The Pianist of Yarmouk by Aehem Ahmad: “There’s always hope”

This is the revealing and moving memoir of a young musician who captured media attention in the west during the earlier part of the civil war in Syria, by dragging a beaten-up piano into the rubble of Yarmouk, the besieged suburb on the outskirts of Damascus, originally a large camp for refugees from Palestine in the 1940s. With help from foreigners, but at considerable personal risk, he succeeded in making the dangerous journey to Germany in 2015, where he was eventually reunited with his immediate family, and now continues to perform music about Syria to inform and remind us of the ongoing crisis there.

Ghosted by a couple of writers, the book is not particularly well-written and some details are unclear and at times hard to credit, but that is outweighed by the vivid first-hand account of life in Syria plus his resilience and flashes of humour even in adversity.

His father’s blindness and frequent need of him as a guide created a stronger bond than is usual between Syrian fathers and sons. A regular violinist at weddings, the father had greater ambitions for Aeham to become a classical pianist, going to extraordinary lengths to help him, against the odds, to gain a place at the prestigious music school dominated by children of the wealthy, going on to cajole, even bribe him, to continue practising through his rebellious teenage years. This gave him the skill which would one day save him from the hell of the civil war.

Initially impoverished, the family manages to achieve a brief level of prosperity through manufacturing and selling musical instruments, until the war forces the boarding up of the shop which is eventually blown to smithereens. Ironically, it seems to be the reluctance to abandon their instruments which keeps them in Yarmouk until they are caught up in the deadly siege.

I particularly liked the continual insights into life in Syria before it was disrupted by the war: the continual violent arguments between Aeham’s normally rational mother and her sister-in-law in the house they shared as an extended family. Despite skiving off high school to play popular music and compose in the shop (why wasn’t it open?), and insisting on marrying when his parents consider he is too young, Aeham still follows the custom of asking them to find him a suitable wife, and keeps to the tradition of not seeing their choice Tahini prior to their engagement – until curiosity brings her to their music shop to check him out, after which they arrange clandestine meetings.

From the outset there is pressure not to step out of line: Aeham is good at creating a sense of fear, as when he can tell from his father’s body language that the man whose piano they are tuning is dangerous – he turns out to be the ruthless and corrupt secretary of defence and close confidant of Assad’s father.

The tone darkens dramatically with the onset of war: the risk of arrest or a beating at one of the arbitrary checkpoints set up by rival military groups; the sniper fire which punctuates Aeham’s music as he accompanies a band of children singing; the piano, defiantly painted the colours of the Palestinian flag, set alight by a bigoted ISIS soldier because “ owning musical instruments is an unforgivable sin”. All this has to be endured on a diet of red lentil falafel and clover.

Although the dramatic account of Aeham’s eventual escape, involving exploitation by people smugglers and chains of middle men both sides of the political divide, has become an all too familiar theme, there is an authentic ring to his frequently breaking down in tears en route, or believing that he was about to meet his end, because of the surreal, inhuman stress of it all, together with his subsequent sense of guilt over having escaped and mourning for a past life, despite being in the safety of Germany.

This book is important reading for those unaware of the tragedy of Syria and Palestine. It is also worth viewing on YouTube some of the videos of Aeham playing.

Border- a journey to the edge of Europe by Kapka Kassabova

Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe

The border area west of the Black Sea between Bulgaria, where the author Kapka Kassabova grew up under a communist regime, with Turkey and Greece to the south, is a mystery to most people. Situated on the edge of Europe, it has been fated to lie on the edge of a succession of empires: Greek, Ottoman and Soviet, suffering continual invasion and domination, with enforced transfers of Greeks into Turkey and vice versa, now replaced by the stream of refugees from ravaged areas like Syria, trying to reach Germany or the UK by a backdoor remote mountainous route. Since her own family was forced out as economic migrants, I think during the messy collapse of communism, travelling as far afield as New Zealand, she displays a strong empathy for migrants of all kinds.
As a child, the author resented the restrictions which prevented her from crossing the border near her Black Sea holiday resort into nearby Turkey. She was intrigued by the East Germans known by the locals as “sandals”, who crept off into the forested granite hills of Strandja in the hope of finding a way round the electrified barbed wire border fence, only to be betrayed by shepherds or shot by border guards.

Thirty years later, nostalgia for the countryside brought her back, to stay in a succession of places, starting with the “The Village in the Valley”, presumably unnamed to preserve people’s privacy, now decimated by the mass population exit “in the brutal freefall of 1990s post-Communism”, completing the effects of an earlier flight of Greek-speaking people in exchange for Bulgarian refugees from Turkey in what the author calls “the merry-go-round of exchange of population”. Although this is fascinating, I was frequently left unclear about the sequence of events.

The lack of clarity, combined with frequent digression into anecdotes and folktales, and a picaresque map which omits most place-names to focus on specific features of her stories such as “The Spring of the White-Legged Maiden” or “Felix’s Cliff”, create an avoidable confusion which is my main criticism of the book.

The compensation, is the creation of a kind of magical, haunting quality in which we learn say, about “agiasma”, Greek for the holy springs, at one of which the author was taken to watch the fire-walkers, still keeping alive the tradition of fire worship.

Sometimes the supernatural “goes over the top” for my taste, as in the convoluted tale of the “Tomb of Basket”, the excavation of which was thwarted by terrifying night-time visions of “three-dimensional spectral projections” coming out of the rock to approach the terrified observers “who got the hell out of there”.

More prosaic is the anecdote of the Turkish “chesma” or roadside fountain where she meets a shady character, whom she realises too late must have developed his secluded rural “gangster-baroque” hideaway on the proceeds of spying and wheeler-dealing for the former Stasi-like State Security.

I was intrigued by the C6 rock monastery of Saint Nicholas, protected from further vandalism by a self-appointed, unpaid guard who turns out to be not only a despised gypsy but a Muslim, who observes, “Church or mosque, it’s all the same. A place of God and silence. You have to treat it with respect”. We are reminded that the reason for persecuting the gypsies over the centuries was that, in roaming around with their horses, they avoided paying tax. Hence the failed decree to ban gypsy acrobats from having horses.

Then there was her stay in “The Village where you lived for ever” in the Rhodope Mountains inhabited by the Pomaks. Descendants of long-ago converts to Islam and therefore persecuted as a kind of “fifth column” in Bulgaria, despite their Slavic or ethnic Bulgar origin, at various times having both Christianity and name changes forced upon them. Near here is “The Judgement” border cliff from which “inconvenient people have been pushed into the mist since the beginning of people”. I was moved by the tale of the Czechs trying to escape from Communism who left some money for the lunch they stole from a shepherd. His dilemma was whether to turn a blind eye and risk being punished for failing a test of his loyalty, or to report the theft and be commended. Having chosen the latter, he was haunted for the rest of a life. Or did the Czechs arrive in Greece safely, if hungry?
Kapka Kassabova has an appealing honesty, even if sometimes verging on neurosis. When it was time to move on from “the Village in the Valley” she writes: “I had worried that I was at heart a deracinated, drifting person, despite my delusion or being at home everywhere. That although I no longer belonged here, in the broken country of my youth, it was where I secretly belonged the most. That I fancied myself as an observer, but even after twenty years away, I was still a participant and always would be. That I had no distance from anything and cared too much about the doomed. That the Village in the Valley felt like paradise but might be purgatory. That I couldn’t tell the difference. That I felt tainted , yet full of love for this plundered place”.

In selecting points for this review, I appreciate once again the book’s strong sense of place and social history. This is made all the more poignant by the fact that, if inspired to visit this area, we would lack the knowledge and access to local guides to experience it as the author has. Also, how long can its character survive as people die out in the “villages of dingy, inscrutable beauty” while the current Turkish regime attacks the southern slopes of Strandja “like a wrecking ball” with gigantic quarries and cement works, and a coastal nuclear plant, all in the name of progress.

India by Patrick French: Nation, Wealth and Society

Although published in 2011, before the rise of Hindu nationalism under President Modi and resultant surge in the persecution of Muslims which Patrick French could not foresee, this book remains worth reading as a clear, informative and wide-ranging introduction to a fascinating and complex country.

With many anecdotes, he creates a strong, authentic sense of place, starting with the old man in his apricot orchard, recalling how when Nehru visited the newly independent northern border region of Ladakh, there were no roads, so he had to land by plane, something the locals had never seen before, so they simply put their hands together and prayed to it. At the other end of the scale are the computer whizz kid Indian graduates who have made such a contribution to Silicon Valley in the US, some claiming that their early grounding in abstract Hindu philosophy has helped them to make “mental leaps in the virtual world”.

Commencing with a useful potted history of the creation in 1947 of what was initially meant to be a secular democracy, and an explanation of the complex politics, with MPs now increasingly determined by family links, French moves on to the early problems caused by a well-intentioned but over-bureaucratic socialist system of central planning, with enterprise often stifled by the need to obtain permits to import or manufacture products.

The benefits of the subsequent liberalisation have “lifted large numbers out of extreme poverty” but the rise in population has left about the same number of poor people. There seems to be a widening gap: “By 2008 four of the eight richest people alive were Indian”, there is a “dynamic middle class, but “people….still die, finding that eating rats or ground mango kernels does not save them from starvation”.

The issue of caste in all its complex degrees of exclusion runs through the text: the Chuhras who have had to do “hereditary work sweeping, cleaning, dealing with dead animals…” then scraping up the leftover food after weddings, the “joothan” to boil and store for late. In the unconscious insensitivity of his much vaunted personal sacrifice, Gandhi wished to be reborn an untouchable “to share their sorrow, sufferings and the affronts levelled at them”. With the perhaps questionable observation that “compassion is not a Hindu concept” French describes the plight of a “Dalit” (low caste) worker who, for seeking to leave his job with an unpaid debt, was fitted with heavy metal fetters, forcing him to spend years breaking stones in a quarry, until he was saved by some activists during a political campaign.

French covers relations with Pakistan and the position of Indian Muslims, who are surprisingly almost as numerous as Pakistanis. They are described by one of their own leaders as the most backward community in India “economically, educationally and socially”, largely because the most disadvantaged were left behind in the 1947 Partition. Yet, this self-same leader defended the persistence of archaic Muslim codes in India which supported his personal power, even at the cost of feeding resentment among conservative Hindus that they could not enjoy similar “separatist privilege”.

Occasionally the book gets bogged down too long in one issue, and the final chapter seems a somewhat rushed catch-all for all the outstanding points the author wanted to include, but overall this is highly recommended.

“Travellers in the third Reich” by Julia Boyd: wonderland through the looking glass

Only months after the end of World War One, travel brochures were urging American tourists to visit Germany, and many British travellers needed little encouragement to holiday in a country they had been brought up to admire with “its cathedrals.. castles…art treasures..Bach, Beethoven and Wagner.” Since the trench warfare had mostly taken place beyond its borders, German towns were in the main intact, and the landscape “still beautiful and largely unscathed”.

Paperback

Visitors from abroad were initially surprised by the “civility” and friendliness of the German people: “how can they, outwardly at least, bear so little grudge against the people who have beaten them?” When a sense of betrayal set in, largely against “the Kaiser, their politicians and generals and especially… the Treaty of Versailles” foreign observers often felt some sympathy over its harsh and humiliating terms, likely to prove counterproductive in the longer term, as proved to be the case with the rampant inflation, and the rapid rise of “the chief agitator…a man of low origin”, namely Adolf Hitler.

Even those made incredulous, scornful or uneasy over the Führer’s overwrought rants and grandiose staged appearances and the rapturous mass hysteria which they generated, were impressed by the apparent rapid achievements of his regime, harnessing the innate German efficiency and industry to regenerate the country. Towns were conspicuously clean and well-kept, the Youth Movement encouraged team spirit and a healthy love of nature in the rising generation, and transport was transformed by the construction of at first underused “autobahns” far in advance of say, the British motorway system.

Others were quick to see the potential danger of the underlying fascist nationalism, in some ways hard to distinguish from the authoritarian communism to which it was fiercely opposed – until the brief notorious pact with Russia when it suited the Nazis. Some travellers were blind to the growing persecution of the Jewish population, perhaps in part because anti-Semitism was quite strong in their home countries at the time, but as laws were passed to deprive Jews progressively of their jobs and rights, anger and revulsion against Hitler’s government took root.

Some like the French author Jacques Chardonne were carried away by an utterly distorted view of the “moral beauty” of German society: “courage, will, self-denial, decency and various forms of health”. He even had a romantic view of the SS as “militant monks…. they do not seem to feel sorrow, or fear, or hunger or desire: they are the angels of war come down for a moment from the heaven of Niflheim (in Norse mythology) to help people to perform a task that is too difficult for them”. More pragmatic visitors could see how, by late 1941, physical conditions for ordinary Germans had often deteriorated to the point of making life not worth living.

Yet right to the outbreak of war, people who should have known better failed to take a stand. Even an elderly Lloyd George, flattered during a meeting by Hitler’s praise for his statesmanship in World War One, returned home to shower him with fulsome praise: “a magnetic, dynamic personality…the George Washington of Germany who won independence from his country’s oppressors, while remaining unquestionably a man of peace”. Also, despite avoiding the risk of sitting with Hitler in the Wagner box at the Bayreuth Festival, the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham could not resist the temptation to show off his new London Philharmonic Orchestra in Germany, all expenses paid, as the price of a PR campaign by the Germans to gain acceptance.

This meticulously researched and very readable book creates a vivid sense of life in Germany in the two decades between the World Wars, giving great insight into the causes and effects of the fateful Third Reich. Since it can be hard to keep track of the vast and varied cast of letter and diary writers, it is worth referring to the glossary of characters supplied at the back.

The final brief chapters covering the war itself inevitably rely heavily on the British women who happen to have married Germans. One describes the ludicrous yet poignant irony of an old British friend “dropping by” on his way to “take Kiel” at the end of the war.

“L’Insoumise de Gaza” by Asmaa Alghoul & Sélim Nassib: “When there’s no choice but to rebel”

L'Insoumise de Gaza (Documents, Actualités, Société) (French Edition) by [Nassib, Sélim, Alghoul, Asmaa]

The eldest of nine, Asmaa Alghoul grew up in the Gaza refugee camp of Rafah where her grandparents had fled after their land was taken by the Israelis. I found it hard to “place” her family; although, as a refugee, she received handouts at school, her father was clearly educated, at times holding down a professional post abroad and teaching at a Gaza university, while her uncles were much more fundamentally religious, supporters of Hamas, some holding quite senior posts. Encouraged to ask questions by her relatively broad-minded father but chastised by the uncles for her lack of piety, by her mother for not doing her homework and her teacher for misbehaving at school, a combination of these factors must have engendered her unusually stubborn, resilient and persistent stance, a prerequisite for a female journalist in the tough, chauvinist environment of the Gaza strip.
Having left an Islamic university because it was too strict, and a less academic, more secular one when her course folded through lack of students, Asmaa quickly found work writing for a newspaper about the plight of Gaza and Palestinian women’s rights, going on to win a succession of international prizes for the courage and quality of her work.

She demonstrates in quite an extreme form the dilemma of the woman who wants to combine marriage and motherhood with a career which involves great commitment flexibility, even danger in the sense of risking arrest and torture for attending a demonstration, or death when trying to cover an Israeli attack. She tends to let her “heart rule her head” in choosing husbands, only to find them to be not as open-minded as she thought. Perhaps she is a little blinkered when it comes to admitting her own fault in the failure of a relationship. She certainly seems to have suffered post-natal depression after the birth of her son, both her children being largely brought up by her own mother, it seems.

She gives a vivid impression of life in the Gaza strip, surprising me at first with her “plague on all your houses” attitude to the various opposing groups who confine the inhabitants in a vice. As a child she refused a sweet from a well-meaning Israeli soldier, “because it contained poison”. Some of her earliest memories were of Israeli soldiers attacking with stones and teargas the house of her extended family, beating her uncles for their connections with Hamas. Years later she was to tell a Jewish American lecturer at Columbia that he was the first Israeli to teach her something.

Yet she also condemns the corruption of Fatah and the Palestinian Organisation, claiming that they pocketed large sums sent by naïve European and American groups to help the Palestinians. One of their number, she claims, even supplied the concrete to build the infamous wall protecting Israel.

Dispelling my belief that Hamas was at least democratically elected to represent Gaza, she describes how they manipulated the system to get enough votes to win. She also describes their repressive fanaticism, driven by control freakery rather than based on any doctrine, in which a woman is continually harassed and manhandled for failing to cover her hair completely with a headscarf, arrested for sitting on the beach fully clad, but with her clothing moulded to her body after bathing in the sea, or tortured for attending a demonstration.

As is no doubt vital for one’s sanity and endurance, there is much humour in the book, as when she manages to flout the taboo on cycling, using the company of some European wars waged by the Israelis in the early C21, culminating in the broken ceasefire of 2014 in which several members of her family were killed, mostly innocent civilians. She writes vividly of her fear of being killed, the sudden and arbitrary nature of death: of her newborn twin nephews, one died and the other survives, but to be haunted by this fact for the rest of his life. Then there is the strange depression which comes in the aftermath of bombardment when all tension is abruptly removed and one can relax. Although she appreciates that all wars must end in peace between enemies, so sees the futility of retaliation, she describes the urge to do so “because our blood is not as cheap as you think”.

No one escapes her fearless, pithy, no-holds-barred analysis, so it is obvious why she has attracted such fierce attacks in return. “What a region!” she writes, in which Islamic State kills people indiscriminately in the name of a perverted interpretation of Islam, whereas Israel does so in the name of its Promised Land. She ends this book on a positive, defiant note but the prospect seems bleak in reality.

Some prior knowledge is needed to appreciate this book fully, although I suppose it could equally well inspire a reader to go away and gen themselves up on an injustice which is allowed to persist through widespread indifference compounded by ignorance.

“Second-hand time” by Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich: “Cracking the mystery wrapped in an enigma”

Second-hand Time by [Alexievich, Svetlana]

This is an amalgam of largely unedited and at times remarkably frank, no-holds-barred interviews with individuals and fragments of conversations with groups living in the former Soviet Union after the collapse of communism in the early 1990s. The author’s personal experience of life in Belarus, and her obvious listening skills no doubt helped to draw people out.

Patterns emerge from the diverse accounts. Despite the violence, physical hardship and social oppression, those who lived under Stalin’s regime retain a nostalgia for the past which may at first seem surprising. It must be partly due to conditioning from an early age with the propaganda of patriotic songs:
“World capital, our capital/Like the Kremlin’s stars you glow/You’re the pride of the whole cosmos/Granite beauty our Moscow”.

Yet it also seems related to the past pride in being part of an empire, the sense of purpose in helping to build it through fighting on the winning side against Germany, working with one’s hands to develop it, sending Gargarin as the first man into space. There is also the lost “dream of equality and brotherhood”, and drive to “create Heaven on Earth” – the pining for community spirit and mutual support, overlooking the practice of informing on friends and neighbours. The “sovok” (Soviet man) remains appalled by the current lack of idealism, the preoccupation with obtaining consumer goods (“A Mercedes is no kind of dream”) and rewards for the crooks who control the new market system.

Then there are those born after Stalin’s death in 1953, who grew up reading forbidden books, and conducting endless debates in the kitchen about how life might be changed for the better, half-joking over the risk of a bugged light fitting. They were initially seduced by Gorbachev’s “Perestroika”, even daring on his behalf to brave the tanks on the streets in the abortive coup against him. This made their disillusion all the deeper when the unchained capitalism of the 1990s made them the victims of crooks and violent gangsters, creating large-scale unemployment for the first time, forcing even the skilled and educated to sell their possessions and work as cleaners or flog goods smuggled in from Europe, and reducing to destitution pensioners whose savings had become worthless.

I think the title “second-hand time” refers to the irony of how events have come round full circle in some ways: Russia is ruled in 2020 by an ex-KGB man who has made himself into a modern equivalent of an autocratic Tsar. There is even a “new cult of Stalin” with “everything Soviet back in style, but in the commercialised form of Soviet cafes, Soviet salami, Soviet-themed TV shows, even tourist trips to Stalin’s camps. Young people are reading Marx by choice.

The book also covers the horrors of civil war in areas like Armenia and Chechnya, where different ethnic groups who had previously intermingled came to blows once the iron hand of communist control was removed. The second-class treatment, racial and religious discrimination against migrants like the Tajik street cleaners of Moscow is another troubling aspect of recent change.

Does the lack of editing not only create a book of nearly 700 pages, too long for many people to find the time to read it, but also make for excessive repetition, or does the latter serve to reinforce important impressions? I am not sure what a reader with no prior knowledge would make of all this. Even with the useful chronology of political events from 1953, it is sometimes hard to keep track of exactly what people are referring to. Yet I kept coming across sharp observations and vivid insights which encouraged me to read on. I regret that the author did not do more to sift these out for the reader, although you may feel that the rambling, contradictory nature of the text adds to its power.

It sometimes seems as if the typical Russian man is addicted to vodka, continually beating his wife and children. Women are portrayed as neurotic, hysterical and superstitious, with a self-destructive urge to nurture inadequate men, particularly prisoners, down on their luck, who will inevitably repay their kindness with brutality in due course. Westerners, it seems, can never really understand the tortured, sentimental Russian soul…..But despite the frequent oppressive bleakness, this book encourages readers to form their own understanding of a complex situation of mingled brutal tragedy and poignant humanity. It proves a very powerful and informative aid to grasping the current nature of Russian society and how it has come about.

“Unreliable sources” by John Simpson: Truth to tell

Unreliable Sources: How the Twentieth Century Was Reported

With a journalist’s frequent gift for bringing history alive, John Simpson employs many anecdotes and quotations from newspapers of the day to analyse the reporting in Britain of the major events from the Boer War around 1900 to the controversial Iraqi War of 2003.

I was most interested in the first half of the C20, that is the period I had not lived through so could not recall, and was intrigued to learn that the tabloid “red tops” of today were known around 1900 as the “yellow press” after a US comic strip. The phrase was coined by the New York Press to describe the sensational, exaggerated and often misleading form of popular journalism which was copied in Britain by newspaper owners like the Harmsworth family.

Although not apparently as influential as Murdoch in his heyday, the early C20 tycoons clearly interfered a good deal in the content of the newspapers they owned. For instance, Lord Rothermere, an ardent admirer of Hitler from the 1920s, wrote an editorial for his Daily Mail in 1933 stating, “The minor misdeeds of individual Nazis would be submerged by the immense benefits the new regime is already bestowing on Germany”. Rothermere was “the loudest supporter” in Fleet Street of Franco, announcing before the fateful Spanish Civil War that he was “the bright spot on the horizon”. At the same time, the press baron favoured the rise of Oswald Moseley, personally writing an article for the Mail entitled “Hurrah for the Blackshirts!” without criticising their fascist tendencies. Yet when World War Two began in earnest, the tone changed and a Daily Mail journalist once praised as “the man who knows the Nazi leaders” was writing about the “staggering heroism” of the “weary but indomitable” British soldiers evacuated from Dunkirk in an exercise portrayed positively as an achievement.

John Simpson is scathing about the journalists who, from the safety of hotels well away from the battle lines, invented reports based on second-hand sources, praising the bravery of soldiers in “Boy’s Own” terms rather than recounting accurately the true grim conditions. Admittedly, communication was harder to conduct in the early C20, and throughout there have been the constraints of state censorship, and the need to “maintain morale”, combined with the prejudices of overweaning newspaper magnates as described above. Yet, as recently as 1999, Murdoch’s “Sun”, amongst others, was apparently distorting facts in reporting of the bombing of Serbia in its “Clobba Slobba” articles, in an attempt to keep the public “on side”.

Battles are the dominant theme, with the exception of the Abdication crisis over Edward VIII’s desire to marry the twice-divorced American socialite Wallis Simpson. In this case, while the US press was reporting the scandal in detail, British newspapers were “victims of a more than usually painful attack of discretional lock-jaw” which was self-imposed since neither the government nor the police had applied any ban to reporting of the affair. Although it was asserted some years after the event that the Mirror had dared to break the story of the affair, John Simpson suggests that, despite having accumulated plenty of evidence, every single British newspaper “failed in its duty to tell people what was really going on, because its editor thought it would be intrusive, distasteful , disloyal or damaging to do so”. This may be compared with reporting on the Royal Family since the 1980s, culminating in no-holds-barred criticisms of Prince Andrew and discussion of the future of the monarchy during the December 2019 general election.

John Simpson suggests that it was probably during the Suez Crisis in the 1950s that newspapers began the attempt to analyse events seriously rather than simply outline the facts, or slavishly toe the government line. A surprising number of titles survived the century, with Murdoch playing a positive role in keeping, for instance, the Times going, although his political and commercial interests seem to have encroached on its independence. Simpson condemns the downward drive in standards which misused modern technology from the 1980s, such as illegal phone taps to infringe excessively on personal privacy. He argues that the Guardian and the Telegraph “probably come out of it best” in terms of independent-minded journalism.

I was a little disappointed by the conclusion which seems somewhat rushed, with a last-minute focus on the Iraq War which justifies a chapter in its own right, giving more space to expand on the influence of “spin doctors” and a “dodgy dossier” with the false claim that Saddam Hussein had the power to attack the UK “in 45 minutes”, which misled MPs to vote for war without the approval of the UN.

I would like Simpson to have included more about the role of the more “impartial” BBC, often seen by the printed press as a threat. Published in 2010, the book is now somewhat dated as regards the growing importance of the internet as a source of news. Inevitably, there is not enough space to explain fully the political background to many of the situations covered, but at least it inspires the reader to find out more about them.

“Les Années” or “The Years” by Annie Ernaux: an individual take on “collective memory”

This is an autobiography which aims to avoid “sentiment”: “The point is not to speak of the personal”. Instead, referring to herself in the third person, or writing collectively as “we”, Annie Ernaux adopts a fragmented approach which tends to distance the reader from her.

As implied by the choice of quotations at the outset, she is preoccupied with our insignificance in the scale of things – not only shall we be forgotten as individuals, but matters of great importance to us will seem trivial to our descendants, and our way of living may come to seem ludicrous, even blameworthy. This has become very topical since our materialist way of life, justified by “the need for growth” is now under criticism for destroying the planet for future generations.

Annie Ernaux’s attitude may explain her tendency to give more importance to fleeting, often banal memories than to major events in her life. The opening pages are a list of ephemeral images, some from before she was born, reflecting her insight that, influenced by our parents’ talk, we may have a kind of false memory of events which happened to other people in the past before we even existed. Many of the images are sordid or grim, and it would seem quite arbitrary – a woman urinating behind a café, the glimpse of a thalidomide victim with no arms. This sets from the outset a somewhat depressing, negative, joyless tone which is never fully dispelled.

She often seems more interested in the social history through which she has lived than in recounting the main events of her life. So, on one hand she writes a good deal about the impact of the 1968 riots, the social revolution resulting from the availability of the pill or the arrival of a consumer- driven society which also discarded the taboos and traditions which constrained our childhood until the 1960s. On the other, I never learned, for instance, whom she married, nor when and how the couple parted. She makes no allowance for the reader’s frustration if significant details are hinted at but kept hidden. She writes about a woman’s desire for divorce, mixed with fear of rupture and independence, in an abstract, generalised way. In just one poignant scene, which reveals complex feelings during what may be the last family holiday with her husband in Spain, she becomes an individual with whom one can sympathise, suggesting that a little more “sentiment” in the book would not have gone amiss.

I formed the impression of a bright girl from a narrow, working class background, who “escaped” via the encouragement of her teachers and a good education. However, breaking the taboos over sex outside marriage just a few years ahead of “the pill” and loosening of the abortion laws, she joined the ranks of those obliged to marry and start a family before they would have chosen to do so. She seemed dissatisfied with her lot as a teacher, perhaps because of her long-held desire to be a writer. Drawn to left-wing movements, uneasy over consumerism and the faceless development of new urban areas, Annie Ernaux nevertheless comes across as an “academic” socialist, actually rather contemptuous of workers in the unappealing new suburbs built for them, where she would never willingly set foot.

It is not her style to discuss explicitly her frustration over being diverted by family responsibilities from achieving the ambition to become an admired author. Instead, it is revealed when, oppressed by the annual ritual of the Christmas celebrations in which she now occupies the head of the table, she imagines the crazed action of overturning the table and screaming. Perhaps because she is a writer, a recurring theme is her panicked sense of only having one life, which she has allowed to slip by, without realising it: the living of her past life amounts to a book, but one that has not yet been written – until now.

I found the book hard-going at times. The repetition and lists of people and events are quite tedious and I was not familiar with many of the cultural references. It was fascinating to learn about, say, Ranucci, the last French citizen to be sentenced to death as recently as 1976 by guillotine, which seemed particularly barbaric and antiquated although it was originally seen as more humane than other methods, but the need to look things up continually fragmented the reading of an already disjointed text which rambles on for over two hundred and fifty pages in short sections with no chapters to form natural breaks.

Annie Ernaux has said: “This is the story of events and progress and everything that has changed in 60 years of an individual existence but transmitted through the “we” and “them”. The events in my book belong to everyone, to history, to sociology”.

Yet this approach only works if the events are clearly explained in context to those who did not experience them at the time, and may be ignorant of them now. Admittedly, those who can share her experiences may derive a nostalgic pleasure from being reminded of them.

Galileo Watcher of the Skies – obscured somewhat by the fog of academia

Galileo: Watcher of the Skies by [Wootton, David]My fascination with Galileo, the brilliant thinker who was eventually gagged by a bigoted Inquisition, was fed by Michael White’s absorbing biography, “Galileo Antichrist”. Although very strong on childhood influences, personality, dealings with friends and family, his inventions and the tortuous path by which he fell foul of the priests pulling the strings behind an insecure and neurotic Pope, the biography seemed a little thin on the all-important scientific theories to do with motion and astronomy, and to have gone too far into trying to make ideas accessible by “dumbing down” the details.

In seeking out David Wootton’s much denser and more academic work, I got both more and less than I bargained for. Following an essentially chronological but more thematic approach, the author devotes lengthy passages to, for instance, experiments dealing with specific gravity, the physics of the motion of falling objects, or mathematical calculations to evaluate the respective merits of the theories of Aristotle and Ptolemy versus the more “heretical” Copernicus, and “fudged” Tycho Brahe. My lack of basic scientific knowledge made it hard for me to understand some of the author’s explanations and arguments, but I also suspected that, himself a historian, he may have strayed out of his own comfort zone. He certainly seems to make things overly complicated and long-winded.

Despite many examples of Galileo conducting practical experiments, Wootton is at pains to stress that these were mainly to demonstrate the truth of his real love, abstract theories, which is what led him to mathematics. Although he sometimes seemed too arrogantly confident, or perhaps simply busy, to put a theory to the test, he seems to me to have combined the two approaches, so that to suggest otherwise is hair-splitting. How could Galileo have done otherwise at a time when the words “experiment” and “scientist” were not used, and it was common for inquisitive thinkers to be polymaths.

Wootton concedes the limitations placed on historical research by the loss and corruption of data. So, we learn that much of the writing from Galileo’s most fertile period of invention was used by a butcher to wrap meat, or sold off as scrap paper. Similarly, his former student Viviani, who did so much to foster a positive legacy for Galileo, was not above fabricating appealing myths, such as the claim that he devised “the law of the pendulum” from observing the swinging of a lamp in Pisa Cathedral. However, in the absence of hard evidence, Wootton seems to me to indulge in too much academic conjecture as to, for example, the extent to which Galileo was a Catholic or even a Christian. For a man born in 1564, I see no contradiction in the fact that he, with unconscious male chauvinism, sent his two daughters to be nuns, that he paid lip service to Catholic belief when there was an Inquisition actively engaged in torturing and executing alleged heretics, but was dedicated to the pursuit of scientific enquiry which some Jesuits themselves pursued, yet could not deny what his reason told him to be true, unless his own life was at risk.

Not until two-thirds of the way through does Wootton state that his “primary purpose is to provide an intellectual biography of one of the world’s greatest scientists-to reconstruct the development of his ideas over time”. At the same time, he observes that, ”Amongst professional historians, biography is not an intellectually respectable genre”. He then makes what seems like a self-evident case for what he calls “a characterological approach to biography” to enable us to understand the study of scientific progress and cultural change, fitting themes for a historian, it would seem. This line of argument appears unnecessarily tortuous. However it explains why Wootton glosses over Galileo’s childhood and career, and why references to his family often seem awkwardly squeezed in, sometimes so condensed as to be hard to follow. I was troubled by the subjectivity of a chapter suggesting out of the blue that a bullying and devious mother may have been to blame for his reluctance to get married, his lack of communication as regards his emotional attachments and private beliefs, and also explain his aggressive, driven personality. In his summing up, Wootton writes, “the paternal conflict between experience and reason and the maternal conflict between power and influence shaped Galileo’s internal life and constitute the cosmography of his self” but I could not find clear and convincing passages in the book to support this.

Similarly, I was surprised by the author’s sudden break from the build-up to Galileo’s trial in order to speculate on his frustration over a missed opportunity to consummate a relationship with some married woman, Alessandra Buonamici who had not clearly figured in the story before. I would have preferred more along the lines of the moving account of Galileo’s close relationship with his daughter Marie-Celeste, a nun, to provide a more fleshed out picture of the man.

Although the work is informative and gripping in places, it continually frustrated me by failing to provide the further insights and deeper analysis I was seeking. The above factors make it an unnecessarily hard and opaque slog at times.

Galileo Antichrist A Biography by Michael White – pure reason versus fear of thinking

“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.”

Galileo was a man of remarkable intelligence with the misfortune to be born at a time of intense religious bigotry. Nowadays he would no doubt be a media celebrity explaining and debating his many theories, a multi-millionaire through the sale of his inventions and a Nobel prize-winner to boot.

Instead, in the understandable desire to avoid life imprisonment in his old age and possible burning as a heretic, he was browbeaten into a humiliating refutation of his support for the theory of Copernicus that the earth rotates in orbit round a static sun. His scientific approach, based on observable evidence and mathematical calculations foundered on the Catholic Church’s arbitrary insistence on the immutable truth of Aristotle’s flawed deductive reasoning that an all-powerful God kept the sun and planets orbiting round the earth. The supreme irony is that Aristotle was a “heathen” Greek. Another is that Galileo might have avoided punishment if he had been prepared to escape to a Protestant country like the Netherlands or England, even stayed in the more tolerant city of Venice rather than throw in his lot with the Medicis of Florence, who were less prepared to stand up to the Pope.

In this fascinating account, which makes science comprehensible even to a reader with very limited prior knowledge, the author has a tendency to try to capture our imagination with a good deal of speculation. The most significant example of this is his support for a recent theory that the heresy for which Galileo was convicted was in fact a cynical distraction from the issue which really concerned the somewhat unstable Pope Urban VIII and the fanatical Jesuits at the heart of the Vatican. This was that Galileo’s nascent views on the existence and nature of atoms threatened the belief at the heart of Catholic doctrine, which sets it apart from Protestantism: namely, that in Holy Communion, the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ, whilst maintaining their original physical appearance.
Although widely admired in his lifetime, Galileo was no saint. As a young man, he was known as “the Wrangler” for his argumentative approach. Never backward in asserting his intelligence and his contempt for those of lesser intellect who contradicted him, he accumulated a number of enemies who were eager to play a part in his ultimate downfall. To gain a teaching post at the University of Padua, he was prepared to give a lecture estimating the dimensions of Lucifer, a topic he must surely have regarded as somewhat ludicrous.

His curiosity ranged widely to include radical thinking on the behaviour of pendulums, the speed of falling objects, even the cause of the tides, where his thinking was in error. He showed entrepreneurial skills in commercialising his invention of the mathematical compass, a widely used tool for making calculations, driven by the need to support an extended family including his feckless brother with a growing brood of children. Despite being an excellent communicator, Galileo detested teaching: he out-manoeuvred a rival to corner the market in another invention with practical application, one of the first telescopes, and used it as a means of gaining a plum post in the Florence of the Medicis, one of the conditions being that he could give up teaching.

The telescope enabled him to view the moons orbiting Jupiter and the “crackled and wavy” surface of a moon which the Church insisted was a perfect, smooth sphere: Galileo’s critics argued that, if it was covered in mountains and craters, it must be contained in a translucent layer which would make it the “right” shape. It is not surprising that Galileo presented his arguments in debates in which foolish arguments were demolished, but when the “fall guy” voicing views held by the Pope was named Simplicio, based on the Italian word for simpleton, he was clearly sailing to close to the wind.

Galileo’s fateful trial is covered in some detail in translations of a tortuous procedure involving legalistic language and specious theological argument which despite being somewhat dry has the power to enrage the modern reader over the injustice of the situation. Yet with successors like Newton to build on his work, the genie could never be returned to the bottle.