokes betting agency made Cardinal Adeyemi the new favourite…

an excess of simplicity, after all, was just another form of ostentation, and pride in one’s humility a sin...”

The Book Group comprises a wide range of attitudes to religion – from practising Christians to those who view religion as a system of control that delivers riches and power for those at the top.

The practising Christians noted that there little of substance about the role of prayer in such a Conclave. Admittedly Lomeli had the religious consciousness and often resorted to prayer, but the content of his prayers was not shown. They were fairly confident Harris was an atheist, despite the subtle portrait of Lomeli.

A Catholic made the telling point that most recent Popes had been reluctant to take up the office, a world away from the author’s assumption that Cardinals behaved like Westminster politicians. Despite these disappointments they, like the rest, found the book a great page-turner of a political thriller. However, the book was really about politics, not religion.

On the other side,  “The Vatican Map Room” thundered one of our atheists, “is more like a War Room than a Map Room”.

There followed an interesting, if not illuminating, debate about the religious beliefs of Harris. Most but not all thought him an atheist, who went to considerable efforts to disguise this through creating the internal life of Lomeli, and was anxious not to offend the Church too much.

In the end, we resorted to the sacrilegious device of Google to scrutinise his beliefs, and found this comment he made in an interview with the Catholic Herald “I don’t think this book could have been written by a complete atheist”. So…not an atheist……..or rather not a complete atheist……or…… good at political replies?

The Catholic Herald gives Harris a good review: “More than an intelligent thriller: it reveals the dilemmas we all face…. Its author clearly has engaged with the Church.” By contrast the Irish Times finds “only black smoke blowing through the literary chimney.

The final “twist” of the book – a word usually used for detective stories – comes when the well-deserved winner of the contest is suggested to be genetically female, but inter-sexual.  This was too much for us. This was not so much gentle satire as farce. Harris had already gently chided the church for its sexism by his portrayal of the undervalued nuns, but here was a crashing of the gears and a full frontal attack.

Our experts were soon on the case, however, with our medical adviser judging that it was indeed possible that the true gender of the new Pope had been missed in [her] upbringing in the Philippines.

And our historical adviser pointed out that this plot element was not as strange as it seemed, given that, at least according to protestant mythology, Pope Ioannes Anglicus (855-857) was a woman disguised as a man (“Pope Joan”). For many centuries thereafter a pierced chair (“sedia stercoraria”) was used to check that a newly elected Pope was indeed male prior to confirming his appointment.

Suitably aghast we wandered around some of the details of the book – such as being pleasantly surprised about the lack of smart phones being brought into the Conclave (although later research shows that the Pope does have a Facebook page!) – before returning to agree a conclusion.

The white smoke was made ready as we agreed that this was a great entertainment and page-turner, but not a great book. On closer examination not so much an inter-sexual Pope as an inter-genre novel emerged, with elements of political thriller, serious stream of consciousness character portrayal, caricature, detective story and high farce welded, somewhat uneasily, together.

It did not do to look too closely. As one member observed: “I thoroughly enjoyed it as a page-turner. But I was left with the feeling of having eaten a fast-food takeaway, not a substantial meal!

Lee, Arthur Gould: No Parachute: a Fighter Pilot in World War 1

The proposer of this book likes military history, but has only recently been reading about the war in the air. A friend had recommended this book as being the very best account of aerial combat during World War I. It is based on real diary extracts and letters of the 22-year old pilot (now the author), written to his young wife in the periods between skirmishes over the trenches in search of the Hun.

We noted that many years elapsed between the events described and the publication of the book in 1968, and we guess there has been much editing and lapses of memory, with perhaps a stiffening of the author’s opinion. Perhaps even some exaggeration? On the other hand a letter to a loved one at home might accentuate the positive and gloss over some of the horrors (which would likely be removed by the censors). But horrors are there aplenty, and excitement too: at times the book resembles tales of that Boys Own favourite, Biggles but the action in No Parachute is real not imagined, and relates to action in the skies over the famous arenas of war: the Ypres Front, the Battle of Messines, the Third Battle of Ypres, the Arras Front and the very important Battle of Cambrai.

It seems that Britain started making fighter aircraft too late. At the start of the war, aircraft were designed for reconnaissance, and especially for artillery observation.  Later, came the first real ‘fighters’: faster and more manoeuvrable, still doing reconnaissance work but also targeting enemy aircraft, strafing ground positions and going after tanks. This was the first time in history where aircraft fought each other, and so commanders and crew had scant idea of how to go about their task. Most pilots learned their skills ‘on the job’, with only basic prior training with no notion of the horrors of combat. British pilots received only 15-20 hours of flying experience before being posted to a squadron and being thrown into battle.

The diary begins on 18th May 1917 following a period when British planes were distinctly inferior to those being made in Germany and France. Casualties in the preceding April, known as ‘Bloody April’ had been especially high, and morale in the squadrons was low. The best British fighter plane at the start of the diary was the Sopworth Pup, which came into service in Autumn 1916 but had been outclassed by the latest German aircraft. The Pup was no match for the Fokker Triplane in the skilled hands of the Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen and his ‘circus’ of highly experienced pilots. For example, the Fokker’s guns could fire rapidly through the arc of the propeller, but the Pup’s could not. Our pilots were aware that they were vulnerable, and wondered how long it would be before a better aircraft with decent weaponry would emerge, whilst young pilots with their all-too-brief training were being killed every day (at least, when weather permitted flying; often it didn’t). Overall, casualties on the British side were four times more than on the German side. The psychological challenge for pilots was immense: they were pitted against a superior force and they often questioned the ‘why?’ of war, having little notion of the strategic aspect of the ground fighting going on in the trenches below. But, by November squadron 46 (Lee’s squadron) received the first of the Pup’s successor, the Sopwith Camel. In good hands this was a much better fighting aircraft, being fast, manoeverable and with synchronised guns. It wasn’t perfect: the mass of the rotary engine was large in relation to the aircraft’s body, and so there was a tendency of the aircraft to twist and crash on take-off. Thus many novice pilots died before even becoming airborne.  One source claims that 413 pilots died in combat and a further 385 pilots died from non-combat related causes.

Pilots were hit and frequently crashed, sometimes scrambling out of the broken plane to the safety of allied forces and sometimes being taken as a prisoner of war. On other occasions they became ‘flamers’, and died in scorching agony or jumped from the plane to certain death. There was ‘no parachute’ and the author frequently asks ‘why?’. One belief was that the authorities in London thought pilots might bale out unnecessarily, thus wasting an aircraft.

Our author-pilot seems to have been a miraculous survivor, a statistical outlier. He has many near scrapes, his uniform is frequently holed (once the fuel tank is ruptured), his aircraft is often holed too, his joystick is hit, he survives many mechanical failures of the aircraft, and his gun frequently seizes up. He attributes his skill as a pilot to a longer training period than most – injury having delayed his transfer from training ground to active service. However, he takes rather a long time to claim his first kill, and altogether his tally is rather modest, only seven. Nevertheless he received the Military Cross and rose to the rank of Captain. After the War he served in the newly formed Royal Air Force, eventually becoming an Air Vice Marshall.

The pilots – the ‘chaps’ or ‘fellows’ as they are generally called – have spare time when the weather is bad. They gather in the Mess, they sing bawdy songs – probably more bawdy than the ones published in the book – they binge-drink heavily and have headaches in the morning. They are mournful when their comrades are killed (the average survival of these pilots was only three weeks). Flying low, they see the wretched state of soldiers in the trenches and they feel thankful not to be one of them.

Indeed, flying these single-seater ‘kites’ could be fun, and the pilots experienced the great thrills of looping, the elation of fine-weather flying with blue sky above and ‘white lambswool clouds’ below, and the satisfaction of a perfect landing. It was cold up there, the cockpit was open to the weather, limbs and hands became numb. However, the Officers’ Mess was warm and cosy, a place of comradeship where friendships were formed, stories traded and backs slapped after a successful sortie.

We found the adventures riveting. We became engrossed and wondered how we ourselves would have fared in the cockpit of a Pup or Camel. One member had brought with him one of his own Biggles books, circa 1956, and we reflected on the differences between the Biggles author WE Johns and our No Parachute author AG Lee. It’s all there in Wikipedia. We learn that Johns, in contrast to Lee, was a very unlucky pilot, breaking several aircraft, and subsequently (or perhaps consequently) becoming an instructor. After brief active service he was shot down and became a prisoner of war. After the war he was a recruiting officer, but he famously rejected an application from TE Lawrence (of Arabia). All that’s a digression, but we in the book group are used to digressions.

Another member came to the meeting with a plastic model of the Sopwith Camel, a surprisingly neat little biplane. It is easy to see how it gave the Fokkers a hard time. Over 5000 real Camels were made at the Sopwith Aviation factory in the war.  Powered by a French 130 horsepower engine (about the same power as a family car today) they could reach 117 mph, more than the Pup’s 111 mph, whereas the Red Baron’s Fokker triplane could do only a paltry 103 mph. Except for some alloy skim near the engine, Camels were made of fabric stretched over a wooden frame, hence the nickname of all such aircraft: ‘kite’.

We reflected on the difficulties of communication. The aircraft were not fitted with radio and so communication was achieved by hand signals, streamers and wing-wobbling. Ground radio did exist, and when a pilot crashed in allied territory a rescue party with technicians would arrive surprising quickly as messages could be sent. Feedback from the squadrons to the command in London may have been poor. One member pointed out that the Red Baron was better looked after, being brought home to a hero’s welcome of girls and bubbly, and encouraged to give feedback to aircraft manufacturers.

The language of the diary was ‘as expected’, but rather short of the pilots’ slang that has by now enriched the English vocabulary, sometimes to the dismay of foreigners who can’t understand what we are talking about. I tried to compose a sentence of slang to illustrate this (a good way to overcome my insomnia). What about ‘They tore a strip off him after he ditched his kite; he had caught a packet after a cock-up in a dog-fight that ended tits up’. Not poetic I admit, and I can’t find this particular sentence in the book. Probably most slang came later, from the RAF in WW2. Overall, the language sounds predominantly upper-middle class, and probably the pilots were recruited from the English public schools. I can’t verify this. Lloyd George seemed to imply they were. He said of the pilots ‘They are the knighthood of this war…they recall the legendry days of chivalry not merely by the daring of their exploits but by the nobility of their spirit’. To this eloquence, Arthur Lee replies with a Churchillian turn of phrase ‘only occasionally were these …(pilots)… scions of the knightly families of Europe. They came from every social level, from the cities and countryside, from the streets and farms and forests of lands all over the world’.

By December the tone of the writing changes. Lee was by now tired, ill, to some extent disillusioned, and perhaps shell-shocked. He’s done 118 patrols with 56 combats. The Medical Officer said Lee needs a good spell of leave, and he is relieved of duties and sent home.

In an Appendix written years later he pours scorn on the decisions made by government authorities at the War Office in London, who had no experience of fighting aircraft, and were slow to pick up technical innovations. He identifies multiple failures of high command and rivalry between War Office and Admiralty for the materials, engines and labour to supply the two separate air forces, the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS).

We enjoyed the book immensely: the thrilling encounters, the insights, and the comment on why so many pilots were killed unnecessarily.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Harari, Yuval Noah: Sapiens: a Brief History of Humankind

Give us some Air!

Give us some Water!

Give us some Food!

Gimme Shelter!

Thanks, now I can check my Facebook account……

OK, this might be a slight over-simplification of Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, or indeed a wildly inaccurate summary of Harari’s bestselling book, “Sapiens: a Brief History of Humankind”, but here we were, the book group assembled on a Thursday evening to try and satisfy their need for love and belonging. Not of Generation, X, Y or Z, nor even Millennials, we were old enough to remember the ‘60s and hence we presumably weren’t there.

The proposer told us of how he had come across this book at a science exhibition, at a stall womanned by Delta-T Devices, who “aim to manufacture and sell instruments for use in work beneficial to the environment and directly related to human and animal welfare.” A further description of their moral stance can be found at https://www.delta-t.co.uk/.   Such a policy was dear to the author’s heart, although perhaps less important to the hunter-gatherers of the first few chapters.

Now an academic at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, with a PhD in Oxford in 2002, this book was published in Hebrew in 2011 and in English 2014 and has become an international success. The proposer described it as a “macro-history” painted with a very broad brush. We were grateful; at 498 pages for a macroscopic view, we suspect that the “micro-history” would have filled the Book Group’s schedule well beyond the period on Earth of the current membership. He praised its creativity and originality which had been recognised by a number of major and minor literary awards. He noted that the author had certain axes to grind, notably on animal rights (see above) and industrial farming, coloured perhaps by his vegan practice and living in a cooperative agricultural community. He was also openly gay and practised meditation. Ah yes, “I was a young man back in the 1960s”. As a rebuff to Generation I, he had also disposed of his smart phone!

Discussion opened out. Painted with a broad brush, I suppose it was inevitable that our members would pick holes. First to dive in was a member with knowledge of Australian history who pointed out inaccuracies on a number of key points on Aboriginal development. For example, on page 50 Harari talks of 200-600 tribes each with their own language, religion, norms and customs in the period between the cognitive and agricultural revolutions. Our member also disputed the suggestion that Australia was particularly white supremacist (p260). Another suggested that the extrapolation from bio-mimetic genetic algorithms (for optimisation in complex multimodal spaces) and genetic programming (p457) to machines taking over the world was rather fanciful, at least in the short term. The unfortunately quoted ‘human brain project’ had in fact been ‘rebooted’ due to the over-hyped claims. Another suggested that the opening line in “A Tale of Two Cities” by Dickens, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”,  referred to France in the mid to late 18th century, before not during the French Revolution. Several other examples were quoted. An absent member commented by email, that his  links, e.g. from Peugot to Shamens, are dubious or worse .He wondered too why… but we moved on.

However, right or wrong, can any single author, however advised by colleagues and his own research, hope to be wholly accurate on such a wide range of topics and academic disciplines? Can we? We recalled our August book by John Higgs; we thought that was sweeping and often contentious, and he only covered a single century! Do the alleged inaccuracies or dubious opinions invalidate the main thrust? 

The next speaker praised the book as an excellent synthesis of others’ research with a particular skill in simplifying complex topics for the general reader. As a good example of this, we referred to his discussions of economic theory in chapter 16, “The Capitalist Creed”. His breadth of coverage was “spellbinding” according to our speaker. He challenged current perspective without taking sides. Some questioned this, especially in view of the animal welfare polemic.

Our critic praised the idea of agriculture enslaving the population after a relatively Utopian hunter-gatherer existence. Again, this was questioned by another, suggesting that happiness and well-being as states of mind were relatively untouched, at least until page 421. “Are we happier?” Some were outraged by his discourse on chemical happiness in this chapter, and were rather dismayed that their imitative (Maslow) activities, whether Munro-bagging, global travel, or trying to get round a golf course in less than 100 shots were less than life-fulfilling. Unfortunately, Archaeology has not yet found a way to carbon date happiness and well-being from 70,000 years in the past so we can only speculate. (Afterthought: AI attempts to equip agents with imitative capabilities in order to build cooperative societies.)

Another compared Harari to a “spin doctor”, spinning his own perspective on historical fact or speculation according to his own rather than from an un-biased perspective. In the majority view, there was a shift from archaeological fact in the early chapters to a more opinionated spin in the later chapters. Another deficiency was the lack of acknowledgment of the role of the arts in enriching the human experience; when we do not spend our days wholly in hunting and gathering we have more time to appreciate the finer, esoteric outputs of the human mind and dexterity, in music, in painting and sculpture and so on. Is “Britain’s Got Talent” on tonight?

Turning to the later chapters, one of us was struck by the underlying pessimism about the future disappearance of our species, the cynicism and pessimism of reliance on chemical happiness and on “humans being turned into cyborgs” (p454). So the “curtain is about to drop on Sapiens history”. Certainly, humans do now have a probable capability for destruction, whether nuclear, chemical or social, unsurpassed due to the frantic rush to global communication and uniformity.  We pondered this pessimism and took it as a warning to cooperate at a global level rather than concentrate on local politics.  On the topics of individual survival and purpose, our email member suggested that the phrase “what do we want to want” was rather trite, referring to our stated, probably overstated aim to create amortal life by genetic engineering.

We turned again to Harari’s ideas on social bonding from an early stage of development, as for example in the ability to form large groups on the basis of shared values, to plan and carry out complex actions since the cognitive revolution, even when was no previous contact A parallel was drawn with recent work by Robin Dunbar at the Social and Evolutionary Research Science Group, also at Oxford.  In particular Dunbar mentioned that “the key function of music during its development and spread amongst human populations was its capacity to create and strengthen social bonds amongst interacting group members.” Our member talked of some of the key chemical differences between human and other brains, notably in fatty acid and iodine concentration. Apparently, there is an active debate as to whether aquatically sourced foods were key to human evolution, so that in general coastal species evolved preferentially. It is probably fair to say that none of those present had sufficient knowledge to decide, but that didn’t stop the discussion! However, one referred us to “Guns, Germs and Steel” by Jared Diamond, arguing that apparent differences in societies in different societies today were a product of environment and opportunity, or luck if you like, rather than inherent genetic differences.

To stylistic matters; why did Harari always say “she” rather than “he”, or indeed an impersonal noun such as person, or even hunter/gatherer? Ah! That was virtue signalling said another. “Fair comment”, said one, in these politically correct times one must not only be virtuous but let everyone know to enhance your social standing. Your scribe hadn’t heard of virtue signalling, perhaps because he hadn’t the signal opportunity. Perhaps the author is taking his own social analysis just too seriously?

There is so much in this book, and indeed that is its strength, that our own discussion cannot help but be superficial and misinterpret and omit key themes. Perhaps his treatment of religion is controversial, by for example equating communism and nationalism with Christianity and Buddhism . His comments about the contradictions of humanism (e.g.  p257) are provoking; how many humanists today align themselves today with the Nazi view on evolution?

So in conclusion, the general verdict of the group was that this was a book well worth reading, progressing from fact to opinion as evolutionary time developed perhaps, but always stimulating and creating difference of opinion. Indeed, one had to agree with Barack Obama’s book cover comment that this was “interesting and provocative”.

Higgs, John: Stranger Than We Can Imagine

The book’s proposer introduced it as a refreshing contrast to conventional histories of the 20th C with their emphasis on wars and political events.

He gave us a little background about the writer – he was not an academic, but had a varied career including working for GEC Marconi, directing children’s TV programmes, and producing video games.  Higgs claimed the idea for his book came from Salvador Dalí’s melting clock image, which made him think about connections between art and science (although Dalí himself claimed that his own inspiration came from seeing a melting Camembert cheese, not from ideas of relativity!)

Opening the discussion, one reader commented that the book reminded him of eclectic conversations in the pub, which tend to range far and wide.  He found the links rather tenuous, and so, although very enjoyable to read, the book lacked overall coherence.  One critic had apparently referred to Higgs as a plate-spinner – keeping many ideas up in the air at the same time.  Another reader characterised him as a storyteller, not a scholar.

There was some debate about Higgs’ characterisation of the 19th C as a time of relative stability.  Although it was admitted that the pace of change in the 20th C was more rapid, the view was expressed that other hundred year periods of history contained similar upheavals of ideas – for example brought about by artists, scientists and thinkers such as Galileo, da Vinci or Darwin.

