Thursday, 28 February 2013

The Books I Read In February

‘Hugh Gaitskell’ by Brian Brivati
I read this as a complementary book to ‘Clem Attlee’ by Francis Beckett that I read back in July 2012. Like Beckett, I met Brivati in the mid-1990s at the time when there were lots of historical events around the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War. Despite recognising the changes to the Labour Party that Tony Blair had brought, when the book was published in 1997, unlike Beckett, Brivati manages to avoid making constant links between the past and current developments. One of the key difficulties, however, is that Gaitskell lacked experience in government. He only delivered one budget and was out of power from 1951 until his death in 1963, aged 56. Thus, in contrast to Beckett’s book, a lot of the details are about small-scale internal Labour Party business, often at a painfully local level.

Brivati tends to avoid wandering off his subject in the way that Beckett did, though Brivati’s weakest sections are when he steps away from the narrative to try to assess Gaitskell’s ideological steps. In general Brivati remains objective and it is difficult to tell if he is a partisan of Gaitskell or not. This is better in a political biography than when the author is clearly writing about one of their heroes. Brivati’s objectivity only slips when he begins to discuss things closer to his own life, for example, the view that CND was funded by the KGB. The key problem with this book, as with many biographies, is how fragmented it is. This is not helped by Brivati breaking it into chapters covering just one or two years. I certainly cannot understand why the book received such acclaim when published and can only think it was because it fitted in with the mood of the times of the late 1990s.

It is clear that many of the reviewers whose comments on the back, have not read the book or if they have, it was unable to shake them from their misguided beliefs about Gaitskell. What Brivati adds to the debate are the oddities, things such as Gaitskell’s love of dancing and jazz; the fact that he may have been bisexual and that he had a long-running affair with the wife of Ian Fleming. These are more like details from a celebrity biography and do not really round out the political picture of Gaitskell.

The one thing that is very apparent from Brivati’s book and strongly opposes the views expressed by some of the quoted reviewers is how destructive Gaitskell was. It is very clear that he was arrogant and self-centred. Despite his protestations of being a Socialist there appears to be little that Brivati details which fit that pattern. Rather, as the publishers note, he was more like an American Democrat. He was often opposed to the bulk of the party he sought to represent and used divisive, conspiratorial methods to get his own way. ‘Own way’ is the key element that comes out. Whilst Gaitskell adhered to and created factions, these were generally simply to serve his own interests and he felt no compunction and betraying his own partisans, notably over the relationship with Europe.
Gaitskell was both out-of-date in his adherence to the Commonwealth and the view of Britain’s role in the world. The fact that this was not greatly apparent was simply because the Conservative Party of the 1950s was a generation even further out-of-date on such issues. Owing to his dated views and his personal obsessions which constantly triggered active divisions in the 1950s and early 1960s, Gaitskell rendered the Labour Party incapable of adopting policies that were distinct from the Conservatives and yet ready for the era. Brivati’s book makes it clear that Gaitskell has a fair part to take of the blame for the ‘thirteen wasted years’ of Conservative governments 1951-64 due to him driving it to cope with one of his obsessions after another rather than evolving to cope with the context it found itself in.

While I would never wish to welcome anyone’s premature death, it is clear that without Gaitskell being removed from the leadership of the Labour Party in 1963 he would have utterly destroyed the party. Some argue that he was a precursor of Tony Blair in his Atlanticist attitude and turning his back on the history of the party. Certainly Gaitskell sought to shape the party into being a Gaitskellite Party rather than the Labour Party but if he had succeeded then there would have even been nothing for Blair to pick up and finish mutating into that British replica of the Democrats. You may wonder how such a vane and damaging man could have risen so high in a party when so opposed to what it stood for. One thing Brivati does show is the success Gaitskell had in the ‘dirty’ tactics that managed to manoeuvre him to this level much to the detriment of Britain but especially of the Labour Party.

‘Inspector Ghote Caught in Meshes’ by H.R.F. Keating
This is the third book in the Inspector Ghote series of novels that Keating has been publishing since 1964. The latest of the twenty-five books was published in 2009; Keating died in 2011. The edition I had was an anthology of the first three books, the other two I read last year. I can certainly say that I have no intention in reading any more of them. I often enjoy crime novels set outside the UK and have read a great deal of crime fiction written Georges Simenon, Josef Skvorecky and Leonardo Sciscia. Maybe it is because Keating is not Indian that the tone of the books for me jars badly. I constantly feel that he does not take his detective seriously enough. This may be due to the date of publication of the particular novels I have read, i.e. 1964-7, when British audiences perhaps expected a patronising attitude to Indian characters. However, not having been impressed with these stories I have no desire to risk wasting time on later ones. Of the three books in the series that I have read this one is probably the best.

The story focuses on Ghote investigating the assassination of an American scientist who is an anti-nuclear campaigner. He does this with the aid of the American’s brother, Professor Gregory Strongbow and a member of the local tourist board, Shakuntala Brown. The action takes place in Mumbai and Pune and the surrounding countryside in western India. More than in the previous two novels which focused primarily on Mumbai, Keating does give a good feel for the region in which the action takes place. There are not the unco-operative witnesses that plagued Ghote in the previous two books and come to infuriate the reader. Strongbow is awkward for Ghote to handle but the relationship between them as Ghote seeks to protect the American from being assassinated by the India First terrorist group. Ghote is taken from serving the Mumbai police to working for a shady national body. His key role is to find out what Strongbow learnt from his brother about India’s nuclear weapons programme and who is working for India First.

Much of the book is filled with Ghote battling with incidents of attack on Strongbow. The action is described well but after a while you become tired of Ghote running around after the foolish American. Ghote having to move frantically to aid a Westerner is a recurring theme of the three books and by this stage I had had enough of it. The mix of a light tone which is not humour and police procedure that becomes tiresome is why I will not be reading another Inspector Ghote book. I do like the title, however.

‘Lest Darkness Fall’ by L. Sprague De Camp
Over the years I have been ambivalent to De Camp’s work. I try not to let the author’s political views contaminate my reading of their books, but for some reason have found that harder with De Camp than other US authors of his generation. The first book of De Camp’s I read was probably his best, ‘The Goblin Tower’ (1968). It is a very good traditional fantasy story and probably one of the only books I would consider reading again. ‘Lest Darkness Fall’ (1939) is a very different novel, but of the same high quality. This book was De Camp’s first published one and is very impressive for a debut novel. It features US archaeologist Martin Padway who visiting Rome in 1939, at the time in Mussolini’s Fascist Italy, is struck by lightning and is sent back to Rome in 535. His grasp of Latin and knowledge of the final decline of the Western Roman Empire means he has some advantages. However, like most time travellers he struggles to make a living and not be imprisoned or executed as a sorcerer. He also aims to prevent the destruction of the Western Roman Empire which at the time is being run by the Goths as he sees this as triggering the Dark Ages for the bulk of Europe. Consequently he begins to introduce anachronistic technology including printing, semaphore, various military tactics, the working of copper and then iron and ideas including Arabic numerals and zero, emancipation of slaves, double entry book-keeping, the concept of gravity and solarcentric astronomy in an attempt to keep the Gothic state intact and to advance society. He is steadily drawn into politics and warfare.

The skills De Camp shows in this book is in quickly creating a range of interesting characters. Sometimes these are a little too ‘light’ and the money lender looking to God all the time is almost a caricature. The women that Padway encounters and generally has unsatisfactory relationships with are interesting and well drawn for a book of the time. Having read a lot of 1940s science fiction a few years ago, I am not as surprised as I once would have been about the maturity and modernity of the writing. If you did not know you could possibly think it had been written in 1979 if not 2009. De Camp shows the challenges of trying to change a society in decline and the impact on Padway’s morality as he has to deal with distracted and violent monarchs, generals and nobles. He also shows the challenges of working in a context in which a wide range of Christianities are jostling for supremacy and Pagan views are still very much current as well. It is an enjoyable, engaging story which romps along. It is interesting to see someone intentionally creating an alternate history and the reader is left to speculate how the world will turn out differently to the one we knew. This is one of the best and most enjoyable books I have read in a long time.

No comments: