Thursday 30 August 2012

Hannibal’s Ghost

I’m off on a trip to Tunisia at the beginning of October, my first to the North African country.  There are various reasons I want to go, among the uppermost is to stand among the stones of Carthage

Of course this is Roman Carthage, not the Punic city.  That was completely obliterated in 146BC in one of the most complete acts of vindictive retribution in all of history.  Carthego delenda estCarthage must be destroyed – Cato the Elder was in the habit of saying to the point of absurdity; and it was, completely.  It was re-founded a hundred years later, a ghost of the past.

Speaking of ghosts, if you want to know why the Romans behaved with such malice you could do no better than turn to The Ghosts of Cannae: Hannibal and the Darkest Hour of the Roman Republic by Robert L O’Connell, an American military historian. 

That’s it in a word or, rather, in a name – Hannibal, one of the greatest generals and tacticians in history, the nemesis of Rome, a name fearful enough to send the city’s children scurrying to their beds, least he come.  He came alright; he came in the summer of 216 to the battlefield of Cannae in southern Italy, there inflicting in a single day a defeat and a human tragedy unmatched in all of military history. 

Perhaps you think that an exaggeration, just a flight of hyperbole?  Then I would just ask you to consider this sombre fact.  Fifty thousand Romans died on that day in August, twice as many as the British soldiers killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, during the height of a mechanised war. 

Although O’Connell rightly refuses to dwell on what he refers to as the “pornography of violence” there are enough hints to give one a picture of that terrible day, “If it is possible to conceive of hell on earth, this human abattoir at Cannae must have been equal of any hell that history in all of its perversity has managed to concoct.”  The thing about Cannae is that it was the kind of encounter that victorious generals dream of – a battle of total encirclement.  Neither able to advance nor retreat, the Romans could only stand and die.

The Ghosts of Cannae is about much more than this seminal battle which acts as a centrepiece.  More broadly it paints a picture of the entire course of the Second Punic War, part two of a three round bout, when the two giants of the ancient world slugged it out for dominance in the Western Mediterranean.  It tells the story of some commanding personalities, not just of Hannibal, the most commanding of all, but of Publius Cornelius Scipio, eventually to be honoured with the name of Africanus, his nemesis. 

As I said above, the author is a military historian, and as military history The Ghosts of Cannae excels in so many regards.  But he is not narrowly focused in the way that makes so much of this field hopelessly one-dimensional.  Cannae and the events of the Second Punic War are given a far greater political significance in the evolution of the Roman Republic.  It’s the beginning of the eclipse of the Senate and the system of Consular authority.  In times to come Roman armies would look to their commanders to protect their interests, not the institutions of the Republic.

Scipio, I was fascinated to discover, was the first man in Roman history to take the title of ‘imperator’, less politically loaded than ‘king’ with which his Spanish allies wished to honour him.  In the end it might very well be said that Hannibal did succeed in his aim of destroying the Roman Republic.  Scipio, you see, is the beginning of a succession, one that works through Sulla on through Caesar and maturing with Augustus.  In the end Imperator was a far more potent title than mere King.

Although the Second Punic War is really Hannibal’s War, although he transformed what was essentially a naval into a land-based power, and although he won some startling victories, culminating in the masterpiece of Cannae, for me the real hero of The Ghosts of Cannae is Scipio.  In the end he proved himself to be the better tactician and the better soldier.  But most important of all he proved himself to be the better strategist and the better politician.

The paradox is that for Hannibal Cannae, his great battle of annihilation, was little better than a defeat, at least in practical terms.  He failed to exploit his victory; he failed to march on Rome.  For years after he was to move impotently in ever decreasing circles in southern Italy, while Scipio took the war to Spain and eventually to AfricaHannibal’s was the greatest triumph and the greatest missed opportunity in all of history.

It’s gripping history grippingly told, in prose that is racy and exciting but delivered without loss of proper academic focus.  That’s the thing; history does not need to be dry; history is the most exciting and rewarding area of study, even if one is only looking for simple entertainment.  The author uses the available sources, particularly Polybius and Livy, to great effect in a study that I found largely commendable.

Largely?  Yes, I do have a few criticisms.  I think the maps let the book down badly.  With this kind of thing one really needs more detail.  The Cannae maps were fair enough, if basic, though those dealing with the Spanish theatre served merely as a outline.  And why, oh why was there no map of the Battle of Zama, where Hannibal and Scipio met face to face? 

The bigger problem for me comes with the lacunae in the sources, gaps which the author fills with speculative ‘musts’: there must have been he must have thought and on and on.  No, no, no.  How that sort of thing drives me mad.  If one has no evidence, please, must me no musts! 

I was a little surprised that the epilogue, dealing with the significance of Cannae in military thinking and history, made no mention of Stalingrad, the most significant battle of encirclement and annihilation in the modern age.  It did not escape the attention of German officers caught in the Russian trap that their commander was called Paulus, just as one of the joint commanders killed at Cannae was Lucius Aemilius Paullus.  It’s little coincidences like these that give the story an added piquancy. 

If this book has a lesson, and it assuredly does, it’s one that soldiers would do well to take heed.  It’s this: war really is politics by other means.  Hannibal, for all his brilliance as a commander, never understood that fundamental truth.  Tactics, quite simply, is never enough. If that needs to be driven home then we only have to think of Afghanistan.  

Wednesday 29 August 2012

Let's Kill All the Lawyers

Henry the Sixth is probably the least memorable of Shakespeare's history cycle of plays.  It contains a particularly memorable line, though, delivered by one of the minor characters.  It comes in Part Two, Act Four, where Dick the Butcher, in responding to a speech by Jack Cade, the rebel leader, says "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers."

You may very well know these words; a lot of people do.  I'm sure they struck a cord which the playwright's audience when it was first performed; people all too well aware of the frustrations and failures of interminable legal process, of the law's delays and of the insolence of office.  

They've crossed my mind more than once, particularly on reading about some legal idiocy or other.  They came to mind most recently on hearing William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, pontificate last month about the value of our new legal world order.  "The British government", he announced, "will redouble our calls on all states to co-operate with the International Criminal Court (ICC) and apprehend those it has indicted.  There should be no hiding place or sanctuary for people indicted for crimes against humanity, war crimes or genocide."

Do you think politicians ever think?  Do you think that they pause for a moment's reflection before coming out with high-sounding and meretricious nonsense?  Oh, for the days of Machiavelli, days when political life was so much simpler, when states acted in their own best interests and not out of bogus moralising claptrap.

Now, please do not jump to conclusions.  I do not for a moment approve of crimes against humanity, war crimes and acts of genocide; I do not approve of leaders and states that are capable of such things.  But there are fundamental questions here, questions that clearly have never crossed the mind of vague Hague about The Hague.  Has International Justice - I feel compelled to write that in Olympian caps - done anything to deter dictators and perpetrators of genocide?  Has it not, in fact, made matters worse?  Is it not simply - what heresy! - a charter for lawyers? 

The whole issue is addressed by Douglas Murray in the latest edition of the Spectator.  All I can say is that it's about time this was taken seriously.  There was Gaddafi, hanging on to the bitter end, at goodness knows what human cost.  There is Assad, hanging on to the bitterest of ends, at goodness knows what human cost.  What alternative is there, when the examples of Serbia's Slobodan Milošević and Liberia's Charles Taylor are there to see?  The ICC, in other words, encourages a bunker mentality. 

The sensible thing, as Murray says, would be to allow Assad to retire to a villa in Tehran or a bungalow in Vladivostok, a punishment, some might feel, befitting the crimes.  But, no; he has no hiding place: it's either swinging from a lamppost in Damascus or sitting on a bench in The Hague...indefinitely.  So, on we go - "By the worst means, the worst. For mine own good, all causes shall give way: I am in blood stepp'd in so far that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o'er."

The ICC has done nothing to stop genocide.  That's not really the issue.  Does it really want to stop genocide?  That is the issue.  After all, what function would it have in the absence of crimes against humanity?  Dictators and tyrants murder; that's their business.  The ICC produces genocide experts of all sorts; that's its business.  Universities are now apparently offering 'genocide degrees', so people clearly see a future in this growth industry. Murray puts it persuasively:

Such people need jobs to graduate to, and there is now a growing professional class for whom the year is always 1939, the enemy is always Nazi and the answer is always Nuremberg.  Distrustful of armies, but endlessly reliant on lawyers, our national and international institutions now swarm with people who actively need accusations of genocide and crimes against humanity to stay in work.  Surrounded as they tend to be by unfettered praise, the actual effectiveness of these bodies goes almost unquestioned.  Even to resist the claims to supernational authority of the ICC - as the US government has done - is to leave yourself open to accusations that you must be pro-genocide. 

Yes, the first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.  Oops, I better be careful, least I find myself indicted in The Hague, there to suffer from interminable boredom, a punishment before than punishment that must surely qualify as cruel and unusual.   

Tuesday 28 August 2012

Don't Cry For Me Ecuador

But I don’t want to go among mad people,' Alice remarked.
'Oh, you can’t help that,' said the Cat. 'We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.'
'How do you know I’m mad?' said Alice.
'You must be,” said the Cat. 'or you wouldn’t have come here.'

We all went a bit mad here last week. Suffering from post-Olympics depression, we had to have a new show, and we did. It’s called Julian of Leaks, or Don’t Cry for Me Ecuador. It features in a starring role Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, a man who makes Narcissus look like a rather retiring and positively self-effacing sort of chap.

Anyway, there he was, Mister WikiLeaks, addressing a rag-tag army, Evita-style, from the balcony of the Ecuadorian embassy in London’s Knightsbridge district, where he has been holed up for the past two month, poor man. Well, anyone forced to throw themselves on Ecuadorian hospitality surely deserves to be pitied.

He was ‘forced’ to take ‘political asylum’ there because of a ‘witch hunt’ being carried out against him; because he fears that some massive international conspiracy is at work, set to spirit him away to the United States.

There is only one thing wrong with this scenario: Washington has not asked for his extradition. Sweden has, something he neglected to mention to the swooning multitudes across the street. He is wanted not because he is “making a stand for justice”, as he put it, but to answer charges of rape and sexual assault. He spent a good bit of the past two years fighting extradition in the British courts. It was only when his case failed that he jumped bail and took refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy.

Why Ecuador? I really don’t know. I suppose the reason might be that this banana republic – are there bananas? – is a bastion of truth, justice, human rights and panama hats. Or it might be that Rafael Correa, its leftist president, is almost as childish a narcissist as Assange himself, a little man who wants to cut a figure on a bigger stage, preaching from the balcony of his ridiculous little fiefdom.

I have a question for you. When is rape not rape? Representative Todd Akin knows. He knows all about legitimate and illegitimate rape. Yes, shocking, shocking for all shades of progressive opinion, for whom rape is rape is rape, for whom no means no means no. Unless, of course, the alleged rapist happens to be a hero of the nursery left, as Rod Liddle wrote in a Spectator blog; unless the alleged rapist happens to be Saint Julian of Leaks.

George Galloway is Britain’s leading left-wing ayatollah, a political crazy man by most normal standards. As the leader of Respect, a party without respect, he leapt to the defence of the Divine Julian. It wasn’t rape at all, he said. He simply had sex with a woman while she was asleep, not bothering to bother with a condom. It was merely a case of “bad sexual etiquette.” In other words, there is no need to ask before an insertion. Respect indeed. All I can say is that any woman who might care to spend the night as a guest in Chez Galloway best keep awake, just to avoid the risk of ‘bad sexual etiquette.’

Galloway has since tweeted that “it’s about WikiLeaks, stupid.” Stupid I may be, but so far as I can see it’s nothing of the kind. It’s about a man full of self-serving and abstract notions of truth and justice while believing himself to be above all such petty considerations as law and due legal process.

Actually, it seems obvious that Assange, for all his protestations, is more afraid of Swedish than American retribution. Oh, but you see, it’s easy to beguile the stupid crowd with talk of injustice and witch hunts, with nebulous conspiracies of all sorts, though there are perfectly sound reasons why he should also face charges in the United States, theft being high among them.

America is an easy target. It would not do at all to talk of the “dark forces” at work in Sweden, the “Saudi Arabia of feminism”, a “nest of revolutionary feminism”, pronouncements the leaky one has made in the past. Sweden, you see, is the sort of place that clearly has rather old fashioned notions of what constitutes good sexual etiquette.

Assange is fleeing from Swedish justice. Quite right, too. Sweden is notorious for its lack of democratic accountability, its biased system of law and its atrocious abuse of human rights. Then there is Correa’s Ecuador, the victim of another campaign of spite and misinformation. It’s simply not true that the country has no culture of human rights and freedom, not true that dissidents are jailed on trumped up charges, not true that journalists are arrested and TV stations shut down for daring to criticise El Presidente. Assange really would be at home there.

The show goes on, unfortunately, one of the more deadening West End productions. Personally I rather hope that the police spirit the star away while he is still asleep, sending him on his way to Sweden. After all, it’s not really extradition if he’s sleeping, merely a case of bad political etiquette.

Monday 27 August 2012

Past Present

If I were to chose the point where modern Chinese history began it would not be the overthrow of the Imperial Dynasty and the establishment of the Republic in 1911; no, it would be even more precise than that – it would be 4 May, 1919. 

It was on that day that students demonstrated on the streets of Beijing, protesting against the Treaty of Versailles, specifically the transfer of the German concessions in Shandong Province to Japan, contrary to past promises.  Protest spread across the country, the first spontaneous and populist movement in the country’s history, an upswing of Chinese nationalism far more significant than the events of 1911.

Anger over past grievances, particularly over grievances at the hands of Japan, continues to be an important measure of Chinese national feeling.  The Japanese are also good at remembering past sorrows…at least when it comes to their own.  It's not long since the annual commemoration of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, attended this year by the grandson of President Harry Truman, the man who ordered the attack. 

I’m sure there’s lots of genuine feeling here, a desire that history should be remembered and never be repeated.  I might feel more sympathy but for the fact that I see Hiroshima and Nagasaki used, abused, if you like, as alibis, conveniently wiping out inconvenient memories.  Where is the sorry and wringing of hands, the Chinese might very well, ask, over the Rape of Nanking in 1937, one of the worst atrocities in Japanese imperial history?  That single incident left more dead than Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. 

Japanese school texts make fulsome mention of the atomic bombs.  They are a bit more reticent when it comes to other aspects of the the country’s history between 1931 and 1945.  Virtually no mention at all is made of the war, as John Dower highlights in his recently published Ways of Forgetting, Ways of Remembering: Japan and the Modern World.  Japanese conservatives are a little less reticent, passing off Imperial Japan’s rampage across Asia as a “holy war” against Western colonialism.

That’s not how the Chinese see it.  They have their own memories of Western colonialism, but Japanese colonialism is much more immediate in the national mind.  The spirit of 4 May 1919 has never really gone away.  It was revived again recently, when thousands of people took to the streets across the country to protest against Japan.  The 19 August Movement, if I can call it that, was triggered by a long-standing dispute between China and Japan over the uninhabited Senkaku or Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea

Like the May 4 Movement, the demonstrations appear to have been quite spontaneous in nature, sparked off by micro-blogging sites.  There clearly had to be some kind of official sanction – the Communist Party is not averse to occasional expressions of the vox populi – but the authorities are concerned least matters get out of control.  Nationalism in China is a dangerous tiger, ridden at some peril. 

Now directed against Japan, the anger could just as easily turn inwards as the economy begins to show serious signs of slowing down.  It’s particularly sensitive as the Communist Party heads towards its eighteenth national Congress in October, when a major change in the present leadership is expected. 

For China and Japan the past is not a foreign country; it’s part of a naturalised present.  They do things much the same as they have always done.  

Sunday 26 August 2012

No Statue for Orwell at the Ministry of Truth

The BBC has declined to have a statue to George Orwell, who once worked for them, erected outside its new headquarters at Oxford Circus.  Why?  Because he is far too ‘left wing’, at least that’s what Mark Thompson, the outgoing Director General, told Lady Joan Bakewell, herself a former beacon of the Beeb.   

Methinks this man doth protest too much.   It’s patently obvious that he knows absolutely nothing about Orwell, nothing about his writing or the timbre of his politics.  Of course there may be something else here, some hidden motive, but let me hold off on that for just a bit. 

Orwell is one of my favourite writers, something I’ve said here time and time again.  He is one of the great prose craftsmen, a defender of proper English usage.  More than that, he was an enemy of all forms of cant and dissimulation.  He was a ruthlessly honest observer, a critic of the right, yes, but an even greater critic of the left, of the hypocrisy and the cowardice of so many of the benighted intellectuals why slavishly followed a party line.  In the end what was important him was right and wrong, not right and left.

I can’t think of a single reason why conservatives would object to this statue, evidence by the fact that Daniel Hannan and Ed West in the Telegraph and Nigel Jones in the Daily Mail have, in the wake of this nonsense, written of their admiration for Orwell. 

I can think of lots of reasons why people like Thompson would object, though, why the socialist chattering classes in general would object.  Orwell's greatest work is an attack on the betrayal of thought; his greatest criticism directed at what we would now call political correctness, the very heart of BBC speak.  He is at his most brilliant, though, in his critique of faddish middle-class socialism, the very heart of the BBC social and intellectual milieu. 

Just think of his depiction of that awful utopia of nudism and right, sorry, left thinking in Lower Binfield in Coming up for Air, his last pre-war novel.  Just think of Homage to Catalonia, his greatest work of reportage, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, critiques of a particular form of betrayal and socialist totalitarianism.  He was among the first to discover the shabby lie behind communism in general and Stalinism in particular, a lie which seduced so many of his fellow writers on the left.    

And then there is the BBC, which he worked for during the Second World War, broadcasting morally uplifting propaganda to India.  It was all a fraud, as he himself recognised.  After he left he put his experience with the Corporation to good value, caricaturing it as the Ministry of Truth in Nineteen Eighty-Four.  Room 101, the ultimate torture chamber of the thought police, is said to have been based on a conference room at Broadcasting House where he attended meetings.  Yes, I can imagine: the worst place in the world! 

The brilliance of Orwell, the reason I love his work so much, is that he represents a uniquely English intellect, a kind of native genius that, while it may have embraced abstract and alien theories, it was never enthralled to them. Orwell was a journalist and an empiricist before all else. For him facts were always going to undermine bogus preconceptions and second-hand truths, all that dusty theoretical baggage lifted from the attic of the mind.  Small wonder that Thompson and the purveyors of Ingsoc at the BBC don’t want to see his statue on their premises. 

Orwell was at his most brilliant in analysing English eccentricities, a man who could write with utter conviction no matter the subject, whether it was patriotism or naughty seaside postcards, toads, stodgy puddings or the right way to make a cup of tea. He wrote as he pleased, and as he pleased has pleased me endlessly. 

He has been a huge influence on the way I write, if that does not sound too pompous! I love his prose, his simple, unfussy English style. I have no doubt that essays like Why I Write and Politics and the English Language will remain classics of their type. He said of himself that he wanted to make political writing into an art, an objective fully attained.  I don’t have to imagine what he would have made of the lamentable journalistic standards of the present-day BBC; I simply know. 

A trenchant critic of Stalinism and totalitarianism, at the height of the Cold War he had no hesitation in drawing up a list at the request of the security services of fifty writers whom he regarded as communists or fellow travellers, doubtless another black mark against him on the left. 

As a writer, an artist, a journalist, a novelist and an essayist he is among the most brilliant we have ever had.  His satire is as biting as that of Jonathan Swift, another great Tory radical.  What?  Tory Radical?  Well, he may not thank me for it but I think that was the general direction he was travelling in, a rightward journey that would have continued still further but for his tragically early death from TB at the age of forty-six.  He deserves his statue alright, he deserves to be remembered, but not at the BBC, not at the shabby Ministry of Truth. 

And so, what is Thompson’s hidden motive, something I alluded to above?  That’s simple.  Orwell’s supposed politics is just an excuse.  The space is reserved for somebody more in keeping with the Corporation’s political ethos.  I agree with Ed West here: Antonio Gramsci is as good a candidate as any.  

Thursday 23 August 2012

Lost Content

There are places I like to revisit.  There are books I like to revisit also, rich with the memory of past places.  I first read the wholly delightful Letters from my Windmill by Alphonse Daudet when I was on holiday with my parents in Provence, in Avignon, to be exact.  It was from there, the city of the popes, that we explored the surrounding countryside; from there we discovered the charm and magic of this special part of La France profonde – deep France.

I’ve also managed to recapture the time and the place in the novels of Marcel Pagnol, particularly the wonderful film adaptations of Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources, but Daudet and his windmill, for the whimsy and for the beauty, for the love of a place and a people, is in a special class. 

It’s the lightness of touch I admire so, the beauty and crispness of his prose.  Not a word is wasted or out of place.  For me it’s verbal sunlight, soft lines and clear colours, like an impressionist painting; like something by Claude Monet, perhaps, celebrating nothing more than itself, its meaning immediate, its profundity a total lack of profundity. 

Daudet’s timeless little fables first appeared in the Paris press in the 1860s, an immediate sensation.  Although he was a major novelist of the day it is only through his Letters that he achieved a lasting reputation, particularly outside of France.  So far as I am aware it’s the only work of his ever published in English.  Most of the stories are set in Provence, though he also ranges further, to Corsica and further still, to French Algeria, itself a vanished world. 

Don’t look for the old Provence, Daudet’s Provence; it’s long gone, gone with the Mistral.  But it lives again in these sparkling pages.  Old Cornille, an anachronism even in his time, lives again, as does Monsieur Seguin and his audacious goat; as does the Vicar of Cucugan; as does Father Balaguere, dreaming of turkeys bursting with truffles; as does Father Guacher, singing away in the haze of his elixir – Hey!  ding-a-ding, Hey! ding-a-ding. 

Some of the stories are touching, sad in sweet melancholy.  Others are funny, a burlesque sort of comedy.  I found myself laughing out loud, once again, at Father Gaucher’s Elixir, and smiling broadly at The Three Low Masses.  Sad or funny, the various tales reflect Daudet’s own love for the music, the lore, the traditions and romance of his southern home, a way of life that I suspect he knew was slipping deeper into the mist of time.  Oh, to lie at night under a southern sky, looking up at the stars.

What! The stars get married, shepherd?

Oh, yes mistress.

And while I was trying to explain to her about these marriages, I felt something entirely beautiful resting lightly on my shoulder.  With the sweet crumpling of her ribbons and laces of the curls of her hair, she laid her sleeping head on my arm.  We stayed thus, without moving, until the stars paled, dimmed by the dawning day.  And I looked and looked at her as she slept, vaguely disturbed deep down within me, yet miraculously protected by the night’s clear holy light which has never given me any thoughts but beautiful ones.  Around us, the stars continued their silent march, as orderly as a great flock of sheep; and at times, it seemed to me that one of these stars, the brightest, having lost her way, had come to life on my shoulder in order to sleep…

I read this prose poetry and felt something beautiful resting lightly on my mind, a sweet sadness of memory.  That is the land of lost content, I see it shining plain; the happy highways where I went and cannot come again.  

Wednesday 22 August 2012

Vive le T!

My partner’s off on a lengthy business trip to France in the very near future.  Since he relies on me to buy his ties I thought I would do something slightly different. This time his neckwear will allow him to make a discreet political statement, rich in colour and a flash of panache.  I bought two, one a fleur de lis design, gorgeous in gold and black, the other the royal standard of the kingdom of France, also rich in fleur de lis imagery.  He will go to Paris, bringing a personal Bourbon restoration.

I ordered these from Zazzle, an American-based online retailer of whom I had never previously heard.  They also do a nice line in Russian Tsarist designs, as well as communist-based themes, which I must order if he goes to Russia, the former, of course, not the latter!

Their Imperial collection is a joy to behold, and I don’t just mean ties.  The catalogue has a range of Tsarist portraits, from Ivan the Terrible onwards.  They even have Peter II, Alexander II and Alexander III, though I doubt these particular rulers have much of a recognition factor, outside Russia anyway, or, in the case of the first, even inside Russia.  

The last Imperial family are well-represented, particularly Nicholas II as ruler, martyr and saint.  And, yes, there is a Grand Duchess Anastasia!  I was looking to buy Nicholas mementos and artefacts when I was in Moscow, only to discover that the market for these is mostly confined to Saint Petersburg, where the royal family are now interred in a special crypt in the Peter and Paul Cathedral. 

I was disappointed at the time but now I have a chance to make good.  I shall ask for the last Russian autocrat to come west from republican America to royalist England.  There is surely some subtle symbolic and historical irony here.  I shall wear Nicholas with pride.  His Imperial Majesty, along with Anastasia, shall come with me on my next big foreign adventure, which is Tunisia this coming October. 

Will Nicholas have much in the way of recognition factor there?  I seriously doubt it.  If asked I will simply say it’s a portrait of my father.  There he will be, on my chest, looking more than usually regal. 

My partner will be coming too, with or without his French royal ties, that is if he manages to avoid an encounter with Madame la Guillotine.  Ah, well, Vive le T!  

Tuesday 21 August 2012

Black Myth

Ten years ago the BBC conducted a poll on the 100 greatest Britons.  Those who notice this sort of thing noticed that no black people made it on to the list, so a black list was produced.  Sorry; how else am I to describe it?!  If I tell you that it features the Labour MP Diane Abbot that might give you a measure of the quality of ‘greatness.’ 

The whole thing is really quite ridiculous, risibly so at points.  I have no problem at all with black people looking for positive role models, but who really needs this kind of silly condescension?  These is also a kind of desperation, it seems to me, in the search for the century.  Philipa of Hainault, queen consort of Edward III, is on the list.  Why?  Because she was the mother of Edward, the Black Prince of Wales!  You know, and I know and anyone with any wit knows this had nothing at all to do with the colour of his skin! 

Mary Seacole is also there.  In fact she tops the list, this supposed black heroine of the Crimean War.  She’s rather the flavour of the day, this woman, even replacing Florence Nightingale as the true Lady of the Lamp.  This is not just a result of black elevation, but white guilt, as Lynne McDonald suggests in a brilliant, eye-opening piece in the latest issue of History Today (Nursing’s Bitter Rivalry).  I almost passed over this because, quite frankly, the subject does not really interest me that much.  I’m so glad I didn’t.  The Seacole story, I know now, is a lot of black propaganda. (Sorry; I couldn’t resist that either!)  It’s only fair to add that it’s not of the lady’s devising. 

I give you Jamaican-born Mary Seacole, an hotelier and herbalist by profession.  So far as the quality of ‘blackness’ is concerned black people would be well-advised to stay well clear of the truth; the myth is much more comforting.  She was three-quarters white and, as she explains in her journals, proud of her ‘Scotch blood’.  Her writing, moreover, is full of the usual nineteenth century stereotypes.  She refers to black people as ‘negroes’ and ‘niggers.’  It’s never a self-reference.  No, she took considerable pains to distance herself from what she called the ‘lazy Creole’ image, evidenced in her “good for nothing black cooks.”

But the myth has wings.  I understand that a massive statue is to be erected to this ‘Pioneer Nurse’ at St Thomas’ Hospital in London, the place where Florence Nightingale was based for forty years.  The monument, McDonald says, will even be visible from the House of Commons, taller both than that of Florence Nightingale at Waterloo Place and Edith Cavell in St Martin’s Lane.

I suppose I have to congratulate the fundraisers on fighting such a brilliant campaign, brilliant enough for the hospital trustees to grant permission on a foundation of evidentiary quicksand.  The statue will show ‘Britain’s black heroine’, with medals won for bravery, walking on to a Crimean battlefield to treat the wounded.  There is only one problem: it’s a lie.    

Here are the inconvenient facts.  Unlike Nightingale, Seacole never nursed, never trained as a nurse and never worked in a hospital.  In the Crimea she ran a hotel, catering specifically for officers, a thing she remarks on with a snobbish sense of delight.  She never won any medals, and never claimed to have won any medals, though that did nor stop her from wearing medals. 

Even the Nursing Standard, a magazine owned by the Royal College of Nursing, which supports the Seacole statue campaign, has contributed to the mythology. Over the past ten years it has published more than seventy articles lauding her ‘achievements’, even though they give not a single concrete example of Seacole’s contribution to the profession. 

The media has taken up the angel Seacole and devil Nightingale campaign.  In Mary Seacole: a Hidden History, a Channel 4 documentary broadcast in 2005, it was claimed on no evidence at all that Seacole had “saved thousands of lives.”  The fakery, for fakery it is, has even made it into children’s literature.  In The Life of Mary Seacole by Emma Lynch she is described as nursing soldiers from 5am until midday before going on to the battlefield, presumably to look for more.

It never happened.  She was present at only two engagements, the Redan assault in June and Tchernya in August 1855.  In her journal she gives no details, other than to say that it was ‘pleasant enough’ and a source of ‘strange excitement’.’  Yes, I suppose it was.  Meanwhile it was back to the British Hotel, where lightly wounded officers (the serious cases were sent to Nightingale in Turkey) could feast on such delights as lobster, oysters, wild fowl and game, all items well beyond the means of ordinary soldiers. 

If you really want to know about Seacole it’s best to ignore the saccharine-sweet hagiography.  Go instead to The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, her own account originally published in 1857, a reasonably honest testament, unlike so much of the present dishonesty surrounding her memory.  We are all ill-served by this sort of nonsense, black people most of all, treated by a certain shade of white liberal opinion as though they were children to be indulged in a state of innocence.  It’s just a mirror image of the old racism. 

Monday 20 August 2012

Russia’s Historical Amnesia

There is a scene in David Lean’s movie version of Doctor Zhivago where Lara, the great love of Zhivago’s life, disturbed by the howling of wolves close to the dacha where they are staying, says to Yuri that this is a terrible time to be alive.  It’s Russia towards the end of the Civil War that followed the Bolshevik takeover in 1917. 

It was a terrible time to be alive but neither Lara nor Zhivago knew just how terrible it was to become.  She herself was eventually to disappear at the height of the Great Terror, a nightmare yet to descend.  This, particularly the year 1937, the so-called Yezhovshchina, named after Nikolai Yezhov, then head of the security police, was the very acme of suffering.  It was the Golgotha of the ordinary people of Russia, captured so memorably in Requiem, the poetic cycle by Anna Akhmatova.

Yezhov, Beria and the other apparatchiks of death and despair were only a front.  The beast at the heart of the labyrinth was Josef Stalin, conceivably the worst and bloodiest tyrant in human inhuman history, paranoid, vengeful and dangerous; a monster in monster’s clothing. 

Stalin was just a communist Hitler, though in some ways even more vile.  But Soviet Russia, despite the dictator’s best efforts, was never defeated in war.  Unlike Hitler’s Germany, it was never pulled up by the roots.  Russia, even post-communist Russia, has never had a proper reckoning with Stalin and Stalinism.  There has never been, and possibly never will be, a truth and reconciliation committee.  So much truth remains hidden; so many Russians are still in denial.  Even Khrushchev’s famed 1956 Secret Speech was but a partial break with the past.

Stalin, in a way, is the temperature of Russia, rising and falling with the circumstances of the day.  Khrushchev’s denunciation saw a partial reappraisal of his legacy, little better than a renaming without a re-evaluation.  Khrushchev’s fall in 1964 was followed by the stagnation and sclerosis of the Brezhnev years, in which Stalin’s memory underwent a partial thaw.

For a period in the 1990s, albeit all too brief, it looked as if Russia might finally come to terms with the full horror of its Stalinist past.  It was not to be.  For an instant Russia saw freedom only to retreat into age-old slavery.  It was a depressingly familiar pattern, so brilliantly captured by Vasiliy Grossman in Everything Flows, a novel unfinished at the time of his dearth in 1964.  “The implacable suppression of the individual personality”, he wrote, “ - its total, servile, subjection to the sovereign and the State – has been a constant feature of Russian history.”

Stalin is back; the temperature is rising.  He is back in Putin’s Russia, in a worse form than ever; he is back in a gangster state that does not even pretend to embrace an ennobling ideology.  He is back simply as an avatar of power, of the most demeaning and slavish forms of state worship.  The recent vindictive treatment of Pussy Riot, the female punk rockers accused of ‘hooliganism’, is but one small example of the new mood.

There is so much irony in ignorance.  In 2005, the sixtieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War, Stalin’s ‘achievement’ in leading the country to victory was lauded.  His earlier alliance with Hitler, a man in whom he placed implicit trust, and his gross errors in 1941, which cost so many Russian lives, was completely forgotten.  What a wretched fate to live with a partial memory.

Partial memory is the key to Russian history, the key to Putin’s approach to the past.  In 2007 his government decided on a restructuring of the national curriculum for schools, teaching children that the tyrant’s actions were ‘entirely rational’.  In the same year the archives of Memorial, an organisation set up to establish an accurate view of the past, were raided.  The police confiscated images of Stalinist atrocities along with twenty years worth of oral testament chronicling everyday life under the regime, as Emily Whitaker points out in the recent issue of History Today

The following year a television company organised a national poll on the ‘Greatest Russian Ever’.  Stalin came third, despite pleas by the station for people to choose someone else, another remarkable piece of ignorance, inasmuch as he wasn’t even Russian.  The television executives would have solved their problem by disqualifying him on those simple ethnic grounds! 

It’s a sure sign of things when tyrant kitsch is all the rage.  Just imagine Hitler watches and other tat on sale in Berlin.  Now go to Moscow.  No need to imagine: there is Stalin tat aplenty. 

If Stalin is the mood in Putingrad, so are Stalinist policies.  New legislation been proposed, including increased penalties for violation of protest laws.  Non government agencies that receive international funding now risk being labelled as ‘foreign agents.’ The government is also being granted permission to censor certain internet pages. 

To resurrect a putrid past shows just how morally abject the present regime is, how deeply sunk in dissimulation and lies.  With some noble exceptions Russia itself is sunk deep in moral turpitude, especially tragic in that there can be few families without the victims of past wrongs.  This is a country, in short, suffering from a particularly degrading form of historical amnesia. 

You were taken away at dawn’s mildness.
I convoyed you, as my dead-born child,
Children cried in the room’s half-grey darkness,
And the lamp by the icon lost light. 
On your lips dwells the icon kiss’s cold
On your brow – the cold sweet … Don’t forget!
Like a wife of the rebel of old
On the Red Square, I’ll wail without end.

Sunday 19 August 2012

A Hidden Secret

Since my previous post was on one taboo, the consumption of hard drugs in the West, I thought I might as well touch on another, the consumption of alcohol in the East.  My starting point here is a man of magnificent munificence! 

Two years ago Turkish TV broadcast a series centring on the life of Suleiman the Magnificent, the iconic sixteenth century sultan.  It caused a bit of a stir because he was seen quaffing goblets of wine. 

The horror!  The horror! A great social taboo had been broken.  All at once there was a storm in a wine glass.  Halit Ergenc, the actor playing the sultan, received death threats.  The deputy prime minister called for the series to be scrapped.  Islamists protested outside the TV studios. RTUK, the state media watchdog, warned the broadcasters, Show TV, that they are clashing with the “national and moral values of our society.”  In responding to the criticism the producers said that the Great Suleiman was only drinking sherbet, not wine. 

Writing at the time I said that It does not really matter if it was true or not; it does not really matter that Suleiman’s son and successor was such a notorious drunkard that he has gone down in history as Selim the Sot.  Rather, to see a national hero, caliph as well as sultan, breaking a fundamental Muslim commandment against the consumption of alcohol was just a step too far. 

I was reminded of this by an article in the Economist (Tipsy Taboo, 18 August) on the relationship of the Muslim world to the demon drink.  Although alcohol is now generally believed to be forbidden by the Quran and the Hadith, the sayings of the Prophet, this would in fact seem to be a fairly modern puritanical fatwa.  As the Economist article says, debauched nights in the courts of the caliphates were enshrined in the khamriyaat, or odes to wine, by Abu Nuwas, an eighth century poet. 

The picture is highly variable.  When I was in Egypt I could enjoy indifferent cocktails in the hotel bars, though beyond their frontiers this dry land would seem to be mostly dry. In Turkey it’s completely legal, despite the conservative backlash, with many men downing raki, the local spirit.   Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the modern Turkish republic, as iconic a historical figure as Suleiman, enjoyed it in such quantities that he is thought to have died of cirrhosis of the liver.

It was the rise of political Islam, and the emergence of a stricter interpretation of religious law, that saw the swing towards prohibition in the modern age.  Bans were implemented in places like Pakistan and Iran, with severe penalties for Muslims caught imbibing, eighty lashes in the case of the latter. 

Despite this, and despite moves towards restriction in places like Indonesia and Tunisia, alcohol consumption among the faithful has not disappeared; no, it’s just gone indoors!  Even in places like Libya, where it is completely illegal, there is a flourishing black market in spirits.  Iranians make their own home brew and in Pakistan alcohol can be delivered straight to the door quicker than pizza, at least according to Dr Sadaqat Ali, who runs a chain of clinics set up to treat alcoholics. 

This may be the stuff of ayatollah nightmares but what makes it worse is that the problem is on the rise.  The growth of alcohol sales in Muslim-dominated areas is over twice the global average, a figure not accounted for by tourism alone.  Attempts at prohibition have been no more successful than they were in the United States in the 1920s.  Earlier this summer health officials in Iran issued warnings over the growing number of alcoholics and drunk drivers.  In Pakistan Dr Ali estimates that there are a million alcoholics, only a fraction of whom attend his clinics because of the taboos surrounding drinking. 

Oh, well, maybe it’s all just a misunderstanding; maybe the Muslim world is floating on a sea of sherbet.  You can believe that if you wish.  The problem with bans, prohibitions, interdicts and fatwas is that they tend to have a reverse effect from that intended. 

And time did not leave anything of this wine, only the last breath. As if its disappearance were a hidden secret in the breasts of wise men.

Thursday 16 August 2012

Death on a High

I was asked recently if I thought drugs should be banned.  The reference, in fact, was to substances that are already banned.  For me the answer is quite straightforward: whatever the moral issues are the banning of substances like heroin and cocaine has had disastrous consequences, even more disastrous than America’s flirtation with the prohibition of alcohol.

I had the example of Mexico in mind, a place where the so-called war on drugs has turned into a war, more barbarous and more savage than many more conventional conflicts.  The statistics are stunning.  To date more than 50,000 people have died in a mere six year period, ever since Felipe Calderon ascended to the presidency in December, 2006, with a promise to stamp out a perceived evil.  He made it worse.  At least 12000 children have lost one or both parents.  Several hundred thousand people have been forced to flee their homes, refugees in their own country, victims of a war in the middle of peace.

It’s not just the killing that’s shocking; it’s the ghastly nature of so many of the deaths.  Beheadings with chainsaws are now commonplace.  This is not just a war between the state and organised crime; it’s also a war within a war, with rival cartels involved in murderous vendettas against each other.  A lot of Americans seem unconscious of the sheer enormity of the problem south of the Rio Grande, a greater threat to national security and well-being than anything that might be happening in distant Afghanistan.

North America is the key, a huge and lucrative market that has acted as a spur to the drugs industry in Central and South America.  There is an obvious and terrible contradiction here.  There would seem to be no connection at all between the so-called flower children and peaceniks of the 1960s and 1970s, high on artificial highs, and grisly mass decapitations in Mexico, but the second is the corollary of the first.  Peace and love equals death and blood; it really is as simple as that.

For the outset the American government’s approach was wholly one-sided.  So far as successive administrations were concerned it was all a supply-side problem.  Deal with the producers, the reasoning went, then you deal with the problems as a whole.  So, in 1971, President Richard Nixon managed to persuade the Turkish government to clamp down on illegal opium production.  All that happened was that Mexican production was boosted still further. 

In 1976 the US Air force sprayed poison on hundreds of square miles of Mexican marijuana fields.  Production simply switched to Colombia, giving the infant drug cartels in that country a massive boost.  When President Regan tried to end the importation of Colombian drugs through Florida in 1982, the cartels simply re-routed their produce through Mexico.  As immigration and drug enforcement agencies have discovered, the 2000 mile border between Mexico and the United States is almost impossible to police adequately. 

The problem gets worse by the day, aided by the fact that many ordinary Mexicans do not perceive the violent drug gangs as criminals but as part of the country’s long anti-state, Robin Hood or Zapata tradition.  For many Mexicans, mired in poverty, the government itself has long been suspect, not an agency for reform and improvement but a source of graft and corruption.  If the drug gangs are violent the state has often been even more violent. 

Every year Mexico celebrates death in the Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, a Catholic holiday with Aztec roots.  But those grinning sugar skulls hide a grimmer reality.  Death is not confined to a single day.  Rather in Santa Muerte, Saint Death, the patron saint of the drug gangs, it is an immediate and ‘living’ presence, if such a paradox makes sense.  Santa Muerte has accompanied the heroin and cocaine across the Rio Grande.  She is making a home in the North, the avatar of an unacknowledged insurgency. 

It will require a lot of political imagination and courage to break her grip.  Violence will only engender more violence.  Controlled legalisation would seem to offer the only way of undercutting the cartels and dispelling Death.  It would seem to be the rational solution.  Unfortunately politicians are rarely moved by reason.  

Wednesday 15 August 2012

Eagle Day

I read Rosemary’s Sutcliffe’s The Eagle of the Ninth when I was in my early teens. It’s a bit of a boy’s own historical yarn, though not without some female interest, based on the legend of the Roman Ninth Legion, which supposedly vanished from history into the bogs and myths of first-century Caledonia, that terra incognita in Britain beyond Hadrian’s Wall and civilization. I loved it, a gripping story, well-written, well-plotted and well-told.

Now I’ve read another story of the Ninth, The Eagle has Fallen, a recently published historical novel by Brian Young, equally well-written, well-plotted and well-told.  More than that, the author has an admirable grasp of the military and political realities of the Roman world, more so than Sutcliffe.  Imaginatively structured The Eagle has Fallen may be, but Young takes no undue liberties with history, giving his fiction a very high degree of plausibility. 

With one or two notable exceptions, I’m not that fond of historical fiction.  No matter how clever and well-plotted the story, all too often it falls down in a proper understanding of the times, with people doing as many as six impossible things before breakfast.  You see that’s the curse of a specialist in history: knowing too much and letting knowing get in the way of simple enjoyment.  Licence, for me, can be sometimes a little too poetic! 

Young, I’m pleased to say, always keeps his licence within limits. His settings are as believable as his characters.  It also pleases me that he has no truck with the usual ‘great mystery’ theories over the supposed ‘disappearance’ of the Legio IX Hispania, based at Eboracum, now York, in the northern part of the Roman province of Britannia

Rather, a little like a historical detective, he assembles his evidence carefully, building up a cogent and realistic picture of a formation that was most likely defeated in battle just at the outset of the reign of Hadrian in 117AD.  His deconstruction of the events leading to this likely defeat is highly persuasive.  If I was an archaeologist I would immediately start digging around in southern Scotland for battlefield remains, particularly in the vicinity of a hill called Standard Knowe! 

As Young explains in some historical notes at the end, legions that had suffered serious defeat, including the loss of the highly symbolic unit eagle, were effectively ‘airbrushed’ out of history by the imperial authorities, the fate of the three legions that were destroyed in the battle of the Teutoburg Wald in 9AD, never to be replaced in the Roman army lists. Hispania did not vanish; it was just cast into the shadows of permanent disgrace.  

The Eagle has Fallen is only partly devoted to the likely fate of the Legio IX.  A good part is taken up with the intrigues following the death of Trajan and the accession of Hadrian.  Here the novel works very well indeed as a compelling political thriller, recalling for me some of the nefarious undercurrents in Robert Graves’ classic I, Claudius

I confess found myself frustrated with Hadrian, who seemed to spend far too much time in the east, while the real danger to his authority was in Rome.  There I was, urging him west, contrary to the advice of his closest counsellor.  Leave someone else to deal with the Parthians and the Jews!  If I had been raised to the purple in those times and circumstances, when Rome was still the centre of the political world, I would have taken my legions straight to the capital before some ambitious prefect, senator or praetorian commander started to intrigue.   And, believe me, an ambitious senior public official is intriguing away!    

Coming down to less rarefied heights, there is a human interest angle to the story.  Through the character of Marcus Valerius Quietus, a cavalry officer, the novel unites the military events in Britain with the unravelling conspiracy in Rome, a plotting device which on the whole works reasonably well, though I thought Cornelia, the female interest, not entirely convincing. 

I have no hesitation in recommending this book, a crisp, engaging, intelligent, soundly researched and gripping story, one that is well-paced and easy to read in the best page turning tradition.  For a first novel it’s a commendable piece of work.  It’s a measure of the author’s success that I now want to find out more about the whole period.  The cohorts of Marguerite Yourcenar’s long neglected Memoirs of Hadrian are advancing fast on my earth works!  

Tuesday 14 August 2012

Mordred Bids Farewell to Camelot

This is an article I wrote for the Daily Telegraph readers’ blog in August 2009, following the death of Senator Edward Kennedy.  It appeared under the heading Sir Mordred Reflects on the End of Camelot.  I was reminded of it in discussion yesterday, when I said that if I were to choose a point in post-war American history where the country took a turn for the worse it would be the Kennedy presidency.  I stands here as my testament on a tawdry dynasty. 

So, Edward Kennedy is dead, the last of the political dynasty launched into the world by the money and ruthless ambition of Joseph P. Kennedy, one-time ambassador to Britain.  I’ve been looking over some of the obituaries, the usual unctuous stuff, the predictably tiresome tributes from people who probably couldn’t stand him in life, the same old same old these events occasion.  I personally feel no great sorry, how can I for a dynasty with such roots, a dynasty which promised everything and achieved nothing; a dynasty of hypocrites, openly self-righteous but morally tainted; tainted in the case of Edward himself with the shadows of Chappaquiddick.  Mordred now offers his own brief reflection of the fall and fall of the House of Kennedy.

Not much remains to be said about Ambassador Kennedy’s war-time record,  his defeatism, his attempts to reach an ‘understanding’ between the United States and Germany, his assertion that democracy in England was ‘finished’ at the point when RAF pilots were fighting and dying to prove him wrong.  I enjoyed Robert Harris’ thriller Fatherland, where he offers an alternate history, one where Joseph is president in 1960 not his son John.  In this President Joseph is set to come to Europe to conclude a treaty with the Fuehrer.  It may very well have been so; yes, it may.

 As for the actual President Kennedy, a paragon of liberalism in the way that his father was a paragon of Catholic authoritarianism, was any presidency more disastrous for the long-term interests of America?  What did he achieve?  Much, much that was to do America little good.  He escalated the Vietnam War without understanding what it was all about.  He offered support to the Cuban freedom-fighters hoping to overthrow the Castro tyranny, and then abandoned them in the Bay of Pigs.  It’s still not fully understood that the Cuban Missile Crisis of the following year, his ‘finest hour’, was a direct consequence of this weakness and this treachery.  The fiasco also considerably strengthened Cuban Communism, which continues to poison Latin America to this day.  And where Big Brother Jack led Little Brother Bobby followed, a petty bully in the garb of Attorney-General.  

So on to Ted, the last of the ‘great’ senators and the clan’s weakest link.  I suppose he deserves the accolade of greatness simply for being around long enough, the Methuselah of the upper house.  And what a variety of super liberal and semi-socialist causes he embraced, making lots of sound and fury in the process that signified nothing.  Was it enough to wipe away the shame of Chappaquiddick, the shame of leaving a nineteen-year-old woman to drown while he made his escape, the shame of failing to report the incident for hours after?  For some it seems to have been, for Super Obama it seems to have been, but not for Mordred; no, never. 

There is other evidence of Ted’s turpitude beyond Chappaquiddick.  The older Kennedys’ extra-marital exploits escaped press scrutiny a little in the same fashion as royals did at the time, but Ted lived long enough to see the emergence of a much less deferential age.  His exploits were a dream for his Republican opponents.  In 1988 in a speech on the Regan administration’s secret deal to sell arms to Iran he asked rhetorically “Where was George Bush?”  The reply was made on bumper stickers across the land, “Dry, Sober and Home with his Wife.”

Am I speaking ill of the dead?  I suppose I must be, but so much ill was directed at me by poets down the ages; so please allow me some return.  Even so, while I welcome no one’s death, I do welcome the end of a shabby modern Camelot, a tawdry illusion so much worse in every way than the original; an illusion that served to poison America with the lie of liberalism and the lie of socialism.  And now my time is gone. 

Monday 13 August 2012

The other Joads

Many people will be familiar with the story of the Joad family from John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath, the great epic of the Great Depression in America, or from the film of the same name directed by John Ford and starring Henry Fonda as Tom Joad.  Tom and his family are dirt poor ‘Okies’, who escape from Oklahoma’s ever expanding Dust Bowl, moving west to California in search of a better life.  Instead they are met with hostility and exploitation. 

The Joads were lucky.  There were other Joads, other poor Americans who tried to flee the Depression, going off in search of a better life, taking their families with them.  But these people did not go west; they went east; they went all the way to Stalin’s Russia.  There they met something worse than hostility and exploitation; there they met slavery and death. 

This is no fiction; this is a real American tragedy, a tragedy in which the hapless and the helpless were betrayed not just by their hosts but by their own government.  These are the forgotten Americans and this is a forgotten story.  At least it was until the appearance of The Forsaken.  From the Great Depression to the Gulags: Hope and Betrayal in Stalin’s Russia by Tim Tzouliadis.  

I’ve read several accounts of the impact of Stalin and Stalinism but this is possibly the most poignant.  This is the story of people lured east in what the author describes as the least heralded migration in American history.  They were lured away from their homes by lies and stupidity; the lies of Soviet propaganda and the stupidity of intellectuals like George Bernard Shaw, who swallowed the propaganda whole, seduced by the biggest Potemkin façade ever devised. 

They were deceived also by their own countrymen, by the likes of Walter Duranty, Moscow Bureau Chief of the New York Times, who wrote articles urging Americans to come to Russia.  For a man on the spot, Duranty’s understanding of Russia was abysmal and his ‘journalism’ biased enough to border on deception and fraud.  His reports earned him a Pulitzer Prize, which might give some insight into the true value of this benighted award.

To begin with things for the Joads were not too bad.  They found work in the new Ford factory on the banks of the Volga among other places.  They brought their own pastimes with them, playing baseball in Moscow’s Gorky Park.  It was the early 1930s, a period of relative calm in Soviet history.  People were generally welcoming.  Still, there were worrying signs.  The migrants were obliged to surrender their passports.  Most of them never saw them again.  Most of them were never to see America again.

History fell on Russia with the abruptness of an Arctic night.  The murder of Sergey Kirov, the Leningrad party chief, in December 1934 was the beginning of an epic tragedy.  As Russia moved by stages into the Great Terror, fear gripped the American community.  There was no more baseball.  All at once the American Embassy in Moscow was besieged to people wanting to go home.  They were met not with sympathy but indifference.  Those turned away were arrested in the street by the NKVD, the Soviet security police.  Whole families were rounded up and sent into the night and fog of the gulags. 

Tzouliadis tells his story with insight and vigour, leavened by an undercurrent of incredulity and anger.  It’s difficult not to feel anger at the fate of so many people who were effectively abandoned.  They were merely flotsam and jetsam on the sea of life, as one American diplomat put it, adding that “they are born, live and die, and their existence has probably no individual effect on any governing or supervising authority.”

They certainly had no effect on the despicable Joseph Davis, a multi-millionaire appointed as ambassador to Russia by President Roosevelt, on the basis of what qualification or talent is impossible to determine.  While he ignored the plight of the Americans in Moscow he fawned over Stalin, even taking the infamous Moscow show trails at face value, contrary to the opinion among the rest of the embassy staff.  While Americans were drawn in ever greater numbers into Soviet death camps, Davis descended into lugubrious lyricism over Stalin’s “exceedingly kind and gentle brown eyes”.

The blindness and betrayal goes on.  There is Henry Wallace, vice-president during Roosevelt’s third term in office, a Soviet stooge who but for fortune might have gone on to becomes President in his own right.  During the war he visited Magadan in the remote Kolyma district, the very centre of the Soviet system of mass labour and mass death.  In his blindness he saw nothing. 

Wallace was a fool.  Worse still is the case of the black singer Paul Robeson, who became aware just how bad the oppression was while continuing to laud Stalin.  Acutely aware of racial injustice in his own country, he was wilfully blind to murderous injustice in Soviet Russia.  His speeches and actions, as Tzouliadis says, had justified, and therefore contributed to, the crimes of Stalinism, and for that at least he was morally culpable.  After Davis he is the one character in the story that filled me with particular loathing. 

Thinking of the Joads, some lines from Boris Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago comes to mind.  It’s about Lara, the great love of Zhivago’s life, whose fate sounds as an echo for all the martyred and brutalised children of the earth – “One day Lara went out and did not come back.  She must have been arrested in the street, as so often happened in those days, and she died or vanished somewhere, forgotten as a nameless number on a list that was later mislaid, in one of the innumerable mixed or women’s concentration camps in the north.”

There are some stories of survival in The Forsaken, none more remarkable than that Thomas Sgovio from Buffalo, New York, but most have left no trace at all, unlike Lara not even a name.  This important book does well to fill some of the silences of time