Right, sorry, where was I?
Oh yes, that’s right. Last year’s books.
I’ll start with my favourite, by a favourite: Tony Benn’s The Last Diaries: A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine, released in October.
If outside the UK, you might know Tony Benn best as the elderly English gentleman from Michael Moore’s Sicko, where he spoke with great passion, as he always does, and asked the question: Why is there always money for war, but not for health?
Poignant and inspiring with delightful gems of humour and humility that anyone who has read this prolific diarist will be all too familiar with, the book – as a diary, at least – regrettably ends at the close of July 2009. The short final chapter reads more as a letter or memoir, all too briefly covering events and observations from then up to 2013. This includes a hospital stay, leaving the family home and moving to a warden-controlled flat, hence the diary’s premature ending, as well as the making of the film of his life, Will and Testament, and is terribly sad. That his tremendous, contagious enthusiasm for life appears absent from these final, mostly sombre 17 pages should not surprise. How many nearing the age of ninety still have fire raging in their bellies? This man has earned the right to slow down and reflect in fewer words than his admirers might wish he’d used. That as it may be, it still pains me because how the world needs people like him to share their thoughts with the rest of us.
A moment to remember Pete Seeger, who died last week, if you would be so kind. At the age of 92, in 2011, he was part of the Occupy Wall Street protests. A lovely photo from this time is used to accompany Richard Williams’ equally lovely words. Will we ever see his like again?
Focusing on the first six chapters of diary extracts, throughout which readiness for death is a frequently recurring theme, for all his good- and sometimes bad-natured acceptance of creeping old age and failing health, and while still mourning his beloved wife of 51 years who passed away in 2000, Tony Benn still packed an awful lot into his days, certainly enough to make younger folk flush with shame. That a man in his eighth decade still worked tirelessly for peace and human rights, for social justice, keeping abreast of new technology and using it to engage with so many different people, from so many walks of life, is way beyond admirable. President of the Stop the War Coalition for the last decade, few entries fail to include a rally, march, gala or public-speaking event which required an early start, considerable travel on public transport, not a lot of time to eat, and a late night. His previous diaries, covering 2001 to 2007, were entitled More Time for Politics; that is to say, he believed he would have more time for politics once he had retired from politics. He wasn’t wrong about that.
I love Tony Benn for many reasons: for renouncing his hereditary peerage; for encouraging stamps that would not feature the Queen’s portrait; for supporting the mining and printing unions in their unsuccessful strikes; for being the leading figure of the British opposition to the war in Iraq; for challenging the BBC’s refusal to publicise a humanitarian aid appeal for the people of Gaza; for his criticism of Tony Blair (‘the man is such a menace!’) and denunciation of ‘Thatcherite’ New Labour; for basically having time for everybody who wished to engage him in conversation and genuine interest in them (something you’ll notice throughout the diary, as it seems he can’t attend a hospital appointment or even ring his mobile phone provider without finding out a little about the background of the person assisting him).
There is always warmth, grace and vulnerability in his words, such love for friends and family. Whether sharing tales of smoking his pipe where it is forbidden to do so, being powerless to fix the leaking roof, or hobnobbing with Kofi Annan or Jimmy Carter, you can’t help but find yourself sharing his frustrations and sensing your mood rising and falling with his. His dislike for very few individuals is carefully muted (well, except for certain ‘Establishment’ journalists: ‘I can’t say I’m very interested in them, except as exhibits in a zoo’).
The moderniser whose radicalism made him a hero to the Left, an easy target for the Right, and at one time ‘the most dangerous man in Britain’, Labour’s longest-serving MP remains a great character in British politics and a reminder that there were once staunch socialists in the Labour Party. He has robustly defended all that’s best about Britain whilst attacking everything that’s bad, and does so throughout this journal. If only we had more like him. His Last Diaries, I’m going to miss his joyful, often slightly mischievous curiosity about just about everything that’s going on around him.
The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honour and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century was published in May. Also a diary, of sorts, this is Joel F. Harrington’s interpretation of the somewhat terse journal kept by Frantz Schmidt throughout his long career as a professional executioner in Germany during the height of public executions, from 1573, when he was just nineteen, to his retirement in 1618. During this time, he executed 394 people, 187 by the sword (of these a second stroke was required only four times, if you were wondering), as well as inflicting tremendous suffering through floggings, amputations and various other gruesome punishments of the day, to extract confessions, to avenge victims and to act as a deterrent to would-be criminals.
The 621 entries in his journal chronicle both capital and corporal punishments administered in Bamberg and later Nuremberg.
Macabre but extremely insightful, this is a remarkable chronicle of the life of a pious and professional man who was socially shunned, as all executioners were, as well as being an examination of the type of society that demanded the services of such a man to administer justice on behalf of the community. Execution was a highly skilled and regulated craft, deemed necessary in a lawless and brutal society, one of robber bands and highwaymen who roamed the countryside looting, killing and tormenting the villagers. Such men often believed that chopping off newborn babies’ hands brought them luck and invisibility in a time of spells and curses (and don’t forget, the hysteria whipped up by witch-finders across Europe between 1550 and 1650 resulted in at least 60,000 executions).
This is an excellently researched book. Gory, yes, but not gratuitously so. It is an insight to medieval life during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries when public executions were great civic events publicised by broadsheets and performed before audiences of hundreds. The descriptions are sometimes vivid and detailed, but this is above all a story of redemption: the executor’s was a reviled profession handed down from generation to generation, one that had been forced upon Schmidt’s father under threat of death thus forever tainting the family name. Schmidt was essentially a pariah living a life he had not chosen. Indeed, his true vocation was as a healer, rather than inflicter, of wounds; he acted as the town doctor, through which as much as half his annual income came. He treated more than three hundred patients a year, at least ten times as many as he tortured or killed. This was still not enough to make his family honourable in a society deeply conscious of status, class and reputation.
He would, upon his retirement in 1618, whilst continuing to apply his medical knowledge, petition the emperor Ferdinand II to restore his family’s good name. I won’t spoil the ending.
Also in May, George Monbiot, who you might remember from The Important Stuff, presented his book, Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding.
Here’s a quick video: rewilding made simple.
Researching it ‘felt like stepping through the back of the wardrobe’, he said. Reading it felt a bit like that at times, too.
If you’re a farmer, you might want to look away now.
Monbiot puts forth a case for new, wild, indigenous forests to replace the overgrazed and now bare uplands that have been ruined, mainly by sheep; for the reintroduction to the UK of ‘keystone species’ that would radically change their environment, such as the moose, otter and beaver, and even large predators such as lynx and wolves in order to control deer numbers, which are at an all-time high and are preventing natural forest regeneration; for the creation of marine reserves and enforcement of ‘no fish zones’. All of which, he maintains, would have long-term economic benefits far greater over time than the initial cost outlay. Just look at what other countries are doing. His case is very convincing. Who doesn’t want to restore biodiversity and where’s Meister Frantz and his breaking wheel when you need him?
I thought the book was the perfect blend of science, nature and poetry, almost, so vivid are his descriptions. I enjoyed his personal observations and while I winced and grimaced on more than one occasion, never imagining myself grappling with a mackerel or carrying a heavy carcass over my shoulder, it’s high time that we stood up to the vested interests of farmers and landowners – those happy to take taxpayers’ money to farm unproductive marginal land, those who would rather continue to profit handsomely from their well-to-do chums who wish to shoot grouse and deer – and
bloody-well force incentivise them to instead make changes to restore the natural ecology of the countryside. We should re-direct subsidies and get our priorities straight. There is undoubtedly a suppression of serious debate around the subject of land use and productivity and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out why that is. Just look at the land-owning, fox-hunting, badger-culling oafs who make up our (unelected) government of millionaires. Shake your fist at them, if it helps calm you.
I have to admit, though; I don’t feel the need to ‘rewild’ my own life. Just knowing that people are leaving nature alone would do me and I’d happily keep away from wherever Mr Monbiot says should be fenced off. I’d be even happier if people stopped spreading everywhere like a bad smell and if the stupidest ones were made to keep well away from wherever nature needs most protection.
Some of the UK’s land, in biodiversity terms, is almost sterile, so where’s the harm in reforesting the less fertile areas? If you’re presently affected by flooding in the UK, now’s the ideal time to consider letting nature manage our countryside. Sponge-like uplands and trees on the hills would do a better job of keeping rainwater from ruining your carpets than any bare, compacted soil ever will. The sheep up there are having a profound effect on water retention and run-off. And the extra trees would also act as a carbon sink.
The dangers to people are few and the benefits are many. The book is a detailed and comprehensive review of all the benefits and risks.
Perhaps the best thing we can do to conserve, once sensible attempts have been made to reverse some of the damage we have caused, that is – by awarding grants for planting trees and creating bogs and wetlands, not for clearing the land of essential vegetation – is to stop meddling in nature conservation and allow nature to reclaim, restore and re-naturalise. Makes sense to me. But then, I’m not a landowner and I don’t eat lamb or shoot living things for kicks.
I’m not sure how the withdrawal of human influence on a grand scale would be possible without halting population growth, though. I wish more high-profile writers would have the courage to say that this is precisely what we need. Maybe that can be his next book.
Another stunning and timely historical work is Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, by Christopher Clark.
Brilliantly researched, highly detailed and quite hard going at times if you’re not taking notes, Clark does not share the traditional, long-held British view that German ambitions alone caused this hellish conflict.
Controversial, yet compelling, it takes the reader back to the brutal (seriously, it was brutal) assassination of King Alexander I of Serbia, in 1903, and then documents the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, which saw Serbia nearly double in size, in an attempt to reconsider the hows, rather than whys, of the First World War.
How France, determined to regain the two provinces of Alsace and Lorraine lost to Germany in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, encouraged and provided financial backing to Russia.
How Britain’s fear of Russia, not Germany, specifically of Russian interests in Persia and Afghanistan (which looked likely to threaten the security of British India and thus unsettle the sacred British Empire), caused Britain to enter into alliance with France and Russia against Germany and Austria-Hungary.
How Italy’s seizure of the Ottoman province of Libya, from Turkey in 1911, led to Bulgaria, Greece and mainly Serbia – with Russian backing – all following Italy’s lead and helping themselves to Turkish territory in Macedonia and Albania, which in turn inspired Serbian nationalists to provoke Austria-Hungary in order to seize Bosnia, which they regarded as theirs by historical right (Bosnia-Herzegovina having been formally annexed in 1908).
Cue fanatical Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip, whose assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo in late-June 1914, every student of history knows, sparked the fuse that would set off a tragic chain reaction thirty-seven days later when war was declared.
Blame clearly should be shared around Europe for this avoidable horror, rather than laid all too conveniently at Germany’s door – as it had been at Versailles, the trigger for another world war. ‘The Germans were not the only imperialists and not the only ones to succumb to paranoia,’ after all. Not that the author is looking to apportion blame here, hence the title: the major players of 1914 were directionless sleepwalkers – ‘watchful but unseeing’ – not warmongers.
And to think that it was all supposed to be over by Christmas 1914.
Throughout the coming year there will be much written and said about this global catastrophe that began one hundred years ago, much of it idealised and romanticised tosh, much with understandable political and national bias, so it’s more important than ever to question the facts and reconsider the intentions of all involved. Fascinating, if heavy, reading and definitely relevant to the modern day.
I’ll spare you a condensed review of Captive: The Story of the Cleveland Abductions, by Allan Hall, and Sorry! The English and Their Manners, by Henry Hitchings, because will you just look at how long this post has got already? However, I will apologise to football/soccer fans for not yet reading Red or Dead, David Peace’s critically-acclaimed novel about Bill Shankly. Nor a certain Manchester United manager’s (desperate?) autobiography. One of these days.
Do let us know what you recommend from 2013’s many new publications – and if you read them on paper or a screen.
The chatroom will be open tomorrow from 1pm (UK), if you want to help me turn it into a book club. Bring your own biscuits.