Wednesday, 31 December 2014

The Books I Read In December

'Winston Churchill' by Henry Pelling
This book was first published in 1974 and I read a revised edition from 1982.  However, in general it felt even older than that.  It has a style that would not have been out of place in 1954.  Despite what some reviewers say, it is not a strictly chronological book as chapters step out of the flow of history to look, for example, at his private life or his writing.  It gives details that many readers will not encounter in general histories about Churchill as a man and as a writer as opposed to being a leader and it is good on those times when he was not in office.  His interest in bricklaying was something I never knew.  It also shows him as a constituency MP and this also gives a perspective on local British politics through the period that he was standing for election.  It gives a fair appreciation of Churchill's role in the Great Upheaval of 1910-11, a topic of particular interest for myself.  What it is particularly poor on, however, is a blind defence of the Dardanelles Campaign during the First World War.  It was an utter fiasco and yet Pelling portrays it as not being that bad and somehow finds some value in it.  Otherwise he excuses Churchill's involvement due to timing of him being in various roles.  This approach really weakens the credibility of the book.

The book is almost purely narrative, with minimal analysis and certainly no efforts to bring out long-term trends in Churchill's politics, this is left down to the reader.  What became apparent was Churchill's imperialist mindset, indeed a form of racialism (as opposed to racism) in that he seems to have categorised peoples of the world into a hierarchy.  The 'English-speaking peoples' that he wrote of appear to have been at the top in his view and towards others, certainly beyond Western Europe he adopted a patronising attitude.  He seemed to be quite content to see the dissolution of Poland and Czechoslovakia by the Germans, but for the fact that this advanced the strength of Nazi Germany as a rival for Britain.  This attitude which becomes apparent from connecting points through Pelling's book explains his hostility even to self-government or dominion status for India.  It is clear he saw the Indians as a benighted people with weak leaders who were incapable of even approaching democracy.  His attitude to African colonies was even more dismissive.  This is not surprising of a man of his class and time, but tends to be overlooked and there is sometimes, as seems the case with Pelling, that whilst Churchill was a defender of democracy against dictatorship he also worked tirelessly to deny democracy to many people.  Overall this is a worker-like book that is probably best used for reference rather than for getting a rounded picture of the man.

'The Holy Thief' by Ellis Peters
This was one of the Cadfael stories that was televised (in 1998), though there are subtle differences between the book at the teleplay.  However, Sub-Prior Herluin is less of a forceful character than the very sharp portrayal of him by George Irving (born 1954) in the television series.  The story surrounds representatives coming from another Benedictine monastery at Ramsey in Cambridgeshire which we have seen ravaged in previous books as a result of the continuing upheaval of the civil war between King Stephen and Empress Maud.  Shrewsbury where Brother Cadfael is based suffers a bad flood and the reliquary supposedly holding the bones of St Winifred (though readers and a couple of characters know from the incidents seen in the first book of the series 'A Morbid Taste for Bones' (1977) that this is not actually the case) is moved for safety and then is stolen.  How it ends up on the lands of a local lord is different to in the television series. However, much is the same, with the involvement of the wayward monk, Brother Tutilo and the musicians/singers Rémy of Pertuis and his slave Daalny. Local characters, the Blounts, who featured in 'The Potter's Field' (1989) also reappear.

This book is stronger for being back in Shrewsbury. It is also good to see the Blount family once more as often in the Cadfael books, bar the reoccurring central characters, often you do not find out about what happened to people wrapped up in earlier cases. The book highlights the issue of slavery which while discouraged was permitted in England at the time and the use of sortes Biblicae, i.e. flicking through the Bible and stopping at a random point to come to decisions about clerical issues. As in a number of stories in the latter half of the sequence, Peters looks at men unsuited to being monks and the female perspective on the choices such men had made. This gives her some room for the romantic element which she likes to include and this story does have elements of a 'courtly love' tale of the kind that troubadours like Rémy sing about. However, it also leavens the very certain and very male perspective of books centred on a monastery. Readers will also be glad to see Brother Jerome, one of the nastiest characters in the books, have some kind of come-uppance. I enjoyed this story and felt in the penultimate novel of the main Cadfael sequence, Peters was back to form.

No comments: