Monday, 30 June 2014

The Books I Read In June

'Pétain's Crime' by Paul Webster
Just because a book is important it is not guaranteed to be well written and this is the problem with 'Pétain's Crime'. Webster seems to perceive his readership as hostile to the information that he is putting forward, i.e. that the Vichy regime headed by Marshal Pétain, 1940-44 was not only complicit in the German extermination of the Jews but actually led the way in interning and deporting Jews from France. No-one who was hostile to that suggestion would bother picking up the book. Yet because of Webster's attitude the reader feels patronised almost also as if being made to feel guilty about what happened. This constantly jars. A further problem is that the book jumps around a great deal chronologically, geographically and between a focus on events and on individuals. There is a rough chronology but it is constantly broken and the focus not only goes between the Occupied and Unoccupied zones of France but flits between towns within each. Yes, it is important to include biographies of the important individuals involved, but this means Webster keeps breaking the flow of his narrative and this weakens the impact of both elements. This makes it have less impact that a much clearer approach would have done.

There is useful information when his focus is tighter, for example on the Natzweiler death camp, on the role of Fascist Italy in protecting Jews living in its region of France and at times about specific Jewish and other charity groups. However, when Webster is away from his specific focus he makes sweeping statements that are lazy. He dismisses Alsace as a German-speaking region but later outlines how many citizens there emphasised their very 'Frenchness' as a form of resistance. He is very anti-Communist and at times he desire to find wrongs committed by the French Communist Party leads him down very peculiar paths. Portraying the Paris Commune as the model for Communist parties in Europe and neglecting Marxist texts is simply weak. There is also a tendency for him to be repetitive. He tells at least twice that the Cagoulards meant the 'hooded ones' as if only by somehow shocking us does he feel he can force us to sympathise with his line of argument. He is speaking to readers who will never come near this book not those who have bought or borrowed it.

The book was first published in 1990 and did usher in a period of change in France regarding the Vichy period and led to some belated trials of French involved. The edition I read was published in 2001 and the sections updating the story, especially on the involvement of French President François Mitterand in the Vichy Regime and diverting attempts to bring people from that regime to account, are the strongest parts in the book. It certainly appears that in the eleven years between the first and second editions, Webster really honed his skills in writing and it is a shame in 2001 that he did not go back and revise the entire book. Overall this is a very frustrating book. It is important and it is filled with lots of important and interesting pieces of data. However, it is let down by the hostility of the author towards his audience and the weak structure which means it loses much impact through reading like sifting through a box of scraps of paper with various pieces of information on them, some more than once.

'The People's Manifesto' by Mark Thomas
This is a book of proposals for government policies that political comedian Mark Thomas assembled at live shows around the UK that he did for a radio programme in 2010.  Proposals were provided by the audience, debated and then voted on, with the winning one from each show going into the book. Some of the suggestions are flippant, but some make a sound basis for policy.  Indeed one of the proposals, of allowing gay marriage has become UK law since the book was published.  There has been some movement not to close tax havens but certainly pursue people using them, but on too limited a scale.

Some were specific to the time as there were comments about identity cards being considered then and the London Olympics which were anticipated to fail and be very costly.  Many reflect the liberal/left-wing make-up of Thomas's audiences, for example, two demand statements on the front page of the right-wing 'Daily Mail' newspaper about its historic support for Nazism and the specious nature of many of its stories. Another simply demands renationalisation of the railways which was considered towards the end of the Gordon Brown government. Similarly the 'none of the above' box on ballot papers is once more being suggested for real.

Others like an automatic assumption that someone will pass on their organs at death, are being introduced in other countries.  An age of consent for religion I thought was an ingenious idea. A 0.05% tax on currency transactions should be law and could easily be so. The maximum wage of 10 times what the lowest wage is, was something proposed in the 1970s and some countries are looking at it once more. A scheme that anyone buying a second home in Somerset has to provide an equivalent home for local people again highlights how ordinary people feel that the privileged are now ruining lives without feeling any shame.  These go against vested interests and would be resisted vigorously it can be assured.

Many are aimed at politicians such as not paying them salaries but equivalent to student loans which they have to repay when they leave office as they usually end up with very lucrative jobs.  The displaying of logos of companies that sponsor them on their clothes in the way that racing car drivers do was another one which mixed a good idea and humour.  Similarly MPs having to give their second homes to the state when they leave office would also aid a very little with the chronic housing shortage in London.  The sense that MPs exploit their positions comes through strongly.

There is a suggestion, presumably in the light of the Iraq War, that there must be a referendum whenever the government wants to go war.  This was proposed in the USA in the 1930s, though with the caveat that it would only be open to those who could be conscripted or their close family.

The proposal to limit prime ministers to two terms of office is not really necessary.  In the UK a term of government is at maximum 5 years.  The duration was fixed in 2010.  Thatcher lasted 11 years 7 almost 4 months and Blair 10 years & 2 months.  Thus, this rule would have shaved a little off the term in office of these two.  However, typically until 2010, British governments have not lasted as long as 5 years.  This rule would have prevented Harold Wilson becoming prime minister at all in 1974 even though he would have only been in the job for six years by then and Thatcher would have had to go in 1987 even though she only came to power in 1979; similarly Blair would have had to step down in 2005 again having been in power for 8 years.  I imagine this is what the audience would have been thinking of.  Gordon Brown's career certainly would have benefited from that rule.

This is a stimulating and fun book which I suggest taking to the pub with you in case you run out of topics to discuss.  I read it entirely one morning, it is that easy to engage with.

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