“East west street” by Philippe Sands: piecing together family history and human rights

This book made me reflect for the first time how in the early C20 when long-established stable empires were beginning to crumble, “Each country, old or new, was free to treat those who lived within its borders as it wished. International law offered few constraints on the majority’s treatment of minorities, and no rights for individuals”. The European Convention on Human Rights was not signed until 1950.

 

A few years before writing this book, lawyer Philippe Sands received an unexpected invitation to lecture in the Ukrainian city of Lviv on the human rights cases in which he had been involved,  his academic work on the Nuremberg trials and their consequences for the modern world. The location of Lviv proved a remarkable coincidence on several counts. Being in the “Bloodlands” of Eastern Europe, it represents a microcosm of a succession of human rights abuses, not least the Holocaust. In three decades from 1914, the city changed hands eight times, passing from the collapsed Austro-Hungarian Empire between Russians, Poles and Germans before ending up in Ukraine, by turns named Lemberg, Lviv, Lvov and Lwów. It  also happened to be the home town of the author’s Jewish grandfather Leon, who  ended up living in Paris with his wife, never speaking of events which had destroyed most of their relatives.

 

The initial letter “L” appears again in the names of the two Jewish lawyers, Lauterpacht and Lemkin who played a significant role in the development of international human rights legislation, and happened to study in Lviv, being taught by the same lecturers in some cases but apparently not meeting each other in person at the time.  The final coincidence lies in the fact that Hans Frank, one of the key Nazis tried at Nuremberg, committed or turned a blind eye to  his atrocities when he was appointed Governor General of Nazi-occupied Poland  which included Lemberg, as it was then called.

 

Lauterpacht argued that “the well-being of the individual is the ultimate object of all law”, while Lemkin coined the term “genocide” to describe the destruction of groups. At first, Lauterpacht’s argument that a focus on the protection of groups would undermine that of individuals seemed to me like academic hair-splitting. It seems undeniable that people may be persecuted both as individuals or as distinct groups, from the Jews to the Palestinians and the Rohinjas of Burma in the present day.

 

However, I was swayed in the end by the author’s argument that, “the need to prove the intent to destroy a group in whole or in part, as the Genocide Convention requires can have unhappy….. consequences. ….The crime of genocide has distorted the prosecution of war crimes and crimes against humanity, because it stirs up national outrage rather than the sort of ruthless examination of the record the country needs (as in the case of Armenians massacred in Turkey)….. People feel compelled to belong to groups and …… are killed because they happen to be members of a certain group…..The recognition of this fact in law tends to make more likely the possibility of conflict between groups by reinforcing the sense of group identity….  Defining the crime of genocide will end up giving rise to the very conditions it seeks to ameliorate”.

 

With its focus on this theme, the book is saved from unbearable bleakness by the author’s vivid evocation of life in Lviv, when Jewish communities lived with others on stable, reasonably amicable terms. Perhaps inevitably pursuing a forensic approach, Philippe Sands sometimes indulges in too much detail, as when he deploys a pair of law students to help him trawl through records from 1915-1919 to piece together Lauterpacht’s precise course of study, subjects, tutors and dates. The purpose is to understand what ideas may have influenced him, in common with Lemkin, but the inclusion of the details in the main text rather than an Appendix seems a bit excessive. On the other hand, I was fascinated by the photographs of the Nuremberg courtroom for which Sands  identifies individuals.

 

There is an unexpected human touch in the evident friendship formed between the author and Niklas, remorseful son of the unrepentant Hans Frank, eventually hanged at Nuremberg. The gentle Niklas keeps a photograph of his father’s body after the hanging, “To remind me, to make sure, that he is dead”.

 

Although overlong, also a little dry and repetitious in places, this distinctive book, hard to categorise by reason of being part detective story, part painstakingly discovered family history, but also a reflection on the impact of crimes against humanity,  is  certainly worth reading and lingers in one’s mind.

This book made me reflect for the first time how in the early C20 when long-established stable empires were beginning to crumble, “Each country, old or new, was free to treat those who lived within its borders as it wished. International law offered few constraints on the majority’s treatment of minorities, and no rights for individuals”. The European Convention on Human Rights was not signed until 1950.

 

A few years before writing this book, lawyer Philippe Sands received an unexpected invitation to lecture in the Ukrainian city of Lviv on the human rights cases in which he had been involved,  his academic work on the Nuremberg trials and their consequences for the modern world. The location of Lviv proved a remarkable coincidence on several counts. Being in the “Bloodlands” of Eastern Europe, it represents a microcosm of a succession of human rights abuses, not least the Holocaust. In three decades from 1914, the city changed hands eight times, passing from the collapsed Austro-Hungarian Empire between Russians, Poles and Germans before ending up in Ukraine, by turns named Lemberg, Lviv, Lvov and Lwów. It  also happened to be the home town of the author’s Jewish grandfather Leon, who  ended up living in Paris with his wife, never speaking of events which had destroyed most of their relatives.

 

The initial letter “L” appears again in the names of the two Jewish lawyers, Lauterpacht and Lemkin who played a significant role in the development of international human rights legislation, and happened to study in Lviv, being taught by the same lecturers in some cases but apparently not meeting each other in person at the time.  The final coincidence lies in the fact that Hans Frank, one of the key Nazis tried at Nuremberg, committed or turned a blind eye to  his atrocities when he was appointed Governor General of Nazi-occupied Poland  which included Lemberg, as it was then called.

 

Lauterpacht argued that “the well-being of the individual is the ultimate object of all law”, while Lemkin coined the term “genocide” to describe the destruction of groups. At first, Lauterpacht’s argument that a focus on the protection of groups would undermine that of individuals seemed to me like academic hair-splitting. It seems undeniable that people may be persecuted both as individuals or as distinct groups, from the Jews to the Palestinians and the Rohinjas of Burma in the present day.

 

However, I was swayed in the end by the author’s argument that, “the need to prove the intent to destroy a group in whole or in part, as the Genocide Convention requires can have unhappy….. consequences. ….The crime of genocide has distorted the prosecution of war crimes and crimes against humanity, because it stirs up national outrage rather than the sort of ruthless examination of the record the country needs (as in the case of Armenians massacred in Turkey)….. People feel compelled to belong to groups and …… are killed because they happen to be members of a certain group…..The recognition of this fact in law tends to make more likely the possibility of conflict between groups by reinforcing the sense of group identity….  Defining the crime of genocide will end up giving rise to the very conditions it seeks to ameliorate”.

 

With its focus on this theme, the book is saved from unbearable bleakness by the author’s vivid evocation of life in Lviv, when Jewish communities lived with others on stable, reasonably amicable terms. Perhaps inevitably pursuing a forensic approach, Philippe Sands sometimes indulges in too much detail, as when he deploys a pair of law students to help him trawl through records from 1915-1919 to piece together Lauterpacht’s precise course of study, subjects, tutors and dates. The purpose is to understand what ideas may have influenced him, in common with Lemkin, but the inclusion of the details in the main text rather than an Appendix seems a bit excessive. On the other hand, I was fascinated by the photographs of the Nuremberg courtroom for which Sands  identifies individuals.

 

There is an unexpected human touch in the evident friendship formed between the author and Niklas, remorseful son of the unrepentant Hans Frank, eventually hanged at Nuremberg. The gentle Niklas keeps a photograph of his father’s body after the hanging, “To remind me, to make sure, that he is dead”.

 

Although overlong, also a little dry and repetitious in places, this distinctive book, hard to categorise by reason of being part detective story, part painstakingly discovered family history, but also a reflection on the impact of crimes against humanity,  is  certainly worth reading and lingers in one’s mind.

“Educated” by Tara Westover – the price of “a change of self”

Educated: The international bestselling memoir

The youngest of seven children, Tara Westover was brought up after a bizarre fashion in rural Idaho by a father whose dominant and possibly bi-polar personality fed an extreme form of Mormonism. Using his children as cheap labour, Gene Westover (most family names used are pseudonyms) ran a scrapyard with scant regard for health and safety. He regarded the succession of gruesome injuries which ensued as God-given opportunities to prove the efficacy of the herbal remedies his submissive wife spent much of her time concocting. Hospitals were dangerous places run by “gentiles” to be avoided at all costs, antibiotics and analgesics likely to cause permanent harm. He was obsessed with storing up food and fuel for the long awaited Days of Abomination, the period of chaos which would precede the Second Coming of Christ, which he was convinced would be triggered by Y2K, the expected January 1st 2000 millennium computer failure. His other great obsession was to avoid corrupting state education, insisting that his children be home-schooled, but in such an unorganised way that they were left with no qualifications and woefully ignorant.

As soon as they were old enough, his offspring left home, either to drive trucks and do manual work, which generally meant they drifted back eventually, or as the only means of obtaining an education. Perhaps because she was a girl for whom “book-learning” was considered a particular waste of time since her “destiny” was to become a good wife and mother, Tara found it particularly hard to break free and get into college. Yet through ability and determination combined with the luck of catching the eye of a tutor at the Mormon college who could see her potential, she won a place on a study programme at Cambridge and gained a PhD by her late twenties.

This memoir often seems disjointed, even incoherent and inconsistent when dealing with the more dramatic events. The author admits to the problem of remembering exactly what happened when, say, a brother’s clothing caught fire in the scrapyard, or of dealing with differing recollections of the same incident. This may be what led to her interest in “historiography”, of the varied ways in which historians interpret the past. However, there’s no denying that I was left with the impression that much of the drama had gained in the telling. Apart from the frequent ability to avoid death or paralysis after falling from a great height or gaining third degree burns, there are a litany of inconsistencies.

Admittedly, his psychosis may serve as an excuse, but if Tara’s father forcibly pulled Tara’s sleeves down for the sake of modesty when she was working in the yard on a hot day, why did he let her put on make up to go out repeatedly with a local boy after work? I could understand “Dad’s” somewhat ungodly pride in her singing abilities, but would he have let her mother dye her hair red for her lead part in “Annie”? Would Tara’s parents have paid for her to have orthodontic treatment when they had not done so for her brother Shawn, and had such a horror of medical treatment? When she eventually reached King’s College Cambridge, lacking in confidence and nervous of drawing attention to herself, would she really have either sought or been permitted to stride up the sloping tiles to walk along the ridge during a tour of the roof?

Despite these reservations, this is an intriguing insight into how abuse of power and emotional blackmail may distort family relationships, leading to self-delusion and doublethink which the the changes in perception brought about by education cannot eradicate without a lengthy struggle. Breaking free comes at the price of a painful and guilt-ridden rift with close family members and poignant exile from familiar haunts, in this case the backdrop of the wild solitude of  “Buck’s Peak”.

“A Certain Idea of France” – a biography of Charles de Gaulle by Julian Jackson- Using his wits to survive “like Tintin”.

This engrossing biography should delay the inevitable forgetting of what made De Gaulle so famous, with a clear socio-political summary of the past century to set the France of today in context. I enjoyed the frequent use of vivid quotations to show the reactions of De Gaulle’s contemporaries to this eccentric, complex man whose flaws both undermined and contributed to his often controversial achievements.

Deeply influenced by his conservative, nationalistic, intellectual Catholic upbringing, it is unsurprising that De Gaulle found the rapid French surrender at the outset of World War Two and subsequent collaboration intolerably dishonourable. His broadcasts to France from exile in London via the BBC, notably the famous call to arms in June 1940, had the same kind of morale-boosting impact as Churchill’s speeches. By the time De Gaulle was able to walk down the Champs-Elysées of a liberated Paris, an estimated “two million souls” gathered to greet him, yet few had any idea what he looked like in that pre-television age.

To gain recognition as the leader of the Free French and ensure that France should have some role both in the liberation and the subsequent negotiations required vast self-belief amounting to arrogance, combined with unrelenting persistence. Speaking of himself as “De Gaulle”, even “France”, a kind of latter-day male Joan of Arc, he threw chairs during tantrums with world leaders, machinated to get rid of rivals, tried Churchill’s patience to the limit, and aroused the implacable hostility of the American President Roosevelt. Forever “biting the hand that fed him”, he showed scant gratitude to the Allies or the Resistance groups on whom he was at times utterly dependent.
Perhaps he was simply applying the reading which had convinced him of a leader’s need to “cultivate mystery and keep his distance” with “a large dose of egoism, of pride, or hardness and ruse …Leadership is solitary exercise of the will”. Although he was a showman in his oratory, delivering carefully honed speeches from memory in several languages and, with his undeniable courage, loved to disappear into large adulatory crowds, private meetings with De Gaulle were often disappointing. There is a pattern in descriptions of him pontificating at length, looking through people rather than at them, sometimes unexpectedly proving later to have noted and even been influenced by remarks they had managed to make.

“Granting” Algerian independence has been cited as one of De Gaulle’s main achievements, but Julian Jackson points out that it was in fact “wrested from him” after France had come close to mainland civil war, and he showed a callous disregard for the suffering of pieds noirs and Harkis who “lost out” in the process.

It was a shock to realise that De Gaulle’s return to power as President in 1958 was undemocratic, a coup “legalised” because “France’s elites had lost confidence in the existing regime to resolve the Algerian crisis”. This gave him “full powers to govern by decree for six months with the suspension of parliament during that period”. His subsequent manipulation of the constitution under the new Fifth Republic to get himself elected directly by the public, thus cementing his personal power, was also questionable – he was recreating the role of a monarch within the republican system which had aimed to destroy it. His delight in “upsetting the applecart” was evident to the end, as in his rash speech, climaxing in the infamous slogan “Vive le Québec libre!”on a visit to Canada.

De Gaulle often seems like a throwback to a previous age, with his frugal personal lifestyle, rejection of the telephone even when holding high office. and his musing on the damaging effect on society of mass production. Yet he encouraged others to pursue the technology, including nuclear warheads, which would “make France great” and was fortunate, probably owing some of his popularity to, the fact that his “reign” coincided with the “Trente Glorieuses” – the three decades of post-war relative economic prosperity and cultural achievement in France.

Although forced to resign ultimately as an old man who had become out of touch, as indicated by the riots of 1968, De Gaulle often proved quite insightful: he foresaw the collapse of Soviet communism, the folly of the American involvement in the Vietnam War which could not be won, ironically even prophesied for the Common Market that “if England enters into the Community, it will collapse because England will divide us”.

Clearly intended to be a major academic work, this requires a significant investment of time. At more than 800 pages, including notes and bibliography, it is too thick and cumbersome to read comfortably in paper format. I found the Kindle version more convenient, with the downside of it being much harder to flick back quickly to check on a point. The sheer number of names of politicians or acronyms of organisations and parties often becomes too much to absorb. Yet it definitely extended my knowledge and understanding considerably – probably one of the best books I have made the effort to read.

Emmanuel Macron – un jeune homme si parfait

This is my review of Emmanuel Macron: un jeune homme si parfait by Anna Fulda.

A biography of Emmanuel Macron seems a little premature, unless it is set in the context of how he managed to overturn the political apple-cart by founding a new party, En Marche! and leading it to victory with an absolute majority in the National Assembly, in little more than a year.

Anne Fulda’s at times gushing journalese froths anecdote and subjective comment with a sprinkle of gossip into a short biography, the solid content of which could be contained in a colour supplement feature. This is a work with no index, and sources limited to foot notes which generally amount to “Entretien avec l’auteur” plus date of interview. The chapters themed according to family relationships, education, Macron’s much-discussed charm, his courting of useful contacts, etcetera, provide a somewhat fragmented, disjointed account of events, with frequent repetition, suggesting a hasty production of the book without much editing, perhaps with the aim of hitting the bookshops before competitors.

Anne Fulda devotes most space to providing explanations for Macron’s remarkable confidence and self-belief. As a child, he clearly had an unusual level of maturity which made him responsive to adults keen to foster his evident intelligence. It was not just a case of father teaching him Greek and philosophy at home, in a house filled with books, for Macron was very close to his formidable grandmother, who set great store by learning, perhaps because of her own uneducated parents. Not only was she an exacting teacher, setting him high standards from an early age, but she clearly adored him to the extent of sidelining his own mother, believing he had “special talents”.

The pattern of seeking the company of admiring older people who could advance his progress continued, first in Macron’s liaison with Brigitte Trogneux, the drama teacher twenty-four years his senior who became his constant companion and eventually his wife, and later with his intense but often brief dealings with a succession of “movers and shakers” – philosophers, bankers and financiers, media people, even image makers like Mimi Marchand, “la Mata Hari des paparazzi” with her photo agency “Bestimage” to promote news of “des beautiful people” – thus is the French language betrayed. This incongruous mixture would of course enable Macron to achieve the goal of becoming president, which he appears to have considered as a realistic aim from an early age.

The author is less effective at dealing with “the tough stuff”: she mentions Macron’s employment by the philosopher Ricœur, but makes no serious attempts to analyse either the main aspects of his mentor’s political thought, or the extent to which Macron has been influenced by this or sought to put it into practice. Similarly, there is an irritating tendency to lapse into name-dropping indigestible lists of the influential people with whom Macron has “networked”. These are leavened with distracting asides and snippets of gossip. Not being French, in order to make sense of all this, I felt the need to look some of them up on line, to gain basic information which should have been included in the book.
I was struck by the discordant shift from what seemed like fulsome, largely unquestioning adulation in earlier chapters, to quite a cynical portrayal of an arch-manipulator who “seduces” people for what he can get out of them. He tells audiences that he loves them, but in fact he is loving himself through them. Like a rock star or a tele-evangelist, he explicitly “speaks of love” in political rallies, because he is tapping “the emotional, irrational aspect which people need”.
The author describes at the end how his expression has changed from what she calls a kind of false, puerile candour into a harder, steely gaze revealing an unexpected determination, sometimes lit from within by “une lueur d’exaltation”. She dubs him a political “ovni” (UFO), “un étrange héros des temps modernes” who has consistently shown an obsession with not being “boxed in”. He has made himself into a “communication tool” which seems to be in perpetual evolution: apart from a consistent determination to get what he wants, in continually changing his identity from would-be actor/writer, to philosopher to banker to minister to President, he appears “toujours en quête, par insatisfaction ou crainte d’être enchaîné, de ne plus pouvoir vivre la vie qu’il a rêvée”. Is this an accurate assessment of what lies beneath the carefully constructed façade? Does it mean that, assuming he is re-elected, Macron may be not be “in for the long haul” as president because he will switch his mighty ambition to something else?

Politically incorrect: Why a Jewish State is a Bad Idea

This is my review of  Politically Incorrect: Why a Jewish State is a Bad Idea  by Ofra Yeshua-Lyth

I came to read this book through being so intrigued by a third generation Jewish Israeli journalist who felt impelled to write such a provocatively titled memoir. Her assessment of the errors which she believes will cause the ongoing “inner crumbling” of Israel in its present form are refracted through article-like chapters on her life and that of her family members back to  the economic need or desire for freedom from religious control which led them to emigrate to the land of Israel before it became an independent state.

Ofra Yeshua-Lyth does not  condemn the existence of Israel as such. Two weeks after the end of the Six Day War, she set off without a qualm on a family tour of the newly occupied West Bank. When Egyptian President Sadat  recognised Israel in his historic meeting with the right-wing leader Menachem Begin, she wrote optimistically of her country finding “its true vocation, which is to become an integral part of the Middle East” without the intercession of “meddling” foreign diplomats, distorting issues and restricting “the power of the imagination” through translating Hebrew and Arabic via the medium of the English language. These views are not surprising, since as a child she was taught how her grandparents  had come to the country and built it up from nothing, and that she had a responsibility to continue their work in a unique but vulnerable Israel. “The only Jewish state in the world was small but brave, poor but just”.

Perhaps the experience of being half-Yemeni, in a racially prejudiced Israel initially dominated by white east European Ashkenazi Jews, made the author more sympathetic to the growing plight of the Palestinian Arabs dispossessed  of the their lands. Certainly, by the end of the book she is advocating dismantling unauthorised settlements in more than a cosmetic exercise and getting out of lands illegally settled under international law. In what she insists is “not mission impossible”, the author argues that the land which Ariel Sharon claimed could take 15 million residents should be one where Jews and Palestinians agree to “live in a normal state as equal citizens living in one territory”, rather than one reserved for those with “the right religion as an entry card”.

This is why her initial and most polemical focus is on the negative implications of the alliance which has grown between the government and deeply religious Orthodox Jews who maintain the raison d’être for an exclusive and expansionist state.  She describes the heavy state support for the lifestyles of the Haredi, whose menfolk devote their lives to studying religious texts, exempt from national service, and massive subsidies for the settlers of the occupied territories, “easily identifiable by their uniform of yarmulkes and bearded faces and by their battered vehicles overloaded with children”. In addition, she lambasts the increased Orthodox influence on state education,   and its controls on marriage to non-Jews, weddings, funerals, and the practice of circumcision even for secular Jews, not to mention kosher food, all of which serve to maintain a sense of  inward-looking separation and superiority.

This book is often wordy and long-winded, assumes a good deal of prior knowledge, sometimes seems too subjective, slapdash or stilted in style. I imagine it will enrage many of the author’s compatriots, but in its  frankness and heart-felt sincerity, it is also a very informative, thought-provoking, insightful with wry humour, evocative, fascinating read.

The Dawn Watch: When fiction trumps history?

This is my review of The Dawn Watch by Maya Jasanoff.

Beneath Maya Jasanoff’s breezy style, stuffing cash into her shoes for safety as she retraces Joseph Conrad’s route along the River Congo, lies a perceptive portrayal of “what made the writer tick”, although of course we can never really know. She succeeds in distilling from clearly thorough research a telling selection of incidents, quotations, and her own insightful conclusions in a biography of only 315 pages, rather than the ever more frequent 800 plus page doorstopper.

It is unnecessary to have read much Conrad to be fascinated by him: the author admits to having struggled to read what some regard as his work of genius, “Nostromo”, and what most struck me when first reading Conrad is his remarkably fluent grasp of the English language, which he only began to learn when he went to sea as a young man.

What is really interesting about Conrad is his acute observation of human nature in a changing world where the romantic hardship of sail was giving way to the more profitable transport by steam, while European powers and the United States vied for control of resources in “less developed” areas, bringing the hell of exploitation, destruction and corruption with their good intentions to establish Christian culture, education, law and order. Maya Jasanoff finds in his life and fiction, “a history of globalisation seen from the inside out”, a grappling with “the ramifications of living in a global world”.

Conrad’s cynical, questioning approach must have been shaped by the hardship of early childhood in the exile to which his Polish parents, members of the landed gentry, were sentenced for his idealistic and unworldly father’s political activism against Russian domination. Yet it was typical of Conrad’s contradictions that years later he refused to sign the petition against the execution of his onetime colleague the Irishman Roger Casement for his part in the Easter Rising: “by emotional force he has made his way and sheer emotionalism has undone him”.

Being orphaned very young, a solitary only child with no stable home, may have triggered Conrad’s wanderlust, the desire to get as far possible from landlocked eastern Europe onto the open sea. Perhaps because his father had been a writer who taught him reams of patriotic Polish poetry, he developed the motivation to jot down stories about places “beyond the end of telegraph cables and mail-boat lines”…”among human outcasts such as one finds in the lost corners of the world”.

Since Maya Jasanoff is a historian rather than a literary biographer, her main interest is in how he dealt with “the moral and material impact of dislocation, the tension and opportunity of multi-ethnic societies, the disruption wrought by technical change”, with only passing reference to his writing style or any real literary evaluation of his work. Two interesting maps, which could have been superimposed, show the clear overlap between the far-flung countries he visited as a seaman and the settings for his novels: five months spent as captain of a steamship on the Congo inspired “Heart of Darkness”; service as first mate of the steamer Vidar plying between the ports of Borneo and Sulawesi led to “Lord Jim”. Yet, “Nostromo”, set in the imaginary South American republic of Costaguano, was based totally on the knowledge of an obliging friend.

Conrad was a man of strong opinions: although his son only once saw him pray over his own father’s grave, Conrad believed that “even the freest” is to some degree hemmed in by “fate”. Sickened by the fact that his later work, which he regarded as “second rate efforts”, which are no longer read, earned him so much more than such works as “Heart of Darkness”, he refused honorary degrees or a knighthood, but would have valued the reward of the international Nobel Prize, which was never offered. Even his humour was caustic: in his final years of belated fame after years of struggling as a writer, he remarked that Esperanto was “a monstrous jargon” but people could translate his work into it if they so wished.

Despite the earnest bleakness of much of his work, his periods of depression as a struggling middle-aged writer and his frequent illnesses, he clearly possessed a charm which drew a wide circle of friends, including well-known authors. After years of desultory flirting on shore-leave with attractive, highly respectable young women, and an intriguing correspondence with a widowed aunt only a few years his senior, he married a “to tell the truth rather plain” teenage typist called Jessie, perhaps as ever shrewdly realising how she could support him on a practical and emotional level – yet he clearly developed a strong affection for her to the end.

Minor criticisms: most of the historical maps included are too small-scale to be legible, the evocative photos embedded in the text would have been better if larger. Maya Jasanoff’s long, somewhat clunky resumés of Conrad’s better known works seem like padding, questionable since they include too many “spoilers” for those wishing to go on to read them. Although the chapters are mainly in chronological order, the thematic approach fragments Conrad’s life story so that a time-line would be useful. Despite all these reservations, this is an absorbing and very readable treatment of a complex and interesting man, flawed yet impressive.

 

Citizen Clem: A Biography of Attlee – “The man who looked like the sort of man who would vote for Attlee”

This is my review of Citizen Clem: A Biography of Attlee: Winner of the Orwell Prize by John Bew.

This prize-winning biography achieves the challenging task of marshalling a mountain of research into an absorbing analytical account of the man who presided over the first majority Labour government in the UK. Criticised, like the Blair period, for failing to seize the opportunity for radical change, Attlee’s pragmatic approach in fact changed a good deal: introduction of the NHS together with national insurance and welfare systems, the more controversial nationalisation of essential industries, and overseas, the dismantling of the British Empire to be replaced by a Commonwealth, with India one of the first to gain an independence, sadly marred by bloodshed.

Clement Attlee was a man of contrasts. Public-school and Oxford educated, he traded a career in law for charity work with deprived boys in London’s East End, which led him to join the nascent Labour Party as a means of creating a fairer society. Mocked as an “invisible man”, likened to a rabbit or one of the “three blind mice”, even called “the Arch-Mediocrity” by the sharp-tongued Bevan, Attlee proved a courageous officer in the First World War, and quietly tenacious, chipped away patiently at problems in civilian life, prompting Churchill to describe him as a “lion-hearted limpet”. Although often painfully shy when thrust into the limelight, lacking in ego and refusing to promote himself so that a retirement speech and media interview on his life would be remembered mainly for their brevity, he was in fact at ease with himself, and so able to establish a rapport with both a mineworker’s union leader and King George VI. Ironically, the man who hated pomposity ended up accepting a hereditary earldom. Although it was feared he would be a liability in general elections, with his reedy voice and mechanical delivery of speeches, his authenticity proved popular with the general public, who liked his values, but not his continual reminders of the need to be “good citizens” and restrict consumption so that Britain could meet its obligations. Having been brought up to revere the British Empire, he was one of the first to call for the granting of Independence to India, and was keen to accept “Red China” as a legitimate power before America was prepared to do so. Despite his vision of achieving a lasting peace through an effective United Nations, with an end to the proliferation of nuclear weapons, in the end he resorted to their development in order to protect the country against the threat of Communism. Very questionably, this was done covertly, to avert a violent outcry from the Labour left wing.

The history of the Labour movement which forms the background to this fascinating biography reminds us of how many of its current dilemmas are far from new. It is impossible to avoid making parallels with today as one reads about Attlee under attack from the left wing intellectuals in his party for his failure to attack the establishment, or criticised more widely for accepting huge loans from the US because of the crippling strings attached, or feeling obliged to enter into a costly war the country could not afford because of the need to show solidarity with the US over Korea. Likewise, there was his refusal to cooperate with west European states over the Schumann Plan to share coal and steel (forerunner of the EU) because he judged it incompatible with freedom to plan the UK economy. Another example was his inability to protect the Palestinians, as promised in the Balfour Agreement, because of a powerful US support for Jewish migration to the homeland of Israel.

With the current all-pervading media hype and obsession with celebrity, it would seem even less likely than before for such a man as Attlee to gain and retain power for so long. He may have been a Victorian at heart, puzzled by his grandchildren’s addiction to television, yet his unassuming dedication, based on a thoughtful vision of the world developed through years of observation, reading and reflection, still evokes admiration after half a century, and a regret that we do not have more politicians with his mix of altruistic vision, determination yet moderation.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars