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All reviews in alphabetical order by title


  • "Atatürk"
  • "Alexander The Great: Son Of The Gods"
  • "Dawn To Dusk"
  • "Dreams From My Father"
  • "Elizabeth: Fortune's Bastard?"
  • "Hitler: A Short Biography"
  • "Hitler And Churchill"
  • "Karl Marx"
  • "Long Walk To Freedom"
  • "Mao: The Unknown Story""
  • "The Masaryks"
  • "My Life"
  • "Napoleon And Wellington"
  • "Oliver Cromwell"
  • "Shrapnel And Whizzbangs"
  • "Talks With T. G. Masaryk"
  • "T.E. Lawrence"
  • "Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?"
  • "Wild Swans"

  • "Atatürk" by A.L. MacFie

    Following a holiday in Istanbul [click here], I decided to revisit the life of a leader who captured my imagination during history classes at school in the early 1960s. The man we now call Kemal Atatürk was known at birth as simply Mustafa. He was given the name Kemal (Perfect) when he entered the military secondary school and he adopted the surname Atatürk (Father of the Turks) in 1934 when he obliged every Turkish citizen to adopt a surname.

    We do not know exactly when he was born, but can only locate the event to the winter of 1880-81. We do know that - as MacFie puts it - "Atatürk was not a typical Turk". Indeed he was not even born in the territory which is today Turkey, but in Salonika, then part of the Ottoman Empire and now part of Greece. This career soldier led his troops with distinction at Gallipoli in the First World War and then, in the face of an Allied emasculation of the Ottoman Empire after the world war, he seized the leadership of the army for a successful civil war followed by an equally succesful war of independence.

    As President of the new nation of Turkey, Atatürk then pursued a radical agenda of secularisation, modernisation and westernisation which included abolition of the Sultanate and the Caliphate, separation of religion and state, secularisation of the legal system, introduction of new codes of law, emancipation of women, replacement of the fez by the hat, the adoption of the Gregorian calendar, the use of the Latin script for the Turkish language, and the transfer of the day of rest from Friday to Sunday.

    MacFie identifies Atatürk's failings as his belief that social change could be imposed from above, his underestimation of the contribution of religion to the well-being of the community, and his lack of interest in economic affairs. He developed a major personality cult and he conducted some show trials.

    Above all else, Atatürk was a nationalist. He promoted rapid social reform but he had no clear ideological agenda and, while certainly not a dictator in the classic mold, he had something approaching absolute power and "he showed little or no compunction in exterminating his enemies". Nevetheless, throughout his period as president, elections were regularly held.

    A heavy drinker, Atatürk died of cirrhosis of the liver on 10 November 1938. As MacFie states: "The achievments of Mustapha Kemal Atatürk, the so-called founder of modern Turkey, must be considered by any standards remarkable". However, the author - while using an impressive range of resources for this biography - never explains what personal factors drove Atatürk to seize power so aggressively and to use it so imaginatively. Indeed the writing style is rather dull, with long sentences and paragraphs and a rather academic style of expression.

    "Alexander The Great: Son Of The Gods" by Alan Fildes & Joann Fletcher

    This is an attractive book: a format for the coffee table with a clear layout, lots of use of colour, many photographs and illustrations, and some very helpful maps. But it is the subject matter that makes the work so compelling.

    Alexander was destined to be special but not necessarily as historic as he became. He was born in 356 BC in Macedonia, his father being King Philip II and his mother being the redoubtable Queen Olympias. He had a cosmopolitan upbringing and, for three and a half years, his tutor was the famous Greek philosopher Aristotle. An early sign of his remarkably strong character was his taming of the wilful black stallion Bucephalus, the horse that subsequently took him into battle after battle.

    Alexander's first experience of war was when, aged merely 14, he acted as a page on the battlefield. He was only 16 when he became Regent of Macedon and fought and won his first battle against the Thracian Maedi. When Philip II was murdered, Alexander became King at just 20.

    There then began a relatively short (11 years), but totally unparalleled, odyssey of conquest. Having asserted his power in Greece, Alexander crossed into Asia, never to return to Europe. His defeat of the numercially much superior forces of the Great King of Persia Darius III is the material of legend and underlined the Macedonian king's reputation for breathtaking audacity and extraordinary bravery.

    After a six-month tactical strike into Egypt, Alexander returned to Asia where he pressed ever westward - through Syria, Mesopotamia, Babylonia, Persia, Sogdia, and all the way to India. Along the way, he never lost a battle and his forces suffered relatively small casualties, as he showed inspirational leadership, imaginative deployment of men and materials, and clever use of tactics and strategy. He was injured and ill many times, but never faltered. As well as conquering countless cities, he founded as many as 70 new ones and, everywhere he went, he learned from the local intelligentsia and established local leaders.

    Fildes & Fletcher believe that: "It was not only his love of adventure that drove him on, but also his great thirst for knowledge, his constant desire to discover the unknown". Alexander's ultimate aim was to reach what was known then as the Endless Ocean (to us, the Indian Ocean). But even he could only demand so much of his troops. After eight years of constant wars in ferociously challenging conditions of geography and climate, after the Battle of Jhelum his men mutinied at the Beas in what is now north-west India: "The Macedonians had come within three months' march of the eastern edge of the known world. If only his men had agreed to follow his lead, Alexander knew that his greatest desire would have been fulfilled".

    The journey home was exceptionally long and unbelievably hard and, in fact, Alexander never made it back to Macedonia. He died of a fever in Babylon in 323 BC - he was not quite 33 years old. Fildes & Fletcher state: "By the time he died, he ruled over the greatest empire the world has ever seen". This empire stretched over three continents and covered an area of some two million square miles (five million square kilometres).

    His heritage was a truly remarkable one: "He carried classical culture to the foothills of the Himalaya, founded more than seventy cities, and revolutionised international trade. Alexander's reign marked the end of the Classical era and the dawn of the Hellenistic age, which was to last for three hundred years".

    Almost more than any other historical figure, Alexander the Great has been the subject of historical counterfactual "what if" debates.

    What if, at the Battle of Granicus when Alexander was only 22, his Companion Black Cleitus had not managed to save his life by slicing off the arm of the Persian nobleman who was about to thrust his scimtar into the Macedonian leader's back? What if Alexander had managed to dragoon his men into a final march to the Indian Ocean? What if Alexander had lived to return to Macedon and perhaps turn his attention to north Africa and then western Europe?

    "Dawn To Dusk" by Eric A Grant

    Bernie Grant was not a conventional politician and this is not a conventional political biography.

    Big, bearded and black, Bernie was a man who stood out in any gathering. He was colourful in every sense of the word: intensely proud of his origins in Guyana; given to flamboyance, as when he wore a white lace 'bubu' shirt at the state opening of Parliament; and fiercely uncompromising in many of his political pronouncements, never more so than in his controversial remarks after the Broadwater Farm riots of 1985.

    Written by his devoted father of 92 (who died before publication), this is a work with many fewer words and many more photographs than most political works in what is more a personal tribute than a traditional biography. Over a tenth of the text consists of a reproduction of tributes paid to Bernie at the time of his premature death from a heart attack in 2000 at the age of only 56.

    The story starts in Guyana where Bernie was born in 1944 and spent the first two formative decades of his life. Indeed his father Eric (a teacher) devotes the first chapter of the book to a description of the country itself. Given his subsequent political record, it is perhaps a little ironic that his first names - Bernard Alexander Montgomery - were taken from British generals of the Second World War and he later told his father "Those names had racist overtones and I take umbrage at them".

    It was 1963 when he came to Britain. After a couple of years as a clerk at British Rail, he studied at Tottenham Technical College and then Heriot-Watt University although, as a result of a dispute, he left university before finishing his degree in mining engineering.

    After flirting with the Black Panthers and the Socialist Labour League, it was the trade union movement that helped him to develop a clearer political position which led him to join the Labour Party in 1975. As a telephonist in the Post Office (now BT), he became a Branch Secretary in the UPW (now the CWU) and then he went on to become a full-time Area Officer with NUPE (now Unison).

    Once having joined the Labour Party, his rise was rapid. In 1978, he came a councillor in Haringey and in 1985 he became the leader of the Council - the first black person in Europe to lead a local authority. When he was elected to Parliament in 1987 as the MP for Tottenham, he and the three other black Labour MPs were the first Parliamentarians of colour to be elected since 1922.

    As an MP, Bernie tended to focus on issues that most concerned the ethnic minority communities that made up much of his geographical constituency and what he saw as his political constituency.

    He spoke on race relations and South Africa, he was a founder and chairman of the Black Parliamentary Caucus, he campaigned for the return of the Benin Bronzes and Nine Stars of Africa, and he was Chairman of the Africa Reparations Movement (19 pages are devoted to a reproduction of his key speech on reparations).

    Indeed, in the early days at least, his older brother Leyland used to be critical of the way he felt that Bernie had allowed himself to be channeled into 'single issue' politics.

    Whatever issue he campaigned on, Bernie was a passionate individual which inevitably generated some opposition. His father refers to his "natural combative and argumentative nature" and to him having "a mixture of aggressiveness and impatience".

    However, as Tony Blair wrote in an article at the time of Bernie's death: "He couldn't be easily pigeonholed politically because he was never prepared to leave the thinking to others". Bernie Grant was a one-off and British politics is the poorer for his loss, but this affectionate biography will help to ensure that he is remembered.

    "Dreams From My Father" by Barack Obama

    I suppose that one would call this a biography, but it only covers the first three decades or so of the subject's life and the sub-title - "A Story of Race and Inheritance" - makes clear that this is a work with a more ambitious scope than a conventional narrative. When it was first published in 1995 to a mild reception, Barack Obama had graduated from Harvard Law School where he became the first black president of the "Harvard Law Review"; when it was republished in 2004 to become an international bestseller, Obama had made an electrifying speech to the Democratic National Convention and was on the verge of becoming the only black member of the US Senate; by the time I read it in the summer of 2008, he was the presumptive Democratic nominee in the presidential election and the favourite for the White House.

    The book reads like no other political biography I have come across and this underlines that we are dealing here with a very different type of politician. He writes like a novelist - and a good one at that - deploying a great deal of conversation and showing considerable fluency and remarkable thoughtfulness and empathy. Essentially it falls into three parts: the background of his black Kenyan father and his white Kansas mother and his education in Hawaii, Indonesia, Los Angeles and New York; his three years of community campaigning in the impoverished parts of the South Side of Chicago; and his first emotional visit to his black relatives in Kenya to whom he is known simply as "Barry".

    Overshadowing it all is the physical absence but emotional presence of his father, a man who left when Barack was only two and he met only once for a month when he was 10 years old. At his father's grave in Kenya, he has a cathartic experience: "I felt a calmness wash over me. I felt the circle finally close. I realized who I was, what I cared about, was no longer a matter of intellect or obligation, no longer a construct of words. I saw that my life in Amercia - the black life, the white life, the sense of abandonment I'd felt as a boy, the frustration and hope I'd witnessed in Chicago - all of it was connected with this small plot of earth an ocean away."

    Obama is candid about his smoking, drinking, and drug-taking and he reveals astonishing introspection, restlessness and even self-doubt in his searching for identity and purpose and validation. This is a man who is not afraid to admit to tears. In these early years of his life, there is no mention of the religious belief that would come later. But always there is his belief in the dignity of all persons and all races, his concern and anger at poverty and lack of opportunity, and his faith in community action and political change.

    "Elizabeth: Fortune's Bastard?" by Richard Rex

    Many countries have a 'golden era' in their history and, for England, such a period was that of Queen Elizabeth I. The fourth centenary of her death was in 2003 and this biography - probably the shortest of the year (little over 200 pages of which 40 are illustrations) - was published to mark that event.

    The red-headed Elizabeth was born on 7 September 1533. Her father was King Henry VIII and her mother was Henry's second of six wives Anne Boleyn, his first wife (Catherine of Arragon) having failed to provide him with a son who lived and his second confidently (but wrongly) expected to deliver a boy. Since Catholics questioned the legitimacy of Henry's second marriage, in some eyes Elizabeth was the bastard of the biography's title.

    Elizabeth had an unusually thorough education for a girl, learning French, Italian, Latin and Greek. Having survived the plotting of the five-year reign of her Catholic sister Mary (although with a short spell in the Tower of London), she herself was crowned queen on on 15 January 1559 aged just 25.

    In the early Reformation, a change of monarch meant a change of religion and sure enough Elizabeth re-established Protestantism in a process called 'alteration' but she did so sensitively and without surrendering to Puritanism. Indeed, although she was a devout Protestant, she was not much interested in theological matters and Rex writes: "Elizabeth's own religion has always been something of an enigma" and "She was in religion, as in so much else, decisively ambiguous".

    From the beginning, Elizabeth was expected to marry and produce a heir (preferably a male), but famously the 'Virgin Queen' did neither. Indeed she showed what Rex calls "explicit contempt for marriage and childbirth", although he does not doubt either her virginity or her sexuality (she enjoyed the attentions of men, was especially close to Robert Dudley, and contemplated marrying the Duke of Anjou).

    This was - in the words of Rex - "an age when religion was the most important issue in the political arena" and, throughout her reign, Elizabeth had to face down plots and rebellions promoted by those supporting the Catholic cause, especially Mary Queen of Scots and the Northern earls. Some 900 men were executed after the rising in the north in 1569, the fear of Catholic plots peaked in 1584 when leading public figures signed the 'Bond of Association', and Mary was eventually executed for treason in 1587.

    During Elizabeth's reign, England's great international rival was Spain. After repeated conflicts in The Netherlands and on the high seas, matters came to a head with the planned invasion of England led by the Spanish Armada of 1588. A mixture of English naval skill, prevailing winds and a ferocious storm defeated the invasion and devastated the armada. Rex writes of Elizabeth that "Her appearance at the muster of her forces at Tilbury, when she made her famous address to her troops, was an inspiring moment in the national myth" and he notes that "The defeat of the Armada was the high point of Elizabeth's reign".

    The 44 years that Elizabeth was on the throne saw much economic crisis, problems of law and order, and the strains of foreign war, but Rex argues that "What held the country together was a combination of nationalism, Protestantism, and loyalism, focused on the person, or perhaps on the image, of Elizabeth herself".

    Of course, Elizabeth was well-served by her advisers, most notably William Cecil who was her chief minister until his death in 1598, and his son Robert Cecil who gradually took over the reins, although in the 1590s the Queen's new favourite the Earl of Essex caused her trouble and grief.

    Elizabeth died on 24 March 1603 in her seventieth year, a great age for the time.

    "Hitler: A Short Biography" by A N Wilson

    The life of Adolf Hitler retains the power to both enthrall and appall even seven decades after his death. There have been many weighty and worthy biographies of the Nazi leader and this new (2012) addition to the canon has two commendable features: it is concise (a mere 200 pages even with notes and bibliography) and readable. However, it is a light-weight work which would have benefited from more facts and fewer novelistic flourishes.

    Born on 20 April 1889 in Austria (he only received German citizenship in 1932) with a father who started off with the family name Schicklegruber, nothing about Hitler's early life was anything other than mediocre: he was shy, indolent and a hypochondriac, he was academically undistinguished, and he appears to have had no paid employment. Wilson rubbishes Hitler's claim to an heroic record in the First World War and notes that the recommendation for an Iron Cross came from a Jewish adjutant. The Munich beer hall putsch of 1923 was a farce which resulted in Hitler receiving a five-year prison sentence, but he only served a year and used the time to draft "Mein Kampf".

    What Hitler was good at was public speaking when he capitalised on the sense of outrage over the Treaty of Versailles and the sense of despair over Germany's economic collapse. Wilson writes that "Hitler .. showed an intuitive sense which amounted to genius that the spoken word was going to be of more significance than the written word in the coming years" and quotes from "Mein Kampf" where Hitler talks of "the magic power of the spoken word".

    Wilson sets out the familiar narrative of Hitler's climb to the German Chancellorship in 1933 and his prosecution of the Second World War before his suicide in a Berlin bunker on 30 April 1945 at the age of 56 ("Hitler was now totally insane, removed from reality"). It is an horrific record that includes the Holocaust of some six million ("It was Adolf Hitler who was the prime mover and the chief architect") and an overall death toll of perhaps 50 million. Yet Wilson notes that: "Hitler, who was deliberately to engineer the death of millions, and who ranted at generals and politicians, was habitually gentle with servants and secretaries".

    Indeed Wilson seems almost as interested in Hitler's personal habits as the Führer's political and military decisions, telling us that the man's sexuality was "all but normal", he actually had both testicles, he did not smoke or eat meat, he suffered from "uncontrolled farting", and - at least in the last two years - he was injected daily with a whole cocktail of drugs.

    How can one assess such a life and such a record? Wilson's attempt is utterly banal. He writes: "In the end, Hitler is a mystery who cannot be plumbed, whether you use the tool of the economist, the political analyst or the psychiatrist"; he asserts that "Hitler was both very ordinary and completely extraordinary"; and, in a odd attempt to ascribe the Nazi leader's record to modernity, claims "Hitler was the Enlightenment's cloven hoof".

    "Hitler And Churchill" by Andrew Roberts

    Roberts wrote an excellent work about Napoleon and Wellington, a European dictator and a British victor who never actually met, and he was obviously tempted to repeat the format with this book which follows a BBC series. However, whereas the television programmes were rather good, this text is a disappointment - more an extended and discursive essay than an impressive work of scholarship. Having said that, the experiences of titantic figures like Hitler and Churchill could never be boring and Roberts does have a lively, if opinionated and somewhat florid, writing style.

    The book is subtitled "Secrets of Leadership" and the theme of the work is the similarities and (much, much more) the differences between these two men as leaders of their respective nations at a time of war.

    Both Hitler and Churchill had a great sense of history and destiny; both showed great tenacity in the face of adversity. In a sense, both were performers or showmen. Roberts dissects their styles of public speaking. Both wrote their own speeches. Hitler liked to address rallys with theatrical effects like seas of flags, dramatic lighting and martial music. He would often start with a long silence to seize his audience's attention and gradually build up the volume and vehemence of his ranting. By contrast, Churchill made his speeches to the House of Commons or on the radio and used wonderfully-crafted sentences that evoked a sense of pride and defiance. In their very different ways, each was a master communicator and, of course, Churchill was equally proficient in the written word and later won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

    As administrators, the two men were completely different. Hitler loathed holding meetings, read very little, and rarely put decisions in writing (this is a major reason why apologists for the Holocaust can assert that Hitler did not authorise it). Churchill was a workaholic and a micro-manager who held lots of meetings and fired off endless instructions even on trivial matters. Hitler was rarely seen by his people once the war started and travelled very little. But Churchill was everywhere both at home and abroad in spite of being a much older man.

    Ultimately what mattered most was the style of leadership and command exhibited by the two men. Hitler was at his most successful as a military leader when he left the detailed execution of plans to his generals. Usually, when he intervened, it was to show a loss of nerve, as when he halted the drive through Belgium in May 1940 (allowing the British Expeditionary Force to evacuate from Dunkirk) and when he hesitated during the subsequent invasion of Norway. Hitler's initial wartime successes gave him a sense of infallibity which led him to make increasingly disastrous interventions in the German conduct of the war.

    Churchill ran a decisive operation - he halved the war cabinet and he reduced the number of committees. He argued incessantly with his military advisers, notably Field Marshal Lord Alanbroke, but - at the end of the day - he deferred to the judgements of his professional military men. He had made his military mistakes much earlier in his career, most notoriously in the invasion of Gallipoli in the First World War, and that obviously weighed heavily with him.

    Roberts characterises the most successful leadership style as "mission command". he writes: "First developed by the Prussian Army in the nineteenth century and now official NATO doctrine, Mission Command means that headquarters confines itself to setting the objectives while leaving it up to the commanders on the spot to decide how best to achieve them. Success or failure - rather than obedience - is the ultimate criterion". Mission Command was the secret behind Hitler's startling victory in France and the Low Countries in 1940 and it was his abandonment of that principle that was so calamitous to the later compaigns in Russia.

    Roberts makes the crucial point: "It is fascinating to see how Churchill's and Hitler's leadership styles developed during the course of the war: while Churchill involved himself less and less with the day-to-day military conduct of the war, Hitler became more and more the micromanager. This was largely because the victories of the German Army in the first two years of the war had led Hitler to believe himself to be an infallible military genius. Meanwhile the British defeats reminded Churchill that he himself was not one".

    Roberts rightly asserts that "the story of the 1939-45 period, and especially the year between June 1940 and June 1941, goes to the very heart of Britain's self-perception as a nation". For that reason alone, this book - for all its inadequacies - is a interesting read.

    author's web site click here
    the Churchill Papers click here

    "Karl Marx" by Francis Wheen

    At a world trade union congress in Berlin, I found myself one evening in a lively debate with a couple of British colleagues who were putting forward the case for a Marxist political perspective while I represented the case for social democracy. Shortly afterwards, one of them bought me this new (1999) biography of Karl Marx by the British writer Francis Wheen and I thought that I would take the opportunity to learn more about Marx if not about Marxism.

    Whatever one thinks of the man or his writing, one has to accept Wheen's assertion that: ".. within one hundred years of his death half the world's population was ruled by governments that professed Marxism to be their guiding faith. His ideas have transformed the study of economics, history, geography, sociology and literature. Not since Jesus Christ has an obscure pauper inspired such global devotion - or been so calamitously misinterpreted".

    For someone like me living in London, Marx has a particular fascination. Although born in the German town of Trier in 1818, he spent some 34 years living in London (I have visited one of his homes at 28 Dean Street), studied voraciously in the British Museum’s Reading Room (I have visited this too) and was finally buried - he died in 1883 - in Highgate Cemetery (again I have been to the site of the huge bust).

    Marx's grave in Highgate Cemetery in north London

    It has to be said that Wheen’s biography is a literary triumph. Using an impressive range of sources, he has crafted a wonderfully written work with immense fluidity and an erudite vocabulary. He has made what could easily have been a dry, academic text into a lively, immensely readable portrait. However, I have never been attracted to Marxism the philosophy and, after almost 400 pages of Wheen's characterisation, I am repelled by Marx the man.

    Marx spent his life predicting the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, but he married the daughter of a Prussian baron. He was Jew of swarthy appearance who drew attention in derogatory terms to the Jewish and negroid features of his political opponents. The “Communist Manifesto” advocated abolition of the right to inheritance, but he accepted a paternal legacy. He opposed the capitalist system, but he speculated on the stock exchange.

    Wheen observes that "Marx was often accused of being an intellectual bully" and, while somehow dismissing this charge, admits in the same paragraph that "He undoubtedly delighted in his talent for inflicting verbal violence". The biographer himself, an apologist for Marx, writes of the writer engaging in "a whirligig of intriguing, score-settling and striving for mastery" and admits that he was "undoubtedly a tremendous show-off and a sadistic intellectual thug".

    He observes that "To work at his best, Marx needed to keep himself in a state of seething fury"; notes that "Marx revelled in conflict and was always alert to any slight, real or imagined"; and wonders why did he "fritter away his talents on these extravagant vendettas". Writing of one comrade who subsequently became an opponent, he admits: "Moses Hess later became a fierce enemy, as did almost all of Marx's friends".

    Marx certainly had more than his fair share of tragedy and suffering. Four of his children predeceased him, while the other two committed suicide. The only one to escape what Wheen calls "the curse" was an illegitimate child, born to him by the family servant, the existence of whom was confirmed only in 1962.

    He was constantly ill (Wheen refers to "Those blossoming boils on his bum") and, towards the end, endured bronchitis, pleurisy, laryngitis and an abscess in the lung. And, of course, he rarely had any money, mainly because in 34 years in London he only twice sought gainful employment.

    Sooner or later, Marx lost every friend - except the Manchester-based industrialist Frederick Engels who bailed him out financially over and over again, wrote around half of all the articles attributed to him, and even forgave his friend a callous letter following the death of Engels' lover.

    Statue of Marx and Engels in Berlin

    Marx's great bequest to the world was his mammoth tome "Capital". Even in the original German, this is turgid and frequently unintelligible and one wonders whether it can fare any better in its various translations. Astonishingly Wheen asserts that "'Capital' is not really a scientific hypothesis nor even an economic treatise" but rather "a work of art" and even goes so far as to claim that "Marx's definition of poverty, like Christ's, was as much spiritual as economic".

    Wheen insists that "More use-value and indeed profit can thus be derived from 'Capital' if it is read as a work of the imagination; a Victorian melodrama or a vast Gothic novel" and that "The absurdities to be found in 'Capital' .. reflect the madness of the subject, not of the author". No wonder I am not a Marxist.

    "Long Walk To Freedom" by Nelson Mandela

    Nelson Mandela is the nearest the world has to a secular saint in my lifetime, so I have always been interested in reading his autobigraphy since it was first published in 1994. However, I was put off by the length (751 pages) and was only finally persuaded to read the work when, a decade after its publication, I visited Robben Island and bought a copy in the island bookshop. It was, of course, Robben Island where Mandela spent 19 of his 27 years in imprisonment, but only 150 or so pages of the biography is devoted this time on the island, the remainder describing his political journey there and his subsequent negotiation of a democratic South Africa.

    I should not have waited so long to read the book. In spite of the length, it is broken up into 115 manageable chapters and the easy and elegant style of writing makes it a joy to consume. He narrates his humble childhood in the tiny village of Mvezo, his education in Methodist missionary colleges, his experience as a young lawyer, his growing activism within and rise up the hierarchy of the African National Congress (ANC), the famous Freedom Trial of 1959 when he was acquitted, the formation of the ANC's military arm Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the even more dramatic Rivonia Trial of 1962 when he was sentenced to life imprisonment, the long, brutal years in prison, and the gradual thawing of the apartheid regime.

    What comes through above all else is Mandela's unfailing humanity and humility. He is always understanding of and fair to his opponents, whether it is the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), the Inkatha Freedom Party, his former wife Winnie, or even his prison warders, while he is unassuming about his own abilities and achievments and willing to be candid and even critical of himself. The picture which emerges is of a deliberative man - always reading, studying, preparing, thinking - and one deeply, deeply committed to democracy and non-racialism. The road to a free South Africa was not quick, was not easy and was not bloodless but, without Mandela's charismatic leadership, abiding tolerance, and sense of forgiveness, it is highly likely that the black and white communities of South Africa would have been consumed by civil war.

    If there is one passage which captures the essence of this moving autobiogaphy, it is this one in the final chapter: "No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite. Even in the grimmest times in prison, when my comrades and I were pushed to our limits, I would see a glimpse of humanity in one of the guards, perhaps just for a second, but it was enought to reassure me and keep me going. Man's goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished".

    "Long Walk To Freedom" concludes with Mandela's election as president of South Africa in 1994. We can only hope that, in spite of his wish now to enjoy a quiet retirement, he will complete the promised further volume which describes his term as his country's undisputed political leader.

    Statue of Nelson Mandela
    in London's Parliament Square

    "Mao: The Unknown Story" by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday

    In 1991, "Wild Swans" by Jung Chang [for my review click here] was published and rapidly became a literary sensation, selling 10 million copies worldwide. This account of three generations of the author's family provided an utterly compelling and intensely personal account of life in 20th century China. Chang has now combined with her husband, Irish-born former academic Jon Halliday, to produce a biography of the Chinese leader Mao Tse-tung that presents a radically revisionist and hugely controversial portrait of a man still revered by hundreds of millions of Chinese and respected by many ill-informed westerners.

    This is a formidable work in so many respects. The hardback edition weighs in at some 2.5 lbs (or 1.2 kg) and runs to over 800 pages of text. The authors have accessed a staggering array of sources, Chang concentrating on those in Chinese and Halliday specialising in those in Russian. In all, they interviewed some 260 individuals in 38 countries, many with personal experience of the Great Helmsman. No less than 68 pages are devoted to referencing the facts and statements in the main text. There are also some helpful maps and interesting photographs.

    This strictly chronological account presents an unremittingly critical picture of a man that Chang & Halliday portray as utterly vengeful, devoid of pity, and consumed by personal power and frequently they take a sharply different view of Mao's life from the official history. Yet, in an interview with "Books Quarterly" magazine, Chang has insisted: "When I began to tackle Mao, I was trying to keep an open mind. I wanted to be fair to Mao, otherwise I would not have spent 10 years on it."

    According to Chang & Halliday, Mao was not a founding member of the Chinese Communist Party as so often claimed or even particularly ideological; he was part of the first Red state of Ruijin which was run by terror and claimed 700,000 lives; he was not originally wanted by his comrades on the Great March and was carried for much of the way on a litter; he squandered forces on the march in order to weaken his political opponents; he then avoided conflict with the Japanese invaders to conserve his forces against the Nationalists.

    Once in power, Mao instituted a a campaign against so-called counter revolutionaries which cost 3 million lives by execution, mob violence or suicide. He encouraged Stalin to launch the Korean War, so that he could demand that the Russians give him advanced weapons and the capability to manufacture more (in fact, at least 400,000 Chinese soldiers died and Mao was enabled to sacrifice former Nationalist troops whom he distrusted anyway).

    He spent up to 60% of the state budget on defence as part of a huge effort to seek superpower status, while spending on education and health was a mere 8%. He collectivised the farms, exported grain to the Soviet Union, and launched the Great Leap Forward, as a result of which the average daily calorie intake fell to 1,535 (comparable to those suffered by the inmates at Auschwitz) resulting in 38 million deaths (22 million in the single year of 1960).

    Mao launched an absurd cult of the personality which involved the production of 4.8 billion badges with his head on them, 1.2 billion posters of him, and the infamous "Little Red Book" which was waved by the Red Guards in the massively destructive Cultural Revolution. Meanwhile he attempted to become the world leader of communism, but no Maoist party in the west ever gained more than a miniscule following.

    Overall, according to Chung & Halliday, in Mao's 27 year rule of terror, some 27 million died in prison and labour camps and close to 38 million died of starvation in the great famine, with a total death toll of at least 70 million.

    Along the way, every ally and every opponent (and eventually every ally was seen as an opponent) was removed from power, in a callous process usually involving public denunciation, imprisonnment and even torture. His endless victims included: critic Wang Ming who was almost killed by poisoning; Defence Minister Peng De-huai whose ordeal lasted no less than eight years; President Lui Shao-chi, Mao's closest colleague for nearly three decades, who endured three years of physical suffering; Marshal Lin Biao, Mao's number 2, who fled the country in an aircraft and died when his plane ran out of fuel; the ultra-loyal Chou En-lai who was forced to make more than 100 self-denunciations and denied life-saving surgery until it was too late; and his eventual successor Deng Xiao-peng (who, after his death, proclaimed that Mao was 30% wrong, 70% right - still the official 'line').

    Even Mao's relatives were not spared his indifference and much suffering. He hated his father. He was married four times: first in an arranged marriage when he was just 12 to a woman of 18 who died a year later; then to Yang Kai-hui who bore him three sons before he abandoned her to execution by the Nationalists; next to Gui-yuan, whom he married barely four months after leaving his second wife, who left him, went to Russia, and suffered repeated nervous breakdowns; and finally to the infamous Jiang Qing whom he came to detest (she committed suicide in 1991).

    The three boys from his second marriage - one of whom was mentally handicapped - were looked after by the Communist underground and then taken to Russia where Mao never saw them. When he finally saw An-ying back in China, it was for the first time in 18 years and then the young man died in the Korean War largely provoked by his father. With his third wife, he had six children: a daughter who was lost; Little Mao, left behind when Mao embarked on the Great March; another son who died within a few days of being born; a girl born on the Great March and left behind; a daughter born in exile whom Mao saw little of in adulthood, leading to her suffering depression and a nervous breakdown; and a third son who died of pneumonia after only six months. Mao and Jing Qing had just one child, a daughter Li Na who was given no love and eventually lapsed into insanity (although she has now recovered).

    Mao was ultimately a lonely and isolated individual who constantly feared assassination and left no will, no heir, and no successor.

    Chang & Halliday present us with a man who - though with a passion for swimming and for owning and reading books - had many unpleasant personal habits, including crude language in his local dialect (the only language he could speak), an aversion to baths (prefering instead to be rubbed down with a hot towel), a reluctance to brush his teeth, a lifelong habit of smoking, an obsession with defecation, and a persistent tendency to sleep late into the day. Throughout his life, it is claimed, he was an inveterate womaniser. At the end of 655 pages of the main text, this is a difficult man to like, still less admire, in any respect.

    Time after time after time when reading this book, I found myself wondering how the authors could know what they had written but, each time I checked the pages at the back, I found a detailed reference or source for the information. Critics of this work - which included many who have not actually read it - will have to work hard to invalidate its analysis.

    To illustrate just how far Mao would go to achieve his aims and just how little he thought of his people, Chang & Halliday quote one of Mao’s most famous speeches, that made to the summit of Communist leaders in Moscow on 18 November 1957. The bit of this speech most commonly quoted is Mao’s insistence that "all allegedly powerful reactionaries are merely paper tigers." However, they cite two other sections of this speech.

    The first concerns the prospect of nuclear war: "Let’s contemplate this, how many people would die if war breaks out. There are 2.7 billion people in the world. One-third could be lost; or, a little more, it could be a half ...I say that, taking the extreme situation, half dies, but imperialism would be razed to the ground and the whole world would be socialist”.

    The second quote concerned living standards: "People say that poverty is bad, but in fact poverty is good. The poorer people are, the more revolutionary they are. It is dreadful to imagine a time when everyone will be rich...From a surplus of calories, people will have two heads and four legs."

    This biography literally begins with Mao's birth in 1893 and ends with his death in 1976 and throughout focuses totally on the details of Mao's life. If I have a criticism of the work, it is that I would have welcomed more context, including a scene-setting introduction and an overall evaluation with some information on the treatment of Mao's heritage by the post-Mao Communist leadership.

    Instead Chang & Halliday make their central message clear in the opening sentence and the closing sentences of this massive work: "Mao Tse-tung, who for decades held absolute power over the lives of one-quarter of the world's population, was responsible for well over 70 million deaths in peacetime, more than any other twentieth-century leader." and "Today Mao's portrait and his corpse [both of which I have seen] still dominant Tiananmen Square in the heart of the Chinese capital. The current Communist regime declares itself to be Mao's heir and fiercely perpetuates the myth of Mao."

    Roger in front of Mao's portrait in Tiananmen Square

    The inference is clear. China has come a long way under its current political leadership and made astonishing economic progress - but ultimately economic liberalisation must provoke political liberalisation. The reason that the Chinese Communist Party cannot admit frankly to Mao's record is that esssentially this was not a failure of one evil man but of an authoritarian political system that allowed him to acquire and abuse political power on a massive scale and which still governs the people of China today. Chang & Halliday's enormously important and impressive biography is further pressure on a political system ripe for profound change.

    It may seem strange to review a book a decade after its publication, but the work in question is still one of the best biographies available of Tomáš Masaryk and this year is the 150th anniversary of his birth. Czech-lover ROGER DARLINGTON summarizes this evergreen work.

    "The Masaryks" by Zbyněk Zeman

    My first visit to what was then Czechoslovakia was in 1988, before the velvet revolution. On behalf of my Czech language teacher and human rights activist Jan Kavan, I smuggled material to the local dissidents and brought out news about the country.

    How things have changed. Now communism is over, Kavan is the Czech Foreign Minister, and I have made a total of 14 visits to the country to visit relatives of my half-Czech wife and lecture to various trade union conferences.

    The independent state of Czechoslovakia was a phenomenon of the 20th century. Created in 1918 following the end of the First World War and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in 1993 it ceased to exist as the Czech Republic and Slovakia went their separate ways in a peaceful but undemocratic schism.

    If the lifetime of Czechoslovakia was short, its experience as a democratic state was even briefer. Effectively this was only from its birth in 1918 to its occupation by the Germans in 1938, from its liberation in 1945 to the Communist take-over in 1948, and from the velvet revolution in 1989 to the separation in 1993.

    For the vast majority of these democratic years, one man was president and, since he was the single most important individual in the formation of the state, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk – or TGM as he was often known – was truly the father of Czechoslovakia and an indispensable figure in any study of the history of Central Europe.

    This biography is by Zbyněk Zeman, then Research Professor in European History at Oxford University and now retired and in Prague. It was in fact originally published in 1976 when the name and policies of Masaryk were proscribed in Czechoslovakia and republished in 1990 following the collapse of communism. I only read it this year – the 150th anniversary of the birth of TGM - to coincide with my latest trip to what is now the Czech Republic and my visit to a special TGM exhibition in the Prague Castle.

    From Zeman’s book, one can see in retrospect that, ethnically, linguistically, religiously and politically, Tomáš Masaryk was the ideal founder and president of the Central European state of Czechs and Slovaks.

    His father was Slovak and his mother was a German-speaking Czech. He was born (in 1850) and brought up in Hodonin, a part of Moravia that is so close to the Slovak border that the district is called Slovacko and the Czech spoken there is a dialect very close to Slovak. In fact, his parents spoke to each other and to him in German. At school in Moravia and at university in Vienna, his studies were in German, the official language of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. So he had to learn Czech and Slovak as an adult.

    Long before 1878 when he married an American (whose father was of Danish- French origin) and took her maiden surname as his middle name, he spoke fluent English. However, he also spoke French and Russian – which much assisted his diplomatic efforts in the new Europe – and he also had knowledge of Italian, Polish and Arabic plus some Latin and Greek.

    Masaryk’s mother was a strict Catholic and initially he too was Catholic, but he later changed and became a Protestant. His wife Charlotte was a Unitarian. Religion for Masaryk was not a strict doctrinal matter and indeed he was professionally a professor of philosophy. Significantly for the time and place of his political activities, he was opposed to semitism and indeed acted as defence lawyer in an infamous anti-semitic trial (the Hilsner case of 1899-1900).

    Politically he was a nationalist, campaigning endlessly for the secession of the Czech and Slovak people from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but he was certainly no revolutionary, fiercely criticising the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 which he saw at first hand during almost two years in Russia.

    In terms of party political affiliation, his essential pragmatism meant that, during the Empire, he associated with several parties, before founding his own which ironically, at the outbreak of war, was the smallest in the Czech lands.

    When he became President, he exercised strong control of domestic politics by exploiting divisions in a succession of coalition governments and operating through an inner circle of five Prague Castle advisers - including his chosen successor as President Eduard Beneš - and five politicians from different parties.

    TGM was already 68 when he became President and he won a succession of new terms before age and ill-health forced him to abdicate in 1935 at the venerable age of 85 (he died two years later). But this was not the end of the Masaryk name in Czech politics. In what Zeman calls the "patrimony", there was Jan Masaryk, the youngest of TGM's five children (one died shortly after birth).

    Before the German occupation of 1938, Jan had served his country as representative in both London and Washington. When the Czechoslovaks formed a government-in-exile in Britain during the Second World War, he served as Foreign Minister. At this time, he met my wife’s father Flight Lieutenant Karel Kuttelwascher who distinguished himself in the Royal Air Force by shooting down 15 German bombers on night intruder raids. Jan attended the christening of KK’s son Huw and even acted as his godfather.

    Back in Prague after the war, Jan continued to serve as Foreign Minister in a coalition government increasingly dominated by the Communist Party. A couple of weeks after the formal take-over by the Communists, he was found dead one night in the courtyard under his ministry window. Many Czechs suspected assassination, but the thrust of Zeman’s description of events is that Jan was overcome by depression through his increasing alienation from political events.

    For his part, Karel Kuttelwascher – a strong supporter of the Masaryk democratic tradition – left the country before the Communist coup and never returned. He died of a heart attack in 1959, aged only 42. Sadly his son Huw died even younger from an asthma attack when he was 21.

    But the Kuttelwascher name lives on. On 8 May 2000, in the Prague Castle the present holder of TGM’s Presidential role, Vaclav Havel, presented my wife with confirmation of KK’s posthumous promotion to the rank of general.

    More people – not least young Czechs themselves – should know about the Masaryk heritage. No doubt there are and will be more contemporary analyses, but Zeman’s book is a good start, well researched, well-written and balanced, although there could have been more on the problems of running an inter-war state with such mixed ethnicity.

    TGM and his son Jan, together with his wife Charlotte and daughter Alice, are buried in the village cemetery at Lany, the location of the President’s summer palace, and my wife and I visited the graves on our most recent visit to the Czech Republic.

    Note: This review was published in the June/July 2000 issue of the "British Czech and Slovak Review".

    "My Life" by Fidel Castro with Ignacio Ramonet

    I read this book in preparation for a holiday in Cuba in early March 2008 and, while I worked my way through it, Castro announced his retirement as the world's longest-serving president after an astonishing 49 years in the role. Without this impetus, it is unlikely that I would have tackled such a work, mainly because of its length (over 700 pages). In effect, this is both Castro's autobiography and political testament, but it takes the form of a transcript of over 100 hours of interviews recorded between January 2003 and December 2005 with Ignacio Ramonet, the Spanish-born editor of the French newspaper "Le Monde Diplomatique". Ramonet found a private, quiet, austere leader and the reader soons becomes aware of the Cuban's immensely wide reading and impressive intellectual thought. Ramonet himself refers to "a creativity that one has to call genius".

    Covering eight decades, the work is essentially chronological. So it starts with Castro's birth on 13 August 1926 to a Spanish father and a Cuban mother. It goes on to mention his schooling at Catholic establishments and his law studies at university. There is a chapter on the July 1953 assault on the Moncado barracks, a failure which led to Castro being sentenced to 15 years in prison (although he only spent two years there). We are given a personal account of the November 1956 sailing in the "Grandma" of Castro and 81 others to start the revolution, at first a catastrophe with all but 15 being killed or captured, but later leading to the 32 year old commandate's triumphal entry into Havana on 8 January 1959.

    We are treated to Castro's recollections on the Bay of Pigs incident, the Cuban missile crisis, the death of Che, military excursions in Africa, and the constant efforts of the USA - which he usually describes as "the empire - to undermine the revolution and encourage immigration. We are offered convincing evidence of the transformation of the country's education and health services, the elimination of illiteracy and the increase in life expectancy. Finally, we cover the collapse of Cuba's strongest supporter the USSR in 1991 which led to the economic retrenchment that is euphemistically called "the special period" - and yet the revolution survives.

    The final chapter is entitled "After Fidel, What?" and Ramonet asks Castro if he is optimistic about the future of Cuban society. Defiantly the leader responds: "I can tell you one thing: we're optimistic; we know what our destiny is: a very hard but very heroic and very glorious one. This nation shall never be defeated". He accepts that subsidies and rationing have to go "little by little" but basically he sees no need for fundamental reforms, still less any notion of democratisation.

    Ramonet has been criticised for being too easy on Castro. It is clear that he is an immense admirer of the Cuban leader but, over the years, he has been critical of aspects of the revolution. It is true that he asked questions on all the sensitive subjects - Che's authoritarianism, the homophobia and racism of the early revolution, the imprisonment of dissidents, the retention of the death penalty, the presence of corruption - but the points are never pressed. The interviews were a platform for Castro and not a genuine holding to account. Also there is nothing on the leader's private life (his two wives and lover and his six children are only mentioned in an extensive chronology at the very end of the book).

    In his foreward, Ramonet reminds his readers that, since the Cuban revolution, there have been a whole series of "terrorist attacks" on the islanders - the Bay of Pigs being only the most infamous - resulting in over 3,500 deaths and almost 2,000 injuries. As regards Castro personally, there have been over 600 assassination attempts. The retirement of Castro as I read this autobiography adds relevance to Ramonet's assessment: "Some analysts predict that the current system will soon fall, or be toppled, as happened in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. They are mistaken." If he is right, the world - and especially the Americans - will have to learn to live with Castro's legacy, so a better understanding of his life and thoughts as presented in this book should be a help.

    "Napoleon And Wellington" by Andrew Roberts

    The end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century witnessed nearly a quarter of a century of almost continuous war in Europe. The French Revolutionary Wars of 1793-1802 and the Napoleonic Wars of 1803 -1815 embroiled all the great European states and caused the death of between five and six million combatants and civilians. No one did more to perpetuate these wars than the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte and no one did more to oppose and defeat Napoleon's forces than the British Duke of Wellington.

    The British historian Andrew Roberts has written a book which "does not pretend to be a biography of either Napoleon or Wellington, but is instead a study of the personal relationship between the two men, and of the way it evolved through their careers" which, he believes, "does have the merit of being an original idea". This result is a skilful and fascinating interweaving of the actions and observations of the two greatest commanders of the time - men who never met, never corresponded, and only faced each other in battle once, but were frequently in the other's thoughts and communications.

    Napoleone Buonoparte and Arthur Wellesley - as they were called at the time - were born in the same year of 1769, although controversy exists in both cases as to the exact day. Both were born on islands - Napoleon on Corsica and Wellington on Ireland - although neither was keen to emphasize the association. If ever they had met or even corresponded, no doubt they would have used French which was the second language of each. In both cases, they lost their father while young and were brought up with four brothers and three sisters "in straitened circumstances by formidable mothers".

    Roberts explains that "Napoleon's rise to power could hardly have been more meteoric" and, by the age of 35, he was Emperor of France. Yet the historian suggests that such speed of promotion left Napoleon with "an Achilles heel" because "he never handled infantry in combat at regimental level", a lack of experience which was "to cost him dear at Waterloo". By contrast, Wellington spent nine years learning his military craft in India, before he joined the British expeditionary force opposing Napoleon's armies in Portugal and Spain. For Napoleon, Waterloo was the end of his career and he died on St Helena, aged 51, whereas Wellington went on to become British Prime Minster and lived to the ripe old age of 83.

    Napoleon won sixty of his seventy battles; Wellington fought far fewer (14 in the Iberian peninsular), but won them all. For both men Waterloo - fought on Sunday 18 June 1815 - was their last and there is a good deal of interesting discussion of the tactics of the battle and the causes of the outcome. Napoleon had 71,947 men to Wellington's 67,660, but the French had 246 cannon to the Allies' 156. Roberts points out that: "Wellington was forty-six, Napoleon forty-five, yet Wellington acted as energetically as a man in his twenties, Napoleon as lethargically as someone in his sixties".

    In a fiercely-fought battle, Wellington held out long enough to be joined by the Prussian forces led by Blücher, so that the French collapsed. Interestingly Blücher wanted to call the battle La Belle Alliance after the farmhouse where he met Wellington; the French called the conflict the battle of Mont St Jean after the place where it was in fact fought; but it was Wellington who decided to name it after his own headquarters some two and a quarter miles away.

    Napoleon was hoping to retire to the United States. The Prussians wanted to execute him, but Wellington refused to allow this and a British civil servant came up with the idea of exile on St Helena. Here the former emperor had plenty of time to come up with a host of different reasons why he failed to defeat Wellington.

    Napoleon and Wellington tended to be small-minded about each other: the Frenchman referred to Wellington as "the sepoy general" (a reference to his role in India), while Wellington insisted on spelling the Emperor's name the Italian way (Buonoparte). Following Napoleon's first exile to Elba, Wellington contrived to sleep with two of the former emperor's mistresses. Roberts points out: "To sleep with one of Napoleon's mistresses might be considered an accident, but to sleep with two might suggest a pattern of triumphalism in Paris, especially after Wellington had also bought Napoleon's sister's home, engaged Napoleon's cook, called upon his sister-in-law, received presents of his image, and placed a picture of Napoleon's sister in his bedroom".

    The received wisdom is that Napoleon had only disdain for Wellington's generalship, while Wellington expressed considerable regard for Napoleon's leadership. Roberts claims that this conventional view is "entirely wrong". He demonstrates how Napoleon had a growing regard for Wellington's abilities as events led them to the battlefield at Waterloo, but afterwards came to loathe the British general, in part because he believed that Wellington was responsible for the execution of Marshal Ney and for his exile to St Helena (neither of which was true). For his part, before Waterloo, Wellington was publicly contemptuous but privately admiring of Napoleon, several times averring that the presence of the French Emperor on a battlefield was worth 40,000 men, but later he came to despise the man, not least because Napoleon left a gift in his will to a man who had attempted to assassinate the British leader.

    Roberts concludes: "Both men enjoyed invincible self-belief, could occasionally be intolerably brusque and ruthless, and were interested in, but essentially repelled by, the other's character. Furthermore each had a healthy respect for the abilities of the other, despite the subsequent distortion of historians".

    Link: author's web site click here

    "Oliver Cromwell" by Peter Gaunt

    This biography is part of the British Library Historic Lives series which commendably are new (this is 2004,) short (this is 141 pages), and well-illustrated. Gaunt opens his work by emphasizing the significance of his subject: "Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) is one of the most important figures in English and British history, a dynamic leader in the times and transactions of a formative period". However, although the author is Chairman of the Cromwell Association, he freely acknowledges the controversial nature of his subject, while offering a generally sympathetic portrait.

    Although we know about Cromwell's happy marriage and fathering of nine children and believe that sometime in his 20s or 30s he underwent a some sort of conversion experience, Gaunt admits that "The story of Cromwell's first forty years is conspicously thin" and "Cromwell passed his first forty years in obscurity". As MP for Cambridge in the Short and Long Parliaments, he consistently supported a stronger role for Parliament in relation to the King.

    However, it was the English Civil War of 1642-1646 that made Cromwell. Learning rapidly and showing strong leadership, he won speedy promotion in the Eastern Association army and then in the New Model Army, finishing the war as second-in-command to Sir Thomas Fairfax. Gaunt insists that "... he was the most consistently successful and conspicously dynamic general on either side during the civil wars, a natural military genius". However, he acknowledges that historians are deeply divided over the role that Cromwell played in the subsequent overthrow of the monarchy. Cromwell was an active participant in the trial of King Charles I and signed the king's death warrent, although Gaunt suggests that "Cromwell was a late and hesitant convert to regicide"

    This is the only time in history that Britain has been a republic and had a written constitution and, for almost five years, Cromwell served as Lord Protector, while refusing Parliament's offer of the throne. Cromwell's dissolution of the two Protectorate Parliaments has cast him in the role of dictator, but Gaunt rejects "allegations that Cromwell was motivated by the pursuit of personal power and unlimited political authrority". He concedes that "Cromwell's record as Protector was mixed" but concludes that "Cromwell's reputation as Protector ultimately rests not so much on the mixed achievements of his government but on the inherent decency of the man and his regime".

    Cromwell was fanatically religious, yet - especially for the times - generally very supportive of religious tolerance. As Gaunt puts it: "Cromwell believed that he had been chosen by God for a special duty and that thereafter God guided and generally favoured him".

    The monarchy was restored in 1660 and remains to this day. In 1661, Cromwell's body was exhumed and posthumously hanged and decapitated, but in the 1890s a statute of Cromwell was erected outide Parliament and still stands there, a testimony to his ultimate belief in and advancement of Parliamentary democracy.

    Statue of Oliver Cromwell outside
    the Houses of Parliament in London

    "Shrapnel And Whizzbangs" by Jeremy Mitchell

    This short work - only 98 pages - has two resonances for me. First, it is written by someone I know and admire, a former colleague of mine on the Ofcom Consumer Panel. Second, it is a First World War biography written by the son of the subject and I once wrote a Second World War biography about my father-in-law.

    The subject of the book is George Oswald Michell who was known as G.O.M., partly because these were of course his initials and partly in reference to the Liberal Prime Minister W.E. Gladstone who was known as the Grand Old Man. G.O.M. was one of the few British soldiers who served throughout the entire war from its sudden outbreak on 5 August 1914 to the eventual armistice on 11 November 1918, in the process being promoted from private through to second-lieutenant. After a spell as an infantryman in the trenches, most of his war was spent in the Royal Engines where he helped to launch a series of gas attacks, most notably in the huge gas attack on the first day of the Battle of Loos on 25 September 1915.

    George Oswald Mitchell as
    Sergeant Royal Engineers Special Brigade

    The inspiration for the work is G.O.M.'s trench diary which in fact only runs for five or so months, from 15 April to 25 September 1915, concluding with that fateful gas attack. However, his son has skillfully integrated his father's notes with other written sources and set his father's experience into the wider historical context. As such, we have a meticulously-researched and well-written account that is very readable and rather moving.

    The emotional heart of the book is the pivotal event in G.O.M.'s war - the Battle of Loos. The author writes: "More than ninety years on, it has started to haunt me, the son of one of those survivors" and "I am only thankful that I have not had to face the kind of test that my father passed with such unassuming heroism". In fact, G.O.M. died in 1969 and it was only in 2008 - the 90th anniversary of the armistice - that the author (now himself 79) managed to see the biography published and, in a wonderful case of cross-generational co-operation, Jeremy's 12 year old grandson Eddie has created a web site for his grandfather's book about his great grandfather.

    web site of book click here
    Wikipedia page on the Battle of Loos click here

    "Talks With T.G. Masaryk" by Karel Capek

    In the 1920s, a remarkable series of talks took place between the President of the new Czechoslovak Republic Tomáš Masaryk and the leading Czech writer of the time Karel Capek. These talks were eventually published in three parts in 1928, 1931 and 1935 respectively. A new and complete English translation of the complete talks was only published in 1995, as a result of the renewed interest in Masaryk following the ‘velvet revolution’ of 1989.

    One has to treat these talks with a degree of caution because Capek did not use a tape recorder and often did not even take notes. However, the author was very close to his subject and all the talks were published in Masaryk’s lifetime, so we can assume that they represent an accurate reflection of the President’s recollections and thoughts.

    In “The Republic”, Plato wrote at length about his concept of “the philosopher-king” and essentially this is what Tomas Masaryk was. Certainly he was a professor of philosophy, prodigiously well-read, and intimidatingly erudite, while his style of presidency – operating through a small number of hand-chosen, trusted colleagues - was king-like.

    It is probably no coincidence that Masaryk’s doctoral thesis was entitled “Plato On Immortality” and that, in these talks, he commented: ”The philosopher who influenced me most was Plato” and “I have remained a Platonist all my life”.

    Like Plato’s philosophy-king, Masaryk was a reluctant ruler. He told Capek: “When I received the telegram telling me that I’d been elected President – well, the possibility simply hadn’t occurred to me before”.

    Certainly the image with emerges from these talks is of a man who was a thinker and a doer, but not a writer or –even more so – an orator. Capek wrote of Masaryk: “He needs only to think: he must more or less force himself to put his thoughts into words”.

    Masaryk himself insisted: “I don’t like speaking in public and, whenever I give a lecture or a speech, I have stage fright”. Amazingly for a man who moved in such elevated circles, he confessed: “It may be a weakness, but I am shy”.

    Masaryk was not a conventional party politician. He thought of joining the Old Czechs; he eventually joined the New Czechs; but then he moved on to the newly formed Realist Party. As he himself admitted: “I am not a party man” and “I have more faith in people than in institutions, that is political parties”. Indeed he observed that, in his view: “We have far too many members of Parliament”.

    His politics could be characterised as Christian socialist. His Christianity was not in doubt: originally a Catholic, he switched to Protestantism and was deeply religious. Equally his socialism was evident: “I’ve been interested in socialism all my life”. But his politics were essentially humanitarian and pragmatic: “I accepted socialism in so far as it coincided with my humanitarian programme. Marxism I did not accept”.

    All his life, he was a man of unconventional, and often controversial, views. In 1886, he was involved in the manuscripts controversy when he attacked the authenticity of documents purporting to demonstrate an ancient Czech culture; in 1899, he defended a Jewish vagrant against an unsubstantiated charge of child murder; and, in 1909, he spoke out for Serbs falsely accused of treason in a Zagreb trial.

    One can put this down to what Masaryk called “my notorious rationalism” – but it all meant that the future founder-president was often deeply unpopular in his own land.

    One of the aspects of Masaryk that has particularly fascinated me is his sense of national identity.

    We think of Masaryk as the greatest of Czechs Yet he conceded that, when he became a professor in Prague: “I arrived in Prague knowing not a soul and quite ignorant of Czech life”. Later in these talks he confessed: “I came to Prague a stranger and a stranger I long remained”.

    He explained to Capek: ”My childhood language was more Slovak than Czech" and ”I thought of myself as a Slovak”. He would have been heartbroken that the nation state of Czechoslovakia that he largely created in 1918 was broken into two in 1993, but he has left a heritage that still influences Czech life – if not as much as it should.

    "T.E. Lawrence" by Malcom Brown

    Malcom Brown, a military historian who is a freelance adviser to the Imperial War Museum in London, first became interested in T.E. Lawrence in 1962 when he co-produced a major documentary to coincide with the release of David Lean's film "Lawrence Of Arabia". My own fascination with Lawrence dates from the same time and, in the interval, as well as seeing the movie nine times I have read several biographies of TEL including one co-authored by Brown himself. This 2003 profile is a short work of just 156 pages produced as part of a series of biographies for the British Library and the volume of the text is further reduced by the plentiful use of photographs and other illustrations.

    However, Brown knows his subject well and manages to capture the spirit of the enigmatic Lawrence in a concise, but illuminating and perceptive, text. Of course, Lawrence's fame comes from his involvement in the Arab Revolt against the Turks in 1916-18, but Brown only devotes a third of the book to this, allocating equal space to the formative period before the conflict and the tortured search for obscurity after it.

    Lawrence should really have been called Chapman, because he was the second of five illegitimate sons of a one-time landowner Thomas Chapman and the family's governess Sarah. His first class honours degree in history from Oxford University and his pre-war travelling and excavating in the Middle East gave him a knowledge of the region's language and culture that positioned him brilliantly at the age of 28 first to liaise with and then effectively to lead the Arab Revolt initiated by Prince Feisal.

    There is no doubt about his bravery and leadership skills, about his deep empathy for the Arab peoples, and about the mental anguish he felt over promising the Arabs an independent homeland when he already knew that the British and French were carving up post-war responsibility for the region. There is much uncertainty about whether he exaggerated elements of his exploits, whether his torture at Deraa involved anal rape, and whether he was homosexual and masochistic.

    Lawrence himself said in a letter "Thinking drives me mad" and "I am afraid of myself. Is this madness?" while, in the Oxford edition of "Seven Pillars Of Wisdom", admitted: "Pain became an allurement, like danger". But Aubrey Herbert, who knew him well, claimed that he had "a touch of genius".

    Brown acknowledges that a whole spectrum of biographers have sought "to delineate and define him, deify and destroy him". Brown himself writes of Lawrence: "he was ever two persons rather than one: the ardent achiever, the agoniser racked by self-doubt". Of his overall contribution to the war effort, Brown notes: "The supreme justifcation for Lawrence is the fact that Allenby, who effectively won the Middle Eastern war, believed in him and made use of what he had to offer".

    "Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?" by Jeanette Winterson

    In 1985, "Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit" - a title referring to the subject's lesbianism - was published: a (first) novel that is semi-autobiographical. In 2011, "Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?" - a title quoting the reaction of Winterson's adoptive mother to the news that she was a lesbian - was published: a (partial) memoir written in a semi-novelistic style. It is no surprise that the second work is described by the author as the first's "silent twin".

    Winterson was born in Manchester in 1959 to a girl of 17 who gave her up for adoption at the age of just six weeks. She was adopted by a couple, Constance and John Winterson, living in nearby Accrington who - it transpired much later - had expected to adopt a boy until the last moment. Both adopted parents became strict Pentecostal evangelical Christians, so she spent a lot of time at the Elim Pentecostal Church, and Mrs Winterson treated the young girl abysmally, frequently locking her in the coal-hole or out on the doorstep (she never had a key to her own home). It was a life with "no bank accounts, no phones, no cars, no inside toilets, often no carpets, no job security and very little money". She writes of her adoptive parents: "I never believed that my parents loved me. I tried to love them but it didn't work."

    Her escape, her salvation, her growth was books. There were only six books in the house - one was the Bible and two were commentaries on the Bible - but she had the local public library where she systematically consumed 'English Literature In Prose A-Z'. She writes: "The more I read, the more I felt connected across time to other lives and deeper sympathies."

    When Winterson discovered a love for girls at the age of 15, her adoptive mother arranged for an exorcism but, when this had no effect, she had to leave home a year later. She attended Accrington and Rossendale College, while supporting herself through a variety of odd jobs, before managing to win a place to study English at St Catherine's College, Oxford where, on the first evening, her tutor advised her that she was "the working-class experiment". After a term at university, she took a friend home for Christmas, the last time she saw Constance, although she kept in touch with John until his death.

    Somewhat oddly, the memoir jumps from her start at university to some 25 years later (she explains: "I never could write a story with a beginning, a middle and an end in the usual way because it felt untrue to me"). So, if "Oranges" was semi-autobiographical, then "Happy" is demi-autobiographical - a sort of symmetry. Therefore the last third of the book is about her attempts - ultimately successful - to identify and then meet her birth mother. This search was preceeded by a period in which - as she puts it: "I began to go mad. There is no other way to put it.". She admits: "If I had lived in London, or any other city, I would have killed myself by being careless in traffic." Instead she tried to gas herself with a car engine in a garage but was 'saved' by her cat scratching her face.

    Winterson is a deeply damaged character who talks of "my own need to destroy love and trust, just as love and trust has been destroyed for me". She acknowledges that "all my life I have repeated patterns of rejection" and that "I have loved most extravagantly where my love could not be returned in any sane and steady way". But the love and support of her partner the therapist Susie Orbach - who discovered lesbianism after 34 years of marriage - and a kind of conciliation with her birth mother appear to have given her a semblance of peace, although the last words of the memoir are "I have no idea what happens next".

    Winterson is a wonderful writer, a real wordsmith, and her memoir is by turns incredibly moving and really amusing. Ultimately this is an uplifting work: how a working-class girl from the North can win an Oxford degree and become an accomplished author, how someone who has sought love so long and lost love so often can find a kind of love of herself. As she says: "As I try and understand how life works - and why some people cope better than others with adversity - I come back to something to do with saying yes to life, which is love of life, however inadequate, and love for the self, however found."

    "Wild Swans" by Jung Chang

    This book was first published in 1991 but, in spite of many recommendations, I was put off by its considerable length (676 pages). However, preparation for a holiday in China in summer 2000 led me finally to take on the work and it was a rare pleasure to find a history of such power and eloquence. In fact, by the time I eventually read it, "Wild Swans" had won many awards, been translated into 25 languages, and sold over seven million copies world-wide.

    The stories of three female generations of the same Chinese family are woven into a rich tapestry that is in effect the history of 20th century China, the most populated and frequently the most turbulent nation on the planet. A detailed family tree, an outline chronology and a simple map all assist greatly in following the huge sweep of personal tragedy and social upheaval. It is particularly refreshing to see history from a female perspective.

    First, there is the author’s grandmother Yu-fang who suffered the pain and indignity of having her feet bound before she became the concubine of a warlord. Then there were her parents, the father Shou-yu, who joined the veterans of the Long March in Yan'an before becoming a very senior, and unusually honourable, Communist Party official in the province of Sichuan, and her mother De-hong ('hong' means 'wild swan') who faced the Japanese and then the Kuomintang in Manchuria before becoming a middle-ranking Communist official with her husband in Sichuan.

    Both of them suffered frequent investigation, denunciation, and exile over a period when the author herself, originally called Er-hong (which means 'second wild swan'), was briefly a Red Guard, then a peasant and 'barefoot doctor', next a steelworker and electrician, before finally becoming an English-language student which led her to leave China in 1978.

    The writing style of the book – a formidable achievement for someone who only learned English in her 20s – changes subtly as the work unfolds. The first 300 pages – the author is not born until page 235 – is straightforward narrative, but then gradually there is more analysis and then more criticism of the system. It is striking that, even as Jung Chang becomes ever more distrustful and disbelieving, it is so difficult for her to doubt the God-like figure of Mao Zedong (as she styles him) himself.

    She writes of Mao's "almost metaphysical disregard for reality, which might have been interesting in a poet, but in a political leader with absolute power was quite another matter". She notes that one of the main components of this attitude was "a deep-seated contempt for human life".

    It was no doubt this contempt that allowed Mao to promulgate the disastrous policies that led to the horrors of the famine of 1959-1961. The author refers to the abduction of children, so that they could be sold as rabbit meat, and states that an accepted estimate for the death toll for the whole country is around 30 million people.

    Jung Chang writes: "Mao's rule was best understood in terms of a medieval court, in which he exercised spellbinding power over his courtiers and subjects. He was also a maestro at 'divide and rule' and at manipulating men's inclination to throw others to the wolves".

    The culmination of this process was, of course, the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s. Elements of this demonstrated vividly the absurdist nature of the regime - for a short time, red traffic lights had to mean 'go' and traffic had to drive on the left. However, the true devastation of the revolution was its totally arbitrary denunciations of officials and its random slaughter of assumed critics. It was little wonder that for a time Jung Chang's father lost his mind.

    Yet, a couple of years into the Cultural Revolution, the author still saw Mao as 'the idol, the god, the inspiration" and writes that "The purpose of my life had been formulated in his name".

    During the revolution, some 15 million young people - including the author - were sent to the country in what she describes as "one of the largest population movements in history". Hundreds of thousands died as a result of summary execution, sustained ill-treatment or suicide. Jung Chang's father spent three and a half years in hard exile in the mountains of Miyi and his pre-mature death came just a year before that of Mao.

    By the end of the book, the author has little but contempt for Mao. She wonders "whether there were any other philosophers whose theories led to the suffering and death of so many". She observes that Mao "ruled by getting people to hate each other" and that he "managed to turn the people into the ultimate weapon of dictatorship".

    Her assessment of the man is uncompromising: "Mao had created a moral wasteland and a land of hatred" and "He left behind not only a brutalized nation, but also an ugly land with little of its past glory remaining or appreciated".

    In one of the passages that for me best captures the nature of the regime, Jung Chang writes quite early on: "The whole nation slid into doublespeak. Words became divorced from reality, responsibility and people's real thoughts. Lies were told with ease because words had lost their meanings - and had ceased to be taken seriously by others".

    Towards the end of the Cultural Revolution, a particular term of abuse was the charge that one was "white and expert". Jung Chang writes: "In the mad logic of the day, being good at one's profession ('expert') was automatically equated with being politically unreliable ('white')". She adds: "I could understand ignorance, but I could not accept its glorification, still less its right to rule".

    Many of the chapter headings repeat some of the nonsensical slogans of the regime: 'Capable women can make a meal without food', 'Father is close, mother is close, but neither is as close as Chairman Mao', 'Destroy first and construction will look after itself', 'Where there is a will to condemn, there is evidence', and 'The more books you read, the more stupid you become'.

    "Wild Swans" is a compulsive read and a wonderful introduction to recent China. Its triumph is to capture the detail of one family's astonishing experience and suffering and to narrate it in terms which illuminate a century's history of a whole nation.

    All reviews by ROGER DARLINGTON

    Last modified on 24 February 2013

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