For the Joy of Reading: Inglorious Empire

The first thing to say is that this is not a history of the British Raj.   It is a book that arose from a debate at the Oxford Union.   It is a deconstruction of the arguments out forward that the British Empire was, in some way, good for the countries that were conquered.   That means that it is controversial, but it does not make it wrong.   It is obviously nonsense to argue that people are prepared for independence by robbing them of their independence, and when the arguments for the benefits of British rule are that stupid, it really is not necessary to refute them.

So let us look at the arguments, and see if we can test them.   This is what Tharoor sets out to do, and it is very instructive that the arguments advanced for the benefits of British colonialism do not generally hold up.

When Queen Elizabeth I signed the royal charter for the English East India Company (Scotland being a separate country at the time) it was not that she envisaged the creation of an Empire.   This would have been ridiculous.   Her contemporary, ruling most of the Indian sub-continent, was the Mughal Emperor, Akbar.   He ruled one of the most populous and prosperous states in the world at that time.   The Mughal Empire was one of the great intellectual centres, and the Mughal army was formidable.   Elizabethan England, along with their Dutch allies, were involved in a long and debilitating war with the Spain of Philip III.   He, as King of Portugal, controlled the East Indies spice trade.   The Dutch East India Company had been making inroads into this monopoly, and Elizabeth wanted to secure her share of the profit at no cost to herself.   So she issued a royal charter and sent an ambassador to Akbar the Great.

Throughout the seventeenth century there was very little change.   The British, under Charles II, secured Bombay as the dowry for his Portuguese wife, and opened some trading posts in the South Indian states, independent of the Mughal Empire.   But very little changed until the enfeeblement of that Empire was demonstrated by the invasion of the Persian army under Nadir Shah, the storming of Delhi and the seizure of Mughal treasures, including the Koh-i-noor diamond and the Peacock Throne.   Meanwhile, the French had arrived in Pondicherry and came into conflict with the British in South India, based at Madras (now Chennai).   The decisive moment came when the British East India Company and the French were allowed to recruit armies in the Indian sub-continent.

This is one of the areas where I would argue with Tharoor.    If the British had not colonised India it is likely that the French would have done so, and that would have altered the course of European history.   The riches of India would have poured into Versailles, not London.   It is probable that the French monarchy would not have been forced, because of bankruptcy, to reconvene the States-General and the French Revolution would not have happened.   The prospect of an India not subject to colonisation does not seem likely to me.   That however is a minor quibble because history deals with what happened, not the various possibilities that did not happen.

There are a number of factors that changed British attitudes to India.   Clive’s victory at the Battle of Plassey in 1757 gave the East India Company the control of Bengal.   With that came a rapacity that drained India of resources, in which Clive himself led the way.   The sudden access to wealth of the employees of the East India Company made them good marriage material, and so young women arrived by the boatload, in what became known as the “fishing fleet”, in search of suitable husbands.   This changed attitudes considerably.   Young men had, prior to this, formed liaisons and even married Indian women.   This stopped.

But how the Raj was created is not Tharoor’s subject.    His subject is how it behaved.   The argument of the apologists is that it gave India good government, democracy, peace and security, transportation, an international language and cricket.   Tharoor demolishes this.   It is no accident that the term that the British used for themselves in India, the “Sahib Log” was translated as “master race”.   Indians were denied access to the higher echelons of government and when they were employed, they were paid at a vastly inferior rate to the British counterparts.   As for democracy, this depends on how you define it but for most of the period that the British ruled India, the electorate in Britain was limited to men of a certain income.   The British also ensured that Indian industry was impoverished by exporting raw materials (jute, cotton etc.) from India to places like Manchester and Dundee, converting them into sacking, clothes and other goods, and then selling them back to India at vastly inflated prices.   This was why the railways were built, not to facilitate the transport of ordinary people.   Where the transport of people was concerned it was in moving people, mainly women, from the heat of Calcutta (now Kolkata) to the cool of Simla in the summer months.   This is the society described by Rudyard Kipling in his “Plain Tales from the Hills”.   The British also exacerbated through their policy of “divide and rule” the religious differences between Sikhs, Hindus and Moslems.   This was to have disastrous consequences during the Partition of 1947, because it made partition a certainty and left millions stranded on the wrong sides of the border in both the Punjab and Bengal.

As for giving India an international common language, this was because the colonial masters could not be bothered to learn the already existing languages of government in India.   They also wanted to impress upon Indians joining the governing classes the “superiority” of British culture.   [Tharoor does not say this, but when the English settled in what became England in the fifth and sixth centuries (Common Era), they called the natives Welsh, which means foreigners, in the land where they had lived for thousands of years.]   Their attitude to Indic languages was one of arrogance, dismissing the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Vedas as insignificant and primitive.

This argument is developed over the 249 pages of the book, and is backed up with extensive footnotes.   The basic attitude of the Raj can be summed up quite easily: We are white, and they are not.

This is not a book that will go down well with Brexiteers, with those nostalgic for the glories of Empire, with Daily Mail readers and others of that ilk.   If, however, you do not fit those categories, it is a book that will give you many a moment to pause and think.



For the Joy of Reading: The Architecture Concept Book

This is not the kind of book that I would normally read.   Being honest, I was persuaded to read it by the parents of the author, who I have known for 20 years since I moved to Glasgow.   This, in turn, means that I have known the author since he was quite young.   I do not think that any of this has affected my view, apart from being persuaded to read the book, but I am not the best judge of that.

This is an important book because it explains the construction of our built environment.   We all have views about architecture because we live in the built environment, and we know what we expect that to be like, and what we are comfortable with.   Much of this is defined by what we are used to and, as James Tait points out, there are much-loved buildings, like St. Paul’s Cathedral, that were new and shockingly innovative.   The dome of St. Paul’s was distinctly not Protestant, and that was important in the London of Titus Oates and the “Popish Plot”.   There are also new buildings, such as the Sydney Opera House, that have become iconic for their cities and, as James Tait says, no-one cares that it was completed ten years after the deadline and was something like 14 times over budget.   I would go further: outside the architectural community, I don’t believe anyone was actually aware of that.

So what is the purpose of architecture, and how does it work.   To illustrate this, James Tait gives us four overarching principles: the architect must assess, analyse, assemble and augment.   He takes these principles and divides them into eight component parts.   Thus Assess has to deal with the following: Wonder, Environment, Disorder, Memory, Function, Form, Irony and Politics.   As a librarian, I love this: it is the application of Dewey’s idea of the divisibility of knowledge.   Of course, an architect would have that concept of the need for order, of the need for construction, because that is what they do.   In this section about assessment, James Tait acknowledges that there are constraints upon any architect.   These are things like the space available, the land on which the  building is taking place, the money available, the purpose of the building, and the requirements of the client.   Louis XIV at Versailles wanted a palace that would impress and overawe, not least his own fractious nobility.   The castles of mediaeval Europe were built to dominate the surrounding country.   Religious buildings of all faiths tend to be hugely tall to make the worshippers realise their own insignificance.

In each section, James Tait takes us through the challenges confronting the architect, the tasks that have to be included in the design and the possible solutions that the architect can apply.   These challenges include the client developing ideas as the design progresses, which can alter the whole building, the money running out, and the need to include the practicalities that every building requires.   There are whole sections on the purpose of staircases, the need to dispose of human waste, the need to be able to see, keep warm and keep dry, the need to have space for business and relaxation, including eating.   These practicalities are essential to us, and therefore essential to the concept of any building.   So there are whole questions about how you accommodate these needs: do you have underfloor heating as the Romans did, which is expensive, or do you have radiators, which are much cheaper but intrusive.   James, being a modern architect does not talk fireplaces or wood-burning stoves, even though these are the preferred solutions for many people (and in this, I include the Aga stove).   The point is that architects, like all of us, have to work within the bounds of what we can afford.

The real strength of this book is that it has been thought through.   The author takes the trouble to explain the concepts so that someone like me, who is basically ignorant of the way that architecture works as opposed to how it looks, can understand the problems and solutions that are available, and the thinking behind those solutions.   The key factor here is the “crit” which is the critique of the process.   Architects look at what has been done, at what they are doing, assess the successes and failures, look at ways to augment the successes and to remedy the failures.   That is why architecture is an evolving science and also an evolving art form.   It takes on the availability of new materials, assesses the stresses and strains to which they can be subjected, and works out ways in which they can evolve into a thing of beauty, if not necessarily a joy forever.   It is significant that the Pyramids are still there but we have just blown up the Red Road Flats in Glasgow.   We seem to have stopped building for the future.   James Tait argues that this is not necessary, that we can adapt new materials to ensure that they are long-lasting.   He argues for the role of the architect as the creator of beauty.

That is one thing to say about this book.   It is a thing of beauty.   Thames & Hudson have taken great care in the production of this book.   The illustrations are clear, numerous and augment the argument in each section of the book by providing the visible symbols of what is being discussed.   The typeface is chosen, quite correctly for a book about architecture, to be clear and legible.

The greatest asset of this book, however, is that it shows a non-specialist like me, what the role of the architect is, how architecture evolves within the constraints laid upon it and how architecture can and should enhance the built environment in which we all live.

As I said, this is an important book.

For the Joy of Reading: The Darkness

Ragnar Jonasson is a find.   This is someone who knows how to write a detective thriller.   He knows how to build a character.   He knows how to paint the background details of his detective and of the plot.   He knows how to make you want to find out what is going on.   This possibly comes from the fact that he spent his early years, from 17 onwards, translating Agatha Christie into English.   I think, however, that it is more to do with innate talent and the ability to know how to construct a story.   You will have to judge for yourself.

Describing the plot is quite difficult, because I do not want to give away the twists and turns, and I certainly do not wish to give away the ending as that will spoil the story and probably the two subsequent novels, still to be published, in this trilogy.   Sufficient to say that you will be taken aback.

Detective Inspector Hulda Hermannsdottir is approaching retirement.   She has had a miserable life.   Both her husband and her daughter have died in separate but tragic incidents.   She was a child of a single parent in the 1950s  when these things were distinctly not approved of.   Her father was an American airman who left Iceland without even knowing that Hulda’s mother was pregnant.   Her mother did not even know his surname.   All of this emerges in the course of the book.

The only thing that Hulda enjoys is her job, and the story starts with her facing forcible early retirement to make room for a rising star,   She is given a choice of cold cases that she can solve as a consolation prize.   She chooses the case of Elena, a Russian asylum applicant, who was found dead on a beach near Reykjavik just after her asylum application had been granted.

Hulda smells a rat, and when she discovers that the case was only cursorily and incompetently investigated, she is off like a bloodhound scenting a trail.   That is all I am going to tell you.   Anything else could give away the plot

I suggest that you read this book yourselves.   This is another name to add to the stable of excellent Nordic noir writers.   Ragnar Jonasson is a name to watch.

For the Joy of Reading: Home Fire

When the son of a recently appointed Muslim Home Secretary forms a relationship with the daughter and sister of Jihadis, what could possibly go wrong?   Well, as you would expect, quite a lot.   But this is a book by Kamila Shamsie so it is not a blood and thunder adventure story.   There is blood at the end, as you would expect, but it does not happen in the way that you would expect.   This is a Greek tragedy transposed to modern times, and that is not unintentional, as the author makes clear in the acknowledgements.   I am not going to tell you which tragedy, as that may lead you to guess the ending.   I have to say, however, that I doubt it.

The story is told in six parts based on the point of view of one of the main characters: Isma, Eamonn, Parvaiz, Aneeka and Karamat.   Isma and Aneeka are sisters and Parvaiz is their brother.   They are the children of Adil Pasha or, to use his jihadi name, Abu Parvaiz (the Father of Parvaiz).   Parvaiz and Aneeka are twins.   Isma, Parvaiz and Aneeka are orphans.   Adil Pasha dies on his way to Guantanamo Bay and his wife died not long after him.   Isma was left to bring up Parvaiz and Aneeka as best she could, in a London hostile to jihadis.   Eamonn is the son of Karamat, the Home Secretary and his Irish wife, Terry.  Eamonn meets Isma in the USA and, through her, he meets Aneeka and they fall in love.   Meanwhile Parvaiz has followed in the footsteps of his father.  That is all the plot that you need to know.

Kamila Shamsie takes these five lives and weaves them together to create an inevitability that leads to catastrophe.   It is quite clear that something dreadful is going to happen, but it is not clear what form it is going to take.   It is not even clear who is really the victim.   They are all tragic figures.   There is something heroic about all of them.   They are subject to things that they cannot control, and yet they are not manipulated by circumstances, even if they are manipulated by each other.   They take the decisions that take them to their destiny, whether that is death or living with the grief of the death of the others.

This is a remarkable book.   You will be sadder and wiser for the reading of it.

For the Joy of Reading: The Mandelbaum Gate

There is a problem in reading this book some 53 years after it was published.   There have been events.   History has moved on.   Back then, Israel still benefitted from the wave of sympathy generated by the Holocaust.   That is no longer the case.   It ceased being the case during the 1970s, as Israel behaved with increasing brutality.   It ceased being the case with the massacres at Sabra and Chatila.   It ceased being the case during the Intifada.

But back in 1965, Israel was still regarded as a victim.   Certainly, the survivors of the Holocaust had been victims as was proved conclusively at the Eichmann Trial which is the event that gives this book its connection to history.   But I, at least, cannot re-read this book without the knowledge of hindsight.   That is part of the problem.

The other is a problem that I hope that I had at the time.   The central characters re not very likeable.   Freddy, in the unlikely circumstances that he was still alive today, would probably be a Faragista.   His view of the Common Market is summed up in one phrase: What is the point in living so close to foreigners, if we are going to allow them to put us out of business?   This comes from someone who has not done a stroke of productive work in his life.   Freddy also has a domineering mother in Harrogate who manages to interfere in his life although he is over a thousand miles away.   Barbara is the Muriel Spark figure.   She is a half-Jewish Catholic convert seeking permission from the Vatican to marry Harry Clegg, a divorced archaeologist, working on the Dead Sea Scrolls.   Her friend, Ricky, Miss Rickward, is seeking to thwart her in this for purely selfish reasons (he is working class and therefore below Barbara).   Then there are the Gardnors, Rupert and Ruth.   Rupert is a colleague of Freddy in the diplomatic service in Israel and Ruth is his virulently anti-Semitic wife.   Basically, what we have is a group of upper middle-class Englishmen and women, brought up before the war and appalled by the Welfare State.    They make Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells look moderate.

What is surprising about a book set in Israel is that there are only two Israelis – Saul Ephraim and Mendel – in the book, and neither of them are really significant characters.   There are also Barbara’s fully Jewish relatives, the Aaronsons, but they are only there to establish that she is half-Jewish and therefore in danger if she goes to Jordan as a pilgrim, which of course, in her arrogance, she does.

There are considerably more Palestinians in the book – the Ramdez family, Alexandros and others.   There are also a number of priests and nuns, who make what can only be described as cameo appearances.

So, what is the book about?   It is about Barbara and her wish to visit the Christian shrines of the Holy Land, regardless of which side of the border they are on and regardless of the difficulties that this will cause because she is Jewish on her mother’s side.   The relationship between Israel and the Kingdom of Transjordan (now Jordan) was one of undeclared war.   The British, having suffered the ignominy of Suez, were paranoid about President Nasser and Egypt.   So Barbara disguising herself in a hijab and crossing the border at the Mandelbaum Gate causes a great deal of trouble to Freddy and his upper-crust colleagues.

This is also a spy story, but more in the John Le Carre than the Ian Fleming mould.   Various people are involved in various nefarious activities and it all begins to unfold because of Barbara and because Freddy tries to help her.   You expect someone to come to a sticky end, but it is not who you think nor where you expect it to happen.

This is a novel of its time.   It does not really deal with the Israel-Palestine situation, neither as it was then nor how it may have developed.   It is more about the British negotiating their way around the crafty natives   It is like George Orwell’s “Burmese Days” or Graham Greene’s “Our Man in Havana”

It is also an astonishing tour de force.

For the Joy of Reading: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

This is Philip Pullman’s attempt to come to grips with the contradictions in the Gospels, and to explain how they came about through the writing of a novel.    I am not sure that it works.   It begins with a literary device.   Jesus had a twin who is not named, but is given the nickname of Christ throughout the book.   Christ is the doting brother of Jesus, always keeping in the background, in order not to detract from his brother’s fame.   Christ is encouraged by  stranger to keep a record of his brother’s sayings and doings and, in the process, he hones what is said and done to improve them, and to make them more memorable.

Now there are problems with this, which, to my mind, mean that it does not work.   If there was one Ur-Gospel, on which the others are based, why are stories in one gospel but not in the rest.   The story of the Good Samaritan only appears in Luke.   The story that introduces about the man asking Which is the greatest commandment?” appears in both Matthew and Luke, but in Matthew he does not seek to justify himself by asking “And who is my neighbour”.   It could be that the other gospel authors, being Jewish, did not want to record a story giving credit to a Samaritan, but it is a really good story and Pullman pays a great deal of attention to it.   But he does not mention, in his afterward, that it only appears in Luke and that Matthew does not mention it.   Also the stories of the Annunciation and the Presentation in the Temple only appear in Luke, but if Mary was living with John, as he writes, after the Crucifixion why did John not write about the Archangel and the Shepherds?   Why does Luke include the story of Simeon and Anna, when Matthew implies that Mary and Joseph fled more or less immediately from Bethlehem to Egypt?

Of course, the twin is merely a literary device but it does not explain a whole series of the contradictions that are unquestionably there.   Or at least, it does not do so for me.   That does not mean that it will not work for you.   My other problem is the Stranger, who appears throughout the book, persuading Christ to change the words so that the vision can be achieved.   In his afterword, Pullman suggests that this could be the Devil.   To me, it sounds much more like Philip Pullman himself, attempting to explain how the Catholic Church emerged from the preachings of a Jewish sage in first century Palestine.   Interestingly, Pullman does not appear to have any interest in how the Orthodox churches emerged, but then he is a westerner.

So what do I think happened?   Why do I think that these stories appear in some gospels and not in others?   Why do I think that there are contradictions and omissions?   Why do I think that they are not consistent?   I think that it is simple.   The Gospels were written by people trying to remember what happened when they were young men.   That is not always easy.   You do not remember every detail.   I know.   I am trying to write a memoir of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, and I have my diaries and records to consult.   I suspect that the Gospel writers did not have the luxury of having resources, other than their memories and those of their friends, to consult.   This is enough for me to explain the discrepancies in the stories.

None of this means that Pullman’s story is not interesting, even beguiling.   It is certainly fun to read.   I think that you will learn more about Philip Pullman than you will about the Gospels.   For students of “His Dark Materials” in years to come this will be a seminal text.

For the Joy of Reading: Reservoir 13

Jon McGregor never disappoints.   This is a masterpiece.   It is a lyrical prose poem of transfixing power.   It is a pastoral symphony, an Arcadia, set in an English village in the Peak District between Sheffield, Derby and Manchester.   It is the story of a village changing as the children grow up.   It is a village with a dark secret, except it is not a secret because everyone knows it happened, but no-one knows what happened.    A thirteen year old girl, Rebecca or Becky or Bex, disappeared.   That is all we know at the start of the book.

We then meet the villagers.   Of course, they all have their own lives to live, secrets to keep, relationships to consider.   And they have to deal with the unknown fate of this young girl.   They have to consider how she would have grown, how their lives became entwined within her disappearance, how it has changed their lives.

It is something that is always in the background of whatever is happening in the village.   It is something that affects how their village is known throughout the wider world.

The police have their questions.   Where was she last seen?   Who was the last person to see her?   Where was she going?   So do the villagers.   Did I see her?   Should I have said something?   Should I tell this?   Was it my fault?

And so the village grows through the annual events: the well-dressing, the annual cricket match against a rival village, Mischief Night, Guy Fawkes’ Night, Christmas.   People come and go, visiting parents at Christmas, leaving for university, hill walkers, rock climbers.   People grow old, people grow sick, people have children.   There are marriages, divorces, baptisms and funerals.   The vicar leaves for a parish in Manchester.   There are paths to maintain, footbridges to repair, a river to keep clean.   It is the life of a village described in loving and intimate detail.

There is also nature.   There is the tupping and the lambing, the fieldfares and the swallows, the foxes in the beech wood and the badgers in their setts.   We are guided through the seasons of the year as much by the activities of the birds and animals as we are by those of the people.

This is a lyric prose poem, and at its heart there is a mystery