Friday, 31 October 2014

The Books I Read in October

'No Peace for the Wicked' by Adrian Magson
I actually bought this book direct from the author back in the 2000s when he visited a writers' group I was a member of then.  For some reason I had thought it was about Northern Ireland. It came out under the Creme-de-la-Crime label which aimed to bring on new authors.  Some of them seem to have done very well subsequently.  This book is very workmanlike.  It features a young female journalist, Riley Gavin, investigating the murders of old gangsters.  She enlists the help of an aged ex-military police officer turned private detective.  Their investigations primarily take place among the expatriate British community in Spain.  The unravelling of the conspiracy is competently handled.  However, there were only a few moments when I felt that the heroine or her assistant were in real jeopardy.  The criminal characters were believable and some had a genuine sinister nature about them.  The crimes being committed seemed feasible if a little mundane.  Given the action primarily taking place in Spain, only at times did I get a real feel for the context in which they were writing.  I know authors are encouraged to keep their writing lean and not over-describe but unfortunately at times this left me feeling that the settings were sterile.  Perhaps such polish comes with experience and I should see what Magson is producing now that I imagine he has had much more practice.

'The Summer of the Danes' by Ellis Peters
I am steadily working my way through the Brother Cadfael mysteries written by Ellis Peters.  This is the 18th in the series and I can certainly say it is the poorest.  As with a number of the ones before it, it takes Cadfael away from his monastery at Shrewsbury.  He accompanies a young monk on missions to two bishops in North Wales.  Peters is very good in drawing out the differences between England which had been conquered by the Normans some eighty years before the action is set and Wales which had largely remained independent retaining its own language.  Cadfael, a Welshman by birth acts as a translator and also to provide information about the differences between Wales and England, such as the lack of convents - religious women are just lone hermits and the late introduction of clerical celibacy.  There is a murder as you would expect.  However, in contrast to the other books this is largely ignored and the next phase of the book is when it seriously falls down.  There is no investigation of the murder and it is only resolved at the end by a deathbed confession as if it is an after thought.

Most of the story is about a stand off between Prince Owen, the ruler of North Wales and his younger brother Cadwaladr who has hired Danish mercenaries from their colony of Dublin to help him seize back lands taken from him by Owen as a result of him being involved in a murder.  Cadfael plays a very minimal role, at most as an observer of events he has not control over.  Instead there is a very sterile, formal diplomacy between the two sides that seems very mechanical and in fact unrealistic.  I imagine Peters was drawing on historical records of the events, but it does mean Owen and the other leaders come across almost of caricatures, doing absolutely everything very precisely to mesh into the outcome.  Witnessing such a process is not engaging.  As in many of Peters's books there is a romantic element, but with Cadfael on the sidelines, it is painfully slow in coming and again like much of the book resolved in a very pat way without really any genuine emotion.  Maybe Peters was running out of steam by this stage.  

The length of the book, more than the usual was unnecessary and simply added to the laboured feel.  It would have been better to keep Cadfael on the murder case and have the diplomatic turns of events simply reported from a far rather than us witnessing these in every detail and not through Cadfael's eyes.  I have two more of the standard sequence to complete and then a prequel.  I hope they get back to the form of the earlier books rather than replicating the flaws of this one.

'The Hunger Marchers in Britain 1920-1940' by Peter Kingsford
While the so-called 'Jarrow Crusade' of 1936 is the best known of the marches of unemployed workers in the inter-war period, Kingsford shows that it needs to be seen in the context of a much broader movement of such protests that occurred from 1920 until the start of the Second World War.  There were five national marches and many more regional or local marches.  They came under the umbrella of the National Unemployed Workers Movement (NUWM) and included women as well as men.

The book is largely a record covering the people who marched, what they were campaigning for and the very varied reactions they received along the numerous routes.  For any given march it was typical for people to come from a wide range of towns and congregate on London or an important regional city.  Their very progress alerted people to the issues facing the unemployed.  Unemployment reached historically high peaks in the period but in Britain fell far heavier on particular regions than others.

As the marchers passed through many towns, the book highlights how welfare provision was very much a local concern at the time, almost just an evolution from Victorian approaches.  There was as a consequence a wide variety in its application.  Throughout the governments, apart for very short periods, were Conservative or dominated by the Conservatives.  The Labour Party, forming its first governments in 1924 and 1929-31 was generally unsympathetic to the marchers, not wanting to be seen to be contaminated by their radical approach and the strong Communist influence in the NUWM.  The TUC adopted a similar approach.  Local labour groups and trade unions, however, took a very different attitude.  The government tried to marginalise the marchers portraying them as trying to alter global economic tides that even they had no control over and emphasising to local authorities that the marchers should be treated simply as vagrants.  Increasingly the police turned to violence, notably during the 1932 national march when it reached London.

Through the period both the Labour Party and the Middle Classes grew in sympathy for the marchers and Kingsford though focusing largely simply on what happened indicates this steady shift.  The marchers won a great deal of respect through their discipline on the road and the physical effort of coming hundreds of miles from as far away as northern Scotland, the South-West and Wales to London often during the winter.

The marches did not lead to an overall change in welfare policy let alone a move to job creation.  However, they did roll back the constant attempts to scrimp on benefit payments and to make them harder to win.  These aspects are the ones which in the age of the bedroom tax seem the most current.  Yet, in a largely apolitical society there seems to be no attempt to contest such policies.  Instead, it seems now that protestors agree with the 1920s Conservatives and see the situation as only capable of being addressed at a global scale even if amelioration is provided nationally or even still locally, i.e. dependent on the attitude of local job centre staff.

This is not an exciting history book, but it is an interesting one with contemporary parallels.  It is important in alerting people to events that had a national significance eighty to ninety years ago, but these days are simply forgotten with the Jarrow Crusade, a far less political and more constrained march, being seen as the sole representation of a much broader campaign.

No comments: