Archive for November, 2007


How to Be a Minister by Gerald Kaufman

29 November 2007

In lieu of a rambling, disjointed post about the things that I find wrong or misleading with Jenni Russell’s recent article about the deteriorating relationships between ministers and civil servants, here’s a review of a fairly light-hearted but meaningful book about the difficulties involved in being a member of any particular Government.

How to Be a Minister by Gerald Kaufman

Labour MP Gerald Kaufman (Manchester Gorton) worked as a press advisor to Harold Wilson and later became a junior Minister under Wilson and then under Jim Callaghan. Today, he is probably best known to the general public for his description of the 1983 Labour election manifesto as ‘the longest suicide note in history’. But one of the other things he is known for is his book How to Be a Minister, written and published shortly after Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister. Presumably, Kaufman wanted to write about his experiences as a Minister when his memories (and perhaps his wounds) were still fresh, and that’s essentially what he does — he gives advice on how to be a Minister, drawing on personal experiences and observations of the foibles of the 1970s Labour Governments.

The book’s chapters cover a wide range of Ministerial topics, touching on everything from working with trade unions to running (and not being run by) your Department to not getting in trouble with your Prime Minister. One thing that Kaufman does emphasise — understandably, considering his situation — is the fact that every Minister is an ex-Minister waiting to happen, and that one of the worst things you can do as a Minister is to fall under the impression that you will be in office forever. The entire last chapter of the book is devoted to the tricky task of leaving office gracefully, if you can help it, and how this difficult task can be managed with a minimum of pain and suffering. The book is liberally sprinkled with examples of ‘how to do’ and ‘how not to do’ things as a Minister, and fortunately Kaufman is willing to put up his own failures, as well as his successes, for the readers’ examination.

All in all, How to Be a Minister a nice, quick read, and it’s sitting on my bookshelf with my other ministerial diaries and memoirs as a sort of meta-piece about life in government. Kaufman is able to look back on his tenure as Minister with irony and general good humour…two things that are not always part of a politician’s retrospective on his or her career.


Geisha of Gion by Mineko Iwasaki

27 November 2007

I borrowed this book from a friend during a trip to Japan a few years ago, primarily because my friend swore up and down that it was far and away the best and most truthful book about geisha life in Japan. I’d certainly have to agree with that assessment.

Geisha of Gion by Mineko Iwasaki

Geisha of Gion (the UK edition title; the US edition is titled Geisha: A Life) is by Mineko Iwasaki, who for many years was the preeminent geiko (‘woman of art’, the preferred term for geisha in the Japanese city of Kyoto) in Japan. Having left her birth family at a very young age to train for her calling, Iwasaki devoted her life to the study of her art and worked her way to incredible success — only to retire at the very height of her fame when she realised that she could not tolerate the strictures placed upon her and her fellow geiko by the obsessively tradition-bound ways of her profession. Iwasaki wrote the book as a response to the publication of the highly fictionalised Memoirs of a Geisha, intending to give a more credible and truthful account of her life as the successor to her adopted family’s prominent okiya, or geisha house, in the Gion district of Kyoto.

The life of a geiko of Iwasaki’s stature was nothing short of gruelling, and Geisha of Gion gives as much detail about the geiko lifestyle as one might conceivably wish to know. Long hours and late nights, rigorous classes in dance and poise and fine arts, countless hours spent applying and removing layers of makeup and heavy silk clothing, and above all the constant knowledge that a geiko is always on display from the moment she leaves the house and goes out in public until the moment she steps back inside the relative sanctuary of the okiya. The book takes care to dispel many of the stereotypes of geisha life, particularly the belief that a geisha is little more than a cultured, high-class prostitute for the rich and powerful. Yet Iwasaki also criticises her former profession, pointing out that most girls who became geiko in her day left school at the age of fourteen, the minimum standard required by law, and that all of their training and hard work left them with few truly marketable skills to support them if they chose to retire or were compelled to stop working due to ill-health or other troubles. In her opinion, the ‘flower and willow world’ (as the geisha life is often called) did not do enough to adapt to changes in society, and one of her main fears was that the very rigidity that was meant to protect the practice of traditional arts in Japan would only end up leading to their permanent disappearance.

Having skimmed through bits and pieces of Memoirs of a Geisha, I have to agree that Geisha of Gion is most definitely the better book. Far less sensationalism, far more real story. And I think that this truthfulness also makes Iwasaki’s story that much more memorable, because you can tell that she really did love what she did as a geiko, and that leaving her profession, her beloved calling, was probably as difficult a decision as anyone can make.


Bobby Fischer Goes to War by David Edmonds and John Eidinow

25 November 2007

After reading about the arrest of Garry Kasparov at a protest rally in Moscow, I was reminded of this review that I’ve been meaning to post for some time now. Chess-related, understandably.

Bobby Fischer Goes to War by David Edmonds and John Eidinow

David Edmonds and John Eidinow co-authored Wittgenstein’s Poker, an analytical study of an altercation between the philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper (allegedly involving the brandishing of a fireplace poker). As might be gathered from this book’s title, Bobby Fischer Goes to War is about more than just a single incident — it’s the story of the 1972 World Chess Championship match played in Reykjavik, Iceland, between reigning chess champion Boris Spassky (of the Soviet Union) and challenger Bobby Fischer (of the United States). At the time, and even into the present day, the championship was touted as yet another Cold War confrontation between the US and the USSR, the plucky young American wunderkind standing up to the Soviet chess machine. Edmonds and Eidinow do their best to pick apart that Cold War myth by setting out the history of the players, the modern chess tournament system, and a near play-by-play account of the match itself.

Edmonds and Eidinow also do a marvellous job at explaining chess in terms that even non-chess players can understand. But the chess comes almost secondary to their description of the events surrounding the match itself, particularly the insane antics of Bobby Fischer. Some accounts of the match claim that Fischer’s constantly changing demands and prolonged temper tantrums over nearly every single aspect of the tournament were in reality a carefully planned psychological attack on Spassky…but reading Edmonds and Eidinow’s account, there seems to be very little question that Fischer’s behaviour was unsporting, uncivilised and just plain bizarre. Complaints about the lighting and the presence of television cameras seem understandable, but when Fischer refused to use the handcrafted marble chessboard made expressly for the match because he claimed that minute imperfections in the stone would distract him during match-play, it is difficult to feel anything but sympathy for anyone who had to spend more than five minutes in Fischer’s presence. Spassky definitely comes out as an unfortunate victim in Bobby Fischer Goes to War, conducting himself with good grace as best as he could — and then returning to the Soviet Union to face an official enquiry as to why he had lost to the brash young American.

My copy of Bobby Fischer Goes to War is subtitled ‘How a Lone American Star Defeated the Soviet Chess Machine’. The subtitle might better read ‘How a Deranged American Star Bullied His Way to Victory’. The book is definitely a gripping account, thoroughly entertaining and well-paced. I certainly came away knowing more about chess and chess play than I ever thought I could learn from 300-odd pages. The book could be made into a fantastic feature film — and if it ever is, I will definitely be there on opening night.


The Last Governor: Chris Patten and the Handover of Hong Kong by Jonathan Dimbleby

22 November 2007

Thinking about the late Ian Smith has made me look back over my reviews and select a book that deals with decolonisation and the remnants of the British Empire — in this case, the last major imperial remnant.

The Last Governor: Chris Patten and the Handover of Hong Kong by Jonathan Dimbleby

I can remember watching the Hong Kong handover on television in July 1997, though I have to admit that I only had the vaguest notion of what was going on or what was the significance of the pomp and circumstance at the time. (Perhaps understandable, seeing as how I was several years away from being able to vote and was only just starting to take an interest in international politics.) The existence of Hong Kong and its status over the years is only generally included in most surveys of Chinese or British history, and even then not many people seem to know what to make of it. So when I came across a book that focused on the handover — and specifically focused on the role that Chris Patten, Hong Kong’s last government, played in the transition period — I thought it would be a good way to fill out a blurry memory with a bit of historical context.

The Last Governor, as might be expected, centres on former Conservative MP Chris Patten’s time as governor of Hong Kong from 1992 (when he lost his seat as MP for Bath) to the end of British colonial rule on 1 July 1997. Quite a few diplomat-types regarded Patten as a strange and alarming choice for governor. Patten certainly wasn’t a sinologist, and he’d barely expressed any particular interest in China or Hong Kong during his time in Parliament. He was a career politician, not a career diplomat, and officials in London and Beijing seemed to share a genuine concern that Patten would try to ‘politicise’ his time as governor and meddle in the political and business negotiations that surrounded the process of Hong Kong’s transition to Chinese sovereignty. The operating thoughts of the officials was that the Hong Kong transition had to be as smooth and unruffled as possible in order to avoid possibly catastrophic effects on Hong Kong’s economy…so many of them were absolutely horrified when the new governor began to push for, well, more democracy in the administration of Hong Kong. With the handover only five years away and the Chinese government already suspicious of what they perceived to be British plans to promote subversion through increased democracy, Patten’s policies left him open to attacks from all quarters. Some officials on both sides definitely would have preferred it if Patten were replaced by a governor who would be friendlier to Chinese interests.

Critics of The Last Governor — most notably the British officials in the Foreign Office and elsewhere who come out looking like utter quislings in Dimbleby’s assessment of their actions — could quite easily subtitle the book ‘How Bloody Chris Patten Aggravated Everyone Under The Sun, Made Things A Billion Times More Difficult For All Of Us, And Didn’t Actually Do Anything Anyway’. For comparison purposes, I’d probably have to look at a book that is more critical of Patten’s stint as governor and see if the criticism of his actions is as convincing as Dimbleby’s defence. But the long and short of it seems to be that Chris Patten did his best to stand up for the people of Hong Kong and keep up a strong front until the very end. The last thing he wanted was to leave the British government open to the charge of cutting and running (a charge often levelled at it by anyone who found it expedient to do so), and he did everything in his power to prevent that. The handover of Britain’s last significant colonial possession has a long and tortuous history behind it, but Dimbleby’s book gives a brisk, journalistic account that should interest most anyone who might want to know more about the events leading up to 1 July 1997.


Dead Politicians: Ian Smith, 1919-2007

21 November 2007

The former Rhodesian prime minister Ian Smith has died at the age of 88.

I wrote my master’s dissertation on the renewal of oil sanctions on Rhodesia in 1971, so the death of Ian Smith makes this something of a red-letter day here at To Bed With a Trollope. And yet as I remarked to a friend, I honestly don’t know what I can say about him now that he’s dead.

The link to the BBC’s Web site gives a general overview of Smith’s involvement in the white-minority government that unilaterally declared Rhodesia’s independence from Britain on 11 November 1965. Smith’s government chose UDI rather than accept the British government’s prerequisites for Rhodesian independence under black majority rule. Harold Wilson’s Labour Government slapped oil and other economic sanctions on Rhodesia, and for the next fifteen years or so the Rhodesian regime was a general thorn in the side of most any Labour or Conservative Government that attempted to find a solution that wouldn’t be regarded as a complete sell-out (cf. this cover of Private Eye, featuring Smith and the then Foreign Secretary Sir Alec Douglas-Home). For a country that was largely insignificant to Britain’s greater economic or strategic interests overseas, Rhodesia’s negative effect on British domestic politics (and for that matter, on its relationship with other Commonwealth countries) was disproportionately large.

I can of course make the cheap and easy comment that one can directly trace a line from Ian Smith’s actions to the chaos that’s going on right now in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. But as with any historical cause-and-effect scenario, it’s a good deal more complicated than villifying one person as the mastermind behind the current sorry state of affairs. No matter what one might say about ‘old Smithy’, as some of his contemporaries referred to him, he certainly wasn’t the only one whose actions left much to be desired…and much room for a historian’s criticism.


The Whig Interpretation of History by Herbert Butterfield

20 November 2007

A good old classic for the ‘metahistory’ tag today.

The Whig Interpretation of History by Herbert Butterfield

When I first began to spend my time doing serious historical research, I often came across the word ‘whiggish’ used in a negative sense to describe a historical thesis or set of ideas. Since I had no idea why the word was being used in a negative sense — or for that matter, what it actually meant — I did a little poking around and found that all the signs pointed to Herbert Butterfield’s book The Whig Interpretation of History.

Butterfield’s book is a criticism of the ‘progressive’ kind of historian who sees in the past a definite and predetermined path to the present. A possible example would be a historian of the Reformation who claims that Martin Luther nailed his theses to the church door in order to create Protestantism and ultimately freedom of religion for all, while also claiming that those who opposed Luther’s declaration were backwards, blinkered reactionaries who were deliberately standing in the way of reform and Enlightenment. Whig history is the history of ‘inevitable’ success, the history that judges the past by the standards of the present and reads into history a confirmation of the existing status quo. The reason why Butterfield chose the term ‘Whig’ for his classification of this kind of history is that he noticed that the most blatant promoters of this kind of fallacious historical approach saw the 19th-century Whig gentleman — the Protestant, progressive, anti-slavery and pro-reform gentleman — as the pinnacle of virtue and the natural outcome of the progression of history. Yet Whig history might well describe any modern triumphalist narrative of history…such as the kind that is often found in books about the history of how the West ‘won’ the Cold War.

My edition of this book is an old secondhand copy, Butterfield’s original text and nothing else. I think that a more comprehensive edition of this book might be improved if a short introductory essay was added to give some more perspective on which specific historians or historical theses Butterfield might have been condemning most strongly at the time. (Perhaps it’s because I felt as if I was reading Butterfield’s criticism in a vacuum — at the time, I had very little idea of who or what he was talking about.) But the book is definitely one of the classics of the historiography, the history of writing history, and as such is a must-read for anyone seriously interested in what I tend to call metahistory.


InaDWriMo 2: A Late Update.

18 November 2007

InaDWriMo has been spluttering a bit lately, mostly because my motivation levels seem to be fluctuating like mad. An annoying head cold earlier this month really threw me off my stride, especially on the German reading prep that I’d finally seemed to be getting a handle on. Getting back up to speed has been a real fight this past week, and it hasn’t entirely been helped by the fact that my day job has seen a slew of projects that have sapped quite a bit of my energy to write.

But in essence, all of the above are just excuses. Time to see if I can push myself a little harder in the coming week to clean up a few more things. I’ve learned that the three book reviews I have on my to-do list aren’t due until the end of January, but I still have to read those books in the meantime. Another update will be forthcoming once I’ve made a bit more progress.


The Loss of the Wager by John Bulkeley and John Byron

18 November 2007

When I first told some friends about this book, I joked that the best way to describe it was ‘Horatio Hornblower in Hell’, if only for the fact that you almost can’t turn a page without reading about someone freezing to death or falling overboard or dying of hunger or getting shot in the face by an increasingly fearful captain. I still think it’s quite an apt description.

The Loss of the Wager by John Bulkeley and John Byron

In 1740, Commodore George Anson set out on a long voyage to the Pacific with a small fleet of eight English ships. His mission was to harry the Spanish military and civilian naval traffic off the coast of Chile, but getting there meant that Anson’s fleet would have to navigate the cold and dangerous waters of the Strait of Magellan at the southernmost tip of South America. One ship, a transport and supply ship called the Wager, became separated from the company in a particularly nasty bout of squalls during the attempt to navigate the Strait, and was essentially driven onto the rocks in an inhospitable part of southern Patagonia. Of the scores of men who had made up the Wager‘s crew, only a handful made it back to England alive. The rest died of disease, drowning, exposure, starvation…and one or two unpleasant incidents that gave rise to claims of mutiny and insubordination, and the possibility that the survivors of the wreck might well face a court-martial and death on the gallows.

The Loss of the Wager combines two stories of the shipwreck, written by crewmen who returned to England and published accounts of what had happened — mostly in an attempt to clear their respective names of the charges of mutiny. John Bulkeley was the ship’s gunner, and his account is in the form of a nearly daily diary he kept before and after the wreck of the Wager. The Hon. John Byron would become a vice-admiral in the Royal Navy, but he is perhaps better known as the grandfather of the poet Lord Byron. Byron’s account of the wreck, ‘The Narrative of the Honourable John Byron’, became the basis for Patrick O’Brian novel The Unknown Shore (and showed up in fragments in O’Brian’s later Aubrey-Maturin novels). Both accounts sold well in England, appealing to a public that enjoyed the dramatic narrative styles and the harrowing escapes from death that both sailors faced during their time in the wilds of South America.

One of the interesting historical facts about the Wager is that before Anson’s voyage, men who were serving aboard ships that wrecked were not paid for their time shipwrecked, and as a result many men took the opportunity to declare that they were no longer bound under military discipline and were not required to obey the orders of senior officers. The incident with the Wager prompted the Royal Navy to revise procedures, ordering that men were to be under military discipline even after a shipwreck and therefore liable to court-martial if they rebelled against their officers. Both Bulkeley and Byron’s accounts are written to exonerate their authors and attempt to restore their respective reputations, as well as to make a bit of money while the Admiralty tried to figure out how to hold hearings when neither Commodore Anson nor the Wager‘s Captain Cheap had yet returned to England — and as such, there’s quite a bit of pushing the blame onto other people in these narratives, though no more than one might reasonably expect to find. Fans of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series and C. S. Forester’s Hornblower books might find The Loss of the Wager a diverting read, if only to see that even if Jack Aubrey and Horatio Hornblower faced some perilous waters on occasion, the real-life experience was often far worse.


Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis

15 November 2007

I reviewed David Lodge’s Nice Work a couple of months ago — here’s another campus novel to break up the steady stream of nonfiction.

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis

It’s a few years after the end of World War II, and a hapless young man named Jim Dixon has somehow managed to blunder into a job teaching history at a stolid and relatively undistinguished red-brick university. He isn’t particularly interested in what he’s teaching, he isn’t particularly fond of his students, and he regards his fellow staff members (particularly Professor Welch, a senior member of his Department) with something not far short of outright loathing. He doesn’t even have much interest in Margaret, the colourless girl he’s been seeing — especially not after he meets Christine, a very attractive and intelligent woman who unfortunately is the girlfriend of Professor Welch’s smarmy, artsy son Bertrand. Far from being lucky, Jim seems to have the worst luck of anyone, even if he does bring the bad luck on himself more often than not. But when he’s invited to give a public lecture on ‘Merrie England’, he has a chance to secure his teaching job for the forseeable future. The outcome of his lecture might well depend on how lucky — or unlucky — he really is.

Lucky Jim is a campus novel, a story set on a red-brick university campus (as opposed to the ‘varsity novel’ set in Oxford or Cambridge), and it revolves around the lives of the academics and their little turf wars. None of the characters are particularly likeable, though in some ways that’s part of the point of the novel. But even if the satire feels more than a little dated a half-century on — it was first published in 1954 — it is still fairly pointed in its mockery of the classist nature and the pretentious, inbred world of academia. Amis also has an ear for clever turns of phrase, and one of my favourite scenes in the whole book features the best description of waking up with a hangover that I’ve ever read.

As far as the ending goes…well, I won’t spoil it for you completely, save to say that it’s a happy ending. And perhaps it’s just me, but I found the happy ending to be rather unsatisfying. Jim gets his happy ending by chance and through a plot device that slots neatly into a deus ex machina At the least, it seems a little too much like the climax of a rather weak late Victorian novel. By the time I was about halfway through the book, I was generally rooting for Dixon not to get his happy ending. (I’m not entirely sure what that says about me, or about the novel, but it does bear mentioning.) As a classic of academic satire and one of the best-known campus novels, most anyone involved in a love-hate relationship with the academic world will be able to get something worthwhile out of it.


Wittgenstein’s Poker by David Edmonds and John Eidinow

13 November 2007

Vaguely buried under work here at the moment — a more complete update on InaDWriMo progress will follow once I’ve managed to clear a few things off my to-do list.

Wittgenstein’s Poker by David Edmonds and John Eidinow

For all that the title of this book begins with ‘Wittgenstein’, this book isn’t your typical philosophy book. It’s part philosophy, part biography, and part historical mystery. The focus of the book is an incident that allegedly took place at Cambridge University on 25 October 1946, when a philosophical discussion held in a set of college rooms turned into an open argument between two of the great twentieth-century philosophers — Karl Popper and Ludwig Wittgenstein. According to some versions of the story, an agitated Wittgenstein actually picked up a fireplace poker and brandished it, openly threatening Popper with it, only to throw the poker down and storm out of the room, bringing an end to the confrontation.

One of the more intriguing things about this incident is that almost none of the eyewitnesses to the argument (there were more than two dozen people present for the discussion, I believe) seem to agree about what actually happened. Did Wittgenstein really threaten Popper with the poker? Did he merely wave it about, using it to gesticulate and getting a little too excited? Did Popper exaggerate the story afterwards to make Wittgenstein seem mentally unbalanced? And what prompted the argument, anyway? In Wittgenstein’s Poker, Edmonds and Eidinow examine this incident and try to make sense of a mass of conflicting information to determine what might’ve transpired.

Wittgenstein’s Poker delves deep into the personal and professional histories of Popper and Wittgenstein to illuminate their similarities and differences, and it shows how the clash was really operating on several levels. The argument was a debate about philosophy, but it had its roots in the social backgrounds of Popper and Wittgenstein (the former came from a struggling middle-class family, while the latter was of aristocratic lineage) as well as similar experiences (both had fled Austria to escape the Nazis). And the fundamental differences between Popper and Wittgenstein’s philosophy would certainly have given them enough to argue about…but not, perhaps, to the point where fire-irons ought to have been involved. The various stories on what happened with the poker are part and parcel of this clash, and each of the accounts has something to say about why these two men would’ve reacted so strongly to each other during what was supposed to have been a scholarly, civilised discussion.

Before I read this book, my only knowledge of Wittgenstein and Popper was a generally vague sense of their philosophical writings — I was slightly more aware of Wittgenstein than Popper, but what I could have told you about either of them would’ve filled something very small. Edmonds and Eidinow have written one of those books that truly piques the reader’s curiosity (or at least it piqued mine) on in a subject that might’ve otherwise remained an odd anecdote in the history books. Wittgenstein’s Poker is one of those books that I keep coming back to whenever I’ve a need to remind myself that even odd anecdotes can have a deeper historical meaning.