Monday, March 26, 2012

Peter Robb - A Death in Brazil

The opening chapter of Peter Robb's history, cum-travelogue about Brazil, begins with the attempted murder of the author. This is somewhat unusal for a book on history, though rather cleverly, despite starting with one of Brazil's perceived problems, the author actually manages to show us something rather different.

Nevertheless, violence is quite a big part of this book. That is because Brazil's history is fairly violent. Interspersed with his musings on Brazilian food, literature and bars, Robb takes us through the story of the slaves who cut the sugar cane and earned their masters fortunes. He talks about the decimation of the indigenious peoples, who were first assaulted by European disease, then sold into slavery and attacked when they escaped.

Some of this history is fairly unknown outside of Brazil. The story of Canudos is fascinating. This was a town, founded by a wandering, radical preacher who attracted thousands of people to him, not simply because of his sermons, but because the town was a beacon of openness and religious tolerance. The Brazilian military government saw it as a threat. Talking up the stories of lewd sexuality, and worrying about an alternative centre of power to their own capital, they sent four expeditions to destroy the town. There must have been something about living in Canudos that the people found better than the lives they could expect from the Brazilian landowners, because they fought back and defeated three military attacks. The fourth, used artillary and machine guns to massacre the inhabitants, men, women and children.

Robb's book is at its best when looking at more recent history. Though we might be accustomed to tales of violent attacks on street children or tourists in Rio, the real violence was the state sponsored war on the poor that dominated the 1980s and 1990s. Here, Robb draws out the complex chains of government and state corruption, the twisted networks of bribery that dominated government. The few individuals who grew fat stealing public money for themselves. While the majority of Brazilians coped with falling pay packets and enormous inflation.

Here Robb begins the story of the resistance. The mass strikes by car workers that brought cities to a halt and military governments to their knees. Its in this environment we first read about the future Workers' Party President, Lula. Lula's story of his rise from a poverty stricken, indigenious background to the leadership of Brazil is a near fairy tale. Robb keeps it very much in the context of a system prepared to destroy the poor in the interests of the rich, and politicans who collapse under the weight of their own corruption.

Lula's victory was an immense blow to the ruling class of Brazil, though Robb points out that this only happened in the context of the Workers Party blunting some of the edges of their most radical politics. Its for this reason that Lula's presidency no longer has the hope associated with it, though there have been improvements for some of the poorest.

Much has happened since this book was published. There are more stories to be told. A Death in Brazil is a good introduction to contemporary Brazilian politics, and Peter Robb tells a good story. When some of the corrupt politicians are brought to justice, or meet their ends, it felt much like the climax to a detective novel. So while this isn't the pure piece of history you might want, it is a damn good read and will probably fill some time on a beach in Rio.

Related Reviews


Mann - 1493: How Europe's Discovery of the Americas Revolutionized Trade, Ecology and Life on Earth

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Charles C. Mann - 1493: How Europe's Discovery of the Americas Revolutionized Trade, Ecology and Life on Earth

The arrival of Columbus in the Caribbean in 1492 was a fairly minor event for a very small number of people.  The famous sea-captain's small band of men, encountered a fairly remote group of indigenous people. Elsewhere in the Americas, a vast plethora of different cultures and societies also flourished. Each organising in many, varied ways.

The impact of those that followed Columbus on the Americas was enormous. Vast numbers of the indigenous people died, mostly from the new diseases brought by sailors, explorers and colonists. Many villages were depopulated long before they saw a white man. Those that survived were often at risk from guns and slavery.

Charles C. Mann's book 1493 continues a story he began in an earlier work, 1491. There, he examined the pre-Columbian civilisations, discovering their complexity and extent, Here, Mann explores the impact of the arrival of Europeans, not just upon the people and ecology of the Americas, but on the world itself.

Coincidentally, some of what Mann explores here is also discussed in a book I reviewed recently, David Graeber's book Debt, which discusses in detail the impact of the trade in precious metals that began to leave the Americas in vast quantities soon after 1492. This is a great theme of Mann's book, and I think Mann captures far better the enormous wealth that was channelled out of the countries, but also the horror of the slavery and destruction that formed the basis for that wealth. Mann, like Graeber, discusses the way that the precious metals became part of the wider trade networks between Europe and China, how it facilitiated the great trading networks that already existed, turning them into enormous financial concerns.

However Mann doesn't limit himself to the economic consequences. He shows how our world has been transformed in the "post Colombian exchange". Large numbers of plants and crops arrived from the New World. Tobacco, maize, tomatoes, chilies and many others. These transformed both the Old World, but they also altered lives elsewhere. One of the most fascinating chapters discusses the social impact of the arrival of tobacco in China.

"As a child in the 1630s, the writer Wang Pu had never heard of tobacco. When he grew to adulthood, he later recalled, 'customs suddenly changed and all the people, even boys not four feet tall, were smoking.'"

Mann tells us how "late-waking aristocratic women, slept with their heads elevated on special blocks so that attendants could do their hair and makeup while they were unconscious - it shortened the time between waking and the first tobacco of the day."

Such attention to detail marks out Mann's book as a brilliantly readable history. His understanding of the wider social and economic relationships is fascinating, and his ability to tie in a wider ecological understanding adds a new dimension to a story that has often been discussed. In his explanation of the way that the earthworm was accidentaly re-introduced to parts of North America from where it had been driven extinct during the last ice-age, Mann links the slave trade, to the agriculture of the Americas and the practises of the ships crews that took part in the trade. His easy to follow explanation of the importance of earthworms to agriculture reflects a wider ability to explain difficult and complex ecological ideas.

Sadly much of the book is dominated by the horrific reality of the changes that arrived with Europeans in the Americas. The slave trade is one aspect of this, as is the slavery imposed on the indigenous people of South America. As capitalism develops and the New World becomes and increasingly important part of the world economy, Mann tells us of the horrors of the rubber plantations, conditions in Haitian slave plantations and the consequences of the introduction of Christianity to the continent. There is of course resistance, slave revolts and indigenous populations creating their own communities far from European towns. But much of the story centres of the cementing of a new way of organising and exploiting the natural world. It is this great transformation that is the real heart of Mann's story, one that has been central to shaping our modern world. Mann's book is a great introduction to this, that should be widely read.

Related Reviews

Cronon - Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England
Graeber - Debt:  The First 5000 Years

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Stephen King - Wizard and Glass

When I started reading Stephen King's Dark Tower novels, I made a vow to only purchase them when I found them in second hand shops. Seems that number two was hard to find, but three, four and the rest seem readily available. Hence the gaps between reviews of this series will shorten.

So what of the fourth book in the series? I worried at the start that this was some sort of attempt to recreate an epic on the scale of the The Lord of the Rings. Stephen King points out in his new introduction that the Dark Tower series is very different to Tolkien's work and longer. By volume four, King is getting into his stride. The characters are now well rounded and familiar. If there are few answers to the large questions about the nature of the quest, that's because the joy is in the journey itself. However in Wizard and Glass, a whopper of an 850 page novel, most of the space is given the Roland's backstory.

Roland, the last gunslinger, originates in a world that was once a version of ours, technologically rich and oil dependent. It began to come apart at the seams and turned into a odd mix of the feudal and wild west. Surprisingly, this isn't too difficult to believe. The story is really a coming of age tale, and King shows his abilities as a storyteller by avoiding too much in the way of happy endings, giving the reader plenty of action (there is a brilliantly written piece of gunfighting) and creating some truly scary bad guys and gals.

I've said on a number of occasions that I think that Stephen King is vastly under-rated as a novelist. He might be damned as a shlock-horror writter by the critics, but I do urge you, dear reader, to take up his books. His approach - weaving a number of themes and tales together works brilliantly, and if some aspects of the tale seem tacked on at the end, that's likely because their being stored up for later use. One complaint might be the brief reapperance of the Tick Tock man. That could have played out longer and better.

If you're new to the Dark Tower series, don't begin here. If you've read the others, than I can only imagine you're waiting to find this second.

Related Reviews

King - The Gunslinger
King - The Drawing of the Three
King - The Waste Lands

Monday, March 19, 2012

Richard Vinen - The Unfree French: Life under the Occupation

I was prompted to read The Unfree French after I had read another work on the same topic, Marianne in Chains by Robert Gildea. As a result, this review is in part a reflection on the simularities and differences between the two books. I urge people to read that review in addition to this on.

I wrote that I found Robert Gildea's book unsatisfying. In part this was the omissions that I felt he had made, but it was also a question of style. I did not feel that he got to the heart of the question. What was life like for French people during the German Occupation?

Richard Vinen's book is much clearer in answering this. He concludes, rather simply, that "life for most French people between 1940 and 1944 was miserable." This is a simplification but it is illuminating. He points out that in recent years much discussion has been had about how hard life was for particular sections of French society - those Prisoners of War, or the Jews sent to concentration camps, and this implies by omission, that life was better for other groups. In reality, Vinen argues that life was hard for almost everyone.

One of the great strengths of this book, is that Vinen understands that while life was hard, not everyone suffered equally. Class plays a difference, both in terms of the experience during the war and the aftermath. So for instance, he spends time discussing the Black Market and how, for those with money, or access to other goods for trade, food could be obtained. For the majority of the population, hunger was common. Vinen continues though, by pointing out there were other differences. Some parts of the country had more food than others and rural populations often, for obvious reasons, had more food than the cities and towns. This inevitably led to conflict and lasting anger - after the liberation, those who had been seen to benefit from the Black Market were often singled out and punished.

Vinen points out that this punishment was meted out in different ways to different people. Those women who had their heads shaved for collaboration (usually meaning they had had relations with German soldiers) were more likely to be punished in this way if they were poor or working class. Better off women could either escape, or use influence to get away with this. Again there is another difference, and it is a great strength of Vinen's book that he spots this. Women were often punished for relations with German soldiers. But not one French man, who had sexual relations with a German women while they were in German was punished by their compatiorats after the war.

Some 2.5 million Frenchmen were in German during the war, either as prisoners or workers. This menas that 1 in 5 Frenchmen spent time in Germany during the war. The experiences of these men was a major part of the French war time experience and Vinen, like Gildea, spends a lot of time documenting this. But the experience was not just for those abroad. Back home, what was happening to the French POW was a major issue for ordinary people, as well as the Vichy regime. The failure of Petain to return more POWs before the end of the war was one of the major factors in people increasingly turning against him.

Unlike Gildea, Vinen seems to see the Occupation as a process of change. So he talks frequently about the way that attitudes were transformed through the war years. Initially he points out, the lives of French POWs was a major issue, but as the war progressed and suffering became more universal, the tended to be seen more as victims than as martyrs. Indeed, Vinen points out how the POWs were increasingly seen as demasculated by the experience. Their imprisonment a metaphor, perhaps, for what was happening to France.

If there are weaknesses with The Unfree French it is the lack of struggle. This is not to say that he ignores the resistance. He discusses this far more, though differently to Gildea. Gildea is at pains to understand the development of the more traditional view of the Resistance, whereas Vinen tries to understand what resistance meant. For Vinen, the French resistance was something that grew significantly out of the experience of both the Occupation and Vichy. For Gildea it was something that happened, but did not have the mass character that many implied. Resistance for Gildea was out of self motivation, for Vinen it is much more a response to the experience of war.

Unfortunately I am not sure that either author hits the nail on the head. There clearly was large scale resistance - Paris fell to the Allies in the midst of a city wide general strike and barricades on the streets. While those resisting were disorganised, ill-equiped and inexperienced, their numbers did grow throughout the war. Oddly Vinen fails to mention strikes or trade unions. In fact the only reference to strikes I read, was a comment about East European workers in Germany striking against conditions. This is, I think, because Vinen sees resistance almost purely in terms of military action, whereas Gildea, for all his faults understood that it was much more of a day to day process. Standing up to the Germans did not always mean shooting them.

The great strength of The Unfree French is that the author captures much better the essence of life during the war years. In this sense, his style is much closer to that of Angus Calder's The People's War a book about life for British people during the Second World War. The anecdotes are illuminating, but don't drown a wider analysis. Given the choice between the two, this is a better introduction to the period than Gildea's book. Unfortunately while I enjoyed reading it, I still felt that it was missing something.

But because Vinen seems to capture the changes that took place during the war and doesn't limit himself to a narrow geographical area, it is a much better book and it is worth a look if you are interested in the history of France and World War II.

Related Reviews

Gildea - Marianne in Chains
Calder - The People's War

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

George MacDonald Fraser - Flashman and the Tiger

I suspect, that had the blogosphere existed with George MacDonald Fraser's penultimate Flashman novel appeared, it would have erupted into loud moans. For decades Flashman's fans had been waiting for the novel that explained his adventures in the American Civil War. Instead Fraser produced a novelette and two short stories. I suspect that there is an element of vanity publishing here. Fraser was a successful novelist who had enough time and space (and presumably cash) to write about exactly what he wanted, and shucks to what the fans demanded.

Of course, there is much here to satisfy the Flashman fan. In my opinion, these stories round out the character of Flashman, particularly because they show how, in his later years, he was much more of the jovial old grandfather type. Keen to enjoy his well earned rest and not too prepared to show of his laurels.

The longest part of this book is the novelette The Road to Charing Cross a classic story of diplomatic underhandedness and attempted murder. It has some similarities to one of the earliest novels, Royal Flash and shares some characters with that novel. It has a couple of delightful twists too, and Flashman is left a little high and dry. Interestingly, it clearly was intended to serve as a bridge to one of the other eagerly awaited Flashman tales - the story of his involvement in the Zulu wars. Several references elsewhere have indicated that Flashman was at Rorkes drift, and while details are scarce, the final story here begins in that chaotic battle. It finishes with one of Flashman's few examples of bravery - albeit fuelled by a decent whiskey. A few literary stabs at another Victorian novelist finish things off nicely.

Finally, the middle story The Subtleties of Baccarat is by far the best. Dealing less with adventure and war, and more a drawing room scandal, the tale centres on the Royal Baccarat Scandal. This was a minor piece of ruling class snobbery, which had the characters involved been less interested in their personal images and the delight of scandal and expressed more of a collective attitude to solving problems, would have had a better outcome for all concerned.

Fraser puts his own spin on the story, but he illustrates brilliantly the life of the ruling classes in late Victorian times. Their scandals, gossip, adultery and lack of individual solidarity. The future Edward VII was dragged in front of the courts as a witness and the whole lot were made to look foolish in front of the mass of the population. The scandal was on a par with anything the Daily Mail might put on its front page today and no doubt helped to undermine respect for the ruling class at the time. Fraser illuminates history neatly with this story in a way that he would have done for the US Civil War had he lived long enough. Flashman fans should not dismiss these well written and fascinating episodes in the life of our favourite rake.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Dan Swain - Alienation: An Introduction to Marx's Theory

Karl Marx's ideas of alienation are often portrayed as being overly complex. Yet they are a rich and fascinating examination of the way that human lives are distorted by the capitalist society that we live in. Dan Swain's new book is a short, but never superficial examination of this part of Marx's work, it is a brilliant introduction to the subject and deserves a wide readership, particularly amongst people who are getting to grips with Marxist thought.

Swain locates his explanation of Marx's theories firstly in those that had come before. He describes how, out of the enlightenment, thinkers like Rousseau and later others like Hegel and Feuerbach were trying to get to grips with the place of humans within the natural world. Their criticisms of the established order of feudalism looked toward a new, more rational explanation of the world.

Marx built on their insights, but he did so critically. He located his understanding of alienation in a materialist explanation of the way that humans interact with the natural world. But he also argued that the alienation that people experience depends on their position in human society. Swain quotes Marx:

"The propertied class and the class of the proletariat present the same human self-estrangement. But the former class feels at ease and strengthened in this self-estrangement, it recognises estrangement as its own power and has in it the semblance of a human".

By locating the experience of alienation in a class society, Marx gets to the bottom of the question. Since, for Marx, what makes us human is our ability to labour on nature, to transform the natural world in our interest, alienation becomes the way that our labour is distorted and taken from us. The way that we lose control over it, the way that the products of our labour are prizes that we cannot have.

I particularly liked how Swain illustrates these theoretical ideas with practical and concrete examples. Drawing on examples from Apple factories and car plants, to working lives in call centres, he shows how people become merely extensions of the machines they work. This has practical consequences. Swain shows how there is evidence that lack of control over the working environmental is one of the biggest determining factors in physical and mental health. He quotes one report that argues "giving employees more variety in tasks and a stronger say in decisions about work may decrease the risk of coronary heart disease."

In one of the strongest chapters in the book, Swain shows how, with the growing environmental crisis, the alienation inherent in capitalism is "fast becoming one of the most important forms of alienation". The way in which the separation between humans and nature is increased under capitalism, as the natural world becomes something to be used for the production process, is directly linked to environmental crises. Swain illustrates this by pointing out that one of the proposed solutions to climate change, emissions trading schemes, is one of the clearest examples of commodity fetishism. Under capitalism, even molecules of gases are considered commodities to be sold.

As I said, this is a brilliant introduction to Marx's work on alienation. It deserves to be read widely and, it doesn't locate the question in an academic debate. Perhaps because of this, Swain is able to conclude on an optimistic note. He demonstrates how many of the problems he discusses break down during revolutionary changes. He quotes an Egyptian revolutionary speaking of the events of 2011, "Freedom for the worker did not only mean freedom to vote or freedom of expression, it also meant freedom from hunger and the constant threat of unemployment... Dignity was a meaningless notion unless it meant an end to poverty and need."

Marx's thoughts illuminate better the world around us. Swain explains them with clarity and straightforward language. He also updates them for the 21st century world of work, but shows how very little has changed from the early days of capitalism. I would recommend this introduction highly.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Neil Gaiman - Anansi Boys

Having now read three of Neil Gaiman's excellent fantasy novels, I think I've discovered a pattern. It basically  goes like this. Lead character of novel finds himself experiencing fairly inexplicable events. Turns out, reality is actually not as lead charactr thought. Magic, Gods or something else as unbelievable also share our world. Gradually said character accepts this new reality and even begins to be able to take part in it. Eventually world is saved by this character discovering hidden talents, God like powers or magic.

So it was with American Gods and Neverwhere. So it is also with Anansi Boys a novel that shares some of the world view of American Gods and at least one character. Anansi Boys though, is a much shorter, tighter and more straightforward novel than the other two. At the beginning of this story the God Anansi dies. Anansi was a trickster, enjoying jokes and tricks, poetry, singing and the finer things in life - wine, women and song. Charlie Nancy doesn't. The only things Charlie wants are a quiet life far away from his father. When his father dies, Charlie discovers a previously unknown brother, Spider, who seems to have inherited the worst aspects of their dad and proceeds to destroy Charlies life. Sleeping with his fiance, getting Charlie arrested for white-collar crime and the like.

The story, follows a traditional pattern. Charlie realises that his brother seems to have unusual powers and his attempts to have Spider banished, by making a pact with another God, only unleashes further problems. Making pacts with the Gods tend to have double sided consequences.

All in all, its a fun read. Existing Neil Gaiman fans will enjoy it, and the sub-plot, which is a neat little whodunit that ties all the strands of the magical world plot together with the bemused non-magical world orbiting Spider and Charlie, is quite fun in and of itself. The characters are pleasantly flawed. No goody two shoes here. Read it if you enjoyed American Gods, but do read that first.

Related Reviews

Gaiman - American Gods
Gaiman - Neverwhere

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

David Graeber - Debt: The First 5,000 Years

David Graeber has produced an important and stimulating book. It is a radical book that clearly has its roots in the anti-capitalist movements that the author has been part of. But it is more than simply a book that is designed to challenge capitalism. Graeber is attempt to argue that the conventional way of looking at the world is wrong, and that the way we have lived our lives in the past has been very different to how we do today.

Debt, Graeber argues, means a very specific thing to us today. It is an obligation that we accept we have to someone else, be that someone a bank or a loan shark. The obligation we feel is the sense that the debt (usually money, though not always) must always be paid back. Graeber contrasts this, with how obligations have been viewed in the past. For most of human history we have organised our lives through hunting and gathering of foods. In these societies, the obligations we had were never the result of someone making a loan with their own material interests. There were no hunter-gatherer loan sharks. Graeber illustrates this well with an example from a well documents group of hunter-gatherers, the Innuit.

One person who lived with and studied the Innuit described returning empty handed from a hunt. Fearing hunger, he found a successful hunter giving him several hundred pounds of meat. The man objected to his thanks.

"Up in our country we are human!" said the hunter. "And since we are human we help each other. We don't like to hear anybody say thanks for that. What I get today you may get tomorrow. Up here we say that by gifts one makes slaves and by whips one makes dogs."
Such attitudes do not simply come from shortages. Other anthropologists such as Eleanor Burke Leacock have documented how hunter-gatherer tribes share food out, even when there isn't enough for everyone. In other words, the obligations people feel are rooted in their collective life, not out of self-interest.

The way these attitudes change is a great theme of Graeber's book and would be difficult to cover here. He is at pains to argue that debt as a general notion has existed throughout history, though most of the time it has been more to do with human social relations than with material gains. These social debts might be the obligations you take on when marrying someone - the promise to feed and look after them. They might also be the money you give as a dowry - not a payment, but a donation towards the cost of living. Over time, Graeber argues and in many ways, such social obligations take root as material debts.

Graeber upsets a great many apple-carts. One of which is in his discussion of Adam Smith and the conventional economics that have flowed from his ideas. In trying to answer the question "what is money?", Smith and others always answer in similar ways. "Imagine a world without money. We'd have to survive with barter. I have a bag of nails, you have a loaf of bread. I must exchange bread for nails. This barter economy is cumbersome, so money develops". I paraphrase, but you get the idea.

Graeber argues that there is no evidence for "barter economies". Those who say for instance, that when the Roman Empire declined in an area, society "returned to a barter economy" are placing their vision of what they think happened over reality. The truth is that Roman money disappeared, but in its place remained alternative currencies, sometimes virtual ones. "Barter economies" says Graeber did not exist, exchange took place through elaborate systems of credit. With the development of urban economies rather than early agricultural ones, people might need bread, and only have nails, but the loaves would have a particular value assigned to them, as did nails. Graeber cites plenty of examples of societies which have distributed goods to people who need them, waiting for future payment when fishermen returned with their catch or the nails were manufactured.

So explains that after the Romans left, villages might no longer have Roman money. But they did have Roman prices. They might value a sheep as so many pieces of gold and bread as so many pieces of silver, and this allowed exchange to take place. Money wasn't real, debt existed by in a concrete sense of credit. Not an abstract one. Presumably the person who failed to come good on his or her debt was eventually refused assistance.

All this is very interesting, and it certainly seems plausible. The problem with the book for me was that I don't think that Graeber really gets a handle on what drives human economies. It isn't debt, nor is it finance. Production exists because people need to provide for their material needs and the way that production is organised determines all the other aspects of their society. The way that the forces of production in society develop, challenging and changing the relations in society ultimately helps bring about change. This is a very short explanation of historical materialism, but I think Graeber would have benefited from expressing his history in terms similar to this. Otherwise you are left feeling distinctly like human history being a series of events that are connected only through a gradual development of a money economy.

I also feel that Graeber misses out a class analysis. That's not to say he doesn't acknowledge the existence of classes. He is very clear that these do exist in society and critical of the attitudes of the rich towards the majority of society. But I don't think he explains what motivates people in different classes. Why do the rich behave like they do? Why are they so irrational in their behaviour?

Capitalism is a fundamentally different human society to earlier ones. Its economic dynamic is the need to accumulate wealth, for the sake of accumulation. This is not the same as earlier class societies. The lord of the manor did not go out and exploit the peasants for the sake of it. He did so until he had satisfied his needs. Capitalism exploits workers because it needs more wealth, to reinvest and restart the treadmill of production. This difference also shapes how we perceive ourselves and our relations to others. In this context debt between people takes on a different meaning under capitalism then it did in previous societies. We are atomised and individualised, set competing against each other.

That said, Graeber has some good insights into different eras of human history and it may well be my own personal predilections that lead me to think his chapters on hunter-gatherers are the most interesting. This is a book that will be debated and discussed at length and is worth study. While there are holes to pick and arguments to be had, the themes are generally of interest.

Readers wanting a more in depth critique of Graeber's book are directed towards this review here.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Adrian Bell - Men and the Fields

There is always a danger when reading books about the rural past, of falling into the trap that there was a wonderful utopian life that has been forgotten, destroyed or superceded. Adrian Bell's book avoids this trap precisely because it is a celebration of what he saw and loved, rather than an attempt to pretend the world  was something it was not.

Bell was himself a farmer, though he was an accomplished writer. He loved nature, people and the landscape. Men and the Fields is his celebration of those things in various rural parts of lowland Britain, particularly Suffolk and the south coast. Bell's gift is a brilliantly economic style that sums up his surroundings without feeling like the reader is having descriptions piled onto descriptions. Here he ruminates on the view from a train station, but equally important is the station master:

"Out of the cottage came a countryman dressed in gold lace: he was the station master. He gave me my ticket and recommended the view from the end of the platform. I said I had seen in beautifully from the river. He insisted it was better from the platform: you could see all along the valley both ways. So I went and sat at the end of the platform. There were two sets of arches: the railway and the road, bridging each other and the depth at different levels. It was like a dim picture of ancient viaducts I remembered sitting opposite once in a farmhouse dining room. I would have thought I had made it up from that picture in a dream. But somehow that railway ticket was never collected. I have it still."

For Bell, the countryside cannot be seperated from the people who live and work there. His descriptions of fields rarely ignore labourers. His love of birds and plants frequently are linked to locals who tell stories of them. Here's a delightful description of a farming couple:

"A woman comes round into the wind; a big woman dressed in sacks and gum boots. The sacking bulks her out and the boots make her legs look like a horses. She comes out into the gale and hardly pauses in the force of it but pushes on through giddy straws across the stackyard... Then she stands full blast and shouts orders to a man in the field - she looks stronger than the wind."

The rigid class differences of the agricultural world lie, barely concelled below the surface of Bell's accounts. The deep respect from labourers for their masters, is often combined with a cynical attitude to those betters who think they know it all. There's a telling tale from a labourer who recounts the different attitudes of farmers towards their workers. The one who offers a cold glass of beer on the doorstep on a winters day, the other who stands him by the fire with a warming whiskey.

Bell was writing about the 1930s. British farming was coming out of an enormous depression caused by withdrawels of wartime subsidies. It was about to be transformed again, the Second World War led to an enormous expansion of farming and the massive motorisation of the industry. As he writes, rural Britain is on the cusp of change. Bell notes the changes to the roads, the impacts of the motor car of flocks of sheep, but he doesn't reject these, he sees them as part of an evolving, changing countryside. The beautiful language combined with the wonderful colour paintings that accompany the book, by the artist John Nash combine to make this a lovely read and a lovely piece of art in itself.


Related Links


Age of Uncertainty has more of John Nash's paintings from Men and the Fields here.