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Posts from the ‘History’ Category

Justice for Thomas Cromwell

JUSTICE “Law & Literature” event – 11 February 2015, Great Hall, Middle Temple, London

Three months agCromwello, JUSTICE hosted their third event in what seems to be the increasingly popular “Law & Literature” series, and surely there was no better venue than the Great Hall of Middle Temple for Hilary Mantel to read from her new, as yet unfinished novel, The Mirror and The Light, the third in the trilogy featuring Thomas Cromwell as its protagonist. Up to this point in the series it was noticeable that JUSTICE had carefully selected their authors based on some sort of affinity with the law and, understandably, justice. The first event featured Julian Barnes discussing his novel Arthur & George, which revolves around a well-known miscarriage of justice, and that talk was followed by another given by Robert Harris on An Officer and A Spy, also about a notorious miscarriage of justice (l’affaire Dreyfus). Although the theme of righting wrongs was not so immediately obvious with Mantel’s trilogy of Tudor-age tomes, all doubt was cast aside at the entry to the event, where the title of the reading was unveiled as “Justice for Thomas Cromwell”, slightly giving away the plot of the third instalment in the process. Of course, Cromwell himself was also a lawyer, among many other things it seems, if we are to believe Mantel’s retelling of his life and times as one of Henry VIII’s closest consiglieri.

Mantel’s is certainly not what you would call a booming voice, and the size of the venue meant that the audience had to lean forward as one to catch everything she said. Again, perhaps given the high proportion of lawyers in attendance, she was quick to point to the legal mechanics underpinning the history of the novels: England’s break from Rome was about “jurisdiction not ideology”. In other words, the separation of the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church was not about a disagreement over religious doctrine, but rather about sovereignty and the right to self-determination. In that sense, certainly, it could be said to anticipate by half a millennium the current political tussle over the Human Rights Act/European Court of Human Rights, which also seems to have little to do with legal philosophy and everything to do with perceived foreign interventionism and the fact that politicians never like to have their power challenged. I suspect that the organisers of the event at JUSTICE may have made that connection before inviting Mantel to be a speaker.

Mantel said she was less interested in the formalities of history and power than she was in the behind-the-scenes wrangling that actually leads to agreements being reached between kings and countries. To this extent, her interpretation of Cromwell is as the ultimate manipulator of events (almost like a slightly more benign 16th century version of Frank Underwood), whose pragmatism stands in marked contrast to the ivory tower intellectualism of Thomas More. In Mantel’s world, less gets done in the great halls of power than in its courtyards, corridors and kitchens; one would imagine that little has changed over the ages in this regard. However, it is these interstitial spaces between what we know as history that Mantel has made herself master of. It reminds me of something Julian Barnes once wrote about his aversion to famous dates; he said he was less interested in 1492, for example, than 1493 – i.e. what happened when Columbus got back to Europe and took all the credit for finding the new world? The answer is that things continued very much as they had been before, except that the man who actually first sighted America wound up as a gunrunner in north Africa.

I think it is Mantel’s eye for detail and nuance, her ability to humanise historical characters by revealing both their strengths and their weaknesses, that accounts to a large extent for the incredible success of her novels. However, it is also her immense skill at filling in the void between what we think we know actually happened at the time. To this extent, I pity historians of the period who must be unable to read Mantel’s novels without a considerably heftier degree of scepticism.

The Frozen North

the expedition bea uusmaThe Expedition – by Bea Uusma

A Swedish doctor who has been obsessed for over fifteen years with the story – known to all Swedes – of the doomed attempt to reach by the North Pole by hot air balloon, has written her own account. She describes her attempts to venture out to the White Island (where the ballooner’s bones were found) four times only to turn back as the ice had never thawed enough to allow the ice breaker ship through. Usma returns to her cabin to watch the frozen North, and quiets her disappointment by taking the reader meticulously through the facts.

Three young engineers boarded their hot air balloon in Stockholm, 1987, totally unprepared for the demands of such a journey: their donning of monogrammed woollen stockings was not an encouraging sign. They thought it would take six days by air, having inflated the balloon by dissolving iron filings with liquid sulphuric acid and loading the basket down with port and champagne, plus more essential stores for several years. The balloon started to leak after a few days, and came down without incident but very far off course. They started to walk, dragging hugely overloaded sleds, against the direction of the flow of the ice floes. It took them days to realize that they were barely managing to stand still, let along gain ground, shedding ballast as they trudged.

Perhaps one of the saddest sentences in the recovered diaries – which extend from 11 July 1987 to 3 Oct 1987 – was that “the homing pigeons are all dead.” That, and their consumption of the champagne they had dragged for miles while they withered with cold and hunger. Once the diaries were recovered, the fiancée of the now deceased Nils Strindberg had the singularly strange experience of being informed that he had died – when she had suspected as much and therefore been married to someone else for decades – and was told his last words were addressed to her. Her name was Anna Albertina Constantin Charlier – a name which, Usma informs us, “means hydrogen balloon in French.”

They survived for almost four months on White Island, where their bodies were not found for thirty years. When they were found, it was by accident. At the time, there was no conclusive evidence with the technology then available, as to the cause of death. The bodies were then cremated, destroying any chance of later study. Usma was desperate to return to the site in order to search for some clue, as she was tired of reading theories about trichinosis and death due to an excess of vitamin E in eating polar bear and seal liver. She is wonderfully open about her obsessive attitude, and the book is written in the most lucid, detailed fashion without succumbing to opaque fact or passages moaning about the fragility of human life on the frozen wastes. It is also rather beautiful, with wonderful photographs and excellent formatting.

Those who are susceptible to the language of endless horizons, harsh conditions and impossible courage (in other words, the Scots) tend to be suckers for this kind of book. I have not enjoyed a book about ice so much since Francis Spufford’s Ice and the English Imagination.  For those that need to find out more, Lines in the Ice: Seeking the Northwest Passage is a free exhibition at the British Library until April 19th.  Next week: how to make your own pemmican.

The Editors

Spoken Word: Other Lives – Hilary Mantel in conversation with Harriet Walters for the RSL

Wolf Hall - MantelWolf Hall has just come off the London stage, and it is about to appear on ITV as a ten-part series starring Mark Rylance, adapted for the screen by Mantel, just as she oversaw the stage production. With Bring Up The Bodies finally edging off the bestseller lists, Mantel’s collection of short stories The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher is on every top ten list predicting Christmas books. In short, Mantel is everywhere, luckily for us.

Before delving into her latest offering, her appearance in the Union Chapel with Harriet Walters for the RSL is definitely worth mentioning. It was a few months ago now, but the overarching conversation has lingered, centring as it did on the idea of wearing another’s skin on your back. Walters, an established character actress, described having to go “a long way” to meet Lady Macbeth, reassuringly. Mantel, in turn, described the process of acquainting herself with Thomas Cromwell as mediation, or more simply as the process of getting inside a character’s head. The way she explained this was to recall the first moment the reader encounters Cromwell, as a fifteen year-old, bleeding in Putney after a beating from his father. She could hear a voice floating above his head, feel the cobbles beneath his cheek, and taste blood.

She gleefully relayed Christopher Hitchens’s review of Wolf Hall (“you would never know it was written by a woman”) as a testament – as well she should – of how naturally she occupied Cromwell. She clearly delights in living unlived lives by writing as a man, much as she did for Robespierre in A Place of Greater Safety. She wears their skins well and has done it often, so she knows what it requires, and is conscious that if you encounter the actor playing Cromwell five minutes after the curtain, you cannot be entirely sure if they have yet made the “perfect conversion”. Something of the public Croydon’s thuggish self may remain, before the private core of the actor manages to reassert itself.

The power of the play (it will be impressive indeed if this translates to the small screen) is that watching it makes Cromwell inhabit the present, walk in your line of sight and live, of course, if only for a while. The two women agreed that when it really works, the production “pins you to the heartbeat and to the breath”. This would be harder for a more thoroughly cerebral Machiavellian character, perhaps, as Cromwell lashes out – lightning quick – to strike Wolsey; he paces, looms and threatens. Exposition and rubbing one’s hands together in a sinister fashion alone will not get it done.

Given that Mantel is a pleasure to watch as well as to read – she beams and laughs, and seems to enjoy herself – sinister is the word that describes some of her rawer home truths (“ultimately, we are all just alone in the dark”) as well as the creeping feeling of dread from reading her recent collection of short stories. She described on stage the presence of an unarticulated secret – like Bluebeard’s locked room – in a novel, and how this can change with contextual climate. For Wolf Hall, she cited the preconception of people who tend to watch Henry VIII as a wife killer, because this is how the Tudors are taught in schools. We learn his list of wives with the song in order to remember how they snuffed it, rarely dawdling on his accomplishments in poetry, music or foreign policy, let alone his relationship with the Privy Council.

In the same way, every story from The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher carries a patina of dread. While it is not as overt as the corpse stashed beneath the coffee table in Rope, it is much more than something stuck in one’s tooth or a fingernail split to the quick. Some of the stories are more overtly macabre, and ‘Harley Street’ is just plain upsetting as one cannot help but speculate it is based on Mantel’s own delicate health. They are all funny. On finishing the title story, however, it is difficult to shake that feeling of something starting to turn on a muggy day, or indeed get rid of the sand concealed under one’s own skin, like the rhino in Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories.

The Editors

Tuxedo Park

Tuxedo ParkTuxedo Park: The Wall Street Tycoon and the Secret Palace of Science that Changed the Course of World War II, by Jennet Conant

I have had a latent interest in amateur invention since I first read a book on Sir George Cayley. Cayley was a gentleman inventor, born in 1777  who practised his inventing on an estate in Cumbria that had been passed down through -six- generations of his family, along with his title.

Among his achievements were a fountain pen, a caterpillar track (for gardening), an aeroplane which it seems likely would have flown one hundred years before the Wright Brothers (Cayley died in 1857) had Cayley not half-killed too many of his butlers in prototypes so that none were willing to trial it.

He even confounded office clichés everywhere by literally re-inventing the wheel: using a hub and rim joined by spokes under tension he invented the wheel which is now common to most modern bicycles.

His particular interest in invention stemmed from the early encouragement of his mother. Recognising his ability and his interest in the mechanics of nature she encouraged young George to carry around a notebook and to record his observations. Early examples of his notetaking include a detailed analysis of the wings of a hummingbird – an early sign of his interest in flight.

The story of George Cayley is a seemingly purist tale of personal interest and exploration leading to creation and change. Somewhat luxuriously, Cayley’s explorations of science were disconnected from the market forces driving commercial discoveries and his ideas were permitted to gestate at their natural pace.

The story of Alfred Loomis is quite the opposite. Born to relative but not independent wealth, Loomis attended Harvard and then picked up the mantle of his family’s fortunes, starting out as a lawyer and then shortly after by forming a fund on Wall Street with a cousin and, as you might say, ‘cleaning up.’ Over the period of nine years they bought and held significant if not controlling interests in almost every major utility in America. During the Great Depression, Loomis’ personal wealth increased by nearly fifty million dollars.  

Moving from a largely non-existent, middle class affluence to an extreme of money and influence in his forties, Loomis bought himself the freedom to explore his exuberant scientific interests – including entertaining and sponsoring the greatest scientists of his age, and procuring vast quantities of the most expensive equipment then available to mankind.

His extraordinary intellectual capabilities (which included the ability to play at least two chess games at once with his backed turned to both boards whilst maintaining a lively conversation with his dinner guests) allowed him to pick up a new field of science in a few short months. His incredible financial wealth and broad connections, facilitated the introductions he required to attract the finest scientific talent in each field to his personal laboratory at Tuxedo Park, just south of New York where his voracious appetite for advancement drove great leaps forward in each field in a short space, before his attention to turned to a new topic following which the money, equipment and scientists were parcelled off to a long term home such as Harvard or MIT.

Among his interests (and his most significant discoveries) number a venture into the short wave radio spectrum which led to advances in portable radar such that it could be mounted on ships and aeroplanes, early understandings of brain wave patterns during sleep, advancements in fusion technologies (in particular the cyclotrons capable of generating sufficient voltage to split an atom) that made the splitting of the atom a reality and ended the war.

Having worked with Thomas Edison during World War I, he took to heart Edison’s belief that the US should spend on the advancement of its weaponry in peacetime, in order to have it ready for the arrival of conflict. The pattern of news from Germany in the ‘30s redoubled this conviction in Loomis, in spite of the Roosevelt government’s passive stance towards Hitler. One of Loomis’s first acts of patriotism in this regard was to build a scaled down and improved tank which he used to drive to the train station to collect his guests. Henry Stimson (a long-time friend of Loomis and then Secretary fo State to Roosevelt) reportedly announced “This is how one protects the country” as they drove to the Loomis mansion in Tuxedo.

Tuxedo Park presents Loomis as a dispassionate and deeply scientific man. He seems without vanity and without extremes of emotion; cold yet luminary, his achievements have outlived his name in most areas of his life. This book, Tuxedo Park, is a reminder of Loomis’s incredible potency and yet it is the only mark of his face left on an earth otherwise deeply scarred by some of the most impressive and atrocious discoveries that he was part of, none more so than the atom bomb.

That he has largely fallen from record, a side note in the margins of a colourful and often re-written history of our early twentieth century wars, is a mark of his amateurism. He existed in the margins and that is where he has remained. Yet it is clear that he was not an amateur by any means, not in the romantic sense and certainly not in the derogatory sense. He was a brilliant inventor, a gifted financier and an arch power-broker: perhaps he could not have successfully been one without the others, but it seems doubtful that such advances could have been achieved without that rare and extraordinary blend of skills – advances that stopped the course of a war and changed the world we live in forever. If there was ever an argument for reading in the margins, Alfred Loomis was its embodiment.

The Editors

La Serenissima

5369757294_fbefe6e16dWatermark, Joseph Brodsky

A History of Venice, John Julius Norwich

Having read your entry of September 17th entitled “We are here” you have emboldened me to provide a similar two-for-one contribution. I must admit that I have not, until recently, been a great lover of fiction in its broadest sense. I tended to read for fact – and as there is so much of it that I do not know I was content on my course. Recently things have changed. I am now pursuing a business degree and I do nothing aside reading for fact. At times it feels as though I am a good way through Harvard Business School’s oeuvre, which is neither true nor entertaining for the most part. My summer break gave me some much needed time and space for escapism. A late summer started with The Master and Margarita, regressed to The Idiot and then brought me to A History of Venice. Why the curious final stop? There are many reasons but possibly the easiest to describe is that I have completely fallen in love with the city. At first sight I was besotted and, having been lucky enough to live in Italy for a year, my feelings have deepened in exponential proportion to my many visits more recently. I understand that this is rather tragic (colloquial). Anyway, as anything that I love, I tend to like to learn as much as I can about it/them so that I can make the most of the relationship.

A History of Venice is a (rather lengthy) history book detailing the very beginnings of La Serenissima, The Most Serene Republic of Venice, in the 8th century through, Doge by Doge, to its forced conclusion at the end of the 18th. Whilst I understand that this might not be the standard content discussed on your site I can only encourage friends and acquaintances to read a chapter or two the next time you are in a suitable bookshop.

As a clear lover of the City and its history Norwich charts a purposeful course through time. Reflections on the city, the character of the inhabitants, aggressors in the form of Spaniards, Milanese, Holy Armies, Genoese, Neapolitans, Florentines, Hungarians, Austrians, Ottomans and French are treated with utmost objectivity and as a result this book is an absolute pleasure. This history is no indulgence for its author, it is written with the reader’s education in mind at all times and as a result it achieves its aim with aplomb. Not only is this achieved but it is also written rather beautifully. Norwich writes in classic British prose whilst never being verbose. Nor does he allow himself lengthy digressions into architecture, art or beauty where accusations of pomposity would be easy to level. That being said he does allow flashes of humour, certainly enough to enliven the read at more academic moments. In response to the secret expedition to Alexandria in order to steal the remains of Mark The Evangelist, Norwich proposes that “history records no more shameless example of body-snatching; nor any – unless we include the events associated with the Resurrection – of greater long term significance”.

In fact this book is so well put together that by the time that you reach Part Four: Decline and Fall your spirits sink with the book and with the city. As she loses Cyprus and Crete as colonies you are resigned as a reader to the conclusion. Then at that conclusion, Norwich’s excellent description of Napoleon’s schadenfreude toward La Serenissima leads you to yearn for the end, you imagine that your feelings are closely aligned those of oligarchic states creaking under the weight of wealth, loose morality, laziness and corruption that it experienced in its dotage. The author asserts near to the end that Venice “like any great beauty, she was acutely conscious of the effect that that beauty had on others; and she used it to the full”, and through his skilled commentary that beauty continues to bewitch the reader. Or at least it did me.

