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February 2016

Another gentle comedy of manners set among the red bricks of an English provincial university. Our heroine is Caroline, Caro, and her husband Alan Grimstone, who is a lecturer in anthropology at the aforementioned university. The social manners and morēs are very 1950s, though the time is the 1960s. The women are wives and the wives are housewives. Only widows and eccentrics are permitted to be exceptions.

Pym academic .jpg

Caro has little to do. Even less than some other faculty wives, because Alan does his own typing, in part, because he is secretive about his research. He is in competition with Professor Crispin Maynard who is head of his department in a narrow field of study, or so Alan thinks. The professor is more concerned with his grandchildren and dogs than with off-prints.

To fill in her days Caro reads to inmates at a nursing home, to call it by its right name, and one of them the Reverend Stillingfleet spent many years in Africa where he wrote notes about the natives' manners and morēs. By using Caro’s reading as cover, Alan snitches one of Stillingfleet’s notebooks. It contains valuable data which he immediately incorporates into a journal article manuscript, the argument of which undermines the professor’s own work in the field.

Alan does offer the professor the opportunity to read the draft manuscript, but what with grandchildren and dogs, he declines. The clouds gather.

While Alan and Caro are still in possession of the notebook, Stillingfleet dies. Returning the notebook nows seems impossible so Caro keeps it, and Alan acts as if he does not know that, though of course he does.

Alan submits the manuscript and, voilà, it is accepted. If only it was ever that fast and easy!

He goes to London to correct the proofs to speed the process even more.

Caro moons around, wondering what to do with herself. She does not want a part-time job at the university library, which Alan thinks suitable, because she does not like the people in the library. She considers work in a jumble shop, but Alan does not find that suitable. This is a time and place when women often were introduced as ‘Mrs. Alan Grimstone,’ without even their own given name being, well, given.

She wonders if Alan is unfaithful to her, since he is often out at nocturnal seminars, and those trips to London to correct the proofs do go on. There are temptations in Iris, Inga, and Cressida.

She has some friends but they get on with their own business. Coco, Kitty, and Dolly, each seems to have a better grip on reality than Caro and they do buck her up from time to time. But well, Coco is a man who is apparently asexual, and with his mother, Kitty, together mentally they still live on the Caribbean island surrounded by servants as they were when Kitty’s late husband was governor, and so they are not entirely reliable. There is ever so faint an indication that Coco is homosexual. Dolly, who is Kitty’s down to earth sister, is the most practical person in the book, but she is rather obsessed by the life, loves, and deaths of the hedgehogs that inhabit her rambling garden. Any personal confidences shared with her inevitably are compared to the doings of the hedgehogs, which Caro finds rather…..

Alan admits a dalliance in London with Cressida, and expects their life to continue as before. He is man of his time and place, he cannot make tea, make a bed, prepare toast, etc. After retreating to stay with her mother and then sister a few nights, Caro returns to Alan and nothing more is said of the dalliance. Stiff upper lips and all that.

Alan’s paper is published, Maynard writes a rebuttal. Stillingfleet’s manuscript is lost to an accidental fire in the library to which he gave his papers, but the war of words between Alan and Maynard goes on in the pages of the journal, while they invite each other to tea at home and talk of the seasons. All very civilized.

Along the way, Alan asks Caro to do some typing for him, and she greets this as bridge between them. She will now be permitted to help him and take an interest in his work. He means it that way, and she takes it that way. I took it as satire.

Caro returns to the nursing home to read to others, and finds another elderly person with a trunk of papers….

There is a reference to Miss Clovis from Pym’s earlier novel, ‘Less than Angels’ (1955). Some incidents seemed to set up for development in later novels, but this was her last.

Pym at the typewriter.jpg Barbara Pym at the typewriter.

The telling probably deadens it but in the reading it is light and breezy, and any members of a university or college department will recognise the types, the ambitions, the moans and groans of a nine-hour a week work-load, the quiet desperation of some women to breath in the manners and morēs of the time and place, the restive students….

This is the eighth title in the adventures of George Sueño and Ernie Bascom, Crime Investigators, Military Police, United States Eighth Army, South Korea in the 1970s when the Cold War was often very hot. Sueño is the thinker of the two, while Bascom resolves most problems with his fists and sometimes with an illegal hand gun.

Joy Brigade.jpg

Having read the previous seven titles over a number of years, I had noticed that North Korea never figures in the books. The villains are inevitably Americans and South Koreans in some combination. Not so in this title. The setting is North Korea.

Sueño has agreed, for reasons of his own but as always involving his first friend, to go into North Korea undercover. Whoa! How can this 6’ 2” American G.I. go undercover in North Korea! Limón contrives some pretty clever ways and means to explain that. They hinge on (1) the isolation of North Korea and North Koreans from the wider world and (2) the tyrannical nature of the regime.

Because North Korea is so isolated, North Koreans, even North Korean police, reason from the propaganda stereotypes the regime has drummed into them for thirty years at the time of the story. Americans are blond-haired and blue eyed with enormous noses. Sueño is a Latino, big, yes, but dark with a cute little nose.

In this tyranny every mistake and failure is greeted by maximum punishment. Not only will the erring official be executed but so will be two generations of his family, his parents and likely his in-laws as well as his own children. This terrible possibility is around the corner for anyone. Just read the news today to realise that is still the practice. Consequently, no one reports anything if it can be avoided, because there might be a mistake. The best way to avoid mistakes is to do nothing. Sueño trades on this reluctance to admit trouble.

He has some tenuous contacts in the North who, also for reasons of their own, cooperate. That standard trope is vividly realised in the case of Kang, but credulity is stretched. Kang gets away with too much and is too conspicuous for the suspension of disbelief. He leaves a trail behind him even Dr. Watson as played by Nigel Bruce could follow but no one is able to follow it. Go figure.

Now inaction may be the safest course, but safety is not guaranteed so the North Korean black market offers a service to officials who realise something is wrong but do not wish to report it through channels. They can hire unofficial fixers who will solve the problem for them without leaving a trail. These fixers are often police officers moonlighting, and in these unofficial investigations they are even less constrained than they would ordinarily be though they, too, have to be careful to cover their tracks from their own superiors, usually by splitting the profits and glory.

The portrayal of North Korea in the book is, to say the least, Orwellian. There is the chanting of slogans of praise to the Dear Leader. There is the robotic obedience to imbecilic commands. There is the starvation of most people amid the lavish luxury of the elite. It is enough to satisfy even Ted Cruz.

Dear Leader.jpg Kim Il-sung

Sueño’s cover is that he is a Peruvian sailor with the papers to prove it working on an Albanian ship distributing and collecting cargo along the west coast of North Korea.

That he understands and speaks Korean from long study during his many years in South Korea gives him a double advantage. The first advantage is that he understands what he hears and reads. This advantage is multiplied by the second advantage which is that no North Korea can believe a foreigner understands, still less, speaks Korean. They have been told for so long how unique and special North Korea is, and how barbaric and backward the rest of the world is, that a foreigner is barely human in the eyes of most. In his private moments Sueño compares that attitude to the disdain Anglos showed him when he grew up Latino in East Los Angeles in the late 1960s. It is the same at bottom but it is magnified a thousand times in North Korean.

The plot is, well, fictional. Spoiler alert! The conceit is that a division the North Korean army wants to overthrow the Government of Dear Leader but needs the help of the US 8th Army to do so. Sueño is supposed to convince the 8th Army to hand over fuel, medicines, food, ammunition, and weapons to this division to enable it to do so. Huh! A sergeant is going to convince the 8th Army Command to risk starting a war by violating the DMZ, and in so doing will tell the South Koreans what? Pointless from the get-go.

I have not mentioned the action man Bascom because he did not figure in this book, and I find that is something of relief. In the last title or two I have read in this series I found Bascom’s adolescent temper and libido getting on my nerves.

As always with these books, the place and period are superbly rendered. There are no jarring anachronisms or cultural slips. The characters are each distinguished by speech and attitude, as well as appearance. There is no pointless description of clothes, rooms, or food that pad out so many tedious krimis.

M L.jpg Martin Limón

When I taught a semester at Korea University in 2004 the director of the Korean Studies Department told me that a reunification of the Koreas was inevitable and would be catastrophic for all concerned. He meant that it would happen one day, and when that day came no one would be able to moderate, slow, temper, channel. or resist it. He also meant that the regime in the North was fragile and could shatter at any time, probably due to starvation. Finally, he meant that the people in the North were creatures of the regime in a way that East Germans were never creatures of the DDR. This last is the most interesting and telling point.

The isolation of North Korea has been much more complete and effective than that of East Germany. East Germans were exposed to radio and television, first from other Warsaw Pact countries and through them to even more sources. In East Berlin they could literally look into the Western World. There was also exposure at a personal level in East Germany through visiting tourists from the West as well as other Soviet Allies. Most East Germans could get West German television programs at home if they dared to adjust their sets. And so on. There were many cracks in the walls around East Germany. Not so North Korea.

The jamming of radio and television and the language barrier to Chinese and Japanese precludes the taint of the airwaves. The kind of punishments dished out routinely in North Korea would discourage anyone from adjusting a television set, not that anyone in North Korea owns one. That is the most important insulator, the poverty and ignorance that the population is kept in. Foreign languages are not taught in part to block contact with foreign ideas and practices. They know nothing of the rest of the world but what the regime says.

Integrating the two Koreas would be far more difficult than integrating the two Germanies. The North Korean regime would have many diehard loyalists, and not just from the elite, who would not readily forsake it. There would be no comparable flood of North Koreans willingly leaving North Korea for the South as East Germans flooded from East Germany to West Germany overnight.

The North Korean regime might collapse due to starvation or a palace coup but then nothing might happen, no one would move. The pressure on South Korea to act would be great, largely from its own population but if South Korea entered the North, even bearing food, there might be armed, if disorganised resistance…. a grim picture, the more so when nuclear weapons are available.

One of the classic sagas of Finnish literature detailing life in a village in the period 1884-1907 as a microcosm of Finnish history of the period, which I read as homework for our planned short visit to Helsinki in September 2016.

It is earnest and documentary in style. We start with Jussi who works hard as the handy man at the parish manse and in his spare time drains a swamp, and with the verbal agreement of the vicar farms it.

Under North Star.jpg

All readers know, as Jussi suspects, that the verbal agreement will be insufficient when tested.

Much of the book is like this. It sets up situations that any reader can see unfolding.

The message is clear, the underclass always takes it on the chin, and the underclass is always Finnish, and even if the overclass is, in the village of Pentti’s Corners anyway, Finnish they hold the position because of Russian suzerainty of the Grand Duchy of Finland.

The language politics pervades all. The old vicar preaches in Russian and consoles the bereaved in Finnish. The local newspaper is in Russian. Finns are seldom permitted to speak Finnish.

Legal questions, like Jussi’s informal tenancy, are adjudicated by Russian law, not Finnish practice. Nor even by the rules of John Locke, i.e., ownership going to those who mix their labor with the land, which in this case would by Jussi.

A young vicar replaces the old and in time the pressure on his young family is resolved by encroaching on Jussi’s farm. The vicar’s wife is the source of this pressure, and she is a cardboard cutout for this role.

Indeed, none of the characters are rounded. Jussi is nearly a robot, who works all day and all night. Though he is credited with the vision to realize the swamp could be drained and farmed, that seems to be limit of his imagination, and that limit is enough for the plot. A little too pat, I thought.

Likewise, the other characters stereotypes from many other such stories, the talented and handsome workman who prefers to lay around scheming his next seduction, the vodka soaked doctor, the fiery tailor who speaks a garbled version of proto-Marxism from Georgi Plekhanov about the masses, the timid newspaper publisher who dares not print a word of Finnish for fear of losing the licence to publish.

The Japanese defeat the Russians in the Far East, and though not a word is said of it by any official source, and not a word published about it, still everyone in this remote village knows it. Yes, I know about rumour mills, but really, most of the unschooled people in the village Linna has conceived would have no idea of the Far East or Japan.

There is also political unrest in Helsinki, including an assassination. While this is closer to home, it is still an alien world to the villagers, whose major worry is retaliation from the Russians. Rational as that is, it also seems a long bow for these rough, uneducated villagers to see cause and effect in this way with the goings on in distant Helsinki where none of them, and no one they know, has ever set foot.

The tailor Halme agitates and the vicar counsels patience. Those locals who are aware of some of the wider world suppose that if the czar only knew how badly the Finns were treated, then he would change things. This is the old Russian folk maximum, perpetuated by every czar. The bad comes from corrupt ministers around the czar, that insulation that kept the Romanovs in business for the last hundred years. (Spell checker note: ‘czar’ is a difficult word to get through the spellchecker. It would prefer tsar so I stubbornly persisted with czar.

When Russia revoked its commitment to a Finnish Constitution, there was a reaction in Helsinki and nationalists adopted some proto-Marxist rhetoric to organised resistance. Some of the youths who resisted were exiled and made it to Queensland in northern Australia, as chronicled in the novel of Craig Cormack ’Kurikka’s Dreaming’ (2000). Russia itself was undergoing severe strains at this time, too.

Marx was right and Plekhanov was wrong, by the way, and the villagers do not arise to seize their the fruits of their labor. Although Jussi’s son Akseli becomes a convert to socialism and that makes him a marked man. While there is no general strike, but there are plenty of strikes here and there. The natives are indeed restless and Halme continues, making suits for the squires, while agitating for a mix of nationalism and socialism, one does not dare say national-socialism any more.

There are divisions among the Finns who are united by nationalism and divided by ideology. Numerous variations are traced in debates, speeches, rallies, and confusion.

The first time the people of the village see a Russian, he comes to nail up a notice filled with threats. Not a public relations master stroke. This followed shortly thereafter by evictions enforced by mounted police who are Finns but labeled Cossacks. It is a common motif that overwhelming force will shock and awe the restive into submission, and it never works, leading to ever more force, as it does in these pages.

Though I found the novel stiff and wooden, it is also true that the author knows the way of life of the people he depicts better, say, than the social realist writers in the United States covering the same period. I have in mind Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris, and Sinclair Lewis. There is in Linna’s pages none of the condescension that Dreiser, Norris, and Lewis unwittingly reveal while representing the downtrodden. While loud in denouncing the oppressor such writers have no empathy with the oppressed. Their reaction is intellectual, learned from the pages of books. Linna’s voice is much more authentic than any of these three.

There is no redemption for the novel in the descriptions of that north star or nature and the place: these are mechanical. I found only one playful mention of Swedish, albeit I was turning the pages very fast, but ethnic Swedes remain to this day, an exclusive caste in Finnish society, as evinced by the Finnish literature written in Swedish.

Vaino_Linna_color.jpg Väinö Linna

I glanced at the many laudatory reviews on Good Reads and found nothing in them to give me pause. This is volume one of a trilogy and I think I will leave volumes two and three to all those accoladers on Good Reads. Serves them right!

This is the story of the boy Achilles and lifelong companion and true love Patroclus from their first meeting when both were eight, told from the point of view of Patroclus and set in a mysterious world. It is ‘mysterious’ because the gods are ever-present. Max Weber said the Enlightenment had gradually ‘demystified (Entzauberung) the world,’ that is, taken the mystery out of the world through rationality and science. Well, this novel is firmly set in a world that has not been demystified. The author handles both the gods and the men and women and the goddess, if that has to be said, quite well, and also their interactions. The prose is gorgeous and the conceptions of the principals is engaging.

I made the remark about goddesses because anyone familiar with the mythology knows that Thetis, the divine mother of Achilles, was one formidable goddess. Even the the king of the gods, Zeus, had been known to steer clear of her.

Achilles cover.jpg

Patroclus is a foundling who pitches up at the home of Achilles’s mortal father, who takes in boys as future warriors. In a world ruled by the sword this is a wise precaution.

IMG_2302.jpg We visited the site of Troy in October 2015.

IMG_2311.jpg The view of the Trojan plain.

The descriptions of Achilles from boy to man are, well, Homeric, it has to be said. He is beautiful, he is graceful, he is simple in manner for there is no need for him to prove himself to himself or to anyone else, his senses are preternatural… he may work all day with sword and spear in practice and yet never seems to sweat. The abrasion of his hands on sword haft never raises a callous, and so on. Truly he is favoured by the gods.

The more so when Thetis appears, as she does, now and again and when least expected. The first time she appears to Patroclus, of whom she disapproves as unworthy to be a companion of the god-born Achilles is marvellously realised. (Ditto the last time.) The boy is walking along a mountain path when he realises all has gone quiet. The cicadas have stopped. The birds have left the sky. Even the leaves on the trees are still. The grass itself seems tense in expectation. And then…there she is, a combination of incredible beauty and searing hatred. To look at her burns his eyeballs, when she looks at him, his skin burns. Not a goddess to cross.

Though Thetis hides Achilles to spare him from the Trojan War, the wily Odysseus finds him. That is another story and it is partly re-told here afresh. She hid him among a large group of girls in female attire. Suspecting that Achilles was among these girls, Odysseus threw down a sword before them and the hand that snatched it up with blinding speed, that was the hand of Achilles. He was born to hold that sword, a reflex to grab it. The story is dressed up a little here but stays entirely faithful to the legends. Odysseus used some good old fashioned leg work to find the place where Thetis had secreted her darling boy before he got close enough to drop the sword.

There are some soft spots in the story. It is never clear to me why Achilles took up Patroclus. Achilles is asked this very question a couple of times and answers each time, but none made sense to this reader.

I also found it hard to reconcile this mild mannered Achilles with the butcher he became at Troy. Though the novel does deftly lay the groundwork to explain his double reaction at Troy, first to the loss of the girl Briseis to Agamemnon and then Hector’s murder of Patroclus. Though, strangely, regarding Briseis the author does not quote what Achilles says in the 'Iliad,' 'I love her.'

Yes, Achilles knows the doom that hangs over him, and in time Patroclus learns it, too. But there is a shred of hope even amid these Western Front trenches at Troy, for the prophecy says that as long as Hector, the Trojan champion lives, so shall Achilles, i.e., Achilles will only die after Hector. Since Hector seems indomitable, Patroclus has hope that Achilles will survive, somehow. Patroclus is not a deep thinker.

Achilles faces his destiny and wades into the mayhem at Troy slaying this one and that by the dozen. He moves at five times the speed of even the most athletic opponents. Patroclus, never much a hand at athletics or warfare, stays clear of the fighting and becomes a healer, and there is much to heal. This I do not remember from the ‘Iliad.’ But the author made a choice for reasons of plot and character. So be it.

More than once ethical and moral matters rise to the surface, and are discussed by characters. The writer manages to do this without anachronism, not imputing to these men and women our Enlightenment ethos, nor condemning them for lacking it. Quite an achievement, this. Those that have not read the 'Iliad' do not realise how philosophical is that poem of force.

But fate is fate, and bad leads to worse.

MAd Miller.jpg Madeline Miller is a high school teacher.

The novelist clearly shows that, to a degree, even within the ambit of the prophecy, Achilles is the author of his own fate. That is an achievement. Chapeaux!

When doing homework for our trip to Chicago I came across reference to Pullman railway cars, a fascinating business model in itself. Those references also mentioned George Pullman’s artificial community, the eponymous Pullman. It was time to find out more.

Buder cover.jpg

Pullman made a fortune from the railway cars that bore his name from 1867-1968.

Pullman mug.jpg George Pullman.

As railroads were rebuilt after the Civil War and extended coast-to-coast, Pullman built ever more of them and had to expand the manufacturing capacity. Because in his business model the staff of the cars was also contracted with the cars (of which he always retained ownership), he also had to recruit and train staff to maintain the Pullman standard. To do so, he bought more than 4,000 acres south of Chicago and set up a new factory and built a town around it.

To recruit first class mechanics (the term that applied to all skilled workers in his factory), to ease the commute of workers who lived in Chicago, and to satisfy his philanthropic self-image he built a community for his workers called Pullman, after the factory, not after him personally in the first instance. It would offer all the necessities and conveniences of town life from clean water, sanitation, paved streets, schools, libraries, theatres, and so on, all laid down in a plan and built before the first inhabitant moved in. There were would be no demon rum, no gambling, no prostitution and related vices.


The dwellings were varied in size and the occupants rented them from the Pullman Company at a rate calculated to return 6% on the investment of building and maintaining the community, that being the return the Pullman Company realised on its other investments. This return was important because Pullman wished to prove to other robber barons that such social investment was profitable. The author found that it never did quite make 6%, more like 4.5%, something that the Pullman Company kept secret.

Pullman employees had first priority for the housing, but some others also rented there though not many because there was nothing there but the Pullman factory in the early days. The homes were subject to occasional inspections to identify maintenance needs and to insure that the occupants were taking care of them. At first the rent was extracted from salaries before they were paid, but a court struck that down in a class action. Nonetheless when paid, Pullman employees could not leave the pay desk without paying the rent.

What’s so good about utopia? The town of Pullman offered peace and quiet, recreation for families (parks, theatres), libraries and schools, sanitation, clean water, fuel, and the like, all laid on. It was run by a business manager because it was unincorporated. Ergo the residents had no say whatever in what happened. Moreover, their residential tenure depended on the Pullman Company. Furthermore, they could never buy a home there. By the way, the community included a covered market but Pullman did not have a company store, but rented space in the market to providers.

It is a kind utopian thought experiment. One can have all these good things of life in return for giving up democracy.

George Pullman was no friend of democracy, having observed at first hand its practice in the 1850s and 1860s in Chicago where one corrupt political party replaced the other by turns with mayors and councillors each more venal than the other. The corruption at city hall, ensconced by the democratic process, was matched by the drunkenness, robbery, assaults, prostitutions, and drug-taking on the streets. One neighbourhood of two thousand residents had forty bars and fifteen brothels, and more. Ruthless landlords built tenements and extracted maximum rents for rat-infested hovels. Despite the taxes collected, the streets were mud baths with plentiful horse droppings. Schools and libraries were private with stiff fees. But here was vigorous democracy as the parties battled each other in the race to the spoils. The corruption included wholesale vote rigging. Some things have never changed in Chicago. There has always been a high turnout of voters there, especially among the dead who do not care for whom their vote is cast.

To most residents of Pullman and to the journalists and philanthropists who visited the town, it was superior. 'To most’ but not all, because some railway workers wanted to extend the union to Pullman workers to secure higher wages and to increase the security of tenure in the homes they rented. There were occasions when workers who did not meet the Pullman Company standard of punctuality, sobriety, and good work were evicted from their homes overnight. In least one case the activities of a worker’s wife caused eviction. (Use you imagination to figure it out, Sherlock.)

George Pullman reacted to these union stirrings as a personal affront to his benign paternalism. There would be no negotiation; not an inch would be given. Cometh the fall.

The railroads were the site of much of the early struggle for unions, often led by the redoubtable Eugene V. Debs. I have discussed a biography of Debs elsewhere on this blog.

At the same time the ever-expanding city of Chicago, doubling in population every ten years, was encroaching on once distant Pullman. In time Chicago incorporated Pullman into Cook County though leaving the domination of the Company largely intact for another decade.

The collision course was laid in. The Pullman Company paid high(er) wages to attract and keep good workers as well providing all of the amenities of Pullman town for them and their families. But it was a business and when competition undercut the Pullman Company it unilaterally reduced wages while leaving the rents at the established level to get that 6% return on investment. When demand was high it expected unpaid overtime out of corporate loyalty. When the bottom fell out of the demand, the Company laid off workers and if they could no longer pay the rent, then they were evicted. The union movement found increasing interest from Pullman workers. By the way, Pullman did retain employees and sell cars at a loss at times before laying off staff. But the layoffs came.

The very kind of workers that the Pullman Company wanted, these were those most likely to chaff at the control of their lives and fates in Pullman Village. They were safe, sane, sober family men who would aspire to home ownership, who would want an education for their children and taken an interest in it, who would want a social life for the housewives, who would want family entertainment, who would want and expect job security. But George Pullman would never relinquish control of anything he owned, not one iota.

The result was the Pullman Strike that went from bad to worse. While the workers offered negotiation, the Pullman Company quickly resorted to force, and was shocked to find resistance. It spiralled out of control amid much posturing. Debs called every calamity a victory. George Pullman affected wounded pride. President Grover Cleveland sent in 12,000 Federal troops, three for every striker. (President Cleveland currently ranks in my book as the worst incumbent.)

The overkill of the corporate and political oppression galvanised public opinion against the Pullman Company. Religious leaders, newspaper editorialists, and even Chicago businessmen blamed the Company, not the strikers. George Pullman found himself ostracised among the business elite and that made him more stubborn. It became a test of wills, one he lost.

In the long aftermath, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that the Pullman Company must divest itself of the town. The annual Labor Day holiday in the first week of September was one of the concessions to the union movement from this strike.

Prof_Buder-copy.jpg Stanley Buder.

After a hiatus, the Pullman Company survived but was never the same again.

Nothing is said about race, but many members of the over-the-rail staff of Pullman were black. There is much else in the book about the business practices of Pullman which I found of interest. For that, read the book.

A memoir of sorts from the two years in 1969 and 1970 when Daniel P. Moynihan, with Hess as his deputy, served as President Richard Nixon’s chief advisor on domestic policy.

Hess cover.jpg

It was the odd couple: the president was a social conservative who courted to the right wing of his party to get the nomination and then moved further right to win the election joined with a high profile exponent of liberalism in American politics. Nixon ran to the right in 1968 first to secure the nomination from much more liberal Republicans like Charles Percy and that Hamlet of the Hudson Nelson Rockefeller. Then Nixon ran even further toward the right to undercut segregationist George Wallace’s independent campaign among those red of neck. Each time the message was simple and clear: law and order, cut welfare to zero, wind back the clock on affirmative action, stop integration by ending funding for its support, stack the Supreme Court with non-entities who would deny government intervention to support minorities…. That was rhetoric. It has a strangely contemporary ring to it, does it not?

In office the reality was this. Nixon wanted peace and quiet in the United States and he personally wanted peace and quiet in the White House. He was willing to buy domestic peace and quiet. Moreover, Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and seemed secure in continuing that. Nixon saw no reason to rile up Congress on domestic matters that he, Nixon, did not care about, nor to stir up the population by eliminating programs that had popular support. None of this could be done overtly for fear of alienating his electoral constituency which he would need again in four years. It was time for some legerdemain.

Enter Pat Moynihan. His credentials as a liberal in American politics were unassailable. He had worked for President Kennedy. He had advocated the cause of minorities. He supported all manner of social programs. His intellect was bright and he was a wordsmith, and he had other credentials, too, as a Professor at Harvard University. Robert F. Kennedy was dead, but Moynihan was his living spirit still flesh. Moynihan embodied from the bow tie on the Eastern Liberal Establishment that Nixon hated privately almost to distraction.

But it would placate Congress and confuse and perhaps divide his critics if he keep Moynihan close, and so Nixon appointed him as the chief domestic political advisor with cabinet rank. It was a masterstroke that won much breathing space for the new Nixon administration.

At the outset it seemed that Nixon’s administration would be dominated by two Ivy League professors, since his chief foreign policy advisor, appointed earlier, was Henry Kissinger, another Harvard professor, head of the National Security Council with cabinet rank. Remember that Kissinger had entered public affairs with Nelson Rockefeller, the most liberal of the Ripon Republicans (a phrase no longer used by the Grand Old Party). Are these two twin and each a deuce philosopher-king?

One of the interesting observation in the book under review is the comparison of the communities in the White House for domestic and foreign policy. While foreign policy is the preserve of the President, per the Constitution, and only two agencies figure in it, though they are the great and good Departments of State and Defense. In fact, with the appointment of Kissinger and the elevation of the position of Director of the National Security Council to cabinet rank, Nixon enlarged the foreign policy circle. It was still, however, a small circle. All the principals could sit around one small table, and a single strong personality could dominate the group, in this case Kissinger, even though he did not have the powerful Department of State and Defense at his back, he had the intellect and cunning to out manoeuvre them to influence Nixon. But that is another story.

In contrast the domestic policy community is vast and ill defined, but it starts with every other cabinet member, fifty state governors, and expands from there.

Moynihan saw an opportunity to dominate the domestic policy community with his own intellect. It would be a contest on two levels. The first was to get Nixon’s attention to domestic policy and the second was to displace his principle domestic policy rival, the economist Arthur Burns. The first step was simple and easy and had continuing implications. It comes down to real estate.

Thousands of people work in the White House and it has long since burst at the seams. Nineteenth Century broom closets have been converted to offices, hallways reduced in size to enlarge offices to shoe horn in more people, doubling and tripling up is the norm. The alternative was the Executive Office Building nearby. Moynihan opted to squeeze into a White House broom closet a few steps from the Oval Office, while Burns chose an opulent suite of rooms in the Executive Office Building. That was very nearly end of story. Game, set, and match to Moynihan. He was at hand instantly, and he made use of that.

In a way that says it all. The imperceptive Burns probably never quite realised it was a competition, and conveniently excluded himself. He further reduced his own influence by his ponderous class room manner. He could not participate in discussions ad lib. He could not debate submissions and never got to the point, if ever he had one, in less than forty-five minutes. If asked for comment in a meeting he would go away and write a lecture to deliver a week later. It was no contest. Nixon, in fact, began to interrupt Burns to ask for the conclusion, and then simply stopped inviting him to meetings. Moynihan excelled at debate and was always ready with an idea.

Getting Nixon’s attention was harder. The Cold War was very cold; the Vietnam War was very hot. The Middle East was on fire. Other trouble-spots vied for attention by more outrageous events.

But domestic policy could not be neglected. There were racial tensions and riots. Moreover, many Johnson programs were coming due for renewal and Moynihan was a genius at using these calendared deadlines to create some domestic policy for Nixon. He conceded some of the Great Society program to the dustbins, re-badged others, and merged many to serve up a diverse and responsive domestic policy. More importantly, he couched it all in terms Nixon could recognise and accept. That is, Moynihan played to the President, whose own background was one of hard times during the Depression. For two years the magic tape held.

Nixon came to like Moynihan who addressed him as an intelligent and well-meaning man, and did not act either the sycophant or supplicant. Sometimes Moynihan addressed complicated arguments to Nixon, in a rain of memoranda, on the assumption that Nixon would read and understand. These memoranda were often short, always witty, and usually tuned to the day's headlines. Nixon liked being treated as an intellectual equal by this star from the Harvard firmament, just as the star liked being asked to advise on all manner of things, many beyond his remit.

moynihan1-articleLarge.jpg The odd couple.

It did not last because when all is said and done, well, Nixon was Nixon. He was unable and unwilling to ply Congress on domestic policy. By that I mean, Nixon was not someone who would court the support of anyone, still less in a policy arena in which he had no interest. Part of his dedication to foreign policy was because it was essentially the President’s chess game. He played the lone hand. At that he excelled.

To promote any domestic policy requires a president to woo, court, explain, cajole, coax, trade favours, entertain, persuade, the chairs of sub-committees, the chairs of committees, the party elders, the lobbyists, the press, individual Senators, faction leaders formal and informal, state governors, certain Representatives, and so on and on and on. This kind of endless dance was what Lyndon Johnson did better than anyone before or since, seldom idle and never alone when he could press his case on someone.

Nixon thought this kind of politicking without end led to compromises and bad policy, or so he said, but the truth is deeper. He just could not do this person-to-person persuading even if it was scripted and controlled. We can all speculate on why. Here is my take. Because of his background of penury he was too proud to ask others for help. To do so would be admission of weakness, and the weak are reluctant to admit it. There is also in Nixon a personal shyness that is another result of his upbringing that kept him in the family. That is my pop psychologising. (Yes, I know LBJ's background was even more penurious and he had no trouble in seeking help.)

After the first few months of his presidency Nixon sharply reduced the time he spent in cabinet meetings, and made himself less and less available for appointments with anyone. Bob Haldeman who kept Nixon’s appointment diary noted that the President said and said often ‘I want to be alone.’ Yes, I thought of Greta, too, as I am sure did Hess, but he passed it in silence.

Nixon had to be alone with those yellow legal pads to think. When Nixon was thus isolated, as he preferred, Moynihan was a few steps away and would be summoned to be a one-man sounding board, who would speak freely in the privacy of the tête-à-tête.

Like Senator William Fulbright, Moynihan had made a Faustian bargain. He joined Nixon’s band on the pledge of loyalty and that he would not speak of the Vietnam War which was the biggest and hottest ticket for the incoming president. Moynihan kept his part of the bargain.

It lasted for two years and then Moynihan returned to Harvard. He paid a price for his association with Nixon and gradually went on to a political career in the Senate, taking the seat once held by Robert Kennedy.

The price was a loss of status among his Harvard peers for his dalliance with Tricky Dick. He never quite re-entered the Harvard Square club. Indeed, his association with the Nixon White House also damned him to many anti-Vietnam War protestors. The one chance I had to hear Moynihan speak, at a political science conference, he was shouted down, quite comprehensively, by such protestors.

Stephen Hess has many other books, and I will certainly read more.

Hess mug.jpg Stephen Hess.

He is even handed, and lets the facts do most of the talking. He does, however, present most of this book in the present tense and I found that distracting, and I always find it annoying after I have been distracted.

This time the aliens try South London instead of East London, and find the locals even tougher!

What’s to like?

The gradually revealed social order amid the outward chaos of the streets, alleys, trash, and detritus of squalid urban life. The additional revelation that for most of the boys in the gang, there is a home to go to but the streets are more exciting.


The mix of races and ages. Mugging passers-by is acceptable to the code but not dealing drugs to brothers.

The foul mouthed swearing is for the streets, not when safe indoors among friends. The swearing and cursing is part of the role of the street-tough.

The implicit social criticism. First the bullies and thugs, then the police, then the drugs, then the guns, all sent to destroy the black migrants of south London.

Then come the aliens. No point in calling the police because they will blame everything on the street toughs and lock them up, leaving the aliens to destroy everyone else. When confronted with the pistol-totting drug lord, the police prefer to arrest the street boys. So much easier. No, the boys from the Block have to look after their own, so they arm up and take on the aliens.

The dope growing nerd, Nick Frost, and his nephew prove to be surprising helpful in the denouement. Some basic sciences goes a long way in this script.

attack_the_block still.jpg

When the newly-moved in nurse tries to explain to the police, who arrive in the end after the street toughs have destroyed the aliens, that the boys saved her and everyone else, the police conclude she has been traumatised by assault, threats, and perhaps rape, Stockholm Syndrome, one officer mutters, while arresting the boys.

The leader of the gang is, by the way, Moses (who led his people to the promised land).

From SBS-2 a foul-mouthed slaughter-fest featuring the geriatrics at a nursing home who take on THE ZOMBIES.

I gave it a three and a half snorts rating (four is tops) as I guffawed my way through it.

The nursing home is threatened by a new residential development for the Yuppies who have discovered how handy and cheap East London is. Two grandsons of one of the geriatrics swing into action to come up with the dosh to help out. Their solution is to rob a bank. They assemble a team. This is no A-Team, and includes a klutz, a psycho, an absent minded type, and a cousin who does have some nous. While the lads are busy robbing the bank, the zombies rise and demolish most of the East End.

When the team emerges from the bank, all is devastation. ‘Wh ‘append?, they ask? They are all pretty clueless. But the zombies soon make themselves known. Yes, the have a lot of money now, but who cares! Off they go to save granddad, sure that he will have survived the onslaught, taking along a couple of superfluous hostages who now do not want to be let loose.

What to do? Stay on mission and rescue Granddad.

It is a wild ride and perhaps not best viewed around meal time.

The nursing home includes many familiar faces from Brit cop shows hamming it up, among them Richard Briers who tapes an Uzi to his Zimmer frame, Honor Blackman who knows how to handle a gun, Alan Ford who for years played characters on ‘The Bill’ and similar programs listed in the credits as First Thug, Second Villain, Dudley ‘Tinker’ Sutton whose wheel chair becomes a tank of sorts, and Tony Selby who uses his wooden leg to beat one zombie into pulp.

These seniors have survived Dunkirk, the Blitz, Hitler and World War II, cancer, fifteen years of rationing, the Beatles, divorce, porridge (that is jail time), bell-bottomed trousers, colonial wars, Thatcher, and other catastrophes, a few zombies will not lay them low.


The discerning viewer detects a certain satire here. The Zombies taking over East London surely represent those Yuppies who are driving out the respectable and toiling masses. But then the working class is not spared either, shown to be idle and criminal in the McGuire family.

That it rates a measly 5.9/10 from 14,386 votes on the Internet Movies DataBase confirms a lot about the people to do those ratings, none of it good. There are sixty-eight reviews and I do not recommend reading any of them but I do recommend watching it, though I fear some knowledge of Brit cops shows, personnel, and conventions, will add some seasoning denied those without this background knowledge.

One of the sacred text is Australian history is Geoffrey Blainey’s ‘The Tyranny of Distance’ (1966), which made his name and ever after he pontificated on anything and everything until no one (starting with me) listened to him any more. I read it 1974 and not since. The thesis of the book, as I remember, was simple. The great distance of Australia’s English settlements from England made the Europeans in Australia both self-reliant and hostile to, though dependent on, the distant authority because it was unreliable.

Tryanny cover.jpg

The term ‘tyranny of distance’ pops up now and again in the popular media as it did today in a piece on the business pages of Rupert Murdoch’s organ, ‘The Australian.’ There Bernard Salt ('The Dallas Line,' 4 February) told readers that Sydney (which is Australia) is more than a plane ride (with current technology) from much of the world. OK, that is certainly true. No airline flies direct, non-stop from Sydney to London or from Sydney to New York City. This, he contends is detrimental to Australia because that is where the money of the world is. OK, that is also true, but what is the detrimental part? That was not articulated, instead the mantra distance is tyranny was cited. One pictures travellers lugging bags of dosh around inside that London-New York nexus unable to change planes, such is the size of dosh bags, in Los Angeles or Dubai.

The news is, and perhaps this is news to some, that money moves around the world in click of the keyboard as the cascade of financial crises around the world has repeatedly shown. Distance does not insulate any country from such financial calamity. That fact is ritually reiterated on the business page of the organ of Murdoch several times a week. Salt describes himself as a futurist on his web site. Think about that.

By the way, the other side of the tyranny of distance that Blainey mentioned was that in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries distance did insulate Australia from some of the more dopey and ephemeral fads that came and went elsewhere before they made the trip to Australia. No Edsel or Apple Newton made it to these shores. Not from all such fads but some. It also insulated Australian from some infectious disease epidemics. No more. Bad ideas are replicated here within twenty-four hours.

The distance was measured in travel time as much as miles. Blainey wrote about Australia as remote but of course it was not remote to its aborigine in habitants, nor was it far from the South East Asians who regularly visited the northern shores.

The colonial master in the formative period of Australia’s European history was a long way away in both space and time. It might take, at best, six months to travel from Sydney to London. Moreover, it was unsure. Ships turned back; some were even less fortunate. Others jettisoned cargo, like correspondence, in heavy seas and so the letter went unanswered. When word did come through from London it was so late as to be laughable, fertilising the attitude that authority was remote, anonymous, and stupid.

The result was the Australian political culture of the 1970s, one that entwined a dependence on government for nearly everything from the marketing of eggs to trimming of hedges, while disparaging government and all who worked for it as cretins. Australians wore this anti-authoritarianism with pride, automatically against the government even while waiting for the next handout from it. Rather like a teenage boy rebelling against his parents while pocketing the weekly allowance and storming off to a room provided by the detested parents.

For Australia the first breach in the tyranny of distance was the Boeing long distance jets that supplanted ships for the travel of mere mortals in the 1970s. There followed a generation later the digital world which has shaken many of the most solid institutions like newspapers themselves.

Why read Murdoch’s organ when I can click up BBC News, Le Monde, or Deustche Welle? (My personal answer, since I have been asked this, is the local news that will never make it to these outlets, and the reviews, cultural, and entertainment information. And the nonsense that ever fewer, ever more desperate journalist write, which provides unintended - always the best kind - entertainment. And reading them on paper is still more convenient that on screen.)

When the fad for small government was born on the winds of Proposition 13 (that was referendum for the taxpayers’ revolt in California) in 1978, the spores circled the globe and arrived in Australia rather like the cloud of radiation in Neville Shute’s ‘On the Beach,’ Australians happily shrank government. The one example I witnessed firsthand was the higher education division in the Federal Department of Education which shrank from 400 to 40 to 14, probably 4 now. Each successive government wins office on a pledge to cut government spending, and cut they do. This is now a forty year race to eviscerate government.

Of course a lot of things go wrong as the cuts were made, but as one prime minister said, ‘Not our fault.’ End of that story.

Strangely enough though government has vacated many realms from airlines to docks, the tax bill has not decreased but the automatic anti-authority posturing has decreased so some good has come from it. Though poseurs quickly find other posture to affect, it is true to say.

We do not hear much about the French Social Model (FSM) these days, now do we? For those who tuned in late or tuned out early, in the first decade of the 2000s the French Social Model was often invoked in hushed and respectful tones, even here in the far antipodes.

When students proposed to do theses on the French Social Model, that was the first I had heard of it. They were getting the message elsewhere. Then at conferences there were sessions that included the FSM. When I returned from a conference in Paris at the OECD, the Master of the Universe to whom I then reported asked about the manifestations of the FSM, in the expectation that they were there to see, I guess, in the streets.

Of course the same people who humbled themselves before this mirage of Gallic sagacity were unsparing critics of the Anglo societies in which they lived. Liberalism was a hoax and democracy a sham in the Anglo-Saxon world.

IMG_2597.JPG Of course, few pay into the system.

I had to report to my boss that there were no signs of utopia in Paris between the hotel room and La Défense where the OECD talkfest occurred. (The area is called La Défense because the Prussian Army stopped at that point in 1870, preferring to let the French in Paris kill each other in the Commune. In French mythology the Prussians were fought to standstill. There are people who think they stopped the Germans in 1940, too, at the Pyrenees.)

Then in 2006 there were riots in the streets in the Arab and African quarters of Paris and other French cities. Gulp! It went on and on. There is plenty of video on You Tube for those who need a refresher. The complaints and demands were many.

What French Social Model? A repressive police apparatus, the routine deportation of anyone who complained too conspicuously, withdrawal of the license to publish in some cases. Fifty per cent unemployment because no European French would hire a dark skinned person. Automatic failure in school for anyone name Ahmed. Denial of family reunion immigration. Closure of hospitals in the third world parts of Paris. The list goes on.

It had been going on for decades and was as effective in deluding intellectuals seeking an illusion to go with the fumé blanc and brie as the Soviet Union had been in the 1930s with vodka and black bread. Neither the levels nor means of repression in the two cases are comparable. What is comparable is the readiness of some intellectuals to be deluded by a convenient illusion.

The worship of the FSM has gone quiet of late. Not even the election of the Socialist President François Hollande quite revived it. This accountant from the country has seemed to be in over his head as did his predecessor (who is now lining up to be his successor). The cleanskin Socialist Party has stumbled from one crisis to another, several if its own making.

Hollande.jpg President Hollande

My personal favourite was the Socialist finance minister who pushed for draconian penalties for tax avoidance for all sorts of patriotic and humanitarian reasons. He was undone when his own personal tax avoidance became public knowledge. First he denied the monies existed. Then that the monies were significant. Then that the monies were really his (reaching for his wife as a shield). That it was an oversight. Then…. Then he resigned. Oh, and there was that other financial wizard caught with pants down in New York. Ah, the moral leadership of Socialism. That event thrust Hollande into the leadership.

The point is, for those about to jump to a conclusion, not that the Socialists are any worse than others but that they are no different.

Then in response to terrorists attacks, the Socialist President has declared an open-ended state of emergency. Wow! Imagine if President George W. Bush had done that in 2001! He would have been verbally crucified by the talking-head industry around the world and certainly here in Australia where throwing stones at far-away others is a career. The French attacks were bad, to be sure, but not on the scale of 9/11, but the reaction has been far greater and quicker. Not much of it makes the Australian news in preference to car accidents on the Pacific Highway.

Viewers of TF2 news on SBS see daily reports of continuing police raids, and shoot outs. Dare I call this the Real French Social Model? One suspects that the police have had a long list of villains and now they have the justification to strike at them.

The French Social Model has some adjuncts. The French budget has not be balanced since Valery Giscard d’Estang was president (1974-1981). The debts just keeps on rolling.

One of the biggest drains on the budget is the military establishment which accounts for about 40% of it, which is then used for frequent armed interventions in African, including the Arab countries in North Africa. Those admirers of the French Social Model never pause for long on this prolonged neo-colonialism but one images the outrage if the United States did what the French do. Such are double standards.

France africa.jpg French African Model

At any one time France has military units deployed in twenty or more places in Africa. Colonialism or the Gallic Enlightenment?

Dyson is sometimes said to be the greatest physicist never to win a Nobel Prize, settling instead with having a space craft named for him in ‘Star Trek.’ The book is autobiographical but not an autobiography. Huh?

The essays set forth something of his life and career as a scientist from his first absorption in and simple adsorption of mathematics, to statistical analysis during World War II in Bomber Command, to theoretical work in the Cold War… That is autobiographical part. However it does not offer much of the private man, though we do find out some of his personal life there is no interior, and it is shorn of any reflections on the might-have-beens in his life. The ruminations, and there are a few, are about science and scientists and those they effect or effect them.

disturbing universe cover.jpg

He, by the way, was perhaps among the one million Allied soldiers estimated to be killed in the conquest of Japan, who was saved by the atomic bombs. He had been ordered to Okinawa with a contingent of RAF Bomber Command to join the aerial campaign against Japan in anticipation of a sea landing in November 1946. The Allied planners had assumed one million (1,000,000) Allied causalities to subdue the islands of Japan, based largely not the resistance on Iwo Jima and then Okinawa. He read the news of the first atomic bomb en route to the boat train for the Orient. His orders were altered, and he was demobilised. (The planners also assumed ten times that many Japanese deaths in the conflict and untold numbers later in the devastation of the entire country that would be necessary to subdue it.) The planners also assumed nearly all of these Allied casualties would be Americans, since the other Allies were depleted by the war in Europe and that the Soviet Union would play the waiting game, if for no other reason than in retaliation for the tardy opening of the second front in Europe in 1944. Among the many contingency plans for this operation was, after Japan had been bombed flat, to convert air force personnel to infantry and send them into the charnel house. One such flyboy being converted to infantry in 1945 was my father.

‘The Children’s Crusade’ is the chapter about his RAF experiences. It is an absolutely outstanding account of bureaucratic pathology. I used it a number of times in teaching. The more lies told, the more innocents murdered, the more lives thrown away, the greater the prestige of Bomber Command, the more knighthoods distributed, the larger the budget to continue the mayhem, the less rational analysis occurred. Nothing unique about it, but he lays it all out in a way that is all too familiar.

He started a PhD and sent a year at Cornell University with Hans Bethe, who sent him on to the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton New Jersey to work with J. Robert Oppenheimer. Many of the Los Alamos scientists, apart from Oppenheimer, had been hired by Cornell. (Chicago got the rest.) Entering their company was exhilarating and frightening to the young Dyson. They had won the Pacific War with their brains, it seemed to him, and now he was one of them, well, not really, but he was among them.

He found Cornell and later the Institute very different from Cambridge where he started the PhD research earlier. First, there was plenty of everything from butter to test tubes and clean, crisp white paper. To a theorist like Dyson, who quickly proved himself so inept at experiments as to be a danger to anyone else working nearby, the clean, crisp, empty white paper was a thrill. (Reminded me of paper elsewhere.) Second, he found the informality of first names, all lining up together for lunch, and sitting at one table different from both the RAF Bomber Command, of course, but also from the class, status, and hierarchy consciousness of Cambridge high tables.

There was another distinguishing feature that stayed with him. The anguish of the atomic scientists at having unleashed the atom. Most days at lunch or coffee someone would talk about it as a moral question, as moral guilt, as a genie that would not go back into the lamp, as the last consuming sin of hubris.

It is in this context that Dyson interprets Fredrick Teller’s fatal testimony against Oppenheimer, and it makes sense in this telling. Oppenheimer was so distraught, feeling ashamed and guilty, stunned, confused by the enormity of nuclear weapons that he had become unstable, volatile, sleepless, haunted, and so was not fit for duty. Teller was trying to make a specific and limited criticism of Oppenheimer’s fitness for the job as director of the Atomic Energy Commission, but in the hysteria of the time and place it got blown out of proportion and Teller never lived down this betrayal of his mentor, doing himself as much damage as he did Oppenheimer. Of course, Teller might well have realised that once he took a public side, it would spin out of his control. Too bad the principals of Wikileaks did not learn from such an example. Once it is out, it is out of control. This is one of many examples in the book of the disservice the media does to reason and rationality with its remorseless, cheap sensationalism.

Toward the middle of the book is the story of Matthew Meselson, a biologist, who won a single-handed victory in the Nixon Administration. Armed with reason and evidence he convinced the National Security Council, which in turn convinced President Nixon, to end military research into chemical and biological weapons: One man with an idea, per John Stuart Mill. Moreover, having renounced CBW (chemical and biological warfare) the Nixon administration convinced the Soviet government to do the same, completely in contradiction to the conventional wisdom. This is a marvellous story which was swamped too soon by the tale of Watergate. In order to slip it past domestic opposition, Nixon played it all so low key many involved did not realise it was done, least of all the sensation-seeking media. No great rhetoric but an achievement for the ages. Dyson was one of the scribes doing the technical work on the reports and proposals that went into this effort.

Nixon also deserves credit for listening to the arguments of Daniel P. Moynihan about cities as per Stephen Hess, ‘The President and the Professor’ (2014) but again, to out manoeuvre opponents on the right, Nixon did so with no fanfare to attract the the attention of the jaded hacks.

Dyson like many of his scientific colleagues drew strength from poetry and music. Indeed he often tried to understand what he was doing by finding poems that expressed it. The same with music. He emerges from this book as a modest and direct individual with a great deal of intellect and capacity for meeting challenges, solving problems, indeed, but not only technical ones.

Dyson head.jpg Freeman Dyson.

Lee Hansen first enticed me to read this book, and I used the chapter about Dyson’s experiences in bomber Command many times in teaching to demonstrate the pathologies of large organisations. I lent it to a friend and when he returned it, I opened it and started to read it again. I had thought of it last year when we saw ‘Particle Theory’ about the God-particle, and I noticed the enormous spectacles on the nose of an owlish man in the audience; it was Dyson.

While in the States Dyson did what so many exchange students have done there, including Jacques Chirac, and criss-crossed the country by bus. Dyson chose his destinations according to his finances and the physicists he might meet at the destinations, either by attending lectures or knocking on the office door, things he would never have done in England.

What is reality? What is not? What is the difference? Does it matter?

This is a novel from Finland, read in anticipation of a brief visit there later in 2016. It is charmingly enigmatic and low-key, rather reminding this reader of Finnish movies in those respects.

Datura cover.jpg

It is episodic, written in what might be diary entries of a young woman who, after graduating from university, goes to work in the editorial office of a publication called ‘The New Anomalist’ which is a one-man publication that prints only the weird and wondrous; two-headed sheep always get a good run.

Our nameless heroine tries to be nice to the oddballs and weirdos who contribute to the magazine, want to contribute to the magazine, or subscribe to it. Gradually, with constant exposure, they seem less weird and odd to her, and her own normal life seems illusory. Part of the explanation, for the literal minded, is in the title, but I took that mostly to be a metaphor for erosion of her own grasp on reality. Datura is an hallucinogenic.

Leena Klohn.jpg Leena Krohon.

While it is set in Helsinki that hardly matters. Mostly the encounters and rumination occur in the dreary one basement office of the magazine which could be anywhere. Ergo, no travelogue.

I wanted to read this little book (unpaginated) because my efforts—thrice over the years—to read Auguste Comte’s (1798–1857) ‘Système de politique positive’ (six volumes, 1851-1854) failed. While Comte was the centre of much intellectual ferment he has not attracted much attention so I have not come across another exposition. I also thought Mill a good expositor, most of the time.

Comte Mill cover.jpg

Comte was private secretary to Henri de Saint-Simon, that father of French utopian socialism, in the tag that Karl Marx hung on him never to be shed, who was himself a relative of the diarist Le Duc de St.-Simon of the Sun King’s Court. Moreover, any history of sociology will accord Comte pride of place alongside such giants as George Simmel and Émile Durkheim. George Eliot, the novelist, mentions him in some of her novels in a very favourable way. His name comes up now and again. When I was in Montpelier for a conference I saw a plaque on a school where he was educated. Time to scratch this itch, if only a little.

The ‘Système de politique positive’ offered a philosophy of history that explains humanity’s social evolution through the stages of theological and metaphysical, culminating in the age dawning in 1851, the age of Positivism. These stages take different forms in mathematics, science, the arts, industry and so on, and Comte described them in great detail.

Comte and three stages.jpg Auguste Comte with the three stages of social evolution.

In this context ‘positivism’ means a lot more than positive. It means saying only what is demonstrable. He is a materialist after Karl Marx’s own heart. Facts shape ideas, and not vice versa. One of many consequences of this foundation is that reason serves feeling but does not govern it. Herbert Spencer took much of this epistemology on board, and, like it or not, set it forth much more succinctly and clearly than did Comte.

In Comte’s interpretation mathematics is THE science, the foundation of all else, because it is the simplest and sociology is the last science because it is the most complicated. The Wikipedia entry has a potted account that shows signs of the editorial wars for which it is infamous.

Social evolution, per Comte, thanks to Positivism, will lead to a unanimity on all matters, starting with mathematics, by sticking only to the demonstrable. The result is utopia, though Comte does not use the word. Once this unanimity is achieved, then a corporation of philosophers, regarded with reverence, but excluded from political power or material riches, with a modest support from the state, will direct the on-going education (and life) of each individual and the society as a whole. While they have no authority, a sanction from this college of philosopher has a crushing social and moral force. They superintend both the public life and the private life of each and all. They are a panel of very Big Brothers.

Comte hierarch of sciences.jpg Comte's hierarchy of the sciences.

There co-exists a temporal government which is comprised of an aristocracy of capitalists, led by bankers, seconded by merchants, then manufacturers, and finally agriculturalists. In each case the noun refers to the owners not the workers in these domains. There is nary a word about a role or voice for the multitude who do not own banks, grands magazines, factories, or farms. However, there is completely free discussion. The elephantine six volumes brings forth this rather simple-minded pastiche on Plato’s philosopher-kings. Absent is any mentioned of women, contra Plato. By the way, St. Simon was a banker.

Comte could see no reason why inferiors should elect the superiors who will rule them. Public officials should be responsible for training and selecting their own successors subject only to the approbation of their own superiors. This is a man who believed in hierarchies. A citizen must have a settled career by thirty-five, and after that may not change. This is a man who believed in order at any price. No one may pursue occupations that are not useful. So much for basic research. He was specific about stopping useless research into magnetism, archeology, astronomy, and more. Imagine how popular he would be today with budget cutters. The corporation of philosophers will decide what is useful. End. This corporation will also decide which one hundred, yes, one hundred books will survive and the rest will be burned! One hundred is enough, the rest mere distractions.

Comte regarded rich capitalists as a public functionaries and stipulated that they must act accordingly. Talk about a dreamer. What socialists would achieve by law, Comte hoped to achieve by education and suasion, capped with the peer pressure of public opinion.

Such a result may cause a reader to doubt that it is worth the effort to study the volumes that lead to it in order to understand how Comte arrived at such banalities. So says Mill in one of his drôle asides.

The second half of this unpaginated book is another essay on Comte’s later works which were just as ponderous. Comte took the time to explain his own genius. He never read anything but reflected within himself. Echo Rousseau. The result is an autodidact with a great conviction. He was mentally unstable as a youth, voluntarily spending time in an asylum, and later attempting suicide. In middle age, like Mill, he found the love of his life and told the world. This comparison to Mill’s austere passion for Harriet Taylor might have warmed Mill to Comte.

In the latter works Comte goes even further, devising a social religion that leaves behind the metaphysical and theological claptrap of organised religion and preaches this doctrine and this doctrine alone: live for others. In arriving at this creed, he coined the word ‘altruism.’

‘Live for others’ is literal. One should only do what benefits others. This is not Jesus’s admonition to love neighbours as oneself, but rather not to love oneself at all but only to love neighbours.

Comte was systematic as indicated by the title of the work cited above, and he carried this creed through in everything, from diet (eat only enough to be able to serve others), to dress (simple and utilitarian to serve others), and so on. Everything becomes a moral question settled by this one doctrine. In short, he required that each of us live as a saint practicing self-abnegation in our every act. Followers? He had none. Nor is there any reason to belief he lived as he advocated, rather like most pundits today, he preferred preaching to practicing.

His lady-love died within a year of their conjunction, consequently Comte, like others so bereaved, was attracted to spiritualism. He included guardian angels in his civil religion, and it seemed to be more than a metaphor.

He also proposed an elaborate civil religion with a Pontiff Positive, which would preach the doctrines he proposed. He supported Napoleon III’s coup d’état because it did away with the charade of elective democracy (which Comte always dismissed as the English disease), and predicted that in a few years Napoleon would turn over government to three wise men. Guess who would be the first to be chosen. That day came and went without the magi.

Comte was not a man who knew when to quit. He proposed to give each day of the year a name, to make the week ten-days along, to rename the planets, to change spelling and orthography, spending pages and pages on the evils of diphthongs. (Look it up!)

The more one reads of Aristotle, the more clear is his towering genius. Ditto many others. In the case of Comte, the more one reads, the less one wants to read any more.

Recently I saw on Télévision Française 2’s news broadcast aired by SBS each morning, which I watch for my daily French lesson, the induction of a scholar into the immortals of the Collège de France, the robes, the ritual procession, the pecking order, the props were all very Masonic to this vulgarian. (There were no more than three women; the immortals number one hundred and no one may resign, ergo someone has to die for a new member to be selected.) These individuals are the sort Comte had in mind for rule.

college de france.png Collège de France logo. I could not find any imagines of a ceremony such as I saw on the news.

Of course, while they retain the trappings of veneration, in fact the broadcast had the air of curiosity more than reverence.

This book is not Mill at his best as an exposition. But it soothed my it itch for Comte. Each sentence is a thicket of dependent clauses, noun phases so long that a GPS is needed to find the predicate, encyclopaedic asides, orphaned relative pronouns, that it taxed this reader. In the essays, for which he was paid by the word, Mill is prolix; in his books which he paid for publishing by the word, he is terse. Go figure. His father had Scots ancestry.

This title is a krimi set in contemporary rural Georgia in the borderlands with South Carolina and Florida in a small town whose chief denizens are the Chandler family.  Belay those stereotypes! 

The Chandler sons are an actor of great ambition and little talent, and a physicist who is proud member of the nerd fraternity.  Captain Grandfather spend forty years at sea in the navy. Aunt Amanda, had she been available, would surely have repulsed General Sherman at Atlanta with her wit, skill, forceful personality, and the endless supply of contacts in the right places.  

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Returning to this fold is niece Elizabeth MacPherson, a forensic anthropologist, to be married in the ancestral home.  Her unreconstructed hippie parents continue to smoke dope in Hawaii, trusting all arrangements to the Chandlers in residence.  

Her beau is a Scots marine biologist; they pass the time with discussions of decomposition rates of flesh.

The plot thickens when local Emmett Martin dies...for a second time.  I will say no more to spoil the plot. Suffice it to say it is clever, rIght down to the Biblical nomenclature. 

McCrumb is a dab hand at delineating a cast of characters as individuals from all those named above to the several sheriffs and deputies, the scientific colleagues of each of the principals, and the townspeople, including the whole-earth tree-hugging tofu-eating caterers for the wedding whom Amanda suborns into serving flesh.  Even the Queen of England and a princess make an appearance!

Sharyn M.jpeg Sharyn McCrumb

This is the second in the series centring on Elizabeth MacPherson, and I will lay in the first.  However not sure about continuing thereafter.  With neither zombies nor bimbos, it does not reach the heights of the other books of hers I have read.  Being a one-woman industry she also has several other lines of fiction.

Agatha Christie said the secret to finishing was to start. McCrumb got the message.  

This a collection of short stories that opens with the title story of Smith deliberately losing a race in order, as he sees it, to defy the authorities. Winning would have benefited him, but it would also have benefited the warden and jailers of the Borstal where he is held, and rather than do that he loses, and does so in a way that is obvious to viewers.

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It told from his point of view and is hypnotic at points, especially during the fateful run. Once a reader starts, it draws one in.

Most of the stores have a common theme in loneliness. ‘Uncle Ernest’ is a touching story of a very lonely old man trying to befriend some innocent school girls, which is misunderstand by on-lookers. but who knows, maybe in time, Ernest might …. There is just enough ambiguity to make a reader wonder. No sledge hammer morals here.

‘Mr Raynor the School Teacher’ is another person trapped in his own, very small world, dealing with obstreperous boys, some of whom will find their way to the Borstal nearby. Meanwhile, he daydreams, but never dares speak his mind.

‘The Fishing Boat Picture’ is about love and sacrifice, but all clouded by the inability and unwillingness to communicate. Maybe the characters cannot say what they feel because they just do not know how to do so or they do not quite know what they do feel.

sillitoe-1.jpg Alan Sillitoe at the time the book was published.

There are four other stories, suffice it to say. I enjoyed reading each of them. Though the petulance does wear thin. Sillitoe was one of the 'Angry Young Men’ of British letters who found the post-war Welfare State inadequate.

We forget just how long it took Britain to recover from World War II, for example, in meat rationing, petrol scarcity, in employment. It did not enjoy the years of growth and plenty that the United States had during the Eisenhower years. One of the reason the decade of the Swinging Sixties was so liberating was because finally it heralded the end of this wartime privations, that had long ended in other English-speaking countries.

The Wikipedia entry on the story is convoluted and one-eyed, as well as pompous. But it has probably benefited editing twice since I looked at it ten minutes ago.

courtenay2.jpg Tom Courteny in a still photograph from the 1962 film based closely on the titular story. I started to type that Courteny was born to play Smith, but then I thought the same about his performance as Ivan in 'One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1970).'

Another book that turned up during our move.

One of the silent assumption of western societies for the last two generations is now undergoing a severe test. Like most assumed truths, it is seldom stated, and certainly not by the talking heads who can never shut up long enough to think.

What assumption is that?

That life in western societies would erode, reduce, and in time eliminate ethnic, tribal, and religious identities and with the passing of these differences, then we can all live together in peace regardless of race, nationality, language. The old conflicts, animosities, hatreds would wash out in the tolerant bath of multiculturalism.

Societies governed by the rationality of the Enlightenment would create the conditions of life in which these superstitions of the past, ethnicity, tribe, and religion, would fall away.

On such assumptions migration was an opportunity not a problem. While migrants will bring in the baggage their ethnic and religious identities with corollary divisions, these will be subdued and written over by their new lives in Western societies, leaving behind their energy, spirit, and creativity.

While the word ‘liberal’ has been as verboten in academic circles as it is in Republican ones, this was one of the core of liberalism. (Strange isn’t it that the self-styled Left of the Academy and the self-styled right of the Republican Party, now represented by Donald Trump, are as one in reviling liberals.)

Another object of revulsion in academic circles for years has been sociologist Daniel P. Moynihan, whose chief sins were calling attention to the implication of social structure and working for Richard Nixon. Just the kind of sell-out to be expected of a liberal! So harrumphed many know-it-alls of my acquaintance. That in both cases Moynihan promoted and acted as a mid-wife to many social programs that benefited millions is irrelevant to the classroom stone-throwers.

Moynihan tried to disabuse us of this liberal expectation that ethnic and religious identities were but flimsy substitutes for the good life and once the good (material) life was in sight, they would retreat into scrapbooks of the past. He argued (‘Beyond the Melting Pot’ [1974], pp 33ff) and he had plenty of evidence at his command in so doing that ethnic identity and religious commitment were essential to the identity of (many, if not most) people and would endure come what may. These identities could withstand the oppression of police states in Eastern Europe, he said, and they could certainly withstand the seductions of Western materialism. A refrigerator would never replace a god. I once saw him more or less drowned out and shouted down at a political science conference advancing this argument. Edifying, not!

Melting pot cover.jpg

According to this liberal expectancy religion and ethnicity would evaporate in the melting pot of migrant societies. No longer would it be possible to mobilise people by appeals to ethnicity, tribe, or religion. Indeed, one of the silent goals of liberal society was to liberate us from ourselves (our identities as Walloon, Jew, Inuit, Shia, Tatar, Catholic), stripping away these overgrowths and leaving behind the deracinated cosmopolitan.

Moynihan-Green-Bow-Tie1.jpg Daniel Pat(rick) Moynihan

The resurgence of ethnic nationalism, religion, and tribe in the skeleton of the Soviet Union would come as no surprise to Moynihan, though it did surprise a great many social scientists who are now less conspicuous at conferences. Nor would he be surprised by the continuing response to the appeals of religion everywhere in the world, but most social scientists are baffled by it.

William Butler Yeats wrote that ‘life is a long preparation for something that never happens.’ No, he was not thinking of the Chicago Cubs in a World Series, but it fits.

I omitted the subtitle: ‘History, Triumph, Mostly Defeat, and Incurable Hope at Wrigley Field.’

George Will has long been an expositor of baseball, well before Ken Burns discovered it. This book is an ode, spiced with some gritty reality, to Wrigley Field and those who have graced and disgraced it from zealous fans, first-ball throwing presidents, class and déclassé players, managers, and owners including the fabled P. K. Wrigley, famous for his indifference to baseball and his genius for marketing.

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All of the lore is here reiterated: Babe Ruth calling the shot, Hack Wilson the perpetually hungover human fireplug, the storied Tinkers-Evers-Chance, smiling FDR throwing out the first ball, Ruth Ann Steinhagen shooting first baseman Eddie Waitkus (who had never met her before she pulled the trigger on him), Wrigley’s many innovations from Ladies’ Day to the ivy on the walls, and his decision to contribute the steel for light poles in 1941 to the war effort and the resulting, accidental, consecration of Wrigley Field as a cathedral to daytime baseball. Waitkus, by the way, was the inspiration for Bernard Malamud’s novel ‘The Natural,’ ironic since Malamud had no interest in baseball, nor any knowledge of it either, as is apparent in the novel, somewhat emended by the screenwriter for the movie of the same name.

Did the Babe really call his shot? The record is far from clear, but the legend is indelible. Tinkers-Evers-Chance turned very few double plays but the journalist who said they did, created a reality that has endured despite the wizardry of sabermetrics. Will is very good at presenting a lot of facts, including statistical data, in digestible portions with spritely commentary, including the paltry number of double-plays this trio made in the year when they together ascended to myth.

Hack Wilson was certainly hungover on days when he blasted home runs. His drinking shortened his career and life dramatically. FDR and Chicago Mayor Anton Joseph (Tony) Cermak made an odd couple on opening day in 1933, and even more so a few weeks later in Miami when Cermak was murdered at FDR’s side, the speculation being that Cermak was the target of the Mafia as a warning to FDR to call off the IRS or to leave Prohibition alone, which had made them millionaires.

The end of live-ball era is much discussed, surprisingly, without much enlightenment. The rather mystical implication is that the live-ball ended with the advent of Great Depression. One catastrophe begat the other. Members of the pitching fraternity did not mourn the end of the live-ball era and celebrated the dead-ball era. I speak as a brother of this lodge.

The Olympian RBI totals Wilson and others compiled in the live-ball era endure, unlike most other records from the days of yore. Why is that? In those days most teams had but one big hitter who was preceded by yeomen who hit singles and were thus on base for the clean-up man. In those days before money-ball, pitchers threw strikes to such clean-up hitters and the RBIs followed. In subsequent years most teams have more, better hitters so there are just fewer ducks-on-the-pond when the sluggers pounds another home run. And pitchers are often instructed not to pitch to the big hitter when there are runners on base, even to the point of walking in runs. Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire hit phenomenal numbers of chemically-assisted home runs without threatening the RBI record.

Denizens of Wrigley Field have included the great and the good, the ordinary and the unknown, and the bad and the ugly. In the heyday of the aforementioned Prohibition Al Capone was a regular. Later Jack Ruby sold peanuts there before finding his way to a Dallas basement carpark a generation later. Ray Kroc had his first experiences at retail food in the concessions under the grandstand. And of course those indefatigable entrepreneurs the Bill Veecks (as in wreck, they always said) Senior and Junior.

While the leagues expanded and new stadia were built Wrigley Field, together with Fenway Park, remained testaments to the past. These new stadia seated tens of thousands, and came equipped with all mod cons, as the realtors say, from plasma television screens to beer on tap, cushioned seating, hot and cold running distractions, and more. They occupied vast tracts of land, sometimes seventy acres far out of town; the further out they went, the more parking they needed for fans to drive cars there; the more parking they needed; the further out they went. Some went so far out they no longer have a connection to any city like Foxboro in Massachusetts.

The needs of television to fill airtime and the need of the owners to sell fans more than a ticket once there, and the needs of fans to do more after driving hours to get there and back turned many such stadia into entertainment complexes. The distractions are many. One of the worst, and there are many contenders, are sound system that assault the senses, though thankfully being largely open spaces, never as excruciating as at NBA games. Being more expensive than the Apollo space program, these colossi have to multi-task, and this was integrated into their design: baseball, football, rock concerts, soccer, you-name-it, anything and everything.

The predictable result was that they do not suit any of them, least of all baseball, which is best played on Astro-dirt.

Wrigley Field stood apart from this pursuit of Baal for a generation or more, literally held together by chewing gum in more than one way. However, the balance sheet caught-up one day. Lights came. There followed a scoreboard that can be read by Apollo astronauts on the way to the moon.

Will deftly demonstrates that the fortunes of the Chicago Cubs who play (at) baseball in Wrigley Field are less important to fans than the price of beer. That price predicts attendance better than the team’s winning percentage (which the cognoscenti know seldom tops .500). The Cubs team has long been the lesser interest both to the ownership, the management, and the fans than the beer.

Will discreetly leaves the players out of this list those indifferent to the game itself. Though some of them did not evince much interest in the game while playing at it what with two errors by the same outfielder on one play in several games, six walks and a balk by a pitcher in one inning without a single out, ground balls lost in the sun, outfielders charging balls hit over their heads, one batter called out on strikes without a swing of the bat a record number of consecutive times, infielders unaware of the location of the ground when it came to ground balls, players traded…for themselves with a cash refund. All of which makes the achievements of some individuals all the more remarkable, like Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks, Bill ‘Sweet’ William(s), Ferguson Jenkins, Ryne Sandberg, Kerry Wood, and a few others.

The book ends with a coda from that poet of baseball Bart Giamatti, he who banned one of its greatest players (for not playing by the rules), who chided us to remember that it is just a game and that is why it is so transcendent, for two hours outside the river of time.

As the story draws to a close the team has changed hands several times and the unforgiving business of major sports prevails, though others have learned some of the lessons of Wrigleyville, as the neighbourhood calls itself, and some new stadia are more like Wrigley Field these days than Chavez Ravine (that is a memory test).

Geo Will.jpg George Will

When I ordered the book I did so in the recollection that George Will is a wordsmith of excellence, and that assumption was amply vindicated by the light touch, the glib segues, the pertinent metaphors, and the economical allusions. Altogether a perfect game of a book. I read it in one sitting. Gulping it down.

This book came to mind when I read Michael Booth’s 'The Almost Nearly Perfect People' (2014) survey of Northern Europe. Booth mentions Brown’s book, too, in a rather left-handed way. Relying on my cataloguing system, I found this book on the shelf at the Ack-Comedy and had a look.

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As when I read it first in 2009, I find it to be an understated book that neither condemns nor praises Sweden, the Swedish way, the Swedish model, and, accordingly, it does not satisfy the ideologues. It is low key in every way. It is more a personal memoir than an assessment of Sweden.

Brown lived in Sweden as a boy with diplomat parents, and later as a married man, and worked for a living in a sawmill. His experience of Sweden is far different from a travel writer who passes through for a few weeks of interviews in hotels and restaurants, and guided tours of the country side. His voice is muted and his comments are largely derived from direct, personal experience. Little is black or white, little is so clearcut to satisfy an ideologue. More importantly, his perspective is working class and from the hinterland, not urban middle class.

To judge from krimis Sweden is worse than Midsomer, every street, every town is replete with pedophiles, Neo-Nazis, Sven the Rippers, people smugglers, drug barons that put Latin Americans to shame, bankers who gave the Lehman Brothers lessons, and corporate villains to dwarf Enron, and worse. Anyone with a new car, a bank account in the black, a country cottage, a fine coat, got it by foul means. This compound of envy of the rich and imputation of evil to others is to be found in some other Nordic krimis, too, e.g., the Dane Jussi Adler-Olsen becomes poetic in his lyrical hatred of those he regards as rich. There is no depravity of which they are incapable. I fully expected to find his villains eating their own children, so I stopped reading his diatribes in malice.

But to return to Sweden, of course the pathfinders in this social criticism were Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. By the tenth volume in their Martin Beck series, the villains were cannibals. The first books in the series were police procedurals but along the way the authors ascended a soapbox and every page contained some sort of denunciation, not just of the evil rich, but the Swedish society that bore them. They attacked not just the filthy rich but the Social Democratic scrum who ran the place strictly for the benefit of the rich.

Talk about parochial! The authors lived in a decent society that had gone from subsistence farming to industrial surplus in the three generations, and they hated it for what it was not, namely, a communist Eden. It is rather like those self-righteous leftists in the 1960s who denounced Western liberalism as evil incarnate, while lining up to shake hands with Pol Pot. They do not know evil, that is for sure. Wake up! Look around. Try a few weeks in the third world. These very same types would spent hours defending Robert Mugabe, Muammar Gaddafi, or Fidel Castro, while condemning parliamentary democracy as a sham.

In contrast, Brown offers an everyday account of life and work. struggling to learn Swedish on the job in the mill. He finds much different from the England he left. As he notes many times, in Sweden there was a palpable sense of unity among the people he worked with which was aimed at getting things done. Ergo, the work in the factory was hard and everyone went at it with determination, including the owner. He contrasted this with his experience of working in a factory in England where the union made sure productivity was just enough to keep the wheels turning and no more. In Sweden everyone, including the union, wanted to get as much done as possible, whereas in England everyone, led by the union, want to do the least.

The unforgiving climate, the brutal history of the region with Germany on one side and Russia the other, and the recent past of grinding rural poverty combined, he speculated, to teach Swedes that the world does not owe them a living. They will have to earn it day by day. Brown met variations on this attitude in different guises, including church attendance. He found that religion, not necessary denoted by church attendance, seemed important to Swedes in the countryside where he lived. It was a sign of the larger whole beyond the individual.

That sense of a larger whole was comforting at times but stifling at others when he encountered a herd mentality such that no one dared to be different. Individual self-expression was actively disvalued in this milieu.

He is an outsider and is constantly aware of that and as constantly reminded of it by others. Swedes do not worry about what it means to be Swedish because they know it in their blood. They do not talk about it, they just live it. Brown wonders how this silent unity will wear with increasing immigration, made necessary by declining birthrates. The expectation to conform in Sweden is much greater than in England but there are almost no explicit clues about how to do it; he depended on his wife to cue his behaviour, say when checking out books at the library, cashing a cheque at a bank, buying groceries, all those everyday transactions that we do on automatic pilot he re-learned to do the Swedish way. For details read the book. He did learn to speak Swedish, by the way.

For the literal minded, yes there is quite a lot about fishing the book. It is Brown’s hobby and some of the most lyrical passages in the book are his weekends tramping through forests to lakes, amid man-eating mosquitos, to find a place to fish at sunrise, observing the breeze in the trees, the light on the water, the insects in the air. His father taught him to fish and he teaches his son.

The Sweden that Brown describes is all rather normal. Some people grizzle about taxes while cashing their pension cheques, denounce overpaid sportsmen while cheering them on. It is neither the paradise of its many rhapsodic admirers elsewhere, nor the putrid cesspit of depravity portrayed all too seriously by some krimi writers. It is no Midsomer!

Andrew-Brown-002.jpg Andrew Brown

He returned to Sweden as a journalist and covered some of the aftermath of the murder of Olof Palmé in February 1986. There is superb thriller that springs from that event, ‘The Death of Pilgrim’ (2013). Of course, the conspiracy at the heart of the plot is simpleminded, but the performances and tension are very well done without the gratuituous gore and violence of some Nordic thrillers on screen, like ‘The Bridge.’ However, I found the time shifts back and forth threw me more than once, the clothing and hair styles were not enough to indicate to me the context. Brown, to his credit, does not compare Palmé’s murder to that of Jack, but the aftermaths are certainly similar, the desire for meaning, and the desperate desire for there to have been a conspiracy to give the act meaning.

The last days of a regime.

Regimes come and go. In most places in the world the change is rocky, ragged, and rugged: Mubarak in Egypt, Allende in Chile, Hitler in Germany, Amin in Uganda, Franco in Spain, or Peron in Argentina. Mobs in the streets, armed police off the leash, fires breaking out here and there, hastily packed bags, the Swiss account numbers memorised. It is even more difficult when there is a war on with marauding raids, artillery shells in the air, and masses of troops on the move.

That is the subject of this book, the transition of the government of the Confederate States of America out of existence from February 1865. The hour finds the man, Italians sometimes say, and this hour found John C. Breckinridge who is the major character in this telling.

Honorable defeat.jpg

An honourable defeat, as in the title, would mean the best possible negotiated terms for the men of the Confederate Army and Navy, e.g., that they would be allowed to go home and not be imprisoned or otherwise punished and also that civil order would continue even when the war ended, i.e., that the state governments would continue to maintain law and order, protect banks and private property, dams, bridges, roads and so on. None of this could be assumed, it had to be brought about…somehow. It also meant that the army would not disintegrate into bands of armed men preying on the civilian population.

An honourable defeat also meant that none of the tens of thousands of armed men pledged to the Confederacy would be encouraged by word, deed, or silence to resort to partisan or guerrilla warfare. That is. when the government capitulated, all its loyalists would lay down their arms. There would be no further resistance.

In return for that guarantee there would be no reprisals against individuals. Breckinridge also wanted the units of the army to remain together and march home, i.e., the Fifth Mississippi infantry regiment would march back to Mississippi en bloc and put themselves under the authority of the state government as a militia to keep order, if that were necessary, and the looting and banditry that occurred in Richmond and environs so quickly after Lee's withdrawal made this a real possibility. Indeed if the units simply broke up individually, the fear was that some would turn to banditry, think of the James brothers. Even those who called themselves partisans would be a greater threat to Confederate civilians than to the Union army, e.g., the James brothers when they rode with William Quantrell.

To bring about an honourable peace was difficult, first, because the elected president of the constitutional government of the Confederate States, Jefferson Davis, did not accept defeat was inevitable. Second feelings ran high after years of death and destruction, would anyone listen. Third, getting any message out was nearly impossible given the destruction of railroad and telegraph lines.

A major part of this story is the intransigence of President Davis for whom every reverse meant only that others had to redouble their efforts and make more sacrifices. Under the blows of defeat, he increasing retreated into a silent shell, but when he did speak it was the same message of more effort, more sacrifice. Even when resistance would serve no purpose he would not accept the personal humiliation of defeat, at the cost of the lives of many others.

During most of the flight of the Confederate government from 2 April to the end of May, Davis was lost in a cloud of despair and denial, leaving Breckinridge to exercise the executive powers remaining to the government. These powers were few but they were not negligible for those affected by them. Chief of these was to maintain social order, but also extended the preservation of and then the orderly disposition of government property. He was de facto acting President.

President Abraham Lincoln had refused to recognise the Confederate Government and he would never treat with it in any way. Yet Lincoln’s murder changed everything, for the worse, and meant that the Federal government was even less likely to respond to any overture from the Confederacy.

That the result was as peaceful, harmonious, and orderly as it was, the author credits largely to the efforts of John C. Breckinridge (1821-1875). He was a moderate from Kentucky with a distinguished political and military career. After a term in the United States Senate he was Vice-President in the administration James Buchanan (1857-1861). He was a candidate in the 1860 presidential election, one of four, and he won most of the Southern states, and so had a national reputation. After the election, won by Abraham Lincoln with far less than a majority of votes, Breckinridge returned briefly to the United States Senate.

Breckenridge.jpg John C. Breckenridge

He had served in the Mexican-American War of 1846-1847, as did so many other Civil War soldiers did. When the Civil War loomed he was commissioned a brigadier general to raise Confederate troops in Kentucky where his family name was widely respected. During the war he rose in rank to major-general of the CSA and served at Shiloh, Stone River, Missionary Ridge, and New Market. Like everyone who had to misfortune to serve with Braxton Bragg, he was sidelined because Bragg, being one of the few with any influence over Jefferson Davis, convinced Davis that Breckinridge was disloyal. Go figure, after reading that list of battles.

Despite being in sole command at one of the few battles Confederate arms won in 1864 at New Market, he was relieved of command. Then in a desperation move, Davis appointed him Secretary of War. It was desperation because no one else wanted or would take the job, and Davis perhaps thought he knew and could control Breckinridge with threats of censure on the the trumped-up charges Bragg had lodged. In this case as in all others, Davis was no judge of men (and perhaps not of women either). Breckinridge took the assignment exactly because he knew the end of days was coming, and he hoped to see an honourable peace as outlined above, and would work hard and intelligently to achieve it.

While the Confederate government remained in Richmond in February 1865 Breckinridge schemed, planned, plotted, and conspired with likeminded others to pressure Davis to face facts and seek peace. It is both heartening and depressing to see that their efforts were constrained by respect for constitutional provisions setting forth presidential powers, upholding states’ right, making supreme the civilian control of the army, and so on. Breckinridge himself was so rule-bound and though he found others who agreed with him about the need to seek peace now, they were also rule-bound. Still others were unwilling to take a position because they still hoped for some benefit from the situation. Even in March 1865 there were some Confederate Senators who aspired to succeed or replace Davis. The ego drove some to hope to be themselves President of the Confederate States of America even as it dissolved. (Pedants note, Confederate presidential elections were scheduled for 1867.)

But Breckinridge never had in mind a coup d'état which would only create more dissension, animosity, and confusion. He and all he involved adhered to the letter of the Confederate Constitution. While the most prestigious figure in the Confederacy General Robert E. Lee agreed with Breckinridge, this demigod would not overstep the chain of command. He reported to Davis and took his orders from Davis and he would not depart one iota from that, though at the same time he would lay out the unvarnished truth of the situation to Davis in his reports. These Davis would hear in silence and as always thereafter speak of redoubled efforts. Breckinridge spent several twenty-four hour days trying to coax and coach Lee into submitting a written report that implied, if did not say, surrender. Lee would never go quite that far. The conclusions to be drawn from his reports were the responsibility of his political masters.

Breckinridge tried at the same time to put together a coalition Senators and Representatives to arouse the Congress to ask the President to report to it and during the subsequent debate the peace initiative could be raised. He could not quite gain the support of the right individuals or in sufficient number.

He also tried winning over this half-a-dozen cabinet colleagues to speak as one to the President to seek peace. Some were so jaded by then as to be indifferent. Others kept alive their own ambitions, if not to succeed Davis, then to return to a political career in a state. One was a complete David sycophant. To win one man over was to alienate that man’s rivals.

He also tried to find a way for the State Government of Virginia to recall its citizens from service in the Confederate States of America armed forces, thus emasculating them in the East, and then for Virginia to secede from the Confederacy on the assumption that other states would have to follow that example and so bring an end to the fighting. The Confederate Constitution recognised state sovereignty.

To sum up, Breckinridge tried six or more different approaches, singly and in combination, to create a coalition for an an honourable peace in the Confederacy. He tried cabinet. He tried the Senate. He tried the House. He tried the state of Virginia and later North Carolina. He tried the leverage of General Lee’s prestige. He tried, later, General Joseph Johnston’s last remaining army as leverage. He tried some of these avenues more than once and several in combination.

He tried to influence Lee to sign his order of surrender on 9 April 1865 as Commander-in-Chief of the Confederate forces, a hollow title Davis had bestowed on him in earlier. Breckinridge thought that nomenclature would justify the end of hostilities across the board. Instead Lee directed his order to surrender to his field command, the Army of Northern Virginia in his General Order Number Nine. He felt he had no larger authority to dictate to others in Mississippi, North Carolina, or Texas.

That might have been enough to keep a normal man busy, but while Breckinridge was doing all of this, and more, he was also managing the largest, most complex, and important department of the Government of the Confederate States of America, accomplishing feats of provisioning, storage, and distribution that had baffled his predecessors. Lee commented on the irony that his army had never been so will stocked with food, uniforms, and munitions as it was in the last few days of its service. That fact he attributed to the labours of Secretary Breckinridge.

To no avail, and on 2 April, General Lee withdrew the scarecrows of his army from the earthworks at Petersburg and fled south and east to avoid the closing jaws of the Union army. The government now had to evacuate Richmond which was open to Federal assault. Breckinridge had no general authority, but as Davis was nearly comatose with shock, he took it upon himself to organise the selection of archive material for destruction or shipment, the opening of warehouses to distribute the food and clothing that remained, before the Federals arrived and took them, the burning of bridges, the assembly of wagon trains to put the government into flight, and to piece together the railway trains to transport the cabinet and the treasure (perhaps $500,000). He also managed to raise a scratch force of horsemen of several thousand to escort the wagon trains.

By default Breckinridge became the de facto manager of the government’s flight and gradual decay. All the while he continued to search for a way to produce an honourable peace.

Nothing was easy and nothing worked smoothly. When they came at all, the trains were five or six hours late. Roads were impassible in the mud of early spring rains and horses were near starvation to begin with. People got lost in the confusion. Mobs choked streets in fear of the coming Federals. Looters got to work. In the confusion arsenals in Richmond were destroyed, setting fire to much of the city. There were fears and rumours of an armed slave uprising fomented by the Federal cavalry.

Apocalyptic it was.

There was no plan except to get the government out of Richmond. Breckinridge hoped it still might bring an honourable peace, though the capacity to do so diminished with Lee’s surrender, while Davis spoke of, take a guess, redoubled efforts. The merry-go-round stopped briefly at Danville Virginia. The cabinet set up shop in front parlour of a private home. Davis wrote a message to the people calling for…redoubled efforts. Breckinridge gathered intelligence about the armies and tried to find a way to make peace through the state of Virginia or then North Carolina.

Federal cavalry was out in force looking for this government on wheels, and Danville was so obvious a place that burned bridges or no, it had to move on, to Greensboro in North Carolina and on and on further south.

There was no master plan and it was only Breckinridge’s initiatives that kept the wagons rolling. The group started with thousands of men, soldiers and civilian officials, and their cargo and camp followers, and other citizens terrified of rumours of the Federal atrocities (attributed to black troops, who truth to tell were themselves victims of atrocities).

The purpose of the flight changed as time went on from (1) negotiation, (2) maintenance of social order, (3) personal safety and exiles of Confederate Government officials, and (4) to assist Confederate soldiers who had surrendered to get home, (5) to settle the outstanding debts of the Confederate government with that dosh. The disintegration of Confederate armies rendered negotiation moot. Social order did break down. As soon as the caravan left a town, the government stores, offices, and warehouses as other public facilities were ransacked, looted, and pillaged. As word spread of the comprehensive defeat, other civilians took to the hills, partly to escape the feared Federal atrocities and also to escape the likes of Quantrell.

There was never any intention to take the government into exile, though some of its individual members might go into exile to avoid Federal retribution, especially for the murder of Lincoln, which many in the North thought was a Confederate deed.

Breckinridge tried, on the retreat, to preserve War Department records. Those left in Richmond were put into fire proof safes, not all of which proved to be fireproof. As they shed wagons, railway cars, and load, more and more paperwork was left behind. Much of this he tried to leave in the safes of local banks, and in other cases put into chests and buried. In part he wanted the historical record to show what had happened. This accuracy of record became even more important with the murder of Lincoln. He wanted to demonstrate that the were was no involvement of the Confederate War Department.

He also held onto some of the paperwork long into the journey to the annoyance of some in the group because it slowed the pace. Among the papers he kept at hand were dossiers, documents, charge sheets, affidavits, testimony that identified Confederate officers who had committed atrocities, usually on black Union soldiers. While en route he tried to locate one such officer who had killed helpless black Federal prisoners. This had occurred in an area where Breckinridge had nominal command on paper, though he had become Secretary of War and had left the department, his name was still on the letterhead. That made it personal since these murders had occurred in his name.

Breckenridge authorised the dispersement of the treasure along the way to pay off soldiers in the escort, to buy provisions, shoes, and clothes for paroled soldiers trying to get home, and to buy medicine to treat wounded men. He himself took the soldier’s pay of $26.60 out of the hundreds and thousands he had in hand. This was the amount all soldiers. regardless or rank were paid, Several of his cabinet colleagues were much more grasping according to the assiduous financial records kept even on this trail of tears.

The trip goes on and on, as the group splits, and takes different routes. At the end of May after some weeks in the swamps of south Florida, Breckenridge made it to Cuba, His last act as an official was to appeal through the resident American journalists in Havana for all Confederates to lay down their arms and accept the result. After some years in exile he returned to Kentucky and lived quietly, refusing an invitation from President U.S. Grant to re-enter politics. His health had been badly damaged by war wounds and then the diseases and hardships of the flight through Florida.

Early in the odyssey he become the first and only Secretary of War to lead troops into battle when he led the cavalry escort in a counter attack on Federal pony soldiers who threatened the column (p 99). Would contemporary Secretaries of Defense be less likely to put boots on the ground in combat if the boots were theirs? Or their children’s? The answer is obvious: Yes.

Our author says Breckinridge, as a former Vice-President (1857-1861), was the most senior political figure to side with the Confederacy (p 167). Former President John Tyler (1841-1845) did so, too, serving as a Congressman from Virginia in the Confederate House of Representatives until his death.

A stylistic quibble, ’Secretary of War’ should surely be in capitals since it is a title, like a proper name but it is not.

I read this book near the publication date and when the upheaval of moving brought it to light again, I put it aside and dipped in, but once in I kept going since it is such a compelling and fast-moving story with a cast of characters from the ever-smiling in the face of adversity Secretary of State Judah Benjamin, the taciturn President Davis, the demigod Lee, the clever temporiser Joseph Johnston, the man of the hour Breckinridge, and many lesser known figures who rose to the occasion.

William Davis.jpg William Davis

One such instance of rising to the occasion occurred when a month into the flight, Davis summoned the brigade commanders of the 2,500 escort troops to an audience. When they assembled, Davis spoke of redoubled efforts and still more sacrifices as they stood in dumbstruck silence. Davis expected them to salute in agreement. He did not assemble them for advice or debate but to agree with him and to obey.

As the silence prolonged, he finally asked them to respond. To his credit, the senior man of the five brigadiers, George Dibrell, stepped forward and said it was hopeless situation and useless to ask more of his men who had continued this long out of personal loyalty. In turn, the other four concurred. Davis paled, and as always when confronted with contradiction went into his shell. There was more silence. Finally, Davis’s manners returned and he dismissed them only later to bemoan their lack of resolve. All praise to General Dibrell for calling a halt to the madness.

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