Sunday, 27 September 2015

Achilles Last Stand - Led Zeppelin

It is the conventional "wisdom" that "Stairway To Heaven" is Led Zeppelin's finest musical achievement, and their most meaningful and enduring legacy to the world. However, this is only the populist view, and I subscribe to the body of opinion that the accolade should really belong to "Achilles Last Stand".

Released in 1976, as one of the tracks contained on the "Presence" album, the song is notable for several reasons. Not only is it Zeppelin's last truly great piece of music, but it also in some ways represents the closing of an era in "classic rock", one of the last hurrahs before the supposed "watershed" of punk which, we are told, changed music forever.

Apart from its minor cultural and historical significance, "Achilles Last Stand" is memorable on so many other levels. The lyrics were at least partly inspired by the travels and experiences of Robert Plant and Jimmy Page. This and other elements and themes are woven into an epic and sweeping tale.

The various musical ingredients of the song are captivating independently, but they coalesce to bring about an invigorating whole. John Bonham's drumming appears in places to defy the laws of physics, helping to propel the backing track as well as inserting numerous unusual fills.

Jimmy Page's guitar work here is some of his most distinctive and incisive on any Led Zeppelin record. From the intro/outro, to his contribution to the basic riff, to the various solo sections. There is abundant spontaneity and technical prowess. Page would have been justifiably satisfied with the finished result, in view of the work which must have gone into the production.

The chugging bass-line performed by John Paul Jones has probably been quite influential, and often imitated. It is a crucial, integral part of the framework which makes the whole thing work, but it is equally understandable how even such an affecting bass part can be overshadowed by the drumming and the guitar parts.

Robert Plant's vocals both evoke the epic quality of the lyrics as well as acting as an additional instrument in themselves, in augmenting the textures created by the pyrotechnics of the other three musicians.

This track, and the album which it came from, were recorded at a transitional time for the band. Not long after it was released, changes were afoot in the wider musical landscape. In my mind, the "Presence" album is a little patchy and inconsistent in its overall quality, but "Achilles Last Stand" is a wonderful endorsement of the theory that "form is temporary, but class is permanent". Talent, imagination and diligence, when operating in unison, could still produce that intangible magic. For a band which many at the time asserted was in decline, or artistically stagnant, it has prodigious energy and self-confidence.

I have said that the song signifies the end of an era, as one of the last "epic" rock tracks to appear before the advent of the British punk movement.  In a sense, though, it also anticipates the musical direction in which Led Zeppelin might have gone, had they had the chance. Little did they know that more difficulties were on the horizon, and that their career would be tragically curtailed.

Friday, 25 September 2015

The Battle For Spain - The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939 - Antony Beevor - book review

The Spanish Civil War remains highly emotive. Antony Beevor chronicles and analyses the conflict in his book The Battle For Spain.

In the chapters which constitute a "preamble", Spain's history prior to the 1930s is stressed , with some emphasis on the influence of the Church and the landowners. The country had, it appears, not been affected as much as other parts of Europe by liberalizing impulses.

The plethora of factions on both sides of this conflict can be confusing to say the least, but Beevor does his best to clarify who was who, and why. As he observes, this was not just a struggle between left and right, but also one between libertarianism and authoritarianism and centralization and "federalism"/separatism. These dynamics served to create a very intense and volatile picture.

It is difficult not to be sympathetic to the more libertarian elements of the republican side, however much one feels that they were occasionally naive in their idealism in the face of cold realities. The anarchist scene in Spain around that time, particularly that located in Catalonia, is a fascinating and thought-provoking phenomenon. For all its flaws, a hopeful and positive experiment.

My interpretation was that Beevor felt that the left misjudged the size of its mandate, with its strident rhetoric more than its actions, driving many into the arms of the nationalists. The right exaggerated the "threat".

The infighting between the various groupings, and the fragmented nature of the alliances, is one of the factors which gives the Spanish Civil War an enduring fascination. Loose cannons, hot heads, impractical idealism, brazen opportunism, impulsiveness, impetuosity and cold calculation - all played their part in the drama.

I was impressed by the author's analysis of the early stages of the uprising, the government's hesitant and dilatory initial response, and the motivations behind some of the early atrocities. The republican excesses were more the result of an outburst of rage and chaos. The nationalists, on the other hand, planned a systematic campaign of terror, even "cleansing". The language coined by some nationalist officials is chilling, like something harking back to the Middle Ages...

Beevor goes to great lengths to outline how the unity, or otherwise, of the two sides developed and evolved, Franco maintaining a semblance of cohesion via a mixture of concessions, sops, coercion and eventually demonstrable indispensability to the success of the nationalist cause. Staying largely above the internal strife also clearly helped him. The republicans were not so fortunate, of course, having the heavy hand of Stalin and the Comintern to contend with. Was it the case that the nationalists had a simplicity of purpose, even allowing for lingering agendas, so that they were able to keep their eyes on the prize?  It seems bizarre, but the situation in the anti-fascist camp was not that straightforward.

Another illuminating section of The Battle For Spain deals with the war economy in the republican zone, and the tensions which some methods sparked with the central government. It is difficult not to conclude that the anarchists sometimes clung too rigidly to lofty theories and ideals when a more pragmatic approach may have been more beneficial in the grand scheme of things. Later on, though, they felt with some justification that they were struggling for their very survival and identity.

The rather inglorious attitude of some foreign countries, as well as the manner in which big business connived with the nationalists, is a distasteful facet of the conflict. Yes, we all know now what Stalinism was like, but isn't this a case of being wise after the event? The "rationale" behind certain people's backing for Franco was rather grotesque. The republicans were drastically deprived of genuinely powerful friends, and the consequent reliance on support from the Soviet Union was to bear bitter fruit.

The "romance" surrounding the republican cause is very seductive, even if it is often tricky to pin down exactly. One of the main tasks of the historian therefore is to separate fact from myth, and to weigh what was propaganda, distortion or fabrication. I feel that Beevor remains relatively dispassionate throughout, and does not allow the emotive nature of the subject matter to impinge on lucid judgement. The cruelty and barbarism of the nationalists largely speaks for itself, although the cracks in the republican side take a little more explaining and understanding.

The International Brigades are often the things which most laymen remember about the Spanish Civil War, partly due to the literature and evocative tales which emerged, and also because of the principled stand which they made. Beevor strives to place their role into its proper perspective, and stresses how they slotted into the structure of the Republic's forces.

Diaries and private correspondence are invariably very useful in getting nearer to the truth. Intimate, often candid thoughts committed to paper in the midst of the maelstrom, not alloyed or compromised by propagandistic concerns or embellishment. Such material is made excellent use of in this book.

A probing look at the involvement of intellectuals and artists is also a feature of this work, how many became disillusioned, and how some journalists had their hands tied. It is also pointed how the "demonization" of the communists may have played into their hands, by allowing them to portray themselves as the sole meaningful and dedicated bulwark against fascism.

The portions which address the "civil war within a civil war" evoke a loss of faith among some of the leftist forces and the growth of disenchantment, It is at this point that the paranoia of the Stalin-aligned communists and their acolytes becomes a pervasive trend, seeing the hands of fifth-columnists in almost every military or political reverse. They had leverage, which meant that the other players in the republican fold had to tread carefully in dealing with them. They may admittedly have been on firmer ground in advocating firmer, more cohesive organization and leadership in the face of the nationalist threat.

The vagaries of Stalin's stance are strange. He was doing his best to conceal or downplay the "communistic" side of the republican make-up, for foreign consumption at least, whilst his men on the ground in Spain were throwing their weight around in no uncertain terms. The activities of the secret police, the harsh treatment of the International Brigades volunteers and the draconian punishments for soldiers are all documented here. It is easy to imagine how many people became exasperated and cynical.

A theme which emerges in the second half of this history is the tendency of the republican leadership, under communist sway, to embark on military adventures for reasons of propaganda, playing to both the domestic and international gallery, even when this was not consistent with military or strategic logic. At the same time, of course, the diplomatic picture was clouded and complicated by the gathering storm on the wider European scene. Decisions made regarding Spain were not made in isolation.

Rightly or wrongly, I discerned from some of the author's observations a sense that the republicans were almost naive and "green", both in some of their military decisions, and in their dealings with the outside world, in areas such as finance and arms procurement.

There is a look at what happened after the civil war concluded, including the fate of the exiles,and how Franco went about consolidating his grip on power. The role of both sides in the Second World War is given some attention, and Beevor also looks at the military lessons which the great powers learned, or disregarded, from the fighting in Spain. He also assesses the impact of the interventions made by the Soviet Union, Germany and Italy.

Overall, when reading this book I was left with a feeling of sadness at what befell Spain, at the behaviour of some people on both sides, and how those with honourable and humane motivations and intentions were let down, manipulated and misled.

The Battle For Spain is a sobering but rewarding and worthwhile read. It is well structured and paced, and it brings to life a tragic and contentious episode in modern European history.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Led Zeppelin - The Song Remains The Same - movie review

Led Zeppelin's "concert movie", The Song Remains The Same, has not met with wholehearted approval over the years, often being labelled either lacklustre or self-indulgent, or both. Having not watched the film for quite some time, I recently gave it another viewing, and thought that I would commit my impressions to blog form.

Although the concert footage was recorded in 1973, at Madison Square Garden in New York, the finished product was not released until 1976. The musical content is interspersed and overlaid with behind-the-scenes documentary clips as well as "fantasy" sequences and other assorted visuals.

The first thing to say is that the concert sequences are visually excellent, easy on the eye and technically well executed. The stage lighting is beautifully captured too, in the form of various reds, oranges and greens, giving the images an agreeable warmth and luxury, particularly in the close-up shots. The relatively small size of Zeppelin's stage set also gives the performance an intimacy and a compactness often absent from films set in large venues.

In some quarters I have seen the musical content of The Song Remains The Same uniformly dismissed. I think that this is slightly unjust. To me the quality of the performance is uneven more than anything else. It is true that the band was possibly at its peak as a live act in 1972, a year before this footage was shot, but there is still much to admire here. Even inconsistent and marginally below-par Zeppelin is well worth watching and/or listening to...

The version of "No Quarter" here is perhaps the stand-out piece in the movie. It is more aggressive than the studio version, with a great Jimmy Page guitar solo. Some memorable visuals are super-imposed on the music, including owls and sinister men on horseback. All "very Seventies", but quite effective and diverting, the cliches notwithstanding.

The longer, more "prog"-orientated tracks, especially those from the "Houses of the Holy" album, lend themselves more readily to outlandish visuals and story-telling, possessing a more "cinematic" quality. "The Song Remains The Same" (the song) is another example of this trend, as is "The Rain Song". This portion of the concert set is well suited to the "Arthurian" imagery which accompanies much of it. Actually, watching some of the "videos" produced for the film makes me wonder why Led Zeppelin did not explore these avenues more thoroughly in subsequent years.

The non-musical portions of the film are very much "of their time", but to my eyes they also have a period charm which is rather endearing. The sight of John Bonham driving a tractor is one of the highlights of the whole thing!  The backstage and documentary-style clips very much convey the extravagance, excess and egotism of Seventies rock, which may go some way towards explaining why some "critics" have traditionally found fault with this film.

The sound is pretty good, although some may contend that John Bonham's inimitable drumming is not captured as prominently as it might be. The separation allows the immaculate bass-playing of John Paul Jones to be properly appreciated, and Jimmy Page's Gibson Les Paul and double-neck guitars sound terrific throughout, organic and earthy, sometimes ethereal.  Admittedly,  Robert Plant was perhaps not on peak form vocally here. Was this the period when he was beginning to experience some voice problems?

Some of the performances towards the conclusion of the movie are very strong. "Dazed And Confused" is loose but incisive.  "Stairway to Heaven" is interpreted in an understated but affecting way, with an excellent solo by Page. "Whole Lotta Love" is performed in its familiar format, with more improvisation and ad-libbing in the middle section, although not as much an extended "medley" as on other live renditions.

In spite of this film's reputation and its flaws, I find it quite entertaining and slickly put together, especially when taking into account the various difficulties which were encountered in its production. It is a pretty evocative document of its era.

Friday, 11 September 2015

The Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour Movie - review

Derided by some, misunderstood by many, the Beatles' "Magical Mystery Tour" film, released in 1967, remains one of the most hotly debated episodes in their career.  I recently watched the movie again to see if the picture would become any clearer in my mind.

In a few places I have seen it described as the prototype for the road movie. I'm not totally convinced by this assertion;surely there were lots of road movies before 1967?  It is certainly a road movie of a kind, with a strong current of English humour running through it, and of course suffused with the psychedelic aesthetic of its time.

The core of the narrative is a charabanc trip, something of a British institution, at least back then. I don't feel that The Beatles were belittling traditions such as this. In view of their own backgrounds, they may even have been seeking to romanticize such things, with a bit of mild satire added.

For me they were poking fun more generally at contemporary straight society and its absurdities, as well as some more pernicious aspects of British life which had become archaic in the context of the Swinging Sixties and its attendant social change. Some of the symbolism is there in the film, although sometimes half-buried in the dialogue or the behaviour of the minor characters. "A Hard Day's Night", the group's first movie, explored similar territory in a more conventional, less cryptic, way. This being The Beatles, it was all done in a gentle, impish manner which the Establishment would not find unduly threatening.

Much of the critical disdain aimed at "Magical Mystery Tour" back in 1967/68 stemmed from its perceived amateurishness, and its alleged pretentiousness. As I think Paul McCartney has pointed out, they didn't set out to produce a glossy mainstream film, but instead it was intended to be quirky and off-the-wall.

The problem was that the media and the public would not "allow" The Beatles to come up with anything deemed to be even slightly self-indulgent. Surely though, by the middle of 1967 they had earned the right to be experimental? As for the charge of amateurishness, I am torn between a feeling that this was intentional, and therefore essential to an understanding of the movie and its ethos, and a nagging sense that they tried and failed to do something more polished. The former theory ultimately holds sway every time...

Allowing for the occasional raggedness, intentional or otherwise, there are some great visuals, such as those in the "Fool On The Hill" sequence, and the footage which accompanies "Flying". Several scenes stand out, such as the one in the restaurant, where John Lennon shovels food on to the woman's plate. Another favourite passage of mine is during "Blue Jay Way", where the four guys are filmed playing cellos in a large garden. For all the "arty" sections, though, I must admit that my favourite part is the drunken sing-song on the coach....

One thing which can be said for "Magical Mystery Tour" is that it is fast-moving. No scenes linger excessively, and the brevity and the diversity of settings are both assets. This of course is conditioned by the patchwork format of the film. The randomness and the chaos succeed in holding the attention.

Even if The Beatles had emphasized beforehand that this was an art-film, and an experimental venture, they would still probably have not escaped the critical barbs. However, one must also say that it is no better or worse than many similar films of that era, and it has the advantage of being less self-conscious than most, with a hint of traditional English self-mockery helping in this regard. It is a harmless period-piece, if not a masterpiece.  And of course, the music is wonderful...

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Mean Streets - movie review

"Mean Streets", the 1973 movie directed by Martin Scorsese, and starring Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro, is one of those films which I think for many people is strangely elusive in its nature. Not a cult movie as such, but equally not one which would be easily described as a mainstream blockbuster. It has a charm all of its own.

The great use of music, a feature of several Scorsese films, is evident from the outset, even in the opening titles. This is just one of those elements which lifts "Mean Streets" well above the mundane. Throughout we are treated to assorted 50s and 60s classics (The Ronettes, The Rolling Stones etc) as well as opera and Italian songs.

The plot centres on mobster Charlie (Harvey Keitel), and his efforts to protect his wayward friend Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro), mostly from loan sharks and their depredations. This task becomes more fraught as Johnny Boy's behaviour grows increasingly abrasive and confrontational. There is some suggestion that Charlie, in pursuing this course, is striving for the redemption which he cannot attain through his religious faith.

De Niro's performance is outstanding, combining impishness and self-confidence with a certain vulnerability. He never allows the character of Johnny Boy to lapse too far into caricature.

"Mean Streets" succeeds in part because it is not weighed down by heavy and momentous themes. The screenplay and the quality of the acting carry any moral messages along with them. To my mind there is a heavy emphasis on telling a story, rather than constantly dwelling on profound issues. This way, the themes themselves are allowed to breathe naturally.

The aesthetic of "Mean Streets" has similarities to previous films;"The French Connection" springs to mind, but the atmosphere is nowhere near as gloomy and austere as other pictures of the genre. The music certainly helps, as does the variety in the locations and the visuals;there is even a scene at the beach. The scenes in assorted sleazy bars and clubs are each given a personality of their own, by the good use of lighting, music and so forth. Yes, it is still a gritty movie, but it also possesses a certain warmth. The dialogue contains some humour amidst the menace.

Due to the format of the film, and the mood which is built up, the viewer develops an empathy for, and an interest in, the destiny of the individual characters on a human level. The emotions are engaged, and this has more to it than merely a tale about mobsters. More depth, even allowing for the sobering and gruesome ending.

"Mean Streets" has been cited as highly influential by many people, both in its visual and narrative feel, and in areas technical such as camerawork and editing. However, it should be judged as an engaging film in its own right, with a distinctive tone stemming from a combination of potent but subtly employed ingredients. The movie may be overshadowed to a degree by the films which later came to define the Seventies in cultural terms, but it is absorbing, powerful and imaginative.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Tago Mago - Can - album review

Few, if any, artists can have created a run of albums of the consistent quality achieved by Can during the early Seventies. Perhaps the most striking and influential of those records was "Tago Mago", released in 1971 as a double album. I have seen it described by one or two critics as one of the greatest albums ever recorded, and to my ears this is no exaggeration of its merits.

Funnily enough, I did not really "get" the music of Can until comparatively recently.  They seem to be one of those acts whose charms take a while to impress themselves on the listener. Once my defences were breached, however, I found it impossible not to immerse myself in their work, especially that run of records from the period 1971 to 1973. The type of material which jolts one out of any musical inertia and complacency which may have amassed.

The astonishing thing about "Tago Mago" is that in 2015 it still sounds so fresh, pristine and "contemporary". Some of the music of that era which also falls under the umbrella of "experimental" has not aged anywhere as gracefully. This album, on the other hand, has an immediacy and a punch which are enduringly compulsive and enthralling, distinct in this respect even from the other ground-breaking music which was emerging from Germany at the same time.

Despite being categorized by many as avant-garde, the outward format of the Can group was very much that of a conventional rock group.  Vocalist, guitarist, bass player, keyboardist, drummer. The most immediately noticeable elements of their work, on this series of albums at least, are Jaki Liebezeit's astoundingly energetic drumming and the vocals of Damo Suzuki, who made his Can debut here. However, this should not make us overlook the contribution of the other instrumentalists, who were all integral elements in constituting the intoxicating Can sound during their best years.

Like so many great pieces of art, the draw and appeal of Can's best music is very difficult to encapsulate and convey in words. At their best, however, they were both rhythmic and blissfully melodic, often exhibiting these traits simultaneously. The terms "avant-garde" and "experimental" can serve to frighten off some people, but Can's music is ultimately as welcoming and comforting as any mainstream pop. Just cast off your blinkers and preconceptions at the door....

On such a uniformly strong record it is difficult to pick out highlights, but the track "Halleluhwah" is a particularly gripping and impressive creation, clocking in at over eighteen minutes, and for many representing the apogee of their journey. Liebezeit sounds like he has grown an extra set of limbs, the rhythm and tone are slightly more aggressive than elsewhere on the set, and the sheer length of the piece gives scope for diversions and more time for a mood and a groove to assert themselves. As elsewhere on "Tago Mago" the keyboards are not generally as prominent as one might imagine, but they are essential in engendering that peculiar ambience. This applies, if not as much, to the guitar work.

Having waxed lyrical about "Halleluhwah", it is fair to point out that the other numbers are almost all strong and interesting in their own right. Aside from "Halleluhwah", the other two more lengthy and "unconventional" pieces are "Aumgn" and "Peking O", the latter featuring some striking sound effects and vocal treatments. One gets the feeling that these two tracks more accurately embody the group's musical heritage than the more compact material. Can had the consummate knack of making such extended pieces seem accessible and benign, however.

Of the shorter items, the opener "Paperhouse" has a laid-back but insistent groove to begin with, before branching out, and it is something of a guitar showcase for Michael Karoli. It is followed by "Mushroom", which feels to me more austere and "minimalist".  One can easily see how this track and its character might have rubbed off on many musicians who emerged later.

"Oh Yeah" is an absolute delight and and an adventure, from the opening "explosion" sound effect, to the propulsive beat, to what sound like backwards vocals. As so often with Can, the rhythm is soothing rather than grating, and the keyboards and guitar both accentuate this flavour and lay textures of their own.

The closing song "Bring Me Coffee or Tea", at its outset at least, displays the mellower side of Can, and is an ideal way to bring us down to earth. There is even what sounds like acoustic guitar in there. More great drumming, if more delicate and understated.

I have not compared Can or their music to other artists, quite simply because there is nothing who they can safely be compared to, certainly among their contemporaries. It is unlikely that you will be open-mouthed with astonishment when first hearing them. More likely, you will eventually, after careful attention, find yourself muttering something like "my word, these guys were good".....

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

The Korean War - Max Hastings - book review

"The Korean War", written by Max Hastings, was originally published in 1987.  Having read this book about four years ago, I recently went back to it.

I won't fall into the trap of describing it as "the forgotten war".  That said, if you ask people, even those who consider themselves reasonably well informed, the finer details and the precise chronology might be somewhat hazy.

This is just the sort of history book which I relish.  It feels comprehensive and authoritative, but does not outstay its welcome and, whilst satisfying curiosity, induces a thirst for more knowledge on a range of topics.

There is a good outlining of the background to the conflict. The failings of the South Korean government, the shaky unity in the south, the ill-preparedness of the US and its allies. Throughout the work a picture is created of post-war exhaustion, and of the world adjusting to new circumstances and new alliances. It may surprise some people how stretched the military resources of the US were, early in the war at least. Everybody's inventory was depleted, and forces had to be scraped together and improvised in a short timescale.

The unflattering portrayal of the South Korean regime of that period is a reminder of how many times the West has found it necessary to prop up distasteful administrations in pursuing what it perceives to be noble ends. Hastings does assert that the nature of the North Korean regime justified Western intervention, though.

"The Korean War" is written in a lively  but forthright style. Whether the reader agrees with the author's opinions or not, his arguments are generally well reasoned and supported by evidence. A strength of Max Hastings is his knowledge in both political and military spheres. This gives the book some real depth and authority, and his views and interpretations carry some weight.

As the story unfolds, numerous "case studies" are given, detailing the experiences and recollections of servicemen and civilians. These passages serve as a window on how things were on the ground, as well as hinting at some of the prevailing social and political attitudes in the early Fifties. This "personal" dimension assists in enhancing understanding, as well as instilling some variety, when set against the analysis of grand strategy, Cold War politics and military tactics.

A recurring theme here is the lack of knowledge and reliable intelligence possessed by the West about North Korean intentions, and of attitudes in Moscow and Peking. Also, the differing interpretations between the Americans and the British about the extent of Soviet involvement or control are illuminating, and perhaps reflect the contrast in intensity between the anti-Communist crusades on the two sides of the Atlantic.

This work contains some pretty hard-hitting stuff about the unrest among commanders, and the tensions and military "culture clashes" between the UN countries. The role of Douglas MacArthur is naturally a major topic, especially in the first half of the book. The author spends considerable space explaining why and how the mercurial general made his position untenable.

Whole chapters are devoted to the role of air-power in the war, and to the question of prisoners-of-war. The section which deals with the POW camps on both sides is very powerful and illuminating, and in places disturbing.

I must admit that I found the political and "social" questions more interesting than the discussions of military intricacies. I see this as a tribute to the quality of the book, and a barometer of my own attitudes...

Hastings's summing-up at the end of the book is well-argued, based as it is on an assessment of the geo-political fall-out and the reflections of those who were involved. I was also impressed by the author's capacity to blend a humane approach with a cool appraisal of political realities. It seems that military and political lessons were not learned as fully as they should have been.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

The Habsburgs - Andrew Wheatcroft - book review

Another of the books which I have recently revisited after a gap of a few years is "The Habsburgs - Embodying Empire", by Andrew Wheatcroft, first published in 1995.

As the author is keen to stress, he adopts an approach of looking at the Habsburgs in the context of the dynastic entity, rather than simply as a series of individuals. Also, he examines the ways in which the self-image of the family evolved, and how this was conveyed via art, architecture, the printed word, ceremony and so forth. The methods by which the Habsburgs projected and perpetuated the "myth". The mystical and romantic elements of these impulses are explored, too.

It is also one of the curious aspects of the story that the Habsburgs attained their influence and reach as much by strategic marriages and accumulation of wealth than via warfare. They themselves were often relatively impecunious, and their financial strength was precarious, sometimes depending on inheritance via marriage.

One of the things which readers might find surprising is how much this study concentrates on the Spanish branch of the Habsburg dynasty. To many, the family is most commonly associated with the German-speaking parts of Europe, bur in fact the focus on Spain is quite illuminating in painting the full picture accurately and vividly.

This is not really the definitive story of the dynasty, nor does it set out to be. Some of the most notable figures, such as Maximilian, Charles V and Philip II, are accorded what might be described as mini-biographies. These portraits are quite gripping, detailing the traits of these rulers, and how they themselves interpreted and propelled the Habsburg mystique.

Wheatcroft does not exhaustively chronicle each diplomatic initiative and military campaign, but instead he tends to concentrate on some phases which he feels are particularly instructive. Some episodes which are considered pivotal in European history are therefore given less attention than one might normally expect. This does not lessen the book's appeal;in fact, in many ways, it enhances it.

The seemingly endless references to the Habsburgs' religious piety and divine guidance may give the impression of an archaic age, but they are essential to an understanding of how the dynasty perceived itself, and what drove it on.

My impression was that relatively little was mentioned about the attitudes of the Habsburgs' millions of subjects, more specifically about the impact, or lack of it, of their rule on economic and social conditions. It seemed that untold resources were expended on opulent palaces, churches, and castles. What about education, healthcare, infrastructure, economic development?  The fact that they are rarely mentioned may tell its own story.  Then again, the remit of the book does not demand that such subjects predominate.

There is some protracted analysis of the various difficulties which afflicted the Habsburg succession, and how the furtherance of the line was engineered and secured. The author scores highly in his examination of the tension which sometimes sprang up between the generations, and how each new ruler put his or her own stamp on the office, whilst adhering to tradition and ethos. We also acquire a sense of how the geographical and strategic orientation of the empire continued to shift over the centuries.

The last one hundred years or so of the empire are documented in a condensed, but lively and readable way. The implication I think is that, faced with revolutions and new political and social forces, the Habsburgs adapted as much by changing administrative methods and presentational styles as by changing fundamental policies and beliefs. The effects on the family of the Enlightenment, and the upheavals which came after it, appear to have been uneven.

This book did not necessarily make me more sympathetic to Habsburg values and practices. However, it did deepen my understanding of why they thought and acted in the way they did. It is a thoughtful and easily digestible exploration of the phenomenon.