The Stone Cradle

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The Stone Cradle – One Woman’s Search for the Truth beyond Everyday Reality
By Patrice Chaplin
Clairview – £13.99

Life is a gift from the few to the many, from those who know and have to those who do not know and have not.

                                                                                                  Amadeo Modigliani

Away from the ever-reaching tendrils of the past I got back to work in the neutral energy of London and my life was practical and structured and suited me. I phoned and asked Dr Arnau, if Girona was the lock, what then was the key? He told me to draw the circles overlapping the Cradle site and draw a line from Girona to Rennes with Canigou in the mid point as I had with The Portal: Rennes, Girona, two towers, two alterpieces. ‘You have already been told the journey is made up of circles. Work out and draw the lock then the key and send it to me.

                                                                                                   (chapter 36).

Anchored in the Catalan City of Girona, and in a somewhat similar spirit to that of her previous books The City of Secrets and The Portal, authoress and playwright, Patrice Chaplin, continues her elongated quest to fully embrace the so-called Hidden Society of said city. Something which has genuinely been preserved since antiquity and has captured the hearts and minds of such influential, illustrious figures as Salvador Dali, Jean Cocteau, Otto Rahn and, would you believe, Howard Hughes no less.

Written in a friendly and almost conversational manner, the 235 pages of The Stone Cradle – One Woman’s Search for the Truth beyond Everyday Reality traverse the fascination with which Chaplin clearly holds Girona. A city she describes as: ”a portal, a gap in the planet’s atmosphere leading to other places and other times. A private society has held this secret for centuries. It’s power in the wrong hands would bring untold darkness”

Hmm, a most succinct description that may go some way into partially explaining the book’s Dramatis Personae which not only include the aforementioned Cocteau, Hughes and Dali, but an array of others – Charlemagne among them…

Didactic and different, overtly enthusiastic and quite possibly (a little) eccentric, The Stone Cradle is rather recondite to the point that it might not actually be for everyone.
But it does nevertheless, make one think.

David Marx

Governance and Politics Of The Netherlands

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Governance and Politics Of The Netherlands
By Rudy B. Andeweg & Galen A. Irwin
Palgrave Macmillan – £32.99

Tomorrow, March 15th, The Netherlands will go to the polls and decide upon the election of all 150 members of it’s House of Representatives. And given recent events, it looks set to be an all out, feisty affair.

With the incumbent Prime Minister, Mark Rutte (of the VDD (People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy) having formed a coalition government with the PvdA (the Labour Party) back in 2012, tomorrow’s election will obviously be marred, if not fundamentally influenced by two people: Geert Wilders – the country’s answer to Donald Trump of the PVV (Party for Freedom), and Turkey’s rather misguided, utterly vile President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan – who really ought to know better than to equate Holland with Nazism.

That said, Erdogan’s vitriolic rhetoric is not only a sad sign of the (inflammatory) times, it will undoubtedly do much to influence the outcome of the election – probably/unfortunately in Wilders favour. All of which is an exceedingly far cry from almost all of what is both coherently and concisely written throughout the eleven chapters of Governance and Politics Of The Netherlands by By Rudy B. Andeweg & Galen A. Irwin.

For instance, one need only read as far as page twelve to ascertain that The Netherlands is no longer the country it once was: ”[…] the golden age established traditions of openness and tolerance in the Netherlands. In 1661, the Leiden manufacturer and political scientist Pieter de la Court wrote ‘that our manufactures, fisheries, commerce and navigation, with those who live from them, cannot be preserved here without a continual immigration of foreign inhabitants – much less increased or improved’ (quoted in Israel, 1995, p.624).”

Hmm, absolutely no longer is such the case any more, which, given the altogether disturbing events which recently took place in Rotterdam, is surely understandable. This is especially so when one considers Turkey also has further referendum rallies planned in both Germany and Austria (again, neither of which are particularly welcome).
So far as an intrinsically crystal-clear understanding of Dutch governance and politics is concerned, this book sheds more than cohesive light on a nation, normally associated with that of political calm; particularly when aligned with an ethos of cooperation and compromise on the part of citizens and politicians on the key issues for parliamentary debate.

With immigration on the rise, these 287 pages (excluding Preface, Further Reading, Bibliography and Index) do much to substantiate how and why the Dutch electorate has become ever more unpredictable.

Written by two professors at the country’s respected Leiden University, Governance and Politics Of The Netherlands makes for a most informative, interesting and altogether timely read. That said, following the outcome of tomorrow’s Dutch election, it remains to be seen if it’ll need updating – almost immediately.

David Marx

Ethics In The Real World

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Ethics In The Real World
82 Brief Essay on Things That Matter
By Peter Singer
Princeton University Press – £19.95

No man is liberated from fear who dare not see his place in the world as it is; no man can achieve the greatness of which he is capable until has has allowed himself to see his own littleness.

Such humble thinking wouldn’t go a miss in the White House right now, not to mention the Turkish Parliament and an array of other so called high places of high-octane power.

It does after all seem that when certain movers and shakers, hipsters and shirkers – be they politicians, financial investors or perhaps worse, City mortgage advisers – reach the penultimate threshold of no longer having to worry about the next pay cheque, they automatically feel compelled to relinquish all and every shred of decency they may have once had.

A quality which may well perhaps, (partially) explain why they are the people they invariably are: usually highly motivated and focused, yet simultaneously dull and exceedingly unpleasant.

In a round-a-bout kind of way, this (partially) accounts for Ethics In The Real World – 82 Brief Essay on Things That Matter being the book it is: real and inspired, provocative, yet relentlessly well thought through and honestly considered. Qualities which ought hardly be surprising, as Peter Singer has often been described as the world’s most influential philosopher, which these 330 pages (excluding Introduction, Acknowledgements and Index) do much to clarify.

One can literally open any page of this most wonderful book, and be wholeheartedly reached by way of unarguable truth – with even the very idea of philosophy itself, already being scrutinized in the book’s Introduction: ”There is a view in some philosophical circles that anything that can be understood by people who have not studied philosophy is not profound enough to be worth saying. To the contrary, I suspect that whatever cannot be said clearly is probably not being thought clearly either.”

And the shedding of light on philosophy doesn’t end there.

The chapter ‘Philosophy On Top,’ actually concludes with the optimistic note: ”More surprising, and possibly even more significant than the benefits of doing philosophy for general reasoning abilities, is the way in which taking a philosophy course can change a person’s life. I know from my own experience that taking a course in philosophy can lead students to turn vegan, pursue careers that enable them to give half their income to effective charities, and even donate a kidney to a stranger. How many other disciplines can say that?”

Indeed, how many other disciplines can say that?

There again, As Singer openly admits: ”Given the practical importance […] as a good utilitarian I ought to aim to write for the broadest possible audience, and not merely for a narrow band of committed utilitarians.”

Broken into eleven prime parts (Big Questions, Animals, Beyond the Ethic of the Sanctity of Life, Bioethics and Public Health, Sex and Gender, Doing Good, Happiness, Politics, Global Governance, Science and Technology, and finally, Living, Playing, Working), these 82 essays traverse all that is fundamentally important in one’s life.

As such, this book ought to be considered as something of a prime humanistic template for (the intrinsic motivation of) one’s everyday behaviour.

David Marx

Germaine de Stael

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Germaine de Stael – A Political Portrait
By Biancamaria Fontana
Princeton University Press – £24. 95

          It is a cult, but one yawns in church.

What I particularly like about Germaine de Stael – A Political Portrait, is the fine fact that it addresses the very nitty-gritty, head-on, a mere few pages into what is clearly, a most well-researched thesis. There’s no particular elaboration, no flim-flam nor skirting around the edges of what was a resoundingly feisty and exceedingly independent thinker.

To be sure, some might readily argue that Germaine de Stael’s idiosyncratic independence of mind was a reaction to the fractious events taking place in France at the time. As Richard Bourke, author of Empire and Revolution: The Political Life of Edmund Burke states, this book is ”a captivating portrait of a fascinating figure caught up in the whirlwind of events.”

Quite possibly best known (today) as a novelist and literary critic, lest it be said it was Stael’s political outspokenness that perhaps best captures her all-round milieu within the parameters of the French Revolution.

The banker’s daughter who became one of Europe’s best-connected intellectuals, Stael was an exceptionally talented woman who achieved a degree of public influence to which not even her ”wealth and privilege would normally have entitled her.” Indeed, when the lives of so many around her were destroyed, she succeeded in carving out a unique path for herself, thereby ensuring her views and thoughts were heard – initially by powerful men within her immediate vicinity, and later by the European public at large.

All of which the Professor of the History of Political Ideas at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, Biancamaria Fontana, has instinctively captured. That her previous books include Montaigne’s Politics, Benjamin Constant and the Post-Revolutionary Mind and Rethinking the Politics of Commercial Society, such instinctive writing ought hardly come as a surprise.

Each of Germaine de Stael’s nine chapters (as well as Introduction and Conclusion) are written with a knowledge that nigh borders on the very dissection of the subject’s ideological belief(s).

A most pertinent example of this being Stael’s mode of necessary compassion within the general gambit of revolution, which Fontana captures perfectly in chapter six (‘Condemned to Celebrity’): ”In a revolutionary crisis it is claimed over and over again that compassion is a childish sentiment, opposed to those actions that are necessary to the general interest, and that it must be set aside, with all effeminate emotions, unworthy of men or state or chiefs of parties; it is on the contrary during a revolution that pity must become a rule of conduct. Where justice is well established, one can do without mercy; but a revolution, whatever its aim, suspends social order, and it is then necessary to go back to the source of all laws, in a moment in which legal power means nothing.”

Again, no particular elaboration, no flim-flam nor skirting around the edges of what was a resoundingly feisty and exceedingly independent thinker.

In the words of Ruth Scurr (author of Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution): ”An important and original book about a prominent female intellectual who took the measure of the French Revolution in both theoretical and practical terms. Fontana argues convincingly that Stael’s political ideas have been overlooked or underrated in previous treatments of her life and work.”

David Marx

Behind The Scenes In The Vintage Years

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Behind The Scenes In The Vintage Years
By Torrens (Arthur Bourne)
Matador – £24.99

Back in the 1920s, there were more motor cyclists than car drivers, records were being broken every month at the Brooklands race track in Surrey, roads were empty and motorbikes constantly broke down.

Behind The Scenes In The Vintage Years is a unique and rather fascinating record of an unrepeatable era in British motorcycling and engineering history. To be sure, it’s a decidedly friendly and inviting book, that’ll admittedly, primarily appeal to a certain elite: that of a most pronounced and similar persuasion to that of Torrens himself.

Its eighteen chapters traverse the history of what it was like to ride hundreds of miles round Britain on reliability trials, and how Arthur Bourne provided weekly guidance for thousands of youngsters on two wheels – young engineers such as Edward Turner and Phil Vincent.

He furthermore writes of Brooklands and TT races on the Isle of Man, along with his experience(s) of the Second World War, where he enabled the airborne forces at Arnhem to be equipped with ‘lightweight’ motorcycles that could be dropped by parachute or flown in by glider! So in all, this is something of a rather rambunctious story that needs to be told really; which, along with assorted black and white newspaper clippings and photographs, provides for an altogether delightful, although at times, enlightening read.

For instance, in the fifteenth chapter (‘Motor Cycles In War’), Bourne writes: ”But for the Nazis telling the Dutch distributors of D.K.W.s that either they got rid of their Jewish directors or they would have no more D.K.W.s., there would not have been one of the 12,000 and more British wartime ‘Flying Fleas.’ I would not have the letter from 3 Div, one of the two assault divisions on the Normandy Beaches, saying ”They (600 of them) are just the thing for the job,” there would have been no Fleas for controlling the landing of supplies on the Beaches. B.S.A.s would not have had their highly successful post-War B.S.A Bantan and there would not have been the gifts from Royal Enfield and James of reconditioned Fleas that enabled the RAC/ACU ‘Training Scheme for Learner Motor Cyclists to get going.”

Arthur Bourne, who used the pseudonym ‘Torrens’ for readers of the best-selling weekly The Motor Cycle, was most definitely in the thick of a garrulous game – of which these 308 pages are a mere glimpse.

David Marx

Los Ninos Tontos

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Los Ninos Tontos/The Foolish Children
By Ana Maria Matute
Small Stations Press – £7.99

With the discerning eye of an artist, Ana Maria Matute employs bright, bold tones or sometimes soft, impressionistic tints to express her profound pessimism with the Spain that Franco ruled. Possibly she hoped her stories would serve as a catalyst for change.

Throughout this angular, alternative book, lies an undercurrent of childlike, yet political darkness. The sort of which really is a prime preponderance to be reckoned with; reason being, it comes at you when you least expect it. That said, by the time one has reached the end of Los Ninos Tontos/The Foolish Children, authoress Ana Maria Matute’s literary moves remain just as equally foreboding and fraught with daring as at the outset.

In and of itself, this should come as no surprise, especially when one comes to terms with just how and where, many of these micro-fiction stories eventually pan out.

There are twenty-one in all (written in both Spanish and English), many of which are occasionally lyric in tonality (”The child turned to ashes. He was just a little pile of thirst” – ‘Thirst and the Boy’) while simultaneously anchored in poetic imagery (”The dog, lying at the child’s feel all night, shed two tears. They clinked like little bells” – ‘The Little Blue-Eyed Black Boy’).

As noted in the Translators’ Introduction: ”Many critics have noted that Ana Maria Matute’s fiction represents an ”immediately recognisable blend of lyricism and stark realism, sombre intuition and determined sociopolitical engagement” […]. Throughout her life, Ana Maria Matute criticised the injustices of the Franco regime and referred to the dictator as ”la momia” (the mummy). Early on she developed this ”solidaridad con ‘los otros, con los silenciados (solidarity with ‘the others,” with the silenced ones).”

For this alone, Matute is to be roundly applauded and this fine publication, roundly embraced.

David Marx

Scorched Earth

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Scorched Earth – Stalin’s Reign of Terror
By Jorg Baberowski
Yale University Press – £25.00

The Bolsheviks prevailed. They broke the military resistance of the Whites, crushed the unrest and strikes of the peasants, and even restored the multi-ethnic empire, which, in the early months of revolution, had largely fallen apart. In spring 1921, when the Red Army marched into Georgia, the Civil War was officially over. For the Bolsheviks, however, military victory was not the end but rather the beginning of a mission, not simply to shake the world but to transform it.

                                                                                        (‘Pyrrhic Victories’)

And transform it they did.

To this very day, Russia remains at the vanguard of inexorable convulsion and change; the social and political ramifications of which continue to effect the rest of the world. For better for worse. For richer for poorer. For sickness and utmost of unusually bad health; the trajectory of Russian upheaval, which let’s face it, is exactly what it is, continues to influence the West in more ways than one might care to imagine.

For instance, one need look no further than the relatively recent election of the American President, Donald Trump.

Scorched Earth – Stalin’s Reign of Terror might well be one of the most in-depth accounts of the Stalin era I have ever read. To be sure, the German scholar Jorg Baberowski has to be one of the leading experts in his field, although his work – has up until now – seldom been translated into English. A quality which is hard to fathom, considering the scholastic precision and soaring honesty with which the author writes: ”Since 2003 I have spent several years explaining to myself how it was possible for so many millions of people in the Soviet Union under to Stalin to have been killed, displaced, imprisoned in camps, or allowed to starve to death. Back then in 2003, I still believed that the theses of the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman could provide an answer. The pursuit of certainty, the overcoming of ambivalence, and the obsession with order in the modern ”gardening state,” wrote Bauman, had led to the monstrous exterminatory excesses of the twentieth century […]. The communist experiment of the New Man gave Stalin and those in power the justification they needed to murder enemies and outcasts. It did not, however, prescribe mass murder. Stalin and his companions did not speak of the brave new world when they discussed what to do with the supposed enemies of this new order. They talked instead about techniques of violence.”

It is such blatant, factual dissemination, that sets this book apart from a plethora of others on very same the subject.

To talk ”about techniques of violence,” is somewhat akin to UKIP’s twisted excuse for a human being, Nigel Farrage, to talk about England’s only friends being those who ”talk English.” A sly, calculated, yet flippant remark made just last week, which will undoubtedly do much to trigger yet more unprovoked violence on the streets of Engerland – much to the unfortunate dismay of innocent bystanders. Many of whom might happen to speak Polish.
Or Spanish.
Or dare I say it, common sense; a quality which partially explains why segments of this exceedingly well written and well researched book, wholeheartedly lends itself to the current crisis in which the world finds itself.

Obviously, what happened in Russia is incalculably idiosyncratic of among the most deplorable murder and mayhem ever known. So much so, it is hard to imagine.
BUT, much of the essence was, and remains a direct response to a tempestuous climate of fear, paranoia and scapegoatism. Sound familiar?: ”Only in a state of emergency did it become possible for a psychopath like Stalin to let his malevolence and criminal energy reign free. The dream of communist salvation was drowned in the blood of millions because the violence became detached from the original motives, and eventually was subject to the purposes of the dictator alone. In the end all that mattered was the recognition of total power, of Stalin’s total power, as master over life and death. Had it not been for the atmosphere of paranoia and mistrust, the despot would never have been able to force his will on others or make his world the one that everyone had to live in.”

While reading these words, one cannot help but think of the power obsessed and egotistically driven Donald Trump, which in and of itself, substantiates that history does indeed repeat itself. As the author of Stalin’s Genocides, Norman M. Naimark has written: Jorg Baberowski’s Scorched Earth skillfully guides the reader through the nightmarish reality of Stalin’s brutal rule of the Soviet Union. The smartly crafted narrative is full of interesting, important, and horrifying details that illustrate the diverse character of the killing. Baberowski tells a veracious story of fear and terror among Soviet citizens that is hard to forget.”

For a sure fire qualification of the truth, these 437 pages (excluding Preface, Notes and Index) are a more than complex and combustible read – which, apart from being hard to forget, equates with that of a literary memorial to the millions who died.

David Marx