Along with this dubious characterisation of the 19th C, others in the group took issue with some scientific or historical statements made by Higgs – for example his remarks on the lack of preparation of British troops for World War One.  It was felt that this slightly undermined trust in his conclusions about areas we didn’t know so much about.

Praise was bestowed on the final chapter ‘Networks’, and it was noted that in spite of gloomy predictions, the author ended on an optimistic note about humanity being ingenious enough to find a way through the global problems we are presently busily engaged in creating.  There was some agreement that he perhaps underplayed the population explosion and environmental degradation as key changes of the 20th century, even though he suggests that the 21st C may be the penultimate century for the human species.

Our conversation stayed on the topic of networks.  One member of the group, recently returned from China, reported that he was told that two million people are employed in monitoring the internet and working out what should be blocked from the rest of the population.  Apparently our own book group blog is blocked, as he tried to access it there!

We discussed the phenomenon of ‘selfies’, wondering if they were – as our generation tends to assume – manifestations of egocentrism and individualism, or, as Higgs suggests, evidence of the connectedness and community spirit of a younger generation.

We talked about the influence of online social networks, and the backlog of hidden information about such things as political corruption and child abuse in the Catholic Church that was consequently now coming to light.

We were interested in his analysis of economic ‘growth’, the mantra of politicians and economists the world over.  The narrowing down of ownership of the world’s wealth into fewer hands could in some respects be considered a retreat to the days of the all-powerful emperors that he talks about.  The new ‘emperors’ are global corporations, some of them richer than many countries.

On the topic of where power lay in the modern world, we wondered if western style democracies were adequate to the tasks ahead – referencing the recent votes to remove the UK from the EU, and to promote a dangerous demagogue to the presidency of the USA.  Our China expert compared how a high-speed rail link between Qinghai and Tibet had been completed rapidly, whereas the UK was still struggling with its HS2 rail link project over a comparatively tiny distance, because in a democracy we allow for objections to what government proposes.  We did not, however, go so far as to propose a new dictatorial system of government led by book groups.

We noted that Higgs digs up a number of interesting individuals, some of them quite obscure, who are either emblematic of some shift in thinking or deeply influential.  An example was the scientist brought back from the Gulag to lead the Russian space programme.  It was pointed out that the West was similarly secretive over some politically sensitive individuals – for example Alan Turing, now considered a seminal figure in the development of computing.

Referring to the book’s comments on the Rolling Stones and individualism, compared with the hippy togetherness represented by the later phase of the Beatles, it was pointed out that the Beatles broke up nearly fifty years ago whereas the Rolling Stones are still together!

In conclusion, we certainly agreed that the book kept us engaged, although not always convinced.  ‘Stranger Than We Can Imagine’ was felt to be interesting primarily because of the connections it made, rather than for its acuity in analysing any particular theme.  It had proved an excellent catalyst for conversation – perhaps even more so than the beers in the pub referenced at the beginning of our discussion.

Babel, Isaac: Odessa Stories

So were gathered together our group, perhaps with “spectacles on their nose, and autumn in their hearts’, as Jewish intellectuals were characterized by Isaac Babel in his book of short stories. These were written mostly in the 1920s and the edition we had in front of us was translated by Boris Dralyuk, known professionally by the proposer. His translation was generally considered superior to previous attempts. Indeed, the proposer substantiated this view by reading comparative packages from the earlier translation by Macduff. The earlier version seemed too literal, missing the feel of the original Russian in the proposer’s opinion. In particular, the audience noticed the superior dialogue which gave a much better rendering of the Jewish vernacular.  

We had a sustained discussion of the validity of the American colloquialisms to reinforce the texture and nuances of the plot. “All right. You got words. Spill” (Benja Krik in the King). “The chief, he got all the cops together …” and so on. On balance, the jury was split, with the majority perhaps favouring the transposition to low-life American. (See comments on Runyan below.)

Having visited the city as a tourist fairly recently, the proposer also wondered that the author and translator had been very successful in capturing the ‘tone’ of early 20th century life in Odessa. Arguably, port cities have a particular culture, maybe due to a strong itinerant population. Sometimes, there is a sense of lawlessness as in these stories. Think of Marseille as depicted in “The French Connection”. This book is centred on the Jews and their ability to rule the city through a gangster culture, portrayed in Odessa with a distinct mentality. Before WW2 it was permissible to depict the Jews as violent gangsters capable of random violence.

Babel was regarded as one of the most important authors in post-revolution Russian literature. He was brought up in Jewish community, and was interested in the art of the short story. Particular cited influences included Kipling, and Maupassant, as serenaded in the sketch of Odessa near the end of the book. He is the intellectual perhaps personified in the schoolboy. Although written in the first person, they are only semi-autobiographical and he has moved the elements about to make it work.

With a background in journalism, these could perhaps be considered as sketches rather than stories, and the parallel with Dickens’ observations of London life were noted. Babel fought in the Red Cavalry, and had an ambition to be a Soviet writer, but it is clear that his subject matter, sometimes satirical, did not endear him to the authorities.

The book was open to general discussion. All concurred with the quality of the dialogue, and loved some of the descriptive text, for example the descriptions of the sky, of the sun (“!a piece of jam”, “a decapitated head”). In Odessa he talks of the need for the sun, and of Gorky’s love of the sun, whereas people in Nizhny Novgorod etc. are flabby, heavy … incomprehensible, touching and immensely, stupefyingly annoying.

The characters were well drawn, with a real feeling of underclass. The similarities with Damon Runyan were noted by several readers, but I fear the MBG were not the first to observe this! However, Runyon could be considered a comic writer, Babel less so although “The End of the Almshouse” in particular is darkly comic. At least one of us dug out his copy of ‘Runyon on Broadway’ and tried to make a direct comparison. In general, he felt that the stories were also less well plotted than Runyon, and is some cases the motives and outcomes were not clear, for example in the killing of Froim the Rook after conflict with the Cheka or secret police.  On the contrary some said, this encapsulated the random nature of the Odessan violence. Another point of difference from Runyan was the greater emphasis on casual, random violence, as in the instance above when Froim is killed for no strong, apparent motive.

Strong socio-economic clashes were brought out so well in Babel’s text, again notably in the story of the Almshouse. “We’ve crushed the Tsars.. no more Tsars, no-one gets a coffin”. Alas, someone does get the coffin. And so the Department of Communal Economy reorganizes the cemetery and organizes their attack against the Burial Brotherhood who made a few coins by use of their coffin for hire.

A comment was made on ethnic characteristics, always a bit risky these days. He drew the co-occurrence between the many red-headed characters that were Jews and Scots. For example, Babel refers memorably to the “bosun, a pillar of red meat, overgrown with red hair”.

We further complimented the descriptive prose; the book’s strengths lay not only in the dialogue. For example, “their journey took them down a joyless, scorched, rocky road, past mud-brick shanties, past fields smothered by stones past houses gutted by shells, and past the plague mound” or “the whistle of asthma, the wheeze of submission escaped from the chests of retired cantors, wedding jesters, circumcision cooks and spent sales clerks”. This is powerful stuff!

Oh well. Having concentrated to a greater degree than is perhaps usual on the book in hand, without too much digression on historical inaccuracies or perverse analogies, it was left to X to introduce a note of trivia. Did we know that Efrem Zimbalist Senior, the Russian violinist mentioned in “The Awakening”, was the proud father of Efrem Zimbalist Junior who appeared in 77 Sunset Strip. No we did not! Subsequent browsing suggested that Junior was even held up as a role model for real FBI employees. Hmm, and you’ll be telling me next the actor who almost got the part of  Rick in Casablanca (played by Bogart) became President of the United States. Then you’ll be telling me that a reality TV …. (Leave it there! Ed.)

Finally, there was a discussion on women’s’ versus men’s’ versus mixed book groups. I don’t recall all the main issues but I do know we did a straw poll on how many male and female authors we have read. If you want to know the answer, it is easy. Just look at our index of authors.

We had now left the text completely. We realized it was time to home.