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Sunday, 16 November 2014

Peacemakers - Margaret MacMillan

After a gap of two or three years, I recently revisited this book about the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. Not only did it turn out to have fewer pages than I remembered, but it is also very wide-ranging, embracing the discussions concerning the Balkans, the Middle East and Asia as well as the "core" European concerns.
The tone is generally entertaining and breezy. It was a good idea to set the scene with character sketches of the main protagonists - Wilson, Clemenceau and Lloyd George. Indeed these pen portraits, extending to various politicians, diplomats and hangers-on, are one of the most likeable aspects of "Peacemakers". They are supported by passages conveying the "culture" of the conference, and the social activities which went on.
One of the things which struck me was that the "Big Three" were all nominally of a similar political creed - liberals. This, however, did not prevent numerous tensions, antagonisms and disagreements. All were acutely aware that, in addition to forging what they saw as a new international order, they were playing to their respective domestic political and public galleries. The two were not always wholly compatible. Short-term feelings of revenge or schadenfreude might be scant consolation for bitterness and complications stored up for future years.
It was sad to be reminded of the attitudes which still prevailed in 1919 towards people from Asia and Africa, even among self-proclaimed "liberals". This was especially visible in the dealings of the "powers" with Japan and China. At least the Americans occasionally delivered a subtle anti-colonialist dig at the British. Still, double-standards were evident throughout, in the approach of the British and the French. The writing was on the wall, but much British energy was still being expended in seeking to preserve the empire.  Should they have been looking more to the future?
This book also provides an intriguing window on attitudes to the Bolsheviks, in the wake of the Russian Revolution. As Wilson and Lloyd George correctly observed, it was injustice and cruelty which had given to rise to the revolution, but there was also much naivete and wishful thinking about what the Bolsheviks might turn out to represent.
Looking back, it also seems ridiculous for Allied governments to have been contemplating further military involvement in the internal affairs of Russia, after what the troops and civilians had just had to endure during World War One. No wonder there were mutinies and protests. Thank goodness that sanity prevailed before too much damage was done. Any further intervention might have been counter-productive, by spreading revolutionary ideas, and the muddled policies were probably a blessing in disguise. The ones who really benefited were the Soviets, who gleefully used the appearance of Western bullying for propaganda purposes.
How important was the Russia question in dictating how the conference proceeded?  The author rightly points out that the vexing social and economic pressures in Europe were largely independent from what was going on in the East. They would have existed regardless of the Russian Revolution.

The most troubling chapters of "Peacemakers" deal not with Germany, but with the debris of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. The frustration of the three major powers over Italy's territorial demands and obstinacy is palpable. On the other hand, the conduct of the Allies concerning Turkey and its periphery seems like little more than shambolic. As mentioned above, the treatment of Japan and China was shabby, and the consequences for the West were arguably just as momentous as those stemming from decisions pertaining to Europe.

As this book went on, I began to lower my opinion of the pre-eminent statesmen (Wilson, Clemenceau, Lloyd George), for varying reasons. I suppose that whenever one probes deeply into the lives of prominent people, their negative traits and characteristics become more apparent, and some illusions are eroded.

One of the fascinating things about the conference was that it represented a change-over, or at least an attempt at one, from the old diplomacy to the new way of doing things.  Thus, countries felt they had to cloak unjust territorial or political demands in the clothes of the new order, citing dubious statistics and historical "facts" of questionable veracity.  Still, the disingenuous behaviour of some was hardly less admirable than the double-standards often displayed by the main powers, in seeking to perpetuate their colonial influence and strategic and economic advantages.

The Americans were quite justified in their exasperation at the "secret deals" made by their allies earlier in the war, and the way in which these complicated the post-war negotiations.  However, the thought occurs that they might have been on more solid ground if they had entered the conflict earlier. France and Britain were fighting for their lives before 1917, and in the real world, any sort of expedient or advantage must have seemed worthwhile.

The author makes some persuasive and well-balanced points in appraising the merits of the treaties and the effects of what occurred at the Conference. The Treaty of Versailles allowed Germans to perceive, rightly or wrongly, that it was unjust and humiliating, whilst at the same time its provisions and its implementation, did not do enough to avert future aggression. As MacMillan rightly says, though, the peacemakers could have done worse. They were not dealing with a simple, ideal or perfect world.  A lot of water had still to pass under the bridge during the inter-war years, and World War Two was by no means inevitable. That was how I interpreted her conclusions, anyway!
This is the sort of book which reminds me that much has changed in the past ninety-odd years, but also that much has remained the same.


Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Let Me In Your Heart Again - Queen

It is always nice to receive a pleasant musical surprise, and the newly released Queen song "Let Me In Your Heart Again" is one of those. It is not a new song of course, but dates from 1983/84, and the recording sessions for the album "The Works", and it was subsequently recorded by Anita Dobson.

My first reaction, on hearing the track, was that this was a "Freddie song", so authoritative and natural are his vocals, but of course it was composed by Brian May. It sounds a little like one of the piano ballads which Freddie was so prolifically turning out during the 1980s, but it also has elements which are similar to "Hammer To Fall".

Perhaps one of the reasons why the song did not make the cut for "The Works" was that it in places it sounds a bit like both "Hammer To Fall" and "It's A Hard Life"?  On reflection, it is actually stronger than some of the material which did end up on the record, and it is surprising that it was not revisited for any of Queen's subsequent LPs. Then again, songs are sometimes viewed as ephemeral, and if they are not deemed appropriate for a particular moment in time, they are permanently discarded, no matter what their evident strengths. "Let Me In Your Heart Again" was just in the right place at the wrong time.

For me, Freddie's performance on the song is a minor revelation. He sounds very confident here, as if he instinctively knew how to approach each line and how to phrase each word. Each part of the number is sung slightly differently, and the second verse is delivered powerfully but not excessively. It is always nice to be reminded just what a versatile and talented singer he was, comfortable and adept with all manner of material.

Considering that this track originated in 1983/84, it is also mercifully largely free of 1980s production values, which tended to obscure the melodic qualities of songs during that era. If I have one gripe, it is that some of Brian's guitar flourishes are a little too ostentatious, and they could have been toned down marginally.

Overall though, a worthy addition to the Queen catalogue.


Friday, 7 November 2014

Wer Wenn Nicht Wir (If Not Us, Who)

I recently watched the 2011 German film Wer Wenn Nicht Wir (English: If Not Us, Who), directed by Andres Veiel. The movie is largely set in the 1960s, and tells the story of Bernward Vesper and Gudrun Ensslin. The two main roles are played by August Diehl and Lena Lauzemis. The template for the movie was a book by Gerd Koenen.

Although this picture was produced by different people, it can be see in some ways almost as a "prequel" to The Baader Meinhof Complex;Ensslin went on to co-found the Red Army Faction. There is some overlap in the period 1967-70. Wer Wenn Nicht Wir follows the young duo in their literary endeavours and political activities, and their struggle to come to terms with their country's immediate past.
This movie is less flashy and "Hollywood" than others of its type, and the visuals have a very agreeably dusty and bookish feel to them, being understated and restrained.  The dialogue concerning literature is cleverly played so as to gently propel and complement the narrative. Real archive footage is employed in places to instil the context of the times. There are some excellent performances, most notably from Diehl and Lauzemis in the leading two roles.
Rightly or wrongly, I saw the efforts of Vesper and Ensslin to establish themselves as publishers as symbolic of the wider effort of the younger generation to break free from the shackles of the past, whilst at the same time endeavouring to confront, and make some sense of, what had occurred two or three decades before. There are some powerful scenes with both sets of parents, and a revealing one with a landlady when the couple are viewing an apartment, where they were given to understand that "co-habiting" without being married was seen as some kind of heinous sin.  It is hard to believe that such attitudes were still prevalent in the 1960s, but it gives some idea of the tenor of the times.
The hardening of Gudrun Ensslin's outlook becomes evident only quite imperceptibly, as the personal and the political continue to inter-mingle, but the move to Berlin was clearly something of a watershed. Something of which this film also reminds us is that up until about 1967/68, even the political radicals still wore sober suits or pretty dresses!
Of course, the scenario changes after 2 June 1967, and the arrival of Andreas Baader on the scene. Now jeans, leather jackets and cool shades begin to proliferate. A word for Alexander Fehling and his performance as Baader. He manages to capture some of the directness and impudence which we have been told about. It was intriguing to hear the Baader character say that you won't change anything with books. What did Baader and his cohorts ultimately change though? Less than words and peaceful protest did, I would contend.
This is a "dramatization", but it seems to stick quite closely to what we know of the true story. The scenes surrounding notable events are quite measured and plausible. Thankfully, there is a relative absence of "crowd scenes", which never quite work out in any movie....
One of the most significant scenes in the whole picture for me was in the prison, where a female prison official seeks to reason with Gudrun Ensslin about the methods being employed. The official may have had a point, in referring to the lack of mass grassroots support as a major flaw. She also used the phrase "small steps in the lowlands" - better than attempting giant leaps which alienate everyone and achieve little?
All in all, a fine movie, well worth a viewing, and not just for those interested in the precise subject matter.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Buddenbrooks - Thomas Mann

After finishing "The Magic Mountain", I was sufficiently enthused to immediately seek out Thomas Mann's first novel, "Buddenbrooks", published in 1901.
"Buddenbrooks" chronicles the fortunes, and gradual decline, of an affluent north German merchant family, and its social circle, during the nineteenth century. This is set against the backdrop of social and political changes in Germany and the wider world. The socio-political stuff is not at the forefront of the narrative, but it does form part of the fabric of the story, and the effects of change are occasionally evident in the dialogue between characters and their attitudes towards their elders or contemporaries. Possibly the most overt manifestation is in the chapters which address the upheavals and ferment of 1848.

One thing which "Buddenbrooks" exudes is evidence of diligent research and a grasp of the world in which such a family existed. This was a multi-faceted world, and it was rarely simply a case of one generation, or one social class, being at odds with another. The notion that all groups were moving in certain directions, as part of some uniformly seismic shift,  is quietly dispelled here I think.

Often the outlook of individuals was determined largely by their upbringing, their associations and their obligations within an extended family. It was still a world of deference, where people tended to "know their place". Many had no incentive to be worldly-wise or enlightened, because they were insulated, reliant on others, or did not truly own themselves. It was often only the disturbance of the equilibrium by some extraneous jolt which upset this "comfort zone".
The thought passed through my mind that although the social conventions which prevailed in those days were stifling, they also ensured a kind of stability and security - provided you were born into the right measure of prosperity and influence. It must be borne in mind that not all people enjoyed the privileges and the relative certainty of outcome of the Buddenbrooks.

The pivotal characters for me in the novel are Tom (Thomas) and Tony (Antonie). Both are superbly rounded and convincing creations, full of contradictions, flawed but also admirable. Their experiences and viewpoints form the backbone of the story as they struggle, sometimes in harmony, sometimes at odds, to keep things together.

Some of Tom's reflections are quite revealing. He appears to recognise some of the anomalies and injustices of the world in which he operates, but either can not, or will not, bring himself to confront them, partly because of the underlying need to "keep up appearances". Difficult decisions were avoided because of the tethers of loyalty and obligation. Set against this landscape, perhaps things were always going to change slowly.
Another character who I found captivating was "Hanno", the son of Thomas Buddenbrook, who showed little interest in his father's world of commerce, and instead found refuge in music and the arts. This invokes the age-old examination of the tension between the "bohemian" outlook and the bourgeois existence. Countless authors have explored this area, but it never gets old or tired. 
The chapter set in Hanno's school provides a window on some of the emergent trends as the nineteenth century wore on, with some young people unwilling to subscribe unquestioningly to the ways and the values of their elders. Insubordination had always been there in some form, but were the new ideas of that time just more coherent and potent?
The one character who I found curious was "Morten", with whom Antonie has some contact quite early on in the piece. I was expecting him to return in a major way at a later stage, but he didn't.  He had some profound things to say in his brief appearances. However, when I think about it, the fact that he was something of a "red herring" actually enriches the overall.
Even though this novel could be seen as somewhat downbeat, in that it deals largely with decay and misfortune, I found it uplifting and moving, in its celebration of human foibles, the richness of life and the stoicism and resilience of people. For all its depiction of momentous social change, it is also quite simply a magnificent piece of story-telling.
On my first reading, I did not fully take in the significance and relevance of the author's unusually diligent concentration on the personal appearance, characteristics and mien of many of the characters.  Much symbolism to be savoured there, methinks.  That calls for a second reading of "Buddenbrooks", then....


Tuesday, 4 November 2014

The Rising Sun - John Toland

For me, the Pacific theatre of World War Two holds a special fascination. Not only because of  certain peculiar strategic issues, but also because of the perceived cultural factors which contributed to the outbreak of hostilities and to how the campaign was conducted.
The period, and the Japanese empire of that time in general, are comprehensively chronicled in John Toland's epic "The Rising Sun". Here the story is told primarily, but not exclusively, from the Japanese perspective. For some unfathomable reason, I had imagined that this book commenced with the Pearl Harbour episode, but in fact the opening chapters are an illuminating and gripping look at the factors which triggered the conflicts in Asia and the Pacific, and the rebellion (s) by Army officers. 
People often assume that the Japanese conquests were motivated solely by blind nationalism and rapacious economic greed, but these pages stress that, at least in the beginning, the position was more complex. Japan suffered grievously in the wake of the Great Depression in the early 1930s, and there was also revulsion about political corruption. It is often forgotten that some in the military and elsewhere saw Manchuria as a "new Jerusalem", where socialist ideas could be implemented, and then possibly transplanted to the homeland itself.
The book also amply illustrates how Japan's clock was set ticking once the oil embargo was imposed in the summer of 1941, and how the mixed messages emanating from both sides helped to breed mistrust. Were Japanese officials simply trapped by encroaching economic woes and also by fear of a revolt by sections of the Army, and did the Americans do all that they could have done?
There is an extended description of Pearl Harbour, largely from the point of view of individuals. The unpreparedness of the Allies in the face of the Japanese onslaught is sobering to be reminded of. The horrors of the Philippines campaign are afforded stark attention, with unflinching detail of the hardships inflicted on Allied troops, and the agonizing over the decision to surrender. The author does mention that some Japanese officers repudiated the harsh methods employed by their colleagues.
The sections dealing with the Battle of Midway really bring across what a psychological turning point this event was, because of the dent which was delivered to Japanese confidence, and the knowledge that the material advantage of the US and its allies was now likely to prove decisive.  The harsh reality was that perceived spiritual virtues would largely be powerless to sway things.
Throughout "The Rising Sun", Toland looks at the broader question of Asian self-determination, and Japan's efforts to harness these energies.  The condescending attitude of many in the West to the Asian peoples is also clear, and one is left wondering whether the Japanese might have had more success if they had adopted a different attitude to the populace in the territories which they occupied. As with the proclaimed socialistic sentiment, it is a moot point whether the rhetoric about fighting colonialism was a ploy to seduce and entice the people of Asia. Perhaps some were more sincere than others in adhering to these views.
In addition to the documenting of the military events, and the first-hand accounts, there is some fascinating coverage of the big wartime conferences attended by the major leaders, and some amusing anecdotes concerning the dialogue between Stalin and Churchill in particular.
The thing which never ceases to amaze, and depress, me when reading military histories is the petty wrangling between commanders, and the egotism on show. It seems absurd and bizarre that professional self-interest and vanity were allowed to interfere with the overriding objectives, but that is human nature, I guess. Perhaps such things are less easy to understand from the vantage point of seven decades later. How many lives were lost because of compromise decisions, effected to smooth over ruffled feathers?
It was interesting to read, towards the end of the story, examples of Japanese soldiers questioning the ethos which guided the nation and its military, and the self-sacrifice which was expected. This belies the conventional "wisdom", and is in keeping with the tendency of this book to pose some awkward questions about both sides who were engaged in the struggle.
Needless to say, the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki are given due prominence. The stories from the cities are harrowing, and should trouble the conscience of anyone who blithely and complacently states unquestioningly that the attacks were necessary or unavoidable.
I must admit that reading this book again has affected me quite deeply, in its portrayal of the futility and cruelty of war, and the intransigence and callousness of  some of those who wield power.  A thought-provoking and rewarding read.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Children Of The Revolution

After much vacillation, I recently got around to watching the 2010 documentary film "Children Of The Revolution", produced and directed by Shane O'Sullivan. It explores the lives of two famous political militants, Ulrike Meinhof and Fusako Shigenobu, through the eyes and experiences of their respective daughters, Bettina Rohl and Mei (or May) Shigenobu.

The film is made up of interviews with the two daughters, together with archive material and also segments recorded in the twenty-first century. There is excellent use of archive footage and photographs, some of which I had not seen before.

The film alternates between the two case studies, but is held together by common denominators such as the Palestine question and the concept of global revolution. Crisp editing and a stylish flow ensure that it remains generally cohesive, and successfully holds the interest and the attention.

The Japanese angle is fascinating, and of course this area is less well known to Western eyes and ears, but the thing which really stood out for me about this documentary was the perspective of Bettina Rohl. Her comments, and those of others in the film, provide some new insight into Ulrike Meinhof''s life and character.  Myths are dispelled, and much of the romanticism which surrounds the urban guerrillas of that era is put in its true light.

The film addresses the question of how Meinhof's personality and outlook may have altered over time.  Whether this came from within, or was prompted by some of her associations, is left somewhat open to question, but Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin are portrayed in a less than flattering light. Indeed, the bleak and blinkered vision of the Red Army Faction leaders is underlined once again.

Both of the daughters on which the film focuses come across as well-balanced and well-adjusted people, despite, or maybe because of, their "unconventional" upbringing and background. Their contributions are both candid and enlightening.

Overall, this is quite an absorbing and thoughtful documentary. It does not just re-hash old material and theories, but looks at a contentious topic from an interesting and imaginative angle. It is well worth watching.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

The Magic Mountain - Thomas Mann

I have recently finished reading Thomas Mann's novel The Magic Mountain, originally published in 1924.
The story centres on the character Hans Castorp, who travels to a sanatorium in the Swiss Mountains, initially to visit his cousin, who is being treated there. However, Castorp himself soon falls ill, and ends up spending seven years in the institution.
Whilst in the sanatorium, Castorp is exposed to a diversity of intellectual, moral and philosophical viewpoints and pressures, and his curiosity on these questions is consequently aroused. He also becomes infatuated and obsessed with one of the female patients.

The novel is set in the early twentieth century, in the years preceding the First World War, and acts as a kind of snapshot of the European bourgeoisie at that time, their social mores and attitudes prior to an upheaval which would in some ways serve as a watershed. Some of the symbolism appears to touch on the forces and factors which brought about the catastrophe.

A constant theme throughout The Magic Mountain is the nature of time, and how people's conception of the phenomenon differs when they are in an "unnatural" environment such as that of a sanatorium, divorced from "normal" existence. Throughout the narrative the meaning of, and attitudes to, death are also a constant concern.

To me the Castorp figure is firstly portrayed as a little "green", perhaps the legacy of a sheltered early life, and although he comes under the tutelage of others in his new surroundings, he is also possessed of some innate savoir-faire and astuteness which bourgeois conventions and constraints would have prevented him from deploying in the "flat-lands". This latent perceptiveness is allowed to flourish.

Although the differences between life below and that in the sanatorium are highlighted, it can also be seen that some of the human relationships and behaviour in the mountain retreat are a microcosm of social dynamics everywhere.

New impetus is supplied by the introduction of the Naphta character, and his intellectual fencing with the humanist Settembrini. This brings me on to another pleasing aspect of The Magic Mountain, and that is the clever construction of characters.  They are distinctive but credible, outlandish but plausible, and generally do not conform to stereotypes.

It is refreshing to become immersed in a novel which does not concern itself with one central theme, or even a loosely connected set of themes. Some readers may even find that it takes a little time to adjust to this, but my advice is to just relax and let the story come to you.  Yes, Mann is trying to tell us things, but he is also telling us a story. Striving to see profound significance in every sentence will only impair one's enjoyment.
The story takes some unexpected but captivating twists, through Castorp's ski-ing expedition, his friendship with the Dutchman Peeperkorn, his continuing obsession with Madame Chauchat, the séances, the tragic duel between Naphta and Settembrini, to the final sequence, which follows the main protagonist's decision to volunteer for service in the war.

This is a challenging but highly stimulating and diverting read.