Following Norwich’s tome, I took on the altogether easier challenge of reading Brodsky’s Watermark. This book is a collection of short stories, a poem or any other classification that one would care to make. At a length that would make Of Mice And Men look like a leviathan it contains brief thoughts, reflections and anecdotes from the author’s many winters spent in Venice. Similar to Norwich, but very much like me, he is a clear lover of the city although no historian. A good proportion of the focus, if not all of it, is on the city’s effect on the eye and the eye’s metaphysical significance in its role as conduit-in-chief to its beholder.


I allowed myself to read some criticism of Watermark. In fact I sought it out primarily as I have so many conflicting feelings about the book. To some, the historical and cultural errors of the date of the aforementioned body-snatching and references to churches as cathedrals is enough to denounce the content. Other readers take issue with the uninitiated attacks on Ezra Pound, his widow or indeed the fairer sex in general. That being said, the majority clearly support and appreciate these candid and at times beautiful tales of a great writer in the greatest city.

Watermark is the antithesis of A History of Venice. It is pure indulgence, unadulterated dogma, subjectivity and frequent portentousness: “My notion of Eden hinges on neither weather nor temperature. For that matter, I’d just as soon discard its dwellers and eternity as well. At risk of being charged with depravity, I must confess that this notion is purely visual, has more to do with Claude than the creed, and exists only in approximations. As these go, this city is the closest”.

I asked myself why I should bother reading another man’s thoughts on Venice. Well, Brodsky’s are certainly better articulated than mine even if he was writing in his second language! Whilst his arrogance (he suggests that Watermark’s publication might have profound impacts on Venice’s success as a tourist destination) is at times insufferable, there are enough splendid passages to keep the reader interested. There are a beautiful couple of pages where, beginning from the Book of Genesis, he deduces in mock-scientific logic a true quality of the city:

‘And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters’ to quote a famous author who visited here before. Then there was that next morning. It was Sunday, and all the bells were chiming…I always adhered to the idea that God is time. Or at least His spirit is. I always thought that if the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the water, the water was bound to reflect it…It is as though space, cognizant here more than anyplace else of its inferiority to time, answers it with the only property time doesn’t posses: with beauty. And that’s why this water takes an answer, twists it, wallops it and shreds it, but ultimately carries it by and large intact off into the Adriatic.

Whilst this rambling, at times repulsive, little book with its terribly abrupt conclusion may not exactly endear the author to its reader, it contains some of the wonderful thinking and writing that in conjunction with a visit to the city (preferably in Winter) is an essential companion. And if you find yourself disliking Brodsky too much, you can at least comfort yourself in the knowledge that he was no prophet. His strong assertions in the book about the financial health of Kodak and of the prospect of the Biennale and Venice as a center for modern art have proved to be embarrassingly incorrect.

 Matt Bradley

We are here

Corporation Changed the World  One Fat Englishman, Kingsley Amis

The Corporation that Changed the World, Nick Robins.

Reading more than one book at a time is generally something to be avoided. It requires headspace, discipline and tenacity to successfully pull yourself to the end of two books at the same time.

It suggests that at least one of the two books you are reading has failed in its challenge to hold your attention in harness to the end.

In the midst of just such an interesting but not arresting history of the East India Company (which had become boring by flacid moralising about the credit crisis in the context of the East India Company’s torturous past), I picked up a copy of Kingsley Amis’ One Fat Englishman and started reading until I had finished it.

One Fat Englishman is a funny parody of the jagged alignment of English and American societies in the 1930s.

It captures a peculiar strain of post-colonial, post-prandial, pre-coital Englishness, presented in the form of Roger Micheldene; erudite, scholarly, over-sexualised literary bully.


In the context of the bloody and atrocious history of the East India Company spun out by Nick Robbins in The Corporation that Changed the World, Roger Micheldene is a neat illustration of the fallen glories of empire, the bloated culture of expectation that bred arrogance, atrocity and eventual atrophy in what Robins describes as the then most powerful corporation in the world.

In Robins’ book, it was the ingestion of swathes of African and Indian territory by the East India Company its body corporate, the allocation of local taxes to company shareholders, that led to the savage scale (and scale of savagery) that occurred on both sides during British rule in those territories.

Roger Micheldene combines vanity, territorial sexuality and, like the East India Company before him, a penchant for territories which rightfully belong to others.

Amis’ descriptions of what one dustjacket reviewer calls ‘bad behaviour’ (and which others might describe as adultery, piggery and bullying) may stem from his own personal experience. They may stem from imagination. They may stem from ambition. Wherever they stem from it makes no matter.

What is fascinating about Amis’ book, when compared with Robins’ book, is that they both tap a vein of fuck them all imperialism which is quintessentially Anglo-Saxon but where Robins has tried at length to document it from the outside and failed, Amis has written a short book about drinking and adultery and encapsulated colonialism in 160 pages.

The Editors

When The War Was Over

indexWhen The War Was Over – Elizabeth Becker

Elizabeth Becker first started covering Cambodia for the Washington Post in 1973, at a time when the escalating crisis in that country was viewed as a “footnote to the Vietnam war”.  After two years reporting on the civil war between the American-backed Republic and Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, she left Cambodia along with the rest of the foreign press when Phnom Penh eventually fell to the Communist guerrillas in 1975.  During the Democratic Kampuchean period (1975-1979), she continued to write about Cambodia from Washington, piecing together second-hand accounts of the atrocities committed by the incumbent Khmer Rouge regime, until in 1978 she was one of a party of three Westerners invited back to Phnom Penh to be given a tour of the country under Khmer Rouge supervision.   The other two invited with her were Malcolm Caldwell, a Scottish academic and Marxist activist, and Richard Dudman, also an American journalist.  Their visit to Cambodia, which occurred days before the Vietnamese invasion at the end of December 1978, gained international notoriety as a result of Caldwell’s murder at the hands of an anonymous gunman, an incident that has never been satisfactorily explained, although Becker suggests that it was probably engineered by Pol Pot as part of an internal purge (the last recorded confessions from the security centre at Tuol Sleng contained references to Caldwell’s murder).

“It is as a witness that I came to write this book.”

Becker’s ill-fated visit to Cambodia is recounted in a chapter towards the end of the book entitled “Return to Phnom Penh”, and is notable as the one section of the book in which the author allows first person subjectivity to take over.  This is understandable, given that she was one of only two Western journalists to visit Cambodia under Pol Pot and make it out alive.  Not only that, but Becker was granted an audience by both Pol Pot and Ieng Sary during her time in Phnom Penh, thus putting her in a fairly unique position as a witness to life under the Khmer Rouge (in fact, she is due to give expert witness testimony at the trial of two of the surviving Khmer Rouge leaders at some stage in the coming months).

However, Becker’s visit to Cambodia in the dying days of the Khmer Rouge is more important for what she didn’t witness than for what she did.  The version of the country she experienced was a heavily stage-managed illusion, and by the sounds of it not a very convincing one.  As a result, it sits in stark juxtaposition to the myriad accounts that Becker assembles as the basis for the rest of the book.  Indeed, Becker constructs her history of the period around the stories of a select handful of individuals, each giving an insight of the horror of that time from a slightly different perspective.  Mey Komphot, for example, who had formerly worked as a banker in Phnom Penh, tells how he survived the regime by playing dumb and hiding his middle class upbringing during the three years he was forced to work as a manual labourer in the Cambodian fields.

It is this willingness to embrace multiple perspectives that ultimately makes the book one of the foremost accounts of that dark period of South East Asian history.  If it is anything to go by, Becker will be an invaluable witness at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.

The Editors

You can buy the book here.

Gangster’s Paradise

Beauty and the Inferno – Roberto Saviano

Roberto Saviano rose to prominence after writing Gomorrah in 2006, a brutal exposé of the Neopolitan mafia that was subsequently turned into a prize-winning film in 2008.  As a result of the book, Saviano was black-listed by numerous factions of the Camorra, a criminal organisation based in Naples, to the extent that the Italian Minister of the Interior granted him a permanent police escort in 2006.  Despite this clear government recognition of the danger Saviano faces on a daily basis, Silvio Berlusconi, among others, has made it a habit of labelling him unpatriotic for his criticism of the criminality lying at the heart of several major sectors of the Italian economy.  It is, as a result, a powerful combination of injustice and isolation that drives Saviano’s collection of essays, all written since he effectively became a recluse, an ironic prisoner of his own writing:

“I work like an inmate.”

Unsurprisingly, given Saviano’s area of expertise, a lot of the book deals with organised crime in the south of Italy, particularly in relation to the construction and waste disposal industries.  However, perhaps because he feels that he is constantly fighting a losing battle against forces that seem to be beyond the reach of the law or any sort of morality, Saviano’s essays are littered with stories of individuals who have shared a similar position of vulnerability yet still managed to keep fighting.  Lionel Messi’s battle against dwarfism, for instance, is the subject of one chapter entitled “Playing it all”, as is Joe Pistone, the man behind the character of Donnie Brasco.  At various stages in the book, Saviano talks about his friendship with Salman Rushdie and their shared experiences of living under police protection.

“Writing is a form of resisting; writing is resisting.”

I would argue that the most important effect of Saviano’s writing to date has been to pull back the veil of glamour surrounding the Italian mafia.  Gomorrah was grim both because of the brutal murders and because of the depiction of the squalor of the Naples slums in which the Camorra has thrived.  Simply put, Saviano’s mafia is not the mafia of The Godfather, not the mafia of privilege, wealth and Italian sophistication, a myth created by Hollywood over the years by a gradual desensitising of its audience (these days, wiseguys are just as likely to make appearances in romcoms as they are in thrillers).  Perhaps it is this context that makes Saviano’s particular brand of realism so important.  In an age in which the gangster’s crowning ambition of personal gain seems increasingly to reflect social norms, it is literature like this that becomes indispensable in order to bring people back down to earth, regardless of however much men like Berlusconi would like to carry pretending everything is fine (presumably he is deeply enamoured of Hollywood’s potrayal of the mafia).

There is no doubt that Saviano’s literature is “engaged”, in the tradition of Italy’s letteratura impegnata, and he makes a point of saying so at various points in the book.  Frankly, how can it not be?  In the preface, “The Dangers of Reading”, the author tells us that over the past few years he has written from at least ten different apartments, staying in each for only a few months.  Saviano explains that it is writing that allows him to live like this, giving him a voice in an otherwise silent world.  But readers be warned, it is not a gentle voice, rather one that punches you in the solar plexus and shouts at you while you’re gasping for breath.


Jerusalem, The Biography – Simon Sebag Montefiore

We take some things for granted in this world, the sea, the colour green, that there are men, that there are women, that some countries are Christian, that some are Muslim, that others are Jewish. Perhaps there is no other way to take these things, certainly better than to be constantly amazed (‘look at that grass, isn’t it green, isn’t it weird!’ etc.). Perhaps there is a middle ground to be struck, a happy nexus through which we can appreciate that things, though not exceptional, are very lovely and to be cherished. Too many other words that we might apply to them are too far from correct (at least in relation to their literal meanings) such as ‘wonderful’, ‘magnificent’, ‘extraordinary’, to be applicable across so wide a spectrum of objects as those which are, for example, green. One thing which has, at least in my life, held this pervasive and often neglected place, threadbare through use and taken entirely for granted, is the city of Jerusalem. I cannot say when I first became aware of its existence. I know that my father’s family is from a small town from which you can see the mesh fencing dividing Lebanon from Israel and that for a long time, at least in the lush home counties greenery of my upbringing, to cross the threshold from that town in Lebanon to anywhere in Israel was psychologically and physically impossible not least for being anathema to what I understood were my family’s beliefs (about which I was, incidentally, wrong).

Crossing that threshold, therefore, captured me with a special interest, an illicit pleasure for several years following my discovery of its existence. For some time I had gone to church as a child. My parents even dallied with Sunday school which to my relief was shelved, along with the riding lessons, after one session. I had had religious education at school consistently from the age of three however. I had been in a nativity play and attended carol services. I went to chapel four times a week during term time and took theology at A-level as well as a history module specialising in the Crusades. To say that Jerusalem, in a form other than the hymn, should have played a pivotal role in my understanding of the world, or at least the academic life I lived in adolescence, is an understatement. Somehow it did not. I knew there was a temple. I knew that there was a mountain. I had a feel for the climate. I had no feel for the people. I had no feel for the place. I knew there were olive trees. I knew there were guns and fences. I did not anticipate the raw insecurity that pervades modern Jerusalem. I had not thought I would be searched on the doors of restaurants. I had not thought I would drink in the gardens of a hotel, first bombed by Jewish militants. That is all to say, I did not know what to expect yet I had studied Jerusalem and part of its history or histories relating to it and events surrounding it in one form or another for over half of my education.

Enter Simon Sebag Montefiore (let’s call him ‘SSM’). Jerusalem, The Biography, is one of the most engaging books I have ever read about a city. The choice of biography as a medium in which to tell it is sublime. This is history in the writing, history in the making: history told with a clear, resounding voice. Perhaps one reason that I had not learnt a great deal about Jerusalem (aside from my own lack of application) is that its history is so rich that some days and weeks can barely be encapsulated in a book, let alone a chapter, let alone a paragraph. Yet SSM has mastered the subject. Describing the fall of the Masada Fortress to the Romans in April 73AD following a three year siege, a harrowing tale of literally suicidal bravery, driven on by the premise that “we long ago my generous friends resolved never to be servants to the Romans nor to any other than God Himself” after which, SSM notes coolly: “each man killed his wife and children; ten men were chosen by lot to slay the rest until all 960 were dead.”  There is a dark and vivid precision to his account of this place, a precision so often lost in the religious, cultural and outright cultish attitudes with which it seems often to be approached.

What SSM demonstrates, aside from a towering control of style and of fact, is that it is not the history that is off-putting, that it is not reading that is off-putting, it is the form, it is the style, it is the presentation that is off-putting. If readers do not wish to read history, it is first the fault of the writer, then the fault of the reader, never the fault of the history. Why we do not have more histories in the bestseller lists is a simple question to answer, we do not have enough historians whom people wish to read. The qualities of Jerusalem, The Biography transcend literary or narrative skill, transcend the writer’s command of the facts, the quality of Jerusalem, the biography that impels the reader to read it is its sheer life affirming exuberance seconded only by the calamitous importance of Jerusalem to the world, the Middle East and in my case to me. Those are the qualities for which we should search as readers, support as readers, commend to others as readers and aspire as writers. The difficulty of achieving what SSM has achieved: the popular, the pervasive, the excellent, combined in one book and read by a great great many readers is so unusual that it is fitting that such rare quality is here applied to a unique place like Jerusalem. The qualities of Jerusalem, the book, much as like Jerusalem, the place, are those of transcendence, of survival. To survive excess. To survive treachery. To transcend religious, political and cultural divides. To be part of the fabric. To be threadbare, beautiful, unnoticed. In short, that is, to endure.

The Editors

Always look on the bright side

The Rational Optimist
– Matt Ridley

First published way back in 2010, Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist examines the ongoing financial crisis in the context of 200,000 years of human history and concludes that things aren’t as bad as they seem.  It should be noted that Matt Ridley was in fact chairman of Northern Rock when it collapsed, so there is reason to doubt his rationality before even opening the book.  Nonetheless, this is an extremely readable account of the evolution of human society and one which is premised on a supremely simple yet immensely seductive theory: that the advance of human civilization owes itself, more than anything else, to trade and the division of labour.

This is not as dry as it sounds.  What the author is saying is that it was the human ability to communicate with other humans, and often with strangers, in order to allocate specialised tasks, that set us apart from our hominid relatives around 80,000 years ago.  In other words, once our initial hostility to “the other” was broken down, we were able to exchange ideas and goods with one another, which in turn meant that we could dedicate ourselves to fewer specific jobs.  The exchange therefore led to the ability to develop expertise in particular fields of human endeavour, such as hunting and tool-making.  As a result, we, homo sapiens, were better at these things than everyone else.

Mr Ridley then proceeds to explain how modern human society sprung out of this mutually beneficial arrangement, albeit with multiple interruptions for ethnic and religious strife along the way.  This is all very interesting from the point of view of history and economics, but what really captures the imagination is the original idea itself, one which the author explains in his first chapter entitled ‘When ideas have sex’.  The genesis of ideas as a coming together of different perspectives is a profoundly interesting concept and one that is often overlooked as we seek to take credit for groundbreaking thoughts and theories.  This is a book that reminds us that mutual understanding is the fundamental driver behind culture, economics and civilization in general.

The Editors