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The Story of Alice: Lewis Carroll and The Secret History of Wonderland
The Story of Alice: Lewis Carroll and The Secret History of Wonderland
Price: £9.51

5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars ' Who Am I?' Asked Alice., 26 Mar. 2015
Alice in Wonderland is one of the finest books ever written. It is, of course, a renowned children's favourite but it also contains numerous insights for adults. In 'Alice' there is, for example, a brilliant example of Von Clausewitz's emphasis on the role of 'friction' in warfare. Read the story of the croquet game, it's all there, and more.

Charles Dodson was a Christchurch, Oxford academic. He wrote an excellent textbook on Plane Algebra and Geometry. In 1862 he took the three Liddell sisters, Alice, Edit and Lorica, in a boat down the Thames to Godstone. He had done this many times. He called them his 'child-friends. Alice was aged ten. They had a picnic on the river bank under a hayrick, and Charles, as usual, regaled the girls with songs and stories. On this occasion he had prepared in note form a farce about a girl called Alice who goes down a rabbit hole and encounters a mad cap world inhabited by odd creatures. The girls loved it, and it was published three years later under his pen name, Lewis Carroll.

This book celebrates the 150 anniveranniversary of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. It was originally entitled Alice Underground, then Elfland, and then in 1864 it became Wonderland. The author is a Professor of Literature specializing in Victorian Literature. His recent book on Dickens was received with acclaim.

This one is a delightful mixture of fact and speculation plus an analysis of Dodson's own emotional development. He examines Victorian literature including Dodson's two other publications, Alice Through the Looking Glass, and the poem The Hunting of the Snark. The author delves into Alice Liddell's later life, including her marriage and trip to America, it is a warm and fascinating story. Also mentioned are non literary events like the building of the Metropolitan Underground Line and the bursting of the Fleet sewer in 1862. Alice died at the age of 82. Dodson died aged 65. He had been one of ten children in an era when the average was five per family. Fairhurst speculates that he may have based the book on The Water Babies or been influenced by it. We do not know the answer.

The book uses hitherto unpublished material. Unfortunately, several of Dodson's 13 volumes of diaries have mysteriously disappeared. In addition, his family scored out several sections that referred to his dealings with and affection for Alice. Why? Again we don't know. Fairhurst also devotes part of this account to examining some of the many myths surrounding 'Alice'. For example, it is not true that the Queen asked for a copy of Dodson's next book, thinking it would be another one similar to 'Wonderland', and was sent it. It was a book on linear equations.

Dodson hated to be known by his pen name. He invented many new words such as prattle and nosegay. He revived many old ones like chortle and beamish. Dodson was also very interested in the occult. There were rumours at the time that Dodson's real reason for his frequent visits to the sisters was his fondness for their governess, and the book examines this. He was undoubtedly a strange and rather naive person but there is very little evidence to suggest his interest in Alice or any of the girls was in any way unwholesome. Of course, current appalling scandals do not aid his case. Douglas- Fairhurst, however, reminds readers that Ruskin fell in love with a nine year-old when he was 39. They eventually married. There were many other similar cases in Victorian England . It should be remembered that at this time the age of consent was an astonishing 12 years. As always any judgment has to be in the context of the time.

Of course, a number of intriguing questions remain unanswered. For example, why did Dodson, a keen photographer, take 1,500 photos of young children, many of them naked? Undoubtedly, suspicions will remain even if the evidence available fails to provide the answers.

Alice sold her original copy of the book that granted Dodson immortality through Sotheby's. It fetched an astonishing £15,000. Bought by an American, he later returned it to England.

This is a most enjoyable read for all who love the Alice books. The author is clearly enthralled by his subject matter. As one would expect, given his academic standing, he writes not only with affection but with authority. The book is refreshingly free of academic jargon. Some may find his diversions and speculations annoying while others like this reviewer welcomed them.

Highly recommended.


Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now
Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now
Price: £8.49

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Courageous Book By A Former Devout Muslim., 26 Mar. 2015
This book needs to be read by all who are interested in Islam, IS and why devout Muslims are leaving liberal democracies to fight with Isis. The author is a very intelligent and courageous lady. Her husband, the historian Niall Ferguson, must be very proud of her.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali's thesis is clear. It is that Islam badly needs reform. She argues that reform has been bitterly resisted since the 10th century. A recent advocate of change, Mahmoud Taha, was hanged for apostasy in 1985. A second aim of her book is to explain why young Muslims are leaving for Syria to fight for the so called Islamic State. It is refreshing to read that she does not follow the unthinking belief of many that these people depart because they have been 'radicalised'. As she points out, the three girls from Bethnal Green were intellgent, and came from sound healthy homes. They went of their own free choice. Similarly, a young Muslim from a prestigious London school made the same decision. He was at the time assistant Headboy. The author admits she would have done the same thing as a teenager if Isis had been around.

Ali argues that the key reason why Muslm teenagers ars going to Syria is they are driven by conviction. To them, Isis offers their only chance of living the life of a true believer. Those that go are not the poor or the displaced they are bright and knowledgeable. Embracing violent Jihad has 'become an all too common means for young Muslims to resolve the cognitive pressures of trying to lead an authentic Muslim life within a permissive and pluralistic Western society'. This is an excellent summary that liberals and the sceptical ought to take on board.

She is adamant that little will change, even given the Home Secretary's recent announcements, unless Islam is willing to reform. For her, the fundamental problems are inherent in the Koran. In particular, she is highly critical of the followinng precepts: the idea that life after death is better and more important than life on earth, hence the suicide bomber has no qualms about what he/she is about to do; the Jihad doctrine; the divine status of the Prophet, and the literal reading of the Koran. She believes that while these are preached and believed there is very little hope of moderate preachers tackling the radicals. A major problem also is that one can find in the Koran ( and to be fair in the Bible) a verse or verses to support any viewpoint, for example, regarding women, Jews or apostasy. A further problem is that Islam of the spiritual Mecca period was very different from that of the warlike political period.

Ali argues that Muslims must understand the Prophet as a man of his times, and, equally important, the Koran as a 'historically constructed text, not as a divine instruction manual'. She raises the intriguing question why, if Jesus and Buddha can be portrayed on film, cannot Muhammad? Of course, she knows the answer. I cannot see Mel Gibson imploring the film studios to let him direct such a film.

This is a very important book by an author whose life has been threatened several times. I hope it is widely read.


King John: Treachery, Tyranny and the Road to Magna Carta
King John: Treachery, Tyranny and the Road to Magna Carta
Price: £9.51

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Bad King John Was Very Bad., 25 Mar. 2015
This year marks the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta. Books including this one are now trying to reassess the King who has long been described as Bad King John. This account by Morris who specializes in the 13th century is a well written analysis which keeps a close eye on the existing primary sources, some of which are dubious, and concludes that John was not much of a merry monarch. When he died of dysentery in 1216 there was very little mourning.

Morris aptly describes how the loss of Normandy, territory that had been linked to England since 1066, was a disaster for England and for John's reputation. His crimes and shifty behaviour are legion and the author reminds us of most. He tried to keep his brother incarcerated in a foreign prison , he upset Pope Innocent 111 and was excommunicated, he had numerous affairs with the daughters and wives of the barons, he charged barons enormous sums of money to get married-one who married his ex wife had to pay £11 million in today's money, any one who upset him was punished, often by exile, and there is evidence to suggest he murdered his 15-year-old nephew, Arthur, because he was a rival for the crown. Not a nice man even by the mores of his day. One of his worsr crimes was the hanging of 20 Welsh boy hostages at Nottingham castle. Despite this catalogue of misdeeds he is buried in the choir of Worcester Cathedral. Thus Richard's recent burial in a Cathedral seems par for the course.

In 1204, he was defeated in battle at Bouvines-a defeat that all but finished John, returned home to find the barons about to revolt. In order to quell revolt he conceded terms, which became the Magna Carta. Today it reads like a compromise yet the most important clauses, such as number 39, dug deep into Plantagenet rule. After 11 years of near tyranny, these clauses redefined the spirit of kingship. Essentially, John had signed a peace Treaty. It proved to be a complete failure. Almost immediately he rejected it, a rejection supported by the Pope. The French landed in Kent on 14 May,1216. There was civil war. John died unloved on 19 October,1216.

John was a good if wily administrator and an astute lawyer. He was a hands on lawyer, fascinated by Plantagenet law and government. Even his enemies granted him this. However, during his reign he increased the national debt significantly, sounds familiar, despite taxing his people to the maximum. Always short of money for funding his mercenary armies, and to pay for allies overseas to oppose Philips, he never heard had the luxury of having Normandy pay for some of this. Fortunately, England was wealthy. Trade was booming, and there was monetary inflation. John taxed people directly and through the legal system. The Royal Chancery made huge sums through selling writs, fines, forest eyres,and property forfeitures. Jews were treated very badly and had vast sums of money taken from them. His hounding of the de Briouze family was notorious and cruel.

Morris rightly says any connection between John and Robin Hood is spurious. In any case tales of Hood and his merry bandits took place, if at all, in the reign of Edward.

This is a scholarly account of a rather dastardly monarch. Those wanting a kinder account are spoilt for choice. A recent book by Stephen Church tries to argue that many of John's faults and actions were due to extenuating circumstances. He writes an uphill battle well but fails to convince. Morris' book sits well beside his books on the period, on castles, and his excellent book on Edward 1.

John was called 'nature's enemy', and Matthew Paris said : 'England reeks with John's filthy deeds'. A fitting epitaph. King John has acquired a reputation of being one of the worst monarchs in our history. He has been written off as a monster, a failure and a devil. Perhaps his biggest failure was to treat his barons not as partners but as forced creditors whom he could treat with cruelty and contempt.

In 1225, Magna Carta was reissued and nailed to church doors and displayed in town squares across the country. It became a legendary document. Ironically and in an odd way, it became King John's legacy.


A Higher Form of Killing: Six Weeks in World War I That Forever Changed the Nature of Warfare
A Higher Form of Killing: Six Weeks in World War I That Forever Changed the Nature of Warfare
Price: £7.80

4.0 out of 5 stars Only The Technology Has Changed. We Haven't., 23 Mar. 2015
The Great War was the first total industrialized war. Major industrial innovations and developments throughout the 19th century, particularly in chemistry, explosives, new rifles and artillery, and electricity had foreshadowed that any furture war in Europe would be very bloody. A number of military theorists had considered the impact of new weapons. Jan Bloch, a Polish railway magnate (not a banker, as is often said) , argued in his outstanding 'La Guerre Future ' (1898), that offensive war had ceased to be a viable proposition. In Italy, Douhet had examined the use of air power in his 'Command of the Air', and concluded that it could make armies redundant if used against population centres.

So concerned was the Tsar of Russia that he was instrumental in two massive peace conferences being assembled at The Hague in 1899 and 1907 to discuss disarmament, the rules of warfare and the arbitration of international disputes. The ageing Moltke said in 1890 :' woe the man who first throws the match into the powder keg'. Jackie Fisher said humanising war was a waste of time, 'you might as well try to humaise hell !'.

When war did break out in 1914 three seminal events occurred that , in the opinion of Preston, changed the nature of warfare, made it more barbaric, and opened the way to the use of any weapon not only on the battlefield but also against civilians. The three developments she singles out were: the use of poison gas, the submarine, and bombing from the air.

So far so good. There is nothing new however in her treatment of these events. Even a general reader is surely aware of the use of chlorine, phosgene and mustard gas from 1915, the sinking of the Lusitania, and the bombing of London and other parts of the country by Zeppelins and later twin engined Gothas.
Preston argues that not only were these weapons brutal (like all weapons) but the Germans were somehow evil doers for using them. It needs to be pointed out that the reason why Germany was the first to use gas on 22nd April,1915 (the Times had warned it was going to be used a week earlier) was because her chemical industry was years ahead of any other country. Haber, a Nobel Prize winner, was only one of the 55,000 chemists engaged in the industry compared to 5,000 in Britain. Bining a German cavalry officer said he hated using gas, and that ' the world will rage but then rush to imitate us'. He was correct, we were very quick to respond in kind. A dreadful weapon but never a war winning one. Haber had in fact pleaded for its use in order to hopefully break the siege stalemate and 'shorten the war'.

In the final analysis, poison gas failed to break the stalemate. Its power has been much exaggerated, and its military significance was small. Artillery was far more important and caused many more casualties. Nevertheless, a taboo has attached to chemical warfare. Its gruesome nature, the Daily Mail of 26 April 1915 thundered that Germany's actions were akin to 'an angry gorilla ', has led to it being ring-fenced as incompatible with civilised ways in warefare. Estimates of deaths on the 22nd April have been shown to be very exaggerated. As late as 1937 it was claimed 5,000 French Algerians and others died. Today, historians put the figure nearer to 1,500. Throughout the war on the Western Front the British lost 487,994 dead. Of these 5,899, or 1.2 per cent were attributable to gas. Until gas was launched by shells it was too reliant on the prevailing wind. By the time gas shells were used reliable and effective masks were available.

Regarding the Lusitania, I recently reviewed a new book on the sinking pointing out that its tragic loss was not the result of teutonic bloodlust. It was, as the evidence shows, the result of errors made by the owners, the refusal to take note of German warnings about passenger liners carrying munitions, and pure chance. That there was a conspiracy is nonsense. Shortly after the sinking the Kaiser issued a secret order forbidding the sinking of any passenger ships.

Preston errs, she is not alone in this, when she implies that America entered the war as a result of the 128 American lives lost when the ship was torpedoed. This had no impact on Lincoln who was determined to maintain Us neutrality. It was nearly two more years before America declared war. When Lincoln addressed Congress in 1917 asking approval for the declaration he never once mentioned the Lusitania in his 38 minute speech. America entered the war because she discovered a plot by Germany to get Mexico (four fifths of the US army was stationed there)to attack its neighbour. The Zimmerman telegram incident plus a return to unrestricted submarine warfare by Germany were the reasons why America went to war. Even then there was much opposition in the mid-west states.

We should also note that the Allies in 1915 were using submarines to blockade German ports in order to 'starve the Germans into surrendering'. Thousands of civilians died as a result.

The bombing of this country in 1915/16 caused the death of young children as well as other civilians. It also spread terror. However, the bombing was not deliberately indiscriminate. Civilian deaths were the result of inaccurate bombing. Given the technology available pin-point bombing was impossible. Hence, civilians were bound to suffer. Even thirty years later we had to deliberately target German cities in our bombing offensive because we were unable to hit precision targets with anything above 52% certainty, even that figure is disputed as being too high. Not until new bomb sights were introduced plus other developments was it possible to attack oil refineries and factories with anything like guaranteed success.

The author writes lucidly and tells a good story, albeit a familiar one. My quibble is twofold. She fails to analyse her three new weapons in the context of the history of warfare. A study of, for example, Roman wars, the Peloponnesian war, the Thirty Years war, and the American Civil War (casualties here exceeded the total US casualties in both world wars and Korea), reveals that war has always been barbaric, and civilians have long been deliberate targets by all belligerents. Greek writers like Pericles and Thucydides denounced some of the weapons used in battles. Even the long bow was denounced by a Frenchman for its ability to kill at a distance'. The British Admiralty in 1909 poured scorn on the submarine, saying 'it was not the weapon a civilised gentleman would use'. There are many more such examples of new weapons attracting bitter criticism. All demonstrate an ignorance of the nature of warfare. All warfare is barbaric. In 1916 flame throwers were used on the Western Front. Were these more civilised than gas?

As regards changing the nature of warfare, technology has always driven tactics and strategy. Every new weapon has to some degree changed the nature of warfare. A new weapon will be used if it is believed it will win you the war. It was the nuclear and thermonuclear bomb that dramatically revolutionized the nature of warfare for ever. Now a major city can be incinerated in thirty minutes. There is no defence against a mass attack. And this weapon, apart from its use in 1945, works on the basis of deterring war by non use. As Schelling has written, the aim is no longer to win a war it is to prevent one happening in the first place.

Yet the history of war is not primarily the history of weaponry; it is the history of the person who wields the weapon. To understand war you need to study mankind. When the Turks slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Armenians from 1915 onwards, a monstrous crime that even now they deny, they did not need any of these so called three seminal developments to carry out their murderous genocide.

A small point but the chosen title is an unfortunate one as there is a book published four years ago with the same title, it is also about war.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 29, 2015 9:50 PM BST


The Purple Revolution: The Year That Changed Everything
The Purple Revolution: The Year That Changed Everything
Price: £4.19

13 of 20 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A Pound Shop Enoch Powell., 21 Mar. 2015
I have struggled to read this book, in reality a campaign manifesto written by a perennial politician's new ghost writer Suzy Jagger; his previous ghost writer having been dispensed with after writing his previous book, one that was almost unintelligible. It is a slim book of almost 300 pages which tells you very, very littlle about Farage that has not been in the public domain for years. There is a great deal about honesty in it. A fine aspiration for any politician, if only it were true.

Much of the book is extremely boring, for example do we need numerous pages on the European election campaign. What is missing, and this is a great shame, is an honest account of two very important and connected things that will weigh heavily with voters in a few weeks time, namely, the all too frequent scandals that keep surfacing, and the very low calibre UKIP candidates being fielded in the forthcoming General election. Regarding the latter. Farage must be very concerned that UKIP is attracting some very odd individuals who are bringing his party into disrepute.

However, as I like to use facts as opposed to political prejudice , it has to be said that the majority of our politicians, of all parties, are very poor quality, coming as they do from a background in politics and/ or the legal profession. They are masters of being economical with the truth. Labour would not like to be reminded that it was Dennis Healey, a great Defence Secretary, who was revered by the military because of his intellect and knowledge of military matters, who said that unfortunately, most politicians were only interested in two things, money and self. How true.

This book does little to dispel the widespread view that UKIP is a one-man band. Founded in 1993 in the garage of a LSE (a prestigious university) history lecturer, UKIP has not yet shed its image of a protest group. There is a distinct lack of real substance beneath the froth. There is still a lot of hot air. Hofstadter's epigram about bees stinging and then dying may still prove to be true.

You will need a few drinks, including Nigel's favourite 10% Belgium Chimay Blue, to rate this flimsy account above the very ordinary.

If he loses in the forthcoming election, Farage will resign and that will be the end of UKIP as a credible political force. He will not come back this time, and there is no appointed or remotely able successor. Nigel is a thinker and a drinker, he should have asked his latest ghost writer to do better than this. This one will have to be replaced, or Nigel might try and write the next book himself for a change. He may soon have plenty of time to do this.

It is evident from the flood of favourable responses that the faithful have been mustered. In all such cases you can guarantee not more than ten per cent will have even read the book. A common occurrence that makes a mockery of reviewing. A recent piece of research indicates that over 73% of reviews on Amazon are almost certainly fake. The writer has not read the book. This accounts for the absurd so-called reviews such as 'Looks great, can't wait to read it', 'Brilliant', and 'Meticulously researched'. Not one in a hundred reviewers has the requisite knowledge to make such statements about the research quality, but it sounds good. Any academic will tell you that lengthy book lists mean little as a research assistant will have compliled them. Many authors will not have read half of them because they are too involved in primary documents.

A fundamental problem here is that a very great number of people clearly do not understand the difference between a review and a comment. To say a book is: a great read, it's the best I have ever read, is useless because it tells the reader absolutely nothing about the book's contents. There is a long standing rule when writing reviews of non fiction books, a rule that other publishers apply, namely you should not review unless you have a deep up-to-date knowledge of the subject matter. If this site applied this rule it would reduce the number of reviews by at least 80 per cent.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 22, 2015 12:16 PM GMT


Honourable Friends: Parliament and the Fight for Change
Honourable Friends: Parliament and the Fight for Change
Price: £4.20

7 of 17 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars The Grass On The Other Sider Is Not Greener., 21 Mar. 2015
No doubt a well-intentioned book but unfortunately one full of errors. For example, it is not true that tuition fees have deterred able young people from poorer backgrounds from taking a university place. The numbers of such have in fact increased. Her comments on Syria illustrate the dangers of politicians straying into waters of which one is ignorant, in this case foreign and defence policy. Her claim that the vote not to attack Syria 'spared the Syrian people .....from western air strikes', is, frankly, rubbish. The vote resulted in nasty Assad being able to continue murdering those who oppose him. Lucas also gets her facts wrong about public spending. The UK is in fact among the top six countries in terms of public spending. She next attacks just about every party for, according to her, lining up 'to kick the NHS'. This is demonstrably untrue. In the past 13 years the percentage of the national income spent on the NHS has increased by five per cent. The same is true for education. These errors of fact are sloppy and very discouraging.

She claims to be an 'outsider' compared to the public school boys in the cabinet and shadow cabinet. This is an odd assertion coming from someone educated at Malvern Girls' College, a very expensive independent school. One suspects she is bothered about her degree from Exeter not being in the same league as Oxbridge or London. However, why try to hide her educational background in the first place? I hope we don't have another Tony Blair in the making.

The book is replete with other assertions, for example, the unrepresentative nature of Parliament, the Climate Act, and coalitions, that are either wrong or unsupported by reliable evidence. It is full of fulsome praise for colleagues but I am afraid Greens deserve a much better book than this. There is also in this book a rather disturbing tone of moral righteousness. Has Lucas ever been wrong, or more importantly ever admitted being wrong?

A thin, poorly researched and edited book that will not enhance a Party whose leader has problems with her memory.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 26, 2015 7:59 AM GMT


It's The Economy, Stupid: Economics for Voters
It's The Economy, Stupid: Economics for Voters
Price: £7.79

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Window On The Complexities Of Economics., 19 Mar. 2015
'A dreary, desolate and, indeed, quite abject and distressing; what we might call, by way of eminence, the dismal science'. So wrote Thomas Carlyle in 1849. He is very wrong. Essentially, economics is about the study of people, how they succeed, what makes them happy or content. Economics examines what drives us to do what we do. It investigates choices we make when faced with limited options, and how we trade them off against each other. To be useful an economist needs to be knowledgeable in history, psychology, politics and mathematics. In brief, economics is the study of humanity.

As an economist I freely admit that the mabjority of books on Economics do not make for light reading. A book such as this is therefore very welcome. It is written in a clear, informative style; even the graphs have been kept comprehensible for non economists. A major problem with all books that attempt to simplify economics is they leave the reader with the impression that economic issues are very straightforward and therefore easy to resolve. On the whole, this book avoids doing that.

Tha book includes some of the usual topics: health, taxes, productivity, discrimination, and so on. Politics and social issues appear alongside economic ones. Each issue is dealt with in sufficient detail to help the reader grasp the bare bones of what is at stake but, understandably, awkward aspects are omitted. Many readers will be pleased to see that mathematics do not intrude too often, and then only in very simple form. Of course, this again means that complex issues are made to appear simple. Economists use complex maths to develop their theories. The book is refreshingly balanced in political terms.

The title is not new, the authors state it was first used by James Carville, Clinton's campaign strategist. He did use it but in fact it was first used over 70 years ago by a French politician. Among hundreds of jokes about economists a favourite one is that if you ask three economists a question you will get four answers. Most ijokes nclude the economist saying, 'It all depends'. Acceptable unemployment means that the government minister for whom it is acceptable still has a job. A man tells a shepherd he can tell him exactly how many sheep are in his huge flock. The shepherd says if you are right I will let you take one of my sheep for free. The man says there are 473. The shepherd says incredible, take a sheep. The man does and begins to walk away. Just one question, says the shepherd. If I can guess your occupation can we make it double or quits .? Yes is the reply. You are an economist, says the shepherd. Right, how on earth did you know? The shepherd says, put down my dog.

I would have liked to have seen a chapter on economic forecasting. This is notoriously difficult, it is much easier to forecast the weather. All economic projections need to be taken with a very big pinch of salt. Those beyond two years are frankly worthless. Also, any budding students need to be aware that to make economics really comprehensible you need a knowledge of psychology. Many economic theories are just that, theories. People often act in ways that owe nothing to rational thinking.

It would have been useful to have been told which parts of the book were written by which of the three authors because the chapters are a little uneven in quality.

Nevertheless, a useful introductory account of a highly complex subject.


Gateway to Freedom - The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad
Gateway to Freedom - The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad
by Eric Foner
Edition: Hardcover

5.0 out of 5 stars Freedom Railway., 17 Mar. 2015
The author, Professor Foner, is a History professor at Columbia university. He is a Pulitzer-Prize winner. His previous books include a superb account of President Lincoln and slavery. This book is about how fugitive slaves escaped from the south and made their way north, particularly New York, by means of the so-called underground railway.

In 1860 there were some 4 million slaves in the American south. They were harshly treated and regarded as property not human beings. Their slave owners believed they as white men were inherently superior.
It is easy to forget that America, the world's leading liberal democracy, was built on slavery. It is also easy to forget that even after abolition slaves were a common sight in Northern cities along with their slave masters. Free blacks, often young children, were abducted on New York's streets and sold back into bondage. The New York Committee of Vigilance founded in the 1830's did it's best to combat an epidemic of kidnapping as well as providing shelter, food and legal help for fugitives if caught. But its achievements were meagre.

Slavery was directly linked to the expansion of the country, the political battles that led to the Civil War, and the growth of a modern capitalist economy. By 1861 the south had five times as many slaves as it had during the Revolution. It was producing two billion pounds of cotton a year. In 1850 a slave was worth some $2,500, ten times the sum of the average annual salary.

We do not know how many slaves escaped to freedom before 1861. Very rough estimates suggest an figure of around 1 to 5000 a year from 1830 to 1860. Because many slave owners could not junderstand why their slaves wanted to escape, a southern doctor, Samuel Cartwright, claimed to have discovered an illness which he named 'drapetomania', and illness that caused slaves to run away!

Any that did escape faced formidable barriers which included slave patrols, and armed private groups with bloodhounds. The search of railway cars and highways was constant. Also,few if any blacks had any knowledge of geography. As a result many went west instead of north. The underground railway began around 1839-40. It is not known where it originated. It was not a true railway or underground, it was not a route but a network comprised of people who were anti slavery. Those slaves who were caught were very harshly treated.

It took courage and imagination to achieve freedom. Foner tells us not only about how a few named slaves used the railway to escape but also in far more detail the bureaucracy and arguments that went on behind it. We are told, for example, of some bizarre escapes such as that by Henry Brown who got to Philadelphia in a small box, a 250 mile journey that took 24 hours. Slaves were regarded even in New York as property, hence they were often sold back to slave owners, in part for fear they might be accused of robbery, an offence under the Constitution.

There have been many attempts in recent years to make out that the treatment of slaves was far more humane than hitherto believed. This book demolishes that view. There were few happy slaves and even fewer paternalistic masters. Slavery was evil and cause great suffering to men, women and children. It was and remains a serious blot on the image and reputation of the USA. Unfortunately, the underlying belief that was used to justify slavery, namely white superiority, had not gone away a hundred years after the civil war, and, as recent events have all too clearly demonstrated, it still lingers today.

A well written account by a first-class historian about an American stigma that still resonates today. It is worth mentioning that this is by no means the first account of the 'underground railroad'. There have been several other accounts some of which believe that many of the escapes are more legend than fact.


Browned Off and Bloody-Minded: The British Soldier Goes to War 1939-1945
Browned Off and Bloody-Minded: The British Soldier Goes to War 1939-1945
Price: £16.15

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars 'The Majority Were Merely Spectators'., 15 Mar. 2015
The aim of this book is twofold. First to describe and discuss the experience of very ordinary men who from 1939 were taken out of peacetime life, put into uniform, trained and sent many miles away to fight, and in many cases die, for their country. Their enemy was the most formidable and most tecnically advanced in the world. Second, Allport's book is about a nation in transition. Britain was slowly shedding its 'Victorian heritage' and entering the modern world. The author is intent on examining the relationship between Britain's military history and its social history. He says this has been largely ignored in this country. He is more or less right but it has in France and Germany. It ought to be obvious that if we desire to understand soldiering it is essential to examine the society from which soldiers come. All armies reflect the society that creates them. The same is true of the police.

The book is based on diaries, letters, memoirs, oral interviews, and private papers. It is refreshing to read that the author admits that this sort of evidence raises problems. 'Ego-documents' always have to be treated with suspicion.

Myths about service in the armed forces abound, particularly the army in war. These myths are fostered by some very tall tales told by veterans..Many years ago Professor D Gerrard revealed enough of these to fill a very large room. My own father who served as an officer in the Second World War use to regale me with his own portfolio of tall stories gleaned from service in North Africa and Europe.

Allan Allport focuses on one of the most popular myths, namely that service in the army during the war was a case of non stop fighting, constant danger and fear. As the author and others have shown this is false. Firstly, those in the 'teeth arms' spent long spells of inactivity, and secondly, many of those who served in the support arms saw very little action at all. For them in particular long spells of utter boredom was the norm.

Another myth destroyed by the author is the one that appears in several accounts of the war, namely, that the men were revered by their commanders. We read not for the first time that Wavell was told in 1943. by General Irwin that his soldiers were: 'practically without exception not worth 50% of Jap infantrymen in jungle country'. Another of the General's officers said : 'The British soldier is a rotten and gutless soldier'. Of course, these feelings and opinions were reciprocated. Many officers were viewed by their men as chinless wonders or incompetent, or 'puppy dog officers without brains'.

In the war roughly 3.8 million men became British soldiers. Of these, all but 258,000 were civilians . One in five joined the infantry. Their experiences were to be markedly different to those who fought in the Great War. One in eight of the latter died. The ratio in the Second World War was one in 25. In the Soviet Union it was nearer to one in four.

Few of those who joined in 1939 did so willingly. There was no repeat of the flood that descended on recruitment offices in 1914. Allport also discusses the vexed question of desertion. He dismisses, rightly given the evidence, that the cause was always trauma. He states there were ten shirkers for every genuine victim of battlefield stress.

Allport also dilutes the contribution of paratroopers and commandos, in fact all those regiments glamourised by the film industry. Stoicism, he argues, was far more important than the 'intemperate daring that won VC's.'

When Churchill and his party lost, to their astonishment, the 1945 General Election, they blamed it on ABCA, the Army Bureau of Current Affairs, claiming it was ultra left-wing. This was nonsense. ABCA was the brainchild of Sir Ronald Adam, the Adjutant-General. He was one of the finest and most humane officers to hold that key post. As AG he was intent on cultivating the human touch where discipline was concerned. Unsurprisingly, his views were opposed by other senior officers. In 1945, he was determined to ensure that servicemen voting in the forthcoming general election would be in possession of key economic, political and social information in order to enable them to make an informed choice. Some of ABCA's publications were first class. Churchill who, as many of his biographers have remarked, had very little understanding of soldiers was no lover of the AG.

Allport shows that, despite at times being browned off, bored and fed up with the futility of many of their tasks, most soldiers enjoyed the comradeship. He acknowledges the contribution that even the most bored made to the defeat of monstrous Nazism. Incidentally, he clearly has little time for those who advocate a spell in the forces to learn discipline. They learn, he says, many things but discipline is way down the list. Again, he has a point.

The book is by no means original but it is a very well-written, and witty account that pulls together a great deal of previously published material. The author succeeds admirably in destroying another myth, the so-called joys and attractions of some overseas postings. For example, he describes the freezing conditions in Holland, the sand fles of the desert, and the malaria-ridden jungles of South East Asia. As he so rightly points out the beautiful Tuscan landscapes were not where the slog of the Italian campaign took place, it was where conditions were 'reminiscent more of Passchendaele'.

In essence, Allport describes what in fact was a massive exercise in social engineering in order to save this country. It was an exercise that succeeded in spite of formidable obstacles, not the least of which was boredom.

An excellent companion to his 2010 book:'Demobbed' in which he explained how in 1945 the demob happy soldiers eventually came home to face other and very different problems.


Universal Man: The Seven Lives of John Maynard Keynes
Universal Man: The Seven Lives of John Maynard Keynes
Price: £8.03

9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Keynes As You Have Never Known Him., 13 Mar. 2015
Keynes was an intellectual giant. He created what is now called. Macroeconomics. He also played a major role in the reconstruction of Europe and of the world economy after1945. His economics came to be identified with the world-wide depression of the 1930's, and with the policies that were followed in the decades after the Second World War.

Keynes criticised the Versailles Treaty in his highly influential book:: ' The Economic Consequences of the Peace', and in 1944 he was instrumental in constructing the Bretton Woods system of international monetary management. His rivalry with Hayek was a major feature of the period after 1918. They argued long over the future of economics. At times, the debate took on the spirit of a religious feud. By 2008, in the USA, Hayek was in and Keynes was out although arguments continued to rage over the virtue of the free market and government intervention. The debate between Keynes and Hayek was the greatest one in the history of economics.

Richard Davenport-Hines has now written a book about Keynes which portrays him in a rather different light. He shows readers that Keynes was a serial seducer of men. They included a Lift Boy, a Stable Boy and a Bootmaker. The man whose General Theory revolutionised economics by demolishing laissez-faire is shown to be a lover of some repute. One of his conquests was Lytton Strachey who described Keynes as an 'iron copulation machine'.

In this amusing book by a writer who has written books about the Titanic and John Profumo it is made clear that Keynes's sex life was a key element of his life. The author argues that Keynes's liberal view of the world led directly to his economic ideas. These reflected his views on the House of Lords, the Sabbath, the Sodomy Acts, Woman's Suffrage and Heaven and Hell. Keynes comes over in this book as the greatest example of Edwardian Liberalism.

Many have asserted that Keynes was left-wing, a claim that the author shoots down. He says Keynes was a strong supporter of capitalism and that he hated socialism. Clearly, this writer likes his subject, he dismisses those who disliked Keynes for being an attention seeking bore and heretical. He also greatly admires the Bloomsbury Group that Keynes played a key role in. This was a condescending Cambridge set of rather precious intellectuals.

There is not much in the way of economics here although Davenport-Hines does pay tribute to one of Keynes's great achievements after the war ended in 1945. Then thanks to tireless work by Keynes we secured a loan from America that saved Britain from plunging into economic disaster. Keynes died on Easter Sunday in Washington in 1946. His wife Lydiard Lopokova was with him.

A very unusual and witty account of a great man. When studying for my first degree, my Economics Professor never mentioned that the author of The General Theory was also a love machine. If he had, I am sure he would have got more attention from us.

Very entertaining. Recommended.


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