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Ross "fountain.blogspot.com" (Northampton, England)

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Berlin: The Downfall 1945
Berlin: The Downfall 1945
by Antony Beevor
Edition: Paperback

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Harrowing Yet Compelling Story Of Total War., 5 Nov. 2007
The Soviet advance to Berlin in the closing months of the Second World War was the culmination of the bloodiest front of the bloodiest war in human history. It would be relatively easy for a competent historian to present a broad overview of what happened just as telling one of the individual stories is a task that could be undertaken by any biographers. What Beevor does in "Berlin: the Downfall", is to simultaneously present both the broad narrative of what was happening with dozens of small stories that give a sense of what the participants experienced.

The author has been criticised in some quarters for highlighting some of the atrocities by the advancing Red Army, in particular the mass rapes that occurred. This is not a reasonable criticism, the book is about the Soviet advance into Germany so inevitably the atrocities by the Red Army are more prominent than Nazi atrocities. Besides which Antony Beevor still gives enough examples of Nazi brutality against the Soviets to give any reader a clear understanding of why the Russians were not overly sympathetic to the plight of German civilians, who had by and large not objected to their army's behaviour.

The book is both informative and evocative about the events being retold and is an excellent companion work to Beevor's equally good "Stalingrad".


Bury the Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery
Bury the Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery
by Adam Hochschild
Edition: Paperback

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A truly outstanding work of history & indispensible for anyone remotely interested in the subject., 18 Oct. 2007
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The abolitionist movement was, Hochschild says, "first sustained mass campaign anywhere on behalf of someone else's rights." in history, as such he considers it to be the ancestor of all modern mass campaigns. The story of the abolition campaign takes in the leading lights of the movement whose personalities and eccentricities are brought to life vividly, as well as the supporters throughout the country who individually had little influence ( most of them could not vote ) but whose mass boycotts of slave produced sugar sent a powerful signal as did the petitions on a scale that parliament had never witnessed before. The role of women was remarkable for the era.

The other side of the debate, the pro slavery forces, are also heard although thankfully not caricatured although some of the propaganda they put forward were so preposterous that it is hard for a 21st century man not to laugh out loud, such as the idea of rebranding slaves as 'assistant planters'.

Before any of this though 'Bury the Chains' begins by discussing the conditions of slaves themselves so as to avoid the danger of viewing the horrors involved in the abstract as well as to put in context the importance of slavery in late 18th century Britain's economy and how readily it was taken for granted. It was unthinkable to outlaw the practice. Towards then end of the book the major slave revolts are also covered.

The key abolitionists were William Wilberforce, James Stephen, Granville Sharp, Olaudah Equiano and John Newton all of whom merit longer treatment than I can provide here, however if one man is seen in this book as indispensible to the cause it was Thomas Clarkson.

Clarkson was recruited to the cause when as a young man he entered and won an essay competition set up by Sharp. Whilst he initially just wanted to win the competition once he began to think about slavery, wiping it from the face of the Earth became his driving force for the rest of his life. As the organiser of the campaign he travelled up and down the country for years on end to mobilise support and gather evidence against the trade. On more than one occasion this put him in tremedous physical danger from thugs hired by the slaver interests. It was Clarkson who more than anyone can claim credit for transforming the movement from a small clique into an irresistable force, simple items such as diagrams of the condition of a packed slave ship or the tools of the trade such as thumb screws and leg irons horrified people across the land. The mass campaign pioneered many of the techniques that are still used by campaigns today, badges, leaflets, posters, petitions, letter writing campaigns and public rallies.

Hochschild was by profession a radical left wing journalist, the founder editor of American political magazine Mother Jones, and it is of little surprise when allusions or comparisons to modern left wing causes are made. Or that he so obviously admires the radical elements within the campaign rather than the more conservative or evangelical christian elements. Yet it is a sign of the quality and integrity of his writing that although he makes his points he doesn't shy from providing enough information for someone to draw their own conclusions.

If there is a better account of the abolitionist movement in 18th century Britain then I have not seen it. This is both an accessible book but richly informative giving both the grand narrative of abolition with countless stories within that.


The History of Britain Revealed
The History of Britain Revealed
by Michael John Harper
Edition: Hardcover

29 of 37 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Starts off well, then goes horribly wrong., 23 Aug. 2007
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The review by 'Spence' sums up a lot of the problems with this. The core idea of the book, that English was spoken in Britain long before the Anglo Saxons arrived is an interesting theory and one that is not unique to M.J. Harper. Much of the traditional story is problematic and Harper raises some interesting problems with the idea that Anglo Saxon completely replaced English, the lack of Celtic place names in England, the fact that Scotland has been largely English speaking for a long time despite having only briefly been under Angle control in the South East of the country. In fact the first third of the book, 60 pages or so, very ably makes this point.

In the latter two thirds Harper makes ever more extravagant claims with very little corroborating evidence on subjects as diverse as Geology, Evolution, Ancient Greeks and the history of language more generally. On some of these subjects I can't judge his competence but where I do understand the subject he comes across as rather ill informed, for example claiming that Mitochondrial DNA ought to show the most variation not at the origin of humanity but instead at the point where mankind has travelled furthest to reach.

The genial humour he displays in the early section of the work descends into witless sniping about the orthodoxy who simply cannot handle the truth. By the end of the last chapter it feels like being stuck in a lift with the pub bore.

As it is, 'The History of Britain: Revealed' is an non peer reviewed work making extraordinary claims without extraordinary proof thus despite the fascinating forst 60 pages it belongs on a par with the works of Graham Hancock.


The Political Animal: An Anatomy
The Political Animal: An Anatomy
by Jeremy Paxman
Edition: Paperback

1 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Jeremy Paxman Sneers A Lot., 25 July 2007
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This is one of the most depressing political books ever, essentially becoming a politician is a huge waste of time which will in all likelihood be a failure and will screw up ones family life. Makes you wonder why they didn't become TV presenters instead.

Some of the anecdotes are fairly amusing, but the overall tone is that the political class is something pitiful to behold.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 28, 2015 10:02 AM BST


The Second World War: An Illustrated History
The Second World War: An Illustrated History
by A. J. P. Taylor
Edition: Paperback

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Decent Overview Of The War, 25 July 2007
This book is suitable to readers who just want a broad panoramic look at the conflict rather than a comprehensive examination of all facets of the conflict. Those who are reasonably widely read on the subject will know most of what is covered here as it focuses on the big picture, but A.J.P. Taylor is such a good writer that the work is a pleasure to read in any case. It is the kind of chronological overview I would have liked to have read when I was young and just getting interested in military history.

World War 2 is the defining event of the modern era and as such has been subject to mountains of studies examining it either in whole or in part. There are areas that I would quibble with, he is perhaps a little too sympathetic to the behaviour of the Soviet Union for example, but these sort of complaints are inevitable and should certainly not put anyone off.


Markets and Minorities
Markets and Minorities
by Thomas Sowell
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars Unemotive Analysis, 21 Jun. 2007
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This review is from: Markets and Minorities (Paperback)
Race is a delicate subject that attracts an unappealing assortment of irresponsible demagogues and intellectually dishonest poseurs.

Sowell cannot be accused of either of those failings in this book ( or elsewhere ), in this book he applies straightforward economic concepts to the issue of race in the United States.

Early on he goes through some of the common errors that are often made when discussing minorities, such as the assumptions that any economic disparity between ethnic groups is de facto proof of discrimination, or the idea that people are free to act on their racial predjudices without any cost to themselves. Some of the evidence he presents along the way is fascinating in itself, such as the fact that the economic disparities between 'whites' and 'blacks' mask the enormous differences in outcomes between different groups of the same colour, for example between Germans and Irish immigrants to the USA or Northern & Southern whites or black descendents of slaves or freemen.

Analysis of minorities in the job market and in the consumer market follow which cannot be easily summarised, although one theme which stands out is that intervention to help 'protect' minorities from 'exploitation' is all too frequently a process which will lead to the well of middle classes reducing the economic opportunities available to lower skilled minorities, despite the fact that the minorites in question will usually be better informed about their economic choices than distant observers. For example slum clearances have usually been resisted by the residents because without 'slum' dwellings they have no option but to pay a larger part of their income towards housing costs than they would choose if they had the option of low rent housing.

Later he looks at the economics of slavey, which is a fascinating topic. The suffering of slaves is obvious and horrific, but the self inflicted wounds the institution had upon Southern society as a whole was something that I hadn't really considered before reading the chapter. Again interesting titbits emerge.

The final chapter, Government & Minorites, deals with the government upsurption of the market when it comes to dealings with minorites. The biases the US government has historically shown in relation to minorities, blacks in particular, have been wildly unstable and almost never neutral. For example after the Civil war discrimination reduced sharply in the reconstruction era before ratcheting back up with the Jim Crow laws, before gradually reducing until the early 20th century, under Woodrow Wilson when discrimination reasserted itself, before gradually fading to some degree from the 1930s onwards, since the 1970s Affirmitive Action actually mildly discriminated in favour of blacks for the first time. In all that time tthe governments attitude towards race has hardly ever remained stable for one generation. Sowell obviously believes and backs up with evidence that the best performing minority groups in terms of economic advancement are those that are able to avoid as much as possible the attentions of State and Federal government, whether intended benignly of malevolently.

Ultimately though tis book is not really about the conclusions but the method, subjecting testable hypothesis to rigourous evidence based analysis, something that rarely occurs in public discourse.


Accountable to None: Tory Nationalization of Britain
Accountable to None: Tory Nationalization of Britain
by Simon Jenkins
Edition: Paperback

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Leviathon Government., 17 Mar. 2007
Mrs Thatcher as the great nationaliser of British politics is not an obvious accusation to make. However under the governments of her and John Major more and more of the public sphere was controlled from Whitehall at the expense of an increasing neutered local government sector. Local government now exists to carry out the will of central government rather than to make decisions.

Simon Jenkins is not unsympathetic to the pressures that drove this process and he does not imply that it was a process which began only in 1979 (Atlee was another great centraliser) but he does methodically describe how the Consrvative governments repeatedly undermined local control of everything from urban planning to policing to hospitals.

It is in many ways a convincing critique although sometimes he includes actions which gave power to individuals at the expense of local government as part of this nationalisation process. For example giving schools the right to opt out of local control should be applauded as a decentralising measure rather than being lambasted by Jenkins for making the jobs of local planners harder.

Overall though it certainly has convinced me that Britain should radically decentralise the provision of public services and take power from Westminster.


Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences
Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences
by John Allen Paulos
Edition: Paperback

11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Concise Examination Of Public Numeracy., 16 Mar. 2007
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Sadly this book will probably not be read by the people who would gain the most out of it, those who are terrified of numbers. Innumeracy is the one state of ignorance which is seen as socially acceptable. Paulos presents a strong case that mass innemeracy is a severe problem in modern society (he mostly refers to his own country, the USA, but the case is just as true in the UK) and the effects are all too real.

Basic misunderstandings of probability for example seriously impacts the ability of people to make rational life choices, Paulos uses the example of people who are too afraid to fly because they fear terrorism when the dangers are absolutely minescule in comparison to the danger of choking to death. The susceptiblity of the innumerate to psuedoscience is another Paulos bugbear.

The only downside to the book is that I can't honestly claim that it got me thinking about the subject for more than five minutes after I finished it.


Tricks Of The Mind
Tricks Of The Mind
by Derren Brown
Edition: Hardcover

12 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Something For Everyone., 12 Mar. 2007
This review is from: Tricks Of The Mind (Hardcover)
I received this as a present, which is something the book is ideal for the simple reason that it covers so many bases that everyone will find something in it that they enjoy.

The book discusses several topics from biography to hypnosis to Dawkinsesque atheist philosophising. The section on memory techniques was.... I forget.

The constant that holds these disparate strands together is Derren Brown himself who is genuinely funny and a more appealing character in print than the ultra self confident conjurer who appears on television.


Baldwin
Baldwin
by Roy Jenkins
Edition: Paperback

13 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Unlikely Prime Minister, 11 Mar. 2007
This review is from: Baldwin (Paperback)
Stanley Baldwin dominated British politics for the best part of two decades, and yet he rose almost inconspicuously and faded from the public conciousness almost as soon as he retired. He was not initially a political animal and entered parliament in his forties out of a sense of duty as opposed to ideological committment and had it not been for the runction in Tory and Liberal politics after the first World War he would have probably not risen higher than a junior treasury minister. From reading this study of the man by Roy Jenkins it seems clear that the his political success was the result of the same characteristics as his low profile.

His leadership during Britain's most serious industrial crisis in history, the General Strike exemplifies this, from the very beginning Baldwin recognised that the strike posed a direct threat to constitutional government (as opposed to the more limited miners strike that was at the centre of the dispute), revolutionary elements within the Trades Unions were challenging the elected governments right to hold office. Baldwin was prepared so he was able to defeat the strike in just 9 days, but his willingness to be gracious in victory ensured that much of the bitterness that could have festered was avoided.

Jenkins does not brush over Stanley Baldwin's mistakes most notably the failiure to deal adequately with the rise of Adolf Hitler, but he does illuminate the context in which the decisions were made at the time.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 17, 2013 5:24 PM BST


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