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S. Smith (London UK)
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Having it So Good: Britain in the Fifties
Having it So Good: Britain in the Fifties
by Peter Hennessy
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.39

4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting and Detailed but not an Easy Read, 18 Oct 2012
I enjoyed the first volume of Peter Hennessy's history of his lifetime, "Never Again" very much and looked forward to "Having It So Good", as the fifties were the decade I grew up in. The second volume is certainly good, but it doesn't quite match Hennessy's history of 1945-1951. In part, this is because the battles for political and social change in Britain had already been fought, and the fifties were a decade of quieter consolidation. However, some features that were minor irritations in the earlier book are more prominent here.

In "Never Again" politics dominated and social history was secondary. This was the period when much of what became the post-war consensus was formed, and the decline in Britain's international position began. "Having It So Good" contains far more social history. It has several themes: the acceptance by Conservative governments of the post-war reforms that led to the welfare state; Britain continuing to imagine itself as a great power, at least up to the Suez crisis; continuing economic decline and failure to integrate with Europe; and the impact of decolonialisation and immigration. Hennessy provides a convincing interpretation of these events and also the social changes typified by Macmillan's slogan, "you've never had it so good". He gives a sympathetic picture of Macmillan as basically a liberal who wished to promote social justice. The second half of the fifties was a time of improving lifestyle and optimism, but the country was in economic trouble. It is difficult to disagree with Hennessy's somber analysis of overall decline and missed opportunities in the fifties.
Against these positives, there are a few negatives. Firstly, it a long book with long chapters. Hennessy deal with his subjects in considerable detail and, as his prose doesn't always flow well, the book can be quite an effort to read. Secondly, Hennessy seems happier and more fluent dealing with political matters than society, and the sections on political and social history so not always link well with each other. Despite these quibbles, this is an important book and worth reading if you are willing to make the effort.


Statesman and Saint
Statesman and Saint
by Jasper. Ridley
Edition: Hardcover

3.0 out of 5 stars Not a Balanced Comparison, 15 Oct 2012
This review is from: Statesman and Saint (Hardcover)
This book was first published in Britain as "The Statesman and the Fanatic", the fanatic (or saint) being Thomas More is often characterised as a saintly humanist. Jasper Ridley treats Thomas More very harshly, as incorruptible but also a fanatic, convinced of his own religious views. He argues that More's anti-Lutheran campaign was the defining action of his career and that it perfectly illustrates his character. More did use his position as Lord Chancellor to persecute and execute Lutherans but he was also a scholar and humanist, sides to his character that Ridley ignores. Instead, More is viewed as an intolerant misfit, but on limited evidence. Jasper Ridley wrote about a dozen books on the Tudor period including early biographies of Nicholas Ridley and Thomas Cranmer, and a late one on "Bloody Mary's Martyrs". This suggests the author's strong antipathy to religious persecution and, as a result, his judgement of More as a fanatic is unbalanced.

The statesman is Cardinal Wolsey. A common stereotype of Wolsey is of a greedy, corrupt and ambitious cleric who used his offices for his own advancement. Ridley re-examines this perceptions and re-evaluates his reputation in a balanced and fair-minded way. Ridley accepts that Wolsey was corrupt and ambitious, but also an effective statesman whose diplomacy aimed to promote English interests through European peace. He was also tolerant and unwilling to persecute Lutheranism too harshly. Although self-serving, Wolsey was the king's servant first and an effective minister.

The book is generally well written and readable but Ridley never makes it clear why he has studied More and Wolsey together. The chapters alternate between the two men but few, if any, connections are made between them. Wolsey was Lord Chancellor for 14 years as the king's leading minister: although More succeeded him, he was only Lord Chancellor for three years and only the chief law officer, not chief minister. On the whole, the opportunity of presenting a credible and balanced comparison between the two men has been missed through Ridley's bias against More.


Statesman and the Fanatic: Thomas Wolsey and Thomas More
Statesman and the Fanatic: Thomas Wolsey and Thomas More
by Jasper Ridley
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Missed Opportunity, 13 Oct 2012
A common stereotype of Cardinal Wolsey is of a greedy, corrupt and ambitious cleric who used his offices for his own advancement. Thomas More is often characterised as a saintly humanist. Jasper Ridley's aim in this book was to re-examine these perceptions and to re-evaluate the historical reputations of the two by comparing their personalities and careers.

Ridley accepts that Wolsey was corrupt and ambitious, but also an effective statesman whose diplomacy aimed to promote English interests through European peace. He was also tolerant and unwilling to persecute Lutheranism too harshly. Although self-serving, Wolsey was the king's servant first and an effective minister. This portrait of Wolsey seems balanced and fair-minded.

Ridley treats Thomas More much more harshly, as incorruptible but a fanatic, convinced of his own religious views. He argues that More's anti-Lutheran campaign was ruthless and the defining action of his official career. More did use his position as Lord Chancellor to persecute and even execute Lutherans but he was also a scholar and humanist, sides to his character that Ridley ignores. Instead, he is viewed as an intolerant misfit, but on limited evidence. Jasper Ridley wrote about a dozen books on the Tudor period; early biographies of Nicholas Ridley and Thomas Cranmer, and one of the last on "Bloody Mary's Martyrs". This suggests the author's strong antipathy to religious persecution and, as a result, his judgement of More as a fanatic is unbalanced.

The book is generally well written and readable but Ridley never makes it clear why he has studied More and Wolsey together. The chapters alternate between the two men but few, if any, connections are made between them. Wolsey was Chancellor for 14 years as the king's leading minister: although More succeeded him, he was only in office for three years and acted only as chief law officer. On the whole, the opportunity of presenting a credible and balanced comparison between the two men has been missed.


Lord Palmerston
Lord Palmerston
by Jasper Ridley
Edition: Paperback

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Worthwhile Biography of an Important Figure, 12 Oct 2012
This review is from: Lord Palmerston (Paperback)
This biography of Palmerston is by Jasper Ridley, author of many historical biographies about the Tudor period and several of 19th century figures. He was not an academic historian but his books are well-written and summarize the work of earlier writers. His biography of Lord Palmerston is over 40 years old but is still a useful introduction to Palmerston's life and more readable than some more recent studies.

Ridley produces a satisfactory portrait of a subject whose actions often seem contradictory. He regards Palmerston as a product of his background. Born in the late 18th century to privilege, he inherited an Irish peerage and large estates in Ireland and England, and became a minister at twenty-five. All this gave him a paternalist and conservative outlook, but he also had a progressive side, supporting liberal revolution in Spain and Portugal and the abolition of the slave trade. As he grew older, he welcomed change less, but never became a reactionary.

Palmerston is best known for his foreign policy. His guiding principle was promoting British interests when possible. This involved overawing the weak Portuguese, Chinese and Greek governments and supporting an independent Belgium and a strong Turkey, but not taking-on Russia to support Poland. However, he was more radical when supporting liberal revolutions in Spain, Portugal and Italy. This was not dictated by British interests, but by his dislike of autocratic governments. Ridley is generally fair when dealing with Palmerston's handling of foreign policy crises, and provides interesting insights about his motivations. In domestic matters, Palmerston was cautious of reforms that challenged the existing political structure. He did support repeal of the Corn Law, the Factory Acts and health and educational reforms, as these did not directly affect the political balance.

Ridley makes good use of Palmerston's private papers to bring out his personality. He presents Palmerston as a shrewd and tough professional politician, rather opportunistic and sometimes unscrupulous. His reputation as a great Victorian public figure has suffered in recent years. Although he became a successful Prime Minister, he was not a great statesman by comparison with Bismarck or Cavour. However, he deserves to be studied and this book is a good introduction.


Liberty or Death: India's Journey to Independence and Division
Liberty or Death: India's Journey to Independence and Division
by Patrick French
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.09

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Modern Reinterpretation, 7 Oct 2012
It is very difficult to write an impartial account of Indian independence: the wounds caused by partition are too fresh. Indian accounts tend to blame Britain for allowing or promoting partition; Pakistani writers treat partition as inevitable because the Congress party ignored Muslim concerns. French has relied to a significant extent on British intelligence reports to re-examine and produce a readable and generally fair account of this highly contentious issue.
He concentrates on the personalities of the Indian leaders (Gandhi, Nehru and Bose for Congress and Jinnah and Liaqat Ali for the Muslim League and others) and the last two viceroys (Wavell and Mountbatten), possibly to the neglect of policy issues. However, personalities could be important, as in Mountbatten's liking for Nehru, which led to a bias towards Congress. His portrayal of Gandhi as a wily, rather self-regarding politician who ensured his rivals were marginalised rather than as a modern-day saint caused outrage in India, but is broadly convincing. His main argument is that Gandhi did not accept that Muslims should receive special protection after independence and that his distrust of British intentions led him and Congress into several political blunders in the late 1930s and early 1940s that gifted the Muslim League the status of the voice of all Muslims. Ultimately, the more pragmatic Nehru and Jinnah had to accept partition as a second-best option, as neither could obtain all that they wanted.
Some of French's judgments are more questionable. He denies British concerns for the fate of the princely states were genuine, although their constitutional position was anomalous. His portrait of Chandra Bose also reflects the modern Hindu nationalist view of him rather than Gandhi or Nehru as the real father of Indian independence. Both views reflect ideas current in India since the 1990s rather than those of people actually present there in the 1940s.
A worthwhile read covering the broad topic of Indian independence, but there are better, more detailed studies concentrating on partition alone.


Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (Vintage)
Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (Vintage)
by Eugene D. Genovese
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.57

3.0 out of 5 stars Too Kind to the Slave-owners, 1 Oct 2012
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This is an interesting book, clearly the result of many years of research, which tries to answer the question of what slavery meant for slaves in the American South. It challenges what has been the currently orthodox interpretation of American slavery as degrading and dehumanising, and claims that a mutual dependency between the slaves and their owners allowed slaves to develop their own culture and religious faith. It is not a defence of slavery, but at times comes rather close to the pre-1950s view of slavery as benefiting its victims by educating and acculturing them.

The book has some serious flaws: three serious ones are its belief in the paternalism of American slave-holders, an almost complete lack of conclusions and its length. It is at its best when describing what its sub-title calls "The World the Slaves Made", but it could have done this far more concisely, and its failure to locate that world in context reduces its value. The book reads more like an extended essay about Genovese's interpretation than an objective study.

Genovese sees the pre-Civil War South as a paternalistic society whose paternalism was a European ideology adopted by the slave-holders and accepted by the slaves as it gave them a protector from harsh slave laws. However, acceptance (he argues) deprived the slaves of the initiative to change their lives through revolt, as in Brazil. He regards paternalism as a pre-capitalist, pre-industrial style of life and work, the opposite of the factory system. Other writers like Kenneth Stampp and Fogel and Engerman consider slave-holders were capitalists motivated by profit and the lifestyle they aspired to was merely incidental to this.

Genovese's 650-plus pages contain much detail from the records of slave-holders and others, but it is unclear how representative this is. His conclusions are limited to three pages, which largely restate his view of a paternalistic accommodation between master and slave without considering the alternatives. He calls paternalism an ideology or ethos but fails to analyse its elements or development. It is difficult to consider the actions of slave-holders in the South as "paternalistic" as that word is normally understood, but Genovese does not provide an explanation of how the system with its brutality could be paternalistic in any other terms.

This book deserves to be read as one reinterpretation of the history of American slavery, but it should not be read in isolation from the work of Kenneth Stampp and others, who show slavery as irredeemably rooted in violence and coercion.


Malawi: a political and economic history (Pall Mall library of African affairs)
Malawi: a political and economic history (Pall Mall library of African affairs)
by John G Pike
Edition: Paperback

3.0 out of 5 stars Outdated and not a Classic, 26 Sep 2012
This book was written over 40 years ago, partly based on the author's experiences of about 50 years ago. Some books become timeless classics, but this is not one. Not only has time made much of the information it contains redundant, but its attitudes and analyses are outdated. It was part or a series of short studies on African countries and political and social issues for the general public at a time when many African countries were newly independent but little understood.

John Pike was a hydrologist who worked in Malawi in the 1950s and 1960s and co-authored an earlier book on its Geography. His chapter on the geography of the country (except about population, which has more than tripled since his time) is useful but does not relate social factors to ecological ones. The chapter on the Economy gives a readable account of this up to the 1960s, but the general optimism of his conclusions on Malawi's economy is belied by 40 years of deepening poverty and economic mismanagement. Each of the other four chapters dealing with history and politics is open to serious criticism. In addition, he treats Malawi in isolation from its neighbours, ignoring important regional connections.

The best that can be said for Pike's two chapters on pre-Colonial history and the Colonial era is that they represent views current in the 1960s which must be modified in the light the last 40 years of research. In particular, he treats the African people as passive objects for Arab trade, missions and colonisation and minimises the importance of African nationalism. His two chapters on the Central African Federation and Independence benefit from Pike's personal experience in the country during its fight for independence but are rather more favourable towards Federation and the imposition of virtual one-man rule by Dr Banda after independence than most present-day authors would be.

The book is written in a straightforward and readable style but sometimes assumes more knowledge than the general reader may have. It also has only four maps, three to illustrate specific points and one small and uninformative general map. Now that there is an up-to-date general history of Malawi (A History of Malawi: 1859-1966 by John McCracken) the only reason for reading Pike's work, that it was the only available general history, no longer applies.


The Nuer: A Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Political Institutions of a Nilotic People
The Nuer: A Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Political Institutions of a Nilotic People
by E. E. Evans-Pritchard
Edition: Paperback
Price: £18.99

5.0 out of 5 stars A Classic, 25 Sep 2012
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Evans-Pritchard was one of the earliest professional anthropologists to study African cultures. "The Nuer" was one of his major monographs: it is a classic study, but continues to have relevance today. Before Evans-Pritchard, anthropology was largely descriptive but he was interested in ideas rather than facts. He improved standards of reporting observations, but more importantly sought to examine the relationship between social order and the symbols and values that support and promote order.

His book gives a perceptive and eloquent analysis of the pastoral Nuer people as they existed in the 1930s. They had no defined leaders and were highly individualistic but at the same time belonged to a community. This community maintained its social order through shared values and a complex lineage system. Evans-Pritchard described and analysed the critical importance cattle to the Nuer, both economically, as the main source of their livelihood, but more importantly socially, as the basis of relationships between individuals and families. He considered that all Nuer economic relations formed part of social relationships, and that the love of cattle was at the heart of both. Nuer opinion of a person was based on how many they owned; those without cattle were held in contempt. They raided the neighbouring Dinka people to steal cattle, and most disputes and feuds were based on cattle.

The book has an elegiac quality, as the Nuer society he described no longer exists. From the 1960s, external influences increased and the area they live in was at area of conflict. Despite this, and despite Evans-Pritchard's stance as an observer rather a participant (which gives an air of remoteness to his work), "The Nuer" is essential reading for anyone interested in social anthropology.


Petain
Petain
by Charles Williams
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £26.41

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An Enigmatic Figure, 13 Sep 2012
This review is from: Petain (Hardcover)
Williams, who wrote this biography of Philippe Pétain, is a former politician and also biographer of Charles de Gaulle. Williams typifies Pétain as an outsider: in the army he was the agnostic son of a peasant in the company of devout and often aristocratic Catholic officers; he became a general who believed in defence when other French generals favoured attack and later a minister who despised and hated parliamentary politicians. Williams' assessment of Pétain is reasonably fair but tolerant of Pétain's quite extreme views and it sometimes underestimates or dismisses his opponents to enhance Pétain.

Pétain's meteoric rise during the First World War from a colonel facing retirement to Marshal of France was grounded in his success as a defensive tactician, careful of soldiers' lives at Verdun, when dealing with the 1917 mutinies and during the last German offensives. Williams gives a full account of the problems he faced with French and allied generals and with politicians during that war, and the growth of the pessimism that became his defining characteristic as he grew older.

Williams outlines Pétain's frustration with the post-First World War politics of the French Third Republic and his contacts with extremists. These reinforced his already authoritarian inclinations and, combined with his pessimism, it caused him to use the 1940 armistice with Germany as an opportunity to set up the Vichy regime to overcome what he saw as the failings of the French parliamentary system. He suggests that Pétain was misguided rather than treacherous, but accepts that he presided over a brutal, corrupt regime. Failing mental powers may excuse some of Pétain's misjudgements and his opponents used his trial in 1946 to settle scores, but his role in setting up Vichy must condemn him as morally bankrupt, not just misguided.

This is an interesting and well-written book, but it has one major failing as a biography: Pétain does not come across clearly as an individual. This may be because he is often described as cold or aloof, but at the end of the book, I knew what Pétain had done and maybe some of why he had done it, but not who he was.


The Age of Oligarchy: Pre-Industrial Britain 1722-1783: Pre-industrial Britain, 1722-83 (Foundations of Modern Britain)
The Age of Oligarchy: Pre-Industrial Britain 1722-1783: Pre-industrial Britain, 1722-83 (Foundations of Modern Britain)
by Geoffrey Holmes
Edition: Paperback
Price: £45.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Useful Textbook, 1 Sep 2012
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This textbook includes a lifetime's study by Geoffrey Holmes and more recent research by Daniel Szechi. Its main focus is the relationship of state and society, and it contrasts the politically divided nation still existing in 1722 with the relative political stability, stronger government and increasingly prosperity achieved by the 1780s. According to these authors, Britain in 1783 was a great power but not yet a fully modern state, although it had the potential to become one and it did in the subsequent period.

The book concentrates on politics but also covers social, economic, and religious history. The history of ideas, including science, religion, philosophy, political thought and literature are also dealt with. Developments in Ireland, Scotland and Wales are contrasted with England, and Ireland, the Scottish Revival and the development of trade and empire are each given a chapter. It is well-written and the authors consider recent controversies and reach evidence-based conclusions.

There are two negative points: the book seems to assume some knowledge of the period and it can be rather difficult to use. It is in three parts: first a political narrative to 1746, then a treatment of social, economic, and religious themes, and the third on political and imperial history from 1746 to 1783. The first and third sections start with chronological summaries and, at the end of the book, there is a compendium of data and a large bibliography. The many cross-references require much turning between various chapters, summaries and data to fully understand the point made. Despite this it is a useful book for someone with at least a basic knowledge of the 18th century.


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