The Great Imperial Hangover


The Great Imperial Hangover –
How Empires Have Shaped The World
By Samir Puri
Atlantic Books – £20.00

The past is always with us, for it feeds the present.

(Ruskin Bond, ‘A Song for Lost Friends’)


he had grasped the truth about the English and their Empire. The Indian Empire is a despotism – benevolent, no doubt, but still a despotism with theft its final object.

(George Orwell – Burmese Days)

So here’s an interesting, if not highly topical question, straight from the opening of this astute and most engaging book: ‘’If our century is to have a story, then it is curious to wonder what historians fifty years hence will opt for. Decolonization, the Cold War, the world wars, the age of empires, the Industrial revolutions and the age of the dynastic monarchies – each of these is a compelling story with which to encapsulate previous epochs. What description will future generations choose for today?’’ (Introduction – ‘The narrative of today’).

Clearly, the answer is wholly dependent on geography and location, along with who one actually asks. Were one to ask someone in the mountainous terrain of Peru for instance, the answer would no doubt be totally different than if one were to ask someone on the outskirts of Reykjavik or within the Nissan car-plant in Sunderland.

And as said Nissan car-plant is somewhat closer to home, it might be relatively safe to assume that many of its workers would naturally assume that future generations will remember ‘today’ as being responsible for having secured Brexit and the return of the British Empire – by way of having gotten ‘our sovereignty and our country back.’

Or, as other, future and interconnected citizens of the world, many might in hindsight contend upon the current political penchant for populism.

Either way, the answer is going to be simultaneously ambidextrous, if not omnipotent.
Whilst not necessarily drenched in perspective.

As much is cohesively brought to bear in the Conclusion of The Great Imperial Hangover – How Empires Have Shaped The World, where its author, Samir Puri, writes: ‘’World order today comprises post-imperial visions colliding with one another. These movements are akin to shifts in the tectonic plates that underlie world affairs, but on a much smaller level, every one of us carries an imperial inheritance that is personal to them. Working out the various elements that form that inheritance requires a dispassionate sense of perspective.’’

Might it be said that perspective has a lot to answer for.
While perspective, through the oh-so resolute eyes of hindsight, invariably has even more to answer for. After all, wasn’t it Peter the Great who once proclaimed: ‘’I have conquered an empire; yet I have not been able to conquer myself.’’

To say this book is riddled with insights and far too many (rather important) things that almost everyone does not know, would be a sage like understatement. So thanks Professor Puri, for setting the record straight in relation to international empires, and its more often than not, dire consequences.

David Marx

The American War In Afghanistan

The American War In Afghanistan –

A History

By Carter Malkasian

Oxford University Press – £26.99

The painful reality is that peace could have come a lot sooner without foreign intervention. Professor Odd Arne Westad wrote at the end of his magisterial work, The Global Cold War, that ‘’Cold War ideologies and superpower interventions… helped put a number of Third World countries in a state of semi-permanent civil war’’ and caused untold harm to their peoples in pursuit of marginal interests. His words echo around us today.

(‘Looking Back’).

The Taliban rose to power during the mujahideen civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal. Afghanistan was sliced up between warlords. In a few provinces, such as Panjshir under Ahmed Shah Massoud or Herat under Ismael Khan, a warlord enforced a degree of law and order. In others, disparate minor warlords vied for power in miniature versions of the larger civil war. Such was the case in Kandahar. After the Soviets left, they controlled their tribal territory and clashed with each for power. Anarchy reigned. Their militias strung chains across the main roads to stop and tax passers by, so many chains that people could travel nowhere easily. Businessmen and smugglers lost a good deal of their earnings getting goods – including poppy – to market. In the worst cases, these militias murdered civilians and kidnapped boys and women and raped them.

(‘The Taliban Emirate’)

As serious as the current debacle concerning Prime Minister, Boris Johnson’s current tsunami of lies undoubtedly is – this time in relation to whether or not he attended a ‘’working’’ party in the garden of 10 Downing Street – lest we ever forget how he shamefully he administered the pulling out of British troops in Afghanistan last year.

A subject, probably not on everyone’s top priority list right now, but still another shameful episode to be added to the elongated disaster of (t)his grossly incompetent and corrupt government. Likewise, the American administration, presided over by the former disgraced (and twice impeached might I add) Donald Trump.

But hey, don’t just take my word for it, do the research for yourself.

And where better to start than with the exceptionally compelling The American War In Afghanistan – A History; where the leading scholarly authority, Carter Malkasian, provides the first comprehensive history of the entire conflict, right up to the signing of the US-Taliban peace agreement in February 2020.

An experienced, on-the-ground practitioner who just happens to be fluent in Pashto, Malkasian spent the best part of two years working in the Afghan countryside prior to becoming the senior advisor to first, the top US military commander in Afghanistan, and later the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In drawing from a deep well of local knowledge and a rich array of primary sources, Malkasian moves through the war’s multiple phases. From the 2001 invasion and after to the resurgence of the Taliban in 2006; from the Obama-era surge to the various resets in strategy that occurred from 2011 onward – which ultimately culminated in the 2018-2020 peace talks.

The remarkable, although totally unsurprising result of which is this formidably well-researched and rather unique book; written with both authority and political panache.

In fact, The American War In Afghanistan is another one of those books which will still be referred to many years from now. And talking of years: ‘’The American war in Afghanistan, which began in 2001, is now the longest armed conflict in the nation’s history.’’

And just like Vietnam, didn’t it end well?

‘’Americans and Afghans fought in Afghanistan, against each other and side by side, for more than 19 years. It was America’s longest war. Though 2021, it crossed four presidents – George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, Joseph Biden. Fifteen US generals commanded there. Hundreds of thousands of US troops and diplomats were deployed. Thousands were killed or wounded. For a time it was ‘’the good war.’’ In the wake of the attacks of September 11, Americans thought intervention just. In its latter years war ceased to be good. It became only long and futile’’ (‘Thinking about America’s War in Afghanistan’).

These 461 pages (excluding List of Maps, List of Figures, Notes, Glossary and Abbreviations, Select Bibliography and Index) are divided into twenty-one chapters, all of which are drenched in the sheer experience and perspective of someone who very clearly cares: ‘’I decided to write a book about the whole Afghan War in 2013 after reading William Dalrymple’s majestic Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, about Britain’s first catastrophic foray into Afghanistan. His storytelling, thick with Dari poems and Afghan viewpoints, captured my admiration. Though I knew I could never match his skill, I wanted to follow his example and write a full history of America’s war in Afghanistan. Such a history, that drew on wide-ranging sources, had yet to be written’’ (‘Thinking about America’s War in Afghanistan’).

The thought of the current British Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss – she with the intelligence of a small over-zealous whippet in heat – negotiating with the Taliban, doesn’t even bear worth thinking about. In fact, my Aunt Dolly would no doubt do a better job, especially if she were to have initially read this essentially concise and devastating book.

For as Thomas Barfield, Professor of Anthropology at Boston University and author of Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History has since been quoted as saying: ‘’America’s longest war has always lacked the comprehensive overview that Malkasian now provides. Rich in detail from the highest to the lowest levels, it uniquely combines American and Afghan perspectives in a compelling narrative that, like the war itself, only lacks a definitive conclusion.’’

David Marx

Mississippi

Mississippi –

Bob Dylan’s midlife masterpiece

By Jochen Markhorst

Independently Published – £6.36

So what does it all mean? Myself and a lot of other songwriters have been influenced by these very same themes. And they can mean a lot of different things. If a song moves you, that’s all that’s important. I don’t have to know what a song means. I’ve written all kinds of things into my songs. And I’m not going to worry about it – what it all means […]. I don’t know what it means, either. But it sounds good. And you want your songs to sound good.

(‘Sing in me, o Muse’).

If you gaze too long into the abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.

(Nietzsche – ‘Gaze into the abyss’).

What is so endearingly evident within the musical musings of the Dutch Dylanologist, Jochen Markhorst, is the inexorable inspiration he so clearly gleans from the maestro, Bob Dylan.

There again, don’t we all to varying degrees. Although what accounts for the Markhorst collection (eleven books thus far and still counting) being so very readable, entertaining and valuable with regards the majestic back pages of background; is his nigh unstoppable quest for didactic discovery.

A facet, which, given Dylan’s high-octane penchant for ambiguity and smokescreen diversion, really is no mean feat.

After all, grounded within and given said penchant, it’s a wonder the author (even) has the inclination – let alone the room – to manoeuvre amid such a perplexing pandemic of mirrors and dense trajectorial denial.

But hey, we are talkin’ Dylanology; and as Markhorst makes clear at the very end of the third chapter (‘Belshazzar on the steppe’):

A Russian man loves reminiscing, but he does not love living.

Wherein ‘’Chekhov is talking about the narrator of ‘Mississippi,’ the very song upon which this overtly astute book is anchored.

Indeed, Mississippi – Bob Dylan’s midlife masterpiece bears all the intrinsic hallmarks of many of the authors other books on Dylan. A quality that somehow, unsurprisingly substantiates the Goethe quote: ‘’it is in working within the limits that the master reveals himself’’ (‘Between Point Dume and Oxnard’).

Or, to return to ye room full of mirrors: ‘’What happens is, I’ll take a song I know and simply start playing it in my head. That’s the way I meditate. A lot of people will look at a crack on the wall and meditate, or count sheep or angels or money or something, and it’s a proven fact that it’ll help them relax. I don’t meditate on any of that stuff. I meditate on a song. I’ll be playing Bob Nolan’s Tumbling Tumbleweeds, for instance, in my head constantly – while I’m driving a car or talking to a person or sitting around or whatever. People will think they are talking to me and I’m talking back, but I’m not. I’m listening to the song in my head. At a certain point, some of the words will change and I’ll start writing a song’’ (‘Down In The Groove’).

Likewise, at a certain point, this book homes in just like the song it so majestically promotes; which given it is now 2022, needs to once again be played (LOUD).

David Marx

The Curry Guide Thai

The Curry Guide Thai

By Dan Toombs

Hardie Grant/ Quadrille – £15.00

You might ask yourself why the Thai government would want to train chefs so that they migrate. The answer is tourism. The young chefs in the programme not only learned to cook fantastic Thai food, but they also became ambassadors of Thailand and its food, boosting Thai tourism and, over time, making it possible for Thai ingredient producers to export around the world.

As it both asks and states at the very outset (of the Preface) of this very fine and ultimately down-to-earth cook book: ‘’When you think of Thai food, what is the first word that pops into your head? Is it ‘spicy?’ Thai food is well known for its heat but there is much more to it than that […].

Upon working ones’ way through the ten sections of The Curry Guide Thai (Basics, Starters and Appetizers, Salads and Soups, Classic Curries, Stir Fries, Noodles, Specials, From the Grill, Rice, Sauces and Garnishes, Desserts and Drinks), it becomes increasingly clear as to where Dan Toombs is coming from when he writes: ‘’Thai food is well known for its heat but there is much more to it than that […].’’

There absolutely is – from alteration to preparation to the jazz cooking of measurements, the finesse, if not the art of Thai cooking lies within the understanding of the beholder. Or in this instance, s/he who is stood in front of the cooker. After all: ‘’tasting and adjusting as you cook is what Thai food is all about. You could say that about any cuisine, of course, but to get your Thai dishes perfect, it is really important to taste and adjust the flavours as you go to get the right balance of ingredients. Not only will you be happier with the end dish, but it will familiarize you with the Thai ingredients so that, over time, you will become an expert in making Thai food your way.’’

Hmm, not sure about becoming an expert, but there’s no denying that the 155 pages (excluding Index and Acknowledgements) of this rather exquisite cookery book, does rather bequeaths an abundance of ideas.

Everything from Beef Panang Curry to Glass Noodle Salad, to Chicken Satay with Peanut Sauce to Choo Chee Salmon to Sweet Sticky Rice with Mango.

Hungry yet?

What’s more, the Basics chapter really is more handy than a bright torch in the dark.

With headings such as: ‘Know Your Curry Pastes, Methods for Making your own Curry Pastes, Using Shop Bought Pastes in these Recipes; said section isthe initial springboard upon which to embark on your culinary Thai adventure – as Toombs explains: ‘’Curry pastes play a huge role in how good many of the recipes in this book and, for that matter, any Thai cookbook will be. I usually make my own pastes and have done for many years. Not only that, I make them the traditional way, pounding the aromatic ingredients in a pestle and mortar for up to 60 minutes until ground and bashed into a delicious paste.’’

Replete with excellent colour photographs to entice the taste buds, superbly laid out, and with plenty of room for the instructions to breath; The Curry Guide Thai is like the food it so coherently promotes, excellent value for money.

David Marx

Hatred

Hatred –

Understanding Our Most Dangerous Emotion

By Berit Brogaard

Oxford University Press – £18.99

Martha Nussbaum has argued that anger-type emotions like anger, resentment, and hate are never morally defensible. This is because, she argues, the anger-type emotions are conceptually tied to retaliation and retribution. The only form of anger that is free of any retaliatory or retributive elements is what she calls ‘’transition anger,’’an immediate outrage in response to a wrong that quickly transforms into something more admirable, such as activism for social justice. Transition anger is the kind of anger that would prompt us to exclaim, ‘’How outrageous, something should be done about that!’’ All other forms of anger, including resentment, envy, and hate, are morally indefensible, Nussbaum argues, because of their essential tie to retaliation or retribution. She thus disagrees with Strawson that anger and resentment can be appropriate responses to wrongs.’’

(Eye for an Eye – ‘Bad Blood’)

These 321 pages (excluding Acknowledgements, Prologue, Notes, References and Index) are something of an exceptionally philosophical read. Or perhaps I ought say, at least at times, philosophical read.

For that reason, although not that reason alone, Hatred – Understanding Our Most Dangerous Emotion is an overtly rounded read; the sort of which not only challenges many a foregone conclusion – oft written in stone – but makes one question ones’ own motivation with regards a partially hate induced motive: ‘’Propaganda and ‘’fake news’’ are disseminated as means for turning people’s pre-existing antipathies toward the targeted groups into full-on hatred and contempt (‘…And Justice For All’).

Hmm, one might feel inclined to contend that many ‘’people’s pre-existing antipathies toward the targeted groups’’ need not necessarily stem from ‘’propaganda and fake news.’’ As more often than not, ‘full-on hatred and contempt’’ can arise as a direct result of terrible parenting, biased peer pressure or the good ol’ playing of devil’s advocate in curious and political and direct relation to morality.

Be it the current plethora of anti-vaxxers, those who endeavour to carry knives, full-blown misogyny or indeed, the entire, current British government. After all, the latter of MUST surely know they have divided the country by way of opportunistic racism (or, admittedly ‘’propaganda and ‘’fake news’’); even if they have done so by way of sociological default.

Or in said instance, ye ever dependable island mentality of far too many fucking foreigners innit:

‘’Spontaneous group polarization, the tendency of groups of like-minded individuals to move to extremes during deliberation, is a group-level force that explains why propaganda and misinformation work […].’’

Britain’s right-wing media ring a bell?

‘’Demagogues and hatemongers capitalize on misogynistic and white nationalist ideologies as a way of rationalizing hate-based violence against non-whites, immigrants, and women.’’

Does the vile Nigel Farage come to mind?

‘’One factor that may be contributing to the escalation of hatred against non-whites and immigrants is that upward mobility is increasingly more difficult. Deprived of the opportunity of moving up the socio-economic ladder, lower classes among whites are left searching for scapegoats to blame for their situation, making them easy targets of the manipulation and misinformation of the far right.’’

Likewise, the current Prime Minister (aided and totally abetted by Jacob Rees-Fuck-Bag)?

‘’Another potential factor turns on the empirical finding that a significantly great number of young people have vulnerable dark traits compared to past generations. Prone to hatred and craving affirmation, today’s youth are more susceptible to the lure of extremist fringe groups.’’

Lest one forget the likes of The England First Party and The BNP?

(All above quotes from the chapter ‘…And Justice For All’).

As Laura Kipnis of Northwestern University ever so clearly makes states: ‘’Hate turns into a wonderfully fertile source of serious thinking in Berit Brogaard’s hands. When is it morally defensible to hate? When is it dehumanizing? If how and what […]. Here is a timely and thoughtful manual on how to to hate better and more critically.’’

Indeed, ‘’more critically,’’ which goes some way in explaining why these eight, very tough and very thought provoking chapters are far more than philosophically beguiling.

They are compelling to the point of essential.

David Marx

Twelve Caesars

Twelve Caesars –

Images of Power from the Ancient World to the Modern

By Mary Beard

Princeton University Press – £30.00

We are still surrounded by Roman emperors. It is now almost two millennia since the ancient city of Rome ceased to be capital of an empire, but even now – in the West at least – almost everyone recognises the name, and sometimes even the look, of Julius Caesar or Nero. Their faces not only stare at us from museum shelves or gallery walls, they feature in films, advertisements and newspaper cartoons. It takes very little (a laurel wreath, toga, lyre and some background flames) for a satirist to turn a modern politician into a ‘Nero fiddling while Rome burns,’ and most of us get the point.

(Preface)

When we talk of the women of the imperial family we are referring to a motley, shifting crew of emperors’ wives, mothers, daughters, sisters, cousins and lovers, with varying degrees of influence and importance, but no formal position in the hierarchy.

(‘Caesar’s Wife… Above Suspicion?’)

Although this book quintessentially asks what the image or face of power looks like, it does never the less take the reader on an inadvertent journey of the partially and powerful unknown.

For instance, in the sixth chapter of this altogether far reaching book (entitled (‘Satire, Subversion and Assassinations’) authoress Mary Beard invites us to appreciate if not encompass the following: ‘’If there is one painting […] that represents more cleverly and succinctly than any other the capacity of nineteenth-century artists to probe critically the nature and foundation of the imperial system, it is the work of one whose home territory was Moscow and St. Petersburg, not Paris or London or the Netherlands. But Vasily Smirnov travelled widely in the rest of Europe in the 1880s, exhibiting at the Paris Salon, before his death in 1890, aged only thirty-two. His most famous painting is a depiction of Nero on a grand scale, not the feckless strummer of Verrio’s murals, or the ‘fiddler while Rome burned,’ but The Death of Nero (Fig. 6.25 – ‘The End of Nero’).

Interesting food for thought? Or was Vasily Smirnov fundamentally right?

Either way, Twelve Caesars – Images of Power from the Ancient World to the Modern is part reference book, part art book and part history book all simultaneously rolled into one.

Hence, it being something of an inadvertent journey that touches on varying subjects, as Tom Holland – author of Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic – more or less concludes when he writes: ‘’As this book triumphantly demonstrates, there is no one on the face of the planet better qualified than Mary Beard to guide us through the great hall of mirrors, labyrinthine and treacherous as it is, that separates us from the Twelve Caesars.’’.

Courageously brazen and benevolent, ferocious, tough, graphic, detailed, beautifully compiled yet stringently to the point, Twelve Caesars really is one of those books you want to embrace and read/absorb at a leisurely pace.

Unsurprising really, as Beard is one of the world’s leading classicists and cultural commentators. Not only is she a specialist in Roman history and art, she is also professor of classics at the University of Cambridge and author of best selling and award-winning books (including SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome and Women and Power: A Manifesto).

Indeed, from ‘’From Beard’s reconstruction of Titan’s extraordinary lost Room of the Emperors to her reinterpretation of Henry VIII’s famous Caesarian tapestries, Twelve Caesars includes fascinating detective work and offers a gripping story of some of the most challenging and disturbing portraits of power ever created.’’

David Marx

Best Day Walks Great Britain

Best Day Walks Great Britain –

Easy Escapes into Nature

Lonely Planet – £15.99

Call it a hike, a stroll, a toddle or a ramble – there really is nothing that the British like better than a jolly good walk in the countryside […]. Walking is, quite simply, in the British blood.

Just remember to pack the brolly (umbrella).

From Wild Views to Coastal Scenery to Wildlife to Ancient History to a Post-Hike Pint, Best Day Walks Great Britain (Easy Escapes into Nature) buoyantly offers the keen walker cum rambler amid curious keep-fit types, a menagerie of contrasting hikes throughout the fabulous British countryside.

And what a contrast it is.

In fact, it is only when the various regions are placed side by side in a collective book such as this, that one truly realises – if not appreciates – just how varying and inviting the British landscape is: ‘’Since ancient times, people have been exploring every last inch of this old island on foot, leaving behind a great web of byways, bridleways, lanes, tracks and footpaths covering practically every corner of the British landscape. And what a landscape it is: wild moors, green dales, medieval fields, heather-topped fells, gorse-covered clifftops, weird stone circles and snow-blown glens that have inspired some of the greatest poems, paintings and symphonies the world has ever known. William Wordsworth, Edward Elgar, JMW Turner, Dylan Thomas and Winston Churchill are just a few of the greats who have sought solace and inspiration tramping along Britain’s valleys and hilltops, and every day, no matter what the weather brings, thousands of walkers continue to follow in their footsteps (Introduction).

From a purely practical perspective, each of the sixty suggested walks begin with an initial box, indicating Duration, Difficulty, Distance, Start/End and Terrain. For instance, walk

number 37: The Cotswold Way is as follows: Duration – 4 hr, Difficulty – Moderate, Distance – 9 miles/16km, Start/End – Chipping Campden/Stanton, Terrain – Paths, steep ascents.

As such, one is immediately aware of almost everything one needs to know before even setting out, which, all things considered, is a mighty handy facet when it come to planning and being realistic.

Also informative are each of the drop boxes of information, which highlights a certain aspect of each ramble. So on that note, the highlight of walk number 15: Porthcurno to Land’s End, is Porthcurno Telegraph Museum: ‘’This fascinating museum charts the unlikely tale of Porthcurno’s role in transatlantic telecommunications. In 1870 an underwater cable was laid here, which enabled telegraph messages to be sent as far as Bombay in less than a minute […].’’

Augmented with maps and photographs, along with a descriptive introduction to each section (‘Northern England’ begins: With rolling hills, wild moors, limestone outcrops and green valleys cut by scenic streams, the Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors national parks are among the most popular walking areas in England. Paths are a little gentler and conditions a little less serious than in the Lake District, with the happy addition of some delightful villages nestling in the dales. To the north-east, the rugged cliffs and vast empty beaches on the nearby Northumberland coast are less daunting but just as dramatic – perfect for wild seaside strolls’’); I do have to sayBest Day Walks Great Britain makes for rather invigorating reading all round.

Without even leaving the house that is!

David Marx