This Long Pursuit: Reflections of a Romantic Biographer by Richard Holmes – A marmite of reflections

This is my review of This Long Pursuit: Reflections of a Romantic Biographer by Richard Holmes.

Having read his two-part study of Coleridge, and “The Age of Wonder” which explores how the Romantics were influenced by “the beauty and terror” of the scientific discoveries of their day, I admire Richard Holmes as outstanding amongst biographers. So perhaps my expectations were too high for “The Long Pursuit”, the third in a series of reflections on the nature of biography, fleshed out with brief portraits of past lives.

Despite attending a lively talk by the author, I remain unclear about the three-part structure of this book: “Confessions” which explores the process of writing a biography, with many digressions, asking to what extent it can be formally taught as a “body of knowledge; “Restorations” which amounts to five short biographies of it would seem arbitrarily-chosen women who mostly formed part of the Romantic period, including Mary Wollstonecraft, already covered in his work “Footsteps”, and finally “Afterlives” which focuses on five “Romantic era” men, mostly poets (Coleridge, Shelley, Keats and Blake) with the at times almost invisible “common thread” of how reputations may fluctuate after death, as individuals are misremembered, judgements alter as society’s attitudes change, source materials are selectively destroyed or discovered, biographers develop rival interpretations, and so on.

The book contains fascinating “nuggets” such as the author’s collection of two-hundred handwritten notebooks, with objective facts on the right-hand page, and subjective responses to the person under study on the left. There are amusing anecdotes such as the fact that, when Richard Holmes- who rightly travels in the footsteps of all his subjects – climbed on to the roof terrace at Greta Hall where Coleridge wrote and observed “the old moon with the new moon in her arms”, he found that the pupils at what is now a girls’ boarding school hid their vodka and cigarettes there. The portraits included as illustrations are also striking.

However, the book contains too much rehashing of “old material”, a patchwork of fragments from works by Richard Holmes which I have already consumed, leaving me with a sense of being cheated. In all the previous books of his which I have read, there has been a strong cohesive theme linking the chapters, providing a clear context for the often minute detail. Here, I felt unengaged by the continual flitting around without a clear purpose. I concluded that the book is best treated as a series of free-standing essays.

“This long pursuit” has a detailed index, and may include points of value to students. It has a “serendipitous” quality by which I mean that reading it, you may discover the odd point of interest by chance, without actively looking for it. This may make it very appealing to some readers, but I suspect others will skip through or abandon it with a sense of regret.

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars

The Romantic Poets and Their Circle (National Portrait Gallery Insights) by Richard Holmes – Captured creativity

This is my review of The Romantic Poets and Their Circle (National Portrait Gallery Insights) by Richard Holmes.

The National Portrait Gallery’s Insights series uses paintings and sketches from its collections to illustrate themes, in this case the “Romantic Poets” and members of their circle: the artist Haydon; razor-witted critic Hazlitt; courageous all-rounder Leigh Hunt, prepared to face imprisonment for his “seditious libel” of “this fat Adonis”, the Prince Regent, and to publicise the talents of rising stars like Shelley; the astronomer of “supernatural intelligence” Herschel who inspired Coleridge, Byron, Keats and Shelley; the great scientist Davy who linked seamlessly the “two cultures” of art and science, to name a few. It is interesting how, after achieving so much, many of them came to a somewhat sad end.

Most of the images, a full page for each character, are striking in their realism, surprisingly “modern” faces of people we can readily imagine meeting today or passing in the street : Haydon’s vigorous and lifelike head and shoulders’ sketch of Wordsworth; a bluff Sir Walter Scott, churning out pot boilers at this desk to pay off the debts of a bankrupt publishing house; Blake glancing up, pencil in hand, to capture some fresh vision or Amelie Opie staring with direct candour at her husband as he painted her, and therefore of course at us as well,

With his profound knowledge of the period, the biographer Richard Holmes is an excellent choice to provide supporting commentaries. “The dazzling Lord Byron” gets pride of place, “young…brooding, beautiful and damned”. We can be in no doubt about his charisma, combined with understandable, at times absurd vanity, in part perhaps a compensation for his club foot.

Allotted only a page or two for the rest, Richard Holmes manages to make every individual a distinct character, striking the right balance between a brief explanation of each person’s role, and finding a few revealing details or anecdotes. So we grasp Mary Shelley’s intellectual brilliance, precocious writing talent, and concern to create a “normal”, conventional life for her son after the traumatic loss of her other children, and Shelley’s drowning. The country boy John Clare’s sense of insecurity, of being an outsider in London society despite the ready recognition of his talent, is very apparent.

The author takes care not to omit women from the collection, although all too often they have been forgotten, like Felicia Hemans, “the most successful parlour poet of her age” famous for such lines as “The boy stood on the burning deck when all but he had fled”. How many, like the working-class poetess Isabella Lickworth “like the wild flowers on the mountain, unknown, unheeded lie”.

These details can only whet one’s appetite to discover more, and enhance the fascinating pictures for which they provide a context.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

“Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Biography” by Marion Meade – Making the most of a woman’s lot

This is my review of Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Biography (WOMEN IN HISTORY) by Marion Meade.

Eight centuries on, records still remain to prove that Eleanor of Aquitaine was a remarkable woman: beautiful, robust, energetic, courageous, resilient, intelligent, cultured and a shrewd negotiator when given the chance. In a world where the status and security of feudal lords depended on the possession of lands, her inheritance of the extensive and prosperous French Duchy of Aquitaine made her an attractive marriage partner for two rival kings: firstly, the indecisive and monkish Capetin Louis VII of France, whom she grew to despise, and later by complete contrast the Angevin Henry II, Plantagenet ruler of England, a vigorous, driven man with an uncontrollable temper and insatiable sexual appetite.

Eleanor accompanied Louis on an ill-fated Crusade, slowing the procession down with her vast quantities of baggage. She often risked dangerous voyages, even when heavily pregnant, and almost up to her death, aged eighty-two, embarked on tours round her lands to maintain the loyalty of vassals and foil rebellions.

In the unlikely event of her being as promiscuous as painted by detractors, this would have fallen far short of Henry’s predatory treatment of women. Scandalous gossip, embellished long after her death, buzzed round her close friendship with handsome men like Uncle Raymond of Antioch, her probably mythical, failed attempt to elope with Saladin, and demand for divorce from Louis and immediate marriage to Henry, fourteen years her junior. Yet ultimately she was always to be constrained by the superior power of men: the Pope blocked her divorce until Louis decided to end the marriage because of her apparent inability to bear sons. Ironically, she produced four boys in rapid succession for Henry, the ill-fated John born some years later being the last of her ten children. When, in the 1170s, Henry’s heavy-handed mismanagement of his sons provoked their revolt, Eleanor’s support for them was punished with sixteen years of imprisonment, but this did not break her spirit.

When it suited Henry to let her administer affairs in his frequent absences from England, she performed with great competence. Similarly, in her self-imposed exile to Aquitaine, unable to tolerate close at hand the humiliation of Henry’s overt affair with the legendary Rosamund Clifford, she again stabilised with her shrewd and fair management a region which Henry had only disturbed. Yet again, when her favourite son Richard Coeur-de-Lion succeeded Henry, she ran Aquitaine in his absence and drummed up a heavy ransom for his release when he was kidnapped by, of all people, the Duke of Austria.

Marian Meade’s journalistic style, which sometimes slips into quaint phrases involving “hie” and “goodly”, and often seems padded out with purple prose, succeeds in breathing life into what could be a tedious, indigestible wade through long-forgotten events. I have to believe her assertion that “none of the dialogue is invented”, but the continual references to, say, Eleanor’s thoughts, together with a lack of clear sourcing of anecdotes (at least in the edition I read) make this seem like “faction” rather than academic biography. Whatever the truth, this very readable account brings home the insecurity of Medieval life. Apart from the risk of sudden death, feudal property-owners were forced into a continual soap opera of shifting allegiances, trying to take advantage of each other, or avenge some past wrong. It is fascinating to appreciate the lack of a sense of “nation state”, the ease with which castles, lands and marriageable offspring were traded: even the Lionheart did not speak English! The ephemeral fragility of the Angevin Empire which Eleanor worked so hard to build with Henry gives sobering food for thought.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

To be a parrot or a wren

This is my review of The Poets’ Daughters: Dora Wordsworth and Sara Coleridge by Katie Waldegrave.

The remarkable two volume biography of Coleridge (STC) by Richard Holmes inspired me to read Katie Waldegrave’s very readable and apparently effortless achievement of the difficult task of interweaving the parallel lives of Dora Wordsworth and Sara Coleridge, brought up a few miles apart, and friends from childhood.

Dora should have been the happier and more successful of the two: her parents’ marriage was stable, her father was a renowned poet with a supplementary income from his sinecure as “Distributor of Stamps for Westmorland” and they lived in a large house with dramatic views over the Lake District. Yet it seems that for much of her adult life, Dora suffered from acute anorexia, which eventually debilitated her so much that she died in her early forties. Although we cannot be sure of the cause, it must have been related to periods of intense emotional repression. The only times she is recorded as clearly happy are when flirting innocently with the married poet, Edward Quillinan who eventually became her husband, when teaching in a local boarding school against her parents’ wishes, and on various trips away from home, as far afield as Portugal. Otherwise, Dora’s role as a dutiful daughter, working tirelessly as her father’s assistant, coming to terms with the realisation that he would never complete his masterpiece “The Recluse” as he had promised Coleridge, was in conflict with the sadness over seeing other young women of her age finding husbands and forging lives separate from their parents. Her reluctance to marry without her father’s approval delayed her own wedding by several years, and must have caused her considerable stress.

Abandoned by her brilliant but erratic father, Sara Coleridge was dependent on the goodwill of her mother’s brother-in-law, Southey. Like Wordsworth a successful and reasonably affluent poet, Southey fortunately treated her (almost) like a daughter, although on becoming an adult she would have been obliged to work as a governess if her beauty and intelligence had not caught the eye of her first cousin Henry Coleridge. Sara was as it proved justifiably nervous that the duties of housekeeping and childcare would divert her from intellectual pursuits. Before marriage, she confessed to her brother Derwent, “I should have been much happier, with my tastes, temper and habits, had I been of your sex……The thing that would suit me best …would be the life of a country clergyman – I should delight in the studies necessary.. and am sure I …..should not…. shrink from the active duties of it”. The malaise which dogged her throughout her adult life, and led to her own opium addiction, ironical in view of her father’s history, seems to have been worst when her children were young.

What galvanised Sara from her sickbed were Thomas de Quincy’s critical essays accusing her father of plagiarism. Although she had never really known him, apart from his habit of blazing into her life for a few weeks at a time to bewitch her with frightening fairy-tales or to teach her Italian, Sara made it her life’s work to “set the record straight” by editing and interpreting her father’s writings, not shrinking from difficult metaphysical works like the Biographia Literaria. She clearly felt qualified to comment on Coleridge, because she had come to know and understand him through reading his work. They clearly had a similar cast of mind. Prematurely facing death in her forties, Sara wished briefly to have spent more of her all too limited time writing poetry, yet in fact managed to write some fine pieces, including that it is better to know “the stains of frailty” of a noble mind, like her father’s, “than fain would see it white as snow”. She appears quite modern in her insistence on honesty.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

Addictive genius

This is my review of Coleridge: Darker Reflections, 1804-1834 by Richard Holmes.

The second part of this remarkable two-volume biography covers the last half of Coleridge’s life, from his self-exile to Malta to escape his unhappy marriage, debts and impossible love for Wordsworth’s sister “Asra”. Although much of the poetry for which he is now most remembered had already been written, and he sometimes mourned the loss of his ability in this area, often in lyrical terms which ironically belied this view, he still produced some striking verses, also writing a good deal of philosophical work, which was not fully appreciated in his lifetime.

Richard Holmes shows how Coleridge continually ricocheted between the depths of despair and degradation to moments of high achievement. On the downside, he had a dramatic falling out with Wordsworth which became the subject of London gossip, which also began to feast on his failures as a husband and father, and the squandering of his early great talent through his opium addiction, no longer a secret. His metaphysical writing was mocked by the critic Hazlitt, in terms with which one can sympathise judging by some of the quotations provided. Less acceptable were his cruel personal attacks, which seem particularly ungrateful since Coleridge had once smuggled him out of the Lake District to escape justice for having molested a local girl. The negative feedback naturally made publishers wary, so that Coleridge was forced to use a firm which went bankrupt, denying him much-needed earnings from several years of work which he had managed to sustain against the odds. To some extent reunited with his two grown-up sons, it was a bitter blow when the older boy Hartley proved too like his father in his intensely imaginative but addictive personality, so that he was deprived of his Oxford fellowship because of his drunken habits.

On the plus side, when in Malta, Coleridge proved a competent civil servant, although he had mixed feelings about a role which distracted him from his “true calling” of creative writing. On another occasion, he wrote a highly successful play for the London stage. He always seemed to have enough admirers to bale him out in his hour of need, such as the surgeon Morgan with his wife and sister, who became a kind of replacement copy of his intense relationship with Wordsworth, his sister Dorothy and Sarah Hutchinson (Asra). For the last eighteen years of Coleridge’s life, he lived with the family of a successful London doctor, Gillman, who understood how to regulate his opium addiction, receiving in return the reflected “kudos” of managing a man who, although always controversial, ended his life as a “national treasure”, visited by a succession of admirers of romantic poetry, of the glittering conversation which never faded, and writing, considerable despite all the stillborn and uncompleted plans.

Coleridge is at time maddening in his apparent “lack of will” in resisting opium. On the one hand able to analyse his failings with remarkable candour and insight in his calmer moments, he also believed that the addiction which induced nightmares, inertia, embarrassing outbursts and despair bordering on suicide was beyond his control, due to something in his personality or perhaps early experience. It seems likely that he was manic-depressive at a time when laudanum was the sole, over-used painkiller for both physical and mental ailments. Despite all this, it is hard not to share Richard Holmes’ admiration for his resilience and the fact that he never “gave up” for long. Many aspects of his thinking all seem remarkably modern, so that one can imagine him joining in some current intellectual debate.

Part Two is in some ways sadder and more sombre as Coleridge, no longer the energetic young man running down Lake District fell-sides, becomes heavy, shambling, and prematurely aged, often haunted by the destructive effects of his addiction. Yet, as his astute long-standing friend Charles Lamb observed, it was wrong to dismiss as “Poor Coleridge” a man who had in fact experienced and created so much. He even suggested that the addiction was in part necessary to Coleridge’s originality, and enhanced it. Following his death, Lamb wrote: “I feel how great a part he was of me, his great and dear Spirit haunts me. I cannot think a thought, cannot make a criticism of men and books, without an ineffectual turning and reference to him. He was the proof and touchstone of all my cogitations….Never saw I his likeness, nor probably can the world see it again.” Richard Holmes’ lasting achievement is to enable us to understand and relate to these sentiments.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

Live not by lies

This is my review of The Invention of Russia: The Journey from Gorbachev’s Freedom to Putin’s War by Arkady Ostrovsky.

In his quest to understand how Russia got from the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 to the aggressive, chauvinist state of Russian under Putin in 2015, the Russian-born author takes us back to Krushchev’s denunciation of Stalin’s repression in 1956, paving the way for Gorbachev’s formal launch of “Perestroika” or restructuring from 1985.

Ostrovsky focuses on the media’s key role in both assisting and obstructing change. In the 1960s, newspapers and television were dominated by intellectuals bent on “cleansing” Communism of the distortions Stalin had imposed. They had not yet progressed to demanding economic freedom. It took leading journalists like Alexander Yakovlev years to realise that “the Bolshevik religion was false” and that “socialism with a human face” might not be feasible under communism. Following the crushing of the 1968 “Prague Spring”, journalists like “Yegor” (also a Yakovlev, but “no relation”), felt alienated by the use of Soviet tanks, but continued to compromise, not speaking the truth in the belief that they could achieve more “from the inside”, not to mention their concerns for self-preservation.

Yet the irony was that eventually, “words rather than tanks” meant that the generation which had intended to vindicate the ideals of fathers purged by Stalin ended by unintentionally destroying socialism. “Glasnost” and the opening up of minds through the media proved more important in effecting change than “altering the means of production”. Unrest grew as the media helped people to perceive their relative lack of consumer goods, or the failure of the Afghan War. When Gorbachev dithered over economic liberalism, “Moscow News” had the confidence to urge him to act decisively or resign.

Under his successor Yeltsin, there was a generational shift from men like Yegor to his son Vladimir who founded the magazine Kommersant to promote capitalism of a primitive kind, operating in a moral vacuum. The “oligarchs” who benefitted from the “loans for shares” scheme saw the influence to be gained from owning TV channels: Gusinsky took over the TV channel NTV which established a reputation for honesty in, for instance, its reporting on the Chechnyan war. When his oligarch acquaintances urged him to sell the station that was putting their business at risk, or make it non-political, his journalist Malashenko resisted, pointing out that NTV had the strength to survive under a weak and dysfunctional state. The truth was of course that freedom of speech was fragile, dependent on Yeltsin’s goodwill.

This became clear after Putin’s appointment as a decisive and authoritative heir to the ailing Yeltsin. Gusinsky was ordered to sell NTV to Gazprom, after “the last straw” of parodying Putin on the Russian equivalent of the political satire “Spitting Image”. By 2004, the state-controlled “Channel One” was reduced to showing mainly soap operas during the Chechnyan crisis in Beslan, playing down the number of casualties, pretending hostages were safe when more than 300 were dead, and showing scenes from military dramas of terrorists being beaten.

Ostrovsky claims that by 2014, the Russian media had become not just a metaphorical but a real weapon causing genuine destruction, not just distorting reality but inventing it “using fake footage” to report on conflict in, for instance, Ukraine, even using actors: “sometimes the same actor would impersonate both the victim and the aggressor on different channels.” Nemtsov, the charismatic politician who warned against the use of TV to produce “patriotic hallucinations” was himself murdered outside the Kremlin shortly afterwards. For Russians, violent newsreels have become a form of entertainment: “the vast majority of Russians now contemplate the possibility of a nuclear war …..and 40 per cent of the younger ones believe that Russia can win, as though it were a video game”. The once brash Vladimir Yakovlev now warns that people live in a crazy illusion tha the country is surrounded by enemies… The information war is first and foremost destroying ourselves”.

The subject matter is fascinating and the bibliography impressive, but some clear and striking analysis is buried in the at times frenetic journalese which makes for hard reading, along with the large cast of characters with unpronounceable names, for a non-Russian reader. I was also surprised to find so little mention of the economic hardship I believe to have been endured by many ordinary Russians post 1991.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

“The Bloomsbury Group” by Frances SpaldingHow they reverberated

This is my review of The Bloomsbury Group by Frances Spalding.

Written by the “leading authority” Frances Spalding, this fascinating and very readable book which manages to cover in only a hundred pages an astonishing amount of information without seeming overloaded, begins with a brief explanation of the famous Bloomsbury Group before embarking on thumbnail biographies of many of its key members, each accompanying a full-page illustration of a painting from the National Portrait Gallery in London.

I have been forced to modify my view of the Bloomsbury Group (so-named after the district into which Vanessa Bell, as she was to become moved, together with her siblings including Virginia who was to marry the publisher Leonard Woolf. Having regarded them as a group of self-absorbed intellectuals, somewhat self-indulgent in the justification of their casual switching of partners, I now realise that their earnest discussion and experimentation was an important and inevitable response to the stultifying grip of Victorian moral conventions and unquestioning acceptance of religious teaching which linked ethics with behaviour. “Fresh questions had to be asked as to how and why they should be connected. What was the nature of good? How should you live? What philosophy could be found to support and justify the good life?” The Bloomsbury Group believed in honest personal relationships, and the value of enduring friendship, which could transcend a love affair which had lost its meaning. Virginia Woolf praised her Bloomsbury friends for “having worked out a view of life which still holds…after twenty years; and no amount of quarrelling or success, or failure has altered this”.

It is revealing how many of the photographs and paintings show the characters reading: the oddly charismatic, sedentary “man of letters” Lytton Strachey, was “often shown in a state of complete relaxation, a condition conducive to a life of intense mental activity”. This inspired the hopeless love of the probably somewhat neurotic artist Dora Carrington, whose portraits impressed me with their quality and realism: namely that of the handsome expert on Spain, Gerard Brenan, who in turn carried a torch in vain for her, and of E.M. Forster who shared Bloomsbury values while remaining on the margins of the group. The clarity and lifelike quality of Roger Fry’s self-portrait together with those of Bertrand Russell (whose mathematical mind and contempt for homosexuality may have distanced him from the Bloomsbury network, which he could not avoid because his wife Alys’s nieces married into it) and of Clive Bell, the longsuffering husband of Vanessa are at odds with Fry’s pioneering work “crusading passionately on behalf of Cézanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh and Matisse,” to raise awareness in Britain of the Impressionist movement.

The author’s many insights into the lives and time of the Bloomsbury Group, are lightened by many anecdotes, such as the magnetic “cornflower-blue”-eyed David Garnett watching the weighing of Angelica, newborn daughter of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant with whom he lived in a menage à trois, and “conceiving the idea of marrying her” which he duly did more than twenty years later.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

Re-entrance to a plauditry

This is my review of Soul of the Age: The Life, Mind and World of William Shakespeare by Jonathan Bate.

Sequenced to follow the seven phases of a man’s life in the famous “All the world’s a stage” soliliquy, chapters takes the form of themed essays.

Readers will be struck by different revelations and insights in the spate of ideas. I realised for the first time that it was the banning of the cycles of medieval mystery plays by the Protestant Reformation which created a vacuum into which Shakespeare could present his new plays, untrammelled by dogma, relatively free to range over a wide range of topics and ideas.

I liked the idea of Shakespeare continually drawing on his Warwickshire roots. So, when culling ideas for “As You Like It” from a prose romance called “Rosalynd”, he turned the forests of the Ardennes into Arden. When insulted for his lowly origins by an educated, now forgotten rival playwright, who called him “an upstart crow beautified with our feathers”, Shakespeare took humorous revenge in “The Comedy of Errors” with a punning dialogue on “breaking in with a crow without feather” that is to say, a crowbar. The exchange is much more entertaining when you know the context.

It was the father of a friend of Shakespeare’s who translated into English details of the universe according to Copernicus, with the sun at the centre. When the accepted belief was in the “necessary correspondence between the order of the cosmos and that of the state”, Shakespeare showed his independence of mind and flexibility of thought in giving humorous irony to to Edmund in “King Lear”:

“when we are sick in fortune – often the surfeits of our own behaviour – we make guilty of our disaster the sun, the moon and stars, as if we were villains of necessity…..My father compounded with my mother under the dragon’s tail and my nativity was under Ursa Major, so that it follows I am rough and lecherous”.

Just before the abortive coup which ended in his execution, the Earl of Essex may have been inspired to sedition by Shakespeare’s Richard II: if Shakespeare had been sent to the Tower for this, great works such as Othello, Lear, Macbeth and the Tempest might never have been written. As it was, eighteen of his major plays which did not appear in print in his lifetime would probably have been lost if two colleagues from the Company of King’s Men to which he belonged had not ensured their publication after his death.

We see Shakespeare daring to experiment with the ideas of Montaigne, exploring a range of philosophies including the Epicurean view, suspected because of its association with atheism: the need to give vent to one’s feelings rather than maintain Stoical patience, for “Sorrow concealed, like an oven stopped, Doth burn the heart to cinders where it is.”

There are gaps in our knowledge of Shakespeare. Was he obliged to steer clear of King James’s court for a while since he had syphilis? Yet we have many remarkable details, such as the amount a colleague left him in his will, the fact that his energy was exhausting, but there was widespread admiration for his “wit” in the widest sense of linguistic talent, humour, imagination and judgement. So, the author’s occasional attempts at surmise seem like unnecessary contrivance.

With his astonishing knowledge of Shakespeare’s life and works, perhaps Jonathan Bate may be forgiven a convoluted style and a weight of detail which is sometimes too much to absorb. This book has helped me to appreciate Shakespeare’s wit and insight, filling me with good intentions to revisit his sonnets, even study some of his plays again.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

From Catholic monarchy versus social justice to “bleak chic”

This is my review of The History of Modern France: From the Revolution to the War with Terror by Jonathan Fenby.

Observing the newly restored Bourbon King Louis XVIII’s reluctant choice of ministers, the devious Talleyrand leaning on the arm of brutal Fouché , Chateaubriand described “vice leaning on the arm of crime”. A Christmas Eve dinner during the Prussian siege of Paris in 1871 included, elephant consommé and bear ribs in pepper sauce from slaughtered zoo animals, along with the more mundane stuffed donkey’ s head and roast cat with rats. These entertaining asides spice up Jonathan Fenby’s broad sweep from the ill-fated attempt to restore the monarchy, after Napoleon’s final defeat in 1815, in the shape of the unimaginative, ageing brother of the guillotined Louis XV1, to the economic decline under the unpopular socialist President Hollande, aggravated by terrorist events like the attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

Throughout the book, I kept seeing parallels between past popular revolts and the present unrest: left-wing republicans trying to limit working hours, although the modern-day 35 hours a week was a ten hour day in the Paris of 1848; C19 Parisians uprooting trees to form barricades, and today’s CGT unionists burning tyres outside power stations in protest against legislation to make organisations more competitive, with the irony of a modern socialist government seeming to work on the side of employers. Of course, the paradox of the First Republic of 1848 was far keener, “a reminder of how eminently respectable republicans turned the troops on their own people motivated primarily by the desire for a decent livelihood.”

Jonathan Fenby is most readable when he focuses on particular people or events: the succession of four monarchs, including the well-intentioned “Citizen King” Louis-Philippe, whose approach to reform was too moderate to appease the republican genie let out of the bottle, particularly in 1848, the Year of Revolutions, which perhaps the author could have explained more. Napoleon’s step-nephew (I think, a few family trees would have been useful) managed to hold power for eighteen years as France’s last monarch, and presided over some much-needed economic progress and restoration of national standing, despite being dismissed by Bismarck as “a sphinx without riddles” and criticised for his amoral pragmatism. The humiliation of his loss of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 is an aspect of the ongoing rivalry between the two countries either side of the Rhine: now, France suffers by comparison with Germany as regards growth rates and trade deficits.

Fenby paints a fascinating portrait of De Gaulle, who comes across as an egotistical dictator, alternating as is often the case between arrogant certainty and melancholy, profoundly ungrateful for the help received from Britain and America, presumably a constant reminder of his own impotence when France was occupied in WW2.

The price of covering so much is a text at times so condensed as to become indigestible and occasionally unclear, particularly in the period 1870-1939 which I found hard going. I accept that forty-two governments between two world wars, with a system resulting in short-lived coalitions, is hard to cover adequately. Fenby tries to aid clarity with subheadings, boxes to feature somewhat arbitrarily chosen individuals, and day-by-day accounts of some key periods of unrest. However, I could have done with a glossary of the large number of players involved, a timeline of key events, plus an explanation of the current French voting system, to avoid the need to refer elsewhere.

Fenby leaves us with a rather bleak picture of a depressed country which despite its sense of being special, has fallen behind as it prefers “to reject economic modernisation in favour of defence of tradition”. Although the Republic has been accepted since 1870 as the regime that divides the French the least, the warring factions remain: “the country invariably opts for right over left with occasional eruptions to prove that the revolutionary legacy is not dead”. I would have preferred more of this kind of an analysis, perhaps a two volume history with a break in 1945, to give more space to develop themes.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

Puncturing our blissful ignorance

This is my review of The Egyptians: A Radical Story by Jack Shenker.

Journalist Jack Shenker embedded himself in the society of ordinary Egyptians before the Arab Spring burst into life, the better to understand the pressures for change. Quoting George Orwell’s exhortation, “Beware my partisanship” in “Homage to Catalonia”, Jack Shenker readily admits that his own book “takes sides”.

The essence of his argument is that global capitalist free market policies, have led to a “neoliberal restructuring” of Egypt which has resulted in a “mass transfer of wealth from the poor and middle classes to the rich and impoverished vast swathes of its citizenry". This has involved western governments, aid organisations, development banks and businessmen in dubious alliances, playing “a key role in both financing and legitimizing Middle Eastern despots including Egypt”. The replacement of Mubarak by Morsi was a cosmetic change which did not alter the fundamental system in that there is clear evidence of repression increasing under the latter. This helps to explain what was inadequately reported in the western press as the somewhat perverse rejection of a “democratically elected” new leader without waiting for him to be voted out. Although it may appear to supporters of greater justice and equality for Egypt that the situation is deteriorating once again under Sisi, Shenker argues that in an admittedly unstable “one step forward, two steps back” situation, Tony Blair’s argument that the revolution has “come full circle”, is “dead”, “failed”, and “officially over”, is too simplistic: local “revolutions” in villages and factories began decades before the famous occupation of Tahrir Square, and are still continuing in a drive for change which will take years. The revolution consists of much more than Tahrir Square which, although clearly a “media-friendly window on Egypt’s turmoil”, was most significant as an example of the creative community action which drives long-term change.

Some will be at odds with Jack Shenker’s rejection of free market capitalism, and find his belief in “Occupy”-style social change a little naïve. They may join with the western leaders who pragmatically prefer the authoritarian control of men like Mubarak or Sisi to the revolutionary chaos of say, Libya which has allowed ISIS to flourish. However, it is evident that the Egyptian developments triggered by western investment including the World Bank, IMF, USAID and European Investment Bank, and often involving the privatisation of state assets, have not “trickled down” to the poor. As described in the Epilogue, the 2015 “Egypt the Future” Conference at the International Congress Centre in Sharm el-Sheikh is cringe-making: Martin Sorrell’s “country branding” seems a world away from the daily reality of bare subsistence, lack of basic amenities, forcible evictions and arbitrary imprisonment for wearing a T-shirt with a subversive motif.

Despite the fascinating subject matter, the prose is often indigestible and repetitive, crying out for a sharp edit. To take at random a couple of interesting points that are explained much better in other sentences: “The Egyptians are a people who abrogate their voice to the stagecraft of procedural democracy”….. “Security forces have exploited tropes of passive femininity to target both men and women attempting to emasculate the former through sexual assaults and reimpose state-centric masculinities in the process.”

Although at times hard-going, this book has made me think. I find myself reflecting on how “neo-liberal” policies have led to zero hours contracts in the UK, and the desecration of the London skyline with tower blocks for absentee foreign investors, yet this of course pales into significance in comparison with the suffering and repression of millions of Egyptians. Examples include the brutal reversal of Nasser's land reforms, the eviction of peasants from their plots and urban dwellers from the unofficial "shanty towns" they have been obliged to construct for themselves, the cynical mass sale of undervalued state assets to the benefit of wealthy Egyptians and foreign investors, projects to divert Nile water to foreign exporting agribusinesses at the expense of farmers seeking to feed themselves and the local community, arbitrary arrest and brutal beatings to discourage dissent, even payment of thugs to rape female protestors, and so on.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars