Sunday, 23 February 2014

Europe's Tragedy - Peter H Wilson - book review

In my time in school, history lessons tended to focus narrowly on British concerns, neglecting the momentous events in the wider Europe, which invariably had a greater importance in the grand scheme of things. The Thirty Years' War, for example, was almost entirely overlooked. Even if it was mentioned, it was purely in a "peripheral" context by virtue of its vague connection to British domestic upheavals (the English Civil War, Oliver Cromwell).

This book by Peter H Wilson gives a pretty comprehensive overview of the Europe of the late 16th and early-to-mid 17th century, examining the political, military and religious trends and tensions which were prevalent.

I can imagine that some people will become slightly impatient with the lengthy preamble to the main action of the war itself, but this is necessary in order to equip the reader with a full grasp of the reasons for its outbreak and the varying motives of those who were integral to it. The author assiduously details the numerous political and confessional flashpoints which paved the way, however tortuously, to the eventual conflagration. If the level of detail is confusing and unwieldy at first, I found that the state of play "crystallized" in my mind bit by bit.

Much of the first third of this history concerns itself with the assorted manoeuvres both inside and outside the Holy Roman Empire which preceded the eruption of hostilities in 1618. Portraits of the various key players and protagonists are duly supplied. We see how all manner of considerations - religious, economic, dynastic and power-political  - sparked unrest, animosity and confrontation. The various regions (Spain, Baltic, Dutch) are examined, so that we get a flavour of how things on the periphery played their part in determining the course of events.

Another feature which shines like a beacon is the curious and arcane (to modern eyes) way in which central Europe was ruled, organized and generally carved up in those days. It is almost as if someone had started with a blank sheet of paper a thousand years earlier and sought to design a system which would be guaranteed to generate the maximum possible amount of tension, ill-feeling and general unpleasantness. It looked to be riddled with moral hazards, contradictions and fault-lines. The priorities were different back then of course, but from a modern perspective it is fair to say that reason and practicality seemed conspicuously absent.

Gradually, matters become distilled down to the questions of the Habsburg succession, the intriguing of the more militant Protestant territories, and then the Bohemian revolt, where the conflict is commonly deemed to have commenced.

Some of the mysticism and superstition invoked by the radicals on both sides to justify and guide their actions is both comical and absurd, and it is chilling to read of the hatred and intransigence which was so pervasive in those times.  It was often the innocent, the weak and the powerless who suffered most. Also, by its nature this was one of those conflicts which entailed troops "living off the land", which gave more scope for atrocities and general brutality.

A large part of the fascination of the Thirty Years' War is the fact that it was not always fought along clearly delineated religious or dynastic lines. Some Protestant states remained loyal to the Empire, seeking a path of constructive engagement or reconciliation. Also, there were machinations and intrigues between rulers who were nominally "allies", but who sought advantage and leverage within these arrangements. Bavaria's approach is a case in point. Much horse-trading took place to secure troops, financing or mediation. The persistent relevance of the Spanish-Dutch confrontation is underscored, both in strategic terms and in the importance of these two factions for the balance of the struggle.

Another recurring facet of the war which I discerned was that the Allied/Protestant cause/rebellion seemed constantly on the brink of collapse, but always managed to revive itself, as new backers, or foreign powers, materialised to step into the breach and breathe new life into the struggle, often with their own agendas and motives for doing so. The creation of martyrs, or the injustice of settlements imposed by the emperor, often spurred resistance and interventions.

As the account of the fighting unfolds, the suffering of the civilians, particularly in Germany, and the ravaging of the landscape and countryside, grows and grows and becomes more and more tragic and stark. Part of the difficulty in conveying the horror and cruelty in such a protracted and fragmented war is that its impact seems less pronounced and concentrated than the more systematic atrocities committed in many shorter conflicts. That said, one senses that the level of violence towards civilians escalated around 1830, with the full intervention of the Swedes in Germany.  In saying that civilization has mercifully moved forward since the 17th century, we must not forget the barbarity which humans have inflicted on one another in more recent, supposedly more "civilized" times.

In the context of the suffering and general chaos, some of the peace negotiations, including those which finally concluded matters, appear incongruous in their modernity, vision and moderation.

Wilson also goes to great lengths to convey the social effects and connotations of the development of the war. We are supplied with an insight into how war was managed and prosecuted before the advent of modern nation states, and how the dearth of resources available to rulers and factions necessitated horse-trading and concessions once limited objectives had been attained.

The closing chapters are devoted to an analysis of the legacy of the war and its settlement, its effects on the Empire, and its place in the historical order of things.  Wilson also puts into perspective the human, economic and cultural effects of the years of strife, and how they are perceived today.

Reading about the Thirty Years War requires intense concentration, because it is easy to lose track of the shifting and overlapping loyalties and allegiances.  However, the protracted and spasmodic nature of the war, with short bursts of fighting interspersed with periods of consolidation and diplomacy, allows one to take stock, and for the mass of data to be assimilated!

If you are seeking a comprehensive and incisive overview of the Thirty Years War, I would highly recommend this book.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Jackal - John Follain

A while ago, I wrote a blog post on a book about Carlos the Jackal, "To The Ends Of The Earth", by David Yallop.

I have read one or two other books about Carlos.  John Follain's "Jackal - The Secret Wars of Carlos The Jackal", and Colin Smith's "Carlos - Portrait of a Terrorist".  Follain's book has been re-issued under another name, and remains the most credible and coherent book which I have come across on this particular subject.

Follain refuses to be blinded by the mythology, and doesn't pad the book out with idle speculation and hypothetical or "alternative" scenarios. He simply tries to document what is credible and widely accepted, but at the same time not simply regurgitating verbatim what others have written in the past. The approach here is unvarnished and methodical, and the language used is largely calm and measured, devoid of some of the moral self-righteousness of some books in this sphere. Lean, dispassionate, and structured and argued in a such a way as to make it quite plausible..

There is some good material about the the man's upbringing in Venezuela, and the years which he spent in London and Moscow, tracing his personal and political growth and development.

This work deviates slightly from the normal Carlos "scholarship" with its relative brevity regarding the 1973-75 period, and its dwelling on the aftermath of the OPEC operation. In that respect, more valuable and "original" than other works in telling the whole story in all its facets, and not just the headline-grabbing episodes which are the staple of documentaries and newspaper articles.

We are given extensive accounts of complicated and tense relationships with Eastern bloc countries and various Middle Eastern rulers. In addition, Follain shines a torch on the French political scene of the early 80s, and the boiling cauldron of Beirut. The whole Carlos v France saga is told at some length, as is the process by which France engineered the "arrest" in Khartoum in 1994.

The 1990s was a bit of a "twilight zone" for me concerning world affairs, and the latter chapters shed some light on some of the pressures and dislocations, as the world changed after the collapse of Communism, and new allegiances had to be forged. The version which I have read ends with an account of the first trial in Paris.

A fine read, not just for those interested in the story of Carlos, but for its coverage of the Middle East landscape of the time and the murky worlds of espionage and power politics.

The Winter Olympics - More Thoughts

So, "Team GB" (sounds a bit Orwellian, doesn't it?) has now garnered a grand total of four medals. The leader writers and columnists are doubtless already preparing their articles presenting this as an unmitigated triumph, and a ringing endorsement of some political credo or social philosophy.

Far be it from me to sound cynical, but is it really a triumph?. Full credit to those athletes who have won medals, or who have put in good performances, but should a country of Britain's population and wealth, albeit one with relatively little in the way of mountains, snow and ice, be hailing this medal tally as a great achievement?  I would argue that Britain should be much better than it is at, for example, figure skating. "We" should also be capable of raising a half-decent ice hockey team, which is deemed worthy of competing at the Olympics. The less charitable might aver that Britain concentrates its efforts on the more minority, less competitive events where there is a greater possibility of success, and resultant propaganda value.

As I said at the time of London 2012, the whole "Team GB" phenomenon, and the public hysteria which goes with it, worries me. It seems to me that there is a concerted effort by some of those in charge, and by their acolytes in the media, to use Britain's "success" in Olympic sports especially as an instrument for shaping opinion, and unfortunately lots of people who should know better fall for it, allowing the warm glow of euphoria imbued by a few shiny medals to stand in for cool, detached and rational thinking.

The constant refrain "be inspired" really grates too, as if everybody feels under some obligation to utter it at strategic moments, for fear of being branded churlish, reactionary or not "on message".  It's just a shame that people are not asked to "be inspired" to do things such as read books and think more critically.

I would love to know whether a similar situation prevails in other European countries...

Saturday, 15 February 2014

The Winter Olympics

After a cautious start, I am really enjoying the Winter Olympics now.

One of the main virtues of the "ice and snow Olympiad" is that it is more compact, not being the sprawling monster which its summer cousin has become. Many of the sports provide genuine spectacle, either through the hazards involved or the intricate skills required to succeed.

Living in Britain, these Games have supplied an antidote to some of the nauseating flag-waving nonsense which we had to endure around London 2012. As Britain, despite the protestations of some media folk to the contrary, is generally pretty useless at most Winter Olympic pursuits, it is possible to enjoy the coverage without being totally saturated with jingoism and insularity.  It still irks me, however, to see the media concentrate on some "plucky Brit" who finishes 37th, whilst some majestic performance up-front is almost totally disregarded.

Another thing which is becoming abundantly clear over time is how the face of the Winter Olympics is changing.  When I was young, the lion's share of the attention was allocated to Alpine ski-ing, figure skating and so on.  In recent times, the newer, more "trendy" and youth-oriented events such as snowboarding, freestyle ski-ing and skeleton have come more and more to the fore and, who knows, could even supplant the "blue riband" events in prestige before too long. As commercial considerations hold such sway these days, I can only see this as inevitable. The purists may not be happy, but are there any purists left? Judging by the hysteria on social media, curling is destined to become the new football!

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

The Seventies

My first clear memories of watching news, or being aware of what was going on in the world, stem from around 40 years ago. This was from vaguely, selectively, almost subliminally absorbing images and words from television news, and occasionally the radio. I don't remember seeing many newspapers in our household in those times, other than the painfully parochial local publications.

It is a time popularly associated with economic stagnation, industrial strife, terrorist outrages, global instability and general misery. But did the reality match the retrospective perception?  There is plenty of "retro" newscast footage online, from several countries, and I have been studying some of it from that period, to try to obtain a genuine flavour of what was "going on", divorced from what we see through the opposite of rose-tinted spectacles.

If those old news bulletins are to be viewed as representative, then Europe circa 1973/74 was indeed a depressed and insecure place. It was as if somebody somewhere had decreed that the Sixties would indeed be primarily swinging, and that all the anger and unrest would be bottled up and then compressed into the early-to-mid 70s. One of the clear recollections of my early years is of one or two candle-lit evenings in '74, prompted by power cuts...

Matters economic appear to have been very corporatist and nationalistic in Europe back then. The impression is of more talking and posturing than genuine activity. It is little wonder that while the parties were sitting around tables in smoke-filled rooms, people in other parts of the globe were just getting on with the job, making things and influencing people. There were also signs of an obsession with inflation and the cost of living generally.

It is amusing, in the light of its subsequent development and expansion, to see an EU (EEC in those days) with membership still in single figures. The leaders seemed to have summits or get-togethers every couple of weeks!  Easier to arrange things more informally with a small roll-call, clearly. And of course, the range of topics deemed worthy of discussion was very limited, mostly to do with agricultural quotas and the like. Compared to today's behemoth, it was all very quaint, and that is not meant as a criticism.

It is fashionable to assert that the 1970s was a decade which most who experienced it would like to forget. It lacked the conventional "dynamism" of the decades either side of it, but its grimness and its traumas imbued it with a vitality and rawness which is still compelling and intriguing, particularly for those who see the 60s as too-good-to-be-true, and the 80s as soulless and synthetic.

A truly enigmatic decade, the 70s, and endlessly fascinating. In spite of the shrill and gloom-ridden headlines, people who lived through those years simply got on with life, and felt that they were living in the best of times, which many felt were simpler and more caring than what we have today. Another reason why I sometimes feel that I was born twenty years too late....

Friday, 7 February 2014

Franz Klammer, Innsbruck, 1976

As the 2014 Winter Olympics open, my thoughts go back to memories of previous Games. One feat and one performance springs to mind, above all others;Franz Klammer's gold medal run in the men's downhill race at Innsbruck in 1976.

That race stands out for me for several reasons. Firstly, 1976 is the first Winter Olympics which I can remember. I have no recollection whatsoever of Sapporo in 1972 (I was only two years old at the time). Secondly, this run, lasting less than two minutes, not only transcended skiing, it also transcended sport itself, and is probably the one ski race that even non-skiing fans would be able to recognize or recall. It was not just that he won that was significant, but the manner of his victory.

The stage was set perfectly. Klammer was drawn as the last of the top seeds in the running order, starting fifteenth, and was confronted by a formidable benchmark set by the defending champion, Bernard Russi of Switzerland. He was also the favourite for the gold medal, and was competing in front of his adoring but demanding home Austrian crowd - a double edged sword.

What transpired was one of the most audacious and spine-tingling sporting spectacles ever witnessed. Klammer seemed to throw caution to the wind, knowing that he had to take risks to overhaul Russi's time. There were several moments when he looked destined to stumble or fall, but through a combination of skill, confidence, raw courage, and even a modicum of good fortune, he stayed on the course, and won the gold medal by 0.33 seconds.

Individual sports such as downhill skiing differ subtly from other pursuits because of the contest between athlete, himself and the elements. On this occasion, Klammer conquered both himself and the elements, achieving the pinnacle of his career, as well as giving us a supreme example of sporting theatre. I understand that in Austria, that Klammer tour-de-force is still regarded as a milestone in the country's popular-cultural history. The nation literally came to a standstill for those moments.

In retrospect, I also think that Klammer's gold-medal heroics are important in another context. Even in 1976, hard-nosed professionalism and commercialism were beginning to encroach on even "amateur" sports. That run perhaps represents one of the last hurrahs for a more dashing, cavalier and unorthodox ethos.

Those people who cling religiously to their own favourite sports and narrow partisan allegiances for inspiration should check out a video of Klammer's run. Their eyes will hopefully be opened.

Sailin' Shoes - Little Feat - album review

Continuing a look at Little Feat's classic 70s albums, we come now to "Sailin' Shoes", released in 1972.

One of the charms of Feat's early work is that the albums have their own distinct character.  "Sailin' Shoes" lacks the clarity and simplicity which characterizes much of the first album, and the sensual suppleness of "Dixie Chicken", and ploughs its own defiantly gritty and bluesy furrow. The band line-up is ostensibly unchanged from "Little Feat", but the sound is warmer and more expansive, with more variety in the keyboard and guitar parts.

The album maintains the trend from its predecessor of embracing an eclectic mixture of lyrical themes, from the amusing, almost cartoonish songs celebrating life's hedonistic pleasures, to more introspective and profound sentiments. This combination was one of the under-estimated factors which contributed towards making Little Feat so unique and compelling. They were capable of evoking a range of emotions. "Sailin' Shoes" is possibly less "easy" and comfortable to listen to than those collections which preceded and followed it, but no worse for that.

Many might contend that the stronger compositions are packed into the first part of the album (what would have constituted Side One on vinyl), but this is a slightly harsh judgement on the closing tracks, which may be less immediately accessible, but which also surrender their hidden depths with repeated listening. Other bands might have mixed up the running order to balance things out, but being conventional and predictable was never the Little Feat way!

So what of some of the more notable tracks in that running order?

"Sailin' Shoes" begins with the vibrant "Easy To Slip", which a few people have likened to Crosby Stills and Nash, presumably on account of the acoustic guitar motif and the prominent organ.  It, however, contains notable Little Feat trademarks, including a subtle Lowell George vocal and that intangible and infectious vibe which pervades so many of their songs.

The less exuberant but equally memorable "Cold Cold Cold" follows, containing some powerful lyrics, and an almost claustrophobic production which perfectly complements and augments the subject matter. "Trouble" is one of those acoustic-oriented ballads which Lowell George was able to summon up with such facility. Lowell always managed to stamp his personality on songs such as this, and make them so much more substantial than they might otherwise have been.

The version of "Willin'" on this album is the definitive one, although this is not to decry the rendition which appeared on the eponymous record from the previous year.  The 1972 edition of the song has a more melodic quality, with various instrumental flourishes added.

"Apolitical Blues" is one of my favourite "minor" Feat numbers. Perhaps poking fun at the the penchant in those days for musicians (even some of their friends and contemporaries) to incorporate political messages in their work, the tongue-in-cheek humour partially overshadows the song's musical qualities, which include some tasty slide guitar, and familiar Bill Payne piano licks in a languid melodic base.

The title track has a deceptively simple tune, but as with so much of Feat's work, it is the "feel" which drags the listener in. The imagery in the words is exotic, euphemistic but hardly impenetrable! The country blues ambience is most agreeable, as is the phrasing in Lowell's idiosyncratic vocal.

As the record draws to a close, we are given hints as to the band's impending direction. "Got No Shadow" has jazzy and rhythmic inclinations which point the way towards the band's more "experimental" music later in the 70s. These features, together with Bill Payne vocal on "Cat Fever" are perhaps indicators that the other members of the band would begin to assume the creative limelight more.

For me, "Sailin' Shoes" is one of those albums which possesses real bite and character, and in some respects it is the most inimitable of all Little Feat's works, the one which most accurately encapsulates their quirky appeal. An enigmatic record, but an excellent one.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Napoleon - Alan Forrest - book review

The most stimulating and entertaining biographies are often of those figures who polarize opinion, or whose reputation or legacy is riddled with paradoxes and contradictions.

Napoleon Bonaparte has the capacity to inspire these emotions in many people, and I am no exception. Respect for many of the ideals which he expounded and (in the beginning at least) upheld , co-existing with distaste for his occasional cynicism, folly and vanity.

Alan Forrest's "Napoleon" has a breezy, enthusiastic style, which steers well clear of the pomposity which can mar works about the revolutionary and Napoleonic period.  It is hard not to become caught up in, and enthused by the exuberance and excitement of those times, and how much of a breath of fresh air Napoleon and those like him must have personified.

There is some focus on the problem of his being torn between his Corsican roots and what was "destiny" on the mainland. Indeed, the attention given to Corsica is welcome, in building up a picture of Napoleon's political development. I would have liked a little additional detail on his education and so forth, but I don't think that this sets out to be a definitively detailed, "chronological" biography in that sense.

One aspect of the Napoleon story which is intriguing, and which habitually attracts controversy, is his attitude to the successive phases of the revolution, and to whom, if anyone, he pledged his allegiance along the way. The reformist zeal was tempered with anxiety about the disorder and violence which continued to flare up periodically. Cynics would contend that this also helped to protect his own ambitions. A balancing act which kept own career options open. This encompassed remaining on good terms with people who could help to save his skin when the going became rough.

Unsurprisingly, Napoleon's role in subduing the Toulon uprising of 1794 is highlighted. It was an example of Napoleon "producing the goods" when it mattered, with a flair for the dramatic and the symbolic. He rode his luck from time to time, but some might say that his audacity and courage entitled him to the odd piece of good fortune, and he was thereby well placed when the political breeze blew in his direction.

The pace accelerates with Napoleon's posting to a command in the Italian campaign, and here the author outlines some of the personal qualities, and "people skills" which would soon propel the young commander to undreamed of heights. Equally, we gather hints of the patterns and tendencies which would sow the seeds of later failings.  At this point, too, there is an interesting look at Napoleon's efforts in the fields of propaganda and public relations, as his political horizons began to expand.

The Italian sojourn, and the Egyptian adventure which followed, are given relatively short but quite insightful coverage. Was the Egyptian sojourn the point where some of his credentials began to look a little spurious and questionable; megalomania and naked ambition dressed up in grand ideals?  The evidence was ambiguous, and perception was all that really mattered back in France at that time.

Bonaparte was consciously cultivating the aura of an all-round ruler, inspiration and spreader of civilization - preparing the ground for political struggles to come. Popular adulation and acquiescence soon served to make Napoleon more headstrong and heedless of dissent.

It is interesting to note how low down the pecking order he was when the 1799 plotters were casting around for military support. The inauguration of the Consulate, and the measures introduced thereafter, make sobering reading, as an example of how people often prefer order, comfort and "unity" to freedom and democracy. A reminder of how authoritarian a place France still was, and would continue to be, even making allowances for the standards of the time.  The Duc d'Enghien episode seemed to put the seal on this - it seems that this was the point at which many admirers, including one Ludwig van Beethoven, became disaffected.

Essentially, this is a "political" biography, which means that there is not exhaustive relating of the minutiae of military strategy and tactics. This is a blessing, as other books on this subject concentrate excessively on the battles and campaigns, thereby obscuring and ignoring some of the broader geopolitical arguments, and the more unpalatable truths about Napoleon's rule/reign, particularly in the later days.

I have often found that the more one reads about, or researches, supposedly "heroic" figures, the less edifying and admirable they become. This book furthers the trend with regard to Bonaparte, by condensing the less agreeable tendencies which he and his regime(s) began to exhibit from the turn of the nineteenth century onwards.

The author exudes a real enthusiasm for his subject, and for the enlightened ideals of the time, but this does not preclude a sober appraisal of Napoleon's real motives and achievements. I detected that his praise becomes less generous as the story moves forward.

Forrest's interpretations also reinforced something which has been forming in my mind for a while about the French Revolution in particular;that is, how tenuous and patchy its impact might have been, and how much liberal ideas had really trickled down to the wider population from the politically-aware elites and social groups. Whether this is totally unfair I don't know, but from reading about later French history it seems that things did not truly change for many more decades. Was this something to do with the demographic make-up of the French populace, the balance between rural and urban dwellers? Was the popularity of Napoleon due to base sentiments amongst French people, rather than attachment to lofty or progressive ideals?

Some of the less endearing consequences of Napoleon's dominance are illustrated. His centralizing tendencies, the emphasis on obedience, loyalty and obligations over rights. The censorship and control over free expression and the press. Things are best summed up by the author's observation that Napoleon was an authoritarian, but no reactionary. The expediency was often justified as safeguarding many of the most cherished achievements of the revolutionaries and the Republic.

The descriptions of imperial splendour and excess leave a bad taste in the mouth, though. Many might see him, post 1804, as little different from the "enlightened monarchs" of the previous century. Some revealing material here too on Napoleon's manipulation of the arts and culture to present and spread the "glory" of his rule/reign.

As alluded to above, exhaustive tales of military derring-do are largely absent here, and Forrest prefers instead to elaborate on the diplomatic and domestic implications of Napoleon's crusade to expand his Empire.The further I trekked into this book, the more I realized that it was not a biography in the truest sense, but more a book about Napoleon's political career.  It has less of the strict chronological rigidity of many biographies, and embarks on several enlightening diversions into areas of interest.  It says more in 300+  pages than some tomes of three times its length.

In the end, the contradictions and ambiguities are a large part of the Napoleon enigma and the Napoleon allure, and he remains an emotive figure today. This would be a good place to start learning about him, but it would also serve as a good refresher for anyone.